Tips for first ocean cruise

Fred. Olsen's BoudiccaWith so many cruises available, choosing a cruise line and ship can feel overwhelming. At Silver Travel Advisor we work with a number of cruise companies that cater for the 50+ traveller. Our website Forum is a great way to get ideas and recommendations from fellow silver travellers. This article from one of our experts, Alan Fairfax, Choosing your First Cruise is still as current today.

We also offer ship visit days where you can spend a day on a ship viewing the cabins and facilities and dining in the restaurant. Look out for our new schedule for 2020.

Insurance cover

Before you book a cruise, check that you can get suitable travel insurance cover. Annual travel insurance policies might not include cruise cover and require an additional premium for you to be properly covered. The added expense is partly because you’ll be covered for extras such as missed departure, missed port visit, unused excursions and cabin confinement. Additionally, a helicopter evacuation can cost from £20,000 to £50,000; many overseas hospitals charge for treatment and repatriation costs can be high. Don’t forget to check you are covered for any sporting activities planned during excursions.

Visas and vaccinations

Your cruise company should advise if you need any visas for countries visited during the cruise. These can be expensive, especially if you use a third party, and need to be factored into the overall cost of your cruise. For example, I paid a total of £462.00 when I used a recommended agency to obtain visas for India and Sri Lanka for myself and my husband. We were told we had to have the visas even if we did not plan to go ashore.

Seek advice from your GP practice on any vaccinations and malaria protection needed for the countries you’ll be visiting at least 6-8 weeks before you travel. The NHS site Fit for Travel is a good source of information.

Excursions

Cruise companies normally offer a fantastic range of shore excursions planned in conjunction with local providers and tour companies. These take the worry out of planning your own trips, often give you a real taste of the destination, and offer the reassurance that you won’t miss the ship if things go wrong. The ship may set sail if passengers on independent trips fail to return on time but it will wait if for some reason a coach on an organised excursion is delayed. Popular excursions can sell out early so book before you travel to avoid disappointment. Excursion brochures typically describe the amount and nature of walking and other activities involved in each tour to help guests assess their suitability for people with limited mobility. If in doubt, check with your cruise line before booking.

John getting off boatYou can of course plan your own visits ashore, booking local taxis or tuk tuks or simply walking around the port town or city. Many cruise lines provide simple maps showing the main sites and the ship’s mooring location at each port. If you’re not travelling with a set of travel guides, it’s worth printing off a map for each port as you might not be able to get a signal if you plan to rely on Google Maps on your phone.

Check the itinerary to see if the boat sets anchor off shore as you’ll need to wait your turn on board ship to catch the tender to ferry you to the harbour. Passengers with pre-booked excursions and coaches to catch usually take priority at the start of the day.

You will be given ID to use when getting off and returning to the ship so make sure you have a safe and accessible place to store this. As most cruise ships are now cashless, your ID may be a key card that also swipes you into your cabin and lets you pay for onboard purchases.

Clothing/packing

When choosing what clothes to pack, check with your cruise company if there’s a dress code for on-board dining and/or for the places you plan to visit. Formal dining such as the Captain’s Dinner, normally requires at least a dinner jacket, tie, long trousers and smart shoes for men and an evening dress for women. If there are less formal restaurants on board you might be able to dine there instead on formal nights if you don’t want to carry the extra weight of smart gear.

Boudicca formal dinnerSome countries require visitors to dress conservatively, not only when visiting temples or places of worship but also walking round the town or even on the beach. Pack some long, loose shorts or trousers, or a long skirt and t-shirts with shirt or long-sleeved tops. I also found it handy to keep a sarong and long-sleeved shirt in my backpack at all times along with a micro towel to be able to cover up and to dry off after swimming.

Obviously for cruises in colder climates pack plenty of layers, gloves, hat, scarf and waterproof boots. For excursions in extreme cold weather, some cruise companies will supply specialist outerwear.

A backpack is useful to take on excursions as it leaves your hands free for clambering on and off the ship and in and out of coaches/tuk tuks. Also, as Cruise ships usually ask you to leave your case outside your room the night before departure, you can use it as an overnight bag to keep with you until you’re reunited with your suitcase.  This is especially useful to store a change of clothes if you have a late flight the next day and want to spend your last day on board ship sunbathing or swimming.

In warm climates an insulated/reusable container that you fill with cold water before each excursion is more environmentally friendly than using plastic bottles offered by tour operators. It is also an essential item if entering places like Port Blair in the Andaman Islands that now ban visitors from bringing plastic bottles on shore.

Ship time and time keeping

If you’re traveling through different time zones, be aware that the ship’s time might be different from the time shown on your phone or watch – especially if you have one that automatically updates. The captain decides when clocks will be adjusted so read the ship’s newsletter to keep abreast of when times change.

John's watchHaving a watch that is simple to adjust is absolutely essential. This makes it easy to ensure you match with the ship’s time, return to the ship on time if you go on shore, and meet up with your excursion tour leaders on time should they give you free time to explore an area on your own. Some digital displays on fitness watches and smart phones are very hard to read in bright sunshine (as I discovered to my alarm on a sunny beach in The Seychelles that I visited without my John and his traditional watch) so I recommend taking a simple analogue watch with a traditional clock face.

Tipping policy

Policies vary with some cruise lines including tips in the overall price and others adding an overall mandatory service charge per person to your on board account. Some cruise lines provide envelopes at the end of the cruise that guests can use to put cash inside to hand to their waiter and cabin steward – the two people that customarily receive tips.

Currencies

If you decide to buy currency for each destination before you travel, make sure you purchase in good time as some less common currencies need to be ordered in advance. Your ship may offer a money change facility but in our case we could only buy dollars or euros. Whilst both currencies were generally accepted in the countries we visited, there were some highly dubious exchange rates offered by shop keepers and market traders.

Communication on board

Read your cruise line’s daily newsletter and listen to the ship announcements to keep up to date with vital information such as time changes, tour departure times and meeting points; on board shop opening times, special offers and the daily program of activities.

Dining

Boudicca Four Season Restaurant

On larger cruise ships you’ll normally find a choice of formal and informal restaurants. On smaller ships there may be a choice of two sittings to accommodate everybody in the evenings. You might be able to reserve a table each night for two or more, or there may be free dining. Some ships reserve one or more tables where solo travellers can join other solo travellers. All-inclusive drinks package can prove good value if you enjoy wine and/or beers with your meals.

Entertainment and activities

On larger ships a newsletter outlines the daily program, such as lectures about the next port. On our first cruise we were offered a lecture on Heroic Shipwrecks! On sail days you may also have a programme of classes such as art and crafts, dancing, card games, singing and other musical activities as well as physical activities such as yoga and pilates.

In the evening, you will soon find your preferred area to relax before and after your meal, be it an intimate lounge area with a pianist, a bar with singers, or a larger lounge/auditorium with stage offering shows, comedy acts and magicians. The larger the ship the greater the choice.

Complaints and feedback

If you have problem or complaint, seek a solution whilst on board rather than leave things to fester and then complain on the final day or by leaving a negative review. One of our excursions to a new destination that was relatively unknown to tourists proved somewhat shambolic. On our return to the ship, several of us politely expressed our concerns in detail to the ship’s customer services. We were given a partial refund but our main concern was to ensure the island’s tour organisers learnt from our constructive feedback. We had had the honour of being their first cruise ship to visit so we were keen for them to improve the quality and safety of further excursions.

Sustainability

Many silver travellers are keen to reduce their carbon footprint so it’s worth checking your cruise line’s approach to sustainability and its commitment to reducing its environmental impact. Simple acts like using refillable dispensers for soap and shampoo in the cabin bathrooms and only changing towels when left on the floor; banning the use of plastic straws and individual plastic butter and jam portions; providing wooden pencils in cabins instead of plastic pens; and using natural ropes instead of plastic ropes, all help. Also, having water stations dispensing free chilled water and selling or giving away reusable bottles on board ship allow guests to take cold water with them on deck and on shore excursions, saving the use of numerous plastic bottles of water on board and at each port.

Carole and John travelled with Fred.Olsen from the Seychelles to the Andaman Islands on their first ocean cruise. You can read Carole’s article here.

To learn more about cruises with our recommended partners, visit Find a Holiday/Cruise on our website.


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