Things to do before you cruise

By Lew Toulmin
This item appears on page 58 of the August 2013 issue.

(Second of two parts)

In this 2-part series, I am adding to the suggestions made by ITN subscriber Cynthia Rignanese regarding what to do within the first few hours of boarding a cruise ship (Dec. ’12, pg. 12). In my view, many of these things are better done before embarking. This month I will cover shore excursions, special classes, phone/Internet access and ship’s library books. 

Shore excursions

Ms. Rignanese advised booking any shore excursions with the purser in your first few hours on board. In fact, popular excursions often book up before the ship sails, especially the cheap ones that offer good value (my favorites), hence prebooking before sailing is wise. 

Read the brochure description carefully and avoid cheap tours that are just walks around downtown, ending in a shop. You can do that on your own. However, a reasonably priced tour of several hard-to-reach attractions may be worthwhile. 

Don’t hesitate to call the cruise line to ask for advice, since they may steer you away from tours that have gotten poor reviews. Have a look at online resources like Cruise Critic; use the “Search Cruise Critic” box to find your particular excursion, such as “Curacao cave excursion.” 

Even better, talk to a friend or an experienced travel agent who has been on the actual excursions you are contemplating and can match you up with the right outing. 

Laurie Martz, a CLIA Master Cruise Counsellor and President of Travel & Tours Unlimited (Box 354, Westminster, MD 21158; 800/795-5399 or 410/876-6123) notes, “First-time cruisers may want to use ship excursions exclusively, until they get the feel of what is on offer. 

“Shore-excursion bookings usually open up four to six months before sailing. If you book a tour independently over the Internet, you may have problems if the ship arrives late or changes its schedule. 

“Importantly, if you are on a ship’s tour, the ship will wait for you if you are late returning. But if you are on your own private tour, you are, in fact, ‘on your own’!

“Also, I have found helicopter tours being sold on the dock by local operators even on days when the ship has canceled such tours due to poor flying conditions.”


Most onboard classes (cooking, computers, dance, handicrafts, etc.) can be booked in advance, and booking them in advance is advisable. 

Oddly, some classes on some lines cannot be prebooked or are not even announced in the ship’s daily program! We observed this on a recent Holland America Line trip through the Caribbean, where the very popular computer classes were not announced or bookable and we had to arrive 20 to 30 minutes in advance and stand in line (annoying but worth it). 

Laurie Martz stated, “A very popular class these days is Celebrity Cruises’ ‘i-Lounge,’ put on by Apple Computers. This is the only Apple store afloat, and lots of passengers thinking about buying Apple products sign up in advance to give the items a trial run.” 

Internet and phone access

I agree with Ms. Rignanese that Internet and phone costs on most ships are ridiculously high, and so I avoid using those facilities. She recommended making all your calls and Internet searches at the dock just before the ship sailed away from shore. I just ask crew members for their recommendations of cheap Internet cafés, WiFi spots and phone access in each port and take their advice. 

In general, developing countries will have lots of Internet cafés, so you can leave your laptop at home if your ship goes to those locations. 

Library books

I also agree with Ms. Rignanese that many of the best books in the ship’s library disappear in the first few hours. My wife, Susan (who worked at the Library of Congress for over 33 years), and I do raid the library immediately upon boarding. 

There is a way to avoid this hassle, though, and, again, it involves preparing ahead of time. Get one of those book readers, like a Kindle, Nook, Sony Reader or similar, and load it up before the cruise with all the books you have been wanting to read. 

As an ex Boy Scout and Sea Scout, I know that “Be Prepared” is a great motto. In cruising, this motto should be “Be Prepared and Prebooked!”