Taking a cruise vacation is one of my favorite ways to travel. We have sailed ships large and small, fancy and plain, from a minimum of five nights to a whopping thirty-six nights, all over the globe. For those of you who have never tried cruising, or may have had a bad experience on your first cruise and never returned, maybe it’s time to take another look.
Like planning any vacation, research is the key to success. In my opinion, the best and most comprehensive data base for researching a cruise is Cruise Critic. Their site is easily navigable with tabs for everything you will want to know before you go.
All cruise lines are not created equally and the quality of the experience as well as the price will vary. Research each cruise line you are considering, and get answers to your questions. You might want to begin with these.
- what is the age of the ship
- when was it last refurbished
- size of staterooms
- what does ‘obstructed view’ balcony really mean
- best stateroom location for someone prone to motion sickness
- availability of storage
- size of shower, (don’t laugh, you might be surprised)
- dress code
- laundry services (is self service available or will you pay extra)
- kids programs
- dining options (flexible seating or fixed option only)
- how special needs requests will be accommodated
- beverage policy
- tipping policy
You will also need to know exactly what is included in the price. Some high-end cruise lines offer unlimited beverages, including wine and liquor, and some excursions may also be included. However, these items will be additional on most cruise lines.
Determine the number of days you plan to cruise and set a budget that ensures a quality experience as well as a good bang for your buck. Transportation, flights, hotel rooms, excursions, beverage packages, tips, port charges and even souvenirs can morph a modest cruise into a luxury cruise very quickly, so think beyond the sticker price.
Excursions can be expensive through the cruise line, but, the assurance of never missing the ship might be worth it to many. We research private carriers for each port of call and weigh our options. We have had very successful experiences that were comparable but cost less than what the ship offered, and we have had disappointments. If you book independently, be sure your provider is licensed, insured and offers a ‘guarantee’ to return to the ship on time.
Beverage packages can also add a lot to the cost of a cruise, so consider your options carefully before purchasing. You will be provided with water, tea, coffee, and lemonade on most ships. But, liquor, wine and soft drinks must be purchased individually or through a beverage package. Some cruise lines allow a bottle of wine per passenger, that may be consumed in your stateroom, but corkage fees apply in the dining room. Know the cruise line’s policy before attempting to board with beverages of any kind.
Specialty dining is an option on most ships today and if you are celebrating and want an upscale experience with gourmet food and service that is a cut above the main dining room, you might want to consider this option. It does come with an up charge, so make sure you understand the program. This is not a decision you have to make in advance of your cruise, but if you know you want to take advantage, it is advisable to reserve your table early.
Flexible seating arrangements and anytime dining ensure a quality experience in the main dining room on most ships, but depending on the duration of the cruise, we typically book one or two nights in a specialty dining restaurant and take other meals in the main dining room. Of course, the buffet is always available if you want to keep it really casual.
How to Choose a Cruise
Defining your expectations will take a lot of the anxiety and potential for disappointment out of the equation. Cruising is highly individual and what is acceptable to some may not meet your expectations. Are you a party all night, get your money’s worth from the beverage package kind of person, or do you prefer a slower paced experience, with wine tastings, cooking classes and lots of quiet spaces?
The more you know, the better equipped you will be to choose a cruise that fits your needs. This page on Cruise Critic will help you determine your cruise style. It is a great place to start for first-timers.
Our needs are fairly straight forward, and we have learned to divide cruising into just two categories; leisurely and port intensive. When we want to get away for a few days and relax, a five night cruise to the Caribbean fits the bill. For that type of cruise we will book a balcony room on a newer ship with lots of amenities. The emphasis for us is fun and relaxation; luxury dining in specialty restaurants, enjoying entertainment venues, spa treatments and taking advantage of room service on the balcony. Getting off the ship may or may not be a priority, depending on the port. In terms of price point for a leisurely cruise, we choose Celebrity or Royal Caribbean; both fall into a medium price range. We try to avoid sailing to the Caribbean during Holidays and school breaks since that seems to amp up the party atmosphere on most cruise lines.
For port intensive cruises, we look for a solid itinerary in a region of the world where we would like to visit. Port intensive cruises to the British Isles, Italy, France, Greece and Spain have allowed us to conveniently experience many destinations in a short period of time.
We care less about the ship’s amenities for this type of cruise and tend to think of it as convenient transportation, and a floating hotel room. We spend very little time on the ship during a port intensive cruise, so if it is clean, the staff pleasant and the food edible, we are generally happy. We typically choose Princess, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity and Holland America for their outstanding itineraries and port intensive cruises.
Re-positioning cruises fall into a combination category. Those cruises travel from ports in the US to Europe in April and return from Europe to the US in October. They have a lot of sea days and a few ports. We have used re-positioning cruises, which I wrote about here, to travel to Europe several times in recent years. It is a very economical way to leisurely travel to Europe, and enjoy a few ports of call along the way.
For those who expect and can pay for the very best, you will want to consider luxury lines such as Oceania, Silver Sea, Seabourn, and Crystal which will cater to your every need, all inclusive.
Our friends who don’t cruise are pretty much all over the place with their reasons for why not; I get sea sick easily, I’ll be bored or feel claustrophobic on sea days, I don’t like forced communication with strangers, cruising is for old people, it’s too expensive, I have dietary restrictions, I don’t like big ships with lots of people. The list is endless.
Some of those are valid excuses, but cruising in the 21st Century is very different from when we had our first experience. Cruise lines today are more in tune with the desires and needs of passengers and have tailored experiences accordingly. It is possible to have an individual experience that ranges from budget to luxury on a ship with 600 passengers or one that carries 4,000.
Cruisers are generally social people, but you do not have to participate in silly games or be the life of the party on karaoke night if that doesn’t fit your personality.
You don’t have to sit down to dinner at the same time, with the same people every night unless you choose to. And, you don’t have to dress in ‘formal attire’ to eat in the dining room on formal nights. Cruise lines have relaxed their dress code and although some passengers still prefer to dress up for dinner, slacks or a skirt with a nice blouse for women, and dress pants with a button down collar shirt are good for men. My husband has never been a Tuxedo kind of guy, and has even started leaving his sport coat behind. Packing for a flight is much easier when you don’t have to think about formal clothing.
As for your concerns about sitting with strangers, it is completely acceptable to ask for a table for two and never deviate from that choice. We lean toward flexible dining and sit with others when the mood strikes.
Cruises range from floating cocktail parties to sophisticated elegance and some ships offer guest lectures, computer classes, cooking demonstrations and wine tastings. They have private spaces and quiet rooms for folks who want to read or play board games and many offer adults only sanctuary pools.
For the more active crowd, there are outdoor tracks for walking, full service gyms, exercise classes, dance classes, and even rock climbing walls and ice skating rinks. Or, you can opt for none of that. The important thing is to decide what you want from the experience and look for a cruise line and cruise ship that will provide it for you.
I am prone to motion sickness, but in over a dozen cruises, I have only had to take medication twice. Unless you encounter very rough seas your body probably won’t react, but you know best, so if you think you might get sick, be prepared. There are a number of products out there that will keep you steady. From bracelets to patches to old fashioned pills, there is something to suit your needs.
Booking A Cruise
There are many ways to book a cruise, and if you have a reliable and trusted Travel Agent by all means, let that individual do the work on your behalf. A good Travel Agent will get to know your style and budget and make appropriate recommendations. A great Travel Agent will have had personal experience on multiple cruise lines and will be able to guide you with very specific knowledge. For first time cruisers, we highly recommend using a knowledgeable agent. You can also go directly to the Cruise Line, which has experienced agents to answer your questions and book your cruise there, or you can use a discount site and trust that those individuals have first hand knowledge of the product/experience they intend to sell you.
We have done all of those, but since being retired, we have the time and patience to do the work, so we generally end up booking our own plans. For example, we want to cruise to Alaska in late May of next year and we have a budget of X. We can give that information to a travel agent, or we can launch from what we already know, which is that cruises to Alaska leave from Seattle and Vancouver that time of year, and do the legwork ourselves.
Our next stop is Cruise Critic to locate a ship that sails to Alaska during the week we want to travel that is also in our price range. I’ll use the Find a Cruise tab to do that. The image below shows one of many cruises that sail to Alaska in May, 2020.
While scrolling through several pages, I look for a cruise of about seven nights. After locating a few cruises of that duration, in our price range, I find it helpful to read passenger reviews for each ship we are considering. Be sure to read several of the most recent reviews, as well as historical ones to get an overall feel for how passengers respond to the ship and/or cruise you are considering. Some passengers think everything is wonderful and others will criticize the smallest detail. Throw out the highs and lows.
From the Find a Cruise page, you can review a number of Affiliate Links like Expedia, Avoya, and Cruise.com which make it convenient to compare prices.
Descriptions of shore excursions, cabin types and locations (very important), and a full layout of the ship you are considering will all be addressed on this website.
You can even sign in to a ‘roll call’ for your ship (once your booking is confirmed) and chat with other passengers who will be on your voyage. It is a great way to meet people who might want to share a ride, or book a private excursion together.
Before You Go
Make sure you have the proper documents. Passports are a must and some cruises may even require a specialty Visa. Since Covid, you may also need proof of vaccine and a recent negative Antigen test. Your travel agent or a cruise line representative will provide you with specific information.
Purchase travel insurance. We never leave home without it. Things happen and you don’t want to be the person being air lifted off a ship in the middle of the Pacific ocean with no coverage for the expense. We use Trip Insurance for basic coverage and sometimes add on additional coverage based on the circumstances. They cover things like trip interruption, cancellation, or delays, medical emergencies, lost baggage, etc.
The bottom line regarding cruising – set aside preconceived notions about how cruising used to be, do your homework and never, ever, call it a boat!
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