Things to do before you cruise

By Lew Toulmin

 (First of two parts)

ITN subscriber Cynthia Rignanese of Lake Wales, Florida, wrote a useful piece on “what to do within the first few hours of boarding any cruise ship(Dec. ’12, pg. 12). While her recommendations are helpful, I feel that many of her suggestions should be done, in fact, before you cruise in order to maximize your enjoyment. 

I will discuss these this month and next, drawing on my cruising experience and on discussions I had with Laurie Martz, President of Travel & Tours Unlimited (Box 354, Westminster, MD 21158; 800/795-5399 or 410/876-6123) and a CLIA (Cruise Line International Association) Master Cruise Counsellor.

Specialty restaurants

Most cruise ships now have one to four specialty restaurants with high-end food and service, and they charge passengers an extra $25 to $35 per person to have dinner in each. Usually, it’s worth the price. These restaurants are, of course, operated in addition to the normal food service, in the main dining room or buffet, that is included in the fare. 

Ms. Rignanese suggested booking your table in any of these specialty restaurants shortly after arriving on board. In fact, on almost all major lines, it now is possible to book these tables well in advance of boarding by using the line’s website or calling the company’s “cruise enhancement phone line” or via your travel agent. 

According to Laurie Martz, “many specialty restaurants are now so popular that they book up before the ship sails, especially for the times that are most desirable. You can usually make bookings for specialty restaurants and other experiences — like on-board ice-skating shows, Broadway-style shows and Cirque du Soleil-type shows — as soon as you have paid your cruise deposit or, sometimes, your final payment.” 

She also noted, “Special occasions like birthdays and anniversaries should be registered in advance of cruising. Most lines will give you a free cake, and, of course, the waiters will come out and sing ‘Happy Birthday’ for you. And your travel agent may be able to get you a small gift or a voucher for a purchase. However, Carnival Cruise Lines is now charging $10 for a small cake and $16 for a large one, so this may be a trend to watch out for.”

Dining room times and tables

Ms. Rignanese suggested seeing the main dining room maître d’ in the afternoon before your first dinner on board in order to secure a table at the time you want. In my experience, you would be well advised to book your table before the cruise. Many cruises have two sittings for dinner, at about 6 or 6:30 p.m. and at about 8 or 8:30, and the earlier time (which I like) often books up faster. 

I also suggest specifying the size of table you want. I always cruise with my wife, Susan, and we don’t like being stuck at a 4-person table for an entire cruise, listening to repeated stories. We prefer a round table seating six, eight or ten so we can meet various people and so we don’t feel guilty if we disappear to one of the specialty restaurants or the Captain’s table for one or more nights of the cruise. 

Your seating preference can be registered with a cruise line representative via a phone call or on the planning website of the cruise line or via your travel agent.

I do advise going to the maître d’ immediately upon boarding to make sure your preferences have been correctly preregistered. Make him your friend, in case your table is problematic and you want to move urgently. (No tip is necessary; just ask him to remember your name. Also, if you have cruised with that line before, tell him so.) 

Next month I will cover shore excursions, special classes, phone/Internet access and ship’s library books. Happy cruising!