The Ultimate Guide to Planning a Cruise
Traveling via cruise ship is one of my favorite ways to see the world, but there is a lot to think about when planning a cruise, especially if it's your first time. From picking a destination that interests you, finding the right cruise line, booking transfers, and everything in between, here is a list of things for you to consider when booking your next trip, regardless if you’re a first-time cruiser or a world voyage expert.
When to go
Cruises are different from regular air travel since some itineraries are only offered at certain times throughout the year because of unpredictable weather and rough seas. For example, cruises to Alaska take place from spring to early fall when the weather is warm and you have a good chance of catching a glacier calving. Eastern Canada and New England is best seen during autumn when the leaves are changing their colors. Destinations in the southern hemisphere like Australia, New Zealand, South America, and Antarctica all experience warmer temperatures from November to March.
Does the destination actually interest you?
There would be nothing worse than booking a cruise solely because the price dropped to 50% and then discovering that nothing about that destination interests you at all. Instead put a little bit of research into where you want to go based on what interests you. Otherwise you might feel like you wasted your money and vacation time.
With so many online resources out there today, from personal blogs to travel sites, there’s no reason why you can’t find your dream destination.
Is the destination affordable as a cruise vacation?
Cruising is a great way to get a feel for a country, but it certainly doesn’t allow you to the time to sink into the local culture. Most cruises generally give you one day, occasionally two, in each port. This means any port excursions you have planned or things you would like to do have to be crammed into a short amount of time.
That being said, cruises provide a lot of value for the cost. Longer cruises can take you to upwards of five different countries with various world voyages taking you to over twenty!
Consider cost, convenience, and what kind of traveler you want to be. Are you the type of person who wants everything taken care of? Or are you a backpacker who enjoys going where the wind blows you? Would you rather book a cruise, which has all meals and accommodation included, but keeps you stuck to a set schedule, or would you enjoy booking a flight, hotel, and rental car so that you could explore your destination based on your own time frame. And which option costs more?
It all depends on what your travels style is.
small, intimate ships vs. larger, anonymous ships
Smaller ships build a sense of community and a bond between passengers. It's easy to make friends with everyone on board. Due to the size there are, however, limited activities on board.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are the mega ships, which carry thousands of people, and chances are you’ll rarely see the same person twice. These ships will give you something to do 24/7, from shopping malls, ice skating rinks, climbing walls, surfing, and much more.
Food and Drink onboard
All meals, water, coffee, and tea is included in your ticket price on most cruise lines. On luxury cruise lines and certain river cruise lines, alcoholic beverages are also included in the ticket price.
Depending on the size of your ship there are usually one or more large dining rooms open every day at set times for your main meals. Check your daily schedule (delivered to your stateroom each day) for information on the dress code and when formal nights take place on your cruise.
Buffet restaurants are usually open earlier in the morning and later at night, and always go by a casual dress code. Specialty restaurants found on board are available for an extra fee and reservations are generally recommended.
With some cruise lines now featuring theaters at sea that hold more people than theaters on land, you won't miss out on entertainment. Nightly shows usually have an early and a late show, and performances change on a daily basis. You can expect everything from Broadway musicals, comedians, ventriloquists, to magicians and interesting public speakers.
Finding Cruise Deals
Once you’ve decided on which cruise line would be a good fit for you, or if you’re still deciding, sign up for the email newsletter on each company’s website. Often times you’ll receive private sale fares or limited time offers before everyone else directly in your inbox. If your travel dates are flexible it’s also a good idea to check for last minute cruise deals online.
Getting to and from your start/end port
Depending on where you live, getting to your embarkation port might take some time, effort, and money. Will you have to book a flight? Is it close enough for you to drive, and if so where will you park your vehicle? Could you take another mode of transportation, like a bus or train? Better yet, if you know someone in the area, could they pick you up or drop you off?
Hinging on how much time you have available, it probably isn't worthwhile to spend two whole days in transit flying halfway across the globe for a cruise that is less than a week.
If you're flying you will have to find a way to get from the airport to the cruise ship pier and vice versa. All cruise lines offer an airport transfer service, which you can book for an additional cost. You will have to decide whether reserving a transfer or hiring a taxi would be more economical. Occasionally, you’ll find some ports provide a free airport bus service directly from where you disembark the ship. This information can be found on the port’s website.
choosing a cruise line
You’ve decided where you want to go and now it’s time to book. Which cruise line do you go with?
If you’re looking for constant activities or parties then Royal Caribbean, Carnival, or Norwegian Cruise Line might be the right way to go. If you are traveling with young children then a Disney cruise would be a logical option. A large family, or reunion, might consider Princess Cruises because they cater to all ages. A retired couple might prefer a Holland America Line ship for a quieter, relaxed atmosphere.
Consider the "hidden" costs
When researching cruises you might come across some incredible deals, but don't forget about the additional costs like port fees, taxes, spending money, and the cost of excursions.
Port excursions, whether booked through the cruise line or independently, add an extra cost to your vacation. Double check which currency the excursions are in. Depending on where you live it might not make much sense to book a cheap cruise, but then end up paying hundreds of extra dollars for a day tour because of a poor currency conversion.
Ocean or river cruise?
Your cruise experience will depend heavily on either one of two things: ocean or river cruise? The majority of travelers end up on an ocean voyage because they are typically more affordable and have more destination options to choose from. However, river cruising is rising in popularity and can take you to places that a large ship could never reach. Some popular river cruise lines include Viking River Cruises and AmaWaterways.
With various categories of staterooms on each ship, from windowless interior cabins to ocean view balcony rooms to huge penthouses, it's easy to find something for every taste and budget. If you're debating whether or not to book a cabin with a balcony, consider your destination. Will it be warm enough to enjoy using your balcony? If you're headed somewhere cooler you probably won't be spending much time there.
The windowless interior cabins might sound dreary, but I have no hesitation recommending them. You won't be spending much time in your cabin anyways, apart from sleeping, and they contain everything you need to have a pleasant cruise. Cabin stewards generally tidy your room once each morning and return in the evening to turn down the cabin.
If you're prone to seasickness try to book a cabin in the middle of the ship on one of the lower decks where the natural movement of the ocean is greatly reduced.
The majority of ships use USD as the on board currency. However, some ships, which are permanently based around a certain country, will use that country’s currency.
Each passenger is charged a daily tip fee, which varies between cruise lines, and is distributed among the crew. This fee will be added to your final on board bill at the end of the cruise. However, cash tips are still appreciated. Double check with the cruise line before booking to find out exactly what the fee is, and factor this into your budget.
Laundry facilities are provided on board for an additional fee. Alternatively, self-service coin laundries, which accept the on board currency, are available on certain ships.
Read reviews by other travelers
Lastly, there are plenty of online resources dedicated to cruise travel. I would recommend checking out the forums on Cruise Critic, reading up on Porthole Cruise Magazine, and speaking with other travelers about their experiences.