As a travel advisor who specializes in cruises I get asked so many questions in regards to planning for and booking the perfect cruise for my clients. So I thought I would chat about some of what I go through with my clients to help best pick a cruise that fits them and what preparing for a cruise looks like. Whether you are looking at an ocean or river cruise, to planning which destination and cruise line is best for you and your budget, I’m going to cover it all, including some of my tips and tricks when it comes to planning your cruise.
Why I love to cruise
Cruising is honestly one of my personal favourite ways to travel. It makes travel so stress free and relaxing. I get to arrive onto a ship (or floating hotel), unpack once and wake up in a new destination pretty well everyday. Cruising also offers a great way to “test” out destinations, to see where you would love to travel back to and spend more time. It can also give you the opportunity to visit places that you might not have thought to otherwise (example: St. Petersburg, Russia can be harder to visit due to visas to Russia, etc, cruising can make visiting places like Russia easier). Sea days are a nice relaxing break, sometimes the ships can be destinations on their own with plenty to do and see onboard.
Planning your cruise
First step is to contact someone who is a specialist when it comes to cruises. Certain travel advisors have access to offers or onboard extras that you might not as a consumer. Myself, I hold specialist certifications with all the major cruise lines, I’m a travel advisor member of Virtuoso, an exclusive membership for travel advisors and have personal relationships with many within the cruise industry. I offer my clients exclusive benefits when they book their cruise with me, so if you’d like to have a chat about your own cruise, please contact me. I’d love to personally have a chat about cruising and help you find the perfect cruise for you.
Picking a cruise
There are many factors to think of when it comes to picking which cruise would be best for you. Here are some of the topics I bring up with my clients when helping them select a cruise:
Destination/Itinerary – This is actually one of the main things I personally consider when planning a cruise. Cruises are now available to all seven continents, so there is an itinerary for everyone. Things to consider with destinations are what time of year is best to visit, if there is a shoulder season, and the length of time you’re in each port (some cruise lines offer overnights in certain ports, or even longer days to spend time to visit nearby cities). What is the weather like? For instance, cruising the Mediterranean in the Winter months, if that’s when you have vacation time is not really an option, however cruises to South America, Tahiti, Australia, Caribbean, etc are in season during that time. Other things I look for is unique destinations when cruising. We are seeing the return of Turkey to cruise itineraries and new and unique cruises such as the Black Sea, cruises from Africa to Australia and more options to Antartica.
Choosing which cruise line is best for you – There is definitely a cruise line for everyone. I have my personal favourites based on my personal experiences with certain companies in the past. It really depends on what you are looking for and what your budget is. There are also other factors to select a cruise line such as if an “adults only” cruise is important to you, if so you might want to look at Viking Cruises or Virgin Voyages. Is food your thing? You might want to try Oceania, Crystal, Windstar or Seabourn. Are you looking for something family friendly? Norwegian Cruise Line or Royal Caribbean might be good options for you. Are you looking for a cruise line that has a solid reputation for certain itineraries? Holland America is amazing for Alaska, Azamara has unique AzAmazing events, Paul Gauguin does amazing itineraries of Tahiti and the South Pacific and Silversea offers weekends with special access to the Monaco Grand Prix. Are you wanting a small ship experience? Windstar, Regent Seven Seas, Crystal, Silversea, Oceania, Seabourn, Paul Gauguin and Ponant might be great options. Many of these brands have great onboard amenities, but it truly is based on what is important to you and what you’re looking to get out of your cruise.
Here is my breakdown of cruise lines with my own star rating. These ratings are my own opinion and is based on my own personal experiences in regards to food, customer service, inclusions, value for money, etc:
Three Stars and Under:
- Carnival (Ocean)
- Costa (Ocean)
- P & O Cruises (Ocean)
- Royal Caribbean (Ocean)
- Princess Cruises (Ocean)
- Celestyal Cruises (Ocean)
- MSC Cruises (Ocean)
- Viking (River)
- Norwegian Cruise Line (Ocean)
- Holland America (Ocean)
- Celebrity (Ocean)
- Disney Cruise Line (Ocean)
- Cunard (Ocean)
- Virgin Voyages (Ocean)
- Emerald Waterways (River)
- Avalon Waterways (River)
- AMAWaterways (River)
- Azamara (Ocean)
- Viking (Ocean)
- Oceania Cruises (Ocean)
- Windstar Cruises (Ocean)
- Paul Gauguin (Ocean)
- Silversea (Ocean)
- Crystal Cruises (Ocean, Yacht and River)
- Seabourn (Ocean)
- Ponant (Ocean)
- Regent Seven Seas (Ocean)
- Scenic (River and Yacht)
- UniWorld (River)
- Quark Expeditions
- G Adventures
- Intrepid Travel
Selecting the right cabin type – Yes, interior cabins are the cheapest, but there are some things to consider when looking at selecting the right cabin type for you. I personally love cruising in a Balcony. I can open the window and enjoy fresh air, while interior and ocean view cabins rely on circulated air. Yes, if you’re hardly in the room an interior room can be a good economical option if you’re looking to just use your room to sleep, change and shower. I have cruised in an inside cabin before, and relied on my “Aroma Roam” from Saje (a travel diffuser), to make sure that I had fresh air with the Immune oil. If you’re looking for more room a suite can offer extra perks and more space. I would suggest picking your cabin based on your itinerary. For example, a balcony whilst cruising the Mediterranean, Tahiti or Alaska is amazing to have as you do get quite a bit of use out of it, it’s nice to have that private viewing space. When working with your travel agent, make sure any of your needs are covered such as if you’re a family getting a proper family room, if you have accessibility needs, making sure you’re in a correct accessible cabin, etc. Is your cabin below the gym or a kitchen? Are you aware of what a “guarantee” is? These are some of the things I go through with my clients to make sure we are selecting the best cabin for them and that there are no surprises. On river cruise ships, are you okay with “Swan View”, or the lower level on the ship. Some people don’t like the idea of sleeping below the waterline. Using a travel professional to help you select the best cabin style for you is key to your enjoyment of your cruise.
Loyalty to a cruise line – If you are loyal to a brand, you are typically rewarded with offers and gifts as you increase in loyalty levels. Things to keep in mind is that sometimes it is worth moving up and graduating to a new cruise line as “free laundry” and “bottled water” can already be an inclusion on another cruise line and not just a loyalty perk. If you’re a cruise away from your free one, then by all means, but really look at what your cruise loyalty gets you.
Shore Excursions – When it comes to shore excursions, really do your research on the ports you are visiting before selecting which tours you are going to do, if any. Depending on the cruise line you booked with, ocean cruise shore excursions might already be included (another reason that sometimes booking a more all inclusive style cruise can be a better option). Typically with river cruises most of you basic excursions are already included, you just have to pay for additional or upgraded experiences. Keep in mind, for most main line ocean cruise lines shore excursions are not included. So back to selecting shore excursions, going through the ship can be easy options for many people, they offer a guarantee that the ship will wait for you or the cruise line is responsible for you. They usually offer a money back guarantee as well to make sure you do enjoy yourself. However the downside is that most of the time you will be on a tour with 40-60 people. In all my cruises, I’ve done a grand total of one tour through any of the main stream cruise lines. I typically explore some ports I visit on my own, again this is where a bit of research comes in, or help and recommendations from your travel agent. For example, for my upcoming Baltic Cruise in July, I’m planning to visit Berlin, St.Petersburg, and Helsinki and Porvoo with tours, and see Tallin, Stockholm and Copenhagen on my own. I usually personally use a third party company that specializes in shore excursions worldwide and has the same guarantees that a cruise line has, money back guarantee and will get you back to the ship on time or they pay to catch you up. I love the tours I’ve done through them and have had many happy clients with these excursions as well. Usually the groups are a lot smaller, about 8-30 people per tour, depending on the tour and the cost is quite a bit less than the cruise lines. Chat with a travel agent who specializes in cruises for extra tips and tricks depending on your itinerary and cruise company. I typically give my clients tips for shopping, sights and restaurants for ports I’ve personally visited in the past. We also know the ins and outs of visa requirements in regards to the countries you will be visiting on your cruise, which can impact you boarding the ship or being able to get off the ship. An example is Russia, for a Canadian, getting a Russian visa can be expensive, however if you book your excursions through the ship or the third party company I use for myself and my clients, they take care of your Russian visa for you. It’s certain things like these that a travel professional can help you get the most out of your cruise.
Dining onboard – There are usually many dining choices onboard a cruise ship. Most cruise ships have main dining rooms, a buffet style restaurant, fast snack/pool side options, a cafe and specialty restaurants. If food is important to you, speak with your travel agent to make sure that the cruise you’re looking at is the best option for your needs. Cruises can accommodate most dietary needs and requirements, but again this should be chatted about when you are booking the cruise so your travel agent can notate your file and make sure the cruise line is aware of your requests. Some cruise lines do have an additional charge for specialty restaurants onboard. Wether the cruise line you are sailing with charges or not, you can make some reservations for specialty restaurants usually now online before your cruise to make sure you get to dine where you like. I remember once being on a cruise and meeting a couple who finally showed up for their last meal in the dining room on the last night of the cruise. The wife was so excited that they were finally splurging on a meal and asked where the prices were on the menu of what the charge was, well it was the main dining room we were in which meant there was none, they had apparently been eating at the buffet the entire cruise! She was not impressed at all and had no idea they could have been having sit down service meals the whole week.
Gratuities – Gratuities can sometimes be included depending on the promotion you book, or it is an additional charge that you can add on before you sail (depending on the cruise line) or it’s paid onboard at the end of your sailing. Gratuities depend on cruise line and stateroom category, suites pay more than an inside, etc. The reason I’m a fan of gratuities is that everyone benefits, yes you can tip you room steward and server, but they aren’t the dishwashers, people doing laundry or the entertainment onboard. It makes it fair so you don’t have to worry about tipping. If you are using a butler or concierge, please do consider tipping them extra for good service as they do typically go above and beyond in my experience.
Drink Packages – Most cruise lines offer drink packages for purchase or part of a perk when booking. Some cruise lines (especially river cruises) offer wine and beer with lunch and dinner. Speak to your travel agent to find out what type of a drink package is best for you. I typically don’t buy a drink package, sometimes I buy a non-alcohol drink package, so I can have specialty coffees etc. Depending on the cruise line you cruise with you can bring a certain amount of wine onboard per cabin without a corkage fee. What is a corkage fee? So some cruise lines charge this to bring wine onboard, wether you drink it in your stateroom or in any of the dining rooms. I typically go for this option (I prefer to bring my own wine onboard to enjoy in my stateroom).
Internet on cruise ships – Cruise ships do have wi-fi onboard. Keep in mind that it is satellite internet, so it is much slower and less reliable than what you are probably used to at home. Some cruise lines include internet, some you can choose it as a perk or you can purchase it onboard.
How do you find the best deal? Use a travel agent who specializes in cruises. Again, I’m a cruise expert myself and a Virtuoso Travel Agent so I do have extra perks I can offer my clients depending on the cruise booked. This could be extra onboard credits or special onboard surprises from me. I also now offer a service that I can track your sailing to make sure you booked at the best price or best promotion. If there is a better deal that comes along, I can work with the cruise line to make sure you get an upgrade, onboard credits or extra perks to get the most of what you paid. I also get notifications on all the latest sales and promotions from each cruise line every week. As I’ve been in the industry for a little while now, I have experience when it comes to knowing the best times of year to book a cruise (best cruise offers are normally in January and February) and the best cruise line for your budget, itinerary, etc.
Deposits and Final Payments – Again the depends on the cruise line and the promotion booked as to what the deposit will be. Sometimes the deposits are refundable, sometimes they aren’t. Again one of the benefits of booking with a travel agent, I’ll make sure that everything is extremely clear so you know what to expect and send you reminders before your final payment is due. Typically final payments are due 90 to 120 days prior to departure date of your cruise.
Cruising Solo – Cruising solo is becoming so popular. Recent statistics from Stats Canada are that 52% of Canadians are Single, Widowed or Divorced. Lonely Planet did a poll in which 67% of respondents in a 2019 survey said their next trip would be solo. 48% of Baby Boomers say they took a solo trip in 2018. It’s so nice to see that many cruise lines have realized the market needs and have started adding solo cabins onboard, some cruise lines even waive the single supplement. Some cruise lines have even implemented Solo Traveller meetups onboard, usually on the first day when you board the ship which can be very well attended. The solo groups onboard usually meet everyday and arrange group dinners and events. My aunt just got back from a 17 day cruise from Dubai to Singapore back in December and had a great time with her solo traveller group on her cruise, there was a pretty large group and she made some great friendships which they keep in contact and have been chatting amongst themselves about other cruises they are booking in the future. You can also join one of my favourite resources, Cruise Critic for free. They have a message board that normally has “Roll Calls” for each cruise departure. It’s a great place to make connections before your cruise and see who else is sailing on your sailing. You can also see if there is a local Solo Travellers Group near you. I actually run two in the Vancouver/Lower Mainland area, you can always send me a message for information if your in the area and want to attend. Solo Travellers Groups are great to meet other solo travellers and see what group opportunities there are. I know in the groups I run some of the ladies have become great friends and travel together, or we have put a cruise group together and travel as a group. Cruising alone shouldn’t put you off of cruising, it can be such a great way to explore this world and because of the ease of travel, much less daunting than a group tour or doing it on your own hopping from city to city.
Groups – Do you have a potential group of 10 passengers or more? Wether you have a corporate group, a retreat group, a family reunion, a group of friends travelling, a special interest group (such as photography, artists, wine, book clubs, etc), retirement party, anniversary celebration or a wedding, groups onboard a cruise can be rewarding for everyone. Again, speak with a travel agent who has experience in booking a cruise group, as they can help you get the best rates and extra perks for your group.
Sustainability and the Environment – Cruising is quite controversial when it comes to being environmentally friendly or sustainable. There are some cruise lines out there that are doing their best to try to help the environment. Some of the ultra luxury companies have launched clean energy ships, some of the bigger lines are starting to follow suit. Some cruise lines have eliminated single use plastics onboard, others are committing to do so bit by bit (such as eliminating straws onboard, getting rid of towel animals (yes they were cute, but it does add quite a bit of extra laundry) and using boxed water). However, it comes down to you being a sustainable traveller. I bring a reusable water bottle (fill that up with a lemon and water before leaving the ship and even when waling around the ship on a sea day) and travel cup with a straw. I also travel with reusable straws, so if I do order a pina colada I can enjoy it without the paper straw disintegrating. Try to reuse your towels a couple times before requesting new ones and hold on to your beach/pool towel for a few uses as well. I also order “small portions” in the dining rooms so as to not waste any food. I mean come on, I want to try a couple of those amazing appetizers anyways right? *wink wink*
Wheelchairs and Accessibility – Again this is where a cruise specialist comes in. We can suggest itineraries that would better suit someone that has a wheelchair or accessibility needs. For instance, if you are someone with a wheelchair, I would suggest avoiding an itinerary that requires a lot of tenders. Tendering off the ship can be pretty well impossible in some ports and off some ships, so there are very strict guidelines that need to be met. In regards to cabins, there are many different types of accessible cabins and there are forms that need to be filled out to make sure you are allocated a specific cabin type depending on your needs. This can be a cabin for someone who might be deaf, in a wheelchair or blind. There was an instance I saw in a travel forum recently that someone had booked a family getaway on their own and the grandparents unfortunately could not access the balcony or the washroom facilities in the cabin as the wheelchair could not fit through the bathroom door! Once onboard, of course the cruise was sold out and they could not be moved. If they had a travel agent to help them out, this would have never happened and a correct cabin would have been assigned to them. Travel agents can also arrange scooter and wheelchair rentals onboard as well, again this is something that I chat about with my clients in regards to their needs.
Travel Insurance – Things happen. Get insurance. I’ve honestly seen it all. I’ve had a client slip and break her jaw three days before departing for her 14 day river cruise and couldn’t travel. Insurance made sure she got 100% back. I’ve had clients miss flights due to an accident in the tunnel on the way to the airport. I’ve had clients miss the first day of their cruise due to a delay in a flight which caused them to land too late (in this situation, always arrive the day before, I’m even doing this in April for my own cruise out of San Diego). Travel insurance can also help if your baggage gets delayed and you need to go shopping for items at the ship’s shops (this unfortunately happens more than you think). I’ve also had clients needing to seek medical attention onboard a ship before, if you don’t have insurance it’s not cheap. I’ve heard of people needing to be medically evacuated off ships, it’s happened on my ship a couple times over the years. A cruise (or any trip) is an investment. Make sure that if 24 hours prior to departure you need to cancel, you’re protected to get 100% back. Cruise lines do offer their own insurance, however sometimes it’s only just a cruise credit for a future cruise not actually cash back, so make sure you read the fine print. Bottom line, make sure you get insurance.
Next week I’m going to be chatting about preparing and getting the most out of your cruise whilst onboard.
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