How do you choose the perfect cabin, make your own porthole, and never, ever get lost at sea? The winners of our World's Best Cruiser contest spill their time-tested cruising secrets.
We recently asked readers to stake their claim to the title World's Best Cruiser. After 11,000 votes from BT readers, it was clear that Martha and Ken Wiseman of Romeoville, Ill., had made a watertight case: The retired educators have hit almost 350 ports on nearly 70 cruises in the past 38 years. "In 1973, we met a couple who had just gotten off a cruise," Martha says. "Our eyes lit up as they described it -- and we never looked back!"
CHOOSE YOUR CABIN WISELY Choosing a cabin is all about location, location, location. Check the ship's layout online before booking, and opt for a room with passenger floors above and below you. You don't want to try to sleep right under the disco, the casino, or the running track.
PACK SMARTLY Most cruise lines offer certain drinks for free -- juice, lemonade, iced tea, coffee, milk, tea -- but you'll have to pay for soda. If you're a caffeine addict, pack a bottle or two. Unlike on a plane, you won't have to worry about paying for the added weight.
PLAN YOUR SCHEDULE For fire-safety reasons, cabins don't have their own irons. Don't wait until the last minute to tackle your evening wardrobe. You can find shared irons down the hall in the laundry room, but lines often form before mealtimes. Opt for off-hours (like mornings).
WAKE UP EARLY It's easy to lose track of time in a windowless interior cabin. Before going to sleep, tune into the ship's bridge-camera channel for real-time videos of the front (or bow) of the boat. The screen will act like a virtual porthole, and you'll rise and shine with the sunrise.
GET YOUR EMAIL WITHOUT PAYING ROAMING CHARGES Internet phone services like Vonage can be programmed to send transcribed voice mails to your email in-box. That way, you can check your home answering machine quickly at an Internet cafe without paying insane roaming fees on your cell. The transcriptions won't always be perfect, but you'll get the gist.
KEEP AN EYE ON YOUR TOWELS Don't assume you can save a spot at the pool with your towel. Cruise lines give you one pool towel at the start of the cruise. If you don't have it (or a cleaned trade-in) at the end, you'll get charged. If you let it out of your sight, you run the risk of losing it or having it stolen by a fellow cruiser.
KNOW WHEN TO PREPARE FOR ROUGH SEAS If your tablecloth is wet at dinner, you should prepare for rough seas. Restaurant staffers have been known to slightly dampen the tablecloth to keep plates and glasses from sliding.
FIND LOST BAGS If the porters haven't delivered your luggage to your door by the first night of the cruise, check what our experts call the "naughty room." Security will store any bags containing contraband (like candles, alcohol, or coffeemakers) in this centralized location until you come claim it. You'll be able to pick up your bag on the first night, but banned items will not be returned until the end of the trip.
FIX UP YOUR ROOM Make your cabin homier by packing a small collapsible vase and a bouquet of flowers.
TAKE BETTER PICTURES If you go directly from the air-conditioned ship out onto the open-air deck (which is usually warmer and more humid in most cruise destinations), your camera's lens is likely to fog up. Warm the camera with your cabin's hairdryer on a low setting or briefly leave it out on your balcony so it can acclimate to the weather.
COMMUNICATE WITH YOUR CABIN MATES If you even manage to get a cell signal while at sea, your roaming charges will be outrageous. To communicate with your cabin mates, leave Post-it Notes on your door detailing where you'll be throughout the day.
FIND YOUR WAY ON ANY SHIP If you get lost on a ship, remember that most share a common layout. The lido-deck buffet restaurant, for example, will almost always be in the back to accommodate comfortable outdoor seating in the least windy part of the ship, while the lounge/theater will be in the front because wind is not a factor (there are no windows).