To celebrate 50 years of togetherness, my in-laws took us on an exciting 3-week holiday that included an 8-Night Western Mediterranean cruise – a first for me, my husband, and our three boys.

So if you’re thinking of going on an ocean voyage soon, here are a few things that might help make the most out of your experience.

1. Choose the type of cruise and cruise company that best match your style or purpose of travel. Are you traveling alone? As a couple? As a family with young children? Or in a group with other adults? Different cruise companies cater to different markets (and budgets), so your experience will be shaped greatly by how their services and facilities meet your expectations.
For instance, if going on a cruise to get some alone time as a couple, it’s probably best to avoid cruises that are highly popular among families, specially those with young children. Otherwise, finding that romantic “I’m the king of the world!” moment might prove to be tough.

2. Consider what you want to do before and after the cruise. Do you plan to board the ship immediately upon arrival in the city where the cruise starts? And connect to a flight back home immediately after your cruise ends? Or do you plan to stay a few days before and/or after the cruise?

3. Consider an open jaw itinerary to broaden your trip. Most cruise itineraries begin and end in the same city. One advantage of this is that you will most likely be needing a straightforward roundtrip air ticket as well (i.e. Manila-Barcelona/Barcelona-Manila), which translates to a cheaper airfare than a ticket involving multiple cities.
However, if you begin and end in two different cities, it inherently broadens your options. For instance, we chose an itinerary that began in Barcelona, where we spent a few days before the cruise, and ended in Venice, where we picked up a van to explore Bavaria and the German and Austrian Alps before returning the car in Venice and flying back to Manila.

4. Choose your cabin wisely. If traveling on a budget, I’m all for getting the cheapest interior windowless 2- to 4-passenger cabins since the idea is for you to get out of the ship and explore all day anyway.

The upper portions of the left and right walls of this cabin drop down to reveal 2 bunk beds, converting it to a quadruple room. Photo credit: Royal Caribbean International

However, splurging a little on a cabin (with at least a porthole to get even a tiny glimpse of the sky or the ocean) can mean a world of difference:

  •  if you’re claustrophobic (even just slightly)
  • in the off chance you’ll find yourself sick and needing to rest inside your cabin
  • on days when you’re at sea and won’t be docking anywhere
  • if traveling lightly isn’t your thing
  • if you plain just need a whole lot of personal space

Another thing to watch out for is the location of the cabin in relation to the dining facilities, kitchen, entertainment facilities, the elevators, or the engine room, which could be a problem if you’re a light sleeper.

5. Docked or Tendered? We didn’t care to check what these terms truly meant until we learned the hard way. “Docked” means the ship is parked on the pier and you disembark directly on this pier. “Tendered”, however, means that the ship stops at a distance from the pier, then passengers would have to be brought to shore on smaller boats.
We seemed to have missed the memo on this, so we weren’t aware that we had to take a number early that morning – the number that’s meant to be the order in which we were to board the smaller boats that would take us to shore. Luckily, we had not booked any local tours on our own for that day, but we still lost precious time in an already tight albeit self-imposed schedule. Those who signed up for tours arranged by the ship (at an additional cost not included in your fare) were, of course, given priority to get to shore first.

6. Avoid taking the tours offered by the ship if you can. They tend to be overpriced. But this means you’d have to be willing to do a bit of homework and make a few arrangements of your own prior to your trip.
Check which ports your ship will be docked (or tendered) and find out how easy or hard it is to find transport from there, either to join a pre-arranged bus tour or to meet up with a local guide. If all this sounds too complicated and you really wouldn’t mind booking a tour with the ship, by all means go ahead. Go with what you’re more comfortable with.

Surprising discoveries on our cruise: dramatic Kotor, Montenegro (above) and
Split, Croatia where visitors (above) can enjoy listening to traditional Dalmatian Klapa singing in the vestibule of Diocletian’s Palace or enjoy a pleasant stroll along the town’s waterfront promenade, the Riva (below).
Photo credit: Tourist Board of Split

7. Not all ports of call are close to a major city center, are interesting, or easily accessible by public transport. Take for instance Livorno, one of two ports used for passengers to get to Florence or Pisa. If you’ve been to Florence and Pisa before and may be considering hanging out in Livorno for the day, I’d suggest looking at other options in Liguria and Tuscany first. Livorno isn’t for everyone. Hire a car and driver for a day-trip to perhaps Lucca, San Gimignano or Siena. When you book, do explain what time you need to be back on the ship and make sure you get there on time. The ship won’t wait for you!

Note: one downside of most cruises is because they sail overnight, you don’t get to experience the cit
y after dark.

8. Joining the Captain’s Dinner? There are cruises that expect you to dress up to dinner every night, and there are those that do not but give you the option to join a Captain’s Dinner in the main dining room on certain nights. The level of dressy-ness varies from smart casual to formal.
This may actually be a nice way to enhance your overall ocean voyage experience, but consider if it’s worth bringing a dinner jacket or formal dress solely for that 1 night or 2 alone. Nevertheless, it’s always prudent to check the dining dress code on your ship, how strictly it’s enforced, and what other dining options are available to you should you choose not to lug the extra weight.

9. Check what activities and entertainment options are available onboard to keep you occupied specially on days you’ll be at sea. Our cruise ship had rock climbing, mini-golf, a video game arcade, swimming pools, a spa, a gym, Zumba and yoga classes, an outdoor cinema, live Broadway-style shows, a casino, an on-deck jogging track (it was quite interesting to run with the wind blowing you in all sorts of directions – but I sure got a good workout that day!).

Photo credit: Royal Caribbean International

But if none of these tickle your fancy or are available on your ship, consider bringing a book or loading your tablet with games or movies.

10. On larger ships, dinners are usually scheduled in batches. Upon booking, we were asked to choose which dinner schedule we preferred. This applied only to dinners in the main dining room, which is included in your fare. However, this dining schedule isn’t applicable to dinners in the ship’s other restaurants, which you usually have to pay extra for (usually with the ship’s Cruise Card that’s linked to your credit card as absolutely no cash is exchanged while onboard). At breakfast, though, there was no eating schedule in force, so we had to make sure that some of us got to the breakfast hall earlier in order to save a table.

11. Bring your own meds for motion sickness. Cruise ships are always ready to hand these out when needed, specially on days when the waters are choppy. There was one such night during our trip and, I swear, I could not for the life of me sleep through it! I don’t like taking meds but I must say I lost that battle and had to reach for one just to get some sleep.

12. Finally, find a Pinoy crew member. Connect with a kababayan and they’ll take good care of you!