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Cruises are the perfect solution for anyone who wants to reduce the down time of traveling and add to the number of sites to see. Unpack once, and your hotel moves while you sleep at night. Glorious.

But to get the most out of your next cruise adventure, you should do some advance planning. Customizing your experience allows you to capture the very best of every destination. To maximize the value of your time ashore, there are several steps you can take before you start your journey.

The Currency

Have the proper currency. Using your ATM card abroad is one way to reduce fees. If you don’t want to do that, have sufficient funds exchanged prior to departure (euro, pesos, NZ or AUS dollars). Some frequent travelers are very impressed with the AAA’s foreign exchange offers, which can be enticing if you’re exchanging more than $200. AAA charges no fee for such transactions, although their exchange rate may not be as competitive as some banks. Alternatively, get yourself a credit card that doesn’t charge foreign-transaction fees. Many issuers offer these, including Capital One’s VentureOne Rewards card, or Bank of America’s Travel Rewards card. Be aware that credit cards won’t give you as good an exchange rate as you’ll typically find from either using your ATM card or exchanging money at home, but the convenience may make up for the cost.

The Language

Learn the language, or at least be able to say these five phrases wherever you go:

  1. Do you speak English?
  2. Please
  3. Thank you
  4. Where’s the bathroom?
  5. May I please have a glass of wine/beer?

If you find yourself using them, congratulations. It shows that you’ve managed to get off the well-beaten tourist trail.

Sometimes, that’s as easy as walking half a mile away from the tourist traps. Even less if you choose to walk uphill—most of the crowds choose the line of least resistance.

But don’t be snobbish either. If you need to learn the layout of a stopover city quickly, those hop-on, hop-off bus tours are a very efficient resource. Take a note of where you want to re-visit (pre-loading a local Google map onto your phone is also invaluable for this—the blue geo-marker will show you exactly where you are) and make your way back there when the tour has finished.

Pre-planning your trip

Planners find great value in perusing the ship’s itinerary well ahead of time to laser focus their interest. It leaves you shipshape, knowing the amenities and entertainment available. The excursion list is the blueprint from which you’ll make your adjustments. Pick your favorites. Discard anything that doesn’t interest you.

While you sail, take your excursion list over to your search engine. Google “Day trips from (your port).” See what TripAdvisor, Groupon, Airbnb Experiences, Expedia, or Travelocity have to offer at the same port and time. Or find the same company that caters to the cruise ship and contact them directly. See how their price differs.

Reach out to the visitor’s bureau at each of the ports. They know what’s going on in their city. Special festivals, little-known attractions, hidden gems. Tell them what you’re interested in and they’ll help tailor your experience to your specifications. Use these ideas to build and expand your itinerary. Sign up for your favorites. Remember that excursions range from adrenaline rush to total tranquility. Be sure to mix them up throughout your voyage.

Set up a road trip at one port, a walking tour at another, a bike tour at the next, a water activity in the middle, a cooking lesson, a museum. For a true treat, choose an aerial adventure over volcanoes or rain forests— anything outside your ordinary life (and buy the recording so you can re-live it back home, without diluting the experience on the day by worrying about filming.)

Tip: For helicopter adventures, wear dark clothing to decrease your reflection. Otherwise, your photos will all feature ghost images of you bounced off the aircraft’s windows.

Because time may be tight, full-day trips are best booked directly through the cruise organizers. Why? Because the cruise ship guarantees they won’t leave without you. That peace of mind allows a “sit back and enjoy” attitude, instead of sweating out the clock when a mishap occurs.

Trips like these are too valuable to waste even a minute. Plan your journey to enjoy every moment, even if that just involves sitting poolside on the ship.

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