So you want to take a cruise…
Cruising can be a wonderful way to travel, but if you’ve never navigated the world of cruise offerings, you’ve got a lot to consider. The destinations are important and will ultimately shape your selections, but vitally, so are the choice of cruise lines and more centrally, the ship you’ll actually travel on.
Don’t confuse a “good deal” with a good fit; cruises are NOT all the same. Ask the right questions so that you don’t find yourself on a ship that doesn’t match your personality or travel style. This is miserable for you, awful for the cruise staff and ultimately damages the industry because you’ll return home with a resolve to “never cruise again,” making sure to tell everyone you know. This was my response after spending our honeymoon on a ship that held 2,390 passengers back in 1993. We didn’t ask the right questions and it took 5 years to get me back on a ship, but 20 years and 32 cruises later, I can honestly say it’s one of the most enjoyable ways to travel, if you're on the right ship.
How do you choose a ship that actually meets YOUR needs?
A cruise line should be viewed the same way you would view hotel branding. Take Starwood for instance, which offers Westin, Sheraton, Le Meridien, St. Regis, The Luxury Collection, W Hotels, Four Points, Aloft, etc. These brands are not equal in service, accommodations, style, quality or price point. The cruise lines also have that same product diversity. For instance, Carnival Cruise Lines is the parent company for Carnival, Holland America Line, Cunard, Princess Cruises, Seabourn, P&O Cruises, P&O Cruises Australia, Aida, Costa Cruises and Ibero Cruceros. Royal Caribbean International is the parent company for Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, Azamara Club Cruises, Celebrity Cruises, Pullmantur and Croisieres de France.
With hotels, it’s easier to understand the differences represented in the products offered. Thanks to the TV series, “The Love Boat,” which ran from 1977 to 1987, there’s a novelty and romance associated with traveling by sea. Additionally, Hollywood inspires us with films like “Titanic,” “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” “The Poseidon Adventure,” “The Imposters,” “Boat Trip” and many more.
As with hotels, individual cruise lines offer different levels of service, accommodations, style, quality and price point. You wouldn’t necessarily select a hotel just because the price was the lowest and you shouldn’t base your cruise selection on price point either. If you do, you might find yourself in less luxury than you’re used to and on a ship that doesn't meet your expectations.
With a cruise, there are a variety of things to consider. First decide on a destination and from there, you'll likely find a long list of ships cruising that region. Next, ask the right questions to help you narrow your selection to ships that fit your travel style. Lastly, do the basics and you’ll be ahead of the game when it comes to choosing a ship and enjoying the vacation you’ve always dreamed of.
What are the right questions?
Q: How large is the ship and how many passengers does it hold?
Ships tend to call themselves “yacht like” if they have fewer than 400 passengers, “small” if they have fewer than 1,000 passengers, “medium” if they are between 1,000 to 1,800 passengers and “large” if they are 1,800 or more passengers. Take passenger numbers in mind when looking at the length and beam of a ship.
Small Ship Pros: Fewer passengers’ means personal service. Small ships tend to run with a higher crew to guest ratio. This equals shorter lines, less crowding and easy embarkation / disembarkation. Entertainment can be highly specialized with interesting guest lecturers, local cultural ensembles, naturalists and contract performers. The bars, lounges and disco will be quieter as the evening grows late. A small ship can pull into smaller ports and tendering is less likely.
Small Ship Cons: Small ships tend to be more costly and staterooms can sometimes be smaller in scale than the same category stateroom on a larger ship. The entertainment could be uninteresting leaving you with entertaining yourselves in the evening or watching movies on the ship television channels. The bars, lounges and disco will be quieter as the evening grows late. Dining for a smaller crowd can sometimes necessitate seating times in the evening, forcing you into either an early or late seating situation for dinner.
Large Ship Pros: A larger ship will have more outlets for shopping and entertainment and more areas for things like ice-skating, rock climbing and even giant water slides. The bars, lounges and disco will offer entertainment until the wee hours with multiple venues to choose from in addition to movie channels on your stateroom television.
Large Ship Cons: More passengers’ mean longer lines. The embarkation / disembarkation process takes longer and there will be times when you’ll wait in long lines for the buffet, the passenger services desk, the excursions desk, etc. A large ship cannot get into smaller ports and tendering from the ship becomes necessary in those ports. Dining rooms are busier making it more difficult to dine when and where you’d like.
Q: What are the different stateroom sizes?
While the stateroom square footage might be shockingly smaller than a typical hotel room, storage has been maximized and you'll find you've got room enough for all of your things. Some important differences to note are bed sizes and weather you've been provided with a tub and shower or a shower only. Additionally, many ships include the square footage of the balcony when quoting stateroom sizes.
Q: What is the crew to guest ratio?
More crew for each guest means a higher level of service.
Q: Why is the same stateroom category priced differently?
Staterooms vary in price depending on location and view within the same category. Make sure your view isn’t obstructed and that you’ve not got a connecting door unless that’s what you’re looking for.
Q: What star rating has been awarded to the ship?
Ships are rated from 1 to 6 stars and those ratings are based on quality, service, crew to guest ration, recent renovations, etc.
Q: When was the ship built and when was the last renovation?
Ships need maintenance. You want to know the ship you’ll be traveling on has been well maintained and is comfortable.
Q: Is this a party ship or is it quiet?
Whether you are looking for quiet romance with your special someone or looking for someone special, it’s a good question to get an answer to.
Q: Is the ship formal or more casual?
Will you feel out of place if you are required to wear cocktail attire or a jacket and tie every evening? Do you look forward to dressing up? Find out what the etiquette on board is before making your decision.
Q: Is this ship appropriate for children and are there things for my kids to do?
If it’s a family vacation, make sure the kids have options so that you can have time with your spouse and / or your own thoughts.
Q: What is included?
Some ships charge extra for Specialty restaurants, excursions, alcohol, espresso drinks, soda, bottled water, etc. and some include many or all of those things. Find out what you’ll need to budget extra for. Most ships do not include airport transfers.
Q: Are extra fees charged onboard and if so what do they cover?
Many ships charge an onboard fee for gratuities which are shared amongst wait staff, stateroom stewards, buffet stewards, galley staff, laundry and others who support your cruise experience.
Q: What are the dining options and when is dinner served?
Find out how many dining rooms you’ll have to choose from and if dinner is serviced with two seating’s (early & late) or if anytime dining OK?
Q: What is the deposit requirement and what is the cancellation schedule?
Cancellation fees typically begin 90 days prior to departure, though some cruise lines begin imposing penalty fees as early as 120 days prior. Each cruise line operates with different deposit and cancellation schedules. It’s always recommended that with your cruise you also purchase trip cancellation and interruption insurance so that you are covered in the event of an emergency. Most cruise lines offer insurance and private options are also readily available through companies like Travelex Travel Insurance.
Before finalizing anything, peruse websites to investigate what people are saying about cruise lines and cruise ships you’re most interested in. A good resource is Cruise Critic. Better yet, visit a travel professional who is a cruise specialist, they will have the most recent information on things happening in the cruise world.
However you decide to travel, spend some time on research before spending your time and money. You can always make more money but you can’t make more time.