You're thinking about taking your first cruise and you're starting to look at options - wow - there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of possibilities - how do we narrow them down? Everyone who has cruised is prepared to give you advice on choosing a cruise line and a cruise ship, but almost everybody's opinion is different. Here are my opinions, but I'm sure that any experienced cruisers reading this may disagree with my advice - well, let them write their own article!
THE BIGGEST STEP - CHOOSING THE RIGHT TRAVEL AGENTChoosing a knowledgeable travel agent is the best thing you can do for yourself prior to deciding on your first cruise. And you don't want just a "travel agent", but a "cruise specialist". A good cruise agent will, before giving you advice, likely interview you extensively about your likes and dislikes, your budget, your vacation availability and other personal factors. I've cruised about 40 times, but that doesn't make me qualified to be a cruise agent. Although I've been lucky enough to cruise two or three times a year, a cruise agent who deals with cruises and clients all day, every day, will not only have a better overall picture of what cruise may suit your particular preferences, but will also be up-to-date on the smaller but nevertheless important details of current cruises including new and changed itineraries, the layout of the ships, details of brand-new ships, and more.
THE "WHEN"It will certainly help your cruise agent if you put your mind to the "who, what, when" etc. prior to your first meeting, and in my view, the "when" is the most important aspect to consider. All else being equal (and it rarely is), why cruise at the busiest times during spring break, year-end holidays or in those summer months when schools and colleges are not in session? Many ships become overcrowded at those times. You may find that a ship which advertises itself as normally carrying 1400 passengers suddenly carries 2000! The "normal" count of a ship's capacity is on the assumption of two passengers per cabin, but at holiday times many of the cabins will be shared by four or even five family members or friends. Cruising at peak holiday times will also mean that you will have a lot more young children and teenagers on board (which may or may not suit you depending on whether you're cruising with your own children). Booking at holiday times can also cause you more grief with your airline arrangements including the chances of being "bumped" as a result of overbooking.
Other "when" factors include choosing the right season for the right destination. Do you want to cruise the Caribbean or the Mexican Riviera at the hottest time of year, or visit Alaska or Europe in the cooler months? Hurricane season in the Caribbean is another consideration - but not a big one in my view (cruise ship captains stay away from bad weather!).
THE HOW (long)Cruises obviously come in different lengths, with 3, 4, 7 and 10-day cruises being the most common. For a first time cruiser, I absolutely recommend a 7 day cruise - not too long, not too short. The three and four day cruises don't give you enough time to unwind and get used to the rhythm of the ship's activities. You're no sooner on the ship when they start giving you notices about disembarkation arrangements. The shorter cruises also tend to be "party hardy" cruises - which may or may not be your choice. Much has been written about Carnival cruises having a non-stop party atmosphere but almost any cruise ship doing short cruises will get a higher percentage of passengers who want to party every waking minute. On Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, there's a vast difference between a three-day cruise out of Los Angeles on the Viking Serenade versus a 10-day sedate cruise on the Legend of the Seas through the Panama Canal.
THE "WHO"My advice is limited to what I call "mainstream" cruise lines, being Princess, Celebrity, Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Holland America, Cunard, and Norwegian Cruise Lines, and ignores smaller cruise lines such as Commodore, smaller cruise ships such as Cruise West, specialized cruise lines such as Disney, foreign cruise lines like Costa, and luxury cruise lines including Crystal and others. In my opinion (and I'm sure that many experienced cruisers will disagree with me), they're all pretty much the same! Yes, Carnival is lively (but used to be more lively), Holland America may be a bit more sedate, and Princess might have the best on-board activities. Celebrity has the best food in the opinion of many folks, but I don't agree. If you like the "sports bar" concept, NCL may be the cruise line for you. And if you like the English tradition, try Cunard. Over-all, I think the "Who" aspect is less important than the other factors I have mentioned above (and also below).
THE "WHERE"Your first cruise should be to a relaxing destination, and my recommendations (in each case being a 7-day cruise) would be an eastern Caribbean cruise (which usually includes the comfortable ports of St. Thomas and St. Maarten) or a western Caribbean cruise visiting the ports of Cozumel and Grand Caymen which are great for snorkeling and scuba enthusiasts. A round trip to the Mexican Riviera out of Los Angeles is convenient for those on the west side of the U.S. Alaska is perfect for those who hate the hot weather, but it's a much "busier" cruise because of all the extensive shore excursions one can take. Cruises in Europe are port-intensive, and are best taken once you have experienced cruising just for cruising's sake.
THE "WHAT"In this catch-all category I'm listing some of the other aspects of cruising that you'll want to discuss with your cruise agent:
In the Master Index of All SeaLetter Articles (see the link below), you'll find many articles which examine these issues in detail.
THE "WHY?"Cruising is the best way to have a fun holiday. Try it - if you don't love it, send me an e-mail and tell me why not!
Originally from Australia, Alan has for some time been permanently settled in Vancouver where he is a practicing Attorney. He has been a SeaLetter columnist, reviewer and our resident humorist for some time now.
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Alan loves email, and can be reached at: Alan@sealetter.com.
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