Considering a vacation afloat? How to choose the perfect cruise.
I'll get fat. I'll go stir crazy. I'll have to dress up for dinner. My kids will hate it. It's only for the newly wed or the nearly dead.
If you've taken a cruise before, then chances are you already know that these familiar misapprehensions are as outdated as the Macarena.
In fact, thanks to low-carb menus and scads of fitness classes you might get off lighter than when you got on; you may find so much to do that you can't get to it all; on some ships you can show up to dinner barefoot and in a bikini; you'll probably drag your kids kicking and screaming off the ship, not on; and many sailings, especially shorter ones, attract an increasingly younger crowd--married and not.
Ahoy! The cruise industry has undergone an extreme makeover, and with over 150 ships afloat and three more three to come this year, there's something for even the most confirmed landlubber. But with so many options, finding the right experience is a harder task than ever.
At first glance, all these ships, and their glossy brochures, seem like one big blur. But look a bit closer and you'll see that some do certain things better than others; it's the subtle--and not so subtle--differences that can make or break your vacation. A few lines do a superior job catering to kids, honeymooners, or the young and the restless; others to gourmets, singles, or those of an intellectual bent. Some boast that they eschew glitzy casinos and extravagant floor shows while some crow that their roulette wheels spin around the clock and the fun never stops.
"Everyone would like cruising if they just tried it," says Fran Golden, author of Cruise Vacations for Dummies and Frommer's Europe Cruises and Ports of Call. "It's the most relaxing vacation you'll ever experience, but the trick is to find the ship that meets your needs. And there is one."
Some of the best values are in the first three weeks of January, when people are tapped out from the holidays, and in the Caribbean during hurricane season (September to Thanksgiving), for obvious reasons.
The mark-up on shore excursions can be high (Cunard's Queen Mary 2 charges $59 per person for a tour of the Doris Duke Mansion in Newport; the Mansion itself charges just $20 for admission). Local ground operators will sell to you directly, or just hire a taxi. In ports with little to do but shop, such as the Bahamas, ask the crew where they go and just spend the day in a resort (for example, the Atlantis Resort in Nassau charges a small day rate to use their facilities). Book shore excursions online before you depart to avoid long lines at the excursion desk on board. Caveat: if you explore on your own, leave plenty of time to get back to the ship (if a ship-operated shore excursion is delayed, the ship will wait for you before leaving port; if your privately-hired taxi gets a flat, they won't).
Arrive in your port of embarkation a day early. if there's a problem with your flight you won't miss the ship.
Pack light and carry on your luggage. Checked luggage can get lost or delayed, and few things are more annoying than setting sail with just the clothes you wore on the plane, especially if your ship has formal nights.
Don't try to book a cruise yourself through the cruise line; always use a travel agent who knows something about cruising.
Cruise close to home. Cruise lines have embraced "homeland cruising," which translates to establishing home ports - many on a seasonal basis - in cities all along the U.S. coast. The primary benefit? No need to tack on the cost of an airline ticket to more traditional port cities, like Miami, Ft. Lauderdale and San Juan, and less hassle with airports, especially important if you have kids and all their paraphernalia in tow. Do plan, however, to pay $10 a day to park your car in port garages.
If you think you might be prone to seasickness, stick to the Caribbean where the seas are calmer (except during hurricane season) and try to get a cabin mid-ship and on a lower deck since these are more stable.
Newer ships have stabilizers and other features that aid smooth sailing.
Some ships have larger standard cabins than others. Avoid outside cabins and splurge on a cabin with private outdoor space (most newer ships like Carnival's Valor and Holland America's Zuiderdam offer them at surprisingly reasonable fares).
Buy insurance. As cruise expert Anne Campbell says, "A doctor asked me on a cruise once, 'Does your insurance cover you in Liberia [where most cruise ships are registered]? Because that's where you are now.' " Emergency medivac insurance is a good idea. "You don't want to go to a hospital in St. Lucia."
Cruises come in all shapes and sizes, and with over TK different ships and dozens of different cabin types, deciding on just the right one can make you seasick. But a cruise vacation can be a bargain and choosing the best options easy with a little advance planning.
Do your homework
There's a wealth of information from past cruisers on sites such as Cruise Critic (www.cruisecritic.com) and Cruise Mates (www.cruisemates.com), along with reviews and tips from experts. Although the same ship might get raves from one poster and rants from the next, the message boards on these sites will give you a taste of what to expect. A recent critique of Carnival's Miracle, for example, opines that the décor is "ugly and tacky," and the buffet lines "insanely" long, but praises a dining room waiter ("he knew our names before we sat down for the first meal") and the "wonderful service and food" at one of the ship's specialty restaurants. These boards can also point you to deals and give you an idea of what to pack and where the best cabins are located.
Pick the ship
Large "resort" ships, such as Royal Caribbean's 3,835-passenger Voyager, will suit active types (these leviathans have everything from skating rinks to wave machines, but you'll also encounter longer lines at the buffet). Despise crowds, but enjoy gourmet cuisine? Go for smaller, elegant ships such as those operated by Sea Dream and Seabourn. Parents with infants and toddlers should consider Disney Cruises, which features bathtubs and mini-fridges in all cabins and fleet-wide nurseries. Carnival is the line of choice for party types and singles, although wet T-shirt contests are a thing of the past. Both Carnival and Royal Caribbean score big with teens and sports lovers, as well. But if you're older and of a more traditional bent, look into Celebrity, Holland America, Cunard, Crystal, and Silversea. Bargain hunters who like to spend evenings in port are big on easyCruise, whose fares (no meals included) have been as low as $45 per person for a three night Mediterranean voyage. Smaller "expedition"-type lines such as Clipper and Lindblad appeal to adventurers and the ecologically-minded.
Getting the best price
Cruises over peak holiday periods are naturally going to be expensive, but 3-night Bahamas cruises in an inside cabin typically can be had for as little as $199 per person at other times of year. Big online travel agencies such as Travelocity, Orbitz, and Expedia compete to offer the best prices, as do cruise specialist agencies such as cruisesonly.com and Cruises-N-More, but prices can vary. Searching this past October for a 7-night Caribbean sailing on NCL's Dawn leaving November 25, the Cruises-N-More lowest price was $349 per person for an inside cabin, whereas on Travelocity we saw $379, and on Lastminutecruises.com the fare was $399. Two good places to look for low fares on line is Cruise Critic's "Bargains" section and on Travelocity's "top deals" listing under the Cruises tab. Some buyers still prefer to sit down with a local travel agent, but if you go that route make sure you shop around and deal with someone who has cruised extensively herself (find cruise specialists on cruising.org, the official site of the Cruise Lines International Association). What about last minute specials? It used to be that you could show up at the dock a day or two before a cruise and grab empty cabins for next to nothing, but new security regulations have done away with that option. In fact, some on some popular itineraries you'll get the best price (and best cabin choice) if you book months, not days, in advance, thanks to early booking discounts.
Budget for extras
Cruise lines these days don't make money on the fare you pay: it's all the other stuff that floats their boats. Spa services, shore excursions, bar tabs, specialty restaurants with cover charges, transfers to and from the ship, casinos, and Internet and laundry charges all add up. And don't forget tipping: some lines (usually the more expensive ones such as Seabourn and Silversea) include gratuities in the basic fare, but most don't, and you can figure on at least $10 per guest per day as a guideline. Plus, taxes and port charges can be hefty. Your cruise might cost $199 per person, but taxes and port charges might add $100 to the final tab.
Reserve the right cabin
Before you buy, it's a good idea to study the ship's deck plans in order to scope out a cabin that suits you. Mobility-challenged cruisers might want to book near the elevators, especially on large vessels. Watch out for staterooms with obstructed views (usually on the lifeboat deck) and those in close proximity to discos, theaters, or areas where the cabin stewards prepare room service orders (wee-hour revelers and clanging dishes do not make for a restful night's sleep). Cabins midships and lower down are best for those prone to mal de mer. Especially on warm weather itineraries, balconied cabins provide a private place to relax, view the scenery, or dine away from crowded public decks, plus they're an added boon for the claustrophobic. Smaller inside cabins are adequate for the budget-minded and those who intend to make full use of the public spaces.