There are two reasons why people make simple mistakes that can ruin their vacations: The questions we never think to ask; and the things we know we should do, but neglect due to over-confidence.

Before You Go

There are two reasons why people make simple mistakes that can ruin their vacations: The questions we never think to ask; and the things we know we should do, but neglect due to over-confidence. Either way, a mistake is a mistake. This article offers a practical checklist covering the things that most often cause a good vacation to go bad. We'll start with the things that should be done well in advance of your departure.

1. Know your passport and visa requirements.

Some of the saddest stories I have heard are about people who aren't allowed to board a cruise ship, or enter a country, because they do not have the proper passport, visa or other credentials.

Making sure you have the proper documents is your responsibility, not the cruise line's. So investigate your personal requirements regarding citizenship, visas, and your passport before you leave. A good travel agent can be very helpful in this area, but only if you are very clear about your situation when discussing it with the agent.

When you board a cruise ship, you will have to show that you have proper documentation to visit the countries on the itinerary. You may be asked for your credentials by the cruise line, or by a government customs agent from the destination country. If you don't have the proper papers, you might not be allowed to board the ship, whether you planned to go ashore in that country or not.

Sometimes even the best preparation isn't enough. I received a letter from a woman scheduled on a cruise to Bermuda who arrived at the port of New York with a Macao passport. Having done her homework, she knew she was allowed to enter Bermuda. But when the port official checked her passport, he saw that it said People's Republic of China, so she was denied boarding. The official did not know that Macao is special administrative region of China, like Hong Kong, and its residents are allowed in Bermuda.

Sadly, this woman lost her cruise, her cruise fare, and had to pay extra to stay in New York while she tried unsuccessfully to sort things out. She did eventually reach a settlement the cruise line, even though the person at fault was a Bermuda customs official.

The saddest part? She had downloaded from the Internet all the documentation she needed to prove that she was correct, but she left it at home because she never expected to encounter a customs official who didn't know the rules.

Another common problem is that individuals may be denied entrance to a foreign land if their passport is due to expire within six months - even if the cruise is only seven days long. I have also heard stories of U.S. citizens arriving in Brazil and having to fly back to the United States because they did not have a Brazilian visa.

I have also seen instances of passengers who are U.S. citizens through marriage, but didn't update their foreign passports to U.S. passports because the foreign ones were still valid. I was traveling with a woman carrying a Jamaican passport who was denied entrance to Greece at the Athens airport because Jamaicans needed a visa -- although her husband was allowed in.

Ultimately, on the day of boarding, a cruise line does not have the time or ability (it is usually a Saturday or Sunday, when offices are closed) to sort out documentation problems. If you do not have the proper credentials you will not be allowed to board, and you will not get a refund. If you know you have special or unusual circumstances, bring copies of official Department of State policies for the country you are entering. Not every official will know every rule.

2. Check all documents well before you leave.

Always check all your travel documents when they arrive, and then recheck them three or four days before your scheduled departure. On several occasion, I found mistakes in my travel documents that needed correcting. By verifying all information at least three days in advance, you leave time to deal with most possible errors.

3. Check your cruise itinerary carefully

On a cruise I'm taking this summer, it looks like the ship arrives in Venice a day early so you can see the city and disembark the next day. But the actual arrival time the night before is 10 p.m. You can't see much of Venice after midnight, and if I hadn't booked a hotel, we would be flying out the next morning and missing one of the wonders of the modern world.

Always check your itinerary to make sure you will have enough time to see what you want to see. Cruise itinerary listings can be tricky, especially start and end dates. Some cruise lines count the day your flight arrives in Europe as Day One, but in reality you will arrive at the airport, transfer to the ship, unpack, and then sail away. If you want to see the embarkation city -- and most cruises start in places where you will want to spend some time -- arrive a few days early and book a hotel. It's always a good idea anyway, to make sure you catch your ship, because airline service these days is statistically at all-time low for customer satisfaction.

4. Don't think you have to buy a lot of cruise appropriate clothes.

This is mostly for first time cruisers, though my dear wife seems to look at every upcoming cruise as a reason to shop. Because cruise lines publish and refer to dress codes all the time, newcomers often think there is some kind of unofficial uniform to wear on a ship.

The real dress code on a cruise ship probably exists in your closet already, so you shouldn't have to buy anything. I am happy to see the trend toward more casual cruising, mainly because formal dress requirements put a lot of people off from cruising. (After working on a ship for a year and wearing a suit seven days a week, I swore that if I ever cruised as a passenger I would never wear a suit. Of course, I didn't keep that oath.)

Daytime wear is what you'd see during a pool party at a rich uncle's house. For men, cotton (not denim) shorts and a polo shirt are perfect. Button-down patterned shirts are also great; so are tropical (Hawaiian-style) shirts for tropical destinations, or any other pattern you like.

If you can't tell what color your sneakers were when you bought them, buy a new pair. Sandals are also acceptable for daytime wear -- but not on shore tours, where you need to protect your feet. For women, shorts and slacks for daytime wear are most practical, because decks can get windy. The air-conditioned interiors of cruise ships can also get chilly, so bring a sweater.

For men, formal night dining means you will want a jacket of some kind and preferably a tie, along with dark dress shoes. Shorts, sneakers, baseball hats and denim are never appropriate in the dining room. Finally, please do not buy nautical-themed clothes such as striped sweaters with epaulets or captain's style hats! You will look like a tenderfoot and probably feel like one, too.

5. Leave shipboard contact information at home for your family & friends.

I get email every week from people who need to get in touch with a loved one on a ship, either for good or bad news. It almost every case, they don't even know which cruise line to contact. Unfortunately, I cannot help these people.

When your cruise documents arrive, look for a punch-out card to give your friends or relatives, telling them everything they need to know about contacting you on your cruise. Make several copies of this information and send it to friends and family by e-mail, or by mail if necessary. The idea is to give it to them in a form that they can easily find if they need it. Tell them to stick on their refrigerator with a magnet until you get back.

6. Getting to the ship.

The easiest transfers from airport to pier are available from the cruise line. They almost always provide a representative who waits in the baggage claim area and directs arriving passengers to the appropriate motor coach. If you do not see a representative for your cruise line, ask someone who works there. They usually know where you should look. Don't expect to see someone waiting for you at your arrival gate.

If you opt for your own taxicab to the ship, be aware of the possibility that some taxi drivers will scam you, especially in foreign countries. My favorite taxi scam involves the old Turkish Lira, which was worth 160,000 to the Dollar. It is quite difficult to distinguish a 5,000,000 note from a 500,000 note when you are dealing with unfamiliar currency. So when the taxi fare was 800,000 lira, I gave them a 5,000,000 lira ($35) note. Then the driver fiddled with his money where I couldn't see it, held up a 500,000 lira note, and said You did not give me enough. Taking him at his word, I handed over another 500,000 lira note, and received 200,000 lira in change. I should have received 4,200,000 in change (about $30). Back at the hotel, I noticed I was about $100 short when I converted my lira back to dollars. Only then did I realize three different cabbies scammed me the same way in one day.

In a foreign country, always ask the taxi driver the approximate fare to your destination before you enter the cab. Also ask if there is an extra charge for baggage. If he says he does not know exactly, ask him to estimate it. If he merely points to the meter, implying the cost is what the meter says, this is a fair deal; just make sure he turns on the meter as soon as he starts driving.

If you ever have a dispute with a cab driver, do not mention it until you and your luggage are safely outside the taxicab. Then leave someone else in your party to watch your luggage and look for a policeman. Chances are the cab driver will cave, or he might get back in his cab and drive away. Taxicabs are highly regulated throughout the world. And although they are infamous for scamming tourists, they never want to get in trouble with local officials.

7. Always watch your luggage

Any time you transfer luggage from one vehicle to another, keep your eyes on your bags at all times. Never let a taxi drive away until you are sure you have all your luggage; and when you give bags to a porter, double-check that every bag that should go into your stateroom or hotel room is on his cart. When you arrive in your room, count your bags immediately.

Be prepared to tip anyone who transports your bags, at about one dollar per bag. This is not required at some cruise terminals, notably Ft. Lauderdale and Tampa. However, the porters in Miami expect a tip and will wait for one. Just remember that the terminal porters are not the people who put your bags onto the ship. All they do is take them to the security-screening machine. There is no need to over-tip them; a dollar per bag is fine.


8. Memorize your room number

When you check in, you will receive a key card that you use to open your cabin door and make purchases on the ship. This key card will not have your room number on it for security reasons, so write your room number on a separate piece of paper until you memorize it. Today's ships are vast, and the number of staterooms is staggering. All doors along passenger hallways look alike, and it can be embarrassing to call security because you think your key card is not working, only to find out you've been putting it into the wrong door. (Umm, I've never done this personally, but a good friend of mine has.)

9. Don't let small problems spoil your cruise.

If you have a problem or special need, make sure you talk to the right person. If you want extra pillows and blankets, tell your room steward. The guest relations office, which you can contact by phone, is the place to address any problems your room steward cannot manage. If your problem is not resolved to your satisfaction, speak to the hotel manager.

Always bring up problems as early as possible. Too many people simply stew about a problem and let it ruin their vacation. If your problem cannot be fixed, you might be asking for something beyond their capability. The worst thing you can do is turn your cruise vacation into a battle with the cruise line. If you can live with the problem, drop it for now and deal with it when the cruise is over.

I receive many copies of readers' complaint letters to cruise lines. One of my favorites was from a gentleman who, upset with a night of loud music in the ship's atrium, called the hotel manager and left a message. When he didn't get a call back, he used his cell phone (at $4 a minute) to call the cruise line's customer relations office in the States. He was on hold for 25 minutes. Now he expects the cruise line to reimburse him for his phone call.

Cruise lines deal with several complaints every day, and if they cannot solve yours quickly, they probably cannot solve it at all. Just accept that they have done the best they can. They also run into a lot of cranks and chronic complainers who, quite frankly, are just looking for compensation for something that is not really a problem. These people usually ask for a bottle of champagne or a cruise credit as compensation. Don't be one of these people. A person who has a legitimate complaint, and asks for a solution and nothing more, will often get more compensation than he or she asks for.

10. Don't burn out

It is tempting to try every activity offered on your cruise, but don't put yourself at risk of getting sick. If you feel tired, take a nap or go to bed early, especially if you have a shore excursion the next day. Getting sick is one of the worst ways to ruin your vacation.

Viruses on ships are well documented. The best way to avoid them is to wash your hands with soap and dry them thoroughly with a towel, as often as possible. Avoid touching banisters and railings in public areas, and allow food servers to serve you in restaurants. Never pick up a piece of buffet food with your hands.

11. Leaving the ship -- the final bill

You should get a preliminary and a final bill on the two days before your cruise ends. Always read over both of them for incorrect charges. I know a couple currently disputing a $12,000 dollar art auction charge! The cruise line says they bid on and received a Picasso drawing. The people say they know nothing about it. It is a mess. One strike against them is that they did not mention the item when it appeared on their shipboard final bill, because they didn't look. They just walked off the ship!

Bottom line and final word: One of the main reasons even the most experienced cruisers make mistakes is overconfidence. I have flown so many times, it never occurs to me that I might confuse the arrival time with the departure time. When I see that a ship is in port overnight, I assume I will have plenty of time to see the port. Not necessarily true! Make double-checking documents a habit, and do it several days before you leave. Just because you have been on several cruises, it doesn't mean you can go on automatic pilot.