The Early Bird Cruiser Gets the Worm
Whatever time the cruise line tells you to get there for embarkation, get there sooner. As cruise ships refine their onboard operations, standing in line for anything has become less frequent, but you will stand in line to get on the ship. Arriving early may mean that you'll sit around the boarding lounge for a few extra minutes, but it'll pay off because you'll get on board more quickly.
Patience Is a Virtue
Likewise, with disembarkation, you may have to wait because you will probably be coming home through customs, and that often takes a while. Cruise lines will try to make it easier on you by sorting your disembarkation order by numbers, usually arranged according to the time of your airline flight out of the port of entry, but it will take several hours for all the passengers to get off, so don't fret. Find a pleasant place to sit and wait for your number to be called, and take the time to enjoy the memories you have just been making.
Remember You Are on a Ship
On every cruise, there's a few minutes when you will have to stand around feeling foolish, with flotation gear hanging around your neck, and listen to a ship officer tell you about dire emergencies. Lifeboat drills are mandatory and will be enforced. It's better to feel foolish up on deck with a bunch of other people than to feel really stupid when the room steward flushes you out of your stateroom like a naughty child. Anyway, the lifeboat drill offers a good opportunity to make friends.
It Won't Cost You, If You're Careful
A cruise is sold as a package, and that includes all the food you can eat, whenever you want it. But once you're on board, cruise lines make a lot of effort to get you to spend more money. So if you limit your alcohol consumption, don't gamble and keep your shopping costs down, it's possible to stay on budget.
You Don't Have to Take a Tux
Even if the cruise itinerary says there are formal nights, usually "formal" means a business suit is fine. If taking a vacation means you refuse to see a tie or cocktail dress in your closet, there are almost always alternative dining spots that won't require much more than a bathing suit.
You're on Vacation, but They Aren't
Include tipping in your travel budget. Figure on spending at least $10 per day per person for all your tips. On some cruise lines, tipping is the only way your cabin steward or waiter makes any significant money. On others, tipping is described as voluntary, but remember that the wages for the people who wait on you for up to 14 hours a day are still pretty low.
A Stateroom the Size of Texas?
Don't expect spaciousness. It's a ship. Many rooms are not much more than 150 to 185 square feet. Amazing things are done to make the rooms seem bigger, such as the ample use of mirrors, artwork and windows, but most of them are just plain small. Pack accordingly, and plan to be out on deck a lot. It's great up there.
Wal-mart, K-Mart Sell It for Less
Your pre-trip checklist will include several things that you can buy on the ship but will pay more for there. Bring along your binoculars, camera, film, batteries and walking shoes. If you need a hair dryer, bring one; only about half of the ships have hair dryers in the rooms.
Even though your cruise will often be international, you may not need a passport. For many destinations, a birth certificate is all that's required. Check with your travel agent or cruise line.
Who You Gonna Call
Eight of the large cruise companies offer Alaska vacations that include sea voyages through the Inside Passage. We found another six companies offering smaller ship experiences, including a family adventure this July sponsored by the Smithsonian Study Tours aboard the 74-passenger Wilderness Adventurer.