Going on a cruise is quite an adventure, I learned as a first-time cruise goer in late March. It was a seven-day cruise to the Caribbean with stops in Jamaica, Grand Cayman Island, Costa Maya, Mexico, and Cozumel, Mexico.
The purpose of the cruise was to celebrate my sister’s 80th birthday. My niece arranged the cruise, so all I had to is get out my credit card and pay. And pay I did.
Since it’s an expensive and time-consuming endeavor, here are tips to help you have the best cruise possible:
Decide where you want to go.
The possibilities are endless, with a cruise industry expanding its offerings to serve 28.5 million passengers a year. Once an unusual sight, you now see cruise ships in many major ports. The Caribbean, Alaska, and the Mediterranean are the most popular destinations.
Select a cruise line.
You’ll need to do thorough research on this. In general, cruise goers say Disney Cruise Line is the best for children, Royal Caribbean International for families, and Princess Cruises for couples.
There are many rankings of cruise lines offered by travel websites and online newspapers. Study them carefully. Customer reviews also abound and are very important to review. In addition to selecting a cruise line, research the different ships in a cruise line. They vary in size and offer different amenities.
One ranking on cruise lines by U.S. News and World Report, based on a methodology that factored in itinerary affordability, health ratings, and reputation among experts and travelers, lists the best cruise lines for the money for 2019 as follows:
- Celebrity Cruises
- Royal Caribbean International
- Norwegian Cruise Line
- Carnival Cruise Line
- Princess Cruises
- Holland American Line
- MSC Cruises
- Costa Cruises
Pick out the dates.
The season for the Caribbean is December through April, which avoids the rainy/hurricane season. For Alaska, it’s May through September. However, July is the peak season due to better weather and the most daylight. For the Mediterranean, you can cruise all year. In January and February, ships usually sail to Spanish and Italian ports, but the seas can be heavy this time of year. In November and December, most ports are 50 degrees but the Canary Islands are usually 70 degrees or warmer.
Australia also has year around cruising, but it’s expensive to get there to start your cruise. The peak season is October to April.
For a Baltic cruise that includes Scandinavian cities and Saint Petersburg, Russia, the season is May to September, with the summer months being the warmest, most crowded, and most expensive. This is the cruise I’d like to do next.
Figure out the best time to sign up.
In general, it works best to sign up early if you want the pick of rooms for popular times such as school holidays and the summer months. Sometimes cruise lines will offer early-bird deals with upgrades. You may be able to find last-minute deals offered by cruise lines to fill up the ship before it sails. However, for luxury cruises and river cruises, the prices are likely to go up prior to sailing.
Research and keep researching costs. Although fun, cruises are very expensive, considering that you usually also have to pay for airfare to get to a port to board the ship. Find out the date for when you can still get a full refund. If you find a cheaper deal, you can cancel your first reservation and sign up for a better deal. Or, you can ask for a reduction in your fare or onboard credit if you see the price drop.
Another way to get savings is to sign up for a shoulder-season cruise. The crowds will be smaller, but the weather may not be as good.
If you don’t want to spend a lot of time on Twitter or having emails sent to you, you can try working with a travel agent. Sometimes they have access to better rates due to the high volume of business they offer the cruise lines.
Decide what kind of cabin you want and wherein the ship you want to be.
Interior rooms are the cheapest with outside rooms more expensive and balcony rooms even more. You’ll need to determine where you want to spend your dollars – sitting in your small cabin watching the sea may not be a priority when you can easily get to a deck to see it at any time.
Be aware that if you’re a solo traveler, you’ll pay double because the basic rate is based on two travelers in a room. However, a few of the smaller cruise lines cater to solo travelers and offer fare reductions for them. And some ships in a cruise line may offer a price break for singles.
In terms of the best locations for heavy seas, the middle of the ship on the lower decks will have the least roll.
Port or starboard – left or right? It usually doesn’t matter unless you’re taking a cruise to someplace like Alaska where the view is on one side.
If you have limited mobility, being near the elevator could be helpful. However, it may be noisy to be near elevators and also to be near theaters, bars, and promenade decks. If you choose a cabin that is aft or in the back of the ship, you could experience engine noise. In addition, dining rooms are usually aft which could mean noise from equipment, serving carts, diners, or crew.
Find out if paying for items, such as package deals, in advance will save money.
If you plan to drink a lot of alcohol, you could save money by buying a drink package. Calculate how many drinks you think you might have a day and compare it to the cost of a package. Most cruise lines require everyone in the cabin to get the alcohol package so you’re not sharing your drink package with someone else.
Packages also are available for water, soft drinks, specialty restaurants, spas, and WiFi.
Find out if you’ll save money buying the packages and other items before the cruise.
Research excursions and decide if you want to buy ones offered by the cruise line or third parties.
First, research the cities you’ll be visiting and decide what you want to do there.
Next, look at excursions offered by the cruise line. These tend to be more expensive and more crowded than those offered by third parties. However, the advantage is the cruise ship will wait for you if you’re delayed beyond the departure time for some reason.
Your travel agent may have lists of excursions it recommends that are offered by third parties.
Whether you choose excursions offered by the cruise line or third parties, be sure to read reviews on each. That could keep you from making a mistake resulting in a disappointing experience.
Decide what you want to do about dining.
The main dining room and sometimes a buffet are included in the base price of your cruise. Specialty restaurants will cost more, and some are pricy. There are usually casual dining places where you can eat if you miss your time in the dining room or you don’t want to eat in the dining room. However, the offerings are limited.
Cruise lines often have formal dining, requiring something dressy for women and a suit jacket and tie for men. No shorts.
The traditional cruise dining is to offer first and second seating where seats are assigned. If you choose early dining, usually around 5:30 p.m., you’ll have more time for evening activities. However, open seating is becoming more common where you can dine at any time within a certain time period.
Most cruise lines offer room service for simple items, such as a Continental breakfast, sandwiches, or pizza, at no cost.
Know what’s expected in terms of tipping.
Most cruise lines include a gratuity of $12 to $15 a day per person in your bill. Although you can ask to not pay it, it helps to boost the salaries for employees which are around $2,000 a month for waiters and cabin stewards.
If you’ve received good service from your waiter and cabin steward, you can give them an additional tip. Envelopes are often provided at the end of the cruise for extra tips.
It’s also good to have a supply of money to tip for excursions. Drivers and tour guides expect tips.
Make a budget and stick to it once you’re on board.
You’ve already paid big money for the cruise. Onboard, there are dozens of people who will be trying to get you to spend more.
On the promenade deck, the cruise line rents out storefronts to companies that sell watches, high-end jewelry, handbags, and expensive clothing. Skip the $100 diamonds bracelets that are dangled before you.
For t-shirts with the name of the cruise line on them and other souvenirs, they often go on sale toward the end of the cruise.
If you’re going to buy something duty-free, make sure you know the base price. While duty-free means you don’t have to pay local taxes, sometimes the base price is jacked up to catch unsuspecting buyers.
Photos taken by the ships’ photographers are expensive, often around $20 for an 8 x 10, the only size available. While the one of you and the captain and a few others may be worth it, make a plan for getting your own quality set of photos.
I hope these ideas are helpful and save you some time and money.
While I enjoyed my cruise on Royal Caribbean, it was disappointing that I wasn’t able to interview anyone on board for this article. I made numerous requests to Royal Caribbean for an interview, and the only response I received was an email from a public relations person wishing me a good trip and including links to three copyrighted articles that I couldn’t use.
My next article is on tips for the first-time cruise goer.