The term "exotic cruise" means wildly different things to different people. For a first-time cruiser, "exotic" may simply mean a jaunt to the Caribbean. For more experienced travelers, "exotic" conjures up places seldom visited, destinations that are hard to get to or cultures that are vastly different than our own. Think Asia, with itineraries along the Yangtze and Mekong Rivers, as well as the Pacific; the Middle East, via the Nile River, Mediterranean or Persian Gulf; island hideaways like Borneo, French Polynesia and the Maldives; or even western and southern Africa.
While you always have your beautiful ship to return to after a day of touring, conditions on the ground in a foreign land may not be what you're used to. (Have you ladies ever tried using some of the inground toilets in Asia?!) That's why you'll need to think differently when packing for an exotic cruise. In addition to all the necessities -- clothing that's right for the climate and culture, comfortable shoes, and health and beauty products -- you'll also want some items you generally don't need when traveling closer to home, everything from vaccination records to a phone that works even in the most remote jungle. You should expect the unexpected, and bring along some "what if" lifesavers like copies of your passport, small rolls of toilet paper and any necessary medications to prevent infectious diseases.
No matter where your cruise ship takes you, pack the following 10 essential items before leaving home for an exotic trip.
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Filing the right paperwork and carrying valid travel documents is paramount. You know to bring a passport but you may also need a visa. Consult the U.S. Department of State to review country-specific requirements. But also check with your travel agent or cruise line, as some countries offer visa waiver programs for cruisers. In Russia, for example, you won't need a visa if the ship is in port for less than 72 hours and you take a tour with an approved company. (Independent travelers need visas.) In Egypt, a blanket visa covers cruisers. If you carry expensive jewelry or gadgets, you may be asked to pay duty when re-entering the U.S. if you can't prove that you owned the items pre-trip. Bring a receipt, insurance policy or jeweler's appraisal, or register these items with U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
One must-pack item is a jump drive that holds electronic copies of your passport, drivers license, airline e-tickets, cruise documents, hotel confirmations, travel insurance documentation, credit cards (front and back) and medical records. (You could also use it to create a back-up of your photos.) In the event of an emergency -- like a stolen passport or wallet, or an illness -- you'll be able to access important information easily. Just find a computer, and pop in the drive.
Note to Mac users: Format the drive for a PC. In an emergency, you may need to insert this drive into a PC, which will only read PC-formatted drives. (Macs can read both PC- and Mac-formatted information.) Of course, it's also wise to have paper copies of these documents stashed in your purse and luggage.
A Phone That Works Abroad
When traveling far from home, it's a good idea to have some method of communicating with family and friends in case of emergency or if you have business that just can't wait. If you have a GSM phone (like an iPhone), it will work in other countries once you authorize additional services from your carrier. (Fees -- sometimes hefty ones -- apply, so be sure to understand the rates before using your phone abroad.) If you don't have a GSM phone, you'll need to install a country-specific SIM card or, if necessary, multicountry SIM card. If you don't want to deal with that hassle, you can rent a cell or satellite phone that will work in the region you're traveling. Cellular Abroad, a National Geographic partner, offers a variety of such products.
Phrasebook and Flashcards
Speaking a few words in the native tongue of your host country goes a long way toward building good will -- and getting you out of jams. So bring a phrasebook. At the least, know the words for "hello," "thank you" and "toilet." You can also create your own flashcards. On the front, write your message in English. On the back, write the same information in the local language. (Google Translate can provide the translation.) Then, when in a particular country, show the card to locals who will be able to point you in the right direction -- even if they don't speak English. Make a card with the name of your ship and port info (useful to show taxi drivers) and a card outlining any food restrictions you may have. ("I don't eat meat.") The cards can also illustrate the tourist attractions you're most interested in.
See a doctor before you travel anywhere exotic, as you may need a script for malaria pills or other infectious diseases-related meds. Certain "take in case of emergency" pills like Lomotil or Cipro may also be prescribed to combat common ailments like diarrhea. If shots are required, you'll need to bring your yellow immunization form as proof of vaccination. To find a doctor specializing in travel, contact the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene or the International Society of Travel Medicine. You should also pack a supply of over-the-counter meds that may be very expensive or tough to find overseas. Think antihistamines, calcium carbonate (heartburn), an antidiarrheal and something to relieve cold and flu symptoms. You'll also want travel-size toilet paper rolls, hand sanitizer, sun block and bandages.
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The Right Clothes for the Right Occasion
Packing clothes for an exotic cruise can be an exercise in frustration. You need to consider the weather conditions, your activity level, formality of the events you're attending and any religious or cultural mores. In Islamic countries and other conservative-leaning destinations, women may need to cover their hair with a headscarf or avoid bare arms and legs. Likewise, visitors to mosques, temples and other houses of worship should always cover their legs. Invest in "convertible" pants (available at sporting goods stores). These trousers have zip-off legs and easily convert into shorts. These are also useful for changing weather conditions and places like the rain forest and African bush, where you'll want to protect yourself from mosquitoes and other creatures that bite. Some clothing is even chemically treated to repel mosquitoes.
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The type of camera you choose to pack is a personal preference. Some people prefer professional SLR camera bodies (film or digital) that use interchangeable lenses, while others prefer good, lightweight point-and-shoots or even video cameras. In addition to the camera, pack extra batteries, memory cards, a lens cloth and a waterproof camera bag. (Hint: Keep a shower cap in your pocket. If it begins to rain, whip out the cap, and wrap your camera before it gets wet.) If you're traveling with a laptop, copy your photos to it each day, and duplicate those files onto a jump drive. Keep your camera's memory card, laptop and backup jump drive in different locations. That way, if one of these items goes missing, you still have your photos backed up elsewhere.
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Small U.S. Bills & Foreign Currency
Don't leave home without a stack of ones and fives. U.S. currency is in demand in almost every country, so it makes sense to have small change for tips and purchases. Otherwise, get the appropriate foreign currency to use throughout the trip. Conversion rates are best when using the ATM machine at your destination airport. However, if you're traveling to a very small airport, there may not be an ATM, so plan ahead and get currency from your local bank or American Express Travel Office.
Gifts for Those You Meet Along the Way
Some cruises visit very remote places, like Papua New Guinea and Borneo, where the locals don't often meet Westerners. Children are especially inquisitive and may want you to take their picture. If you've got a Polaroid camera, bring it along and give the prints to the kids. It's also fun to bring crayons, stickers and other small gifts. If you know you'll be using the services of a tour guide, bring T-shirts, key chains or other items from your hometown to give. Cruise lines maintain relationships with the communities they visit and often support local schools and nonprofits. Contact your line, or visit the reception desk once onboard to find out about any local charities you can support.
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Being a savvy traveler means preparing for anything. When you are headed somewhere off the beaten path, it's best to anticipate any needs and prepare for them, crazy as they may sound. For example, if you'll be trekking through rain forests in the wet season, you may wish to bring leech socks to prevent those blood-sucking critters from attaching themselves to your feet or legs. A venom vacuum pump (to help remove poisons from bites from snakes, insects, wasps and bees) may also be in order. Finally, oral rehydration salts are a must-carry. Mix a packet with water and drink to replace lost electrolytes. This concoction will get you back on track if you're hit with diarrhea, mild heat exhaustion or nausea.
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