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Ahoy landlubbers! Are you ready to set sail on a kickin’ vacation cruise?

If you need the wind in your hair and smell of surf in your nostrils ASAP, we know how that goes, so we’ve got you covered. Many cruise lines cater to our nation’s finest with military discounts, so we’ll be taking a look at who’s got offers worth the time to check out. Whether you’re looking to escape cold, clouds and snow—or just put your feet up in general, we’re out to help you find good deals, have (hopefully) great times and avoid some hassles that may pop up for other vacationers.

These luxury liners definitely aren’t prison barges; you’re free to roam as you see fit, but there are a few small basic rules (mostly for safety) that we’ll be covering, too. Most of it boils down to “use common sense” and “if you need a crack pipe, don’t buy a ticket,” but we’ll get more specific in a little bit. There’s so much to see and do that we’ll also be surveying how to maximize your enjoyment by preparing beforehand (without having to schlep a pack mule’s worth of crap around in a bag for the whole trip).

We’re not saying that we’ll have you confining the captain to quarters and manning the wheel before all is said and done, but whether it’s sunny or rainy on-deck, we want you to have it made in the shade and relax.No matter where you live in North America, if there’s not a port nearby, there’s probably one within a day’s travel. Exotic destinations, good food, and gorgeous views await you—but keep in mind: like most things in life, it’s as much or more about how you spend the journey than whether or not an island has WIFI when you get there.

Before-You-Board-The-Boat Basics

Before we go into planning your cruise, let’s briefly cover paying for it. Carnival offers an array of military discounts worth looking over. You’ll want to check their calendar to find their best bargain fares by date according to stateroom types, departure ports or destinations. After that, you just select the date for the day’s top sailing rates. Princess Cruises offers a benefits program of their own to current and former members of our armed forces. Prove your eligibility and you can receive up to $250 in onboard spending money for free.

Without further ado, let’s move on to the main event: Some of you love the sound of a cruise, but you’ve never been on one. That’s not a problem—we’ll just need to prep you about taking care of some stuff in advance. You don’t have to do any of what follows, of course, but some of these babies could mean the difference between enjoying a great cruise and killing the longest week/weekend of your life.

For starters, take a look at your ports beforehand. We definitely don’t recommend waiting until the day that you arrive at a place and play blind tourist: if you don’t research them (at least a little) first, you could end up overwhelmed and without the slightest idea of what to do for the next eight hours in-port. Most cruise lines seldom go beyond handing out a map of a town’s jewelry stores (or other vendors they may have special business agreements with). Even if you’ve booked a several hour-long activity, you could still find yourself having to kill several more hours afterward. That’s why it always pays to learn what you can before you’re there.

When embarkation day comes, play tour guide for yourself (especially you’ve never been aboard a ship). You’re going to need to be able to make your way around a15-deck mega-ship amid over 3,000 fellow passengers once you’re underway. That’s why you want to look over deck plans, ship review sand message boards on the Web to see what’s where before it’s time to set sail. If you know where restaurants and lounges are beforehand, you’ll be maxing and relaxing from day one—and watching everybody else wander like a zombie.

Pack wisely, too. Sudden downpours are not unheard of, especially in the Caribbean. Unless things get dangerously stormy, shore excursions will run on time, wet or dry. Nobody will force you to go to, but there won’t be do-overs, either. A waterproof poncho or lightweight jacket shouldn’t take a minute to pack before you leave home. Trust us: it beats being one of those folk sporting a garbage bag poncho after the bottom drops out (because they’re usually brand new bags, but it’s not a good look for anybody).

The next one is “try to bring along a filtered water bottle.” Once you’ve boarded the ship, the only water you’ll have access to is either bottled (and $6 a pop) or from the tap. Tap water is cheaper, but you’ll either have to wait in line to get it from the bar or in your room to keep filling the tiny glasses provided for the faucet in your room. In a nutshell, if you want to be able to sip water comfortably as needed, you’d best bring your own. Hydration’s always a must-do, but it’s even more important when you’re lying around in the sun all day. That importance doubles if you’re munching salty foods and drinking alcohol. While we’re not allowed to bring any water onto airplanes or cruise vessels, you can always pack the bottle, empty—and then fill it up once you’re past security.

A portable cell phone charger can be a lifesaver, too. Cruise ships (and most Caribbean islands), don’t have phone charging stations everywhere. It’s a safe bet that there would be long lines to use one if there were. If you use your phone to take pictures (like most of the rest of West today), you don’t want your phone dying just before you need it. Granted, you can always charge in your room—but what if the phone dies when you’re 30 minutes away from the ship? Nobody with good sense wants to have to backtrack so far just for that.

Even if you plan to be straight up chillin’ in a lounge chair 24/7, don’t forget to bring exercise clothes and sneakers.

Why? Because it’s a cruise: while the ship’s at sea, you’re going to have eons of time on your hands. Believe it or not, even folk who normally just want to loaf the whole time get restless after a while. Especially if you notice some nice workout facilities on board, you could wind up wishing that you had brought your gear at some point. It wouldn’t be smart to start growing a gut if you’re due back on the base when you get home, either.

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Avoiding Davy Jones’ Locker

Thankfully they’re not endless, but there are a few don’t-dos that we’d recommend avoiding.

The first one is hitting the buffet on the day that you first board the ship. Some people say that debarkation day is the worst day of a cruise, but for others, embarkation day can run a close second. Most people get up early, commute a while to the port, and then spend lots of time thumb-twiddling in a Spartan terminal. All these hours before the cruise tends to make most people hungry. That’s why the lines for the buffet will be long and chaotic (while everybody’s loudly discussing how little they know their way around). Instead of the pool grill or buffet, consider heading to a dining room. Things are bound to be peaceful and more relaxing there.

Cruise lines have universally banned smoking in cabins. Many have banned smoking on private balconies, too. Most cruise ships require smokers to take a hike in order to get their morning nicotine fix. We’re not beating up on you, smokers. It’s just that cigarettes are a fire hazard and ships have caught fire from them too many times. Some folk consider them a public nuisance, too. That’s why cruise lines want cigarette use limited onboard. You’ll need to head for a designated area of an upper deck (or specified lounge)in order to light up.

For those who didn’t get the message between the lines in the paragraph above, don’t light flames onboard the ship: No candles and no incense unless you want to wind up in serious trouble. While you’re at it, don’t iron your clothes or try to cook on a smuggled-in hot plate (which’s a terrible idea, anyway) either. High heat sources can be just as much of a fire hazard on a boat as a match or lighter. You’re on vacation, anyway: why bring any work with you that you don’t absolutely have to?

Don’t misunderstand us, though: you should be fine with a curling/flat iron or a hair dryer (as long as you don’t go crazy and try to cook with them). If you’re desperate for the atmosphere in your room, battery-operated tea candles can add a little visual atmosphere without endangering anyone, too.

Here’s one thing that most newcomers might not know to avoid: Never plug your hair dryer into the bathroom shaving outlet! There is only one outlet in your bathroom, but it’s for shaving only. The voltage isn’t right for a hair dryer, so you could blow a fuse by trying it out. If you don’t want to irritate your shipboard neighbors, dry your hair by the desk in your cabin. You don’t want to be known as the jerk that shorted out everyone’s lights for the rest of the trip.

Discretion is your friend: if you have an argument (or get romantic) with someone, everyone is going to hear it. Cruise ship cabin walls are thin enough to allow sounds to travel right through connecting and hallway doors. That’s why watching movies out loud at full volume in the wee hours of the morning won’t make you any friends, either. Always keep the balcony in mind, while you’re at it. Unless you close the curtains, you can very easily be seen (by crewmembers, other passengers and sometimes dock workers) as well as heard. It’s probably best to avoid leaving the bathroom without clothes on for the duration of the trip.

If you’d rather not sleep near people who hate you, you also want to avoid over-spraying perfume. Shipboard ventilation systems are nothing to write home about, especially in windowless cabins. There’s no official rule about this, but going light on the cologne—and maybe applying that tiny amount in the bathroom with the door closed—could spare you from losing potential friends. By the same token, a modest spray of air freshener in the bathroom, post-use, will keep everyone happier.

Don’t give in to the temptation to leave a balcony door open. We understand the lure of having the sounds of wind and waves lull you to sleep, but warm air coming in will cause your cabin’s AC to work harder and wasted energy on the ship. It can cause smoke alarms to go off inexplicably, too (despite the absence of fire and smoke), which cruise lines frown on as much as running up their electric bills. Lastly, if you open your cabin door while the balcony entrance is open, you’ll create a wind tunnel inside the cabin, sending all your dining reservations and any other loose papers notices flying.

We shouldn’t even have to say this—but we’ll assume it’s for the benefit of someone who’ll be sailing with you: Don’t steal towels, bathrobes, or other things from your cabin. These things are cabin amenities to be used; not freebies for taking home. The towels may be soft and that bathrobe may be a perfect fit, but it’s not yours for keeps. Ditto in regards to that coffee table book about the ship. It should all be outside your luggage when you zip it up.

Getting sticky-fingered can also diminish any discounts you’ve gotten: When the staff inventories your room and finds out that items have gone missing, they will charge you an inflated price. There’s no shame in wanting a souvenir from your trip, but your money is better spent buying something new in the gift shop if you think about it. Would you really want used linens that have been touched by hundreds of passengers before you? We’ll pass on the robe, too—because you never know what stains have had to be repeatedly—and diligently—washed out of it. Remember the buffet we mentioned? You can do the math.

If you use your cabin’s safe, make sure to check it before you leave the ship. It’s there in order for you to store your passport, cell phone, extra cash, and credit cards, but when the trip’s over, your odds of seeing any of these that you’ve left behind will be slim for days. It doesn’t matter if you missed something stuck in a corner/back or completely forget to check it at all: you don’t want to wind up cursing at an airport because—you’ve just realized that—your photo ID has just set sail for another Caribbean vacation without you. Everyone has to decide for themselves, but if you’re chronically forgetful, consider storing your valuable stuff in the suitcase under your bed.

Maritime Mouse Ears

Chances are that if you have younger children, somebody’s going to try to talk you into sailing with Walt. Disney’s Cruise Line offers military discounts, but not all the time. You’ll want to check periodically because these deals come and go. New sailings are posted every Monday, but to get your best deal, you can sign up for their email notices, too. Discounted military cruise rates are usually announced between 30 and 60 days out from each individual sailing.

You’ll have to pay off the full fare price within 70 days of the sailing date for most itineraries. Disney won’t allow you to convert a full fare to a military rate. The good news is that if you’ve already reserved and paid in full at the regular rates but you’d like to switch to the military rate, you can: you’ll just have to put the new (full) military fare on your credit card—and then cancel the original reservation and wait for a refund. Assuming that you have enough room on your credit card for it, you should be good to go.

Since most military-discounted rates are offered after the paid-in-full date has passed, you will only get a partial refund if you cancel a paid-in-full cruise. It’s usually 75% or less, but it varies with the time frame. While doing this can save you money, it’s obviously not as simple as canceling and rebooking. You can still save some money overall, even with the penalties. Since you’ll be canceling your original booking, however, you will lose everything in the transition: bye-bye stateroom choice, shore excursion reservations, dining reservations, and so on.

When you pay for the new booking upfront, you’ll have done so without the refund applied to your credit card for your old booking. That’ll have to come later. Normally Disney sets aside fifty staterooms of all categories for the military rates. The only exceptions are for the suites and lowest categories.

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