Our family just returned from a wonderful 5-day Cruise to the Bahamas. It took some planning and lots of decisions to get it just how we wanted it. I am going to share a few tips which helped us decide what cruise was best for us and how we prepared.
Even though we just returned from our fifth cruise, and we have traveled literally all over the world – I have to admit I was a bit anxious when it came to planning this trip. There are so many options in the cruise world now. The previous four cruises my hubby and I have been on were just the two of us, or with a few family members. My son was 16 when we took him on his first cruise. This cruise would be entirely different. We were taking our three grandbabies.
(yes – my Tween was happy to be there but not happy that Grammy was making him take pictures) 😀
Taking three children, in itself, may not sound daunting. I mean, parents take their children on vacations all the time right? We have taken lots of trips and vacations with them, but never taken a trip out of the country like this. So – me being a detail person to the extreme – I started planning. And planning. And planning.
1.) How to Choose a Cruise Line
(photo used with permission by fellow cruiser, J. Burns)
We have been on Norwegian and Carnival Cruises, so this time we considered trying Royal Caribbean. I started shopping around on all of the cruise websites to find a time frame we were interested in, and a budget we could stay within. I created a little spreadsheet to track all of the cruises we were interested in.
That doesn’t sound too complicated, right? Well, it proved to be a bit more time consuming than I thought. I had to consider:
a.) Would we fly to the port? If so, that would be a major addition to the budget to consider.
b.) Would we drive to the port? If so, how far and how many hours did we want to be in the car traveling?
First things first, me and the hubby decided on a solid date based upon other things we had going on in our life and other commitments. That decision alone helped eliminate many cruises, and even a few cruise lines from the list based on availability. Then, it was a matter of budget and port of call. We decided we only wanted an 8-hour drive or less. So that eliminated a few more ports. From that point, only a few cruises were available for us to choose, so it was then deciding on a 3-4 day, a 5-6 day or a 7-10 day cruise.
2.) How Long Should You Cruise
(photo used with permission by fellow cruiser, J. Burns)
This is a decision that only you and your cruise partners can make, but here are my thoughts. (I mean, you’re here for my thoughts on cruising, right?) 🙂 We have gone on 5-6 day cruises and 7-10 day cruises. I don’t think the shorter 3-day trips can give you enough time to really enjoy the cruise experience. I know for me, it takes me a full day and a half to get my sea legs and learn the layout of the ship. We have been on 7-day cruises, and I won’t lie – for me personally this length of time starts to drag out a bit and I find myself longing for some solid ground by Day 6. (maybe that’s just me.) For us, 5-6 day cruises are perfect because it gives you at least two ports of call and two full days at sea. It is required to cruise longer, of course, if you are desiring to go to certain ports of calls like Aruba, etc. Because the children had never cruised before and I was not 100% sure how they would react, we decided on a 5-day Cruise to Bahamas. Carnival offered a 5-day cruise leaving Jacksonville, Florida – an easy 7 hour drive, within our budget, so we booked.
Note: I highly recommend cruise insurance. Most cruise lines offer their own cruise insurance, but we generally choose to get our own cruise policy which covers us a bit more. It’s entirely up to you and I encourage you to shop around and compare policies – but please do not risk such a huge purchase. My 83-yr old mama was supposed to go and had booked her cruise and two weeks before we left became ill. She had insurance which will reimburse her.
3.) You’re Booked, Now What?
Depending on where you are cruising to will depend on if you need a passport (or in the case of Cuba, possibly a Visa) – or you if you’re going to the Bahamas you can get by with an official birth certificate and picture ID. Both my hubby and I have passports, but the grandbabies do not. So we made sure they had proper birth certificates (not copies). In our case, we also had to have a Consent to Cruise signed and notarized by their parents since we were taking them out of the country. Yes, Carnival and Customs did ask to see this! Make sure before you book your cruise, if a passport is definitely required – that you allow yourself plenty of time to apply for and receive it back in the mail. This process can take as long as 6-weeks or more depending on back-up at the State Department.
Now that you have been given a Cruise Account, spend some time online looking at all the info the cruise website offers. They have tons of tips and good info. You can see a layout of the ship. I printed it off and studied it in my spare time. This really helped me out once we were aboard. You can also go ahead and purchase your optional drink packages. We do not purchase the adult beverage packages. At $600 for the two of us, we just feel we will not “drink” our money’s worth, but this is a personal choice. Drinks average about $10 each. Instead, we put a set amount onto our online Cruise Account. Carnival allows you to take a 12-pack of can soda on board and a 750-ml bottle of wine per passenger. We took full advantage. I chose my LaCroix water and just grabbed a can whenever we went pool-side and filled my water bottle with ice.
You can also pre-register each guest and download important documents in advance, and several days before you depart you can do an online check-in and print your boarding passes. The website is a wealth of info so use it to your advantage.
Now, it’s also time for some more major decisions….
4.) Excursions and Add-Ons
(photo used with permission by Michael Paul, fellow cruiser)
Now that you’re booked, you need to decide what excursions off the ship you will take. These need to be booked in advanced as many often sell out early. To do this, you may want to spend a good bit of time doing some research. Here are a few ways to decide what you will do while in a port of call:
a.) What are your likes and dislikes? Do you like beaches? Snorkeling? Nature? Shopping? There is an excursion for everyone. You just need to narrow it down.
b.) What is your budget? Many of these excursions can cost hundreds of dollars. On this past cruise, we looked into going to the Atlantis Resort in Nassau, Bahamas for the day. That excursion alone would have cost us well over $800. I just could not see paying that for a day at the beach. But, many people look at their cruises as either a once in a lifetime event, or they have saved up for a long time and want the full experience. Every situation is different.
c.) Join some Facebook Groups with experienced cruisers. Search within the group page for the port of call you will be going to. Most likely lots of people have already asked the same questions and received some very good answers. You can also create a new thread if you don’t see one. Each cruise line has their own pages, too. Carnival also creates a page for each individual cruise (just search for, for example, Carnival Cruise (name of boat) (date of sailing.) This was fun because the people within this FB group all had something in common.
d.) Trip Advisor: I rely heavily on Trip Advisor for ALL of my trips, whether I am cruising or going to England. The reason I love TA is because the reviews are based upon real traveler’s experiences. You can read all the reviews and get honest feed back from others who have been. You can also look up “Things to Do” and they are rated in order from best to least desired. Same for restaurants.
e.) Once you have decided on your excursions, go ahead and pay for them through your online Cruise Account. Some pay for these excursions with Gift Cards which can be purchased at places like Costco and I think Walmart. I was told you can buy $100 Carnival Gift Cards for $90. Every little bit helps when you are spending thousands of dollars.
Just fyi, we ultimately decided just to spend the first port day in Nassau at one of the free beaches and doing a bit of shopping downtown. We took a taxi and rented an umbrella and chairs for $30 and all you can drink coconut drinks for $20.
(More on Nassau, Bahamas later I promise)
Don’t feel like you have to spend the big bucks on expensive excursions. Yes they are fun and we have done them, but there are always lots of other things which are budget friendly at all ports. One thing I need to stress – always, always use caution. Stay within the touristy areas and go with a friend. Also, the cruise ship posts emergency numbers which you can call should something happen ashore. Keep these numbers handy. If the cruise says everyone must be back aboard by 3pm – heed their word. There are hundreds of stories of people being left behind at the port because they were even 2-3 minutes late. Cruise lines do not make acceptions.
5.) Pre-Order Some Cruise Essentials
*** some links below are Amazon Affiliate links allow me to earn a small amount of money if you purchase any of the items I share. Your price will never change.
Okay, these items are not absolute essentials per say, but I pre-ordered some items which really came in handy. For example, I ordered Heavy Duty Cruise Luggage Tags that would fit the Carnival Luggage Tags.
I have talked to friends who used packing tape to cover their tags and ended up losing their luggage. These cost so little, and we will use these again when we go to Europe because they are so strong and secure. They’re so much better than those paper tags the airlines supply.
I also ordered a make-up bag that could hang. Trust me when I say the bathrooms are quite small and there is very little storage space. (I will share some other tips and items later that you will love me for telling you about.) But, this little black bag was almost magical in how well it performed.
This Hanging Makeup and Toiletries Bag not only held all of my cosmetics and makeup brushes but easily held large size hair products, my essential oils, etc. Game changer!
If you plan on going to the beach, you will want something that keeps your expensive cell phone safe from sand and water. We tested out these Waterproof Phone Cases prior to leaving. They work!
By the way, I took all of my beach pictures with my phone while in this case. I really didn’t want to take pictures with my phone only, but I just couldn’t take my $900 camera and risk getting it stolen or ruined on the beach. Can you believe this image was taken with my iPhone within this case?
Most (or maybe all?) cruise ships no longer accept cash onboard, accept at the casino. When we checked in for our Carnival Cruise, we were issued “Sign and Sail” cards which basically worked as an onboard credit card. This same card also served as our room card and every member of our party had their own. Although you can purchase lanyards onboard, as with everything else, they are expensive – as much as $8-$10 each. I purchased a 10–Pack of Lanyards on Amazon for the price of one sold on the ship. I only needed five for us but I took a few extras along in case the cards were lost. (Hey, I know my kids and I was right.) 🙂
Finally, I ordered these Self Compression Bags.
Actually, I digress – I ordered some of these before I went to England earlier this Summer. (more on that trip later) But, I ordered more for the cruise. I will be posting on “How to Pack for Your Cruise” in a later post, but trust me when I say you will absolutely LOVE these. No vacuum is needed. After you have filled your bags with your clothing you simply roll them tightly and they self compress. These bags allowed me to travel all across England on a 10-day trip with only a carry-on. I ordered extras so I could have enough for all five of us.
I would suggest you go ahead and order some of these products only and put them away for when its time to pack for your cruise.
Later this week – I will share with you one of our stops in the Bahamas – Half Moon Cay. It’s a private island owned by Carnival and it was the highlight of our trip without a doubt. The picture above of Miss C was taken at Half Moon Cay. I can’t wait to share the fun we had. My babies asked was it paradise, and I simply said – “yes.” 🙂