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First Cruise Guide: Excursions, Dining & Drink Packages

Here's your guide to better understanding Cruise Excursions, Drink Packages, and Specialty Meals. Walter and Rebecca break down independent vs. cruise excursions, are taxis and private drivers trustworthy, are drink packages worth it, what exactly are specialty meals and how to save money on them. While most useful for the first time cruiser, these tips and hacks are great for all who love to cruise.

Full Transcript, apologies for typos.

Walter 0:00 Hey folks, welcome back to Where's Walter? I'm Walter. Rebecca 0:02 And I'm Rebecca. Walter 0:03 And today we're planning your first cruise, talking about specialty meals, excursions and drink packages. Walter 0:18 After you've figured out the ship, you've got your cabin all set. Now it's time to start planning some of the fun stuff and some of the other thing that might be a little bit confusing for a first time cruiser. Let's start with specialty meals. What exactly does that mean, it's a specialty meal? Isn't all the food included? No, actually, it's not. You know on some of the high end cruise,s like if you're going on the Regent Seven Seas, God bless you, take us with you. All the food will be included. We will join you. But on most ships, you will have your main dining and then you will have your specialty dining and think of specialty dining as a restaurant, okay. The the main dining is included and you get that. That will generally, generally be a buffet. And it will generally be a main dining room. There may be other places like little cafes where the food is included and things like that. But that's the main thing. But then most ships have other restaurants. And those restaurants costs extra. They're called specialty meals. I don't know where the name came from. It's kind of silly, but that's what it's called on most ships. And what they will do there is they will charge you an additional fee per person. It could be as little as $5 per person, it could be $100 or more per person. And some restaurants will do a la carte, which is exactly what you do on land, you have a menu and there's all the prices and you pay what it is. So some ships will have one or two specialty places. I think some of the bigger ships have up to 20 or more places to eat. It's getting kind of crazy how many places there are to eat, but just understand that those specialty dining will cost you more and it's a good idea to do research. Once you've got your ship all picked out. Go ahead and look in the dining. And if the, if the website itself doesn't tell you how much each of these specialty meals are, there, there's sites and services like cruise critic and shipmate where people, you can ask a question or somebody has probably already posted pictures of the menu so you can see what the prices are going to be. Which is a good thing for you to do some budgeting on how much is my cruise actually going to cost. Rebecca 2:25 And you can look at the menus, just google the restaurant and the cruise line and you can look at the menus, decide if you even want to do that restaurant. Walter 2:33 If you want to. Now one thing that we have noticed, especially on Celebrity, I don't know how many of the other cruise lines do it, but a lot of times when you go on board that first day, they will be offering specials for that first night and those specials are offered on board, sometimes they're offered in advance but usually, because generally on the first night most people are just going to go to the main dining room, they're not going to the, the specialty restaurants end up being somewhat empty. So like on Celebrity, they'll offer up to 30% off, I think it is on the first night, and sometimes even on the last night. So keep an eye for that when you walk on board the ship, see if they're running any deals on specialty dining, and if you have any interest in it, that's a great night to do it. If they're offering a special. Now why would you even want to bother if you know the buffet is free and the other food is free? Why do I want to pay extra when I'm on a cruise ship? Well, for the most part, they're an experience. I mean, there's some diners and some sports bars and things like that. But in general, you know you're going to a steakhouse, or you're going to a French restaurant, or Italian restaurant, Asian restaurant. It's a usually a little bit of an elevated experience. And something different, you know, than just getting something from the you know, following everybody into the main dining room, especially if you have something to celebrate on a ship. You know, that's always a great night to go. We tend to go on our anniversaries, our birthdays, and it's always fun to go into an elevated experience. Rebecca 3:53 Or when we cruise on Thanksgiving, we avoid the main dining room and go to a specialty restaurant. Walter 3:57 A little tip for you Americans, if you are going to sail during Thanksgiving, I recommend not going to the main dining room for Thanksgiving dinner because it's not very easy to cook a good Thanksgiving dinner for 2000 people. Turkey is going to be a little dry, stuffing is going to be a little dry. So that's actually a great night to go to a specialty restaurant and just get something totally different. And then if you want turkey sandwiches, you can probably get that the next day in the buffet, a little tip for you. But on one of our anniversaries, we were on the Disney Fantasy and we went to Remy and it's easily, probably the best meal we've ever had at sea, it, it was an expensive meal. But it was very elevated. We sat in the wine room, it was beautiful. So especially if you have a special event coming up, go to specialty dining, it can be a lot of fun. Now drink packages is a huge discussion among cruisers. And the biggest thing that you have to look at is, does it actually work out for you or is it a waste of money? Now on the surface, it seemed like oh, I'm going to save money. I just pay for my alcohol and then I don't have to worry about it. Yes and no. So, on some cruise lines, there will be different levels, you know, there'll be like a basic drink package, and then an ultimate drink package. Some have drink packages just for soft drinks and coffee. Sometimes coffee is included in the drink package, sometimes it's not included in the drink package. They can be very confusing, okay. So first of all, you need to look into the fine print and see everything that it covers. In general, drink package will cover all drinks up to a certain amount of money, say like $12, maybe $14. And then anything above that, in general, you would pay the difference, although there are some packages that you actually have to pay the full amount. So you want to look closely at that. And you also want to see how many, some of them have a limit on drinks, which is actually kind of like a ridiculous number like 15 drinks in a day. Rebecca 4:28 Generally, it's about 15 in a 24 hour period. Walter 5:52 What you want to think about is, well how many drinks would you have, in a typical day, on a ship? Right? And then if you look at that, that drink number of what's, what's the top line. So, if it says all drinks up to $12, will you drink enough drinks to make it worth whatever that drink package is? And if the answer's no, then don't get the drink package, just pay for your drinks on board, and you'll end up being cheaper. For us, we generally look to see if the coffee is included, because I drink a lot, I can drink five coffees a day, no problem. Rebecca 6:27 And you like the specialty coffee. Rebecca 6:28 Although depending on the cruise line, you may, the gratuities for the drinks may be included in the price of that package, or it may be an additional cost. So you have to look at that as well. Walter 6:28 I like to, I like to get an espresso, I like to get cappucinos. And so those are going to cost you know, seven bucks, something like that on every ship. And so if the coffee is included with the drink package, we will a lot of times go for it. Because then that, that works out. I'll get about maybe four or five drinks at maximum on a ship and then the five coffees and then there's like okay, that adds up to what the drink package is per day. So you just kind of have to do the math. The drink package is not always a good thing. And drink packages are not universal across every line, every single line has their own drink package. And one of the cool things, with all of the competition between the cruise lines, sometimes they'll roll the drink package in, and say, Oh, you get a perk. Or you can choose from these three or four perks and the drink package is usually one of them. That's definitely a time when we almost always go for it because if it's going to be included in our fare, we might as well get it. Walter 7:40 So what Rebecca is saying, is that when you look at that drink package price, $400 per person, let's use that as an example. See whether or not that says gratuities included or not. If it says gratuity is not included, when you buy the drink package, you're going to then notice an additional charge that's been added, say 18 or 20% of $400 will now be added at the checkout which is going to cover the gratuities for the drinks. If it says gratuities included, then your drink package really will be $400. Now if they give it to you as a perk, drink package included in your fare, the gratuities will more than likely be added to your fare. So you'll see that show up. Rebecca 8:20 Depends on the cruise line. Walter 8:21 Yeah, depends on the cruise line, depends on the deal going on. And one thing to note that a drink package, some cruise lines require both people in the cabin to get it. Rebecca 8:29 Assuming they're over 21. Walter 8:31 Yeah, assuming they're over 21. But if both people in the cabin are over 21, you're both going to have to get it. Unfortunately, some people try to cheat the system by you know, get one drink package and try to get drinks for both people, which by the way could get you thrown off the ship. So don't do that. But if you think you want a drink package understand that both people may have to get it. Rebecca 8:50 Very rarely do we buy it, if it's a perk, we'll usually take it or sometimes some cruise lines will run sales and it comes down to a point where it might be worth it. Walter 9:01 Yeah, yeah, we just did that for an upcoming cruise, a cruise line happened to have a sale, it worked out. So we went ahead and got it. Rebecca 9:07 Yeah. And then the good thing to do is Google drink prices, name of cruise line. And you can usually get bar menus and you can get an idea of the cost of the drinks. Walter 9:18 Yeah, so you can see, you know, most cruise lines, I mean, the drink generally start say around $6 or $7. You know, your beers are cheap, obviously. But your cocktails start around $6 or $7, the high end, you know, cocktails are like $14, and then you are $12 or $14. And then you know, they go way up from there if you want to go crazy, but for the most part, you're probably going to be spending between say, $7 and $11 for your cocktails. So you really got to look at the drink packages to see if they are a good deal for you. So now let's talk about excursions and shows. Well first of all, I'll just talk about the shows real quick, especially the big ships have some really cool shows, you know, you got water shows, you got Broadway shows, you got this show, you got ice skating, you got all kinds of really cool stuff. And some of them actually require you to book in advance. It may not cost you anything, most of the shows are free, some do cost. But even the free show, sometimes you have to go ahead and book in advance just to get a seat. So pay attention to that on the ship you're going on, especially some of these big, big Oasis class, Allure class, things like that on Royal Caribbean, especially if they do have some big shows that sell out early, you may be able to go ahead and book a seat in advance, so just check that out. Now with excursions, this is the fun part. So an excursion, if you've never heard that word, that's just basically a planned activity at a port of call, you're going to get off the ship and you're going to go do something. Maybe a walking tour, might be a food tour, it might be a zip line, might be some horses, might be you know, going out on the water and snorkeling and scuba diving and all that fun stuff. That's an excursion. And you can book them yourself independently, you know, just as if you went to the island or the place to you know, go book something or you can book them through the ship. Now there's two big differences between booking it yourself and booking it through the ship. If you book it yourself through a third party, that third party has to get you back to the ship before the ship sails away. The ship will not wait for you. For the most part, we've seen ships wait 30 minutes, maybe 45 minutes just depending on you know where they've got to get to next and when they actually got to get out of the way of maybe another ship coming in. But if that third party doesn't get you back to the ship, the ship will sail away, and then it's your responsibility to get to wherever the ship is next. The cruise line will not help you. Because you booked it independently, it has nothing to do with them. They got you to the port, it's your responsibility to get back to the port. If you book through the cruise line, they are responsible and they guarantee that you will get back to the port before the ship leaves. If the ship leaves because of whatever happened on your trip, it is up to the cruise line to get you back to the ship at the next port. You will pay nothing extra, you will not have to do anything, the cruise line will be responsible. So that's the big difference. Rebecca 11:58 And generally they will wait longer longer for cruise line excursions. Walter 12:03 And we have seen that actually, I believe there's one, we waited, I think 90 minutes, because there was an excursion coming back, they got caught up in traffic, and the ship waited because it was one of their excursions. So they held the ship. And they did that. But for an independent tour, it's up to the captain, whether he's going to sit there and wait or he or she is going to sit there and wait, or they're going to go ahead and pull away. They have no responsibility to wait for you. I mean, most captains, if they can physically do it, they will wait. If the schedule allows, they will try to wait for you, but they're under no obligation to wait for you. That's the big difference. Now, third party booking independently, generally is cheaper, like we've seen it like up to 50% cheaper, because the cruise lines, obviously markup and it could literally be the exact same tour company that you could book independently versus the ship and you might pay 50% less because you did it independently. The other thing about the independent tours generally, smaller crowds. For instance, when we went whale watching in Alaska, we were on a boat with just Rebecca, myself, my father and his wife. And that was it, the four of us on a little whale watching boat. And then when the cruise line boat came up, we kind of met up with them at one point, it was over 200 people on a double decker boat trying to see the whales, and we were just like floating in right there. So for the most part, independent tours are smaller, not always. There are some ports, where the independent tour operators cannot book with you independently because they have a contract with that cruise line. And that contract states that they can't book anybody from their ships independently. So you may have to, you know, you may see something you really want to book, when you contact them, they may say you can't do it, you've got to go through the cruise line. Now one of the things that the cruise line do really really well on their website is they do a good job of telling you the, the exertion level of all of their excursion, you know whether it's just a low key one, it's going to be very active, there's a lot of walking. Sometimes the third party tour operators aren't as good with that. I mean, you can contact them and ask them. And sometimes you can just tell by the tour itself. But some... Rebecca 14:10 Or the reviews of the tour. Walter 14:12 Yeah, reviews of the tour. It's something that, oh, it's just going to be a garden tour. But what they didn't mention is that there's 100 steps to get from the bus and you got to go 100 steps all the way up to the garden. Maybe you can't do that. But the, but the cruise line does an excellent job, it's imperative for them to make sure that you know everything about it. So if it's your first time cruise, definitely look at the ship that you're going on, look at that itinerary and then go ahead and look at all the excursion and see what they say. There, there can be some hidden surprises. Rebecca 14:40 Yeah, like there's sometimes age limits both on the low end and high end or weight limits. If say it's a zip line or something like that. Walter 14:49 Yeah, we had a woman on a, one of our cruises, I think it was her husband wanted to go ziplining they wouldn't let him because he was too old. He was beyond the, even though he was in perfect health. We saw him you know, he was walking out there. Rebecca 14:59 Probably healthier than we were. Walter 15:00 Yeah, he was ready to zip line but they would not let him because of his age. When planning your excursions, especially if you are going to go independent, and there's nothing wrong with it. We book independent and we book on the ship you know depending on the thing. Rebecca 15:14 I'd say it's probably 75% independent, 25% ship. Walter 15:18 And that's been pretty much like right from the time we first started, cuz Rebecca does all kinds of research online, and that my next point. You've got to do research, so you know we've got website, we've got TripAdvisor, you got cruise critic, you got shipmate there, you got Facebook groups, you've got just google searches. If you're going to book an independent tour, you have to look at the reputation, you have to see do they get you back to the ship and you want a, you want a tour operator that's going to get you back at least one hour before that ship sails away, especially like say in the Caribbean is where we sail a lot. There's a lot of traffic. There's a lot of just little you know, two lane roads. And it doesn't take much for suddenly everything to slow down and come to a stop and now you're on the other side of the island trying to get back to your ship. It's a one hour drive and you're one hour from the ship sailing. And that gets scary. When your ship comes into port, there are going to be all kinds of tour operators right there when you walk off and they're, you know, giving you all this great, hey, we'll take you here, we'll take you there, we'll do this, we'll do that. Rebecca 16:14 And they might be perfectly fine. Walter 16:16 They might be perfectly fine. But if you don't know who they are, you really need to do some research to see who are the reputable tour operators before you book with them. That's our advice, because again, the ship will not wait. This is not like going back to a resort and the resort is going to be there when you get back there. If you show up at the port, one hour after sail away, there might be a ship there, there might not. Rebecca 16:38 And I tend to when I'm booking independently, I tend to leave myself a little more leeway between the time that excursion ends and the time the ship sails, just to be safe. Walter 16:49 Exactly. So you know one of our pieces of advice is try to get on the first tour. Now generally a ship is in port a you know, eight to 10 hours or maybe six to 10 hours. So the ship arrives at 7am. And there's a tour that leaves at eight or 830. Get on that one, because that will come back earlier in the day. We generally like to be back, you know, about two hours before sail away, just, you know, as a planned time, because then if anything happened, that gives us two hours of leeway to get back to the ship. Rebecca 17:19 And you do have to be very aware of when the all aboard time is versus sail away, because those will be two different things. Walter 17:28 Yeah, so all aboard time, say the ship is leaving at five, all aboard is at 4:30 that means you need to be on the ship at 4:30 because they're going to start taking up the gangway and getting everything ready to actually pull away at five o'clock. The other very important thing to know what time zone are you in? And are you on ship time or local time? Yes, there is such a thing. There are some places you will visit and the local time will actually be different than what's on the ship. And that will be in your, generally every day you get some sort of a schedule. Usually the night before in your cabin, that tells you, you know, we're going to arrive at this time, we're going to leave at that time and whether you will be on ship time or local time, or what time zone that you might be in. So it's very important. And this is especially important if you don't wear a watch, and you have say a smartphone, the smartphone will connect with the local towers, and it will pick up the local time. And if that local time is one hour earlier, one hour later, you're now working in the wrong time zone. Rebecca 18:29 Which is why we do recommend you have a phys, at least somebody in your party has a physical watch. Walter 18:34 Actually has a physical watch. I still have an old fashioned with the hands, especially for cruising. And one last thing about excursions, you don't have to take them. There's no rule that says you have to get off the ship. Just because a ship comes into port doesn't mean you have to leave. So first of all the ships can be quiet, because a lot of people, at least 75% generally are going to get off the ship and go do something. So, now you've got a nice quiet ship. If you want to have a spa day, spas are almost always discounted when you're in port. But even if you decide to get off the ship, you don't have to take an excursion. Just go walk around, you can get a taxi and you can go do things. The one thing again, if you're just going to get off and go do a taxi, even that you can research in which taxi companies are good. You can even hire a driver for the day in a lot of ports. And again, you can do research on that, where you you have a taxi for the day. One big tip that we've heard over and over is negotiate the price before you get in the taxi. That's just a quick tip there. But if you're just going to go ahead and walk around, obviously absolutely free. The only thing that I would recommend is maybe ask a crew member or two where would they recommend maybe walking around and where would they maybe recommend avoiding. You know, it's a sad fact of life that everywhere you go, you know, sometimes there's certain areas that you probably shouldn't go as a tourist because you kind of stand out and the crew members can certainly help you and they can always point you in a direction of usually a good restaurant, a great place to get Wi Fi. Crew members always know where to get Wi Fi. So, if you're looking for Wi Fi in ports ask a crew member, they know where to go. But again, you don't have to get off the ship if you don't want to. So if you don't want to take an excursion, don't take an excursion. So there you go. We talked specialty meals, we talked excursions, drink packages and shows. I hope the information was helpful for you to help you plan that first cruise. We want you to have a good one. If you like what we're doing here, Hey, please subscribe. click that little bell icon and then you'll know when we've got even more cruise tips for you. Oh, we got recipes. I've got drinks in here. We've got interviews, we got travel advice. We got things we haven't even thought of yet. So please subscribe, click the bell icon. Thanks so much for watching. I'm Walter. Rebecca 20:37 I'm Rebecca. Walter 20:37 We'll see you next time.

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