Experts from Vacations To Go share the inside scoop
on how to get the most out of your next sailing
By Brent Stoller
When you're planning a cruise, it's easy to get lost amid a sea of questions. That's why we got you some answers.
In the following Q&A, experts from Vacations To Go, the world's largest cruise agency, call upon their 120-plus combined years with the company -- as well as their personal experiences on countless sailings -- to give you the tips and tricks you need to make the most of your time at sea.
When you're ready to head for open waters, contact Vacations To Go to book your adventure. Bon voyage!
(Answers have been condensed for clarity. Years listed are the number of years with Vacations To Go.)
What size ship do you prefer -- big, small or something in between?
Rusty Fletcher, manager with Vacations To Go's singles department (seven years): In addition to the places I visit, I like to think of the ship itself as the vacation destination. The larger ships seem to offer the most on board.
Kim Norris, master cruise counselor (five years): Small ships are in a class of their own with such an intimate setting. You have the opportunity to develop relationships on board.
Bruce Godwin, master cruise counselor and luxury specialist (15 years): The midsize, 800 to 1,200 passengers. They have something for everyone, but they're not overwhelmingly big.
Kari Bean, vice president of the customer care team (15 years): It depends on the destination. If I were going to the Caribbean, I'd want a big ship. They have all kinds of activities, and you're going to have a couple of days at sea. Whereas, in the Mediterranean, you're at port almost every day, so you're going to be out exploring the destination.
Beyond the essentials (money, passport, etc.), what do you make sure to pack?
Godwin: Oversize baggies for when I have a wet bathing suit from the last day of the cruise.
Shanon Earnhardt, communications manager (eight years): A lanyard for my keycard. They will punch a hole in the card for you, and you can clip it on your lanyard so you don't have to worry about it falling out of your wallet.
Clarkson Rosel, assistant manager of the groups and singles departments (nine years): A wrinkle-release spray. You won't find an iron in your room, and having your clothes pressed on the ship can get pricey.
Maricela Prayther, manager for incentive and custom group travel (14 years): My insulated cup. It keeps my drink cold or hot, and I don't mistake it for someone else's.
Sasha Shambach, travel counselor (four years): A sweater, because it can get cold on the ship.
Joseph Orr, team manager (six years): On our hosted singles' cruises, costumes. We have theme nights, and dressing up gets you involved.
Norris: A sports water bottle, because there's filtered water throughout the ship. You can take the bottle on land or carry it around on the ship.
Cheryl Cunningham, senior director of special projects (28 years): On an active itinerary, I bring Band-Aids, because you're doing so much walking.
R.J. Hightower, director of the groups, singles and special needs departments (10 years): This is kind of cheesy, but I always bring an appetite. There's a "rule" on cruises that you have to eat every two hours, so you've got to be prepared.
What's the first thing you do upon boarding the ship after check-in?
Bean: If my cabin is ready, I like to completely unpack. If not, I want to explore the ship and get the lay of the land.
Godwin: Eat. I always try to be in the first group on board. Some of the ships have the main dining room open, but it may only be open from 12 to 1:30 p.m., so if you don't embark early, sometimes the main dining room will be closed.
Earnhardt: There often are giveaways in the first few hours that you're on the ship, either at the spa or fitness center, for spa treatments or a free trainer session. I'll hit those areas and get a raffle ticket.
Cunningham: The first thing I do is go up to my room. Then I find a neat little spot with comfortable chairs that's great for people-watching.
Norris: We find a bar and get our bon voyage drink. I don't drink a lot, but when I get on the ship, it's the first thing I do. It's that vacation mentality.
What onboard activities or attractions should cruisers consider?
Godwin: If you're on a ship that offers a galley tour, I recommend that. It's
astonishing to see what they accomplish in that small space for all the meals they have to serve.
Earnhardt: Royal Caribbean has RipCord by iFly, where you can do indoor skydiving.
Orr: On Carnival, they bring in first-class comedians. The shows are family-oriented early and adult-oriented later. Disney has Broadway-level shows -- they're my favorite at sea.
Fletcher: On the Oasis-class ships for Royal Caribbean, I always recommend ziplining over the Boardwalk.
Rosel: After the kids have gone to bed, check out the show "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" on Norwegian Epic.
What's the best way to meet people on board?
Earnhardt: Open dining. It allows you to sit with a different group each night.
Orr: I like to be in the middle of it, on the lido deck with the games, the activities and the cruise director. And birds of a feather flock together. You're not going to a nightclub if you hate dancing. So you meet like-minded people when you go to places you like.
Bean: The table games in the casino. That's where you're going to meet people and have a lot of interaction.
Cunningham: If you're sitting at a table playing trivia, you work with other people and find a common bond. And when you see them later, the ice
Shambach: I like to do at least one wine tasting. That's a super way, because it's people who share your interests. The other way is with excursions.
Fletcher: As a single, I try to book Norwegian Cruise Line's studio staterooms on Norwegian's newest ships, starting with the Epic. All the rooms share this living room area. It's a big lounge. They have happy hours, a dedicated cruise host and private activities.
Conversely, where do you go for a little peace and quiet on board?
Bean: My cabin, preferably if I have a balcony.
Fletcher: If I'm really in need of relaxing, I'll book a thermal suite at the spa. (Editor's note: These spa areas feature saunas, steam rooms, aromatherapy showers and heated tile loungers.)
Cunningham: On some ships, I find they might have a coffee bar, and not far from the coffee bar there's an outside area where you can sip your coffee, read your book and enjoy the ocean breeze.
Godwin: No matter how big the ship is, and no matter how many people are on board, the aft is always quiet. There's no wind at the back, so it's a relaxing place to go.
Rosel: One of my favorite things to do is to stay on board during port days if the sailing visits a port I've been to many times. The ship is yours!
What's a can't-miss shore excursion?
Earnhardt: Whale watching. I have an incredible picture of a whale; I managed to get it when almost its whole body was out of the water. My knees were shaking, because I was like, "Did that really happen?"
Hightower: In the Caribbean, I like to do catamaran rides or a boat charter. And the snorkeling is some of the best in the world.
Cunningham: Kayaking down the Split River in Croatia. It was a great way to see the countryside and meet the locals. In Belize, I went swimming with sharks.
Rosel: Through Carnival, the "Amazing Cozumel Race." Like on the game show "The Amazing Race," you and a partner receive clues and run through the city to find the next task or adventure.
Bean: Swimming with the stingrays in Grand Cayman.
Godwin: My favorite in the Caribbean is Stingray City in Grand Cayman. They're like little kittens; they come up and rub against your leg.
What specialty restaurants provide an outstanding experience?
Orr: Le Bistro, the French restaurant on Norwegian. Silk Road is the Asian-infused specialty restaurant on Crystal Cruises. And Toscana, the Italian specialty restaurant on Oceania.
Godwin: In no particular order: Umi Uma & Sushi Bar on the Crystal ships, the Jacques Pepin restaurants on the Oceania ships, The Grill by Thomas Keller on Seabourn and Remy on the Disney ships.
Fletcher: On the Regal Princess, the Chef's Table experience. They serve Champagne and hors d'oeuvres during a galley tour, then you sit down for a multicourse dinner that's paired with their selected wines. The chef gives insights into the ingredients. At the end, you get a Princess cookbook that's been signed.
What's worth seeking out in onboard shops?
Orr: Anything ship-specific for souvenirs. You can't find those in port.
Fletcher: Jewelry, handbags and makeup -- the shops have a great selection, and it's a way to take advantage of duty-free deals. When I'm in the market to buy new cologne or a new watch, I always wait to go on a ship to check out what they have.
Godwin: Almost every ship has clearance items. For example, at the end of the season when ships are leaving Alaska, all the Alaska stuff will be on sale.
What has been your favorite cruise destination?
Fletcher: The Western Mediterranean offers the perfect mix of sightseeing and exploration. The Eastern Mediterranean has the Dalmatian Coast, which is beautiful.
Earnhardt: Alaska. I've never seen more bald eagles. They're everywhere.
Godwin: The South American cruise that goes around Cape Horn is spectacular. That has the most dramatic change in scenery and weather in one cruise that I've been on. You begin in Buenos Aires or Santiago where it's like summer. Within a few hours, you're in the Falkland Islands or Punta Arenas in Chile where there's mountains and snow, and it's like winter.
Hightower: The best beaches are in the Eastern Caribbean.
Orr: The Baltic Sea. There wasn't one port that didn't deliver. With St. Petersburg, Russia, you know it's going to be good because it's the highlight of the trip. But in places like Estonia, you're like, "Wow, I didn't know this place had that much to offer."
Bean: Greece. The views are spectacular, and you get to island-hop.
Rosel: I enjoy the cruise lines' private islands and retreats like Royal Caribbean's Labadee in Haiti. The beaches are clean and beautiful, and you don't need to bring cash with you for drinks or lunch.
Shambach: Hawaii. I went on the Norwegian Pride, and they did a great job of giving you the ability to enjoy several of the islands.
What is your dream cruise?
Earnhardt: I want to do one of the mast sailing ships on either Windstar or Star Clippers. There's something so neat about cruising with a sail, just to hear all the sounds of the sails catching the wind.
Godwin: Antarctica. It's one of the last unspoiled places in the world, and one of the most difficult to get to.
Prayther: Croatia, with Dubrovnik.
Shambach: Thailand. I picture going on a small ship to be able to get up close to such beauty, both on land and water.
Hightower: Galapagos. There's so much to see that you don't see every day, like marine iguanas.
Bean: The Maldives on a smaller ship, because of the exoticness of it.
Cunningham: Australia and New Zealand. You've got a little bit of everything there.
Norris: Europe. It's a big place, but that's the great thing about cruising -- you can touch so many places at one time.
Orr: Antarctica and Galapagos. They're the most exotic, and the hardest to
Fletcher: South America. I want to hike Machu Picchu and trek to Iguassu Falls. I want to be able to say I've tangoed in Buenos Aires or been to Ushuaia, the southernmost town in the world.
Rosel: Ireland and Scotland are on my bucket list, and there is no better way to visit places on your bucket list than on a cruise.
The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in Summer 2018. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 338-4962 for current rates and details.