Cruising is like booking a room at a nice hotel—except that you only have to unpack once, all the food is free and every activity is right outside your door! No longer exclusively for wealthy retirees, today's cruises offer a wide selection of services and entertainment, including sports facilities, night clubs, childcare, and live productions that can appeal to everyone.
A cruise ship is essentially a floating village, so choosing one that caters to your ideal social atmosphere is important. Here are our tips for making the best cruise choices before handing over your money to ensure a memorable holiday for all aboard.
Considering Environment, Itinerary, and Price
Broadly speaking, people generally choose cruises based on several different criteria. Some choose a particular cruise line because the ship's environment sounds like it may suit them best. Others are more interested in destinations and consider the itinerary first. Finally, last-minute bargain hunters choose cruises based on who has the best offer, regardless of the ship or the route it will follow.
Of course, there are other reasons as well, such as sailing dates, the starting and stopping ports, types of cabins, and incentives included in the price.
For your first cruise, it’s probably a good idea not to spend an exorbitant amount of money just in case you completely hate the experience. However, “how much is a lot” is the first of many subjective aspects of choosing a cruise.
There is only one thing about how much a cruise costs that is certain: the amount listed in any advertisement is for only one person, but to rent a cabin you almost always must have a traveling partner, thereby doubling the cost.
The total cost is also affected by inclusive vs. non-inclusive packages, port tours, tipping, salon and spa services, and many other variables beyond the cost of your cabin. To ensure you pay for what you value most, set a budget and be sure to leave room for any activities and extras beyond the cost of your room alone.
If this is your very first cruise, consider selecting a voyage that includes a fair number of ports of call, so that if you don’t like the sensation of being at sea, you can spend a good amount of time onshore. Broadly speaking, there are four different types of cruises:
Out and Back are cruises that start and finish in the same place. The single, most obvious advantage to this itinerary is that there are no flights involved if you choose a voyage that departs near your home. Not only does a lack of flying mean that you don’t have to worry about scheduling, you also can pack (or buy) as much as you’d like without worrying about airline baggage fees.
The disadvantage of Out and Back cruises are that, if the port is quite far from the regions you’d like to visit, your time at sea will be much longer (and the cruises more expensive).
Repositioning cruises are available several times per year when cruise lines reposition their ships to take advantage of better weather in different parts of the world. Because these cruises are going far distances, they usually offer very few port visits, a long time at sea and tend to not be very popular, despite lower prices. Additionally, repositioning cruises will require at least one flight, either from your home area to join the ship at the beginning of the cruise, or at the end when you return home.
However, for passengers who enjoy shipboard life, they are a good and affordable option.
Fly-Cruises make up the majority of cruises sold, with flights at both ends of the voyage. The cost of these flights is usually included in the overall cost of the cruise, but obviously you should check before committing.
Grand Voyages are very long out-and-back cruises, usually involving a circumnavigation of the world and typically taking three or four months to complete, while offering a very relaxed pace of life on board. While a limited number of passengers can purchase only a section of this trip, most passengers are retired couples, simply due to the length and cost of the cruise.
Type of Ship
Check that the type of ship is right for you. Big ships can’t get into small harbors, so either they won’t visit at all or will run a tender service ferrying passengers back and forth to shore. This can easily be disrupted by even a modest swell, causing the port visit to be canceled.
However, bigger ships generally keep better at sea, an important consideration if you’re traveling during rough winter seas or may potentially experience seasickness. Bigger ships also have more facilities than smaller ones, but they do tend to be more impersonal. On a ship with over 2,000 passengers, it’s quite possible to never see the same person twice!
Smaller ships, in contrast, tend to visit more interesting and unusual destinations, often have a more intimate and friendly atmosphere, and offer more opportunities to make friends with other passengers.
Types of Cabins
Most cruise ships offer a wide variety of cabin types at different prices. As a general rule, the cheapest cabins will be inside, without a window or porthole, and located on the lower decks. Prices tend to increase with the deck number and cabin or suite size, the most expensive of which are near the top passenger decks and equipped with a balcony.
There’s more to cabin selection than just space and price! Despite being more desirable for other reasons, those pricey top and outer positioned cabins are most uncomfortable during rough seas, while those near the lowest decks and in the middle of the ship are the best choice for those concerned about seasickness.
Noise level is an important consideration when choosing a cruise. Some ships make announcements throughout the day, telling passengers what new event is starting and where. Others limit their broadcasts to once at noon, describing any major changes or listing the itinerary for the day. If you prefer a quieter atmosphere, this is something to ask about before purchasing.
Language is another consideration. If you pick a ship that belongs to a non-US or UK line, remember that announcements and important information may not be in English.
Facilities aboard each ship vary greatly, from the quality and convenience of meals to extra activities. While almost all ships offer a variety of entertainment through the day and into the evening, some offer extras that might be just your ticket, such as rock climbing walls, wave machines for surfing practice, large arcades or casinos. Check to ensure that the facilities you’d prefer are available, and those that may attract crowds you’d like to avoid, are not.
Passengers vary widely on every ship, but some lines do tend to attract those of a particular age or mindset much more than others. It makes sense to choose a ship that attracts those more or less in your own age group and set of interests, lest you end up on a party ship of twenty-somethings if that isn’t your preference!
How To Research Different Cruises
Discovering information about different cruise ships is actually very easy. Your first and most obvious go-to resource might be a travel agent, but there are a few other resources that are just as handy.
Brochures for cruise ships must be approached like you would any other advertisement: Much of the provided description is necessarily subjective. There is, for example, no absolute definition of the word “luxury” which you’ll almost certainly find, along with other descriptions, scattered throughout the text.
Try to read between the lines when deciding on cruise ships from a brochure. “Compact” and “cozy,” for example, can mean small or cramped, while “spacious” is entirely subjective.
You’ll also see descriptions of cabins stating that they have an obscured or unobscured view through the window. This can mean anything from a view being obstructed in its entirety by a lifeboat to some small piece of machinery being visible from the side. If the view from your cabin is important to you, this is something you should call the cruise line to check.
Photographs are also not to be relied upon because shots of cabin interiors and public rooms will likely have been professionally taken to show each area in its best possible light. A far better guide is to look at the actual measurements of each area to gain the most accurate understanding of your potential space.
For more about common photography “tricks” used to make rooms and amenities appear grander than they are, be sure to read Getting the Best Deal When Booking Your Next Hotel.
The one definitive source of information that anyone considering a cruise should consult is the Cruising and Cruise Ships Guide produced every year by Berlitz. While it is relatively expensive compared to other books or free information online, the cost is a fraction of what you are about to spend on your holiday.
The book is produced independently and provides all the pertinent information about every passenger vessel, including the date it was built, length, tonnage, propulsion system, number of cabins, crew complement, original name and cruise history—because many ships, especially smaller companies, have had numerous names and owners throughout their careers.
The book also provides a small picture of each vessel and a kind of star rating that measures the ship's food, accommodation, entertainment and service standards, and then an overall rating.
While Berlitz’s book concentrates on factual information, it also gives you a good overview of what it feels like to be onboard, telling you about the bars, restaurants, lounges and so on. However, because itineraries are seasonal, the book does not provide information about which path a ship will be following.
Tips and Gratuities
Some cruise lines pay their staff the absolute lowest salary that they can get away with; way below the minimum wage paid in any other industry, because crew receive free lodging and food while on board.
According to some reports, a crew may be paid as little as $1 a day! While other crews have a better situation, gratuities do play an important part in the income of the lowest paid members of a ship.
Passengers are especially expected to tip their cabin steward or stewardess, who keeps their room tidy and generally go above and beyond to add the extra touches that make cruises a special experience. If dining at a set table, passengers are also expected to tip the waitstaff that has served them throughout the trip.
Both of these tips can either be automatically paid when purchasing your cruise or handed over as cash in an envelope at the end of your trip.
Bottom Line When Considering Your First Cruise
Taking a cruise can be an enormously enjoyable experience that allows you to relax and see a wide variety of interesting places within a short period of time. It can also be an expensive option that, in the worst of circumstances, leaves you feeling trapped with other passengers with whom you’d prefer not to be in such close quarters, or feeling ill.
To make sure you have the best possible experience, make sure to do your research! Beyond brochures and Berlitz, there are two reliable online sources to find information: Trip Advisor and Cruise Critic.
However, these days it is very easy for anyone to upload information and opinions, without leaving readers the means to validate accuracy. So while looking up information about a particular cruise ship, you should always consider the perspective of the individual providing it. Specifically, does the author of any given review appear to be driven by the need to vent or be “right,” or is he or she an experienced cruiser simply wanting to share their opinion?
Look for reviews that tend to be generally upbeat, describing their experience in a way that highlights both the good and the bad. Just remember that no cruise will ever be perfect, but some are definitely better than others.
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