The Fat Girl's Guide to Taking a Cruise, Part II
Posted by Angela in Sports + Recreation
Nothing says "vacation" like accessorizing with a paper umbrella

If you caught last week's Part I of our Guide to Taking a Cruise (and if you haven’t yet, what are you waiting for?) you’re in good shape when it comes to researching and packing for the big trip. Read on for ways to make yourself at home aboard your chosen vessel.

Cruise with confidence, ladies!

Many first-time cruisers feel anxiety about their safety aboard a large liner, or what will happen in case of an emergency. Rest assured that every cruise, no matter what line you choose, begins with a mandatory safety drill for all passengers. During your first night on the ship, you'll don a life jacket and gather with your fellow passengers (likely in the theater or auditorium) as staff review all safety procedures.

If you’re cruising as a fat girl, you may also have concerns about the logistics of these safety procedures. Questions range from “Will the life jacket fit?” to “How safe are those lifeboats, anyway?” While the best resource for answering your specific questions is often the cruise line staff (and I have heard of travelers bringing their own life jackets in extreme circumstances), take comfort in the fact that these devices are incredibly adjustable. Even for an incredibly, um, over-blessed girl like me, the most uncomfortable part of the safety drill wasn’t wearing a big, awkward vest over my girls – it was sitting in a squinchy auditorium chair (more on those later) during the lengthy rundown. Further, all of the transitional vehicles you’ll encounter on a cruise (lifeboats, tenders to take you to and from smaller islands, etc.) are tested and sturdy enough to withstand far more than any of us could throw at them.

Three words for stateroom selection: Location, location, location.

Part I of this Guide asked you to sort out your priorities for your overall cruise experience, and the same rules apply when choosing your stateroom. Get out the map of your cruise ship (visit your line’s web site or Cruise Deck Plans) and do some research. Avoid booking a room that adjoins with another unless you’re traveling as a family or group and know exactly who you’ll place on the other side of that wall. If you’re a light sleeper or otherwise noise-sensitive, you’ll want to steer clear of rooms under hotspot common areas like restaurants, pools, theaters, or casinos. Elevators and stairways also generate lots of noise and can be heavily trafficked at all hours, so the rooms farthest away will be the quietest and experience the fewest passerby disruptions. If mobility is an issue, however, opt for a location near the elevators so you’re not forced to cover the length of a hallway every time you visit your room. Wheelchair-accessible rooms are also available.

Veteran tip: As a general rule, the closer you are to the back of the ship, the greater the chances you’ll be affected by machinery noise (especially from the rudders) and ship movement. If you’re prone to motion sickness, choose a stateroom as close to the front of the ship as possible.

If your stateroom were truly a state, it would be Rhode Island.

Although the average hotel room offers approximately 300 square feet of space, the equivalent price point in cruise cabin accommodations only averages between 150-200 square feet. Unless you upgrade to a suite, mini-suite or villa level, your whole cabin – beds, seating and dressing areas and yes, the bathroom – will fit in a narrow space about as large as a medium-size bedroom. The good news is that cruises offer so much to see and experience that most travelers don’t spend much time in their staterooms unless they’re sleeping, changing or getting ready for the day. My friends and I put that theory to the test in 2008 when three of us shared a single, interior (windowless) stateroom for nine days. (You’d be amazed how much luggage will stow under a twin bed.)

Most dual-occupancy staterooms provide two twin beds that can be combined to form a queen; if you’re booking a cabin that accommodates three or four passengers (as we did on the NCL Jewel) you may also encounter upper berths that fold down from the wall to create a bunk bed-like effect above the twin beds. While the upper berths may sleep a child comfortably and safely, they are decidedly not fat girl-friendly. We took one look at the relatively flimsy bolts and hinges and decided we’d be pulling the mattress off the platform and down to the floor for bedtimes. There was exactly enough space between the twin beds to slide the third twin mattress, and we each climbed in and out of our respective bed from the foot.

Veteran tip: Unless you’re ready to get super cozy and take turns hitting the floor, it’s worth checking to see if a mini-suite with a pullout sofa would be comparable in price or a worthwhile splurge.

Bathroom accommodations require some creative maneuvering.

Even if you’re flush enough to afford a suite or a room with a balcony, don’t expect the upgrade to automatically extend to the bathroom. Bathing accommodations remain mega-tight and shower-only unless you spring for the highest price digs, which then may include shower/tub combos and space enough to not bang into walls when turning around. Otherwise, plan to spend as little time in the bathroom as possible and get your relaxation fix poolside or at the spa.

Bathroom layouts vary from ship to ship. Some designs include glass or plastic partitions between the toilet/sink/shower portions of the room; others turn the toilet at an odd angle to accommodate the cramped room layout. Toilets also frequently sit awkwardly close to the wall, forcing taller or heavier cruisers to adopt a sideways seated position (or temporarily remove the toilet paper holder) in order to provide hip clearance and avoid knees hitting the forward wall.

When it comes to the shower, expect another snug experience. Whether the space is closed off with a shower curtain or a door, there won’t be much room to spare. This is another subject ripe for the boards at Cruise Critic or CruiseMates, where you can read firsthand accounts from fellow travelers -- some members will even have specific room measurements or photos to share. Everyone in our plus-sized group did fine in the NCL shower, but if necessary, you can always ask for extra towels to line the floor outside the shower area if the curtain or door won’t close fully. Wheelchair-accessible rooms offer more generously sized, roll-in showers, but ships offer limited quantities of these rooms and they are often occupied by cruisers requiring a chair for day-to-day mobility.

Veteran tip: Another great option for more spacious showering (and leg shaving!) is to visit the ship’s fitness center, where you’ll find larger shower stalls and possibly in-stall seating.

"All-inclusive" doesn't cover everything.

Whether you’re cruising freestyle or sitting down to formal dinners, the food is sure to be decadent, plentiful and rich with variety. Avoid any unwelcome surprises by knowing exactly what your “all-inclusive” package really includes. In most cases, all food served in onboard restaurants will be included (some ships may charge a cover for certain restaurants; see Part I of this Guide). Many ships extend the all-inclusive rule to a limited menu of room service items as well. Coffee is included, but soft drinks and alcohol are not. Each time you purchase a non-included beverage, the bartender or wait staff will swipe your cruise ID just like a credit card, with all charges (usually including a transactional gratuity) going directly onto your room bill.

If soft drinks are a must-have (or if you’re hoping to keep your umbrella drink expenses to a manageable amount), consider purchasing an all-you-can-drink soda pass. For a fixed price (usually priced out per day; we paid approximately $55 for nine days), you get a sticker or card entitling you to free fill-ups anywhere on the ship. The price may seem steep, but with each can/glass of Diet Coke costing $2-$4, this was cheaper than ordering separate drinks – plus gratuities – a few times per day. Be ready to make a decision quickly, though – this offer is usually only valid on the first day of your voyage. And if you’re picky about Coke vs. Pepsi, you may be out of luck.

Make your dining experience easy and enjoyable.

When it comes to seating, freestyle cruisers will encounter the same realities present in mainland restaurants: each setting will offer a different table, booth and seating configuration, so it’s a matter of requesting the setup that’s most comfortable for you. Try doing a tour of the many dining room options after getting settled on the ship so you know which ones will offer challenges (narrow armchairs, for example) and plan your meals accordingly.

If you’re opting for traditional dining room meals, check in with the maitre d’ before your first meal and request a chair with no arms, or a table that’s easily accessible from a main aisle so no one needs to squeeze by your chair, etc. Taking care of this when you first board the ship will usually enable you to reserve your preferred table and seat for the duration of the cruise.

Veteran tip: Research the tipping policy on your ship. Many cruise lines employ a fixed gratuity scale (e.g. $10 per day, automatically billed to your room account) to “streamline” tipping on the boat and cover the many staff members you encounter during your voyage. Other lines offer the option to increase/decrease the gratuity provided to housekeeping vs. dining staff, etc. Be sure you know how much you’ll be billed and what other services might incur additional gratuities (spa services, each bar beverage etc.).

There’s a way to feel comfortable in almost any part of the ship.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned by now it’s that cruises have something for everyone, and that includes a comfy place to sit. From poolside restaurants to various bars and lounges, armless chairs, stools and loveseats are plentiful. Deck chairs are remarkably robust and usually armless. Sometimes the more tucked-away outer promenades will even have stacks of lounge chairs to set up in sun or shade. One of our favorite spots on the Jewel was a velvety plush, oversized chaise in the largest lounge; it comfortably accommodated three sprawling cat-nappers on our at-sea days.

The one exception to the “make you comfy” rule seems to be the auditorium seating in the ship theaters. Travelers on most ships report these seats to be narrow (ours sure were) and without the moveable armrests you often find at the local multiplex. Once again, scope out the theater during (or after) the mandatory emergency drill and see if there are armless chairs. These will likely fill quickly during shows, as will aisle or end-of-row seating. If you plan to attend one or more shows (NCL’s Cirque Bijou performance was amazing), be sure to hit the theater early to score your preferred seat.

Lastly, never be afraid to ask the ship’s staff for recommendations or assistance with any special need or request you might have. They’re accustomed to solving on-board challenges and are there to make your cruise experience all it can be. Good luck and happy sailing!

What’s the one thing you wish someone had told you before you cruised? Or what questions do you still have? Tell us in comments.