I have had discussions recently with several people about going on cruises and enjoying what I/we have been enjoying for years. So I decided to create a brief description of the important information that you may want to know in deciding to book a cruise. The following will give you an outline of things to be aware of when you decide to book a cruise.
HOW MUCH WILL IT COST
All cruise cabins are sold based on double occupancy and the prices you see listed anywhere on web sites or in publications will be per person and based on at least two people going on the cruise. If you have a 3rd and/or 4th person in your cabin (adult or child) their fare is generally about 50% of the first two persons. Children, regardless of age, i.e., even 6 months old, do NOT cruise free. Sometimes cruise lines will run specials where the 3rd and 4th person in your cabin gets a huge discount and pay only about $200 each; or there may be occasions when special promotions allow children or even adults to cruise free in your cabin. But those occasions are very rare. The price you pay for a cruise will depend mostly on the type cabin/accommodations that you choose.
There are 4 basic types of cabins on ships;
- inside (no window),................................… least expensive
- outside (a window or porthole),
- balcony/veranda, and
- suites and penthouses.......................... most expensive.
On some Royal Caribbean ships they have inside cabins with a window that overlooks an interior pedestrian mall and they are a great price; generally a little more an other inside cabins but less than an outside cabin
The "FROM" prices that you see on web sites and in cruise booklets will almost always be for an inside cabin, the cheapest cabins on the ship. There are also some subcategories within each category listed above with cabins on a higher deck, and/or a better location on ship, like midship and/or that are slightly larger, costing more.
WHAT TYPE CABIN TO GET
My advice is to always book the best cabin that you can afford. Some people will tell you to just get an inside cabin because you will not be in it much. What's true is that if you DO get an inside cabin you will not WANT to be in it much; its like sitting in a closet with no windows. The cruise lines make inside cabins look nice with decorations where a window would be and lighting. And inside cabins are generally about the same size (sq ft) as the outside and balcony cabins. In most cases the cruise lines will have information about the size of each type cabin listed in terms of square footage. So pay attention to that also.
But if you get a balcony cabin you WILL be in it more and you will enjoy your cruise more by for example, being able to go/sit outside at night, or first thing in the morning as you approach a new port stop. That glass wall of the balcony cabins make them seem much larger than they are. Other things to consider are the length of the cruise and how many "at sea" days your cruise will have. If the cruise is a short 3 or 4 days then an inside cabin may suffice. If you have a longer cruise of between 7 and 15 days and/or your cruise will have 2 or 3 days with no port stops you just may want to spend more time in the privacy of your cabin and still enjoy the sea.
Inside cabins are also not in the best locations on ships. Cabins mid ship are considered premium/better because there is less motion in that location and its also easier to go to activities on ship from there, i.e. pools are generally always mid ship, dining rooms generally on the back of the ship or midship; the show room is always on the front of the ship and in most cases so is the gym and spa. Pools, hot tubs, gyms, and buffets are always on the upper decks so a cabin up higher puts you closer to them. Cabins on lower levels have less motion than those on higher levels.
HOW DO I GET THE BEST PRICE
The first thing that you should do is research the type cruise, i.e., Caribbean, Mediterranean, you want to take. You’ll need to consider first the number of days as that is a big part of price. Then you consider the itineraries because not all cruises to/in the Caribbean, Mediterranean, Europe or South America will include all of the same port stops and/or order of ports. And they do not all depart from the same port and departure port can also affect price. For example cruises of the Mediterranean can depart from Southampton, England; Barcelona, Spain; Rome, Italy; Venice, Italy; or Athens, Greece. And cruises of the Caribbean can depart from New York, Baltimore, Charleston, many Florida ports and Gulf ports such as Mobile, New Orleans, and Galveston.
The next thing you need to know is what the usual prices are for the various cruise itineraries and dates. Cruise prices for the exact same cruise/itinerary do vary by date. After you research the options the main thing that you want to do is book your cruise very early and by that I mean 9 to 12 months or more in advance. Cruise prices do go up as the cruise date approaches and only occasionally go down. So with early booking you can get the best price and the best selection of cabins. Also, book on the date(s) when the price is lowest as opposed to picking a date (like your birthday or an anniversary) and then trying to find a low priced cruise on that date. Its always good to look for the specials that will be listed on each cruise line's web site. But you’ll need to have done your research to recognize when a listed special or deal is really a great price. The hurricane season in the Caribbean is June through the end of November and many times cruise prices during that period are lower. Finally, almost all of the cruise lines give discounts, even on their specials, for repeat customers, military, police and fire personnel, and even for residents of certain states. Not all of the discounts apply to every sailing but you should pay attention to the questions on cruise web sites about these categories of bookings, and/or ask your travel agent if any of these apply to you.
WHAT IS INCLUDED
The prices you see listed on web sites and in publications will be for the cruise fare only and taxes and port charges will be added to that price for each person. For example a fare of $899. per person may have an additional charge of $75. for taxes and port fees. Then when you pay your cruise fare all taxes and port charges you’ll need to pay (except gratuities) are included in that fare. Regardless of the cruise line or cruise ship the price of your cruise includes your cabin, all meals including breakfast, lunch dinner, snacks and free room service; free admissions to all shows, the disco, and entertainment on ship; and free use of all facilities on ship like the pools, hot tubs, gym, and recreation activities like using the water slide, basketball/volleyball/tennis court, miniature golf course, rock climbing wall, ice skating, shuffleboard, etc. However, you do have to pay if you want to use the golf simulator, on some NCL ships to bowl, on some Royal Caribbean ships to shoot pool, and to play video games. All of the cruise lines have programs just for kids ages 2 through 17 and these are always free. Most ships have specials areas and activities for kids that are also free.
The major things that you will have to pay for over and above your fare are:
GRATUITIES: They will amount to between $10 to $12.00 per person in your cabin per day, depending on the cruise line. The gratuity is applicable to kids as well as adults. Some cruise lines will let you pay the gratuities up front as a part of your cruise fare. Otherwise, when you check in at the pier they will set up an on-board charge account for you to cover any and everything you may buy on ship. They will issue you a "cruise card" which will also serve as your room key and pass to get on and off the ship. The cruise card is called by different names on each cruise line but that all function the same way. At the end of the cruise the cruise line will add the gratuity to your on-board tab and you can pay with a credit card or cash, your choice. So everything on ships except the casino is cash-less; everything you buy goes on your on-board account.
These gratuities cover your cabin steward, your waiter and assistant waiter, and the MatreD or head waiter in the main dining room. Those are the only person you are required/requested to tip at the end of the cruise; these should be considered pretty much mandatory although you can ask the purser to adjust them if you have a problem with any service received from these persons. Some may not like the idea of having to pay gratuities. But consider the fact that your cabin steward will clean your cabin twice a day each day and bring fresh towels and ice, plus try to satisfy any other requests. Your wait staff will serve you every day at dinner and those same persons will also be working in the dining areas for breakfast and lunch. So that $3.50 per day that you give the waiter is really just a little more than $1.00 per meal. The income of those who receive gratuities is based mostly in the gratuities. So unless there is some seriously bad service, which I have found is very rare, do pay all of the gratuities and even more.
ALCOHOLIC DRINKS AND SOFT DRINKS: Coffee, tea, milk, juice, and lemonade and/or punch will be provided FREE but you must pay for soft drinks and alcoholic beverages and the cruise ship will add a 15 percent gratuity to each alcoholic drink and soft drink order. Drinks of cruise ships are generally in the range of $7 to $9 including the 15 percent gratuity that is included in each tab. Beer and wine are generally slightly less, maybe $6 to $7.
PHOTOGRAPHS: Cruise ship employees will take plenty of photographs of you when you first board the ship, all over the ship, in the dining room, and as you exit the ship in ports. These will cost a lot, between $15 to $25 for most and the cost of them goes on your on-board tab.
TOURS/EXCURSIONS: You are not required to book any tours and you can get off and on in the ports as much as you want. But the cruise line will offer a lot of tours that are NOT included in the price of your cruise and these are expensive.
SOUVENIRS: Anything you buy on ship from a gift shop or duty free shop goes on your on board account.
CASINO: If you plan to gamble in ship’s casino you will need cash for that; its never included in the cruise fare. All cruise ships except Disney will have a casino.
OTHER: All ships have what they call "specialty" restaurants where there is a gratuity or service charge to eat there. The price will be between $20 and $25 per person per visit for most places. Norwegian Cruise line ships have the most specialty restaurants but now days almost every ship has at least one or two of these. But remember that all other food on board the ship is free and its not really necessary to budget for food; you cannot eat all of the FREE FOOD that will be available.
SPA SERVICES: If you want/need to have your hair done, get a massage or wrap, or any services from the spa, you will have to pay for them. Spa fees start at about $70 to $80 and they go on your on-board tab if you use the spa services. You can use the gym free but the spa stuff cost big bucks.
INTERNET SERVICES: Cruise ships now have an internet café and WiFi but the there is a fee for internet access and it is very expensive. On most cruise lines and ships internet access is in the range of $40 tot $50 an hour, a little less if you buy a plan
ROOM SERVICE/MINI-BAR: You cabin will likely have a minibar with soft drinks and munches; you have to pay for anything you take out of the mini-bar. The cost of items will be listed in your cabin and anything you take will go on your on-board tab.
You will have free room service (24/7) in your cabin and you can order by phone or on some ships on the TV. The food is always free and only Royal Caribbean charges a delivery charge of $3.95 between midnight and 5:00 AM
HOW TO BOOK A CRUISE
You can reserve a cruise by (1) booking on line; (2) by calling the cruise line, or (3) through a travel agent. (None of these add to the cost of booking; they are free) You will pay at booking the minimum deposit which for a 7 day cruise will be between $250 and $350 per person, depending upon the cruise line. The deposit amount for shorter cruises will be less and the deposit for cruises longer than 7 days will be more. For example, the deposit for a 14 day cruise will typically be about $450 per person. The balance will be due approximately 60 to 75 days before the cruise departure date, depending upon the length of the cruise. You can make periodic payment on line, with your travel agent, or with the cruise line. The final payment date will be included in the booking documents. If you book within about 60 days of the cruise you will likely have to pay the full amount.
There are some differences, though minor, in the dinner dining process on cruise ships. All cruise ships have a formal dining room, a casual buffet eating place, some other places where free food is available, and also the specialty restaurants. When you select your cruise you will be asked whether you want "early seating", "late seating", or open seating for dinner. The early seating usually begins at 6:00 PM and the late seating at 8:30 PM. All of the cruise lines now have an open seating plan that permits you to go to dinner any time you want. They all call it something different but it is the same process. On Norwegian they have what they call "Freestyle" cruising. On Princess Cruise lines they call it "Personal Choice" dining. On Holland America they call it "As You Wish" dining. On Celebrity they call it “Celebrity Select Dining” On Royal Caribbean it called "Your Way" dining. On Carnival they call it “Your Choice” dining. You must select one of these three options when you book your cruise. If you select a first or second seating you will be assigned to a table in the main dining room and you must go to your table each day within about 15 to 20 minutes of the dinner seating start time. You will be assigned to tables of 4, 6, 8, or 10, with others, or you can request a table for two. If you select the open seating option you can go to the main dining room any time after 6:00 PM and request a table and you will be assigned to available tables, or you can request a table for two, or a table for your group.
DIFFERENCES AMONG THE CRUISE LINES
There are several factors to consider when planning a cruise:
(1) how luxurious the ships are;
(2) what activities are on the ships
(3) the demographics of the other passengers on the ships; and
(4) what port stops will be made, i.e., what the itinerary will be.
There are some differences among the major cruise lines in terms of all of these. Several of the cruise lines have relatively new ship, i.e., launched into service in the past 5 to 10 years. A cruise on a newer ship is definitely better. Cruises also differ by the size of the ship. Older cruise ships, i.e., those about 10 years old or older, generally have up to about 1500 to 2,000 passengers. The newer ships are now accommodating 3,000 to 5,000 passengers. Some people like big ships while others prefer smaller ships. Luxury cruise lines like Crystal will generally accommodate only about 750 to 900 passengers.
Princess, Celebrity and Holland America have great ships and are more classy and reserved. People have fun but are not loud. The food is great and tends to have emphasis on “presentation”, like at a fine restaurant. They are just a little more upscale and luxurious than the other cruise lines. Passengers tend to be middle aged and up and have cruised multiple times. The best service we ever had was on Celebrity. Holland America has mostly senior citizens cruising on its ships; mostly people age 60 to 70 and above. On Holland you will likely see lots of scooters, walkers, and/or oxygen tanks. All three cruise lines have some new ships but Princess and Celebrity have the most among these.
Norwegian cruise line caters to families and have mostly passengers in the range of age 35-40 and up. It’s the line that you want to go on if you want to be informal for pretty much your whole cruise. They have formal nights like other cruise lines but they do not stress dressing up; the call it "dress up if you want to”night”. Norwegian has the most alternative specialty dining places on its ships and most require a gratuity or service charge to eat there. NCL has a few new ships also.
Carnival is the budget cruise line that generally has the lowest prices. Most of their cruiser will be in the 20 to 45 age group and there will be lots of kids on board. Carnival is known as the “party cruise line” because they have many young folks who want to party 24/7, and they do. Their ships have some good on-board activities like water slides, mini-golf, and basketball court. The best of their ships are their newer ones.
Royal Caribbean is also caters to young cruiser and families. It has the advantage of having the most on-board activities. The ships have things like ice skating, roller skating, mini-golf course, a full sized basketball/tennis court, the rock climbing wall, and on the new Freedom and Oasis Class ships the surfing simulator, the Flowrider. Some RC ships have a pool table. Royal Caribbean has lots of new ships. We have found that passengers on RC are more friendly than on Princess and Holland America.
All of the cruise lines have the same dress policies. The dress on ship is casual all day until 6:00 PM, so your can wear shorts and swim wear just about everywhere on ship. After 6:00 PM they request that you wear "sports or resort casual" attire. That's attire that you would expect a person to wear in a business office, (like a bank employee), shirt with a collar, slacks, skirt, blouse, etc. You can still wear shorts and swim wear after 6:00 PM in the gym, pools, and hot tubs but not in public areas like dining rooms and restaurants, show rooms, bars, casino, etc. If you attempt to go to the main dining room for dinner in shorts or ragged jean, flip flops, etc, you will be turned away by the MatreD or head waiter.
Your cruise will have a formal night or two when you can wear your best stuff. A 7 night cruise will have 2 formal nights, shorter cruises 1 formal night, and longer cruises 3 or 4 formal nights. On the formal nights that is the REQUESTED attire. You DO NOT have to dress up formal nights unless you want to and you will not be denied entry to the main dining room or any other venue if you decide not to dress formal, as long as you are dressed at least sports/resort casual.
ITINERARIES ----- WHERE THE CRUISES GO
The places to which you can cruise are:
Alaska (the season is mid-May through mid-September only)
New England/Canada (the season is mid-July through September only)
Bermuda (all year around)
Bahamas & Caribbean (all year around)
Panama Canal (all year around)
Mexico - Pacific coast (all year around)
Europe (all year around but spring and fall are the best times)
South America and Australia (their cruise season is during our winters)
There are really three basic types of itineraries for the Caribbean.
(1) Western Caribbean cruises typically go to Cozumel and Costa Maya, Mexico; Georgetown, Grand Cayman; Belize City, Belize; Roatan, Honduras; Ocho Rios, Montego Bay, and Falmouth, Jamaica; and a private cruise line island. If you go to Cozumel or Belize there is the opportunity to buy a tour to see Mayan ruins, if that's your interest. Cozumel considered the best place to go for scuba and snorkeling. If you go to Jamaica the two main attractions are a river raft float trip (not rapids) and the Dunn's River Falls climb. If you go to Grand Cayman you will likely want to go to 7-Mile Beach or do a swim with the dolphins/stingrays tour.
(2) Eastern Caribbean cruises typically go to St Thomas; St Maarten; Tortola British Virgin Island; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and maybe Grand Turks. The cruise ships will also have a private cruise line island stop. If you want to do a lot of shopping then pick a cruise with St Thomas and St Maarten as the port stops. In fact both are mainly a beach and shopping stop
Most Eastern and Western Caribbean cruises have a private island stop where the ship will take food ashore for an all day beach party with games and entertainment. All of the cruise lines have what they call their private island (mostly located in the Bahamas) and you can have a great day on these islands; only ship's passengers on them for the day. Norwegian Cruise line uses Great Stirrip Cay, Bahamas. Carnival uses Half Moon Cay, Bahamas. Princess Cruise line uses Princess Cay, Bahamas. Royal Caribbean and Celebrity have two private islands that they use, Coco Cay, Bahamas and Labidee, Haite. Royal Caribbean and Celebrity cruise lines have THE best private island I have ever been to at Labadee, Haiti. It’s a huge place that has multiple beaches and many activities.
(3) Southern Caribbean cruise itineraries typically start in Puerto Rico and go either to Aruba, Curacao, and St Thomas and St Maarten, OR they go to the southern Caribbean islands like Barbados, Grenada, Antigua, St Lucia and maybe St Thomas and/or St Maarten. There are a few cruises that do the Southern Caribbean Itinerary from Florida but are longer at 12 to 14 days. The main difference between these two Southern Caribbean itineraries, aside from the different islands, is the Aruba cruise has two "at sea" days with no port stops, while the other has a port stop about each day.
Cruises to Bermuda re usually 5 to 7 days and that’s plenty enough time to enjoy the island as there’s not much there to sightsee, just great beautiful beaches that are free and easy to get to by public transportation. Cruises to the Bahamas are usually short cruises of 3 to 4 days. Cruises to the Panama Canal are typically 9 to 12 days (because it’s a longer distance to cruise) and usually include a port stop in Mexico, Costa Rica, Jamaica and maybe Grand Cayman.
Cruises to Mexico on the Pacific coast leave from Los Angeles (Long Beach) and generally go to
Cabo St Lucas, Acapulco, Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan, and/or Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo. These are generally 7 day cruises.
For cruises to Hawaii there are three options. Celebrity, Princess, and Holland America cruise lines do 14/15 day cruises from California to Hawaii and back. Royal Caribbean cruise line does one way cruises from the west coast to Hawaii and also one way cruises from Hawaii back to the west coast. Norwegian cruise line is the only one that does 7 day cruises of Hawaii that begin and end in Honolulu, Hawaii. All of the cruise lines have the exact same port stops in the Hawaiian islands. There are also some longer cruises in the Pacific that may stop at one or more Hawaiian ports in route to or from South Pacific islands.
Cruises of the Mediterranean can depart from Southampton, England; Barcelona, Spain; Rome, Italy; Venice, Italy; or Athens, Greece and typical ports are Nice, France (Monte Carlo); Florence/Pisa, Rome, Naples, Sicily, and Venice Italy; Athens, Rhodes, Mykonos, and Santorini, Greece, Kusadasi (Ephesus) and Istanbul, Turkey; Alexandria, Egypt; Israel, Barcelona, Palma, Cadiz, and Malaga, Spain; the Canary Islands; Portugal and Gibralter.
Cruises of South America start in Valparaiso, Chile, makes other stops in Chile and in Argentina and end in Sao Paulo, Brazil after a stop in Rio. Or, the cruises run the reverse of this itinerary. There are also some shorter cruises that cruise Brazil ports only.
You can cruise to the Caribbean and Bermuda from as far north as Boston and NY City, but also from Baltimore, Norfolk, Charleston, and Jacksonville, Port Canaveral, Tampa, Ft Lauderdale and Miami, Florida, plus New Orleans, Houston (Galveston) Texas, and Mobile, Alabama. If you want to go on the cruise lines’ newer ships your best bet is to go to the Caribbean out of Port Canaveral, Ft Lauderdale, or Miami, Florida, or from New Orleans or Galveston.
All cruise ports have parking that cost between $15 and $25 per day, payable in advance by credit card or cash. Driving to the port can save on air fare and also the hassles of flying, including the charges for luggage.
It’s always advisable to go to the departure port city a day early so as not to miss your cruise because of a flight delay or cancellation. If you fly to Florida for a cruise from Port Canaveral you’ll be flying into Orlando Airport and that is an hour’s drive from the port; you’ll need a bus transfer, van service or rental car to get there and back to Orlando. If you cruise out of Ft Lauderdale, the cruise port and airport are right next to each other; a 15 minute taxi ride. If you cruise out of Miami and fly into Miami airport the cruise port is a short taxi ride and there is a set fare of about $25 per taxi for up to 4 persons. The Miami and Ft Lauderdale airports are about an hour’s drive apart and a taxi between the locations will cost about $75.
DO YOU NEED A PASSPORT
NO!! If you are a US citizen and depart on a cruise from and return to the same port you do not need a passport. These type cruises are called "loop cruises" and the cruise lines and US Immigration officials all recognize them as an exception to having a passport. However, you will still need proof of citizenship, i.e., original or certified copy of birth certificate, and proof of identity. These will be checked by the cruise line before you board the ship and again by US Immigration officials when you return from your cruise. Once you are on the ship you will not need your passport or proof of citizenship again until you return to the departure port. You will not need it to get off the ship in any port because the cruise line will issue to each person in your family a cruise card that serves as your pass to get off and back on the ship at port stops. You should take your photo ID with you but you will not need your passport. The only exceptions to this are some ports in the Mediterranean, like Egypt, and Brazil in South America.
The US Passport Office now issues a passport card that cost $45, vs more than $100 for a passport book. The Passport card is good for land border crossing between the US, Canada, and Mexico and sea cruise border crossings in the Caribbean and Bermuda. The passport is acceptable everywhere. Both are good for 10 years. Regardless of which you apply for you will still have to submit the exact same documentation; photos, proof of citizenship and proof of identity. So the bottom line is which is more convenient and conveniently priced for you.
WILL YOU GET SEA SICK
All of the new ships now being built have automatic stabilizer that all but eliminate any rocking from side to side. And these newer passenger ships are so long, most 900 feet to almost 1,000 feet, that the front to back motion is also all but eliminated.
Cruise ships generally move from port to port overnight, generally about 6:00 PM. You go to dinner between 6 and 8 PM, maybe go to the evening show and maybe the disco and then go to bed. And when you awake the next morning you are in a new port. So you are busy or sleep a good portion of the time when the ship is moving. Most of the time you will not even know that the ship is moving.
Cruise ships make every effort to stay away from bad weather that would affect the ship, even changing the order of port stops if weather is bad at one. They will cruise through a rainstorm but if there is a hurricane or big storm they steer away from it.
There are some options to combat sea sickness if you are really sensitive to motion. One is a prescription from your Dr for either pills or the patch that is applies behind the ear. Another option is a wrist bracelet that you can purchase at boating stores. And, if you do not get any of these before your cruise, the ship will have a doctor who can dispense sea sickness pills.
Ginger is useful in controlling nausea and vomiting. So, if you can, take along some ginger crackers, cookies, or candy, or other forms of ginger such as tea, gum, or capsules. Also, avoid closed in spaces where you cannot see the horizon and stay near the center of the ship and on lower decks whenever you start to feel sick because these places get less motion.
WHAT CRUISE LINES CAN I CHOOSE FROM???
There are some luxury cruise lines that provide the best service and aminities and offer cruises on smaller ships and to more ports. Theses cruises cost about 50% to 100% more than the so-called "mass market" cruise lines like Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian. The fares are higher but you get more for your money and you do not have as many passengers on ship to contend with. The dinner settings are more formal. The luxury cruise lines are:
REGENT SEVEN SEAS:
Other cruise lines that most people go on:
Then there are some cruise lines that operate mainly out of Europe but also do the Caribbean and other areas around the world. These cruise lines generally have a more European flavor: