Several wonderful points about taking a cruise include:
- It's an all-inclusive price for your accomodations, gourmet meals, on-board entertainment and activities.
- You only have to unpack once to travel to various destinations.
- You have a different "view" outside your window every day.
If you've never cruised before, you may be a bit overwhelmed by the choices. There are cruise lines and ships available to suit many different desires. There are medium-sized to mega-ships that appeal to a broad segment of the population. Some smaller ships create a more intimate experience and/or sail to exotic locations. Some ships create a party-like atmosphere while others offer a more sophisticated experience. River cruising is gaining in popularity; you can sail through Europe or Asia on long, narrow boats that feature cabins just as decked out as full-sized ships. To determine what sort of cruise suits your needs and desires, you can research and book yourself on the internet or you can use the services of a travel agent.
The cruise lines that offer a fun experience for families and couples include Carnival, Disney, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean.
The cruise lines that offer a more sophisticated experience include Azamara, Celebrity, Holland America, Oceania, and Princess.
Luxury cruise lines include Cunard, Crystal, Seaborn, Silversea, Regent Seven Seas, and Windstar.
Exotic locations include Costa, MSC and Paul Gauquin.
River cruise lines include Uniworld and Viking.
There are cruise lines and paddleboats that sail some of the rivers in the United States, and others that sail the Great Lakes.
What can you do when you're on board? Activities may include: Vegas/Broadway-style shows, live music, discos, piano bars, nightclubs, indoor and outdoor movies, casino gaming, classes, lectures, pools (some are adult-only), waterslides, wave pools, hot tubs, exercise rooms, running tracks, miniature golf, rock climbing walls, ice skating rinks, basketball, bowling lounges, teen centers, and plenty of kids activities. Many ships offer babysitting or supervised childrens' opportunities so that parents can have time to themselves. Extra cost items on board a ship include spa treatments, massages, specialty restaurants, and shops & boutiques.
When you're in port, you can choose to remain on the ship if you desire or you can visit the local area. You can book a shore excursion, which may include sightseeing or any of dozens of activities. You can get off the ship and just walk around the local area, which generally includes shopping, places to eat and some activities.
Costs: The costs you see advertised for a cruise generally are for the cruise only. These are usually per-person based on two people per cabin. If you have a third or fourth person in the same cabin, they are usually at a lower rate. The cost will vary, depending on the length of the cruise, what cruise line it is, where you are going, what time of the year it is, and what your accomodations are (see below). These costs include your accomodations, meals, and entertainment. Alcoholic and soft drinks are extra. You can usually find juices and some other drinks for free. Taxes and port fees will be added at the time you total up your price. Generally you must make a down payment of around $200-$300 per person at the time you book a cruise. Full payment will be required approximately a month before the departure. If you are booking a 'last-minute" cruise, you will be required to pay the full amount at the time of booking. Gratuities and amounts are optional, but most cruise lines highly "recommend" certain amounts, which generally total around $10-$15 per day for each passenger in your group. Many offer the opportunity to include gratutities in your total bill at the time of booking. Shore excursions are extra. You can book ahead on shore excursions or you can book them once you are on the ship.
Trip insurance: I can't stress how important I believe trip insurance is, especially for a cruise or when you are travelling in foreign countries. There is a very high probability you will not need it, but if you do, it can save you from financial ruin. I don't mean just the little things like lost luggage and missed connections, but if you are sick or injured at sea, in international waters or on an excursion, costs can run VERY high. Your medical insurance very likely does not include foreign travel. It's bad enough if your vacation is ruined by illness or injuries, but if you need hospitalization in a foreign country, it can be a disaster for you. You will also need to get home again. Trip insurance can cover such hospitalization, ambulance transportation, airline transportation back home, and even an airlift off the ship if it were to become necessary. Also, medical services on the ship itself are not included in the price of your cruise. Trip insurance can cover it. The cost of trip insurance is very low when you consider the peace of mind you get for it.
Meals: Meals included in your cruise fare include breakfast, lunch and a gourmet dinner in one of the ship's main dining rooms, the cafeteria-style restaurant, plus snack fare including pizza slices and ice cream. Breakfast and lunch are usually open-style, meaning you can go to the designated dining room anytime it's open. There is no assigned seating. The cafeteria-style restaurant is always open-style for all meals. Traditional dining in the evening is at an assigned time at an assigned table, which is usually arranged before you even board the ship. There is usually an early serving, around 6:00 PM, or a late serving, around 800 PM. If you choose traditional dining, you will select an early or late seating at the time you book your cruise. You will have the same wait staff for the entire cruise; they will get to know you and your tastes early on. Some cruise lines now offer open-style dining as an alternative in a separate dining room. One cruise line, Norwegian, has no traditional dining; they advertise their cruises and meals as being totally "free-style." Disney offers tradtional seating and times, but you will rotate among dining rooms on different nights. Your wait staff will move with you. It's true what they say about eating as much as you want; in the dining rooms and in the cafeteria, there is no limit to the amount of food you can eat. I've seen people order several meals at once in the main dining room! Most ships also have a number of specialty restaurants on board. You need to pay for these meals.
Accomodations: The prices you see advertised for a cruise are usually for the lowest-price cabin available. This is usually an interior cabin on a lower deck. From there, everything goes up in price. Generally the higher your cabin is on a ship, the more you will pay for it. Interior rooms cost less. If you want a window, you will pay more. If you want a verandah (balcony) outside your cabin, you will pay more. The typical cabin on a cruise ship is usually quite small, especially compared to an average hotel room. Usually they are fine for two people, but if you have a third or fourth person, it will get a bit crowded. If you want more space, such as a larger-than-usual cabin or a suite, you will pay more. What you choose should be based on what you want to do in your cabin. If you only need it for sleeping and the basics, and plan to spend most of your time elsewhere on the ship, an interior cabin will do just fine. If you'd like to see outside, you can get a cabin with a "view" (meaning a window). If you'd like to relax on your own private balcony, you can get a verandah room. Royal Caribbean's larger ships have another class of cabins with a view of the promenade that runs through the center of the ship. Some cabins come with an "obstructed view." This means you have a window, but something outside the ship may be blocking part of the view, such as a lifeboat hanging above the window. Cabins come with their own private bathroom and shower. All cabins come with TV's, which have some standard channels for news, sports, movies and cable channels. They also have specialty channels for the ship. You will see video crews roaming around the ship for your entire cruise and will often see shots of you and your shipmates on some of these channels. There may be a channel that shows a live camera view outside, and/or a map showing where you're going and where you've been. Information about the ship's speed, time/distance since you left port, time/distance remaining, and weather conditions are often posted.
Before the Cruise: After booking a cruise, your cruise line will have you fill out various forms and let you know when and how to receive your boarding papers. Much of this can be done on the cruise line's website. Beginning several weeks before the cruise, boarding papers can either be printed out from the website or they will be mailed to you. If you are flying to your cruise port, I recommend that you fly in a day early and spend the night in a hotel. This will ensure that any airline delays will not cause you to miss your cruise departure. Otherwise you will be one very unhappy vacationer. Make sure you have the necessary documents including passports when you arrive for your cruise. The cruise line will let you know what time you can begin boarding. This process takes about 3-5 hours. Most cruise lines take your luggage outside the port and bring it to your cabin, although it may be several hours before your luggage arrives at your cabin. So pack whatever you need for the first few hours in a carry-on bag (swimsuit, sunscreen, etc.) What's nice is that your vacation begins as soon as you step on board the ship. Bands may be playing, pools will be open, the cafeteria will be serving food, and the ship will generally be open for touring. You can visit the spa (you can book treatments at this time), the children's centers, teen center, see the various nightclubs, the theatre, etc. (Once the ship embarks, the children's center is generally closed to adults. Parents must sign their kids in and kids are only released to parents or others authorized to pick them up.) I like to tour the ship as soon as I get settled in my cabin. I take the elevator to the highest deck and explore each deck as I work my way down. With people still boarding, the elevators will be crowded so it's easier to start at the top and work my way down the stairs. Most cruise lines offer a soft drink card; this card will allow you unlimited soft drinks for the duration of the cruise. You can purchase your soft drink card after you board. Also, if you have any issues regarding your dining room time/seating, this would be the time to see the maitre'd and resolve those issues.
After the Cruise: If you are flying home after the cruise, make sure you allow enough time to disembark the ship, go through customs, travel to the airport, check in, go through security and get to your gate on time. Depending on your cruise port city, your cruise line can help determine how much time you need, so plan your flight accordingly. The ship's crew will be anxious to get you off the ship as soon as possible when you arrive back in your home port. The process takes several hours and they need to clean the entire ship for the next group of passengers, which will begin arriving late that morning. Traditionally, you pack most of your luggage by the last night, set it outside your cabin, and then it will be available for you to pick up when you disembark the ship. Many cruise lines are now offering the opportunity to carry your luggage off the ship. It's your choice. Follow the instructions for disembarking. Once you are off the ship, you will need to go through customs. After that, you're on your own.
Safety: As with anything else in life, there are reasonable precautions you should take to ensure your own safety. Keep your valuables locked (cabins usually come with a safe), keep your cabin door locked, use common sense around people you just met, and follow the safety information posted in your cabin or given to you during the muster drill. All cruises must begin with a muster drill. This will usually be started approximately an hour or so before departure. Follow the directions given to you at the time. Use common sense with alcohol; the tragedy of people falling overboard is rare, but the news reports I've seen regarding this seem to imply they are usually alcohol-related incidents. Norovirus outbreaks can and do occur on ships, but do not happen as often as media reports seem to imply. The best way to avoid being infected is to wash your hands frequently. For detailed information on this topic, you can see this link about norovirus oubreaks by the Center for Disease Control. It's comprehensive and has links to inspection reports on individual cruise lines. When you disembark in a port, remember that you are in a foreign country. Make sure you carry ID and passport information and use common sense regarding whoever you come in contact with. Make sure you return to the ship by the designated time; the ship will wait for no one.