Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The Caribbean, tried, true and blue

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In the cruise world, despite its expansion and growth into countries all over the world, the Caribbean remains cruising's most popular destination.

Why is that? The answer is quite simple: The Caribbean is where new cruisers go to try it out their maiden voyages.

If you're new to cruising, you're coming into the market at a time when you have more choice of ships and destinations then ever. Cruising with children or without, taking long sea voyages or short cruises, the choice is yours.

If you are a first-time cruiser, let me offer three pieces of advice to get you started on the right foot:

1. Find a good cruise travel agent. By "good," I mean an agent who has cruised and works with others who have cruised. Picking the right ship for your personality is the most important thing you will do. If you're frustrated with an agent, find another.

2. Consult friends. Even with a good agent, ask friends who've been on a cruise ship about their likes and dislikes, from cabin location to public areas, ports, food and anything else that might cross your mind.

3. Check Google. An online search is ideal for airport-to-ship transfers, shore excursions, ports, restaurants in ports and things to see and do. Your research won't be wasted. I watched in Tallin, Estonia, as people were boarding busses for the old part of the city, which I knew by Googling was only 20 minutes away on foot.

I know this applies to all travel, but make two copies of all documents (from credit cards to passports). Leave one with a family member and the other locked in the ship's safe.

When you're packing, don't go overboard (pardon the pun). If you're flying, baggage charges can be horrendous, and you most certainly will buy something to jam into your suitcase, so pack lightly. Evenings are sometimes cool, so pack a sweater and/or rain jacket.

Most cruise lines still have formal nights, sometimes even two on a seven-day cruise. You can avoid them if you want by eating at a private restaurant or the buffet. At dinner, you don't have to sit with a group; a table for two is not usually a problem and, outside of fixed dinner times, there is open dining.

Ask about wine packages and pop packages (no, it's not free) and take a minute to figure out if you can save.

If your heart is set on a particular shore excursion or a certain time at the spa, book online in advance or in person the moment you board.

Insurance is a toss-up. You may have to cancel or interrupt your trip, or you may become seriously ill. Shop for the best price. Your agent can help. I buy a year-round insurance package for exactly those reasons.

Consider taking a small lightweight backpack -- for snacks from the ship, sunscreen, camera and a bathing suit -- and a thermos to fill up with water or coffee before leaving the ship for the day. I find a light set of binoculars is great for places like Alaska's inside passage.

For budgeting the price of your cruise, not including airfare, double the price you see advertised. In some cases, it does not include taxes and fees, and you'll have gratuities, spirits, shore excursions, transfers ... it all adds up quickly.

Check your bill every day on your stateroom TV. If there's a problem, it's better to deal with it right away, and you would be surprised how fast a "round for my friends" can turn into a big bill.

So get a good agent, ask lots of questions and do your research. If you're properly prepared, you should have a great time.

-- Postmedia News

Visit for daily updates on the latest cruise news, best deals and behind-the-scenes stories from the industry. You can also sign up for an email newsletter on the site for even more cruise information. Phil can be contacted directly at portsandbows

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 6, 2011 D2

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