Cruises aren’t for everyone. But you’ll be much more likely to disembark with a smile on your face if you plan your trip well. Here are 11 things to consider before you take your first, or next, cruise.
1. Start with the right mindset. “I’d recommend to lawyers looking to cruise to first work on planning to unplug for the duration of the cruise,” advises Megan Zavieh, an Alpharetta, Ga., lawyer who’s a self-professed cruise lover. “Nothing ruins the serenity of a cruise more than a working cell phone and email connection.”
2. Think of how you want to spend the time. “Not all cruise ships are alike,” says Allan Jordan, a New York City-based consultant in the cruise industry. “Do some research and decide what you’re looking for from your cruise. Some are tailored to families or multi-generational family groups. Some are designed for people who want to be very active with daytime sports, deck games, rock walls, ice skating, and so on. And some provide high-touch, luxury experiences.”
Zavieh agrees. “Do you want lots of activities and ports of call?” she says. “Do you plan to hang out in the spa all day? Are kids coming along? Your choice of cruise could be a little counterintuitive. If you want to be in the spa all week, you might actually want a cruise with lots of port stops. Port days mean uncrowded ships and spa specials.”
Destinations are also not all the same. “Some ships are in ports every day, and others spend lots of time at sea,” notes Jordan. “A cruise to Alaska is about nature, hikes, and flightseeing. But a cruise to the Caribbean has a lot fewer art museums, sightseeing, or things to do other than beaches.”
3. Consider the size of the vessel. “The size of ship varies dramatically,” says Jordan. “Some have 5,000 people aboard, and some have 100. Does it matter to you? If you’re a Type A personality who’s going to be upset at lines, waits, and mobs, don’t book the 4,000- or 5,000-passenger ships. You might give up some amenities on a smaller ship, but it’s a tradeoff for a higher touch, less crowded experience.
“Also, good travel agents will know about something called the space ratio, which is the size of ship divided by the number of people,” adds Jordan. “Obviously, a higher space ratio reduces the crowd feel. The mass-market ships might have a 20 or 30, and an ultra-luxury ship might be a 60 or 70.”
Elizabeth Avery, a securities lawyer in Washington, D.C., and founder of Solo Trekker 4 U (http://solotrekker4u.com/), a free travel community that connects solo travelers, couples, families, and groups with well-priced four- to five-star services, has similar planning advice. “Think about whether you’d prefer to be with your own age or language group,” she adds. “Also compare the style and difficulty of trips.
“For example, I chose a 15-passenger expedition upriver on the Amazon,” says Avery. “Other travelers to the region took a five-star, large Amazon vessel for less adventure but more luxury. Also, what’s your personal goal for the trip? Is it to see remote exotic lands and cultures? To pursue a hobby like scuba diving? To simply relax and see the scenery pass by?”
4. Know your cabin options. Ships have basically three or four different types of cabins: Suites, private balconies, and rooms with or without a window, says Jordan. “
Cabins are standard boxes loaded on to the ships, so they’re basically the same size within these groups,” says Jordan.
“Beyond that, you’re paying for position,” he says. “When you’re looking at position, make sure you look left, right, above, and below. A cabin located under a high-traffic area will hear the footsteps overhead, which might trouble some people. If you want to use the gym and spa, you might want to make sure you’re closer to those. Or even choose the special spa cabins, which have extra access privileges.
“Ships are longer and bigger these days,” says Jordan. “So it can be a lot of walking to get to some locations.”
5. Consider how safe the cruise is. “Learn risk-mitigation strategies and techniques to avoid, manage, and respond accordingly to prevent victimization while cruising the world,” recommends Carrie Pasquarello, a risk-mitigation travel expert at Global Secure Resources Inc.
“Have a trip free from crime, and this starts with understanding crime trends at different ports and that crime does happen on ships as well,” she says. “When picking a cruise, I look at safety and health records. I also look at alcohol consumption—is it a booze cruise or not? There’s more risk with excessive drinking.”
6. Don’t pay more than you have to. “Advance bookings generally are good deals,” says Avery. “Be aware that not just cruises but flights are more economical off season. Don’t reject the rainy or ‘green’ season out of hand. That can be a good time to spot wildlife while you’re saving at the same time.”
Shoulder seasons can cost less and offer a less crowded experience, agrees Jordan. “Also, what’s called a repositioning, when the ship is sailing between two destinations, is also a better deal. For example, a ship that spends the winter in the Caribbean and the summer in Alaska or Europe has to offer a one-off trip between those two destinations. Those are usually in the fall and spring, which can be less-popular times and have less-popular itineraries.”
Avery also suggests that couples or pairs look for frequent two-for-the-price-of-one specials. If you’re a solo traveler, she advises looking at cruise lines and departures that waive single supplements and offer single cabins. Be sure to check the size and location of single cabins, however, to see if the price is a real value.
7. Be aware of add-on costs. Not all ships are all-inclusive. “In the past, you paid one fare and got basically the same experience as all the other passengers, except for the size and position of your cabin,” says Jordan. “Now some offer separated private-suite enclaves with extra restaurants, lounges, decks, and even pools just for the suite passengers.
“Ships are now like resorts, and the ones catering to the broader or mass market are charging for everything from behind-the-scenes tours to specialty restaurants, even private-deck cabanas, classes in the gym, and on and on,” he says. “You might say, ‘That’s fine; I can pick and chose what I want.’ Others might feel nickeled and dimed.”
Avery also suggests tallying extra costs. “Look at inclusive and a la carte offerings,” she advises. “The cost of alcoholic beverages can increase the cost substantially. However, many ships have no charge for wine at meals.”
8. Be sure you know your health coverage options and plans. According to InsureMyTrip, one in three Americans are unclear whether their health insurance works abroad, reports Julie Loffredi, the company’s news editor. She advises asking your health insurance provider for clarification of your coverage before you leave and considering travel insurance for any gaps.
“It’s complicated,” she explains. “Big insurance providers like Blue Cross and Blue Shield, Cigna, and Aetna may provide emergency and urgent care coverage abroad. However, the definition of emergency varies. Medicare will rarely pay for inpatient hospital, doctor, or ambulance services you get in a foreign country.”
9. Take a test cruise. “Many of us attorneys are used to having some ability to plan our own days,” says Avery. “Unlike a land tour, a cruise pre-empts that option. However, it can be a real benefit to let someone else take care of all the travel details, side tours, and meals.
“The best solution in planning is to consider for your first cruise a short trip with a top cruise line that has daily onshore excursions,” she adds. “A river cruise typically falls easily into that category.”
10. Cruise the message boards. Prepare for your cruise by heading online. “Look at the itinerary, plan what to do in ports, buy drink packages and dinner specials ahead of time, and join message boards for other travelers,” recommends Zavieh. “Even if you don’t join in on message board discussions, read them. We learned that on Disney cruises, you can bring memorabilia and pens and drop them off at guest services, and you’ll get the memorabilia back signed by all the characters onboard. How cool is that?”
11. Remember to be you. “The biggest tip is that it’s your vacation, and you should do what you want,” says Jordan. “Just because the ship is in port, you don’t have to get off if you prefer staying on board and relaxing with a good book.
“I had a very good friend who went on cruises, did what they wanted, and always came home telling you what a good time they had no matter what happened,” says Jordan. “Why? Because they decided before they went that they were going to have a good time and that they’d let all the problems just roll off their back.”