If you're planning your first cruise vacation and need help navigating the myriad destinations, lines and ships, don't worry. Finding the right cruise isn't as difficult as you might think, since the industry continues to flourish through the simple, but brilliant, philosophy of offering something for everyone. No longer is cruising an elitist activity; according to CLIA, more than 50 percent of today's cruisers have household incomes under $60,000 a year!
Every major cruise line now has its own Web site (CLIA offers links to all their member lines) so you can spend hours cyber-cruising. (Some lines offer virtual ship tours!) However, cyber-cruising doesn't really take the place of working with a knowledgeable travel agent who specializes in cruises. An M.C.C. behind a name stands for master cruise consultant, a designation that means this travel agent has undergone rigorous training and seen and sailed on lots of ships. CLIA offers a cruise expert locator to help you find one in your area. They'll give you information on hot destinations (more about that later!) but you should do some homework on your own and have some ideas about where you'd like to go. (One of the best sources is the Fielding Guide to Worldwide Cruising!)
To avoid a disappointing vacation experience, it's important to ask the right questions. Above all, be honest about your expectations of your cruise. If you're a honeymoon couple looking forward to meeting other couples your age and you wind up on a cruise with 500 senior citizens on a group trip, you might be disappointed. (A general rule of thumb is: the longer and more expensive the cruise, the older the clientele because they are the ones with the time and money.) Likewise, if you're seeking a quiet, uneventful cruise, you might prefer to avoid a ship booked with hundreds of teens celebrating high school graduation. Talk to your cruise consultant, who should be able to find out if there are large groups on your sailing.
To get the ball rolling, try to find yourself in one of these categories:
- Frugal cruiser -- If you don't want to pay more for an outside cabin or one with a private verandah, go ahead and opt for a smaller, inside cabin. You'll pay less and still enjoy all the same amenities (meals, entertainment) as fellow passengers up in the owner's suite!
- Relaxed cruiser -- If you plan on spending lots of time resting in your stateroom -- reading, napping and just staring out at the ocean -- you'll want to pay a little more for an outside cabin (most have bigger windows as opposed to the round portholes on older ships) or one with a sitting area or balcony.
- Family cruiser -- If you'll be taking your children -- and growing numbers of parents are -- you should look at lines with special programs for children. This includes most lines now; only Renaissance Cruises has an adults-only policy. Check out kid-friendly lines such as Disney Cruise Line or Premier Cruises, with its smaller-sized "Big Red Boat." Oh, and some of Celebrity line's ships offer fantastic techno-toys for big and little kids! Increasingly, cruise lines offer special family rates; sometimes children cruise free. Cruises are terrific choices for family reunions, because they allow togetherness along with lots of different activities for various age groups. (If you want to cruise over Christmas, Thanksgiving or New Year's, you'll need to book at least a year in advance, since these cruises are traditionally sold out.)
- Novice cruiser -- If you're a first-time cruiser and are uncertain about this mode of travel, you might want to consider a short, less-expensive cruise that will give you a taste of what cruising's all about. There are two- to five-day cruises to the Caribbean from ports all along the Southeast and Gulf coasts and to Mexico from the West Coast.
- Landlocked cruiser -- If you don't want to spend much time at sea (although boredom's not likely on a ship!), choose an itinerary on which the ship visits a port every day. That's easy in Europe, where everything is very close together.
- Cruiser's cruiser -- You're just the opposite of the landlocked cruiser; you love long, lazy days at sea and will especially enjoy transatlantic crossings, on which you may be at sea for four to six days. (Sometimes these are less expensive, too, because they are repositioning cruises designed to move the ship from one region to another.)
- Dancing cruiser -- If you love to dance -- and dancing is a big deal on ships -- ask your cruise specialist about Big Band, jazz and more recently, Latin musical theme cruises. The ballroom dancers turn out for these in large numbers, and cruise lines often have gentleman "hosts" to dance with unaccompanied ladies (or those whose husbands won't dance), especially on cruises with lots of sea days. Ask your cruise consultant if these dance partners will be available on your cruise.
- Bilious cruiser -- The shorter cruise is also a good idea for you if you're concerned about motion sickness. In addition, try to book a stateroom in the middle of the ship -- both from top to bottom and from bow to stern -- as this is the most stable area on the ship. You might also take a look at the Radisson Diamond, a twin-hull, semi-submersible that was designed to be the most stable passenger ship at sea! (More about seasickness later!)
- Thinking cruiser -- If you're among those people who actually want to learn something on vacation, consider more exotic trips and cruises that offer lectures by historians, geographers and other experts. (For example, explorer Loren McIntyre, who's credited with discovering the source of the Amazon River, is a popular lecturer on cruises in that region. Because he knows the Amazon area and people so well, he's able to offer passengers the inside track that makes the trip unforgettable. Read more about the Amazon.) Royal Olympic, Seabourn, Silversea, Cunard, Renaissance, Princess, Radisson Seven Seas, Crystal and Orient Lines are among lines offering lectures and enrichment series.
- Cruising-for-food cruiser -- If you fall into this popular category, take a look at some of the food and wine cruises offered by lines such as Silversea Cruises and Seabourn Cruise Line. For example, nothing enriches a visit to French wine country more than regional food and wine demonstrations -- and sampling -- on the ship beforehand! Many ships have food theme cruises, such as Cajun cruises or chocolate cruises. And for the traditional, excessive midnight buffet -- rapidly giving way in this era of health and fitness to lighter late-night fare on most ships -- can still be found on the moderately-priced Commodore Cruise Line ships. Other great food-ships include Celebrity Cruise Line ships, which have recently racked up some top culinary awards.
- Single cruiser -- Cruising is great for singles, because it offers the twin options of companionship and solitude. There's also a certain amount of safety in traveling, more or less, with a group. Most lines charge substantial supplements, often 150 percent, for single occupancy. See CLIA's single supplement list. Another option offered by some lines is to have you share a room with another solo traveler of the same gender. Often, you wind up with the room all to yourself (for a double occupancy rate!) because there are not that many single cruisers. (These single adventurers tend to be women!)
- Party cruiser -- If you, married or single, like a good party, you'll want to consider Carnival, which tends to draw more young people (18-35), more singles and more people out for a good time! No matter which ship you choose, your ship is a party ship in that everybody is on vacation and ready for a good time!
- Outside-the-box cruiser -- If you're one of those people who just likes to take a different approach to things, why not look at a couple of cruising's more unusual vessels? The Radisson Diamond really draws the stares when she's in port with other cruise ships. Definitely the most unusual looking ship, with her twin hulls and catamaran-look, the Diamond offers lovely accommodations and arguably the best alternative restaurant at sea. Another wonderfully different experience is sailing on the Windstar ships, motorized sailing vessels that carry just over 100 passengers. Sailing on these ships is a little like being on a yacht with a few of your closest friends. And on those occasions when the wind is just right and the engine can be cut, the quiet of the wind in the sails is breathtaking!
- Non-flying cruiser -- If you refuse to fly -- and you're not alone in this category -- but would like to take a cruise, have your cruise specialist check for cruises departing from port cities within driving distance. Increasingly, cruise lines, in their search for new, less crowded port homes and outports (ports used occasionally by a line), are offering cruises several times a year from non-traditional ports like Charleston, Savannah, Wilmington, Galveston, New Orleans, Tampa and Newport News.
- Non-smoking cruiser -- The cruise industry is paying attention to people calling for non-smoking dining rooms and facilities. Most lines now have non-smoking dining rooms. Many limit smoking to a few public areas on the ship and a couple have gone completely non-smoking. Renaissance Cruises' entire fleet of ships are non-smoking vessels. So is the Carnival Paradise. If smoking bothers you, be sure to inquire about non-smoking cruises and/or non-smoking cabins.
- Smoking cruiser -- If you want to be able to smoke on your vacation, there are still plenty of ships where you can (with certain limitations). Some ships even have lounges dedicated to cigar smoking, which is usually not allowed in other public areas. Ask your cruise consultant about smoker-friendly ships.
- Health conscious cruiser -- If you refuse to miss your daily workout, even on vacation, don't worry. Gyms/fitness clubs have become standard on cruise ships. On the other hand, if you have health problems and don't want to be too far away from a doctor, you don't have to worry. Ships are required to have a well-equipped clinic with a licensed doctor and nurses on each cruise. If your health needs are acute, check to see whether your ship can accommodate your specific needs. Also consider your destination -- if the ship's doctor has to move you to a hospital for additional treatment, that could be problematic in some developing nations without adequate medical facilities.
- Casual cruiser -- Many cruisers really enjoy dressing up for the traditional formal nights on cruise ships -- there are usually a couple of these nights on every seven-day cruise and more on longer cruises. However, if your idea of vacation is leaving coats, ties and sequins at home, there are some ships that you'll love! Try the Windstar cruises, where "country club chic" is the order of the day. That means linens, silks, cottons but no coats and ties. Renaissance Cruises also encourages casual attire. If donning your party best is fun for you, you'll like more formal ships, such as the Crystal, Seabourn, Silversea and Cunard ships.
- Corporate cruiser -- If you like to mix a little work in with your vacation, ask about ships that offer computers and Internet accommodations as well as large corporate-style conference rooms. You can also take calls and receive faxes on the ship (but it'll cost you!).