Ocean sunsets, live shows, lavish buffets, and exotic ports of call are just a few of the attractions that draw millions of people to cruise vacations each year.  If you haven’t yet enjoyed the splendor of the seas on a luxury liner, you may have questions about how to get the most out of your cruising experience.  Read on to learn what to consider when planning your cruise, what to expect from your on-board experience, and how to stretch your cruising dollar.

Choosing Your Cruise
One of the first things to consider when planning a cruise vacation is what type of cruise to choose.  There’s an amazing variety of cruises that cater to every preference and personality.  Before you call your travel agent or start searching online, ask yourself a few questions about how you envision your cruise vacation.  Do you prefer to relax and lounge in the sun, or to fill your days with activities and entertainment?  Would you like to dress up for dinner and dancing, or would you rather be casual and comfortable throughout your trip?  Are you more interested in enjoying the shipboard activities or exploring the ports of call?

You’ll also want to ask yourself which areas of the world you’re interested in exploring.  You can cruise through the islands of the Caribbean, soak up the sun in the Mediterranean, sail along the coast of Africa, or chart a course through the South Pacific, just to name a few possibilities.  Or perhaps you’d like to be surrounded by people who share your interests while on board.  If so, try one of the many “theme” cruises currently on the market.  There are cruises for ballroom dancers, wine connoisseurs, scrap-bookers, yoga lovers – there’s even the “Hogs on the High Seas” cruise for motorcycle enthusiasts.  Thinking about your cruising personality before you begin to research will help you to narrow the extensive list of cruise options that are available.

CruiseCritic.com and CruiseMates.com are valuable resources for advice, reviews, and cruising tips.  Both sites feature discussion boards, articles, and member reviews written by real people who want to share their cruising experiences with their fellow travelers.

Food, Glorious Food
Different people have very different preferences in terms of dining aboard a cruise ship.  One option you’re typically asked to choose when booking your cruise is whether you’d prefer early or late seating for dinner. If you don’t want to go to bed feeling stuffed full of food, or if you want to catch early shows on the ship, you’ll want to opt for early seating.  If you plan to spend as much time as possible exploring port towns, on the other hand, late seating will give you extra time to return to the ship and unwind a bit before dinner.  While we’re on the topic of dining, you’ll also want to decide ahead of time whether you’re interested in mingling and meeting new people at dinnertime, or whether you’d prefer some alone time, or couple time.  Many cruises offer the option of dining at a large table, where you’ll have the opportunity to meet and make friends with your cruise mates.  On other cruises, the dining time is optional and the seating is open, more like a restaurant.

Room With a View – Or Not
Another question you’ll want to consider when booking your cruise is whether to take an inside or outside cabin.  An outside cabin comes at a higher cost, but it may be worth the extra money for a beautiful ocean view.  You’ll want to ask specifically whether an outside cabin has a breathtaking ocean view, or a not-so-breathtaking view of the lifeboats.  There are also several levels of rooms to choose from, with a wide range of prices attached.  Many cruisers find it well worth the cost for a roomier suite, or a cabin with a balcony.  On the other hand, if you’re planning on spending little time in your room, aside from sleeping and changing, you may want to save your money for excursions and souvenir shopping.  One final point to consider when choosing your accommodations is whether you’re concerned about suffering from seasickness.  If the thought of a swaying boat makes you green around the gills, you’ll want to choose a room on a lower floor and towards the center of the boat.  The ocean’s motion is most noticeable on the higher levels, and at each end of the ship.

Your Unique Needs
The last thing you want is to board a ship for several days only to find out that your experience will be limited because of your unique needs.  To avoid any unpleasant surprises, contact the cruise line before you book to make sure that it offers any special services that you require.  For example, if you have physical limitations, find out what exactly you’ll be able to participate in, both on board and during shore excursions (particularly if your ship is not docking at certain ports).  You can also ask if the cruise line has a Special Needs brochure, as this will detail the amenities available to passengers with disabilities.  If you’re on a medication, be sure to bring an ample supply of it, but you also inquire about an on-board physician and pharmacy, in case of an emergency situation.  Many cruise lines also cater to dietary needs, offering such options as low-fat, low-carbohydrate, vegetarian, or even gluten-free selections.  Generally, if notified at least three weeks before departure, most cruise lines will be able to accommodate your special diet – but it’s always best to ask about this before booking your vacation.

Packing It All In
When packing for a vacation of seven or more nights, it’s tempting to try to squeeze everything but the kitchen sink into your luggage.  There are some benefits to over-packing on a cruise vacation, such as saving on shipboard-laundry costs.  Depending on what you plan to do on your voyage, you may need a few formal outfits for dinner, casual outfits for touring and exploring, and swimwear for the beaches and pools.  You’ll want a sweater for nighttime on the breezy deck, and an umbrella or rain jacket in case of inclement weather.  Before you stuff your suitcase too full, however, keep in mind that your cabin room will most likely be the size of a walk-in closet.  Packing light will minimize the chaos in your cabin.  Here’s a link to a helpful article called “Cruise Packing 101”, which covers all the items you’ll need at sea – and those that are best left on dry land.

Aside from packing clothes and toiletries, you’ll also want to be sure that you have all of the necessary paperwork and documentation to set sail on your journey.  Depending on your itinerary, you may need a passport or other form of identification in order to sail the high seas.  Click here to view an article from CruiseMates.com on the basics of cruise reservations and documents.

Welcome Aboard
Boarding the boat for first-time cruisers can feel like an obstacle course.  From arriving at the cruise terminal, to checking your luggage, to going through security, to meeting the check-in agent, to boarding the ship, to getting your photo taken, to finding your cabin, you’ll be ready for a nap and a glass of wine by the time your vacation begins.  There’s a great article called “A Refresher Course for First Time Cruisers” on Cruisemates.com, which takes you through a typical first day on the ship.  This may be helpful to read before embarking on your first cruise vacation.

Making the Most of Your Cruising Dollars
Since every cruise line handles costs and fees differently, figuring out the true price of a cruise can take a bit of detective work.  Often, the bargain cruises don’t include a single extra amenity, so by the time you’ve snorkeled, taken a salsa dancing class, and sipped a few cappuccinos at the coffee bar, your final tab might look the same as that of a passenger on the most luxurious of ocean liners.  It’s important to ask your travel agent or the cruise line’s booking agent for a detailed list of what is included and what is considered an “extra”.  Before you book your cruise, here are some tips from seasoned cruisers on how to get the best value for your cruising budget.

  • Never pay the brochure price.  Most of the glossy and tempting brochures published by the cruise lines include a list of “sample prices” for each type of on-board accommodation.   Don’t be dismayed by the figures you find on brochures, as the “sample price” is typically far above the price that you should expect to pay for your cruise.  Instead of settling for the brochure price, do a little searching online for special offers and discounts.  If you find an online discount for a cruise that particularly appeals to you, you can call the cruise line directly and ask them for that price.  In many cases, they’ll be willing to match the discounted price, and you’ll then have the advantage of working with someone who knows the ins and outs of the ship, as well as the ports of call, for the rest of the booking process.
  • Be as flexible as possible.  Much like airline fairs, the cost of a cruise is constantly changing.  If you have the flexibility to wait until the very last minute (three to six weeks before departure), you’re likely to get the best deal, as at that point the cruise lines are simply trying to fill their cabins.  On the other hand, in an attempt to fill their ships as far ahead as possible, cruise lines will often offer “advanced planners” amazing upgrades for an early deposit.  It’s always worth asking the booking agent what special deals or upgrades are available in exchange for your business.  If the fare drops after you book your vacation, most cruise lines will give you a price adjustment – but you have to call them and ask for it.
  • Reduce your on-board costs.  Bring your own camera, as buying photos on board – or disposable cameras from the gift shops – can be quite expensive.  Unless there’s an emergency, steer clear of ship-to-shore phone calls (which can cost anywhere from $6.95 to $15.95 per minute) and opt for email communication instead.  As mentioned above, pack plenty of clothes to avoid laundry charges.  Purchasing sodas and alcoholic drinks can quickly throw your budget overboard.  Ask about discount packages for alcoholic drinks, which can be purchased ahead of time, or all-you-can-drink soda cards.  If you’d like some pampering during your cruise, save on your spa bill by booking a discounted treatment during a day that the ship is in port.
  • Save on shore excursions.  Cruise lines typically offer a variety of shore excursions in every port of call on their itinerary – but these tours are often quite pricey, especially if you participate in several tours during the course of your vacation.  One alternative is to do your homework on the ports of call ahead of time and explore the area independently.  With a little help from a map and a guidebook, you can enjoy your own walking tour of a port, and you can spend as long as you’d like in an area without being hurried along by a tour director.  You may find that you get more of an authentic experience from your own private exploration than you would from a large group tour.

Are you a seasoned cruiser?  What’s the best piece of advice you could give to a Trilogy neighbor who’s considering booking a first cruise?  Feel free to share your cruising wisdom by adding a comment below.