Cruising the Caribbean

Cruising – a classic way to experience the Caribbean

As a travel option, cruising continues to grow worldwide, with the Caribbean accounting for almost half of the total industry passenger count. Most Caribbean islands rely heavily on tourism and their warm, calm and crystal-clear waters attract around 2 million visitors annually from around the globe. Officially, the Caribbean consists of over 700 islands, islets, reefs and cays; only around 150 are permanently inhabited.

Tripadvisor and other online travel forums can tell you a lot about what previous passengers have experienced on a particular cruise line.

There are over two dozen major cruise lines in the Caribbean, plus lots of smaller operations as well. Working out your itinerary is as simple as going onto their websites, seeing what stops they offer and reading the fine print about what’s included in the fare. Popular cruise lines include Princess Cruises, Holland American Line, Carnival Cruise Lines, Disney Cruise Line, Celebrity Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, and Royal Caribbean.

It’s worth shopping around because each cruise line is a little bit different: Some are better for families, some have attractive rates for solo travellers and some visit islands that others don’t reach. Tripadvisor and other online travel forums can tell you a lot about what previous passengers have experienced on a particular line. You can either book directly with cruise lines or go through a travel agent. Some Australian travel consultants specialise in cruise travel, in the Caribbean and elsewhere around the world.

Making the most of shore excursions

In the Caribbean, each port of call offers a unique experience. In Martinique, you can shop for luxury French goods and visit a rum distillery. At Ocho Rios in Jamaica, you can climb up a 183-metre waterfall that empties into a pool near the beach. On Grand Cayman, you can hand-feed squid to people-friendly stingrays. On Roatan, you can divide your time between monkey-spotting in the lush jungle, snorkelling in the transparent waters and lying on the beach.

Cruise lines offer their own shore excursion tours, but in some ports you may prefer to do your own thing. A little prior research should give you a good indication of which ship-sponsored tours are worth the money and which can be given a miss.

What to pack

Because everyone boards a cruise ship en masse, it’s not like arriving at a hotel; your luggage might not make it to your room for hours. Always make sure your carry-on has enough in it to get you through that first afternoon. Pack a change of clothing, swim suits, toiletries, any medications and whatever the kids need if they’re cruising with you. Cruise lines all have their own dress codes, especially for evening wear, so check these before leaving home.

Ships typically provide laundry facilities on board. You’ll probably need electrical adapters for onboard power plugs and you should also pack an alarm clock. Check the cruise line’s policies on bringing alcohol on board – there will be restrictions.

Useful items to bring along include a nightlight, plastic bags for storing sunscreen and wet swimwear, an extension cord and clothes pegs (for keeping porthole curtains closed against the morning sunshine). To make sure you don’t forget anything, create your ultimate travel packing list. Look after your passport and vital documents while on board, and keep photocopies separate from the originals.

Life on board

If you’re trying to diet, a cruise ship presents significant challenges – the food is delicious, plentiful and readily available. Larger ships boast a main dining room (often with assigned seating) as well as additional food outlets (snack bars, pizza parlours, specialty restaurants and room service). Most special dietary needs can be catered for on major Caribbean cruise lines, but it pays to check first.

Larger ships tend to be quite stable, but if you’re prone to seasickness remember to bring your favourite remedy with you.

Cruise ships normally have at least one doctor and nurse on board, but be aware that visiting them can be expensive. They can also dispense common medications – though you may find it cheaper to buy these in port. Larger ships tend to be quite stable, but if you’re prone to seasickness remember to bring your favourite remedy with you.

It’s important to understand what is included in your cruise fare and what costs extra. You’ll normally have to dig into your pocket to pay for shore excursions organised by the vessel, alcoholic beverages, spa services and gift shop purchases, for example. US dollars are accepted throughout most of the Caribbean and your ship will likely have an onboard teller machine. This part of the world runs on tourism, so you’ll have no problems using your credit cards either.

Tipping policies vary from one cruise line to the next, so check if gratuities are automatically added to your account before you finish your cruise, are included in the fare or are charged on a daily basis. Read your line’s policy carefully so you know how the gratuity system works – this prevents unpleasant surprises later.

Typically, you’ll get an itemised bill for all your expenditures the night before your cruise finishes. Pay your bill early to avoid standing in long queues on disembarkation day.

Any time you leave Australia on an overseas trip (cruising or not), you should let your credit card company know about your planned itinerary. If your card provider suddenly sees a $1400 bracelet purchase from a shop in Kingston, Jamaica and thinks you’re still at home in Wagga Wagga, they might cancel your card on the spot. When you’re abroad, sorting out misunderstandings with your card company can be a hassle.

Getting there

Most Caribbean cruises depart from Miami, Fort Lauderdale or other Florida ports. Others leave from Bridgetown (Barbados), San Juan (Puerto Rico), Montego Bay (Jamaica) or Havana (Cuba). For Australians, it’s simplest to fly to Miami via Los Angeles or another US flight hub and hop on the cruise ship from there.

The peak Caribbean cruising season runs from Christmas to just after Easter. This offers better weather (less humidity) but higher prices and busier ports. If you prefer a quieter time of year and don’t mind wetter, stickier weather, the off season will help your dollars stretch further.

Cruise ships are designed to cater to your every need and some are like floating cities – the Norwegian Escape, for example, sleeps 4,250 guests! Don’t forget that no matter how luxurious your holiday might be, you still need protection from the unexpected. For affordable cruise travel insurance for the Caribbean, make sure you contact the insurance specialists at Budget Direct!

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