Living

Making the most of your cruise vacation

You've always wondered about cruising. But you're worried it's too expensive or you'll be bored or have to dress up for every meal. Put your fears to rest: A number of new and recently refurbished ships, as well plenty of deals, make cruising more affordable than ever.

In addition, cruise lines are increasingly geared toward families and active travelers with a slew of onboard activities ranging from water parks and skating rinks to teen discos and baby-sitting services.

You can be as active - or relaxed - as you please. And a growing number of alternative dining venues from sushi bars to 24-hour room service mean you can dress up or down.

Whether you've just booked a cruise for the first time or are simply thinking about it, here's a primer on what to expect.

WHAT'S INCLUDED

Most lines include accommodations, meals in the main dining rooms, most onboard activities, kids' activities and entertainment such as Broadway-style revues and comedy shows. Start adding up what you'd spend on a similar land vacation, and you'll see how cruising is a good value, especially now when many lines are offering deals. At press time, several searches turned up rates of less than $100 per person per day.

WHAT'S NOT

Airfare and travel to and from the port aren't included. Shore excursions, spa treatments and gratuities also are not included. Alcoholic beverages, soft drinks, bottled water and some coffee bars may not be part of the deal. Some specialty restaurants cost a little extra, though the quality of their food and service make them worth the splurge. Most, such as those on some Carnival ships, start around $30 per person for a gourmet experience.

WHAT TO PACK

A cruise line mentions its dress code or suggestions on what to pack on its Web site, as well as what's in your cabin, such as a hair dryer. Generally, day wear is casual, which means shorts, pants and casual skirts. Depending on the length of the cruise, there are usually one or more formal nights.

Women wear a cocktail dress or evening gown; men wear a dark suit or tuxedo. Many lines, such as Celebrity, offer tux rentals.

On the day you board, your bags will not arrive immediately after you get to your stateroom. Pack what you need for the day in a carry-on such as a change of clothes, medications, toiletries and bathing suit. On the last night of the cruise, you'll likely need to place your luggage outside your stateroom, so keep toiletries and clothes out so you won't have to disembark in your pajamas.

To prevent overpacking, go with neutral colors that mix and match. A good rule is that everything must coordinate with at least two other pieces. The same goes for shoes. Rain gear is always a good idea, because you may only have one very wet day in a port.

Women should pack something like a pashmina or large scarf, which doubles as a pool cover-up or shawl. When it comes to jewelry, leave home the heirloom or one-of-a-kind pieces that you couldn't bear to lose. Money belts or neck wallets are a necessity for overseas trips. Empty zipper-top plastic bags are useful for everything from wet bathing suits to corralling receipts.

HOW TO STAY HEALTHY

Most ships are well-stabilized so you'll barely notice movement. But if you're worried about getting seasick, bring over-the-counter medications or talk to your doctor about prescription drugs. Some cruise lines will provide medications through their infirmary - and all lines have qualified medical staff on board - but you're better off being prepared.

Most important: Wash your hands with warm, soapy water frequently. Use hand sanitizer when you're not near a sink. While the cruise lines do a good job of keeping everything clean, you can't live around thousands of other passengers without being exposed to a few bugs.

TIPS FOR FIRST-TIMERS

Cruising from close-to-home ports eliminates airport hassles. Carnival recently expanded its cruises from Charleston to year-round, beginning in May 2010.

Check out the boards on Web sites such as www.cruisecritic.com to see what kinds of experiences other travelers have had onboard specific ships.

Many lines, such as Royal Caribbean, feature adults-only spas and pools on some ships. If you're looking for an escape from the kiddies - your own or everyone else's - make sure your ship offers such an area.

If you want to save a few bucks by walking around on your own in port or booking a tour locally, be back at the designated time. Ships have a strict schedule and will leave without you.

Give family and friends the name of your ship, itinerary and ship's phone number. You can use your cellphone on most ships, but talk to your provider about access and roaming charges before you depart.

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