Crushing Boarding Day on an Ocean Cruise

Today's mass market cruise ships are huge floating resorts with dozens of venues; restaurants, shows, water slides. It can be overwhelming when you board!  If you have an ocean cruise in your future, follow these tips to crush boarding day!

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Tips Before Boarding

  • Check your documents about when you can check in at port, and where the port is, it varies based on your loyalty with the cruise line, the port authorities and what time your ship departs. Make sure you leave yourself enough time to arrive well before the check in closing time, which is often an hour or more before the ship sails, in order to allow officials to approve the passenger list before sailing.
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  • Sign any waivers or online permissions for activities.  This way your kids can participate without you needing to be there to check them in and sign once you board. 
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  • Carry your required IDs and set sail pass in your hand or a super accessible pocket on your carry on...DO NOT leave these in your checked bags at the pier, because you can’t board without these and they may not be able to locate your bags quickly! (And do not let them fall out of your pocket and fall on the family room floor in the predawn darkness, miss your flight and wake your parents with a frantic 3 AM call...oh wait, maybe that's just our kids!)
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  • If you want to change into your bathing suit or out of your travel clothes, pack those in your carry on too. On most cruise lines your room won’t be available till after lunch, but you’ll be able to change in one of the rest rooms and hit the pools or hot tubs right away!
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  • Don't pack your medications or valuables in your checked luggage, keep these with your hand luggage in case your check luggage takes a while to arrive (or very rarely, gets lost all together. This is very, very rare, I've cruised so many times and never lost a bag on board for longer than it takes security to determine that all those bottles in my bag are IN FACT sunscreen. Hey, I'm Irish!)
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  • I like to carry on something I wouldn’t mind wearing to dinner on day 1 just in case luggage is delayed. This has almost never happened to me in 25 years of cruising, but it’s a habit that makes me feel better, just in case!
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  • Check your cruise line's rules about what is allowed on board and what is not, you'll know the obvious stuff, no weapons, candles, or illegal drugs, but some might surprise you! Many heat accessories, like clothes irons and hair dryers are banned, and lines have their own rules about bringing alcohol on board.
 To find all the places to go, check daily ship's program

To find all the places to go, check daily ship's program

 

Where to Go After Boarding

Got kids? 

Get them an arm band right away. Should your kids be in a children's program and the emergency alarm sounds, that band will ensure the staff gets your children to you at the muster station. You go there, they go there, everyone is together, no hysterical, frantic searching.

 Water slides aboard Liberty of the Seas

Water slides aboard Liberty of the Seas

Got drinks? 

If you want a package, there are plenty of opportunities to do that as soon as you board, you literally cannot walk 5 feet without a table, a tee shirt, a server, tent card, billboard, or airplane trailing a banner offering you the opportunity to get your beverage package (ok. Maybe those last two are slight exaggerations) Hint hint, if you can, you should be buying it advance online at a discount. Wait till you get an email offering a percentage off the packages before your cruise and then take advantage of the sale)

Got reservations?

If you want to make dining reservations for specialty restaurants, go to any of the restaurants or dining rooms and you can sign up there. You can also go see your table if you have traditional dining. If you would like get spa appointments, go to the spa and talk to staff there. Some ships have Broadway style shows and might require tickets, even if the show is free, stop at the box office and make those reservations. Lastly, if you haven't planned your activities for the port days, visit the Shore Excursion Desk and talk about what what might interest you.  Some ships will allow you to fill out a form for excursions, or reserve on line in your cabin.  Hint hint, discounts are often offered online before sailing for all of these reservations, and will save you time on board making reservations!

 A specialty restaurant aboard Rhapsody of the Seas 

A specialty restaurant aboard Rhapsody of the Seas 

Hit the buffet!

Ahh, now you are ready to relax, and possibly eat. The buffet will usually be open and very busy! If other venues are open, they might be less crowded. Another option is to put lunch off until the time cabins open up.  Everyone will be going to see their cabin and the buffet should be quieter. 

 Buffet aboard the Rhapsody of the Seas

Buffet aboard the Rhapsody of the Seas

Get a towel!

Not all towels will be made into monkeys. You’ll need a couple of pool towels for your deck chair, and excursions. Get a couple per person now, checking them out with your sea pass and you’ll have them when you need them. When they get drippy, change them out for fresh ones at stand at the pool deck. Some lines keep these in your cabin and will change them out regularly, others require you get them on the pool deck.

 Towel monkey

Towel monkey

Grab a deck chair!

...and relax! Pick one by the pools if you have kiddos, in the adult area/solarium if you don’t. You don't need to hold it all day! There are loads of chairs everywhere, no need to hosey one with your towel, when it's so easy to find another later! Also, if you have kiddos, do they EACH really need a whole chair? Especially when they spend so much time IN the pool that they turn pruney and the pool turns yellowy? Really, I found one chair for me and one for the "kids" to dump there stuff on and for hubby to perch on while watching them in the pool was plenty, I couldn't get them out of the pool anyway!

 Solarium aboard Rhapsody of the Seas

Solarium aboard Rhapsody of the Seas

Hit the bar!

If you’ve purchased an all inclusive drink package, you can get started, otherwise, you can just hand over your sea pass card and start imbibing!  Just remember all those drinks do end up on your bill at the end of the cruise!  Also, be aware of the "souvenir" cup- a drink will cost more if it comes with a cup you can keep...if you don't want the cup, do't grab one off the tray, instead ask the waiter to bring you a drink from the bar in a regular cup.  

Get a room! 

An announcement will be made and you can hit your cabin. Your attendant probably will stop by, to make sure you know when the muster drill will be held. This is a good time to make any special requests you have (mini bar, ice, extra towels, etc) and I always like to let them know when they can expect me to be out of the cabin for dinner, so they can plan out their time to freshen up your cabin each evening.

 A cabin aboard Rhapsody of the Seas

A cabin aboard Rhapsody of the Seas

Get your @&$ to the muster! 

Come on, no one loves muster, but it’s a must, (which is maybe why they call it muster? Or maybe not!) and everyone hates waiting for that one person who shows up late and makes everyone else stand in the blazing sun single file waiting for them. Go on time, you only need your sea pass in hand (which tells crew where your life boat is) and to shut your yap, put your phone in your pocket and listen, the rest is easy and it's over quickly, so you can get back to the fun!

 Most ships no longer require you to wear your life vest to muster, but its a good idea to know where they are in your cabin before you go to muster.  

Most ships no longer require you to wear your life vest to muster, but its a good idea to know where they are in your cabin before you go to muster.  

After this bit of compulsory activity, the rest of the cruise week is yours. Do, or don’t do, there is no required, just this Yoda-like advice!

Get Off My Ship!

What to do at the end of a cruise!

The end of a mass market cruise can be pretty rough! The day before you go, paperwork is arrayed on your bed explaining how you'll be processed off the ship, and the Cruise directors will make jokes about leaving your luggage outside your cabin by midnight. It's possible it may all feel a bit ungracious! The crew needs to get passengers off quickly to welcome new guests, usually by midday, so you'll feel the urgency to get you off the ship quickly. But that doesn't mean your vacation has to be over! Read our Disembarkation Tips to make a smooth transition from a cruising vacation to home.

To read more about Rhapsody of the Seas Cruise, click here

By Kathy Klofft 

Photos Jeff Klofft

Disembarkation Tips: 

Of course, it really depends on the port where your cruise ends, but here are some ideas for ending your cruise on a high note, possibly enjoying another day of vacation, or at least making the most of the hours before your flight home!

1- Check your itinerary before booking flights.

Check to make sure your flight is scheduled well after the time your ship arrives in port. Be sure you know how long that transfer will take and build in the time you need before your flight. Usually, the documents you receive from the cruise line will suggest the earliest time you can expect to fly based on needing to collect your luggage and pass through customs and immigration after leaving the ship. 

Be sure that the airport you choose to fly out of is really closest to your port. Sometimes, there is a smaller regional airport closer to your cruise port than the major airport. Or you might find you need to pre arrange transportation over some distance to get to the main airport because cabs are unwilling to take such a long trip. (This is true especially in Europe)  Most cruise lines offer transfers to the airport and that can be a good option. But be sure to research your options. Sometimes a taxi or ride hailing app can be cheaper than the ships transfer for 2 or more people!  

 Where is the port in relation to the airport, can you get a cab, does the port allow ride hailing app services? What time do arrive in port?  Be sure to arrange your flight well after this time!

Where is the port in relation to the airport, can you get a cab, does the port allow ride hailing app services? What time do arrive in port?  Be sure to arrange your flight well after this time!

 

2- Take the pressure off rushing to the airport by staying overnight in the disembarkation  

You might find that the disembarkation port has plenty to do, we found that to be true in Tampa.  We were able to extend our vacation by booking a hotel room on Saturday and by booking an early flight on Sunday, we enjoyed Saturday night out on the town!  Some ports are destinations themselves and we plan to extend our vacation with a few days in ports like Old San Juan, PR or Rome, Italy.   With so many people arriving in town the same day, sometimes hotel rooms can be expensive, I like to check online to see if there are any specials offered for cruisers at local hotels. If hotels are too pricey, see our next tip...

 We enjoyed a long walk along the Tampa Riverwalk the day we disembarked and stayed in town overnight for a Broadway style show and dinner. It's a short cab ride or ride hailing service ride from the port

We enjoyed a long walk along the Tampa Riverwalk the day we disembarked and stayed in town overnight for a Broadway style show and dinner. It's a short cab ride or ride hailing service ride from the port

 

3- Lots of connections to make?

When a cruise ship gets in too late make all the connections you need to get home, you don't have to stay in the expensive port city with all the people you just sailed with! You can start your flights, arrive in one of your less expensive connection cities and book an inexpensive airport hotel for the night there.  After one cruise, I needed to transfer from the port to the main city in Costa Rica, and then fly to Florida. Without a direct flight to the city I needed to get to, rather than stay overnight in a pricey Costa Rica hotel during the high season, I flew to Atlanta, stayed in an inexpensive airport hotel and made my way to my Florida city early the following morning!

 When a small plane was the first of 3 flights to leave Drake Bay and end up in South Florida, it was cheaper to stay in Atlanta overnight than in Costa Rica during the high winter season. 

When a small plane was the first of 3 flights to leave Drake Bay and end up in South Florida, it was cheaper to stay in Atlanta overnight than in Costa Rica during the high winter season. 

 

4- Late flight?

Look for luggage storage services. Sometimes, the time the ship pulls into port is too late to plan the early flights, and the flights available leave you with a lot of time to kill in port.  While that can give you time to explore, it also means dragging your luggage around with you!  Here are some ideas for what to do with your luggage. These days, most airports will not allow you to "store" luggage, and the trip to and from the airport to check it can eat up a lot of your touring time before the flight, as well as be expensive with multiple transfers.

The good news is that in many ports, there are businesses that will stash your luggage in exchange for your dining or visiting there.  In Tampa, I saw advertisements that a ticket to the Florida Aquarium includes free luggage storage. With the aquarium withing walking distance of the port and the Channelside Bay Plaza, this is an excellent choice for leaving luggage if you want to explore Channelside near the port. A quick google search or reading forums on the ports you plan to visit will usually yield a few options for luggage storage, whether a restaurant or tour, that you can take advantage of during the day. 

 While waiting for your flight, you can watch the next set of passengers embarking the ship from the Channelside Plaza in Tampa. 

While waiting for your flight, you can watch the next set of passengers embarking the ship from the Channelside Plaza in Tampa. 

 

5- Late Flight? Book a cruise line excursion that includes an airport transfer.

The cruise lines know that passengers have late flights and will offer excursions that allow you to store your luggage (often right under the bus) and enjoy a tour or activity in the port city and then transfer you to the airport.  The disadvantage is that these will still usually require you to be at the airport well in advance of your flight, since they need to get everyone back for a variety of flight times. 

 I often recommend adding a ships excursion to the Everglades National Park and airport transfer for foreign visitors with late flights from southern FL. 

I often recommend adding a ships excursion to the Everglades National Park and airport transfer for foreign visitors with late flights from southern FL. 

Lastly, most people who enjoy cruising will tell you the best way to end a great cruise, is to book another one to look forward too! Happy sailing!

To read more about Rhapsody of the Seas Cruise, click here

What To Do in Cozumel

By Kathy Klofft

Photos by Kathy and Jeff Klofft

A crowd of ships in port in Cozumel.

It seems most cruise ships call on Cozumel, judging by the amount of them in port on the average winter day.   It can be intimidating to plan a shore excursion when there are as many as 10 ships in port, creating a crowd of 15-30 thousands visitors a day!  Here is some advice for planning a fun and even potentially relaxing day in Cozumel. 

For more about our recent Caribbean cruise to Cozumel click here to see our on going trip report Rhapsody of the Seas

Tip 1: Know where you are!

There are three major port terminals in Cozumel. They are very close to each other, but when arranging private tours or taxi rides back to port, make sure you know where your ship will be docked! Punta Langosta is downtown San Miguel, and used primarily by small ships, The International Pier and Puerta Maya, about 1.5 miles from the town of San Miguel are sued by the larger ships.

Tip 2: Know what you want to do!

The Cozumel excursions fall into to broad categories- excursions on Cozumel and excursions on the mainland of Mexico (via a high speed ferry to Playa Del Carmen)

Mainland excursions usually include:

  • Mayan Ruins
  • Cenote swims or beach breaks (these are sometimes added to a vist to Mayan Ruins)
  • Xplor, Xel Ha and Xcaret are big mainland adventure parks with a variety of beach/ ziplines/ rafting activities

(Also, before choosing to go to the Mainland, consider that the enclosed high speed ferry to the Playa Del Carmen can be rough, and some people have trouble with motion sickness.)

 This Mayan ruin is on the island, much more dramatic ruins can be found on the mainland, but require a lot of travel. We were told this water front structure served two purposes; one was to create a "whistle" warning sound out of the top (like a teapot) for ancient islanders living on the interior of the islands, to alert them when high hurricane winds were beginning to blow on the coast.  The stone structure also served as a shelter for fishermen who could not make it back to their homes on higher ground during a storm. 

This Mayan ruin is on the island, much more dramatic ruins can be found on the mainland, but require a lot of travel. We were told this water front structure served two purposes; one was to create a "whistle" warning sound out of the top (like a teapot) for ancient islanders living on the interior of the islands, to alert them when high hurricane winds were beginning to blow on the coast.  The stone structure also served as a shelter for fishermen who could not make it back to their homes on higher ground during a storm. 

 

Cozumel island excursions include:

  • Beach breaks; there are several options from beach clubs that only charge a dollar or two (such as Paradise Beach) for a chair, hoping you'll buy food and alcohol at prices similar to US prices (which is well above MX prices) or all inclusive capacity controlled "quiet" beaches that charge $50 per person(such as Nachi CoCom).  Analyze how much you plan to eat or drink to decide which is a good deal for you. 
  • Mexican food or tequila tasting tours, which you can book independently ahead of time, join the ships tours, or explore the food in the town of San Miguel on your own. (it's generally advised not to drink the water in MX unless the place you are dining uses filtered water...most ships excursions and beach clubs use filtered water, but it can't hurt to ask!)
  • Snorkel and Diving and glass submarines; Part of the MesoAmerican reef, Cozumel has some amazing sights underwater.  Depending on the your training and comfort level, you can go diving, take an easy shore snorkel tour or even board a submersible with windows to enjoy the fish and coral. 
  • Jeeps/4x4s/or buggy adventures. The island offers several adventure parks and off road tours where you can take control of your own jeep or buggy and explore the island with a guide leading the way. 
  • Dolphin and Sea Lion Encounters. There are two major dolphin encounter sites on Cozumel. Dolphin Discovery and Chankanaab Park  It is one of the least expensive places to do this kind of activity if it appeals to you.  (about $100 per person vs nearly $500 per person for a US based marine park) It is worth making an advance reservation for dolphin encounters, they are popular and sell out quickly.  The parks give priority times to ships excursions, and there are so many that if you book independently, you may miss out because the only time slots left is too late. 

Tip 3: Know how much time you have (and what time it IS!!)

As a cruiser, you need to decide if you want to do a mainland excursion where the ferry takes an hour or more and often the bus to the excursion start can be another hour or more.  This means that during a 8 hour port stay, you could be traveling up to half of it just to get to your adventure.  Read the descriptions carefully to make sure you know how much actual time you'll have at the site you want to see!

Another thing to consider is if you plan a trip to the mainland, be sure you get back to the ship on time. Delays with the ferry or on the road can cause a delayed return and you could miss your ship. Taking a ship's excursion to get the mainland is a good idea because they often charter their own ferry and I have occasionally seen the ship waiting for that ferry to arrive a few minutes late before departing port. 

Another tricky time trick?  Cozumel is on Eastern Standard Time, but they don't observe Daylight Savings Time, so sometimes you'll need to reset your watches while in port during the winter.  Generally, the ship will make this clear and make lots of announcements ahead of time.  But be sure to change your watch and DON'T rely on your cell phone if you have it in airplane mode while traveling out of the country...it won't update automatically unless you have cell service!!

Make sure you get back top the ship on time!  You wouldn't want to miss a sunset like this on the ship leaving Cozumel! 

For more about our recent Caribbean cruise to Cozumel click here to see our on going trip report Rhapsody of the Seas