Escape Winter with a Cruise

A beach is lovely as an alternative to shoveling snow
It's rare that I have any "alone time" because I have a young son with special needs and a husband who travels for work.  This Christmas, my husband decided to take him to Dubai on a business trip with his older sons.  That left me with nothing to do but clean closets or read for 2 weeks.  Neither seemed like a fun option, so I invited my older son to go on a Panama Canal Cruise with me.  We have a saying in our family, that you should never be without a passport because you never know what travel opportunities might be available on short notice.  He learned this the hard way when once he couldn't find his passport or it had expired and he spent an entire day in Chicago trying to get a replacement.  He's been to 5 continents, and we wanted to find a destination that would include South America so he could check off number 6.  He was happy to oblige and was lucky that his boss could give him so much time off.
Jake and I putting our feet in the Caribbean at Aruba
Cruising is a great easy way to see multiple destinations and you only have to unpack once!  There's plenty to do for everyone in your group, and you don't have to see each other any more than you want.  Some groups are together just for dinner.  Kids have their own decks on some ships which include dancing, games, pools, and lots of interaction with others their age.

Our home away from home for 11 days 
I found out that if you're looking for a cruise and are able to book last minute, you can save quite a bit off the listed price.  We did.  The downside was that EVERYONE was heading to Florida for the holidays, and that meant that what we saved on the cruise, we spent on airfare.  Lesson learned. To find the best price available, do a bit of internet searching for the cruise and see who is offering the best price.  A good website to get you started is Cruise.com. Then you should call the cruise line directly to see if they match that price, or may even offer something better.  We ended up getting an additional book of coupons to use onboard that helped with a few purchases.  We also got a balcony room for the rate of an ocean view room.  It was a plus having a door that opened to the fresh air.  If you prefer really huge discounts, check out skyauction.com or cruisecompete.com.  I recommend you read this E-how article if you plan to bid.  When speaking to anyone about booking, mention if you are a veteran, member of AAA, AARP...just ask for discounts!  They may not ask you.

If you have the option of using Southwest Airlines, take it.  Your bags fly for free and you have the option to change your flights without penalty, so if a date changes or another fare becomes available that is cheaper, you can change it.  On a cruise, you can pack lots of stuff.  I normally take one small bag for traveling anywhere else, but this time I brought two filled bags. They usually have a formal night so you'll need room for extra shoes, suit coat, fancy dress, etc.  Remember when you're browsing flights to include another $50 in the price to check bags, if you use any other airlines. And if you're using a comparison flight website like Kayak or expedia, Southwest does not show up.  It can make a difference.  The downside to Southwest is that it's sort of a free for all to get seats.  They are not assigned.  You check in up to 24 hours in advance and whoever checks in first gets a higher number so they take priority over people who check in later...or worse yet, wait until the airport.  I always set an alarm exactly 24 hours ahead of the flight so I can be among the first to check in and then won't get stuck in a middle seat unless I choose it.  You all end up on the plane.  I guess it's just a psychological thing getting to make choices.

Winter is a big time for cruising the Caribbean.  The worst of the hurricane and storm season is over.  Weather is warmer than most of the USA, and you can find a variety of cruise lengths and destinations. Selecting a cruise line is dependent on what you want to find onboard.  We've cruised with luxury cruises, Disney, Princess, Caribbean, etc.  Each have their own personality.  Look at photos and a listing of amenities for the ships.  Be sure there are adequate entertainment options for what you enjoy.  The larger ships have water slides and rock climbing walls on deck, along with a shopping mall at the center.  The smaller ships often have smaller bars and no large theater performances.  If it's Disney, expect children to crowd out the swimming pool.  Read reviews of cruise lines, destinations, and ships at Cruise Critic.  People who have been there before can give some great tips!
Shows include magicians, theater productions, or a single entertainer
Outdoor movies, burgers, fruity drinks and a pool await you!
The smaller luxury lines include everything in their pricing so you only pay once.  The rest have onboard purchases that are billed during the cruise for things like soda, bottled water, fancy coffee, and adult beverages.  There are usually a couple of restaurants that serve upscale dinners for an additional cost.  If you're a foodie, this will be worth it to you.  You'll also pay for shore excursions separately, in most situations.  Be sure to budget for tips as well because the people who work onboard rely on them. Pay attention to your bills as you sign them to see if tips are included.  You may realize that you've been double tipping.  Don't be surprised if you have a hefty bill when you leave the ship.  Tips alone can set you back several hundred dollars.  Make sure you preauthorize your card so your payment can be made, and check daily with the ship to see your transactions so you won't be shocked at the end.
Lobster at one of the private restaurants onboard.  Worth the extra $25 for dinner!
Shore excursions can be booked with the ship ahead of time or while you're on the cruise.  Don't be afraid to check tripadvisor.com for the scheduled destinations to see if you can find a better deal.  We used both options.  If you're on a tight schedule, always opt for the ship's excursions to be sure you won't get left behind.  If you have an entire day in port, you can always hire a taxi by the hour for your group and/or set up with a local tour company.  Most tours use the internet now and will take your credit card in advance.  They are familiar with cruise ships and will meet you at the port.
A zipline canopy tour of a rainforest was a fun option
Local tour guides speak your language and share interesting stories
For an international cruise, an insurance policy is a MUST!  All it takes is a bad case of food poisoning or a strange insect bite, and you might need to go home.  With a policy, you can be evacuated and taken to a hospital with minimal cost.  The cruise lines offer this service, but you can shop online too.  Don't skimp here. Get one that includes your flights so if you miss the ship due to a weather cancellation on a flight, you get a refund.

Do you love to Snapchat, Facebook, Skype, etc?  This will be very costly if you want to use the ship's WIFI.  Buy a packaged plan from the ship or check with your cellphone provider to see if you can add cell coverage.  I know a man who came back to a $10,000 bill for using the ship's cell system to check his email and Facebook.  Finding internet in ports is very difficult and it is often slow to download and drops frequently.  Expect to be out of touch for the duration of your trip. It's good to really get away once in awhile.  I hope you do it!  I'd love to hear about your cruising!
We were thrilled to find WIFI in a Dunkin Donuts at Nassau.  The place was packed with phone checking tourists!

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