Experienced cruisers who are familiar with the intricacies and subtleties of cruising know what aspects of the cruise experience they like and don’t like. They can easily do a little online research or chat with their travel agent and find a cruise line that mostly meets their needs. However, for those who have never cruised before, this can be a daunting task simply because they don’t know where to start. For those of you who are considering taking your first cruise, Cruise Talk has put together some aspects of cruising for your consideration in order to help you select the cruise that will be the best fit for your vacation needs.
Where to do your research
There are many places to research the details of a cruise: travel agents, cruise lines’ own web sites, marketing brochures, cruise review sites and cruising forums. If your time to dedicate to selecting a cruise is limited, your best bet is to talk with a knowledgeable consultative style travel agent with lots of real world cruise experience. Such a travel agents can help narrow down your choices and help to focus your choices on cruise lines and itineraries that meet your specific needs. A good travel agent will be concerned about your needs and have a broad understanding of all aspects of cruising. Make sure you are not talking with someone in a call center who is just reading a script who has no real world cruise experience. Travel agents are paid by the cruise lines and often have specials not offered by booking directly with the cruise line, so you won’t pay more to use a travel agent and you will often get a better deal.
If you have lots of time to research then start with the cruise lines’ own marketing materials, then once you’ve read their information thoroughly, talk to your travel agent or join a cruise review and information website like Cruise Talk, Cruise Line Fans, or Cruise Critic. You can post just about any question and get information from other experienced cruises.
On Board Atmosphere
Is your ideal vacation no-stop fun, crazy games, living it up, dancing, and a great party? Or would you prefer quiet elegance, relaxing in peace, and tranquil serenity? While most cruise lines offer the opportunity to do as much or as little as you wish, different cruise lines vary in where they place their emphasis. Royal Caribbean and Carnival are known for their non-stop activities and fun. Lines like Celebrity have a full array of activities, but have no constant intercom announcements about upcoming activities. Many lines have put in “serenity’ areas that are free from loud music, kids and activity. Be sure to research how the style of cruise effects the on atmosphere and make sure it matches your expectations.
Time On Board or Time Ashore and Dining Options
Some cruisers book a cruise for the on board experience and other book for the destinations. Depending on which of these aspects is more important to you as a cruiser, the previously mentioned on board experience will either take on greater or lesser importance. In addition, some of the subtleties to consider are the quality and variety of excursions offered, and dining options after long days in port.
Many cruises hardly even go ashore on their cruises, choosing to enjoy the amenities of their floating resort. Other cruisers choose to take part in all day excursions that depart early in the morning and return to the ship shortly before the ship departs. For those who wish to spend time ashore, they will want to research what others have said about the quality of the excursions. How well organized are the excursions? How does the cost of these excursions compare to independent tours? Can I see all I want to see in each port during the time allotted?
Another aspect to consider is the itinerary and how it relates to your time enjoying the ship and your dining options. Some cruises have an equal number of sea days as port days, others have even more sea days than port days, and still others have a different port nearly every day. The number of sea days can affect your enjoyment of your cruise depending on your expectations. Those wanting to spend time on a floating resort with little interest in the ports tend to book cruises with more sea days. Cruisers on port intensive European cruises, for example, may spend long days touring cities like Barcelona, Rome, Athens, and even Paris. This is where the dining options figure in. These cruisers might not want to partake in sit down dining every night. They might prefer a cruise line that offers casual or anytime dining every night with a wide variety of selections and options. Cruisers who prefer a variety of sit down dining options and don’t mimd paying an extra charge, might want to choose a ship with many different specialty dining venues. For those who are new to cruising, you’ll want to think about how much time you want to spend in port and how your dining experience in the evening would coincide with that port time.
If you have any kind of special need including mobility, assistance animal, special diet, or religious needs you’ll need to research how your cruise line handles these issues. While all cruise lines accommodate most special needs, some cruise lines are more attentive to accommodating special needs than others.
Perspective cruisers should consider how they want to dress each evening. It is most important to understand what the prevailing evening attire is on board the ship and what the alternatives are provided for those who do not choose to dress for the evening. Most cruise lines have a resort casual dress code for non-formal nights. Resort casual generally means khakis and golf shirt for the men, and comparable ladies outfit for the women. However, a few lines, like Carnival and NCL allow dress shorts on casual nights. In addition, most cruise lines have some kind of formal nights. However, different cruise lines do formal nights differently. Carnival calls it “Cruise Elegant” where a dress shirt with dress slacks and a suggested sports coat fits the bill for the guys and a dress, skirt and blouse, or pant suit meets requirements for the ladies. While some will still choose a suit, tuxedo, or gown on Carnival, cruisers who do not have or do not wish to dress in these items, can still easily meet minimums of their “Cruise Elegant” requirements. Celebrity lists a Tuxedo, Dinner Jacket, or Dark Suit as appropriate for men and a gown, cocktail dress, or dressy pants suit as appropriate for ladies. However this dress code only applies for the main dining room, so those not choosing to participate in formal night may choose alternative dining and still participate in most of the evening activities as long as they are dressed in the minimum “Smart Casual” attire. NCL offers a completely optional formal night. Be sure to research the intricacies of the dress code and understand what is required for the evening, what is optional and what most passengers tend to wear. If you would like a formal cruise try to gain an understanding of the percentage of passengers that choose to participate in formal. If you want a more casual cruise try to understand if your version of casual will fit right in or seem out of place.
Understanding the number of children that will be on board and how well the line runs their childrens’ program can have an effect on both those cruising with our with-out kids. Those wanting a child free or nearly child free cruise will want to choose a line that doesn’t cater to families or a cruise during a non-holiday period. Generally there will be very few kids on luxury lines or lines with no formal kids programs. Long itinerary cruises that take place during school sessions will attract few kids. In contrast, cruise lines that cater to kids and families will often have 500 to 1000 kids on board, especially during summer and holiday periods. Parents wanting their own kids to receive more one on one attention in the kids program with a higher counselor to child ration might choose to cruise during off peak times with one of cruise lines that cater to families. Each line runs their program slightly differently with different age groups and potty training requirements, so be sure to research the details of the cruise line you are considering.
Different cruise lines have different policies when it comes to smoking. If you are a non-smoker you might want to look at a cruise line that is more restrictive. If you are a smoker, you want to consider how far you are willing to go out of your way for a smoke. Some cruise lines let you smoke on your balcony or state room, some do not. For example, Celebrity prohibits balcony smoking while her sister line Royal Caribbean permits it. Some cruise lines have designated smoking areas throughout the ship, others require smokers to either smoke outside in a remote designated area or in a very few select indoor areas. Whether you are a smoker or a non-smoker you will want to make sure that you understand policies for the lines you are considering before you book your cruise. What ever your preferences, different lines will meet the needs of passengers in different ways that could make or break your cruise enjoyment.
New cruisers should understand that their basic cruise cost for the most part does not include the near mandatory tipping for the cruise service staff. Only a few luxury lines do not require or encourage tipping. Most lines have some form of auto tipping where the tip is applied automatically to the cruisers on board account and will only be removed upon request. Some lines allow cruisers prepay tips or require them to prepay for anytime dining options. Cruisers will want to understand how much above and beyond the basic cruise price is expected in the form of tipping and how the cruise applies tips to cruiser’s accounts.
Most cruise lines do not permit passengers to bring alcohol on board for consumption but the enforcement of that policy varies from line to line. Other lines allow cruisers to bring a few bottles of wine on board. Luxury lines that include all or some alcohol, usually have no need to restrict alcohol from being brought on board. Drinking ages vary from line to line and even itinerary to itinerary.
Starting Your Search
We’ve proposed these ideas as aspects that you might wish to consider when starting your cruise search. Cruise Talk has put together outlines of dress code, smoking, tipping and alcohol policies, as well as formal detailed reviews of all of our own cruises. You can find links to all of these charts and articles on our cruise line policies page.