The Fat Girl’s Guide to Taking a Cruise
Posted by Angela in Sports + Recreation
This week’s Fat Girl’s Guide is the first installment of a two-part series. Part I takes you through all your cruise prep – from research to wardrobe. Next week's Guide will be crammed with ways to make the most of your onboard experience.

A few things are certain on a cruise: Drinks will be ridiculously expensive. By Day 3, you'll begin to recognize other passengers and to make up nicknames and stories for them ("Needs-to-Lay-Off-the-Spray-Tan Lady," "Guy with Giant Smurf Tattoo"). If your name is "Angela," you will be "The Girl Who Over-Packed" and you will never live it down.

You'll notice one assumption conspicuously absent from that list of guarantees: Everyone will be thin, sporty and cover-model gorgeous.

If anyone has ever told you that fat people don't cruise, I'm here to tell you they're wrong. The truth is, unless you're taking a specialty voyage geared toward a particular audience (singles, families, LGBT community, under-30, BBW, etc.), your fellow travelers will represent all different shapes, sizes, ages, backgrounds and activity levels. Cruising while fat is the same as tackling any other opportunity -- you just need a game plan. And maybe some Dramamine.

Determine your travel style.

The options are almost limitless when it comes to voyage length, destination, ship amenities and formality level, so a savvy girl and her traveling companion(s) need to set a few basic priorities before booking. Will you spend most of your time on the ship, or do you plan to see the sights at each port? What amenities are the most important to you? Fabulous spa? Tons of pools? Luxurious bedding? Unique on-board activities like bowling or a climbing wall? Do you want lots of kid-friendly activities or a more relaxed, adult pace? Lengthier cruises tend to attract more seasoned travelers and retirees, while voyages during school breaks will be loaded with kids. Compile a list of must-haves (spa!), negotiables (bedding), and deal-breakers (tons of kids if you're looking for a singles experience) and see if you can find a cruise line and voyage that meets your needs.

Your dining experience requires more planning than you think.

We know fat girls sometimes feel more confident in casual wear vs. formal (or vice versa), so it's important to know your comfort level before committing to a particular ship. Do you love the idea of getting dressed up in the evening, chatting with new friends and having a set dinner time? You'll probably be a fan of more traditional cruises, offered by many lines (Carnival is one example). Although a number of lines have begun offering flexible dinner times or a 24-hour cafeteria on some ships, the traditional cruise dinner experience matches you with a set group of dining companions at a fixed time throughout your voyage. Dress codes are more formal as well, and some may require cocktail attire.

On the other hand, if you're not a fan of chatting up new people, or if you enjoy a more casual experience and a higher level of flexibility, you're definitely a candidate for "freestyle" cruising. Employed most notably by Norwegian, but gaining traction on other lines, freestyle is just what it sounds like -- freedom to choose where and when you eat, and with whom you share meals. During our nine days aboard the Norwegian Jewel, my friends and I dined in eight different restaurants at times ranging from 5:30-10:30 p.m. With the exception of the Japanese steakhouse, we never shared tables with other passengers. Shorts, jeans and tank tops are off-limits everywhere but the buffet, but basic, casual cruise wear (check with your line for their rules on casual and formal dress) was appropriate for all other restaurants.

Veteran tip: Even if you cruise freestyle, be prepared to do some on-board planning. Reservations (made up to 24 hours in advance) are usually required at non-buffet restaurants, while a few of the boutique dining options (steak house, hibachi, Asian cuisine) required a $10-$20 cover charge.

Once you've set your priorities, dig in to researching, purchasing and planning.

Put time and thought into planning your cruise vacation. If you've heard good things about a particular cruise line, or spotted a great bargain, explore every inch of the web site, including the FAQ and virtual tours of staterooms, dining rooms and amenities. Many lines will offer basic info in the sections for first-time cruisers and some sites also offer a community area to network with other passengers.

For feedback beyond the colorful marketing pictures and exciting descriptions, turn to independent web sites like Cruise Diva, which offers summaries and reviews of each cruise line's concept, in addition to the individual ships in its fleet. Cruise Critic and CruiseMates each provide news and reviews, as well as bustling online communities that are phenomenal resources. Comb through discussion threads by cruise line or topic (Cruise Critic is even searchable), or create a user account and post your own questions. Many of the message boardies are hardcore -- having traveled on a dozen or more cruises -- so their insights are usually pretty helpful. You also may be surprised to see how many of the questions pertain to weight issues or fears about size.

Veteran tip: Cruise lines take care of their online communities. On a recent  NCL sailing, members of an active message board group attended an exclusive on-board party and were invited to tour the ship's bridge and rub elbows with the captain.

Read the fine print before booking excursions.

Both the cruise line's web site and the independent message boards provide a wealth of information regarding excursions offered at every port. Again, corporate descriptions will be glossier, while you'll get more of the down-and-dirty scoop from fellow travelers. Whether deciding on a cruise-sponsored excursion (higher costs but more accountability to you as the customer) or seeking an independent tour guide or vendor in a port city (lower costs, smaller group sizes, more customer responsibility to vet thoroughly), be sure you understand everything about the activities. Some excursions (zip lines, ATV travel, helicopter tours, some smaller boats or kayaks) will have clearly outlined weight limits of 200 lbs, 250 lbs, 400 pounds per 2-person boat, etc. Many tours and excursions will outline the exertion level involved or provide a list of activities a participant must be able to accomplish (climbing stairs, walking a mile, walking on uneven terrain, climbing into and out of boat, etc.). Again, many travelers on message boards will have done these activities and can give you honest feedback. If you feel nervous or unsure about any portion of a description, never hesitate to contact the cruise line or the vendor.

While there are definitely some activities off-limits to larger travelers (I doubt I'll ever be welcome on a zip line!), it's important to realize the vast majority of the options are things most of us can do. There wasn't a  remotely skinny person in our Caribbean travel group, yet we snorkeled, climbed catamaran ladders, swam with dolphins, hiked down to view a volcano, rode tenders out to play with stingrays, and toured an island on an 18-person bus that resembled a clown car. Be honest with yourself about your limitations, but don't let worries over your size keep you from trying something new.

Pack a few different swimwear pieces.

The two-suit rule is a gimme; no one likes climbing into a wet swimsuit, and sardine-can staterooms don't afford great options for ventilated drying. Aside from doubling up, however,  you may want to consider multiple styles of swimwear (like a skirted option and a one-piece, even if you're vehemently pro-skirt) or top & bottom separates that you can mix and match, especially once you determine which excursions you’ll be taking. Dressing for a tour of Mayan ruins or a day at the beach is pretty easy, but several of the tropical excursions involve multiple components that require you to be clothed one minute (in a local restaurant, for example) and ready for swimming the next. For these swim/land hybrid excursions, don’t wear a swim dress with a built-in skirt if you hope to put a pair of shorts or pants over it for the land portion. Few things are as uncomfortable as trudging around for several hours with a soaking-wet mass of fabric balled up at your waist (the skirt part on many swim dresses takes forever to dry). I MacGuyvered this problem when I encountered it by gathering the skirt at one side with an elastic hair band, but believe me, it was not my finest hour.

Look for quick-drying, versatile, over-the-suit options, like these multipurpose shorts from Junonia, available in sizes up to 4X. We also like the selection of swim shorts and activewear from lines such as Lands End, Danskin or Faded Glory. And even if you're not leaving the ship, remember to pack a cover-up, sarong or pair of swim shorts for the lengthy trips between your stateroom and the pool.

Veteran tip: Plan your excursion outfits to be useful regardless of activity order. Our day in St. Lucia was described chronologically as land/lunch/swim/sail, but we learned that half the groups go in reverse order to manage crowding with the tour vendors.

Supportive, broken-in shoes or sandals are a must.

Whether you plan to disembark at every port or just chill on the ship, prepare to do a good amount of walking. Cruise ships are enormous floating civilizations, and the distance you’ll cover just traveling between your room and the various locations onboard will surprise you. Additionally, some excursions may involve wet conditions, walking over varied terrain, climbing up or down stairs, etc. I’ve never been able to walk comfortably in flip-flops; they don’t stay on my feet and they provide zero support. If you're like me, consider sandals from Chaco or Teva, which offer good tread while providing ventilation and supportive ankle straps. There's also the Crocs option. Yes, they are as fugly as shoes come, but – love ‘em or hate ‘em – they were a godsend for the port days when our itinerary involved a sloshy catamaran ride, stops to swim and snorkel, hiking down into a volcano, and a bus tour of the island – all in a single outfit. Crocs were easy to clean when sandy or dirty, they went from wet to dry conditions without problem, and I didn't care if I ruined or lost them.

Veteran tip: Get a rush of accomplishment by wearing a pedometer to track all those steps you'll take during your cruise. Plus, you’ll know without a doubt you’ve earned that trip to the midnight chocoholic buffet!

Come back next Thursday for Part II -- all about selecting/maximizing your stateroom, on-board accommodations and (of course) the food! In the meantime: Been cruisin’? Tell us your packing must-haves or share tips for finding a fat girl-friendly ship and excursions that excite.