To Group or Not To Group . . .This is the question many people ask when beginning to think about going on a cruise. Should I invite my in-laws? Should we open it up to other friends and business associates? How about our next door neighbors? How about my best friend and his wife? What about a huge group of single people?
I consider myself a veteran cruiser -- 18 since my first as a college sophomore in 1977. However, I consider myself a novice at cruising with a group. With my ex-wife, my brother, a couple of buddies, and solo is how I've cruised in the past . . . the thought of a group, while alluring, also seemed quite challenging.
One of my best friends had been hinting for a few years that I should open my annual Rites of Spring Cruise up to women. Years earlier, she had been on a small 20,000-ton ship with a girlfriend, and the only single man on the ship was an 80 year-old hoot -- so she and her girlfriend wanted to give cruising another chance. If you've cruised and are "hooked" as so many of us are, you know how much we want to share our cruise experiences with others. Well, this was probably the driving force behind organizing our group, so the rest of this article will deal with 'how' to organize a group and I'll share some tips I found to be helpful along the way.
Recipe for Organizing a Group
I started in October of 1996 with the first cruise newsletter. It was addressed to 25+ friends and it had a questionnaire asking folks about availability and itinerary preferences. The initial response was weak, which was to be expected, since we were still seven months away from cruise time.
In November (1996), the Carnival Destiny came to Boston after her inaugural sailing across the Atlantic from her home port in Italy. Pam, a woman who works for a cruise-only travel agency in Hartford, was able to get me on the Carnival Destiny to preview her since I mentioned I was thinking about doing a group. I had been on the Sensation and Fantasy, both 72,000-ton Carnival ships, but had read so much about the Carnival Destiny on the Compuserve Cruise Forum and in The SeaLetter, that I had to see her. I think it is safe to say that after seeing her, both Pam and I decided to sail on her at our first chance.
I made the decision for the group in terms of the ship: she was huge and beautiful, and I was going on her, with or without my friends!
Choosing A Travel AgentI tend to be either the best or worst friend for a travel agent. I really check out all avenues to get the best price, but once I stick with someone, I'm pretty easy because I'm pretty self-sufficient. Pam got the nod, and this worked out very well, since not only did she and three of her friends sail with us, but she was able to hold eight cabins with no down payment required until the end of January. This practice may not be available everywhere, but holding cabins for el zippo while your friends internalize the details is terrific.
For my two cents worth, I find that searching for good prices is almost a requirement of cruising. There are so many specials that go on that it is impossible for one travel agent to know the best prices on all cruises all the time. Some criteria that I believe are important in choosing an agent are:
Choosing a Ship/Date/ItineraryThis is a tough enough job when it's just one or two of you, let alone a group. The problem I found here was not so much the date or ship, but the itinerary. From Miami, the western itinerary is the most varied, with stops in Cozumel, Grand Cayman and Jamaica. The eastern itinerary usually includes St. Thomas, St. Maarten, San Juan and possibly a private island (depending upon the line).
The eastern itinerary is my favorite because of the calmer and more colorful waters, prettier beaches, the duty-free and varied shopping, and the fact that you have maximum time at sea -- sea days are often my favorite days. After you have seen one island, you have, in my opinion, almost seen them all. I love them all, but after a few cruises, the ports and beaches tend to blend together in my mind.
As for choosing a date, this is pretty mindless to me. I live in New England, and "if" I were to cruise in say, February, not only would I be taking a chance of my flights being interrupted by foul wintry weather, but I would have a hard time lying on a beach thinking about all the shoveling I'd have to do when I return. Therefore, it's usually April for myself.
April typically offers mid-season or off-season rates, and provided you sail on a week where Easter vacationers will not be covering the ship, I find it one of the best months to sail. Another benefit is not having to worry about hurricanes and/or hopefully, snowstorms throughout the northern parts of the States.
I'm not sure how democratic the process was . . . on choosing the ship, itinerary and date -- but we eventually selected:
The Carnival Destiny
FaresThere are inside and outside cabins on every ship; each has it's own set of benefits. Our group wanted the best rate, and by the time Pam reserved the cabins in November, there already were zero outside cabins available. Keep in mind here that the Carnival Destiny is a new ship, and all new ships generally book sooner than ships that have been sailing a while. For that matter, you can say it is "usually" cheaper, also, to sail on ships that are not brand-new.
We booked 8 cabins and ended up using 7. I believe if we could have gotten one more cabin filled, we might have gotten a free person, but please check with your travel agent because each line has it's own policies regarding group bookings and discounts.
Our rate was $849/pp, cruise only, inside staterooms, plus port charges of about $120. We booked a Category 5 Guarantee and were moved to Category 7. Our rooms were on the Verandah Deck -- which is Deck #8. The Riviera Deck is Deck #1, and is the lowest deck with passengers on it, so we were 'way up near the top' and our cabins were as far forward as you can get. We were positioned outside the bridge and the Captain's Quarters, and our cabins were basically all together. The group department at Carnival did a good job assigning these cabins, because if you have seven cabins spread all over the ship, you'll spend half your day walking down hallways -- and hallways on these megaships are over 2 1/2 football fields long, let alone flights and flights of stairs!
The Importance of NewslettersPerhaps this section could also be labeled as "helping to set everyone's expectations". Throughout my cruises I have made mistakes and learned invaluable lessons, and therefore, I wanted to share as much of this as possible with my potential cruising friends. My "It's Our Destiny" cruise letters were fun to write, and I was pretty amazed by how closely most people read them. In fact, it seemed to be the newsletters that were passed to new prospects that really got people fired up. Brochures are great, but they can't possibly give you all the first hand information that a newsletter can.
Besides my input into the newsletters, I pulled down a few reviews of the Carnival Destiny from the Cruise Forum and SeaLetter and included pieces of those articles in the newsletters. Another good reason to argue in favor of the newsletter is that our group eventually grew to 19 people, and no one knew everyone, not even myself. So, I used the newsletters to introduce everyone as best I could. Of course I had to stretch the truth about many of my friends to make them look good on paper . . . but my sick sense of humor helped, and I believe everyone got a kick out of reading about each other.
Getting To Your Port of EmbarkationI strongly recommend making your own air travel arrangements. While it might be more convenient to book everything through the cruise lines, they have a very hard time accommodating one special request -- and that is having your flight arrive a day earlier without paying additional money. Add this to their already (usually) higher prices and you find that booking your own air is the way to go.
For example, it would have cost those of us in Boston $300 to fly roundtrip to Miami. If we had wanted to go a day earlier, it would have been $50 extra, if they could do it. The air/sea department of Carnival also needs a few weeks to process this request, so if you go this route and they can't fulfill your request, then you probably miss out on all the good fares you could have gotten directly from the airlines.
A good number of us paid about $200 roundtrip and while we had a change of planes, the schedules allowed us to get to our hotel in Miami in time to catch sun that afternoon and did not make us wait long after getting off the ship. One tip here is to book your flights early. The same flight itinerary as ours was still available thirty days out, but for a cost of $700+!
Pre-Cruise HotelThis is certainly an option if you go with a group or even by yourself, but my vote is to arrive one day early and spend the night, especially if your ship departs from Miami. Last year I attempted to do this in Vancouver, British Columbia in conjunction with my northbound Alaskan cruise, but every hotel within thirty miles was booked because of some convention that week; unfortunately, I only saw Vancouver, which is a beautiful city, from the back of a limo and from the decks of the Tropicale.
The advantages of arriving a day early are many. One, if there is any bad weather in the States (e.g., snow, floods, thunderstorms, locusts, etc.), you have an extra 24 hours to catch your cruise. As I've said before, I look forward to each cruise too much to let weather mess up my plans.
I have stayed at several hotels in Miami and Ft. Lauderdale , and I find that the Marriott and Sheraton Biscayne Bay hotels work out great. And, if you put four people to a room, it's really quite economical. We had several rooms for the women, and the men got a big suite at the Sheraton. Our suite was on the top floor and came complete with a huge outdoor patio from where we could see the ships come in and out of the Port of Miami.
So, if you are the organizer, I highly recommend getting everyone in your group to your port of embarkation a day early. Call it your own insurance policy, but worrying about all those flights the day of the cruise can be nerve-racking. Besides the peace of mind, we caught some great sun at the pool, met some other people who were sailing on the Carnival Destiny, had a nice evening over at South Beach, and were at the ship when they began embarkation.
Ground TransportationWhatever city you fly into, there will be some form of public transportation available to and from the ship. In Miami, the cost of the SuperShuttle and a taxi is about the same -- at $9/pp. While the big cruise line buses "seem" convenient, they quite often can add an extra 45 minutes to your short ride to the ship. When I dock, I want out of an airport ASAP, and the cruise line buses are the slowest way out of the airport.
As a leader, just find out what the choices are and explain the choices to your group. Let them decide which mode of transportation is best for them.
LuggageA major concern of mine is carrying my own luggage on a ship. Experience tells me to do this for several reasons -- but it might not be for everyone in your group. A large fear of mine is waiting for my luggage for 4-6 hours 'after' I board. What would happen if the luggage doesn't find you, or vice versa? Could you wear shorts and flip-flops for seven days without being noticed?
For the most part, the embarkation area is almost adjacent to the ship. If you take a cab ride and get dropped off at the proper place, then all you have to do is carry your luggage upstairs (or use the escalators they have in Miami), check in, and carry the luggage to your room. And now with luggage on wheels, this process is even simpler.
I choose to carry for a number of reasons. First, years ago a bottle of Jim Beam that I was carrying in my large suitcase was smashed by the ship's baggage handlers. Second, one time one of my brother's bags didn't show up until late that first night. And third, since I usually board early, I like to get settled into my cabin upon boarding, leaving the rest of the day night to relax versus rushing around.
Well, this carry-on theory hit a snag this trip, as the Carnival Destiny's embarkation area is a fairly long distance from the ship. My group was trying their best to be polite, but it was a haul. If you don't have luggage with wheels and you are sailing on the Carnival Destiny, be prepared for a good long painful walk. However, all other ships I've sailed have been relatively painless, so you and your group make the call.
It is important to note here that the cruise lines and the porters at the ships will do what they can to get you to check the luggage. The porters are trying to make tips and the cruise lines realize that if everyone carried their luggage on board, it would slow up the process. But, it is your right to carry on your luggage -- make no mistake about this.
Dining ChoicesCarnival accommodated our wish to be seated together, and gave us tables of 8 and 10 in the Universe Dining Room. We requested late seating in the back of the Universe Dining Room along the windows and got exactly that, which really impressed me. This is a great place to dine because the windows are floor to ceiling and when it was light out, we had a great panoramic view. Several nights we also admired the moon and her light.
I was glad our group dined together for dinner because most of us ate breakfast and lunch topside, so if we hadn't eaten dinner together, we probably would have never seen each other. Plus, if you looked around, people envied our tables because we were laughing and having a good time. And, we avoided the Russian Roulette of the dining assignments.
Parties/Special EventsThe cruise lines will usually do what they can to accomodate groups, for they understand their buying power. If you have a special occasion to celebrate or would just like to have a little Bon Voyage party, don't be afraid to ask your travel agent to request this for you. Quite often the line will host such parties and even foot the bill, so if you don't ask, you'll never find out.
Closing ThoughtsTo group or not group. Only 7% of all Amercans have cruised before and there are tons of folks out there who would love to cruise -- but either don't know much about cruising or have some built-in phobia(s) about cruising. Organize a cruise and they will come. It is the best vacation experience that most people ever have, and you can be the one to convert them.
If you have any questions, comments or suggestions, please