5 Steps to Embark on Your First Cruise
Maybe the wintry Pacific Northwest weather finally got to you. Maybe life has been stressful. Or maybe you’re tired of staring at the same cubicle walls. You’ve decided to take the plunge and try a cruise for the first time.
Now you face a dizzying array of choices. Where do you go? How much should you spend? When do you book? Part of the fun of taking a cruise is mapping out these details. It also is a vital step in putting together the vacation of your dreams.
Realize that not all cruises are the same. You want a vacation that matches your personality and what you want to get out of your time away.
The last thing that you want to do is to plan a cruise and find out that it’s filled with drunken partyers when you just want to curl up with a book and watch the world float by. So before you head out on the high seas consider these factors.
1. PICK A DESTINATION
Dream a little. Cruise lines literally can take you anywhere in the world. If there’s an ocean by it — or a river that runs through it — chances are cruise line docks nearby.
This is the part where you really get to decide what you want to see and do. Do you want to go someplace new and exotic? Or do you just want to catch some rays and enjoy the surf? Understanding what you want to achieve will go a long way toward making this trip a success.
One of the reasons to choose a cruise is to travel to places where you might feel a little uncomfortable visiting on your own. If you haven’t the first clue about where to go in Southeast Asia, for instance, don’t worry. Cruise lines and their crews have been there and done that.
Cruise lines also travel to many places that are hard for the lone traveler to reach. There aren’t a lot of hotels to book in Antarctica. Just dream.
2. PLAN YOUR BUDGET
Now is the time to come back to Earth. When you’re putting together a cruise vacation, you need to balance what you want and what you can afford.
The cost of cruises vary greatly depending on the line, the itinerary and the time of the year. The cabin category also factors into the cost. There are staterooms with ocean views and suites with balconies, but these cost extra.
The cruise fare is just part of the budgeting puzzle. Sure, the ticket covers your cabin and food onboard, but you’ll have to pay extra for specialty and alcoholic drinks.
Many cruise packages include airfare. You may want to buy your plane ticket independently to the embarkation port. That may include a hotel stay depending on when you arrive and when the ship leaves.
There are also excursions at the various ports of call. You can explore on your own or even stay aboard when the ship is docked. But cruise lines offer a wide number of appealing sightseeing, shopping or activity tours. You’ll want to decide if you want pay extra for these.
Some cruise lines offer specialty restaurants, which aren’t covered in the basic package. Depending on the line, you will likely pay for internet service as well as fees for fitness classes and spa treatments.
Aboard, you’ll be pampered from when you wake until your head hits the pillow. Tips are expected for this service. Many cruise lines in recent years have been adding tips automatically on the passenger’s onboard account. The cost is about $10 to $20 a day per passenger.
3. CHOOSE A CRUISE
Now you have an idea of where you want to travel and how much you want to spend. The next decision is the cruise line.
Cruises lines all offer some of the same amenities, but every cruise line has its own strengths, weaknesses and quirks. Carnival Cruise Line has a reputation for appealing to the mainstream, attracting partyers who enjoy a relaxed atmosphere.
Holland America has a reputation for appealing to mature travelers and traditional cruisers who enjoy formalwear and may be more discerning about their epicurean options. Do some research to understand the cruise-line vibe.
Each ship within each cruise line features a unique design and adornments. Many cruise lines offer a variety of sizes. Princess Cruises offers ships with more than 1,800 cabins, but the line also has a ship with only 335 cabins.
The size of the ship can have a big impact on what type of amenities and activities are offered as well as who your fellow travelers might be. There may be more things to do on a larger ship, but smaller ships often visit destinations that the larger ships don’t.
Another decision to make is how long will you stay away. Generally, cruises run from just a few days to 10 days or longer. Maybe you’ll want to choose a shorter cruise to test the waters or to save some money.
The itinerary of the trip will impact the duration. You won’t be able to book a two-day cruise to Hawaii.
4. KNOW WHEN TO BOOK
Cruise lines release schedules as early as 18 months in advance. Travelers can book then or wait sometimes as late as a week before the sailing date. But it is advisable to book as early as possible.
Vacationers who book early can often take advantage of specials offered by the lines as well as get the first choice of cabins. Prices generally increase as a ship fills up, especially for cruises in high season or around holidays.
Still there are deals to be found for those who wait. If a ship isn’t filling up, cruise lines drop fares for last-minute bookers. Cruise companies also offer perks for early and late bookers such as onboard credit or an upgrade to a room with a balcony.
A traditional time to book — and get deals —is what is referred to as Wave Season, generally between January and March. That’s where cruise companies offer some of the best deals and upgrades of the year.
5. GET ADVICE FROM A PRO
Although it is tempting to plan and book your cruise on your own. Getting advice from a travel agent can be invaluable. Travel agents provide market insights that can save you time and money, and guide you to the best options.
Be prepared with your requirements and a good idea of what you’re looking for, but be open to hear recommendations. And you always can rely on AAA travel agents for advice and help with booking your first cruise.
—Written by Jim Davis