It wasn’t that long ago that cruising was considered to be a vacation for old folks, but with cruise lines now producing fabulous new ships and exciting itineraries, it is becoming a very affordable method of travel for people of all ages.
Residents of the Cayman Islands are well familiar with the sight of these majestic vessels as they jockey for position outside the George Town harbour. Carnival, Holland America, Celebrity, Princess, Disney...they are instantly recognisable thanks to the branding on their funnels; floating cities that now boast modern amenities like climbing walls, water slides, ice rink and zip lines.
The cruise industry has become such a Goliath that more ships are being built every year. Unlike countries and ports affected by the seasons, the mobility of the ships allows them to travel to coveted climates all year round and to adjust itineraries to avoid extreme weather conditions.
They also offer a wide range of cabin classes, voyage lengths and cruise lines to suit any budget. You unpack once and you’re done! Whether you are travelling as a single, couple, with a group of friends or as a family, chances are very good that there is the perfect cruise out there for you.
There are many different factors to consider when you book a cruise, particularly if this is your first time.
Number of days: remember to take into account the time it leaves port on your first day, and the time it returns. You may need to stay overnight in the port city before or after your cruise depending on the availability of flights.
Itinerary: this will be partially dictated by the time of year you wish to travel. For example, ships will visit Alaska in the summer and the Caribbean in the winter.
Cabin class and cost: an inside cabin is great for the budget-conscious, but if you can afford a balcony cabin this is definitely the way to go, particularly on a cruise surrounded by scenery like the Alaskan glaciers. Luckily the number of balcony cabins on new ships has been increased, and depending on the class you book, you can get a balcony for not much more money than an oceanview or inside cabin.
So many cruise lines, so little time
The cruise line that you choose can make or break your cruise experience. It all comes down to what amenities you are looking for, the level of service, and the kind of passengers you can expect to find on board. As a crew member once confessed to me,
“We do everything we can to make your cruise an amazing one, but we can’t do anything about the other passengers.”
If you have children coming along, you’ll want to book your cruise around their school holidays. This isn’t just for the obvious reason, i.e. taking them when they won’t miss any school; it’s because any other dates may find them roaming the ship as the only kids on board. Not much fun for them, and therefore not great for you either. Certain ships are definitely geared more towards families with children, such as the Carnival line, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean and of course Disney.
They are overflowing with activities, camps and myriad games to keep children constantly occupied.
If, on the other hand, you do not have children, nor do you wish to be neck deep in them, you’ll want to book your cruise for dates when school is in, and consider one of the other lines like Princess, Holland America, Celebrity and Cunard. These ships will have activities for children, but not to the level of some of the others.
Age groups will differ depending on the cruise line and the itinerary. For example, you are probably more likely to encounter mature Europeans on a Celebrity Mediterranean cruise in early October, and younger Americans on a Royal Caribbean cruise in January. This is definitely something to consider if you are a lone cruiser looking for some social activity.
Packing your bags
The cabins on board will offer as much space as possible for your clothes and personal items, but they are still cabins in the end and so will not have the drawer and closet capacity you would expect in a hotel room. Many of the cruise lines have at least one formal night on the schedule, so be prepared for that, otherwise consider pieces you can mix and match so less will go further. There are shops on the ship, but they will have a limited selection.
Don’t count on them to dress you for the entire cruise unless you want to go around swathed in logos.
On a final note for this subject, laundry is not cheap, so pack accordingly.
Most cruise ship itineraries have multiple stops within the days you are at sea, and they are usually very well chosen so you can make the most of your time in the area you are visiting. Ships can take you to extraordinary places like the Mediterranean, Hawaii, Alaska, the Caribbean, the Galápagos Islands, Europe and Russia, yet certain voyages will feature a number of days on the waves before you see any land.
The Cunard line is known for its Transatlantic crossings where the theme of the cruise becomes quite important due to the lack of stops. A number of the ships from other lines will also journey across the oceans to reposition themselves.
They will leave Europe, for example, around November, to head to the Caribbean for the winter season, and then make the return journey around the end of April so they can visit the lands to the east of the Atlantic in the summer. Cruises such as these tend to be less expensive than itinerary-heavy ones of similar lengths as obviously one-way airfare has to be taken into consideration for most passengers.
They may not be the ideal choice for first-time cruisers as not only are the ports few and far between, but the ocean swells can be interesting at times. The ships don’t pitch through 90 degrees or anything, but if you have a sensitive tummy, you might want to look at shorter cruises until you find your sea legs.
Touring the ports
If you really want to explore the ports you are visiting and you’re not comfortable just renting a car and taking your chances, then an organised tour is a must. You have two choices: You can either book a tour with the ship, or you can do your own research and book privately. There are pros and cons to both, and which way you go depends heavily on what kind of person you are and how much work you’re willing to put into it.
Cruise ship tours
These can be booked in advance, which is recommended if you are going to a popular port known for its sights, like Alexandria in Egypt or Athens, Greece, as they can sell out before you get on board. The information on the cruise ship web site is usually pretty extensive, including the cost, what you’ll see, how long the tour is, and how much walking or climbing will be involved. For driving tours you can usually expect large, air-conditioned coaches with a certain number of shopping stops.
Once you begin your cruise, you can visit the cruise tours desk for further information and if there is availability, you can book tours with them. Ships often have talks or presentations about upcoming ports prior to arriving in them, which will give advice about what to see and what shops are recommended.
Pros: It guarantees that the ship will not leave without you, even if your coach gets stuck in traffic or breaks down. If you have a limited budget and you are travelling as a single or couple, going with a cruise tour will be less expensive than going private. No need to do research beyond deciding what tour you think best suits you.
Cons: Odds are good that you’ll be in a large group, which is not everyone’s cup of tea. You have no control over your schedule. Ship tours do tend to take you only to specific shops that are paying them to promote and advertise their company.
These definitely should be booked in advance and will require you to do your own research, but the effort can really be worth it in the end. Good sites to go to for advice and traveller experiences are TripAdvisor and Cruise Critic. There you will find recommendations for private tours and how to contact the companies. Make sure that a number of different passengers have posted positive reviews about them and that they are reported as giving consistently good service.
Pros: You will have a much more personalised tour. You can change the schedule as you go, i.e. spend longer at one stop, less time at another. You know that all the money you pay your tour company is going directly to them and supporting their livelihood. Chances are you’ll get a more local experience. It’s only you and your travelling companions, not you and 50 strangers.
Cons: The ship will leave without you if you’re back past departure time and you will have to rejoin it at your own expense. Depending on the tour company, they may only accept cash or limited credit cards. If you are travelling as a single or small group it will probably be more expensive than going with the cruise.
The cruise ship will strongly suggest that you only go with their tours and shop at their recommended places, but remember that they are in the business of making money. They want you to book with them for obvious reasons. Don’t let their warnings dissuade you from at least looking into private tours before you make a final decision.
The extra stuff
It is certainly worth considering the specialty restaurants that charge extra cover on some ships. For example, QSine on the newer Celebrity Solstice-class ships is not to be missed for its terrific food and funky presentations. See if your cruise offers drink packages, and then calculate whether it would be worth it for you. If you’re big on your specialty coffees then it could be a good deal. Spa prices tend to be less expensive on port days, so take that into account when you’re booking on board, and know that there will be daily deals offered once you’re on the ship. Don’t be so quick to book everything in advance or you could miss out on some nice discounts.
There is a wealth of information available on the Internet, and you’ll certainly want to take a look at www.cruisecritic.com to read the accounts and recommendations of others, but honestly when it comes to booking a cruise, having a word with your friendly neighbourhood travel agent is a great way to go. Besides, even once you reserve online the odds are good that you will have to liaise with a local agent so why not start there anyway?
Whatever you do, once you have paid the deposit on your cruise keep checking its web site to see if the price of your cabin has gone down. Like hotel rooms in Vegas, the prices can change significantly over time. Until you make that final payment, there is only a nominal fee to rebook at a lower price and you can potentially save hundreds of dollars.