By Rohini Mohan
Are you one of those people who dream of being on a floating Bohemia, your every need catered to, while you lie on your deck chair in the sun, sipping your margarita, with miles of deep blue ocean to feast your eyes on? Or do you belong to the category that develops a rash at the thought of being confined to a ship for days on end, herded together with a loud, milling crowd, your only respite being unbearably touristy, over-commercialized ports of call? My husband used to be a die hard category 2, but after a 5 day tryst with a Carnival Cruise vacation, he is slowly inching his way into category 1 – well, kinda… Here are some tricks of the trade based on my limited experience; First Time Cruisers: If you have never cruised before, it is wise to book yourself on a short haul cruise the first time. That way if someone in your party really does not want to be there, they can see the light clearly at the end of the tunnel. Break them in gently, so that when you do get on that 21 night Eastern European cruise vacation you have always been dreaming of, they will know what to expect. Getting on board: Before you get on board remember to make sure you have all your documents, especially your passport if it is required. This is crucial because if you leave your id behind, you will get left behind, no two ways about it. Other than that, the process is fairly smooth. Most ships are extremely well organized and once you arrive at the terminal you are all checked in and by the poolside within half an hour. Your checked in bags may take a little longer to get to your room, so try and keep your essentials (swim wear? and one change of clothes) in your carry on baggage. Accommodation: There are many types of rooms to choose from on a cruise ship to suit your budget. If the trip is short, you can get away with a standard room. It makes sense to get one with a sea view even if you are on a shoestring budget because that is after all the essence of the whole experience. Don't expect luxury though, there is only so much place on a ship and unless you are on a luxury liner in a suite, you should mentally prepare yourself for comfortable and clean but slightly cramped accommodation. One kid can fit quite easily on a bunk bed in your room which is quite exciting for them. You will be assigned a floor steward who will take care of all your needs. You will be given an all purpose plastic card when you check in, which will serve as your room key and charge card should you purchase anything on board that is not part of the package. Mostly everything is included, but many ships do not include liquor and soft drinks. First few hours: Supreme disorientation. The ship has a front, middle and back (I have already forgotten the sailor jargon for each of these) and if your sense of direction is as bad as mine, I suggest getting a map and sticking to it till you get your bearings. Be prepared for a lot of walking and moving between levels. Even the smaller cruise ships are BIG. Initially, as long as you know where the 24 hour food station is, you are all set. It will take you a day to expertly navigate your way around, and you will quickly realize that it is not rocket science. Food: Available in abundance. Ships generally have a variety of restaurants, a couple of them poolside. Vegetarian is not hard to come by. Unless you are on a very formal ship, you can either choose to either eat all your meals in your shorts and T shirt or dress up a little and go to a sit down dinner. Your dinner time and company at the table are generally pre-set but if you have a problem with either, you can always show up a little earlier at the same restaurant or another one and weasel your way in. There is one formal dress up night though. Bring a jacket and tie and a formal dress or rent a tux from the store on the ship. Kids on Cruises: If you're going with kids and without company for the kids, be sure to pick a cruise line with a good kid's club so at least they can find company, otherwise you are in for a big case of the 'Are we there yet' phenomenon. Most ships do have several kid friendly activities – pools, ping pong, movies, a library. Always a good idea for them to have someone to hang out with to do these activities though, so it's nice to go on with friends who have kids the same age. Otherwise, Disney Cruise lines and Carnival cruises are the ones with the best kid programs for all ages up to 18. Shopping: Shopping galleries on board are highly advertised but sort of disappointing. Very average merchandise and the prices are not great. You could possibly reserve your shopping for the port of call but then you would have to compromise on the sightseeing. If you run out of toothpaste or sunblock, you can get it on board, and if your heart is set on painting the malls red in your port of call, you can get shopping advice on the ship from the 'shopping experts' who are on standby. Ports of Call: Like I said, you have to choose between shopping and sightseeing. Cruise ships are very particular about the re-board time and if you miss the boat, you are on your own. You can book shore excursions with the cruise line itself (at a premium) – these are more organized and will ensure that you get back on time. You can also choose to take it easy and pick a short trip at the port direct from local operators. A little more risky because you do not know what you will get but it affords more variety. Sea Sickness: Is a myth. We are in the 21st century and you are on a giant floating resort. If your ship is very small and the seas are very rough, you may feel the sway a little but really not enough to get you seasick. It may take you 24 hours to get your sea legs, but if you don't think about it at all, you will be quite fine as soon as you get on board. It's all in the mind. Other good to know stuff: There are ATMs on board, if you need cash for the shore trips. Internet is available at a price. Your cell phone will work, so turn it off if big bills scare you, 'Cellular at sea' is expensive. Do not dial out or call your cell phone using the local ship phones though, as these are even more expensive. There is generally a pretty neat spa and a well equipped gym or two so gorge away at the buffet, your guilt has an outlet. Amusement: There's lots to do on board. Walking around the deck at night you can see clear, clear skies and breathe in pure undiluted air. If you're not the quiet type, there are the night clubs and lots of dancing. Plenty of live music too, of pretty good calibre. Our fav was a guy on the piano who belted out a few Billy Joel / Elton John numbers in grand style and kept us singing many nights in a row. There's also the casino if you have money to spend. And Vaudeville type entertainment every night for those who like standard routines. And then there's always people watching. My favorite pastime. Of the 1500 people on the ship, you are sure to find someone you want to stay in touch with. We met travelling nurses, a person who makes his living out of building and managing Koi ponds and has way more business than he can handle, we chatted with the bartender from Goa who works six months on the ship and goes back to his wife and child for two months only to be back again for another six months….the US navy speedboat operator, the electrician from San Jose, the Project Manager, the CEO of a medical device company. In my opinion, our five days went by way too fast. For comprehensive information on different types of cruises, click here. You can also visit the websites of each individual cruise line, Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Princess, Holland America, Norwegian, to name a few.