They say coffee is one of the best stimulants for the brain, elevating senses and the moods, sparking neurons and all. We think there might just be some truth to that. It was a lazy Sunday afternoon two weeks before the thanksgiving break – Lethargy at its peak, had consumed us creating an irresistible yearning to pour ourselves a hot Americano and sip it slowly seeing a glowing orange sun set itself across the lake from the patio. One conversation led to another and another until a question about the long weekend came up. We first thought of camping, then beach bumming, then sailing and right then it occurred to us – Why not a CRUISE ??.
This story is about our experience as first time cruisers and how we did it. Hope this serves as a guide for other first time cruisers. We immediately lunged at the laptops and Googled “Last minute cruise deals”. Among the destinations that came up, we looked at the Caribbean among other options that also includes an around the world cruise for 108 days. May be some day when we retire. We were looking for 3 night cruises since we had blown through our vacation for the year and taking extra days off would mean letting your manager know a week in advance about the impending flu;) As we narrowed down options, we came up with three choices, two cruises to the Bahamas, one cruise to Mexico. Further research eliminated Bahamas as they require visas for non US citizens. So, Cozumel, Mexico it was!
Travel Tip: When shopping for cruises online, it is helpful to look at cruise websites like www.cruisedeals.com or www.expedia.com to see the options available across cruise lines for the destination. However, based on our experience, the impressive rates these sites show somehow seem to get marked up as you get closer to checkout, while the same itinerary on the cruise lines’ website may be about the same or sometimes lesser. We used this approach since we weren’t sure about which cruise line to take between Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian and Celebrity. Once we locked down the destination, we compared prices on the aggregator websites then went to the actual cruise line website to book the trip. Also, when choosing your destination, be sure to check on the countries website for travel requirements like visas, etc. Mexico recently changed its policy where non US citizens on valid US Visas do not require a visa for non business related travel.
So, assuming that by now you know where you are going, there are a whole lot of other things to consider especially if this is your first time. Based on our journey here are a few considerations and assuming your travel personality matches ours will save you a lot of time in decision making by being honest about what’s worth considering.
Things to consider before booking a Cruise
Booking Your Cruise
Now that we knew where we were going, the big question what who we wanted to go with. We began our research across Google and came upon some interesting finds. While some of these remain to be vetted with first-hand experience, the following is based on the general theme we noticed during our research. So here goes.
Carnival: Very party oriented where the general mix is predominantly 20-30 year olds.
Royal Caribbean: Parent company of Celebrity, offering economy versions of destinations served by Celebrity a little family oriented with lots of kids. Their ships generally do not have that many balcony state rooms.
Norwegian: Slightly older ships and not so great reviews of on-board food
Celebrity: Our favorite thus far: Celebrity can be best described as the cruise for young working professionals. We say this because Celebrity is like the boutique liner that caters to those who don’t mind spending a little extra for higher value, better service and this attracts classy young couples, men and women (25 – 40) with some blend of senior cruisers and a sizable but less concentrated population of families. We wanted our first cruise experience to be one that we would remember and wanted to spend rationally while not cutting corners by going for the cheap deals or booking any of the suites. It had to be just right and Celebrity somehow matched our expectations. We cruised on Celebrity Millennium that went in for solsticizing after our cruise.
Rooms: The first thing we can tell you that a room with a balcony is worth every penny. There is something so calming about sitting on the balcony at any time of the day and seeing water until the dark blue line blends with the sky blue curtain. Sunsets and sunrises are especially beautiful. There are moments in couple’s life where certain events get imprinted in our minds and are associated with the happiest minutes on a trip. One such moment was having breakfast on the balcony, each immersed in our own thought, hypnotized by the synchronous swinging of the ship, a sense of deep blue calm inspired by the pleasant sound the waves breaking against the hull of the ship. A beautiful moment we will treasure for a long time. Our advice? If you decide to go on a cruise book one with a balcony.
Beverage Packs: This is a tricky one and if you haven’t already there are plenty of discussions on line the moment you type in “Cruise beverage packs, are they worth it”. Having used these packs, we can tell you how to play it smartly. Beverage packs are a great option if you consume between 9-10 drinks a day that includes bottled water, juices and alcohol. Feel too much, we thought so too, but here is the deal – Unless you are ok with drinking water served on-board, which by the way is fine for most people, your highest liquid consumption will be bottled water. You will spend most of your day on the deck outdoors and the humidity will ensure you are constantly losing water through perspiration. We were consuming between 3-4 gallons of water a day each.
Next, alcohol. Now you see, cruising is a happy activity and once you are in a ship with nothing to do but relax and have a good time, you will learn that you naturally yearn for alcohol. Heck, the party begins the moment you walk across the rope bridge from the port and they greet you with mimosas. The drinking does not stop after that. We were consuming between 3-4 mojitos a day, 2-3 beers and a random juice here or there. The drinking pace picked up at night after dinner as we would hit the bars on the upper deck and would consume 2-3 cocktails while dancing away late into the night. Random side note: Even if you are a good dancer, a couple of drinks on a dance floor on a ship that in high tide probably lifts and drops an average of 3 feet can seriously magnify your loss of balance – from personal experience.
So if you do the math above from all the drinks consumed, averaging about $6 a drink will set you back by at least $70 a day. Of course, we would have cut back on the number of drinks if we were drinking by the glass but then where is the fun in doing that. So, in summary beverage packs are worth it but there is caveat as noted in the travel tip below. Another important thing to note is that beverage packs will not cover top shelf liquor, certain specialty cocktails and certain wines. It helps to check before you order.
Travel Tip: Depending on when your ship departs and number of sea days, you may want to purchase the beverage accordingly. Beverage packs are sold on a per day basis but cannot be purchased by the day. This means that you can purchase the beverage pack on the second, third or fourth day of the cruise and you will have to pay for the rate per day from day purchased until the last day of your cruise. You cannot buy beverage packs for the second and fourth day. It has to be bought as a package. That being said, if your cruise departs in the afternoon or evening, don’t buy the beverage packs on the first day as you won’t do justice to the money paid. Next consider when you have sea days. If you are visiting ports the second and third day, you will be out sightseeing the whole day and won’t get to fully use the beverage pack except for maybe water that may be cheaper to buy at port. The best way to use a beverage pack is to buy it when you have a sea day since you will have nothing to do on the ship and relax with a few drinks. Alternately, your partner can buy a non-alcoholic beverage pack so that you can keep a constant supply of bottled water coming on that card and not indulge in binge drinking just because you have maximize the value paid on the beverage pack. There are cheaper water/soda packs available too with some cruise lines within these beverage packs.
Shore Excursions: This is another area where it’s a buy/no-buy decision to be made. Depending on how much time you have before your cruise, try and research things you can do at your port of call. Get an idea of the prices, locations of these activities, places from your port. You will notice that in most cases you are better off booking these on your own as the cruise lines jack up the prices. To that end, people still book with the cruise line as these are tour operators supposedly licensed with the cruise line. If you are an experienced traveler and bold, set out to create your own itinerary like we did. But be reasonable about how far you want to venture, how much you want to spend and where you want to eat.
Travel Tip: If your port has places of interest that are a little far off from the port,. E.g. Mayan ruins on an island that’s a 1 hour ferry ride from the port/. You are better off booking these trips with the cruise line itself. Since you will be among other guests from your ship, in the event there is a delay in retuning, the cruise line will wait and not abandon you. If your port requires simple exploration of the city or similar activity, hire tour guides at the actual attraction since you will be hounded with tour guides, operators offering you cheap trips. These may not be safe options. As always a little bit research on prices, reputed tour operators etc, always helps.
Packing: There are times in life when you wish you were a minimalist. Well, we wish we wouldn’t have read so much about confusing dress etiquette on cruise ships. In other words, we hauled on-board 2 huge suitcases and 2 carry-on bags – Enough for a 6 week international trip. So let’s save you the trouble. Celebrity’s websites and most other cruise lines mention that the general attire on-board indoors is casual and they emphasize on smart casual in the main dining. The truth is the dress codes are raised intentionally to prevent people from entering the main dining room in shorts and t-shirts. So here is what we observed. Anywhere on the ship indoors/on decks: Linen pants for men/ women, linen shirts/tops for men/ women. Shorts (non-swim wear) with T-shirts (collared or round neck) work great for men/women. They do however stress on requiring a shirt and shoes at all times on the ship except in the pool area. Anywhere in the pool area: Swim-wear for men/women but require shirt/robes and shoes/slippers anywhere except pool area. Dinners: So, this was the trickiest since there were mixed reviews from ball room formal to new age smart casual. Trying to play it conservative, we ended up being over dressed. Not that it bothered us as it’s always nice to get some attention good or bad and we generally overdo it ;). We noticed men dressed in smart dress shirts paired with denims or khaki’s with an occasional sport coat. Leather shoes are a must though. There is no requirement to wear a suit unless you are dining with the captain after winning the raffle or paying the extra fee. Women were dressed in formal tops and skirts or a simple dress. We also saw a lot of women who dressed in smart formal tops paired with denims. Avoid wearing club wear shirts and tops as the setting is a little bit formal for any glitzy and glamorous clothes. That being said, Ladies! There is NO NEED to wear a ball gown.
Travel Tip: It helps to read the dress codes for your cruise liner and doesn’t hurt to carry a pair of smart khakis. We read in places where some cruise liners refused male guests who entered in denims. Women however can get away with pretty much anything. Do not pack irons and avoid packing hair dryers since these are prohibited on the ship due to risk of fires and shock. If you do end up packing them, they will be removed from your bags at customs. The bath rooms come equipped with hair dryers. Electric shavers and straighteners however, are allowed. OK, so by now you have everything ready and are ready to leave.
Departure Routines: Upon booking your cruise, you will receive baggage tags that are usually mailed to you before your departure date. Tag your bags and depart to the cruise terminal. By now you have reached the port terminal that looks like any other bus terminal. Porters will take your bag curb side and direct you to proceed to the security check in. We can tell you about the Miami Port check in since this was our port of call. Once you go up the escalators, you will go through security clearance similar to the airport. Except there are no limitations on liquids except on alcohol. Every cruise line has a different policy but will usually allow a bottle of wine or your favorite scotch on-board. However, these will be removed from your bag, tagged and delivered to your room once the ship has sailed.
Travel Tip: There is no need to carry bottles of water if you have purchased the beverage packs. You can avoid delays at security clearance by packing the permissible alcohol in your check in bag. The bags will usually arrive about 2-3 hours after the setting sail. So ensure you have taken out any necessary medication, items you may require in the mean time. If you are driving to your departure terminal, ensure you have looked up parking and that they have frequent shuttles leaving to the port. Call them in advance to verify they will be open at the time you will arrive from the cruise.
Visa/Travel Clearance: After the security clearance, you will proceed for visa clearance. Much like airline ticketing agents you can proceed to the counter on your turn. You will provide your passport details and upon verification you will be issued room keys that also double as your on-board credit card for purchases. You may also have to provide a credit card on file for purchases. It’s kind of funny as it feels like you are about board a flight and checking into a hotel at the same time.
Travel Tip: Your credit card will not be charged until you return from the cruise. However, it is advisable to provide a separate credit card that contains your projected on-board spend and which is separate from the card you will use for shopping and eating out at your destinations on port days. While the website mentions that you are required to check in 3 hours before departure. Try to be there at least an hour prior to departure as lines can get really long. They usually have single file lines and about 8-10 counters for nearly 3500 passengers. Do the math. The check in counters open quite early and some people checked in 6 hours before departure as the ship is ready for you to board. Carry some cash with you on-board, mainly to tip the folks who serve you well. There are numerous forums that will tell you not to tip as everything is paid for. But once you spend 3 days on the ship you will notice how nicely and quietly the employees go about their jobs making sure your cruise is enjoyable. The main people to tip are your room attendant, his assistant, servers who depending on where you frequent and how nice you are to them will double your drunk pours. We tipped $10 each to 4 servers who “took car” of our drinks always pouring a large. We tipped our room attendants $20 each as the made sure every time we stepped out, our beds were always made. There is no need to tip the captain 😉
Walking up to your Room: Once you proceed to your state room, you will be given some time to express your happiness and child like excitement by way of screams, tight hugs or jumping on the beds or any other way other than jumping out the balcony. A little while later you will be greeted by your room attendant who will introduce himself, walk you through the room facilities and give you safety instructions. You will be required to assemble at a central location a little while later to observe safety evacuation instructions that are mandatory.
Departure: The most exciting time on the cruise is when it departs port of origin. Spirits are high and everyone is outside screaming, drinking and having a ball. The revelry only gets louder every time the captain blows the horn. We stayed on deck for nearly 2 hours till Miami disappeared from the horizon. We were soaking in the experience as much as possible.
Getting familiar with your ship: When you checked in, your key cards would be placed in a paper jacket that unfolds into a map of each deck on the ship. Here is a map of Celebrity Millennium. You can also think of this as Celebrity Millennium deck plan. The ship is divided into 3 sections: Aft, Mid-ship and Forward. It is like being on huge floating hotel and you can never be lost. Since, the ship is so huge and because you won’t have phones, ensure you and your party assign a common meeting point close to your room if you lose each other. Ours was the Mast bar on the sunrise deck.
Food: Now if there is something that a cruise does to you, it definitely is an eye opener on your appetite and the discovery that you can eat more than you thought you ever could. With so much free food around all day, any day, you can’t help but sample everything there is to offer. Usually there are cafes, food courts and restaurants spread across the ship. The finer restaurants only allow breakfast and dinner since the ship is mostly embarked on port days. FOOD IS UNLIMITED ANYWHERE ON THE SHIP!! And is always available 24 HRS a day. While the food courts, bars and pool areas close with drinks and food between 8pm and 2am. Room service is available 24 hrs a day with a minimalistic menu. On millennium, the pool area served hot dogs, wings, burgers, fries with some salads, etc. The food court offers al cuisines from American, Chinese, Thai, and Italian to Indian. We of course devoured the dessert section as much as we could. The Aqua Spa served light healthy breakfast and great salads, both of which we missed unfortunately. The Ocean Grill on the aft served great breakfast, burgers, pastas, sandwiches, etc and had a very golf/mariners club like feel. Cova Cafe – mid ship on the Entertainment Deck served amazing cappuccinos, crepes in the morning that was upped with Tapas in the evening. The Champagne Bar had a piano and a great collection of rare scotch – charged extra of course. We ate at the main dining room on two nights and were seriously impressed with the food. Since it was thanksgiving, the cruise cooked up a traditional thanksgiving feast, only on a grander scale. We had heard great reviews about the food on Celebrity and they definitely lived up to the expectation, be it in the food court or the main dining area or anywhere on the ship. Here is the remaining deck plan chart.
Travel Tip: Unless requested for an additional fee or if traveling in a large group of 6 or more, cruise lines by default assign passengers to group seating. This means you get to share your table with other people, mostly couples. You get seated with other families if you have kids and so on. This seating remains the same for the rest of the journey but you can request to change if you like. We shared our table with 2 couples, one from Miami and the other from Canada. Considering, it was our first time, we were a bit late and were not aware of the group seating concept. A little surprised, a little embarrassed, we introduced ourselves and soon were having a great conversation, thanks to the wine. While cocktails are served in the dining area, Celebrity has a great collection of wines to pair with the dinner menu. The general etiquette is that each party from the table purchases a bottle of wine for the table that typically costs $20 – $40 a bottle for every night they dine together. Be on time at least the first night so you don’t keep the table waiting on you.
Partying it up the first night: We finished our sumptuous meal and as much as our brains began to induce a food coma, we were just too excited to just call it a night. I mean, come on, there is the rest of the ship we still had to explore and we hadn’t used our beverage card enough, so what do we do? Hit the cosmos lounge. We must have returned to our rooms at some point that night and the only thing we remember is us remembering nothing. We sat in the balcony for an hour or soaked in the quiet rumbling of the waves, saw a few other ships far away, then hit bed. It was so nice to sleep on a bed that rocked and swayed gently putting us to deep sleep.
Day 1: Key West
We arrived at Key West sometime the next morning. Since we are from Orlando and had done Key West before, we decided not to disembark and instead explore the ship when it’s quieter and less crowded. We got coffee from Cafe Cova ate some light food at the pool side cafe and walked around the ship. This is also the moment where you will discover your cruise personality. You are lucky if they match as in most cases, one is the “do everything on the daily events schedule” while the other is “take a book and just read all day type”, the ship has enough to offer for everything or nothing. Here is a sample of the daily schedule delivered to your room daily.
Entertainment: Celebrity has a vast array of entertainment options. From Broadway style shows to casinos to lounges, etc. The casino does get a bit crowded as we observed. We attended one of the shows. They do require you to dress smart casual. It was satisfactory at best and while they don’t meet Broadway expectations, you must applaud the performers efforts in trying to get it close.
Day 2 – Ola Cozumel Mexico
We woke up and ordered breakfast to the room so we could enjoy it as the ship rolled into Cozumel at its own pace. We packed our key cards, waters, travel documents, sunscreen, phones, maps etc. and started making our way down to the pier. As soon as we got off the pier
Travel Tip: The process of disembarking does take some time as they usually have only two doors. Remember to carry your key cards as without this you won’t be let back in. Pay attention to the all aboard time. Prepare to be around the port area at least 30 minutes prior to all aboard time. If this time is late at night say 8 pm onwards, you will be surprised to see how isolated it can get as most guests are back in having dinner but nonetheless be safe and always exercise caution by tagging along with passengers who are headed the same way. It’s also helpful to carry your passport and your wallets and credit cards so in case you miss your cruise due to any unfortunate event, you will still be able to get back home.
We walked up through the pier market to the rental car counters. We researched early on and know what rates to expect. Leading car rental agencies, surprisingly did not allow us to book in advance. We heckled a bit, were treated rudely by some rental counters and finally settled in for a manual, open top jeep.
Cozumel is about 48 km (30 mi) long and 16 km (9.9 mi) wide, and is Mexico’s largest Caribbean island. Yet, it can be circled in about 90 minutes of nonstop driving. We stayed away from doing the bigger Tulum ruins and figured would make the most of what the island offered. The rental car agencies know which cruise line you are from and usually have a 60 minute cut off prior to your boarding time.
Travel Tip: Scooters are popular in Cozumel too, but we read a few horrifying crashes and pretty much all the forums advised us against scooters. The traffic is pretty rough on its own and when you thrown in tourists driving manual transmission jeeps/cars with little sense of direction, all you get is chaotic traffic. The roads are usually empty encouraging motorists to step on it. We would STRONGLY advise you get a car that’s safe and rented from a reputed agency. The prices may be inflated as with all tourist destinations so don’t expect to rent a Corolla for $20 / day. We rented with Avis and paid almost $100 / day with collision waiver. It’s preferable you get a collision waiver given that it’s a new country, new place, new rules and short visit timeline.
We looked at the map and decided to head to the smaller El Cedral ruins first as it was en-route the San Gervasio ruins – the main attraction at Cozumel. We jumped in the jeep Chuck Norris style and after some screeching, grinding and jerking were able to a get a hang of the manual transmission. El Cedral was a small Mayan temple right next to a church, most likely built by the Spaniards in 1600’s. The temperatures were around 85-90F and it was hot. We got some coconut water, took pictures and drove towards the perimeter to get to the main temple.
Unfortunately, the temples close at 3pm. We missed the last entry by 5 mins and the guard wouldn’t let us in. We were disappointed as this wasn’t mentioned in any of the travel blogs or guides or attractions maps we read. We turned back almost walked into a tequila factory and wisdom prevailed thanks to the unreasonably high entry fees. After all we are more interested in drinking, less in how it’s made, especially if you have to pay for it.
The drive back was beautiful once you hit the thruway. Open single lane roads, white frothy waves crash into the rocky beach and spray you with a salty mist as you zip down the highway in an open top jeep. Cozumel’s perimeter or ring road is designed such that you get an amazing 20 min ride along the coastline that almost feels like riding the water itself. You are no more than 20 feet from the jagged razor sharp rocks and will undoubtedly get sprayed by the ocean. Once you reach the end of this stretch, the road cuts inwards and while still at the perimeter is slightly inland. There are plenty of beach resorts on the way and you will notice buses lined up with hoards of tourists making the most of their day. We chose to go to Playa Palancar beach as it was off the list of frequented spots. Here is a map you can use to familiarize yourself with Cozumel.
Considering we are from Florida, beaches unfortunately are no longer a novelty as we have probably seen most of them. Yet, the pictures we saw in magazines or TV of thatched roof shacks sitting idly over white sandy beaches against the aqua background always allured us. We parked our jeep and walked through the thick trimmed bush on the resort’s cobbled pathways when suddenly in front of us was this picture. Too surreal, we just stood there for about a minute still unbelieving that this was reality – but it was. Crystal aqua and emerald green waters gently rolled onto white sandy beaches and yes there was the thatched shack overlooking this entire scenic delight.
We smiled, hugged, took our shoes off and decided to walk the beach. The beach curves and a few hundred yards later we came upon this deserted pier. It was simply beautiful and we just had to stop, look at the orange bright sun fall asleep and be swallowed by the mighty ocean. By far one of the best sunsets we have ever seen. The sense of calm, where the only sounds were those of the waves rolling and distant calls of the sea gulls. We immersed ourselves in deep thought, swinging our legs over pier into the clear water.
Travel Tip: Some resorts have an entry fee that includes a complimentary drink and snack. While its totally your choice, it is preferable to avoid these beach resorts as it may turn out to be like any other day at the beach with crowds, etc. There are plenty of beach resorts that are away from the touristy madness and offer you the tranquil, peace and quiet if you that’s what you are looking for.
A beautiful evening spent, we were hungry and decided to head back towards the pier. We had researched a restaurant that had amazing reviews. We got two seats on the balcony overlooking the bustling streets below. Street vendors hawking their goods, Spanish music with sounds of mariachis filling the air. We got margaritas and some tapas. The food was indeed very tasty and lived up to its reputation. We walked out the restaurant and decided to walk the streets, may be buy some souvenirs’. We definitely wanted something very Mexican. What better than a sombrero. We found a good one, bargained a bit and bought it. We walked back to our jeep and were absorbing every last bit of this little Mexican island.
We hopped into our jeep and drove towards the Pier. We passed by other cruise ships at another pier, zipped past tourists walking streets, neon lights, bicyclists. We reached our ship, checked in and all we could think of was hitting bed.
Day 3: Day At Sea: Best Day Ever!!
The next day was a day at sea, a day well spent. . All we did was “optimize” our beverage card, chill on the upper decks and relax our back from the previous days activities. Reading books, walking through the corridors, we wanted to make the most of the last 24 hours on this wonderful vessel. We had dinner with the lovely folks at the table, exchanged war stories of exciting adventures in Cozumel and then retired for the night. We sat in the balcony for a couple of hours, absorbing the last remaining moments of the wonderful vessel gyrating and swinging gently against ocean waves. We looked up the daily schedule of activities that is delivered every morning and decided to do a bunch of things.
Travel Tip: You will be requested to leave your checked baggage outside your door the previous night. It is advisable to carry any items you may have purchased on your trip with you to avoid breakage.
The next morning we woke up to the chirping and screaming of sea gulls and on drawing the curtains, were overcome with a grim feeling of sadness. Our cruise was over and we were back at the Miami port where the journey began. We packed up, tipped our room attendants and made our way to the lower levels. We called for a cab that took us to our parking spot, loaded our bags and drove back home a little sad, a little tired but nonetheless content.
They say the ocean has a mystical charm that you fall in love with as it cradles you and brings composed emotions that feel harmonious deep within. Very true indeed, as there is this yearning feeling, that of leaving your lover behind as she beckons you to come back into her arms for just one more time. Soon, very soon we will be in her arms to be cradled and put to sleep with the lullaby of her waves, only on a different voyage………