Cruise vacations have a lot more in common with land vacations than you might expect. Most of the newer ships are like floating resorts, with deck after deck of lounges, bars, nightclubs, theaters, restaurants, pools, spas, sports facilities, computer rooms -- you name it, there's a cruise ship that has it. Yes, rock-climbing walls, putting greens, even an ice-skating rink. But the daily rhythms aboard a cruise ship can be a little different, and there are some aspects of life at sea that are unlike any land vacation you've ever taken. Knowing about some of these in advance can greatly enhance your experience.
Before the trip
1. Pack light, and bring soft-sided or collapsible luggage. There is very limited storage space in most cabins, and you'll be sorry if you have to share floor space with your suitcases. Be sure to pack necessary toiletries -- especially plenty of sunscreen, personal lubricant, condoms, sea-sickness pills, etc. All of these items are available on board, but the selection is limited and the prices are high, as are other necessities such as film and batteries.
2. If you have medications that need refrigeration, ask about the availability of a refrigerator in your room, or bring a small cooler with you -- there is plenty of ice on board.
3. You will likely read some very strict warnings about bringing or using illegal drugs aboard ship. That said, people do it. You likely won't be searched getting on the ship (although luggage is x-rayed), but you can be put off the ship if you're caught using drugs. Your cabin is also subject to search by customs officials at any port. This has happened, and passengers have been fined. Finally, there is always a chance you will be searched by U.S. Customs disembarking a ship at a U.S. port. Don't ever risk taking drugs back into the United States with you.
Ships usually board between noon and 4 p.m. on the day of departure. Many passengers arrive early to take care of the details you'll read about below ("Settling In"). But if you don't want to wait in a long line to check in, you should arrive shortly after halfway through the boarding.
Pack anything vital (medicines, cameras, wallet) in your carry-on luggage, as well as anything that might make your first few hours more comfortable, such as shorts or a sweatshirt, depending on the weather. Your tagged luggage may take an hour or so to be delivered to your cabin (longer if you don't tag it correctly!).
There are a few details you should take care of as soon as you get on board: Signing and Dining are the most important, beauty salon reservations are third. On most ships, you pay for all of your onboard purchases with a special charge card that needs to be activated by the presentation of a credit card. (Cash and traveler's check payments are also possible, but more of a hassle.) As soon as this is done, you can get yourself a cocktail, then head to the dining room for your seating assignment. Beauty treatment appointments book up quickly as well, and if you want to schedule a massage, haircut, or manicure, do it now. You can always try to change it later.
Part One | Part Two | Part Three