Wednesday, March 9, 2016

All Aboard: How to Cruise Smart

Being that we just debarked our third cruise in 4 years, that totally makes us crushing experts. #notreally

Carnival Sunshine, Bahamas

But we definitely feel more knowledgeable than we did 4 years ago. We initially chose a cruise because we were broke. We had put aside every penny we had for our upcoming wedding. There wasn't much left after the DJ, flowers and venue were booked however taking a honeymoon was not something we were willing to sacrifice on.  So I did some internet surfing (does anyone still say that?) and found that the only way we we'd be drinking cocktails on the beach in Mexico was if we cruised there, so off we went, rookie cruisers all decked out in our aviator sunglasses & target fedoras.

We've found that people either love cruising or don't. There has definitely been some negativity in the media lately which has increased overall speculation about cruising.  Which hey, if you're absolutely terrified of hurricanes, then yes, cruising is probably not for you.  However, a hurricane can rip the roof off your beautiful Sandals resort just as quickly as the waves it would cause while at sea.  Where you'd feel more safe....well, that's for you to answer.   

So whip yourself up a Pina Colada, open your mind to the idea of cruising across the beautiful ocean and read what I've shared below!

 Things to Know Before You Book:

1.) First and foremost, are you within driving distance to a port? We have only cruised Carnival, however there are many cruise terminals scattered all over the US coast lines. For us, Galveston, Texas was the most drivable. Choosing this port also eliminated the expense and hassle of flying, which I would highly recommend if possible. Galveston's about 12 hours from Kansas City. We split the drive up over two days, so it wasn't bad at all!

Leaving Port on the Carnival Sunshine (Florida)

2.) Once you narrow down which port works best for you, you then choose the following:
  • Sail Date
  • Cruise Line
  • Destination
I would highly advise a cruise during the months of May-October. We just got back from a Jan/Feb cruise and it was not as warm as we would've preferred. The Bahamas were an average temp of 70-75 with high winds. When we've cruised in May & October/early November, the weather was FANTASTIC. Warm enough that you look forward to a dip in he ocean to cool off. Be sure and investigate weather temperatures for your destination prior to booking!!

Carnival Magic, 2012

3.) We have always cruised with Carnival. They have always been the most affordable and we've had a great experience each time.  Like the old saying goes, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Once we choose the port and month of travel, we then check out all the destinations that Carnival sails to from that port along with the different ship options.  If I were you, I wouldn't bother with the 3 day cruise options.  Pay the extra $100 and select at least a 5 day cruise.  It's the perfect amount of time!  We have tried a 7 day cruise, and honestly, we felt it was a bit too long.  We were vacationed out after 5. 

Drinking CayBrew in the Cayman Islands

4.) Our first two cruises we chose solely based on destinations. Our most recent cruise, we did a ton of research on the ACTUAL SHIPS. There are older ships that are great and there are newer ships with all the bells and whistles such as additional restaurant options, different bars inside the boat and some even have massive water parks on the top of the ship. Carnival calls these ships "Fun Ships." If your taking the kiddos, be sure and select a Fun Ship.  You can drop your kiddos off at Camp Carnival &  mommy & daddy can enjoy plenty of kid free cocktail time. We have not taken our daughter on a cruise yet based on a few reasons, but once she gets older we plan to bring her along.

Dinner at Cucina Del Capitano, AMAZING Italian Restaurant Featured on the Carnival Fun Ships

5.) Once you select your sail date, port, your ship and destination, you're ready to pick your room.  This is one of the most important parts of booking people, so  pay attention. You do NOT want to be in the front of the ship or the back of the ship. Pay a few extra dollars per day and select a room on a higher floor (floor 7 or above) and select a room MIDSHIP. This is for a few reasons, one being that you will not feel the motion at all.  Also, you want to be located close to all the action! These boats are WAY BIGGER than you can ever fathom, so if you don't choose a good location for your stateroom, you'll spend more time trekking back and forth from your room instead of sipping cocktails on the deck.

There are different room sizes. We have always gotten an interior state room, the most affordable option. Listen, you do not need a damn balcony. You have an entire cruise deck right outside your room with the most gorgeous views you could ever imagine.  Don't spend the extra money to get some fancy room. Save that money and put it toward an amazing shore excursion such as a dolphin swim or an all inclusive private beach party. Those memories are worth every cent. A private balcony is not.

We really love towel animals

Now that you've chosen your sail date, port, your ship, the destination and your stateroom, you're almost ready to book!

6.) One thing to remember to select during your booking process is ANYTIME DINING. Who the hell wants to be told when to eat? Not us. Its a common misconception by people that have never cruised, that you have set meal times. That is not true. We have chosen ANYTIME DINING and we eat dinner whenever the hell we want. Trust me, after a long day of vodka on the beach in Mexico, you'll be hungry for an early dinner an early bedtime. Who wouldn't?!

7.) Also, choose to pre pay your gratuities. This ensures that you take care of all the amazing staff that you'll come to know by name! It's added on automatically once you board your ship, that way you don't forget. We paid $120 in gratuity for our cabin staff and housekeeping team. This was for a 5 day cruise.

Your gratuity for drinks is automatically added on to each bar tab every drink you order, which is also nice. You don't have to stand there at the bar calculating each and every tip. Trust me, after a few rum punches, math is no longer an easy process. I believe the automatic gratuity is 15% for beverages.

8.) Trip insurance. We always choose to purchase the cruise insurance. That's totally your call, just our personal preference.

9.) Now that you've chosen your sail date, port, your ship, your stateroom, your dining experience and taken care of gratuities, your ready to book!  You can choose to put half down and pay the other half a month before your cruise or pay for all of it up front. Your choice.

The shows they feature on the ship are just as amazing as BROADWAY!

After I book a cruise, I utilize the ShipMate app so I can check the status of our cruise every month or so leading up to embarkation (boarding the ship). It has some fun little tools like a cruise countdown as well as a GPS locator for your ship at any time. You can even watch your ship coming into port to pick you up!

10.) Lastly, with regard to shore excursions, we never book in advance. Listen, no one does. We wait until we board the ship and we spend the first afternoon aboard the boat with a cocktail in hand perusing the shore excursion newsletter together. We choose our different excursions that first afternoon and go to the shore excursion desk to get our spots reserved. Spots fill up quickly for some of the popular options, so you'd want to be sure and book that first afternoon if you can. If you choose to wait, the cruise director will do a presentation during your first full day at sea outlining the details of the different excursions however you may not get a spot on the ones you really want.
Horseback Riding in the Bahamas, this excursion actually took you in the ocean on your horse.  So much fun!

Horseback Riding in Mexico
Jeep Tour on Grand Bahama Island

Again, I would recommend booking your excursions the day your board the boat. We do an excursion at every port. I would consider these our splurge for the trip, but a splurge well worth it. These experiences are once in a lifetime and led by companies that Carnival has partnered with, therefore we always feel safe. We have never ONCE been disappointed in an excursion. We've done horse back riding, we've done all inclusive beach parties (gorgeous private beaches with all you can eat and drink!) as well as the dolphin swim, our favorite excursion this far. Shore excursions range in price from $25 a person to $180ish a person. You can find them to fit any budget, but if you're going to splurge anywhere, SPLURGE ON SHORE EXCURSIONS!!

Swimming with Dolphins in the Bahamas.  BEST MONEY WE HAVE EVER SPENT!!
Make sure it's a Dolphin SWIM, not just a Dolphin Encounter.

Safari in Jamaica

 Things to Know Before You Cruise:

1.) Check with your doctor about motion sickness medicine called scopolamine. It's a prescription strength patch you put behind your ear prior to sailing. It's totally non drowsy and hassle free. You keep it behind your ear for the first few days and then remove. I would highly recommend going this route for first time cruisers.

Beach Day Shore Excursion in Nassau

For our most recent cruise, we chose to try the "less drowsy" Dramamine pills instead. If you've never taken Dramamine, TEST IT OUT BEFORE YOU LEAVE. We had booked a shore excursion to go deep sea fishing that ended up getting cancelled at the last minute and I had already taken 2 Dramamine pills. I was so sleepy I could barely enjoy the excursion we had that day. Had I taken it beforehand, I would've known that I had a sensitivity to it and therefore skipped it entirely.
Trust me, stick with scopolamine if your doctor approves.

2.) Swimsuits. You will LIVE in them, so if you want to invest your money somewhere prior to heading out on vaca, snag some cute suits and even cuter coverups because you'll spend 80% of the time in a suit. Virtually everyone on the boat does so you don't feel out of place.

3.) Tennis shoes and long pants. DO NOT FORGET THESE. There are a few shore excursions that mandate tennis shoes and long pants. Be sure and have those just in case!

4.) If you want to get extra dolled up one night, do not forget an elegant dress for you and slacks for your husband. I absolutely LOVE getting all fancied up from time to time and Elegant Night the perfect excuse! Sequins and stilettos, yes please!

Also, if you choose a Fun Ship, some of the upscale restaurants on ship requires that the men wear dress slacks, so don't forget a pair! One cruise we forgot and ended up scouring the streets of Jamaica to find Jon some slacks. Do they even wear slacks in Jamaica? The answer is no. We ended up with bright yellow khakis which I think are fun, Jon, not so much. He hasn't worn them since.

5.) Sunscreen sunscreen sunscreen. We go thru about 3 bottles of sunscreen each cruise. Listen, that Caribbean sun is NO JOKE. And if you think you're going to get all cute and tan one day by skipping the sunscreen, you're wrong. You'll look like a damn lobster. And lobsters ain't cute. I speak from experience.

And because I know you'll ignore my advice and "ease" into the sunscreen, just do yourself a favor and pack Aloe Vera.

6.) HATS. You can never have too many hats. They're great to throw on for an afternoon at the beach or to wear when you're flying across the ocean on a catamaran. I take a ball cap and several floppy sun hats. The ball cap I wear in the morning before we head out to the deck to enjoy our coffee. Listen, momma ain't doing her hair everyday. The sun hats I wear every single day, rotating out to match my suit of course. OCD color coordinators put your hands up! #handintheair

7.) Aviators. Because you're a badass.

8.) Flip flops, because hello captain obvious.

9.) And last but not least, FLOWY DRESSES. Unless you're a freak show that can suck down 10+ cocktails and eat shit all day and not bloat, you'll thank me later for this one. Do not, I repeat, do not pack anything that even remotely resembles a form fitting dress because it will never leave your closet. Ladies, do yourself a favor and think fun, flirty, FLOWY when packing evening attire.

10.) And last but certainly not least, throw in one of those massive bottles of Tums while your at it. Trust me, you'll need 'em.  The food is AMAZING and you'll want to taste everything. 

At the end of your cruise, you'll select your debarkation option (exiting the ship).  If you choose a port that you have to fly to, don't be scared to book a flight home the same day your ship arrives back in port. You will debark your ship as early as 8:00 am, if you choose the self assist debarkation in which you walk off the boat WITH your luggage. If you chose relaxed debarkation, you set you luggage in the hall the night before your get back to port. The next morning you'll have to wait on the people who chose self assist debarkation to exit the ship. If you choose relaxed debarkation, you exit the ship later as well as the added hassle of having to track down your luggage. No thank you!

Again, if you choose to fly home the same day your ship gets into port, choose self assist debarkation. You'll have more than enough time to get a cab, rental car, or shuttle to the airport and get home that SAME DAY. I would recommend doing so because if you're anything like us, you are have had more fun than you could ever imagine over the past 5 days and you are vacationed OUT. You will not want to hang around another full day prior to flying back home. If you drive to your port, you literally walk off your ship, load your luggage in the car and drive off! It's a beautiful, hassle free experience which we LOVE. Like I said, if you can drive to a port, do it. Save you lots of time and $$.

Sunrise from the ship