Every year more and more people discover why cruises are the ideal vacation. A cruise ship is basically your giant buffet of wonderful experiences, with a wide selection of cuisines and cultures, activities in the sun and spas to pamper your every indulgence, destinations to exotic locales and a million ways to relax. You can do it all or do absolutely nothing - the choice is yours! To book the perfect cruise for you and your family, simply follow these helpful guidelines compiled by the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA). Some of the most travel-wise people in the world, ASTA members know that booking your next vacation should be as relaxing as the vacation itself.
Pick the Cruise That's Right for You
Your first choice is the most enjoyable, for it allows your mind to wander around the globe and back again, revisiting every destination your dreams have ever taken you to. Where in the world do you want to go and for how long? The length of your trip largely depends on how much you can afford. Cruises offer everything from one or two-night excursions out to sea and back to journeys that take you around the world in 100 days. Three-day weekend, four-day midweek, week and two-week cruises are the most popular.
With 70 percent of the planet covered in water, the next question should not be where to go to but where to go to first. Cruise ships visit more than 1,800 ports around the world, providing you with rare glimpses into many cultures all in one eye-popping vacation. Many first-time cruisers choose the Caribbean or Mexican Riviera, where you pleasantly float from one island paradise to the next. Soak up the sun, learn a water sport or discover a new flavor of margarita-the tropics never disappoint.
For a local alternative try Alaska, where you'll experience calving glaciers and curious whales while following either the Inside Passage or the Gulf of Alaska route. Or, take a fall cruise to New England and Canada, where you'll be introduced to our neighbors of the north while watching the leaves turn on shore.
Aim for Europe with cross-Atlantic trips to Paris or Rome, Mediterranean cruises to the likes of Italy, Greece and the French Riviera, or tour the Scandinavian capitals from the sea, where historic cities like Copenhagen and Helsinki reign with centuries of heritage.
Finding a Good Rate and the Right Cabin
Paying the brochure rate for a cruise is like paying full sticker price for a car. To lessen the sticker shock, book early - generally 120 days prior to the sail date - and be flexible about your travel plans, for just like the rest of the travel industry, off-season cruises are typically cheaper.
A great tip: aim for a four-day cruise in the middle of the week instead of the popular three-day weekend cruise. You might get that extra day at a great rate!
The most significant factor in determining the price of your ticket will be the size and location of your cabin. Depending on the ship, cabins range from cozy closets to spacious suites with a hot tub. And they are priced accordingly. If you plan to spend significant time in your cabin, choose the biggest room you can afford. Standard cabins have twin beds, which can usually be converted into a queen-sized bed, while bunk beds in other rooms cannot be converted.
The most-expensive and least-expensive cabins are likely to sell out first, so book early if you have set your sights on either. Cabins are listed as inside (no windows) or outside (with windows), with outside cabins naturally higher priced. If you are booking a cabin with windows, check with your travel agent to ensure that your view is not obstructed by equipment such as a lifeboat.
For the most thorough advice and the best deals, find a cruise specialist. Travel agents are often certified cruise specialists, and they know which low Internet offers to avoid and which ports of call can make a great cruise unforgettable. A good cruise specialist may offer you group rates, free upgrades, shipboard credits and other amenities or discounts. They will clarify the need for passports and visas, explain your dining choices and advise the cruise line of any special dietary requests, check periodically to see if the price of the cruise has dropped, book your air and hotel, and review your documents and reservations to make sure that everything is in order.
Are Air/Sea Packages Worth It?
Offered by many airlines, air/sea packages include a flight from your home to the ship's port and back again in the price of ticket. While this option does relieve the hassle of purchasing your own ticket, be aware of both the pros and the cons.
If you purchase the air/sea package, your transfers between the airport and the ship will be included in the price. The cruise line will claim your luggage for you and carry it to the ship, and all you'll have to do is board the bus. If your flight is delayed, the cruise line will be aware of your delay and may be able to hold the ship for a few hours. If not, they will make every effort to get you to the first port to board the ship.
If you make your own flight arrangements, you might be able to find a better deal, flying nonstop with an airline you prefer while earning frequent flyer miles. You will have to find your own transportation to the cruise terminal from the airport and claim your luggage and carry it with you, so plan to arrive a day early and purchase optional travel insurance that covers trip delays, missed cruise connections and lost or delayed baggage.
Hurricane season lasts from June through November throughout the Caribbean. Prices tend to drop during this time, attracting new and seasoned cruisers with great deals, especially in late August to mid December. And while the chances are very slim that a hurricane will affect your plans, the best advice is to step on board with the right attitude.
Cruise ships are exceptionally safe, they possess sophisticated weather-tracking systems to steer clear of danger and stay in calm waters. If you plan a cruise during hurricane season, keep track of the weather in the area you are planning to sail. If it begins to turn nasty, keep in touch with your travel agent for updates and advice. If a strong weather pattern does wander into your vicinity, your ship will simply change course. If your itinerary is set for the eastern Caribbean, then your captain will switch over to the western Caribbean port schedule, remain a few days longer at sea enjoying the calm waters or simply change the order in which the ports are visited. You will not get a refund for missed ports, but you may find a new adventure waiting for you wherever you dock.
Travel Insurance is a small price to pay for peace of mind. A policy is not only for trip cancellations but also can cover missed connections, lost or delayed baggage, emergency medical and dental expenses and emergency legal assistance. Some cruise lines offer cancellation waiver insurance, which is different than trip cancellation or interruption insurance. Waivers apply to cancellations made several days prior to the scheduled start of the trip. Trip cancellation and interruption insurance will cover you from the time that you purchase your cruise until you return from the trip.
A travel agent provides you with information to help you select the right travel insurance provider to meet your needs.
Passports and Documents
Your ticket packet information will give you specific instructions regarding the necessary forms of identification or other travel documents for your voyage. Most cruise lines require at least a state-issued picture I.D., even if your cruise will stay in U.S. territorial waters. If your cruise itinerary involves ports in foreign lands, bring a passport.
What's Free and What Costs Money?
The price of your ticket will include your cabin, on-board entertainment and food. Other items to consider when budgeting your trip include:
- Taxes, surcharges, and fees, including airport fees, handling fees, departure taxes and port charges. You should verify which fees and port taxes are included in your cruise rate.
- Alcoholic beverages, bottled water and occasionally soft drinks. Some ships offer "soda packages" that feature unlimited sodas during the cruise for about $15-$20.
- Cost of reaching the ship, airline tickets not booked as part of the package, shuttle service or in-port parking fees, if not included.
- Cost of staying at port before or after the cruise, such as hotel, transportation and meals.
- Shopping purchases made both on and off the ship.
- On board extras, such as gambling, spas, massages and ship-to-shore calls.
Most cruise lines use a billing system for your convenience. They will take an imprint of your credit card and set up a tab for the cruise, presenting you with the total bill at the end. Keep all the little receipts you sign to verify the tab's total.
Proper Cruising Etiquette
Even though your cruise ship may be bigger than your hometown, it's still one place where many people must coexist harmoniously. Be courteous and respectful of others by following these guidelines.
Dress Properly -Even if you're allergic to dress codes, do not show up to a formal dinner in jeans and flip-flops. The ship will have a code for each day, so learn it.
Keep Your Children Close - Kids, we all love them, except when they're someone else's. If you travel with your little ones please keep them under control, especially around pools and while passing through more adult-centered areas such as the casino.
Learn the Ship's Language - Your vessel is a ship and never a boat, and the ship is always a she or her. Left is port, right is starboard. Aft means rear or stern, while the bow is the front of the ship. The bridge is where the Captain and his crew control the ship, and only some ships have open bridge policies.
Save One Seat, Not All - While it's okay to save a seat for your companion, it's poor form to save a row of seats for your entire table. The same goes for deck chairs.
Follow Jogging Rules - Most ships post hours when running is allowed because passenger cabins are often located under the jogging deck and some people prefer to sleep at 6 a.m. than listen to your footfalls.
Discovering New Worlds During Shore Excursions
Whenever your ship stops at an exciting port of call, you have three options: stay on board, explore by yourself or take a ship excursion. But once you glimpse out your porthole and see the tropical island, feel the vibrations of the bustling cities and sense the intoxication of the exotic countries, staying on board will quickly dissolve as an option.
Ship-sponsored shore excursions are valuable if you want to visit the attractions far from the pier, have easy access to historic monuments, forts, and castles and simply learn about the country. They also provide the best ways to experience a metropolitan city port like Barcelona or Rome, and the safest way to visit a third-world country where language and customs may prove too daunting a barrier. However, if all you want to do is walk around a city or town, shop or go to a beach, then grab a map, secure your money and hike it on your own. Wandering a port on your own can be a great way to get away from the crowd and immerse yourself in a new culture, but it can also be challenging. For miles around, everyone just noticed the big white ship full of wealthy tourists coming in, so your chances of blending are nil.
Don't draw attention to yourself with flashy jewelry and large amounts of cash. Don't walk down narrow alleys or poorly lit streets, and avoid being surrounded by large crowds if possible. Carry a fake wallet and put your money in your front pocket, or place a rubber band around your wallet to make it more difficult to remove from your pocket without you feeling it.
Overall, cruising is a very safe way to travel, as ships must follow an extraordinary number of rules and regulations and are subject to rigorous quarterly inspection. Ships operate under international rules known as Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), requiring them to utilize smoke detectors, sprinklers and low-level emergency lighting for escape routes.
Safety drills are practiced within the first 24 hours of sailing, where you'll learn how to put on your life jacket and locate your assigned lifeboat.
Seasickness is less common nowadays as the ship's immense size and state-of-the-art motion stabilizers control gentle rocking. Once on board, spend some time on deck and focus on a fixed point of the horizon to help you adjust and get your sea legs quickly.
Be sure to pack a your complete health information with you on your trip, with your medical history, your insurance information, contact person in case of emergency, blood type and list of allergies, medications and immunizations.
Tipping is a traditional part of cruising and an important part of the income of those who help make your cruise enjoyable. Each cruise line will provide its own guide to tipping, with some even providing envelopes for you to pass them out in. Here are some general guidelines:
- Airport skycaps generally - $1.00 for each bag.
- Porters at the loading area of the ship - $1.00 for each bag.
- Cabin Stewards and Waiters - $3.00/$3.50 each, per passenger per day.
- Servers or Busboys - $1.50/$2.50 per passenger, per day.
- Maitre d'- $2.00 to $10.00 per passenger for the entire cruise depending on how helpful they have been.
- Many bar and lounge tips are included on your bill at a standard 15 percent which you can generally adjust for poor or excellent service. Check your individual bills to see if a tip has already been included.
Your Final Port of Call—Home
A cruise ship is a luxury hotel with a different view every day. There really are no limits to where you can cruise nowadays, as every ocean and river can be explored in style and luxury. And when compared with the cost of a land-based holiday, cruising offers excellent value with everything you need wrapped into one package.