Passports

Another never-ending battle for cruisers – do you need a passport to take a cruise? The answer is: it depends.
If you are on a closed-loop cruise, where you depart and return to the same US port (and you are a US citizen), then technically, you can travel with an official copy of your birth certificate (proves citizenship) and a State-issued photo ID (proves identity.) A passport proves both citizenship and identity, so if you have a passport, it’s all you need. (You’ll need your birth certificate to get your passport. After that, put your birth certificate back in the safe deposit box.)
Most Caribbean cruises are closed-loop, and that’s where a lot of people start, so they just assume you don’t need a passport to cruise. You don’t need one, but only in that one specific case. If the cruise is not closed-loop (say, a Transatlantic from Miami to Barcelona or a Panama Canal cruise from Florida to California), you need a passport. If you want to fly to a resort on a Caribbean island or travel elsewhere internationally, you need a passport.
You usually have to show your passport whenever you enter a foreign country, and when you return to the US. However, when you’re on a cruise, the cruise line provides immigration agents in each of the ports with a manifest – a list of all passengers – before the ship arrives in port. The ship checks passengers off (you swipe your ship card) and back on (swiping the card again), and immigration accepts their count. Why? On a ship, unlike a plane, passengers will usually arrive and depart the same day, and the ship tracks them. Also, cruises produce buckets of tourist revenue for countries that depend on tourism, so the system is easier.
That said, we have been asked for our passports before returning to the ship. Once. In nineteen cruises.
Here’s why I think a passport is a good (and necessary) investment:

  • If you leave the country on anything other than a closed-loop cruise, you need a passport.
  • If you have to fly back to the US (say, you missed your ship or have a medical emergency), you really need one because a birth certificate and drivers license don’t work at the airport. Neither does crying. Also, the most expensive way to acquire a passport is in an emergency, in a foreign port.
  • If you’re going to cruise more than once, the cost per trip starts going down – a passport covers ten years of cruise (and other) vacations.

If you never think you’ll do anything than the one three-day cruise to the Bahamas, then maybe a passport isn’t really necessary. Just don’t get sick, don’t get arrested, and don’t miss the ship!
If you’re never going to do more than one three-day cruise to the Bahamas, I would say you might want to get a sense of adventure first – then, get a passport!

Insurance

I wrote an opinion piece on this earlier. This is designed to be factual.
Do you need insurance? Yes.
Do you have to buy trip insurance? It depends. Some people swear their credit card provides trip coverage. (Read the fine print.) Some think nothing could go wrong. Some wait until they get home and threaten to sue the cruise line.
Think of all the things that could happen.

  • Get sick before the trip.
  • Lose your job before the trip.
  • Get sent out of town on business the week of the trip.
  • You miss your flight.
  • Your flight is canceled.
  • Plane to the port is late.
  • Arrive late to the port.
  • Get sick on the trip.
  • Pass away on the cruise.
  • A close family member passes away while you’re cruising.
  • Miss the ship at a port.
  • Miss the flight home.

This is probably not an exhaustive list of what could go wrong. So, the question is – how many of these risks are you willing to take?
Also, consider the insurance source. The least path of resistance is to purchase insurance with your cruise. However, if you’re like us and book your own flights, the cruise line insurance probably won’t cover any problems.
Read the policy. The best policy you could probably get is “cancel for any reason” coverage. If you change your mind, you can get your money back.
Medical insurance will probably cover you out of the country – except Medicare and Medicaid. My corporate Aetna insurance covered all of my (and Virginia’s) misadventures but they considered the ship’s doctor “out of plan”, so the reimbursement was lower.
Yes, I said “reimbursement.” The ship’s medical center charges you cash money to your shipboard account. They’re not going to file with your insurance and bill you the difference. So, be prepared to pay full price onboard. Keep all your receipts! When you get home, file with your health insurance provider, take the receipts and what you reimbursed, and file that with your travel insurance provider. We’ve done this a few times, and have always received 100% of the money back. However, we’ve had medical bills on the ship that were our highest expense by far.
“I can’t afford the insurance.” How did you afford the cruise? More importantly, when the ship sails away in Mexico because your wife spent too much time shopping (or your husband spent too much time drinking), how are going to afford to get home?
Get trip insurance. Visit insuremytrip.com or your favorite broker. Just get it.
For those who are afraid of everything, here are some notes from Virginia’s research for our niece before their first cruise:
There is trip insurance that covers everything, which you can buy directly through an independent insurance company. My research found the most comprehensive plans are offered by Nationwide Insurance.  None of the other plans we have looked at cover as much, especially when it comes to pre-existing conditions and actual situations (both medical and ship related).  
Most plans don’t cover pre-existing conditions.  They have a “Look-back Period”, which varies from 90 or 120 to 180 days.  This means if, for instance, you had to cancel your trip because your Dad had to be hospitalized in an emergency for his COPD, and you decided it was serious enough not to leave, they would look back at HIS medical records for that period of time, and if there was any treatment, change of meds, or anything that indicated this was not an unforeseen outcome, they would not cover your trip cancellation.
Nationwide has a pre-existing condition waiver.  They also cover stuff that surprised me!  If your itinerary gets changed, they actually will compensate you per port.  This is an unusual benefit.
Not many insurance plans cover trip cancellation as well as medical while you are on the trip.  Compared to the coverage we have through the cruise line, they are a little more expensive, but they cover the flights, hotel, etc., rather than only the cruise.  While Virginia was writing this note originally, there was a big discussion about insurance on Cruise Critic, and many people were recommending Nationwide.
This is not a recommendation, since we haven’t used them (yet), but to get a quote and the complete details on the plan, call Nationwide at 877-970-9059.  This is different than their main number.  It is direct to the group that handles travel insurance.

Muster Drill

Muster Drill is held on every cruise ship at the start of every voyage. It accomplishes a number of goals – it teaches all passengers where their lifeboat gathering place is, it shows passengers how to wear their life jackets, and it follows international standards.
Cruise lines are serious about passengers attending the Muster Drill. The muster location for your cabin is usually on a placard on the back of your cabin door – the specific sub-location is generally on your keycard. (The door map will show you that muster station B is the main dining room, for example, but your keycard will show your specific group – B6. In that example , you would go to the main dining room (muster station B) and look for a crew member holding a B6 sign (group B6).
Look around you at the drill. This is not just people-watching (although it is interesting to see how hammered some passengers are this early in the cruise), the people around you are the people who will be in your lifeboat. That’s what muster is – it’s the preparation to abandon ship.
Not all lines require you to bring your life jacket, so check before the drill or listen to the announcements. Life jackets are usually in the closet in your cabin, but on the larger ships, they are sometimes only kept at the muster stations.
You must attend the drill. Yes, it’s as exciting as the airline safety drill, but it’s still mandatory attendance. Being at the drill proves that you have found your evacuation point once. If you don’t attend, the staff will track you down and make you attend a makeup session. Muster drill could be really short if everyone gets there on time.
The elevators stop during the drill, so if you’re allergic to stairs, go a few minutes early. (There is one available for handicapped passengers.)
Make sure you have your keycard scanned or check in at the muster station! It’s how the staff know you attended.
Listen for the description of the general alarm. On Norwegian, it’s seven short blasts of the horn, followed by a long blast. (Just remember seven dwarves and Snow White.) other lines should be the same or similar.
An interesting historical note – muster drills are part of SOLAS – the International Convention on Safety of Life at Sea. The first version was drafted after the RMS Titanic sank. So, thanks for nothing, iceberg.
Another interesting historical note – muster is done before ships leave port because the Costa Concordia ran aground before the muster drill had been held. Oops.

Internet

I thought I would start writing down subjects we think are obvious, but new cruisers might not have considered. A FAQ for the sea.
One of our friends messaged us a week or so back and said his son was leaving in a cruise the next day, and didn’t want to take his laptop, were there computers onboard?
My answer would have been “Yes”, but since we’ve been on one of her sister ships, Virginia actually gave directions to where the Internet Cafe is located, probably.
Everyone wants to disconnect on vacation, but few of us can. So, how do you get connected at sea?
Many ways.

  • The “no-hardware” method is to use the computers onboard. This means you’re in line with everyone else that left their laptop at home. You buy an Internet package, and you must login to your account to use the ship’s PCs. Your minutes count down as you work. SIGN OFF WHEN YOU’RE DONE. If you don’t logout, your minutes keep winding down, and anyone else that uses the computer will be using your minutes.
  • The “lightweight” method is bringing a tablet and using the ship’s WiFi. You buy an Internet package and login to your account on the tablet. This is a more secure method and you can check your email in your room or by the pool (if you’re lucky.) You still have to remember to logout!
  • The “cheap” method is using your cell phone in port, assuming you have an International plan (or one is included.) Our Sprint plan has cheap talk minutes in the Caribbean, but data is free (it’s 3G, but it’s free.) Check with your carrier. Make sure your phone is on Airplane mode on the ship! Ships have cell towers and most carriers are happy to have you use them – for a large fee.
  • The “free” method is using a cell phone in Airplane mode or a tablet or laptop and finding a place in each port with free WiFi. The crew probably knows some places, so ask around.

Internet Packages
Ships now have multiple Internet packages, so make sure you check what you get. For example, some lines have a Social Media package that includes most social media sites, but not email. I can’t live without email. If your laptop is for work, you may need a package that supports VPN so you can connect back to your office.
Whatever package you need, it may be cheaper to purchase it ahead of time, before you board.
If you can, disconnect. It’s a great feeling.