Planning a cruise vacation can be a challenge for those who either haven't traveled much or who haven't taken an organized tour or vacation. How do you plan that first cruise? Family and friends often get together to discuss where they want to travel or vacation next. You might have heard cruise tales and seen cruise vacation pictures of your family and friends, or read in magazines and online about how much fun (and economical) cruising can be. If you want to "take the plunge" and go on your first cruise, where do you start?
First-time cruisers should find a good travel agent who is experienced in booking cruises. However, before you contact the travel agency or cruise line, you will need to have the answers to the ten questions covered in this article.
After you have answered the following ten questions, you will be ready to work with a travel agent to select a cruise line and cruise ship.
Who Is Going on the Cruise?
This should be the easiest question, so let's start with it. All age groups are welcome and planned for on a cruise ship. You will be able to find a cruise that will give any age group from toddler to great-grandmother a memorable vacation. Families with teenagers often say they have found it to be the best family vacation yet. If you don't have kids or don't want to be around them while on vacation, there are some cruise ships that are almost adult only or won't have many children.
How Much Are You Prepared to Spend?
Let's discuss minimums. There are NO maximums. There used to be a "rule of thumb" that you needed to budget about $100/day/person (exclusive of airfare). That rule still seems fairly reasonable, although many cruise ships now charge extra for items that used to be included in the fare. You can decrease your budgeted cost some by shopping around or by
- Having more than two persons per cabin,
- Being conservative and booking early (more than nine months in advance),
- Being a risk-taker and booking late (less than 2 months in advance).
How Long Is Your Vacation?
If you have less than a week, you are probably restricted to the Bahamas, Mexico, parts of the Caribbean, or a "cruise to nowhere". A "cruise to nowhere" allows passengers to cruise for a long weekend out of port into the ocean and then return. No ports of call are made by the ship, but you can get a feel for what a cruise is like.
A week's vacation will open up the Caribbean to you, and depending on where you live, you can even get to Europe, Hawaii, Alaska, or the South Pacific.
If you can squeeze out ten days to two weeks, you will have many more options--including all seven of the continents.
One thing to remember--the longer the cruise, the more you will need to pack, or you might have to do laundry while away.
When Do You Want to Travel?
Cruises are usually a little cheaper in the spring or fall. Students of economics will know that this is entirely due to supply and demand. Kids are in school, and weather can sometimes be uncertain. Winter used to be considered the only "high" season for tropical locations like the Caribbean. However, summertime costs are not far behind due to the large numbers of families with children, college students, and others who have "forced summer vacations".
Some people are fearful of fall hurricanes, but cruise ships can deal with those by altering their itinerary, although you may see different destinations than what you planned.
Some locations have short cruising seasons. For example, if you are going to Alaska or northern Europe, you will have to cruise between May and September. If you are going to Antarctica, November through February is the season.
Going to the tropics is a little easier. The temperature will not vary much with the seasons. What does vary is the rainfall. The dry season for most tropical locations like the Caribbean and Hawaii is in the summer, and the rainy season is in the winter. This does NOT mean it will rain all of the time. You just need to be prepared for more rain. Afternoon showers are more common. Of course, if you are coming from Canada or the northern U.S., some warm rainfall is not a problem if you have left piles of snow at home!
If you are going to the Mediterranean, summer is the high season, but some ships cruise there year-round.
Where Do You Want to Cruise?
Choosing a cruise destination is often the most difficult decision for future-cruisers. Remember that the earth is over 3/4 covered with water. This means that you can reach every continent and many countries via cruise ship. Even land-locked locations such as central Europe, Russia, or the Yangtze River in China and the Mekong River in Southeast Asia can often be reached on a river cruise.
Every cruise destination has its own special atmosphere and diverse nature. The weather or cruise ship will help determine what you need to pack for the cruise.
What Types of Things Do You Like to Do?
One of the best things about a cruise is the wide variety of activities available. You can do everything from sit on the deck and enjoy the view to more strenuous activities like hiking, biking, zip lining, scuba diving, or other water sports.
European cruises often feature city or museum tours and other cultural opportunities. Ships dock in the major cities of Europe for a day, and passengers go ashore to see the marvelous historical and cultural sites of the city. Some European cruises include outdoor activities such as hiking, but most focus on the great cities of Europe.
Tropical destinations like the Caribbean and South Pacific cruises feature island tours and beach and ocean sports. History and museum tours are a much smaller part of the shore experience.
Many cruise lines' will provide you a list of shore activities offered before you book, either via the Internet or from your travel agent. You normally do not have to decide on the shore activities before you sail, but you may be asked to book the shore excursions not long after embarkation. Some shore excursions have a limited number of slots, so if you absolutely must have a private tour of the Vatican, a helicopter ride over a volcano, or go scuba diving over a Caribbean shipwreck, ask if you can book space in advance.
The activities director will give passenger briefings on the shore excursions available after you get onboard, but it's good to have a general idea of what you want to do in each port before you sail.
What Type of Cabin Do You Want/Need?
Cabin selection is normally a function of how much you want to spend. However, many cruisers will book the cheapest room available at the time of booking, preferring to save their money for shopping or shore excursions. Deck plans for most ships are available in hard copy from the cruise line, travel agent, or you can view them online. If you book early enough, you will sometimes get an upgrade to a better cabin. You might also note that on most ships a cabin mid-ship and on a lower deck will "ride better" in rough seas than one near the bow or on a higher deck.
If you are on a one-way Alaskan cruise, you might want to select a cabin on the shore side. However, the ship's captain will usually turn the ship around in the glacier-filled bays and give everyone an opportunity to see the spectacular scenery from their cabins.
A few years ago, we discovered balconied-cabins, and now we may never want to cruise again without one! Many of the newer ships feature private verandahs or balconies on most cabins, so they are getting less expensive. When determining your cruise budget, be sure to check to see how much more one of these cabins might be. It might be worth your money! Beware--you might get spoiled like me and look for a balcony first!
When Do You Like to Eat Dinner?
Dinner time varies with the cruise line or ship. There are three possibilities--early seating (about 6:00 pm), late seating (about 8:00-8:30 pm) or open seating (anytime within a given time frame like 5:30-9:30). Note that some mega-ships have added a third fixed seating and made early seating earlier and late seating later.
Most ships will give you a choice of seating. There are advantages to both. Early seating might mean you have to get up earlier (although most ships have open seating for breakfast and lunch). It also means that you might have to rush for dinner if you are on a shore excursion that lasts until the late afternoon, or can't tear yourself away from the beach or pool. The advantage to early seating is that you can then go to the shows after dinner and have more time for nightlife before bed.
Late seating allows you to have plenty of time to get ready for dinner. However, if you don't finish dinner until after 10:00 pm, you might either miss the show or part of the nightlife.
Open seating is available on almost all cruise lines. Most mainstream cruise lines offer both fixed seating and open seating. When booking your cruise, you will need to select one of these options. If open seating is very important to you, be sure to discuss this with your travel agent when booking the cruise.
Another note about dining. On a ship with assigned seating, you will also be asked what table size you prefer. Most ships have tables for two, four, six, or eight (and sometimes ten). Oftentimes, the numbers of "two-tables" are limited, so if you "want to be alone", be sure to tell your travel agent or cruise line in advance.
Do You Like to Dress Up?
Mainstream cruise lines used to always have one or two dress-up nights on a seven-day cruise where passengers would wear formal or semi-formal attire.
Along with the general trend towards more relaxed dress, some cruise lines have started to feature "resort casual" or "country club casual" dress every night. On these ships, they probably won't care if you want to be more formal, but you might feel awkward if you showed up without a tie for a semi-formal dinner on a more traditional ship. If you want to eat dinner in shorts or very casual attire, you need to look towards small sailing ships or have dinner in your cabin or in one of the casual buffets most mainstream ships have.
Look at the brochure and website pictures and read the brochures/schedules carefully on ships that you are considering. If all of the pictures of people dining show everyone in semi-formal wear, then you will want to take along either your black suit, tux or white dinner jacket. Ladies will need either a silky suit, cocktail dress, or something "glittery." If you want to leave that tie and other semi-formal wear at home, then look for cruise ships with a more relaxed dress for dinner.
Many women (not men) love dressing up for dinner, but hate having to pack the extra "stuff". With all the airlines strictly enforcing the suitcase weight guidelines, women should probably only take one or two evening outfits and just wear them more than once or mix and match the pieces.
How Will You Get to Your Cruise Ship?
Flying or driving are the two most popular modes of transportation to the ship's embarkation point. Driving is under your control, but might not be reasonable unless you live within a day's drive of an embarkation point.
Most cruise lines will sell you a combination "fly-cruise" package. This often is much easier, but you will need to compare the cruise line airfare price to booking your flight independently.
The "fly-cruise" price will usually include transfers between the ship and the airport, which can sometimes add quite a bit to the cost if you fly on your own. In addition, the cruise line will usually transfer your luggage directly to your cabin. For cruisers who over-pack (you know who you are!), this can be a big help. The other reason it is a good idea to let the cruise line take care of your flight is that sometimes the ship will be held up for late arriving flights. If you are on a cruise line booked flight, there will probably be other cruisers on your plane. The more of you who are "in the same boat", the more likely the ship's departure will be delayed if your flight is late arriving.
If you do choose to use frequent-flyer miles for a flight or want to book independently, you might want to get to the departure city a day early to avoid the stress of worrying about flight problems, whether they be weather or mechanical.
Now that you have answered these 10 questions, you are ready to call a travel agent and choose a cruise line and ship.