To Cruise or Not to Cruise?
Cruising has become one of the most popular holiday options, but there are still some very strange preconceptions about cruising, which are generally promoted by “cruise bores” or “knowledgeable experts” who have gained their knowledge from tv series like the Love Boat and the film Speed 2 : Cruise Control which incidentally was made on the Seabourn Legend (now the Windstar Cruises Star Legend.)
For whatever reason, cruises have earned a reputation for being slick, over organised packages. The reality could not be more different.It is true that a modern cruise ship always been a holiday packed full of choices for everyone whether it is relaxing by the pool, sunbathing, joining an aerobics class or dancing the night away, but the thing is that it is entirely your choice. You never need to do anything you don’t wish to do and if your idea of a great holiday is to relax and do nothing then that’s fine too.
Because itineraries vary wildly, depending on the cruise line and the individual ship, it is a good idea to do your research well in advance. Our article about best cruise destinations is a good place to start. Scouring through brochures and scanning the internet may also help but there is so much choice it can become overwhelming. If for example you were considering a Caribbean cruise, you will have a choice of dozens of itineraries.
Several ships may offer the same or similar itineraries simply because these are tried and tested and have proved to be successful, but you need to make sure the ports of call are actually the ones you want to visit. It is also worth checking the time spent in port and whether the ship is docked in the port or you have to be tendered in using one of the ships lifeboats. On a big ship this can be time consuming.
Beware of cruises that try to visit “more ports than their competitors” on a 7 day cruise as such an intensive itinerary gives you little time to explore a destination before you have to be back on-board the ship. Whilst you may see a lot in a short space of time, by the end of your cruise you may need a holiday to unwind. Ultimately this is not the best way to cruise, except for those who want to see as much as possible in a short space of time.
The Length of your Cruise
The popular ‘standard’ length of a cruise used to be seven days although this can vary from just 3 days to over 100 days. You may be thinking that a shorter 3 or 4 day ‘taster cruise’ may be the ideal way to try out the cruising way of life, so please bear in mind that ships that offer these cruises are often large ships with spare capacity and somewhat less elegant. Short cruises at rock bottom prices have now become popular for ‘stag’ and ‘hen’ weekends so can be quite noisy. Longer cruises tend to be more expensive due to the extensive preparations, special foods, port operations, fuel and other costs. If you are seeking a truly luxurious cruise, a shortish cruise of 3 or 4 days is unlikely to live up to your expectations. Ultimately the length of the cruise you choose will depend on the time and money at your disposal and the degree of comfort you are seeking.
The Choice of Cruise Line
Before booking your cruise you need to understand which category your chosen cruise line fits. Essentially there are 4 main categories which in our view are as follows:
Includes Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise line, MSC etc. Broadly speaking these brands offer great value for money and operate larger, sometimes resort type ships which can be ideal for families. This category can be likened to a 3 star hotel.
This category moves up one level of comfort, cuisine, service and most other services on the ship. Of course the price goes up as well but this is the category that most cruisers looking for something more, try next. It includes Celebrity Cruises, Holland America Line, Princess Cruises. 4 star
Sometimes known as Upper Premium, which includes Cunard and other lines with smaller ships including Azamara, Windstar and Oceania..
Cruise lines in this category are generally regarded as the very best on offer and loosely equate to 5 star+ hotels. Within this category most Cruises are All-Inclusive and cater for the most discerning of passengers. Cuisine, service, dining options and accommodations are outstanding. Ultra Luxury Cruise lines include Seabourn, Silversea Cruises, Crystal Cruises, Hapag Lloyd and Regent Seven Seas Cruises.
There is a cruise ship to suit every type of personality, so it is important to take this into account when selecting the right ship for your cruise. Nowadays ships come in all shapes and sizes from intimate boutique ships, small, medium and large plus now some really massive resorts style ships with over 5,500 passengers. Whatever ship you choose, all ships offer the same basic ingredients: accommodation, food, activities, entertainment, good service and ports of call although some will be better then others.
Compare the size of each vessel and the facilities on board. If you like or need a lot of space, it is not a good idea to book yourself on a small intimate ship. If you like intimacy, close contact with people you may feel lost and lonely on a large ship.
A ship’s country of registry or parent company location is often a clue to the national atmosphere you will find on board, although there are many ships that are registered, for financial reasons, under a flag of convenience. The nationality of the officers and crew usually sets the style and ambience of the ship.
It is always worth checking the crew to passenger ratio as this will give a good indication of the level of service you can expect. On Ultra luxury cruise lines this can be close to 1:1 and can range up to 1:3 and even to 1:5 on some river cruises.
Which Stateroom or Suite
Selecting your accommodation is the single most important decision you will have to make, so choose wisely, for if when you get to the ship you find your cabin is too small, you may not be able to change it or ‘upgrade’ to a higher price category. With regard to cabins you generally get ‘what you pay for’.
Staterooms come in different shapes and sizes and cruise lines use various names including cabin, stateroom or suite. Man cruise lines now offer what they call “Guarantee Fares” which mean that when you book, you pay for a particular grade but don’t actually know which cabin you will have until just before the sailing when the cruise lines allocate the suites to those who have chosen such fares. You are sure to be on the ship, but could be anywhere within that category or sometimes be upgraded to a higher grade. If you require certainty of where you will be on the ship avoid such “guarantee fares” You may pay a little more, but you know exactly which stateroom you will be in.
The amount you pay for accommodation on a cruise is directly related to rhe size of your cabin, the location within the ship and the facilities provided. Before you decide how much you can afford to spend and include the basic cruise fare plus onboard expenses like shore excursions, drink, gratuities port changes and spa treatments.
Always compare the overall cost with an “All Inclusive Cruise” where many of these extras are included. For more information on All Inclusive Cruises be sure to read our comprehensive article on this subject.
The size of you cabin is another important consideration as some can be small. River cruise boats are particularly so. Checkout the deck plans and layouts and sizes in the cruise companies brochures or online to be sure you know what you are getting. An outside veranda or balcony cabin is preferable by far especially if this is your introduction to cruising. Inside cabins have no portholes or windows and can feel very claustrophobic. Cabins in the centre, or midships, are more stable less noisy but are often the ones that sell out first.
Interestingly, the higher grade cabins or suites tend to be on the higher decks which again are subject to more movement in rough seas. Cabins at the bow or stern of the ship move more than other areas.
Without doubt, food is one of the most important and well talked and written about subject of the cruise experience. Like the thrill that comes when dining out in a superb restaurant, so it is on board a luxury cruise ship. The great thing is that when look at the menu, the one thing you never have to do is consider the price as it is all included. On All Inclusive cruises most of the drink is included so you can drink all the champagne you like!
Cruise lines know that you will spend more time eating and drinking on board than almost anything else, so they pay particular attention to catering for everyones palette. On most new cruise ships there are numerous restaurants on board offering a great choice of style and themes including Italian, America Style diners, French, Oriental, Japanese – the list is endless. Our favourites are the Italian Prego on Crystal Cruises.
The cuisine will vary depending on the nationality and regional influences of the Executive Chef. Sadly some cruise lines dictate from head office which themes are served on particular nights and you could end up with a caribbean feast whilst cruising in Alaska. The better cruise lines do have regional speciality nights and these can be amazing.
Whilst food on a cruise is of an exceptionally high quality, you should always remember that on the larger ships, galleys have to turn out hundreds and sometime thousands of meals at the same time and this can sometimes compromise the quality. Smaller cruise ships tend to do much better at this and food is generally of a higher and more consistent quality.
Alway make sure that you make your maitre’d aware of any alergies or special dietary requirements you may have and these will normally be taken care of without any problem.
What size table?
Tables for 2 are less common than larger tables but it does depend on the cruise line and the dining arrangements they operate. Some have fixed tables and restaurant times and you take pot luck with whom you are seated and others operate “open dining” where you can dine with whom and when you want. This is our preferred choice and is quite normal on most ultra luxury lines.
When you are on a cruise, you are on holiday and the traditional reputation of formallity can be disconcerting all you want is relaxation. Most cruise lines have spent many years perfecting a freindly and informal atmosphere onboard. Some cruise will have a few formal nights where you can really go to town – usually the Captain’s welcome and farewell parties.
Other cruise lines are completely relaxed and have no formal evenings. Always respect other passengers and adhere to the dress code onboard which will normally be advised in the daily ships news magazine.
There is normally no limit to the amount of personal baggage allowed on board a cruise ship, although some cruise lines are now limiting the weight of each piece of luggage to 23Kg. However, the closet space on most ships is limited, so take only those items you intend to use. If you are flying to join your ship, then you will be limited by how much your airline baggage allowance permits.
A very controversial subject which always invokes much discussion on your cruise. Most cruise lines have a daily rate per passenger which increases if you stay in a higher grade stateroom or suite. Add to this a service charge of 15% -20% on all drinks, spa treatments and other items, your total extras can be enormous. But there will always be some staff who have gone the extra mile for you and you may wish to give an extra gratuity to them. Please read our article on Cruise Ship Gratuities.