Beginner's guide to cruising - Travelling Homebody

10 cruising tips & essentials you need to consider before booking

These cruising tips and essentials are based on my experience. Cruising may be right for you, but it might not. The #1 thing to think about before booking your cruise is your health.

When I cruised with Holland America in 2012, I learned many things about cruising that weren’t really explained in the travel brochures or guide books. Even the cruise forums on the interwebz (there are a lot of them) don’t really cover the cruising tips and essentials that I write about here (well not easily, anyway).

And with the coronavirus outbreak i.e. COVID-19 in 2020, and entire ships being quarantined, the health risks of cruises can’t be overstated and need to be considered.

Your health on cruises

I didn’t think about what it would be like to share a ship with 2000ish people, and the potential consequences of this on my health. There was a gastro outbreak (norovirus) about two days in, with the ship’s captain calling a “Code Red”, which is instigated when more than five cases are reported, apparently. “Code Red” means that self-service meals are discontinued, the ship is super-sanitised and staff are lurking waiting around every corner and doorway with hand sanitiser. This situation continued for the entire 20 days of the cruise, and it was unpleasant to say the least.

I also became very aware of how many people were coughing and sneezing around me (I was away for five weeks, and my trip included a land tour after the cruise and I did not want to get sick), and there were quite a few. One could get a tad obsessive compulsive about germs, but by the end of the cruise, I was really narky about the hand sanitiser, because it didn’t stop the problem and was super annoying.

If you are sick on board, you are charged an exorbitant amount to see medical staff. Of course, travel insurance will cover the cost (you do have travel insurance, right?), but if you catch something like gastro on the ship, I think it should be covered by the cruise line because it is the ship’s problem. Once norovirus is on board, it is notoriously difficult to get rid of and hangs around for subsequent cruises.

Here’s a list from the CDC of ships, including Holland America, who have reported on-board epidemics. Check this list carefully before you book your cruise. You’re welcome.

There was a gym on the ship, and it was well equipped. I used the treadmill consistently during the 20 days (I could tolerate 3 km runs), and I also regularly walked around the ship (9 laps was 5 kms). The amount of food that’s available could be a problem for those prone to weight gain. I don’t think I put on weight, but I certainly felt sluggish and heavy toward the end, even though I didn’t really overindulge and I was exercising.

A cashless ship does not mean no cost

You may have paid for the cost of your fare (and food) up front, but don’t for a minute think that that’s all you have to pay. On check-in, you are issued with a card that is your stateroom key and your “charge” card. Yes, food is free, but alcohol and other extras are not, and because you are stuck on board at night, people tend to drink alcohol at happy hours, with their meals and on into the night. There are also invitations to special on board events (cocktail parties, meet and greets, barbecues, pub crawls) where you are also charged for the alcohol.

There are fine dining restaurant experiences on the ship, and this is a trap for the rookie player. The food was US$25 + alcohol was extra (and it is not a cheap chardonnay). I loved the food and service in the Pinnacle Grill (I dined there twice) and each time, I was lucky to come out with change from $100.

Watch out for spa and health treatments. The costs soon escalate. Acupuncture is charged at US$125 a session (with most people signing up for a minimum of five sessions), and there are massages and gym classes (boot camp on a cruise? Really? I saw the list and laughed), all at a cost to the passenger. There is an onboard store, selling everything from jewellery to Holland America merchandise to Pringles chips, with advertised specials every day or so.

And then there is the service charge (which is added to all alcohol purchases) and a cabin charge of around $USD11 per person per day (see a few points down).

I booked my tours before I left, and am glad I did. Many people booked tours during the cruise, and got a nasty surprise when they received their statement on check out.

Basically, anything that is not food, or standard tea and coffee will be charged to your account. Each time you hand over your keycard, there is a charge. Even bottled water in your cabin is not free. I used to get a lot of my supplied on port visits.

I ended up being quite cynical towards the end about what I was being charged for, and I ended up paying around an extra US$500 over and above my fare. Bear in mind I was at sea for three weeks (which was much too long).

Internet is a way to make $$$

On this cruise, the cost of the internet can best be described as extortion. At 75c per minute, or via time “plans” that are equally as costly, I steered clear of this “service” on principle. By all accounts, the connection was slow and unreliable, with just logging on to the system eating up valuable minutes. And if you had the latest iPad, apparently you couldn’t use it at all (something to do with connection setting with the latest iOS). Printing was 50c per page, which is also highway robbery in my opinion.

My advice is to buy a SIM card with a data pack of the country where you will be visiting the most, or just wait for port visits. There are enough cafes and pubs on land that have free wifi, so you really shouldn’t bother with the ship’s internet.

Solo travelling is lonely

I struggled as a solo traveller for the first five or so days of the cruise. Don’t get me wrong: I had plenty of people to chat to, but I had no one to really hang out with. I would have dinner in my room, because it was easier than eating alone (apparently the set time for dining is better for solos, because you sit with the same people every night, although no one told me that). There weren’t a lot of solo travellers of my age on board that I could see (most were American, and retired, elderly couples), and only minimal (suitable) activities offered on board for solos.

Apparently, there are ships more suited to my demographic (youngish, single or solo). The Holland America line is not one of them.

About five days in, I started hanging out with a group of South Australians in the evening for happy hour (one of the group was Cos, who was hosting on behalf of Phil Hoffman Travel, and Cos’ wife, Andrea and their friends. We’d stay on for pub trivia, and then we’d often eat together in the evening. It was lovely to have a group who knew I was on my own, and cared about what I’d been up to that day. We’d swap stories and experiences, and I would not have enjoyed the cruise nearly so much if it weren’t for this group of lovely people.

Dining alone is even lonelier

The ship has two types of dining: as you wish, where you don’t have to eat at a set time, or early/late, where you dine at a set time, at a set table, with the same people. I had the “as you wish” option, but didn’t ever take it up, because I found out there was a third option (which is not really mentioned): casual buffet dining in the Lido.

I tended to dine with the South Aussie people I met on the cruise, and just joined in with whatever they were doing. We’d meet at happy hour, do the pub trivia, then make a decision about where we would eat, and it was often Lido, because most of the time we couldn’t be bothered getting dressed for dinner. If I did eat in the Vista restaurant, it was with this group.

You could also book for other restaurants: I ate in the Pinnacle Grill a couple of times, and also Canaletto. These restaurants have a cover charge, whereas Vista and Lido do not.

And there was also a fourth option: in room dining, which I partook of quite often (it was excellent).

Be warned: there is a LOT of food available on the ship. You eat more than you ever thought possible, and it is very good quality. By the end though, we were all sick of eating and went out of our way to find salads and vegetables. I’m glad I kept my running up, and I don’t think I put on any weight. But I did feel sluggish and heavy at the end of 20 days.

Giving formal nights a miss

I brought formal clothes with me, but never wore them. And this is because formal nights are all about dining out in either Vista or Pinnacle Grill. Because I rarely dined out (other than casually in Lido), there was no need for me to ever get dressed up in my formal gear.

I guess it’s nice to have the option, but I would have preferred to have the extra space in my suitcase.

Day tripping

I had booked day tours through the ship because I didn’t want to think about anything, and was also a bit nervous about the whole going ashore on my own thing. At each port, there are shuttles, taxis, limos and tour guides lined up to cater for visiting tourists, all cheaper than what I paid through the ship.

Getting off is easy: the ship announces where the gangway is located, and your keycard is scanned as you disembark. Most ports have a business district, shopping strips, restaurants and bars located on the sea front, so it’s just a matter of walking in that general direction. Just make a note of the “all aboard” time, because the ship will not wait for you if you are late.

To get back on board, you may have to go through customs at the port. Most of the time, you just need to show your ship’s keycard to security. I did not need my passport ever. The ship will make you go through its security process too after you have been scanned back in.

If I hadn’t have been on my own, I would have just winged it in the local area. People I talked to at the end of each day had some marvelous local experiences to share that didn’t involve organised tours.

The ship’s staff

The service staff of the ship, generally speaking, did a fantastic job. They tended to be Indonesian or Filippino/a and were helpful, polite and worked like troopers. I was truly impressed by their work ethic, particularly because their base pay rate is so low. My cabin steward, Ivan, was delightful. Each night, I had different towel animal waiting for me on my bed. There would also be information about the next port, notices, invitations and a breakfast menu. Each morning, (after I came back from touring) my bed would be made, my tray cleared, my bathroom wiped down, my ice bucket filled. My room was serviced a couple of times a day.

The entertainment and operations staff of the ship were also, generally speaking, fantastic, and made the trip very enjoyable. Special mentions go to Greg (the DJ and occasional trivia host) who was a most likable chap: Gian (who made my chai in Explorations Café) and popped up in other areas and was always pleased to see me; Macy (on the Front desk), who helped me with my (odd!) air-conditioning request (more noisy, please); Daniel (in the Crow’s Nest) who always knew what I wanted to drink (Miller’s Lite); Boozee (the drink steward) was just good fun, and turned ordering drinks into an experience; Sebastien (Manager of the Pinnacle Grill) who was as handsome as he was charming and Dutch.

Entertainment and night life

I must admit that I didn’t really get into the entertainment offered on the ship. I think I saw about 30 minutes of a dance show and 15 minutes of a comedian (yes, he was that bad) and that was about it. The ship had movie nights and didn’t go to any of them either, though I meant to. I didn’t go to the casino and I didn’t do any of the lifestyle classes. What I did do was pub trivia (just about every night) and I did go to Northern Lights (the ship’s disco) a couple of times. I even did karaoke once (very badly, I might add).

From talking to others, I think there were a couple of standout acts, but this was the exception rather than the rule. Mostly, the shows were put on by the crew e.g. Filipino or Indonesian night.

From what others have said, there was a lot of repetition in the entertainment offered and the shows. If you had been on board for more than 10 days, the repetition became a little tedious. That is one of the downsides of cruising: no whizzing off to a local restaurant, or going to a show.

Disembarking leaves a lasting impression

It is said that the final impression is the lasting one. And while my experience of the overall cruise was generally favourable, I have to say disembarkation was a less than fantastic experience. First of all, on the day before, cabins are more or less stripped. One lady told me that even her personal floral arrangement was taken. Supplies (like fruit) are not replenished (I want my banana!). On the morning of disembarkation, your mini-bar is checked (just in case you dared sneak out any alcohol since the last bill). I opted to carry my own suitcase off, rather than trust it to an overnight holding bay (I’m thingy about my luggage because of my China trip) and was not helped (I guess I could have asked).

Once your keycard has been scanned for the final time, you are herded into the transfer area. And it’s a bit confusing as to which direction you go. There are no seats (terminal doors are locked after a certain time) and it’s chaotic as passengers and drivers search for one another. There is only minimal shelter from the elements. Other cruise lines provide a marquee and seats for waiting passengers (I know, because my shuttle drove around to the Equinox terminal area, and I had to wait there for a while).

I don’t know if it’s just in Civitivecchia, but Holland America could do a much better job in this area.

Cruising: last word

Cruising is a different way to travel, that’s all. In my Plus Minus Interesting post, I detailed (from my perspective anyway) what the pros and cons are. I found 20 days to be just that little bit too long, but the second half of the cruise took me to countries that I felt a real affinity with. Cruising would be better with friends and family, so as a solo travel experience, I found it a bit lacking. I also found the port stops much too brief. And it can get really expensive, over and above the fare you originally. And safety aside, there’s all the concerns about sustainability

So would I cruise again? Yes, but not in a hurry, and only with certain conditions.

Image by InsightPhotography from Pixabay 

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  • Gary Lum October 16, 2012 at 5:31 AM

    Great post Diane. That is really informative. I’m not likely to cruise any time soon, but as a non-drinker, I guess I may have an advantage. Was soft drink and water free?

    • The Diane Lee Show October 16, 2012 at 4:00 PM

      You have to pay for soft drinks as well, Gary. And bottled water. What one crafty couple did was have a jug of iced water delivered daily to their stateroom (that was free) and they simply filled their bottles. Wish I knew about that little trick earlier!


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