One reason for the popularity of cruising is that it offers passengers relief from so many travel headaches.
Even the most unsophisticated tourists can experience parts of the world they otherwise might never venture to on their own. For example, more ships than ever now carry passengers to such exotic places as Mombasa, Ukraine, cities in China and Vietnam, Australia and Fiji. And many of the problems that travelers ordinarily would need to contend with themselves -- obtaining visas or making complicated transfer and transportation arrangements -- are now routinely and efficiently handled for them by most cruise lines.
Even on board, lecturers give port talks that prime passengers with well-informed historical perspective, quick cultural overviews, nuances about safety, best buys and places of interest -- in general, smoothing out the rough edges of travel.
The downside of traveling in such a protected "bubble" is that cruise passengers tend, sometimes unwisely, to assume nothing can go wrong and so let down their guard.
It is always wise to remember there are circumstances not even the biggest cruise lines can control, like that of one unfortunate passenger whose passport was stolen even as she was stepping onto the gangway in Costantza, Romania.
Here are some tips that might prove helpful to even the most seasoned traveler:
* Above all, pack an emergency passport kit to help you get a replacement passport in case yours is lost or stolen. To make a kit, photocopy the data page at the front of your passport; write down the addresses and telephone numbers of the U.S. embassies and consulates in the countries you'll be visiting (the cruise line usually provides these along with your cruise tickets); put this information, along with two passport-size photographs, in a place separate from your passport.
While you're at it, remember not to designate your traveling companion as the person to be notified in case of an emergency.
* If you feel you must bring precious jewelry and other valuables along on your cruise, at least leave them aboard ship when disembarking in any port. Bus loads of tourists stand out like sore thumbs and can be fair game for predatory locals, especially in poor emerging nations.
* If you plan to travel to exotic destinations, the following publications offer some useful travel information (they can be ordered from the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20420):
Your Trip Abroad ($1.25); A Safe Trip Abroad ($1); Travel Tips for Senior Citizens ($1); Tips for Travelers to the Caribbean ($1); Tips for Travelers to Central and South America ($1); Tips for Travelers to the People's Republic of China ($1); Tips for Travelers to Mexico ($1); Tips for Travelers to the Middle East and North Africa ($1.25); Tips for Travelers to Southeast Asia ($1); Tips for Travelers to Subsaharan Africa ($1); and Tips for Travelers to Russia ($1).
Other general tips to make your cruise experience more pleasant:
* Single or unescorted women don't have to venture alone. Consider selecting a ship with a gentleman host program. Among them: Cunard, Crystal, Regency and Royal.
* Not every stateroom is queen quality. Storage tends to be sparse. Bring your own disposable wire hangers, the kind you can just toss away at the end of your trip (or thoughtfully leave for the cabin's next occupant.)
* To avoid disappointment with cabin accommodations, carefully study the ship's layout in the brochure as soon as you receive it.
If you've paid for an outside cabin -- and expect a view -- this can help determine whether or not your stateroom has a real view or looks out onto a staircase or lifeboat instead.
* If you're a frequent traveler, save that loose change in foreign currencies for your next trip. It'll come in handy for the airport loo and miscellaneous tips, not to mention local phones, the next time you visit.
* Bring along one of those portable clip-on book lights. Sometimes the lighting, even in the best shipboard suites, isn't the best for reading.
* Henri Bendel, perhaps New York's chic-est store, sells a set of small, practical travel cases to keep cosmetics and toiletries stable during rough seas. (Similar ones were once used by the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.)
They're weighted at the bottom, pack flat and snap together. A set of three, in laminated plastic with Bendel's signature brown-and-white stripe design, costs about $40.
* Finally, there's no industry-wide policy for handling passenger complaints. But if you experience any problems while on board, almost every line will appreciate the opportunity to fix it while your cruise is under way. Let them know immediately. If your particular complaint is the sort that needs to be addressed by cruise-line management, be sure to take names, dates and details for later follow-up.