By Ben Lyons, Cruise Critic contributor
Imagine the excitement you'll feel as your ship casts off from the first port on a full world cruise. To find out what full world cruisers can do to ensure their cruise goes off without a hitch, we spoke to crew members familiar with the routines -- and travails -- of previous world cruisers. They shared their best tips, which we now pass on to you.
Check -- and then recheck -- the visas you need. It seems to happen on almost every world cruise: Some passengers don't have the appropriate visas and are denied going ashore at certain ports. While the cruise lines are very good at spelling out which visas you will need, you still have to read the paperwork thoroughly ... especially as different countries have different requirements depending on the applicant's nationality. Make your appointments and apply for the visas far in advance, if you can -- sometimes processing the paperwork can take months.
Check your passport thoroughly. Even in an age of electronic documents and email, you still need to have several completely empty pages on your passport for visas and stamps. Not every country will stamp you, but many require face-to-face immigration with every single passenger onboard -- especially in North and South America. Also, your passport must be valid for at least six months after the final port visit on the cruise.
Get vaccinated. Of course, four months of exotic ports sounds enticing. Paradise beckons! But don't forget that many countries have different medical requirements and health advisories. Some countries have very cut-and-dried requirements -- for instance, some African or South American countries require valid yellow fever vaccinations -- while other countries offer vaguer recommendations depending on the regions you will be visiting. Bottom line: Talk to your doctor or a travel clinic, and always consult the CDC website if you have doubts.
Purchase travel insurance. Cruise Critic always recommends travel insurance, but it is especially important on a world cruise. The potential losses are much higher on such a long and expensive trip if you have to cancel suddenly or leave mid-cruise. More importantly, however, world cruises often sail to remote areas or head off the beaten track. Should you get sick or suffer a serious injury, you want to be completely confident that you will get the best care no matter where you are. Make sure the insurance includes full medical evacuation coverage worldwide; this could be a literal lifesaver. Gone are the days when visits to the shipboard doctor were free; most cruise lines now charge passengers for even the most cursory visit to the medical clinic. Having the right insurance will allow you to claim reimbursement for these services (and any onshore ones, too) once you get home.
Make plans to keep in touch. Although part of the appeal of a world cruise is the escape and sense of being far removed from your daily life, it won't be long before you find yourself wanting to call home to talk to your financial advisor or hear your grandchild's voice. Shipboard communication can be surprisingly expensive, so plan on looking for alternative means. One of the best ways: Sign up for and install Skype on your cell phone or computer. Also, consider switching cell phone plans. For U.S. cruisers, certain T-Mobile plans allow for unlimited data and texting in most countries overseas, as well as affordable per-minute rates on calls. Taking advantage of free Wi-Fi in port means you can be in touch for a fraction of the cost that the ships charge. If you have any doubt about where to find free Wi-Fi, just ask the crew; chances are they've been here before and know the closest place to the ship.
Hit the bank. So many countries, so many currencies! Forget trying to exchange money into 20 different currencies before you leave for a world cruise. Often you are just better off taking cash out from an ATM onshore with a debit or credit card; you'll get a decent or at least a fair exchange rate. However, bring some cash along that you can convert onboard or ashore if your card fails. Don't forget to notify your bank and credit card company about your travel plans, so they don't freeze your account when you try to make a transaction abroad.
Consider a sitter. Before your world cruise, don't just daydream about the places you'll go and your new home away from home -- give your real home some thought, too. For those going away for four months, a trusted house sitter is usually the best solution, even if only part time. If that isn't possible, we strongly recommend making arrangements for someone to have a key to your house and come by at least once every two weeks. You want to be able to relax onboard, not be worrying about whether your basement is flooded! Without a house sitter, there will be a myriad of details to consider, and the last few days before you depart will be busy enough running around taking care of other tasks. Whether you choose a house sitter or not, here are some tasks to consider when prepping your home for a long absence.
Pack appropriately. You need to be strategic when packing for a long trip; you should be able to get by with two large suitcases plus a carry-on for each person. World cruises may follow the sun and offer that welcome escape from the winter blues, but chances are you'll stray from the equator somewhere on your itinerary. Study the ports you'll be visiting and the weather there. For example, many world cruises stop in Japan, and this seems to be the region where most cruisers are caught off guard by cold and rainy weather. Don't forget to bring something warm and something that can keep you dry -- as well as a lightweight sweater or jacket for cooler evenings on deck.
As there is some possibility that all those restaurant-style meals might make you gain a bit of weight, don't exclusively bring tight or form-fitting outfits, either. Also, when packing, bring an empty suitcase or expandable bag. Once onboard, you may quickly find yourself acquiring so many souvenirs or new clothes that the extra bag will come in handy when you disembark at the end of the trip.
Don't overpack formalwear. World cruises are almost invariably more formal than standard cruises; after all, isn't the romance of the golden age of cruising part of why you book a world cruise? But you'll need to balance your desire to look good on formal nights with your need to not to bring more luggage than you can carry. For women, three long dresses and a few shorter, elegant dresses is plenty -- especially as many cruisers end up buying at least one more formal outfit along the way, thanks to all the regional shopping. Men have it easier; with one tuxedo, a couple of suits and a jacket, they'll be well set for just about any evening. Just bring enough ties to liven up your outfits!
Don't forget your address book. Everyone loves getting postcards, even in the digital era. On a world cruise, you'll find numerous opportunities to make your friends jealous by sending back subtle -- or not so subtle -- reminders of what a fantastic time you are having. Don't forget to create a list on your computer of your friends and family's addresses -- who can remember zip codes when almost everything is by email? Be sure you have at least one copy of the most important addresses or phone numbers -- including your doctor's -- printed out in hard copy in case your computer fails and you urgently need to reach someone at home. Equally important: Make sure several people at home know how to reach you in an emergency.
Fill your prescriptions. While it may seem obvious, you need to be sure to have enough medication to last for the entire world cruise. Schedule an appointment with your doctor before you leave so that he or she can write out a prescription for enough medication. If you need very specific types of medicine -- be it a particular form of insulin or certain pills -- remember that they can be hard to find if you run out halfway around the world. Don't forget to take copies of your prescription (just in case) and your doctor's contact information.
While you're at the pharmacy, stock up on a good supply of standard over-the-counter medicine and bandages. With all the traveling, long days and different foods you'll be eating, these will likely come in handy at least once on the trip, and finding familiar brands in a foreign port could be a challenge. While ships often sell the basics, they are usually highly sought after and most world cruisers find it easier to simply carry their own supply.
Consider a tablet or e-reader. Nobody wants to lug around 20 books in a suitcase, and the library on many ships is so limited, you'll have finished everything of interest after the first ocean crossing. Getting a tablet computer or e-reader (such as a Kindle) where you can download electronic books will make your packing and leisure time on deck more enjoyable. A tablet can also double as a camera -- an additional bonus.
Think like a photographer. About the only activity beyond eating that almost everyone is guaranteed to do is take photos -- lots of them. Before you leave, pack a spare battery and battery charger -- you don't want to be caught out with a dead camera. Also, make sure you have enough memory on your laptop to download twice as many photos as you expect to take. Bring several high-storage memory cards so you can back up the photos you put on your computer; memory cards are cheap and take up so little room in your luggage, there's really no excuse not to bring extras.
Also, if your camera unexpectedly breaks or gets lost, be sure to have a back-up. It can be as simple as an iPhone, tablet or inexpensive point-and-shoot, but it ensures you don't lose your memories along with a camera. You may also find it convenient to carry your more portable or less expensive camera on some excursions, just to be safe.
Set goals for your downtime. Despite all the activities on the cruise ship, you'll have plenty of time to yourself on multiple sea days in a row. Many world cruisers use the time to accomplish a tangible goal, such as learning how to use an SLR camera, speak a foreign language, play bridge or knit. Who says you can't be idle but also productive at the same time? Make some pre-cruise resolutions and pack the gear you'll need, such as language CDs or knitting needles and yarn.
Plan for key ports. Most cruise lines put their shore excursions online months or even a year in advance of the cruise. Go through your itinerary and identify certain tours you know you want to take, then book early to avoid disappointment. You can generally change your mind or cancel a tour within certain deadlines onboard for no penalty, but there isn't anything that can be done if the tour you want is already sold out.