Booking your first cruise can be incredibly overwhelming. There are SO many options. You have to choose a cruise line, a destination, a cabin, a dining time. . . the list keeps going. There is so much to know and so many decisions to be made. Below, I’ll try to help with some recommendations, from my 13 years of cruising experience.
Q: Which cruise line/ship should I choose?
This answer will depend on a few factors:
Do you want lots of activities to do on-board while the ship is at sea?
Most modern cruise lines have great activities on-board to keep guests entertained while they’re at sea, but some have more numerous options than others. For example, some of Royal Caribbean’s largest ships have a carousel and aqua-theater on their ships. Some of the larger Norwegian ships have Broadway musicals and Cirque du Soleil-style dinner theater entertainment on-board. Disney’s ships are designed with Disney’s entertainment principles in mind. You can see Disney elements in every aspect of the Disney cruise experience, from the design of the ship to the menus in the dining rooms.
Do you want lots of options for different dining venues?
Norwegian is known for their vast selection of options when it comes to dining on their ships. Some of the larger ships have up to 23 or 24 dining venues on the ship. These include the main dining rooms, but also venues like a Teppanyaki style restaurant, Brazilian steakhouse, sushi bar, tapas bar, Italian restaurant, and several others. The Norwegian Escape even has a restaurant where you order everything from an iPad at your table.
Some more traditional ships have only a few options outside the main dining rooms, usually including an Italian restaurant and an American steakhouse.
Typically, specialty restaurants on a cruise ship charge a small fee, which will be added to your shipboard account, so keep that in mind when you’re budgeting for your cruise.
Are pools and water features important to you?
Some ships have better pools and water features than others. The Norwegian Epic has a pretty fantastic water slide setup, with three slides, including the Epic Plunge. Sister ships, Norwegian Getaway, Norwegian Breakaway, and Norwegian Escape have free-fall slides and the Escape touts an Aqua Racer slide so guests can race their friends and family members to the bottom.
If you’re looking for adults-only pool areas, many ships have restricted pool areas where all guests must be at least 16 or 18 to enter. These areas can be a respite, especially on cruises that happen over the summer or over school breaks.
Are you looking for a great spa experience?
All the major cruise lines have spa services. If there’s something in particular that you want to make sure you have access to while you’re on vacation, be sure to research ahead of time to see which ships offer those services.
Are you traveling with children who will want to spend time with other kids?
All major cruise lines also have programs for kids and teens. The availability and hours of the program will likely depend on the number of children on the ship. Josh and I went on a Canada/New England cruise in October, out of Baltimore and found ourselves on a ship with 1,996 adult passengers and 4 children. We’re not certain we ever saw three of the children, but the one we did see couldn’t have been over 1.
If you’ll be traveling with your children and want them to participate in a program with other kids, be sure to travel during a time when other kids are likely to be on-board (summer vacation, holiday breaks, spring break, etc.).
Are you traveling with small children, but you know you’re going to want an evening to yourself?
As with my recommendation about kids programming, if you’re expecting to have an evening child-free on your cruise, you’ll either want to be sure you travel during a school break or be ready to pay a few dollars for someone from the kids program staff to babysit your child for a few hours. Most lines offer a childcare service after their normal children’s program hours, especially on formal nights.
Overall, our favorite line is Norwegian. We appreciate all of the different options for dining and the laid back feel of their ships. They also have the best guest loyalty program for us (double points when you book at least 9 months in advance). We’ve also cruised on Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Princess, and Holland America. We probably wouldn’t sail on Carnival again and prefer Princess and Holland America to Royal Caribbean. That being said, we just came back from a Canada/New England cruise in October on Royal Caribbean and will be sailing Hawaii to Vancouver on Royal Caribbean in May. We tend to book based on itinerary rather than ship or cruise line.
Q: Where should I cruise?
This question is also up for debate.
Do you have a destination in mind?
If you have one destination in mind, that’s a good place to start building your options. Many cruise lines, and even travel tools like Expedia, have search tools on their websites that allow you to choose ports you want to visit and then they build your options backwards from that.
What time of year do you want to travel?
Obviously, you won’t be cruising to Alaska in December, so if your only vacation option is around the holidays, you can probably cross an Alaskan cruise off your list. Many ships that are typically in the Caribbean over the winter make the trans-Atlantic trek to the Mediterranean for the summer months, so Caribbean itineraries can be more difficult to find.
Remember that Hurricane season in the Caribbean runs from June 1st through November 30th and you’ll find lots of inexpensive cruises during this time. This can be a fantastic opportunity to get a great deal.
Also keep in mind that summer vacation, spring break, and any other school holidays mean that the ships are going to be filled with families with small children. It can be a little chaotic during those times, especially on 5-day sailings to the Caribbean. We only sail to the Caribbean in winter, if we can swing it.
Do you know which city you want to depart from?
Similarly to knowing a port you want to visit, if you know where you’d like to sail from, this can help you narrow down your options for itineraries. Most of the cruise line websites should allow you to choose a departure port.
How long do you want to cruise?
If you’re looking at 5 days, your options are going to be fairly limited (mostly Caribbean, out of Florida, but Galveston has options too). If you have to choose between Eastern & Western Caribbean, my favorite is Eastern or the Bahamas, but I don’t really like the ports on the East coast of Mexico. They’re beautiful, but there’s a lot of pressure from locals to buy things and I haven’t had great experiences there or in Jamaica. If you do end up in Cozumel, Playa Del Carmen, Costa Maya or any of the ports in Jamaica, I recommend booking a shore excursion through the cruise line and sticking with the group. If you really like to shop, any of those ports would be good though. I’m not a huge souvenir buyer or drinker, so the Mexican ports just aren’t my cup of tea.
With a 5-day cruise, you’re likely only going to be able to get to some of the closer islands in the Caribbean, like the Bahamas and the cruise lines private islands (mostly also in the Bahamas), but those are some pretty great islands. Based on some of the currently available itineraries online, you may also have the opportunity to go to Grand Turk, Grand Cayman,
If you have 7 or more days to spend cruising, your options will open up significantly. All of the Alaska cruises I’ve seen are at least 7 days and you can get much further into the Caribbean if you have 7-10 days to explore. If you’re traveling from the US, keep in mind flight time if you’re looking at cruises that don’t leave from the US. You can’t leave home for a cruise out of Barcelona or somewhere in Asia the same day the ship’s supposed to sail, so you’ll need to plan in buffer time there.
Are you interested in a lot of sea days or more port days?
Some itineraries are heavy on sea days (repositioning cruises) and some are heavy on port days. I’ve been on a cruise that hit 7 different ports in 7 days. It’s not common to have a cruise like that, because the US departure ports are a quite a ways away from most of the Caribbean ports, but that particular cruise sailed out of San Juan, Puerto Rico, so we started much closer to other Caribbean islands.
Cruise lines are always looking to fill cabins, so they will stop in a couple of obscure places, that may not get cruise ships stopping by very often, in order to fill up their repositioning cruises. A repositioning cruise just means that a ship is moving from starting round-trip cruises in one location to another departure port for a different season. For example, a ship that typically sails the Caribbean all winter, may reposition to Barcelona to sail the Mediterranean for the summer season. This repositioning cruise will likely stop in places like Bermuda and the Azores on the way across the Atlantic.
If you are just looking to relax on a floating city for a week, a trans-Atlantic repositioning cruise may be an economical and fulfilling trip!
All that being said, if you have the vacation time to spend, I HIGHLY recommend Alaska. It’s the first cruise we ever came home from and were ready to immediately book the same sailing again. I wish we’d had more time there because it’s like nothing you’ve ever experienced or will ever experience in the lower 48. Being a Kansan, I’ve traveled to Colorado many times for vacation in the mountains. Colorado is beautiful, but Alaska is spectacular. Just imagine mountains that don’t start at 5,000 feet above sea level and rise to 14,000 feet, but actually AT sea level and rise to 14,000 feet. It’s an incredible place to experience and a place I believe should be on everyone’s bucket list. If you book an Alaska cruise, make sure you book one that sails through Glacier Bay. The National Parks Service restricts the number of ships that can sail through Glacier Bay each day, so not every Alaska cruise gets the opportunity, but it’s 100% worth any additional cost you encounter. It’s phenomenal!
We were lucky enough to cruise through Glacier Bay the morning after a pretty strong earthquake rattled the area. This meant that we cruised through lots of pieces of icebergs that had calved from the glaciers during the earthquake. The stories people tell about the sound a glacier makes when it calves is not to be underestimated. It’s truly a sound like nothing else.
Q: Do I need a passport to cruise?
Even if your cruise line doesn’t require a passport (for cruises that originate and terminate from the same US port, the rules are murky), I feel like the safer option would be to go ahead and get a passport, just in case. For any cruise, you’ll want to be sure your passport doesn’t expire for at least 6 months after you return from the cruise.
Obtaining a passport can take a while, depending on how backed up the US State Department is, so make sure you give yourself plenty of time to get yours back before you sail.
Q: How far in advance should I book my cruise?
We typically book cruises about 18 months in advance (it’s January of 2017 and we have an Asia cruise booked for March of 2018 already). We feel like we get some of the best deals by doing this, and if prices drop later, you can usually get the lower price.
If you live near a port, you can get really great last-minute cruise deals when cruise lines don’t fill up their sailings. If you can travel on one to two weeks notice and drive yourself to the port, you can sail for significantly less than those of us who live closer to the middle of the country and have to fly everywhere. While the cruise fare may get smaller the closer you get to the sailing date, the flight prices definitely do not.
Q: Which cabin category should I book?
We usually book inside cabins and spend the extra money on shore excursions or experiences on the ship instead. We’ve had balcony cabins on our honeymoon cruise (Southern Caribbean) and our Western Mediterranean cruise. Both were fantastic, but we find that we don’t spend very much time in the cabin, so it was a bit of a waste of money. My parents, on the other hand, only book balcony cabins, but they spend a great deal of time in their room, reading on the balcony, even on days when the ship is docked in a port of call.
For first-time cruisers, I recommend an inside, mid-ship cabin. This is where you feel the least amount of movement for the best price. Anything too far to the front of back of the ship is likely to move a little bit and, until you know if you’re prone to sea-sickness, I’d stick to the middle, if possible.
We also always choose our cabin rather than booking the less expensive “guarantee” rate. The guarantee rate gets you a cabin in the category you pay for, but allows for the opportunity for an upgrade, if a better cabin is available closer to the cruise. We choose our own cabin because we have been upgraded before to a part of the ship that we didn’t really want to be in (right under the disco or next to an elevator, where there’s lots of noise all night long). When you choose your own cabin, you’re less likely to have an upgrade opportunity, but you also know that you’ll be in the part of the ship you want to be (and if you book far enough in advance, you pretty much have your pick of cabins).
Q: If we put down a deposit, do we lose the deposit if we cancel the trip?
While I always recommend confirming with your cruise line, typically, you can get a full refund of your deposit if you cancel a cruise before the final payment is due. Final payment is usually due about 90 days before the ship sails. You could put down a deposit for a sailing in March of 2018 and still be able to get all your money back as late as December of 2017. If you cancel after the final payment is made, you lose a percentage of the deposit, depending on how close to the sailing you are.
Q: Is alcohol included in the price of my cruise?
Most ships are not completely all-inclusive (alcohol isn’t usually included, but many lines have an additional beverage package you can purchase where either beer & wine or all drinks up to a certain price are included). As of this writing, I believe the Norwegian Sky is the only ship that includes an unlimited beverage package as standard practice.
Things that are included with your cruise fare are food (unless you eat at certain specialty restaurants), juice (with breakfast), lemonade, tea, coffee (not specialty coffee, such as espresso, lattes, etc.), and most entertainment.
Q: Why are gratuities so important on a cruise ship?
Because most cruise ships are not US flagged, they do not have to abide by US labor laws. This means that crew members are not paid the same rates that you would be accustomed to receiving while working in the US. This also means that crew typically have to work longer hours than US workers would have to. To balance this, many guest-facing crew members receive required gratuities from passengers. Typically, these gratuities are either pre-paid, as part of your cruise fare (if you request it), or they are added to your shipboard account while you are on board. They usually run less than $15 per day and include tips for your room stewards and your dining room waiters. There is also typically an 18% gratuity added to all drinks ordered from the bar (including soda, whether you purchase it by the glass or in an unlimited soda package at the beginning of the cruise). If you encounter exceptional service from a crew member, you’re always able to tip an additional amount at any time.
We always make sure to have a few extra $20 bills at the end of the cruise if our dining room waiters and room stewards were truly outstanding. We find that this is the case more often than not, actually. These folks work really hard every single week to make sure your vacation is outstanding and they absolutely deserve any additional gratuities you feel like leaving for them.
Q: Can I fly in the day the cruise leaves?
I don’t recommend it. I always feel more comfortable flying into the departure city at least one day before the cruise departs. This allows you the opportunity to have a missed or delayed flight and still make it on time. If you’re not on the ship when it’s scheduled to sail, it’s not going to wait for you, so if you’re in town the day before you’re set to sail away, you’ll have nothing to worry about.
Q: Can I book a flight home for the morning the ship returns?
Again, not something I recommend. This doesn’t mean that you have to stay an extra day after the cruise is over, though. If you book a flight after 1pm (depending on how close the airport is to your port), you should be safe. Sometimes customs will not clear the ship until later than expected and if that happens, you may not get off the ship until far later than the arrival time that’s noted on the ship’s itinerary. There’s also a risk of being held up in the individual customs line at the port, after you get off the ship. This has happened to my husband and I before and it was a really tense experience. We were traveling with a group and had booked a flight after 1pm, but we were very close to missing our flight by the time we got to the airport.
That being said, 9 times out of 10, you can be to the airport by 9am, if you’re lucky. I’d rather take my time getting off the ship for a later flight than be rushed and in a panic if things happen to not work out the way you’d planned this one time.
Q: Should I buy travel insurance?
I always pay for travel insurance (and the one the cruise line offers when you check out isn’t always the best deal). My travel agent recommends Travel Insured and they have a couple different levels. You can purchase this separately, once you’ve booked your cruise and it will cover your expenses if your trip is cancelled because of a hurricane (and other reasons – just be sure to check the differences in the levels of coverage, because this makes a difference).
Q: Aren’t cruises just for retired people?
Don’t believe what people say when they say this. They either have never cruised, haven’t been on a cruise in years, or they haven’t been on the right cruise. Cruising is, by far, one of the easiest ways to see the world. US cruise lines sail to all corners of the globe and provide a multitude of shore excursion options for people who range in interest from bus tours to mountain climbing. Many families choose this way to vacation because it’s incredibly simple to get on a ship, unpack once, and wake up in a new country every morning.
And, if you plan things right, you will have done enough research about each destination you’re visiting to know exactly what you want to see and what you want to do. It’s truly one of the easiest ways to be a world traveler.
Q: Is there a good website resource for all sorts of cruise questions?
Absolutely! I highly recommend CruiseCritic.com. I’ve been a member of the online community at Cruise Critic since I started cruising and I’ve learned SO much from other cruisers there. There’s probably someone in that community who can answer any question you could possibly come up with and there’s also a space for people who are cruising on the same sailings to get to know each other before the cruise. We’ve met many people who are members of Cruise Critic and we’ve done fun events and meet-ups with them once we’re on the ship. It’s a great resource and it’s FREE! Go check it out!
Please keep in mind that I’m not a travel agent. Since 2004, I’ve been to 64 different cities and 30 different countries on a cruise ship. I’ve been to 26 different ports of call in the Caribbean, and on other cruises that took me to Alaska, the Panama Canal, the Western Mediterranean, New England and Eastern Canada, and the British Isles, and currently have cruises booked that will take me to Hawaii, the US Pacific coast, and to Hong Kong, China, South Korea, and Japan. I love cruising and I’m happy to share my experiences with anyone who has questions. I surely don’t have all the answers, but I can certainly try to answer any questions that come up. Feel free to comment with any questions and I’ll do my best.