How to Pick a Cruise: 7 Tips to Keep You Afloat

How to Pick a Cruise: 7 Tips to Keep You Afloat

Do you want a big ship or a small one?

  • The size of the ship may be the biggest factor in the type of cruise experience you have. Today’s cruise ships come in all sizes, from massive mega-ships that carry thousands of passengers, down to small expedition vessels or yacht-style ships that may carry fewer than 100. Each size of ship has its pros and cons. The largest ships—like a floating resort—offer a huge array of dining and entertainment options, and lots of onboard activities. They can be great for multi-generational family trips, because there’s plenty to occupy passengers of all ages. The downside is the potential for long lines for the buffet, disembarking for shore excursions, and so on, but the cruise lines are pretty adept at managing the crowds. The smallest ships offer a much more intimate and personal experience. You’ll definitely get to know your fellow passengers, and you’ll rarely have to wait for anything. Onboard activities, though, will be much more limited and will generally tend toward the intellectual. Often these cruises will have a distinct focus, such as exploring the culture or wildlife of the destination. A midsize ship (1,000 – 2,000 passengers) might be a great compromise, with lots of activities and entertainment, but less time waiting in line for shore excursions, dining, and so on. But they may not offer all the latest bells and whistles.

Do you want an action-packed itinerary, or one with more days to relax at sea?

  • Some destinations stop at a new port just about every day, like lots of Mediterranean cruises, while others may spend a few to several days at sea. If you’re looking to visit as many different places as possible, you’ll probably want as many stops as possible, but depending on the size of the ship, that can be exhausting. If you’re looking for a more relaxing vacation, days spent sailing between destinations give you time to enjoy the ship’s activities and amenities, get pampered at the spa, or just relax.

Do you want to get dressed up?

  • Formal night is a cruising tradition that harkens back to the golden days of the transatlantic passage, when passengers “dressed” for dinner each night. Most ships have at least one special formal night per cruise. For some cruisers, dressing up in swanky clothes for an elegant dinner is a highlight of the cruise experience. Others may want to skip the fuss altogether and opt for a cruise line that doesn’t offer a formal night. Remember that even if your cruise has a formal night, you’re not required to take part, and if you’re on a less formal ship, no one will object of you dress up nicely for dinner! What may matter more in terms of dress code is the everyday attire that’s expected. Small expedition vessels are typically very informal, and the largest ships offer something for everyone, while more upscale cruise lines may expect “country-club casual” attire on the ship.

What do you like to do for entertainment?

  • In this era of ever-bigger ships, you can find just about any kind of nightlife you like, from movies and stage shows, to casinos, dance clubs and karaoke. You won’t be bored during the day, either. When you’re not on shore, larger ships offer an array of classes and lectures, cooking demonstrations, beer and wine tastings and more. Kids and teens are catered for with special clubs and spaces giving them a space to play and hang with their peers. Smaller ships with less space tend to focus on more intellectual diversions—enrichment lectures, card & board games, and the like. Often, they offer a robust library, as well.

Do you get seasick?

  • If you’re worried about seasickness, the size of the ship and the destination can make a huge difference. Larger ships are equipped with stabilizers to minimize side-to-side motion in all but the most severe weather, while smaller ships tend to move around more. Choosing a destination is important, too. Cruises that stick closer to shore, like the Mediterranean or Alaska’s Inside Passage, rarely enter the open ocean where wind and swells are stronger. Some areas are notorious for rough water—the Drake Passage on Antarctica cruises, Queen Charlotte Strait in Alaska, and the Bay of Biscay, for example—but the time of year can also be a factor. Caribbean cruises are usually fairly calm, but during hurricane season, tropical storms can make voyages rougher. If you are sailing where there’s a potential for rough seas, your cabin location can help. The most stable part of the ship is in the middle of the ship near the waterline. Bonus? Those are often the least expensive cabins, as well!

Are you a night owl or early to bed?

  • Most cruise ships offer plenty to keep passengers occupied after the sun goes down. On larger ships, discos, stage shows, comedy shows, casinos, and a variety of lounges and bars ensure that no one need be bored. If you’re not a night owl, though, you’ll want to pick a cabin away from elevators that can be busy late into the night, and make sure your cabin isn’t beneath a dance floor. Some cruise lines are known for their active nightlife and party atmosphere—Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity and Norwegian come to mind—while others tend to attract passengers who turn in relatively early. Mainstream cruise lines usually offer the most variety, while luxury and niche vessels generally offer more sophisticated (and sedate) options.

What’s your budget?

  • There’s literally a cruise for just about any vacation budget. The length of the cruise, the destination, the type of ship, and your stateroom category all play a part in the cost of the cruise. Once you’ve decided what kind of cruise experience you’re looking for, there are strategies you can use to get the most for your money. Shorter cruises on larger ships can be very cost-effective, sometimes less than $100 per person per night (a great deal, when you consider all the food and entertainment that’s included). If you’re leaning toward a luxury cruise line, taking a shorter cruise or traveling during the off season can save you some money. Or, choose a less expensive cabin, and spend more time enjoying the ship’s amenities and public areas.
  • Whichever type of cruise you pick, make sure you know what’s included, and what you’ll pay extra for. In almost all cases, you’ll have to pay for guided shore excursions, and things like spa treatments, onboard shopping, etc. Meals are generally included, except for some specialty dining options, but alcoholic drinks generally are not. What can surprise first-time cruisers, though, is that soft drinks (sodas) cost extra, too. Special offers from cruise lines often include on-board credit, which you can spend for just about anything on board the ship, and sometimes things like beverage packages or prepaid gratuities, which can save you quite a bit.Finally, consider costs that aren’t part of the cruise cost, like airfare to and from your port of departure; a hotel the night before your cruise departs; and of course, your trip insurance.