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Cruisin’ in Style

No one ever wonders if they would enjoy fantastic bourbon, 50-yard-line seats at the Super Bowl, or sleek Italian sports cars. So why do people say, “I just don’t know if I’m a cruise person”? What part of vacationing in perfect weather, surrounded by great food, all while visiting some of the loveliest destinations on the planet sounds like a dilemma? We’re not saying nothing ever goes wrong on a cruise (those ships do have their own morgues, after all), but for the most part, if you’re not having fun on a cruise, it may be because you don’t want to have fun. Here are some tips for making the most of your next trip:

Planning Stage

The planning may seem overwhelming at first due to the numerous variables that have to be sorted through, but the plus side is that you have the power to sculpt it into the perfect trip. Do you want a party boat or luxury yacht? Islands or Europe? Shoestring budget or first class?

New Cruiser Tip: Focus on the parts that will have the greatest impact on your enjoyment, and just roll with parts that are secondary.

Picking a Cruise Line

Sometimes the desired destinations will dictate which cruise line you go with, but often multiple lines offer similar itineraries, leaving you to choose based on other factors. As such, each line is trying to carve out a niche—Carnival caters to younger travelers on a budget, Celebrity is more lavish, Royal Caribbean is for families on the go, etc.

New Cruiser Tip: You may hear of occasional bad experiences, but there’s really no bad cruise line. Let things like budget, destinations, and port of origin guide you, and then you can use amenities and ratings if you need to split hairs.

What’s Your Number?

The longer the cruise, the more money it’ll cost you overall but the better value you’ll get for each day. If you’re spending money to travel to a cruise port anyway, you might as well make it worth it.

New Cruiser Tip: Don’t be afraid to start with a seven-day cruise. Research shows it takes three days to forget about work stress, so starting with a three-day or five-day cruise just as a test is almost like setting yourself up for failure.

Dream Destinations

For most cruisers, it’s all about the destinations. There are more than 20 cruise ports in the U.S. from which to depart, and then you have Europe, Asia, and wherever else. Pick where you want to go, and then see which port is most accessible.

New Cruiser Tip: Don’t be afraid to grab a cruise deal early and spend the next few months watching the airlines, waiting for a good fare that’ll get you to the port.

Relaxing Time

Do you have to travel around school schedules? Is there something specific you want to see, or are you trying to get away from the cold? Each destination has its seasons that are better than others; however, it’s not an exact science. For example, the Caribbean in hurricane season comes with the risk that destinations could be altered, but it shouldn’t be a definite no.

New Cruiser Tip: The timing can make or break your trip. Do your research and factor in your parameters.

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Booking Tips

Like trains and planes, cruise fares fluctuate based on availability. Generally, booking eight months before sailing will get you good rates. Keep an eye out and see what types of deals they are offering (room upgrades, onboard cash, etc.). If the cruise is selling well, the prices will creep up and the incentives will disappear.

New Cruiser Tip: If you have the ability to be flexible and don’t have your heart set on any particular destination, you can wait and see which cruises aren’t selling well. A cruise with lots of open cabins will see a serious price decrease about six weeks before departure.

Picking a Cabin

This is 100 percent about price. If you’ve never been on a cruise before, or you’d rather sit on your own private balcony and read than be up on the deck with others, then it’s probably worth splurging on an upgrade. One thing to consider, though, is that if someone in your party is prone to motion sickness, you want to stay lower and more central to the ship.

New Cruiser Tip: If you are going to pick a cabin location, look at the map and see what amenities you want to be near. If you truly don’t care about the room because you’ll only be sleeping and showering in it, then save money by letting the cruise line put you where they want.

Pre-Board Prep

Do your research in advance. Go online, check out the ship’s itinerary, and put a game plan together. If you know you are going to be boozing it up, most lines offer a drink package that charges a set fee (for each adult in your cabin) for each day. The same goes for soda. Likewise, figure out what you want to do at each port. An excursion at each stop gets super pricey, so maybe you just want to navigate the “big, active” ports on your own and save the excursions for the places that don’t have much in the immediate area.

New Cruiser Tip: Each cruise line has its own specialties and secrets. Go online to figure out what they are in advance, and then seek more from the crew once you are on board.

Pack Your Chill Pills

Crowds on a cruise ship are very predictable. Once they announce you can get off the ship at the port, the next 30 minutes are going to be mayhem if you want off. The omelet line, however, will be superb. So, if you’re not crunched for time, give it a few and disembark at your leisure. If you are pressed to make an excursion, you’re in the same boat—no pun intended—as everyone else. The two worst days of the cruise are debarkation day, when the cruise is over and everyone is trying to get off, and embarkation day, when everyone is trying to get on. Getting mad will not help.

New Cruiser Tip: There’s a thing called “island time,” and it’s real. Don’t kill yourself to be at the excursion stand right on time just to sit there for 30 minutes waiting for the passengers to waddle over. It’ll all work out.

General Tips:

  • Start the cruise with a nice tropical drink, and be on deck for the sail-away party. Music, dancing, and drinks help you shift to vacation mode.
  • As you wait for everyone to board, kill time by touring the ship to get a feel for where everything is. If you want food, know this is when the buffet will be craziest, as everyone heads straight there. Seek out other dining options that the masses don’t know about.
  • Dining room dinners are like the buffet but with servers. You can order multiple appetizers, entrees, and desserts if you choose, allowing you to try new foods without risk.
  • If you buy a drink, check to see if the gratuity is already included. Often it is.
  • Each night after dinner you’ll find the next day’s program. Read it every time to see what’s going on. It’ll inform you about the ports, movies, shows, and special deals.
  • The first day out, they’ll likely have sales pitches about items you can buy (like booze, jewelry, and spa treatments). Try to hit them, because they almost always give away free stuff, including an excursion at each port.
  • Got a family of four that needs to shower so you can head to dinner? Send the boys (or kids) to the gym locker room. Speed up the process and save towels.

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Excursions

Being on the ship is great, but for most people the most memorable moments of the trip occur at the ports of call. One way to make those visits better is with an excursion. There are three ways to go with an excursion: You can book through the ship, book with private companies in advance, or see what’s available when you get there.

Booking through the ship has several advantages. You’ll know the tour provider is reputable, and they will ensure you are back on schedule (if they are running behind, the ship has to wait for you). If there’s something that is a must, book it through the ship in advance before it sells out. If you can wait, though, try. A ship can steer around bad weather—a port can’t.

The ship-sponsored excursion itself will probably be very good, but you are at the mercy of the masses. They may waste a lot of time loading you up, transporting you, and possibly stopping at the tour guide’s brother’s junk shop. If you want to visit some ruins, but the excursion is “ruins and shopping,” you have to investigate the schedule and make the call. Other than that, the only real downside of booking through the cruise line is that you’ll likely pay extra.

Depending on the port, there are likely to be other options for similar or even better excursions than those offered by the ship from private vendors. Do your research, see what’s available, and check the feedback. Don’t let a few bad reviews stop you. You know the internet. Just make sure they seem reputable. The advantages here include likely saving money ($30 per person times four people adds up), being able to better customize your trip/time, and being able to avoid the mass-marketed version sold by your ship.

Lastly, when you show up to port, often you will see taxis and small buses that will offer to take you on a private tour or to a business that offers excursions. This is where your previous research and gut instincts come in handy. Many travelers will pay ridiculously cheap flat fees and rent the cab for the whole day, getting to go, see, and do things most people don’t know existed. Conversely, if you’re even braver, you can rent a car and do it yourself. It all depends on your tolerance for adventure.

cruise tips scuba

Best of the Best

There’s no sense in us trying to reinvent the wheel. CruiseCritic.com is a great resource, and it ranks cruise lines on several popular criteria:

Best for Romance
Windstar Cruises
Paul Gauguin Cruises
Princess Cruises

Best for Seniors
Holland America Line
Cunard Line

Best for Families with Little Kids
Disney Cruise Line
Royal Caribbean International
Carnival Cruise Line

Best for Families with Older Kids
Royal Caribbean International
Norwegian Cruise Line
Carnival Cruise Line

Best for Fitness Enthusiasts
Royal Caribbean International
Norwegian Cruise Line

Best for Budget-Conscious Cruisers
Carnival Cruise Line
Norwegian Cruise Line
MSC Cruises

Best for a Splurge
Regent Seven Seas Cruises
Seabourn Cruise Line
Norwegian’s The Haven

Best for Foodies
Celebrity Cruises
Oceania Cruises
Crystal Cruises

Best for Enrichment
Cunard Line
Crystal Cruises
Oceania Cruises

Best for Night Owls
Norwegian Cruise Line
Carnival Cruise Line
MSC Cruises

Best for Entertainment
Disney Cruise Line
Royal Caribbean International
Norwegian Cruise Line

Best for Exploring Onshore
Azamara Club Cruises
Celebrity Cruises
Viking Ocean Cruises

Best for Water Lovers
Windstar Cruises
Paul Gauguin Cruises
Seabourn Cruise Line

Best for Solo Travelers
Norwegian Cruise Line
Holland America Line
Crystal Cruises

For more islands, check out Cabo, how to cruise to Cuba, and if you want to play blackjack on the ship, be sure to check out our tips first. We also have a list of our favorite romantic getaways.

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