Earlier this year, I was blessed with being invited to a wedding in the beautiful Bahamas. Well, I say blessed, but since the bride was my sister, it would have been pretty awkward if I didn’t get a invite. There would be a cruise aboard a luxury ship, events for all, and a beautiful ceremony in the islands to top things off. Everything was neatly planned out as far as accommodations on board, and the main event itself were concerned. However, getting there with family in hand was another story. Since this was the first time my wife or I had done anything like this, we learned many lessons, most the hard way. In the end though, we had a fantastic time full of fun, laughs, and memories that would last a lifetime. I thought I would share what we learned in hopes that those of you reading that may be thinking of taking a similar trip may have an easier time at it.
Our first objective seemed easy enough: Pack for three days (the length of the trip). The cruise was your basic three-day stint aboard a Royal Caribbean ship. We had two suitcases (one full size, one ¾ size), two carry-ons, and a diaper bag. One issue we ran into was packing for the season. You see, the trip was in January, taking off from Florida, and playing around in the tropic Bahamas, before returning. Our problem was that we lived in Virginia. Cold, snowy, wet, Virginia; meaning we had to pack for winter and summer. So therein lays my first tip: pack properly for the season. The thing to remember is that the Bahamas are on the equator, so they are always at a lovely 70 degrees or so. Packing for where you currently are could make your stay at your destination a nightmare. Luckily, we planned for this and threw in some summer wear, even though we felt like fools doing so when the temperature outside was in the teens. Another point of note is the month of the trip: January. For most industries that deal with vacations and tourist revenue, winter months like this are considered the off-season.
I know the smart thing to do is to go tropic when the winter comes, but aside from those with the income to do so every year, who really does that? Very few, it would seem. Instead, most people prefer to go on trips when the weather is more agreeable (i.e. spring break or summer vacation). The point is that if you have the chance to decide when you take your trip, take it when it others will not, the off-season. Next, make sure that when you are packing, you leave yourself some room. You are only allowed so many bags with you, and there is so much that you may want to buy while you’re gone. Additional bags equal additional fees down the road; keep room in your original bags so you can avoid paying needlessly. Finally, and this should go without saying, pay early! To get to our destination, we decided to take a Amtrak train from Richmond, Virginia to Orlando, Florida. By paying for our tickets three months early, we saved over $300!
As I said earlier, we decided to make the trip to Florida by train. Having a one year old with us we decided that it would be dicey to take him on a plane, and a 10+ hour car trip was completely out of the question; letting someone else do the driving, avoiding traffic and gas prices, and being able to move freely to keep the baby entertained was a no-brainer. One lesson learned on the train was to bring plenty of snacks! Sure, trains like Amtrak have snack and diner cars, but the prices are not exactly bargain friendly. They are your only hope for food until you get where you are going, and they know it. So be sure to bring plenty to eat in your carry-ons (real luggage will not be accessible till you get off).
My next tip: entertainment. As great as train travel is, unless you’re the type to be entertained by looking at the back of another chair, watching people walk the aisles, or trying to make out images in the dark through the window, you’re going get very bored very quickly; to say nothing of any children you happen to have with you. Laptops, Tablets, smartphones, books, and toys are a must have. Wi-Fi was almost non-existent on the train we took, but I hear they are getting better. Just remember that if you have kids, keep them occupied first and foremost. We made the mistake of leaving our kid’s pacifier behind (the one he uses to go to sleep), and spent the rest of the trip trying to replace it. Another tip is your seat location on the train. Unlike airplanes and such, you do not choose where you sit unless you sprang to have your own cabin or something. Instead, the attendants seated you based on the number of people in your party and seats available. While the seats are surprisingly roomy (this coming from a guy that is 6’1”) try to get one of the handicap seats if they are not being used. Every car has eight designated seats for the handicap, four on each end. If you can, ask for the two away from the restroom, there is more than enough room to navigate and store items; also, kids can play without disturbing the other passengers. Just be aware that you may have to move if someone actually needs them. Finally, when we got to Orlando, we made the costly mistake of grabbing a taxi to get to the port instead of looking for a shuttle. Most transit stations usually have shuttles that will take you where you need to go, its guaranteed business for them to work with the stations rather than freelance. Since we were short on time, we grabbed a cab; the one-hour trip to the docks cost us nearly $180! When we returned from the cruise, we found a ride back to the train station on a shuttle bus that only costs $40.
Checking in to board the ship was no different from checking in at an airport, and just as frustrating. Like an airport, you will have to be scanned, put all your belongings on an x-ray conveyer belt, check your large luggage, and so on. The main difference here is that passports were involved. Strangely enough, there were plenty of people being turned away from discrepancies with their paperwork. I could not imagine coming so far, only to be told something was wrong at the end. Make sure you have valid identification, passports, and any other paperwork you may need in hand while you go to get your boarding passes. Cruise ships are held to strict schedules, and have no problems leaving people behind to meet them. Therefore, aside from that, the main tip here would be to arrive early and be prepared. Visit the cruise liner’s website to be sure you have everything in hand upon arrival.
The final lessons learned where on the ship itself. First, when we got to our room, we had a mini fridge stocked with water and soda. After paying $1,000 a person (and yes that includes our 1yr old), I figured that they had to be complimentary. The bill at the end o the trip would tell me how wrong I was. Nothing consumable in the room is free, so along with the snacks you already have, be sure you have some kind of refreshments; bottled water is recommended. Speaking of water, while you are on the open sea, you will begin to realize how precious water is. Aside from the restaurants, everyone charges for it, and it can be pretty expensive by normal standards. The ship had a soda package that was offered on the first day that I really wished we had jumped on. Essentially, the deal is that for about $20 per person, you get a micro-chipped cup that can be used to refill at the soda fountains located all around the ship. The fountains will not work without the microchip, period. Now at the time, I thought that it was some kind of swindle, and did not go for it, but by the end of the trip, I was kicking myself. Having to constantly go to the restaurants to refill bottles and take them back to the room got old fast.
Next, there is a safety briefing. After reaching your rooms and before leaving port, all the passengers will have to meet outside near the lifeboats to go over emergency procedures. The problem here is that this process can take forever, especially because the crew has to check all the rooms to make sure everyone attends. This can be a real problem out in the blazing sun if you do not have any protection. We thought this would be over and done within 5-10 minutes, but in fact we were standing in the unprotected heat for 45 sweltering minutes! So, when you are called for the briefing, bring a hat, some water, and some comfortable shoes; you will be on your feet the entire time. Finally, be courteous to whoever is taking care of your room. The rooms are assigned to specific staff members for cleaning, questions, and retrieving items like soap, towels, and ice (yes, they have to get the ice for you). Our staff member practically bent over backwards for us, and ensured we were taken care of the entire time. Of course, we heard horror stories to the opposite as well, but listening to the people telling the stories it was easy to see why anyone would treat them that way. Bottom line: treat the staff with respect and you’ll get it in return. They deal with tourist all day everyday that thinks they are above everyone else because they paid to be there; this is not the case.
Therefore, in conclusion, the trip was amazing, we learned a lot, and had tons of fun. Let me reiterate once more in case you skipped to the bottom:
- Pack properly for the season. Where you are and where you are going.
- Plan your trip in the off-season. There are less people of whom which to contend. There are more seniors, and fewer teenagers.
- Leave room in your luggage. You may want to bring something back.
- Buy your tickets well in advance. This could save you hundreds.
- Bring plenty of snacks and beverages. Food en route is overpriced and usually not worth it.
- Be able to entertain yourself and those with you. Keep the kids in mind, especially for long trips.
- If seats are not being used, try to get them. Do not forget that you may have to move later.
- Always see if there is a shuttle to your destination. Use a taxi as a last resort.
- Arrive early! Boarding a ship is like boarding an airplane.
- Be sure to have all your materials in hand. Check websites for a list of items you will need to board, and things you cannot take with you.
- Complementary items are anything but complementary! Know what is free and what is not.
- Research deals offered by the cruise before you blow them off. You might find them helpful.
- Be prepared to stand around before the trip gets started. Bring protection and water.
- Respect the staff!
I hope you found this article helpful. Remember to enjoy yourself above all else, and have fun!