Watching the wake off the stern of the Viking Jupiter on a summer cruise from Norway to the Netherlands. Picture: Nevin Martell/Washington Post
Washington - After spending years thumbing my nose at cruises, I recently went on my inaugural voyage, a week-long trip from Norway to the Netherlands. 

I returned to terra firma with my opinions completely realigned and the realisation that a lifetime of globe-trotting had not totally prepared me to maximise my cruising experience while minimising the costs. I made some pricey mistakes and squandered good opportunities.

Getting the most out of your cruise is predominantly about what you do before you set foot on the ship. This way, you can spend your vacation not worrying about how much you’re spending or what you’re doing next.

When booking your nautical getaway, one of the biggest expenses is accommodations. Interior cabins cost less and are a great way to save money - if you don’t plan to spend much time in your room. That being said, having a balcony is pretty cushy and, I believe, worth the expenditure. I enjoyed my morning coffee while watching the sunrise and would often head back out in the late afternoon to read a book in the fresh air.

You must address how you’ll stay connected at sea, or your heavenly holiday will be followed by a hellish bill. Cruise operators occasionally offer free wi-fi, but they generally charge for data usage. These packages can be pricey and may not be as generous as you anticipate. 

You can remain connected through your mobile carrier. Some carriers do offer cruise-specific packages, but these can be extremely expensive and limited in scope. Read all the fine print before you buy one or you may spend more than you intended.

If you don’t want to bloat your budget for this element of the trip, you really have only two options: either take a breather from your devices or seek out complimentary wi-fi networks when you’re on shore. Neither may be optimal, but both are free.

It’s important to check the weather in every port of call before you go. Many cruise lines share this information online, but even those listings don’t usually include the weather at sea between destinations. Pack accordingly and plan for contingencies, like rain or snow, depending on where in the world you’re travelling.

If you’re cruising for a week or longer, it’s worth figuring out the laundry situation. Some cruise lines offer free DIY laundry rooms, while others charge for such usage. Additionally, dry cleaning and full-service laundry are often available - for a price.

Speaking of clothing, take note of the ship’s dress code. Some establishments or events may require certain attire, like formal wear at a high-end restaurant. On the flip side, swimsuits may only be appropriate in the pool area while being banned elsewhere on the ship. 

While you’re packing, double-check that you have adequate supplies of your prescriptions (and bring motion-sickness medicine). Though the ship will have a doctor on board, there won’t be a fully stocked pharmacy. Once you get on shore, obtaining a refill can be a difficult, time-consuming and expensive process.

Don’t forget to bring cash for tips, but read your receipts before laying down any extra cash, as many cruise lines build gratuities into their charges.

Always pack your passport. Some cruises departing and returning to the same US port only require you to have a driver’s licence. However, if you have to take an emergency flight home, you will need a passport.

Take a moment to check out the onboard dining options. Some require no reservations (and many cruise lines offer 24-hour complimentary room service), but some restaurants require a reservation and may even cost extra. Book tables before departure, rather than when you board, so you can score your preferred dining times.

While you’re browsing the ship’s profile online, glance at the entertainment and amenities. Some will be included in the ticket price, while others incur a supplemental fee. Depending on the cruise line, ship and itinerary, these will vary. Usually, there is a lot to do at no extra cost. 

Speaking of getting off the ship, the cruise line may offer some gratis excursions, but most cost extra.These tours make transportation to and entry into attractions a simple, smooth process, which can be appealing for travellers who don’t want to endure the hassle of navigating a new environment. Warning: they can be pricey.

If you decide to go on any, book them well in advance; the popular ones sell out quickly.

When flying solo, do your research in advance to determine what you want to see, do and eat - and how you’re going to get to each stop on your itinerary.

No matter how you decide to explore ports of call, bring a day pack with you to easily carry your reusable bottle (fill it with drinking water before disembarking), camera and any souvenirs you pick up.

Get to the upper decks when possible, so you can see the sunset, go stargazing or simply watch the wake as it unfurls behind the ship. 

The Washington Post