Sage and timeless advice for all first-time cruisers for a cruise industry veteran
Back when Noah built the ark, I can just imagine a couple of giraffes sitting around saying, "Which ship should we take? Where should we go? How do we avoid bad weather? Early sitting or late?"
Not much has really changed. These are still the basic questions asked by first-time cruisers, whether they are giraffes or human beings. Even repeat cruisers ask many of the same questions. There's such a plethora of options out there that it's hard to select exactly the right ship from exactly the right cruise line to make sure you get that perfect cruise vacation -- especially the first time.
This column will list some of the basic options and questions and stimulate the process. It is not intended to be the ultimate solution for everyone. And I would be delighted if readers would send me notes (reasonably short if possible) as to how they came to select their very first cruise, or how they decided to change to another line/ship somewhere along the way. I'll publish the most interesting and helpful ones next month.
First, some bad news: you're going to have to do some research. A cruise does cost as much as a house or a car, but it might be one of the more expensive things you'll ever buy without seeing it or trying it out in advance.
Knowing what you're buying is important. Ask friends, business associates and relatives who have cruised what they think. If you ask persons most like you in terms of lifestyle, you might get some very helpful advice. Check out brochures from the lines you think you might be interested in. Yes, I know they are full of hype. But they do indicate what a line or ship is all about: luxury or contemporary, big or small, formal or casual. For first-timers, a knowledgeable, unbiased travel agent is worth his weight in gold. They can help with your research, answer a list of questions and guide you through the process.
The Hotel Analogy
For every cruise line, there's a hotel chain that provides a comparison. At the luxury end are the Four Seasons and Ritz Carlton's; for the premium category, Hiltons and Sheratons; and for the ‘contemporary' category, Holiday Inns and Best Westerns. Just as hotels offer a range of suites, more expensive rooms, or basic rooms, the same is true for cruises. For example, the Best Western in Midtown Manhattan has rates around $100 a night. They also have a much-enhanced room that goes for about $600. Norwegian Cruise Line, a fast-improving entry in the contemporary category, has Garden Villas on its new ships that rival the finest luxury accommodations at sea. So think about what kind of hotel you like and try and match it up with a similar cruise line. (Those of you who have NEVER stayed in a hotel can do the same comparison using cars.)
Some important decisions relate to price. As I said, shipboard accommodations come in a wide range of prices. But you also need an idea of what you're willing to spend for your cruise. This means selecting not only your cabin category but also length of cruise and destination. It costs more to have a suite and/or a verandah than a regular room. Longer cruises cost more (note: most first-timers take a seven-night Caribbean cruise; they are the most popular length for all cruisers). And certain destinations such as Alaska, Europe and Asia cost more than the Caribbean or Mexico. When you work on pricing, remember that many aspects of the cruise are included in the basic price: food, entertainments, activities, accommodations, etc. Some lines include alcoholic beverages and tips, even a shore excursion or two. If you compare it to land vacations -- where the price is usually just for your room -- you must make sure to compare apples to apples.
An important decision will be what size of ship you'd prefer. In the last couple of years, I've been on ships that carry as few as 49 guests and as many as 3,000. I had great times on both, but the experience was very different. Smaller ships offer a greater sense of exclusivity, privacy and personalized service. And they come in all economic categories, not just luxury. The larger ships have lots more facilities and more onboard activities. Again, consider what kind of hotel suits you best and use that as a benchmark. If you think you'll feel claustrophobic on a small ship, consider a larger one. If you think a bigger, more populated ship will be too crowded or hectic for your tastes, consider a smaller one.
In picking a ship, you have to decide what's important for you on board: food (quality and options), service, entertainment and activities; casual or more formal; pampering or being left alone; more ports or days at sea. There's a line or ship that fits everyone.
Once you've narrowed it down to a specific cruise line or ship, you need to pick a cabin category. They usually come in four types: inside rooms (no windows); outside (porthole or windows -- and no, they won't open); outside with private balcony; or suites. Needless to say, the price goes up as you go with a larger room with more amenities.
Some folks stay in an inside room on a better ship. They feel they get more out of their cruise dollars this way. However, most people want a view, and windows and balconies certainly provide that. Suites are more and more popular nowadays (they used to be the province of the more upscale ships, but no longer). And suites themselves on most ships come in a variety of sizes. You will spend a considerable amount of time outside your room doing things around the ship, but your room selection is key to enjoying the entire experience.
Location, Location, Location
Your cabin location is also a factor. I personally do not like being above or below show lounges, discos or restaurants. The noise can seep through, especially during early morning or late night hours. Many people try to stay near elevators or staircases to cut down on their walking. But those areas are also the noisiest. As for seasickness, most ships these days are so stable it's not really an issue. But as a rule of thumb, the smoothest ride is close to the waterline and in the center of the ship. Forward or rear rooms, as well as those on higher decks, will have the most movement. Aft rooms will some times have vibration from the engines and propellers, especially when entering or leaving port.
As I'm writing this during hurricane season, a couple of comments about seasonality are in order. For the most part, the cruise lines handle this for you: They do not go to Alaska during the winter (although I think it would be a great cruise) and try and stay away from warm spots like the Panama Canal during the summer. This also has an impact on pricing: High season may have higher prices. As for those dreaded hurricanes, ships have the great ability to move around and avoid storms. No ship is going to be stuck in bad weather by choice.
If you're traveling with a family, you have to decide if you want a ship that offers extensive programs for the appropriate age group, or if you want to handle that yourself. Some lines have excellent programs for kids (e.g., Disney, Carnival, Celebrity and NCL). Most luxury lines do not cater to families. Summer months and holiday periods attract more kids (duh!). And some ships have lots of connecting rooms, making better living areas for families.
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