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The bottom line on cruises

By Carol Sottili,

It’s a big, wide cruising world out there, with more ships and passengers coming on board every year: The industry added 13 ships with nearly 15,000 berths last year alone. The result is a dizzying array of choices for the 16 million passengers worldwide who’ll spend their vacations on a ship this year: How to choose among dining options? What size ship is best for us? Do we want something family friendly? They’ll have to answer those questions for themselves, but we can help with some of the more basic and practical queries we get from our cruising readers. Here are the ones most frequently asked:

Should I book shore excursions through the cruise line or on my own?

The answer depends on the itinerary and the location.

Shore excursions booked through the ship are typically more expensive and sometimes crowded, but the advantage is that cruise lines vet the companies that offer the tours, checking safety records and proof of insurance. Also, cruise ships will wait if an official shore excursion is delayed; if you’re not on a sanctioned trip, you get no grace period.

In Europe, especially where a different language is spoken and the excursion site is far from the ship, it makes sense to go through the cruise line (ditto for other more exotic destinations). No one wants to be stuck in traffic in Rome, 45 miles from the port in Civitavecchia, as the ship sails away.

In the Caribbean, stick with ship-sponsored shore excursions for higher-risk outings, such as diving or parasailing, or at least research outside options in advance and hire a reputable company. A simple trip to a nearby beach can be just a cheap taxi ride away on many islands. And lots of all-inclusive resorts will sell day passes directly to cruisegoers.

Will the ship really leave you if you don’t get back on time?

Yes, you’ll be left at the dock, unless you’re on a ship-sanctioned excursion. (Just do a “cruise passengers left behind” search on YouTube for proof.) Passengers are typically told to return at least a half-hour before departure. Don’t push it.

Do I need a passport to go on a cruise?

Passports are not required on “closed-loop cruises” within the Western Hemisphere (Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda) that originate and end in the United States, but they are required for all other cruise destinations, including Europe, Central and South America and Asia. However, the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), which represents most major cruise lines, recommends that all passengers travel with valid passports. (The chronically late, take note: You don’t want to be left behind in a foreign port without a passport.)

What beverages may I bring on board?

This depends on the cruise line. Most, including Carnival, Celebrity, Norwegian, Princess and Holland America, don’t allow any liquor or beer to be brought on board and confiscate any they may find until the end of the cruise. These lines do, however, allow small amounts of wine to be carried in, charging a corkage fee for personal wine consumed in the dining rooms. Royal Caribbean takes it a few steps further: It allows no self-serve beverages of any kind, including wine, water and soda. Disney and Azamara are two of the more liberal lines, allowing passengers to bring on their own liquor, wine or beer (Azamara includes wine with meals). As for non-alcoholic beverages, including bottled water and soda, most lines — Royal Caribbean and Celebrity are exceptions — allow you to carry small amounts (no more than a 12-pack per person) aboard.

What do I do about tipping?

Many lines, including Carnival, Holland America, NCL and Princess, include an automatic gratuity that typically amounts to about $11.50 per person per day: You can adjust the total either up or down with a trip to the guest services desk. Royal Caribbean is one of the few major lines that doesn’t automatically include tips, although you can prepay: Its tipping recommendations add up to about $11.65 a day per person. Many lines also add a 15 percent tip to beverage purchases. A general rule of thumb is $3.50 to $5 per person per day for your cabin steward and dining room waiter and about half that for the dining room assistant, according to CLIA. Some luxury lines, including Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn and Silversea, include tips in their cruise fares.

How does dinner and dinner seating work? Is there still a captain’s table?

Dining options have expanded in recent years. Norwegian started the trend in 2000 with its “freestyle cruising,” which allows diners to eat whenever and wherever they want rather than at set tables and specific seating times. Most lines still offer more formal dining options, but they’ve also started dedicating restaurant space to those who don’t want to be constrained. Carnival, Princess and Holland America are among the lines that now offer flexible dining. The captain’s table has become something of a relic: If you want to meet the captain and other officers, attend the meet-and-greet that’s often offered at the beginning of a cruise.

What do cruise lines do about people with special dietary needs, such as gluten allergies?

Most ships can accommodate salt-free, low-carbohydrate, low-cholesterol, diabetic or other diet preferences, according to CLIA. Some lines require advance notice, while others request that you notify the dining staff when you board. Royal Caribbean, for example, requests that passengers make special dietary requests at least 45 days in advance (90 days for European or South American itineraries). Carnival states that it can provide guests with “vegetarian, low-cholesterol, low-fat, low-carbohydrates, low-sugar, gluten free, Indian vegetarian, and kosher” meals without advance notice, but we would still recommend informing the line before you sail.

What’s the best cruise line for children? Which is best for those who’d prefer no children?

Cruise lines once had very specific personalities: Carnival, for example, was known for its younger partying crowd, Royal Caribbean was geared toward families with children and Holland America catered to an older set. Those lines have blurred, and itinerary and time of year need to be considered as much as the line. To avoid children, don’t cruise over holiday periods or in the summer, and head to Europe or South America rather than the Caribbean. Also, consider a river cruise, which attracts an older crowd.

Families with kids are drawn to newer boats with more kid-friendly options, such as climbing walls and water parks.

Is there a best cabin or itinerary or a medical solution for those who suffer from seasickness?

If you’re prone to motion sickness, stick to itineraries that don’t include passages over the open ocean. Book an outside cabin in the middle of the ship, and choose newer, larger ships equipped with stabilizers. Or do a river cruise. Medical remedies, which may cause drowsiness, include the scopolamine patch and Dramamine.

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