As veterans of more than two dozen cruises, for work and for pleasure, we’ve learned a few things about the art of cruising. We’ve experienced the bad (sailing in circles off the coast of Spain since it was too rough to land in Mallorca) and the good (cruising past sparkling Paris after dark on the Seine). If you’re a never-ever who’s leaning toward the maybe-wannabe camp, or simply cruise-curious, you’ve got questions. We’ve got answers, thanks to Colleen McDaniel, editor in chief of Cruise Critic (www.cruisecritic.com), the online cruise reviews website. Here’s what to know before booking a cruise, and things we wish we’d known before we sailed.
Not long ago, a cruise arrived in Boston instead of the Bahamas. Amazingly, some folks were miffed. Does this kind of thing happen often?
While itinerary adjustments do happen, a significantly altered itinerary — like the Bahamas to New England in the winter — is extremely rare. Most times if an itinerary requires an adjustment, due to inclement weather or other instances, it will come in the form of a replaced port or extra sea day.
How far in advance should I book?
If you have specific needs or interests — strict vacation dates, specific cabin categories, or you want a certain ship — book as early as possible. You’ll be more likely to get exactly what you want. If you wait too late, those preferences may no longer be available. That’s particularly true now, as cruising is seeing a huge resurgence. Ships are sailing at — or sometimes above — capacity, and demand is through the roof.
If your plans are fluid, and you’re willing to wait a bit to see if fares fall, booking last-minute may deliver some lower base fares. Some lines will lower their prices when the sail date is three months away or less, to fill any cabins that are still available.
Any other advice for getting the best (cheapest) deal?
The period between when a cruise first goes on sale and about a year out from sailing is considered booking “early.” Fares at that time will generally be enticing, and lines may offer incentives like onboard credit, cabin upgrades, or complimentary beverage packages. Even if the fare isn’t base bottom, those incentives help you save a bundle on the overall cost of your cruise.
Another time to find added incentives are during traditional sale dates like Black Friday and Cyber Monday, plus a period known in the industry as Wave Season, from January through March. Lines offer deals and incentives across the board at this time, so you can shop and compare options all at once.
What about shoulder seasons?
Shoulder-season cruises will absolutely deliver more competitive fares. [For example, when the kids are in school and demand is lower.] But sometimes those lower fares are also due to potentially unfavorable experiences — whether it’s Europe in November [see Mallorca, above], or the Caribbean during hurricane season. Check out our guide, the Best Time to Go on a Cruise, for the best time to visit various cruise destinations across the globe.
Is it worth it to spring for the best cabin one can afford, or go for the cheapest cabin available?
The most expensive and the cheapest cabins book the fastest. There are benefits to both. Oftentimes the higher cabin categories, especially suites, come with benefits like access to special restaurants, exclusive pools, and so on. Having that experience is worth the splurge for some travelers.
If you’re looking for more space, or want a cabin with a window or balcony, keep those factors in mind when selecting a cabin, so you’ll be comfortable onboard.
But some people really don’t care about cabin type. They don’t plan to spend much time in their cabin, or they’d prefer to spend their money elsewhere on their cruise, such as specialty restaurants or shore excursions. If that’s you, booking an inside cabin may be a perfect fit.
Is there an advantage to booking with a cruise specialist?
A cruise vacation has many moving parts. It can be a complicated purchase for casual cruisers. Booking with a verified cruise specialist will help navigate that. They can also identify special savings and cost-savings measures. Working with these specialists is generally free-of-charge for travelers — the cruise lines cover the cost of commission.
Also, they provide a trusted pair of hands on the ground. Many times, it’s not just the cruise you’re booking, but also airfare and hotel reservations. Cruise specialists can assist with those bookings, and also assist with delayed or canceled flights and the trickle-down effect of those travel disruptions.
If you tend to get seasick, is an ocean cruise a bad idea?
Most large, ocean-going ships have stabilizers that help to provide the smoothest cruise possible. So, seasickness likely won’t be an issue on a large ship. Cabins located in the middle of the ship tend to be best for the seasick-prone, and outside or balcony cabins offer a way to steady yourself with the horizon or fresh air. Beyond that, look for itineraries with a limited number of sea days. This will mean more time in port, where you’re able to ground yourself.
Should one sign up for shore excursions offered by the cruise line, or DIY?
There are advantages to both. Cruisers often share that shore excursions offered by the cruise line are more expensive, but these [tour operators] are fully vetted by the cruise line. They are trusted entities. And if your ship-sponsored excursion runs late, the cruise line will wait for you to return to the ship. If you book an independent excursion that misses the boarding cutoff, the ship will leave without you.
Conversely, independently-booked excursions can be less costly, and offer a wider array of options. Sometimes they offer a more local touch, too. Many cruisers use our Cruise Critic Roll Calls to book independent excursions with fellow travelers who will be on their cruise, to share the cost. Independent excursions also might mean fewer people participating. Sometimes, ship-offered excursions mean big groups of people, which can be frustrating to some.
Asking for those who aren’t into wearing gowns and tuxedos — are formal nights still a part of the cruise experience?
Good news: The modern cruise experience reflects the interests of today’s traveler. That means many of those more “traditional” cruise elements are gone, or are no longer mandatory. We’re seeing lines become more relaxed about formal nights, either making them voluntary or removing them entirely. And many lines now offer flexible dining, a concept first introduced by Norwegian. You are no longer required to sit with strangers, you can choose where and when you dine.
There are also many more specialty restaurants outside of the main dining room, so dining options are far more varied than on yesteryear’s cruise ships. Hate lines? Look for smaller cruise ships. Want to sail without kids? Consider a line like Viking or Virgin, both of which are expressly for 18-year-olds and above.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at email@example.com