Traveling with a group can be an enriching and downright fun experience, and will certainly make a cruise more memorable for everyone. Groups come in all shapes in sizes, from friends and family and traveling together (such as our CruiseMates "NetBuddy Cruises") to "affinity groups" such as school alumni, special interest aficionados or hobbyists.
Organizing your own group of family or friends, while it can be great fun, can also be a lot of work. But many of the pitfalls can easily be avoided with a minimum of fuss on your part. And there's also a potentially valuable reward (besides the satisfaction you'll get as group organizer): The chance to get a free cruise for yourself.
Here are my tips for organizing a successful, fun, and carefree group cruise:
Planning Your Cruise
- Seek out a competent and reputable travel agent who specializes in groups or has extensive experience with them.
- Research a variety of cruise lines, ships and itineraries to find the one most likely to suit the preferences of most of your group members.
- Find out what kinds of amenities the cruise line will offer your group's members. These could include things like upgraded accommodations, a complimentary bottle of wine or champagne, special stateroom gifts, on-board credits, a complimentary cocktail party or a free shore excursion.
- Compare the individual pricing to the group pricing from the cruise line. You might find a big difference in rates just by picking a ship that sails a day later or earlier than the one you are researching.
- All cruise lines will offer you free berths (i.e., beds) depending on how many are sailing in your party. It can be as little as one free for every eight, but the average tends to be one for 15. This means that to get a free cabin (two berths), you'd probably have to assemble a group of 30 people.
- Research "air deviations," which will give you and your group your preferred airline, flight times and gateway city, rather than having to rely on the cruise line's selections.
- If it's a large group, ask if your travel agent can provide an escort or leader to accompany the trip.
Ironing Out the Details
- Get everything in writing from the travel agent, including the allocation of free berths and their values. Obtain a copy of the group contract that the cruise line has provided your travel agent, and demand a recap of all bookings from the travel agent, on the cruise line's stationary. Don't accept a recap that comes directly from the travel agent.
- Get all of the air/sea details, and find out who is responsible for seat assignments. Try to get all passengers accommodated on the same flights, if possible.
- If shore excursions have been pre-arranged, get all the details in writing: number of buses, times, duration of tour, and whether gratuities for the drivers and guide are included.
- Find out what types of proof of citizenship are required.
- Make sure all passengers have their preferred dining time and table size--and that all reservations are cross-referenced for dining preference if you wish to dine together.
- Make sure that your travel agent doesn't book individuals outside your group into your group's block of cabins. If your travel agent does this, make sure he/she is aware that those individuals won't be eligible to partake in any group events or "freebies". The last thing you probably want is people you don't know showing up at your cocktail party or joining in your group activities. If this does not bother you, make sure that you assert your right to those free berths.
- If it's a large group, ask if the cruise line can provide an onboard Hospitality Desk for your use. This could be as simple as setting up shop in the library/card room or in a corner of one of the smaller lounges. This makes it easier for members of your group to iron out any problems once they're on board.
- Have your travel agent include a "checklist" in each set of documents; this should include the list of documents enclosed, along with helpful hints on what to do or whom to contact onboard if a problem arises.
- Maintain a list of everyone's stateroom assignments.
- Make sure the duties of any group leaders or escort are defined in writing and agreed to by the leaders themselves and your travel agent. CruiseMates has experienced firsthand the problems that can arise when one of our Social Hosts takes on the duty of group leader, tour director and den mother.
Once On Board
- The group leader(s) should introduce themselves to the ship's Guest Relations Staff, building a rapport that makes it easier to iron out any problems that may arise.
- The group leader/host should confirm all included services such as cocktail parties, amenities or pre-arranged group activities directly with the Guest Relations Staff.
- If it's a small group, ask the restaurant manager if he/she can arrange for a special al fresco breakfast/brunch during a day at sea. It may require a small charge or tip, but it's well worth it, and great fun! I've seen this done, with tables specially arranged and cordoned off, set with tablecloths and flowers.
- If no tours have been pre-arranged, arrange for one group excursion or activity.
- Contact the ship's photographer and arrange for a group photo shoot sometime during the cruise. This can be anything from a portrait on formal night to a group shot on deck. It makes a great memento!
Last but not least, HAVE FUN and enjoy the cruise.