How to Choose a Cruise for the First Time

Panoramic view of Fira, Santorini, Greece

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If you've never been on a cruise before, it's easy to feel somewhat lost in the process. With so many cruise lines, ships, itineraries, cabin options, destinations, and prices to consider, making the right decision can feel like a daunting task. All first-time cruisers feel this way and it's understandable that selecting a cruise is more complicated than choosing a resort, but the experience is worth asking yourself the tough questions.

Whether your dream vacation consists of visiting a tropical or exotic destination, dining casually or in gourmet restaurants, enjoying activity-filled or relaxing days, you will find a variety of cruise lines and ships to choose from.

On the newest cruise ships, amenities are equal to those of fine hotels with spas, swimming pools, and even concierge and butler service. In port, you can choose to participate in land and water sports, tour historical and cultural points of interest, and shop for duty-free goods.

At night on a cruise, you can stroll on the deck under moonlit skies, choose from a martini menu, dance to live music, see a Broadway-style show, and try your luck in a casino. And with satellite telephone service and 24-hour Internet access, cruise passengers can stay connected with friends and family.

When you know what you're looking for the right cruise will be there waiting for you, so here are some questions you can use to get started.

Where Do You Want to Cruise?

Cruise ships ply waters around every continent. In the U.S., many first-time cruise passengers enjoy cruising around the Caribbean or the Gulf of Mexico. However, it's also possible to cruise in Europe and the South Pacific. If tropical destinations aren't exactly your cup of tea, you can also cruise around Alaska, Norway, and even Antarctica.

What Can You Afford to Spend Per Person?

Cruises are all-inclusive to some degree, meaning the price covers your cabin and all meals plus onboard entertainment. Things like bar drinks and sodas, spa services, and shore excursions will be extra, so you'll need to budget for more than just the cost of your cabin.

How Many Days Can You Afford to Get Away?

Cruises range in length from two-day "cruises to nowhere" to 130-day around-the-world voyages. However, most fall in between the 4-11 day range. When balancing your cruise with your vacation days, don't forget to factor in travel time to and from the ship.

Do Want to Fly or Drive to the Closest Port?

Today, more than 40 percent of the U.S. population lives within driving distance of a port. The most popular cities to board a cruise ship in the continental U.S. include Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Port Canaveral, Galveston, New York, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Seattle, Tampa, Baltimore, San Pedro, Boston, Charleston, San Francisco, and San Diego. If you can easily drive to any one of these destinations, you can save some money on airfare and your budget will stretch a little further during the cruise.

What Kind of Cabin Will You Be Comfortable In?

You may be tempted to just book the cheapest room, but you should be aware that inside cabins are usually windowless and very cramped. If you know that you'll be spending a lot of time in your room, it might be worth it to spring with a room that has windows or a balcony that will provide natural light and make it more enjoyable to be in your room.

How Social Do You Want to Be?

Some cruise ships have fixed seating at dinner time and only a few tables for two. Most of the time, you'll be sitting at large tables with other passengers. If that's a little too much social interaction for you, look for cruise lines, like Norwegian and Avalon, which have flexible dining schedules.

Do You Want to Dress Up or Keep Things Casual?

Most ships aren't as strict as they were in the past, but some cruise lines still enforce formal nights. Do a little research on the style of your cruise line, so you'll know for sure whether you need to pack those high heels or dress shoes along with your flip flops.