The first decision is whether you want a ocean cruise or a river cruise. I focus on ocean cruises in this blog, but I love river cruising, too.
How do you find the right cruise line for you? Just like airlines and hotels, when you choose a cruise line, if you stay with it, you can qualify for upgrades and perks the more cruise trips with the same line you take.
Two categories of ships are size and price. If you want the more expensive lines, you can go Oceania, Silversea, Regent, Seabourn, and Crystal. Celebrity is all up there in price. Even among these, look at the perks you have with each before you decide.
For example, Regent offers round trip business class air on international flights and complimentary ground transfers between the airport and the ship. If you have enough airline miles to book a free airline ticket, this benefit isn’t as advantageous. However, if you don’t, this advantage is important. Add up what an international business class ticket would cost you, deduct it from the cruise fare, and the price seems more reasonable. They also offer free shore excursions. Again, on the other lines excursion costs really add up. Then add in free unlimited beverages and now you really see the difference.
Several lines are owned by the same companies but they do not have much reciprocity – not as much as you would imagine. Less than airlines, for sure.
The other big deciding factor is the size of the ship. Some of the cruise ships carry more than 5000 passengers. These ships have many online activities and restaurants. You may get a better fare on the bigger ships, so you can check them out for the price. I don’t prefer this size, but if you want a lot of action onboard, you may like these better.
We have traveled on extensively on Norwegian and Holland America with about 2000 passengers, and we have traveled on Azamara which has smaller ships with about 700 passengers. So does Viking. Because they have smaller ships, they can go into ports that the bigger ships can’t. These are mid-range pricing.
It’s all a personal preference, so take into consideration the walking from your cabin to places like bars and restaurants and other places you like to visit on a ship. Everything is more accessible from the middle of the ship, but I like the very back cabins of the ship the best. They have a more panoramic view, especially as you are pulling into a harbor, and they feel more private. It’s a little farther to walk, although many ships have the main dining rooms in the back of the ship. Definitely look at the name of the ship and look at the deck plans for the ship.
I have reserved a suite a couple of times, and suites are a nice experience. They have more room, of course, and better service, depending on the cruise line. Suites have a cost differential, of course, but nice to try out once in a while. There are several categories of suites, too. The lowest level is often called a club suite which is a little larger than an ordinary room.
Ask your cruise line about the suite amenities before you book. For example, on Azamara with a suite, you have a separate dining room for breakfast with a special menu. You also have a bottle of your standard liquor of choice in your room. And you have no additional fees for specialty restaurants.
One other big amenity you should inquire about is laundry services. One of the best advantages to cruising is having someone else do your laundry. Some ships have free laundry service as a suite amenity. If not, it's a splurge I think is well worthwhile, and it isn't as expensive as you'd think. I like to send laundry out about every other day.
One of the little-known ship amenities is tailoring/mending. If you have a problem, be sure to ask.
In addition to the location on the ship, consider the regular amenities that are important to you. I always look for a shower instead of a tub in a unit and am willing to pay a little extra for it. A tub is often more common. Regarding beds, you can specify whether the twin beds are separated or should be put together into a king-size bed.
What about a balcony? I would say this is the most important amenity for me. I like to be able to open the door and go outside. I especially love entering and leaving ports. If you are on the side of the ship, you may or may not have a good view of the port city. On the back, you always have a good view. If you are traveling with another couple, some ships have a door in the balcony dividers that can be unlocked.
Buffet vs dining room? We have taken about 30 cruises – I have lost count – and for night dining, I prefer the dining rooms rather than the buffet. The buffets often have delicious food and lots of choices, but I like the more elegant setting, I guess.
I choose the Anytime dining where we have a different table every time. However, I have found that, even with Anytime dining, you can often select a table number you particularly like – or a dining steward you like. A window table is my favorite and a table that sits just the number of people we have – usually either two or four people.
Right outside the dining room, the menu of the night is usually posted. You can almost always find something you like, but they also have some regular staples like steak or fish that you can always order. We have taken several tours of the kitchen facilities and it is fascinating to see how many meals they put out.
At the table in the dining room, you can order a drink or a bottle of wine they will keep aside for you. You can also order a specialty coffee like a latte. Some lines charge for these items and others don't.
I like to eat breakfast in the dining room, but the dining room often closes by 9, and I don’t always make it. Finding a table in the buffet is sometimes difficult, so check out the times when most people go so you can avoid those times.
What about specialty dining? Yes, I do love specialty dining, and I have a few favorites which always include a steakhouse. These restaurants often have small surcharges, but the quality of the food, uniqueness, and private setting are worth it to splurge once in a while. The best advice is to book early in the trip, preferably as soon as you board. Plan ahead because, otherwise, a reservation may not be available when you want it.
On tipping, even if tipping is included, most people feel they should tip the room steward and, if they have used the same dining steward often, they and their assistant are usually tipped. The amount of the tip depends on the length of the cruise. If you have had a great room steward (and most of them are great), I would say to tip at least $5 per day. The dining steward is probably double that at a minimum.
The important thing is to keep that amount of cash available at the end of the trip. You can tip in dollars wherever you are. However, most cruise lines will allow you to tip on a voucher and charge it to your room.
My friend Teri taught me to take a picture of the person with their name tag showing. The most help you can provide a server is to mention them in the survey you will get after the cruise. Without that name tag, since you are off the ship by that time, it is hard to remember the person's information.
Excursions? Excursions can be expensive. Some lines include one excursion in every port, but not many. Think about what is important to you. Almost all cities have what I refer to as an overview excursion involving a bus and not as much expense. And it goes up and up from there. Booking a cruise early-on that is important to you will ensure you have a place. Waiting until the last-minute means you may miss out.
Your other option is to walk to the port city from the ship if it is a reasonable walk. You will also see taxis and you can probably get an Uber or Lyft from the port. If you stay onboard, you may encounter a fire drill or the washing of the outside of the ship, including your balcony, and the shops and restaurants are almost all closed while you are in port.
I really like At Sea days because there is always something going on. Cooking demonstrations, great classes on internet and technology, the library where you can read or play a game with a cup of coffee nearby, walking paths around the ship, the pool, the spa (expensive but worth it!), shopping, talks, shows, and movies in the theater . . . lots of things to do! I am never bored!
The shows are fabulous! I like the extravaganza ones where the entertainers dance and sing, but there are lots of choices – comedy, ventriloquist, individual musicians, etc. Plan your dinner so you can attend the show you want. There are often two shows a night of the same venue so be sure you have scheduled it so you can make the one you want.
Most ships have special events. For example, on Azamara there is at least one sumptuous buffet - and I do mean sumptuous - with meat carvers, omelet makers, and a variety of seafood, salads and desserts.
Another special event of Azamara is White Night which, again, is an even more sumptuous buffet held out on the deck in nice weather.
Free standard liquor varies by ship. Some ships include liquor, while others include only wine and beer with dinner.
Some ships have an outside theater screen with lounge chairs, blankets, and popcorn served.
What about pictures – should I buy them? I always end up buying pictures, but the real questions are how many do you need and what are you going to do with them after the cruise? If you buy one or two, it is probably enough. But here’s a real tip.
Book the photographer to do some individual shots for you to use in marketing. The photographers are usually very good. Ask what they will charge. It could be by the hour or by the number of shots. Have them help you pick a variety of outfits to shoot in. And you want a variety of locations. The shots I use the most in my marketing were taken on a cruise ship.
Hopefully, this has given you some things to think about. Above all, I would say “GO!”