For many people, the 1970s show "The Love Boat", which was filmed on a real Princess cruise ship, along with the pioneering Carnival Cruise Line "Fun Ship" commercials, represented the first glimpse of the world of cruise travel. If you were intrigued, you were definitely not alone! What other industry has enjoyed a 900% growth in the number of passengers over the past 20 years? It seems that no matter what happens in the travel industry overall, cruising is booming!
According to the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), in 1999, 5.4 million North Americans cruised on ships owned by U.S.-based cruise lines, a figure that's up 7 percent over the previous year. Another 500,000 sailed with cruise lines not based in the United States. The cruise industry has responded to vacationers' obvious approval of their product. There are currently dozens of cruise lines, more than 150 passenger cruise ships of all sizes (up to 100,000 gross tons!) and more than $24 billion has been committed to building 60 new ships by 2004. In the 1970s -- the beginning of cruising's heyday -- no one would have believed that the future would hold ships that carry as many as 3,000 people, cruise at speeds of 27 knots per hour and offer features such as 24-hour Internet cafes, non-smoking environments, rock-climbing walls, skating rinks and virtual reality centers! But this is all part of cruising today!
If you're one of the shrinking number of Americans who hasn't tried cruising and you don't know what all the fuss is about, picture this: You arrive at the ship, where you are shown to your nicely appointed stateroom. Your bags are delivered and you unpack -- once for the entire vacation! Then you wander down to the dining room for dinner, where you produce no cash and sign no tab because meals are included in the price of your cruise. After dinner, you take in a Broadway revue in the ship's showroom -- free of charge, of course. That kind of inclusive packaging, so appealing to people, has been copied by resorts around the globe.
Now is a great time to learn more about cruising, since February is National Cruise Vacation Month. CLIA, the professional organization representing cruise lines, is sending teams of ship captains, cruise directors and hotel directors on media treks to cities across the country to offer an avid public a glimpse into life on a passenger cruise ship. In this edition of How Stuff Works, we'll tell you everything you need to know to help you choose the perfect cruise for you and your family and friends. We'll talk about destinations (the number one factor affecting people's choice of cruising), the various ships and lines, accommodation levels, prices, seasickness, excursions (tours in the ports the ships visit), what to wear and all about shipboard culture. We'll even tell you how to handle it if you're invited to the captain's table for dinner! (First lesson: NEVER call a ship a "boat"!)
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!).
What Are Some of the Hot Destinations?
For years, cruising was equated with tropical climates and long hours spent tanning on the deck. The Caribbean remains one of the most popular cruise destinations for Americans, especially those who live on the East Coast and have easy access to the region. (Most Caribbean cruises sail from Florida ports.) But as Caribbean ports, especially Nassau, become more crowded, cruisers and cruise lines are looking more closely at other destinations. The Southern Caribbean, with less-crowded ports like sleepy St. Lucia, isn't a regular offering of all cruise lines. However, that's changing, so enjoy the relatively small crowds while you can.
Other popular warm-weather destinations: Hawaii is a favorite, especially with West Coast vacationers. American Hawaii Cruises, whose SS Independence is the only remaining American flagship at sea, offers three- to seven-day cruises that visit several of the islands. This offers an alternative to hopping the islands by plane!
In addition, there are cruises to Bermuda from East Coast ports, including Charleston, S.C., Savannah, Ga., Boston and New York. (Note: Since it takes about two days each way to Bermuda from the East Coast, a one-week cruise will include only two days or so in port; the rest will be spent at sea.) South and Central America (especially Mexico, the Amazon River region, Rio de Janeiro and Costa Rica), the Mediterranean (especially the Greek Isles and the French, Italian and Spanish Rivieras are other sunny destinations cruisers enjoy.
A newer hotspot that is becoming more accessible and affordable is Tahiti and her islands (tourism folks there believe this phrase has more name recognition than French Polynesia). Renaissance Cruises, an upscale line for adults only, in the past year has positioned two of its newest ships, the R3 and the R4, to the region for year-round service. The mid-size ships sail from Papeete, Tahiti, to the beautiful islands of Moorea, Bora Bora, Huahine and Raiatea and back to Papeete. The smaller and more expensive luxury vessel, the Paul Gauguin, launched by Radisson Seven Seas, also sails the islands year-round. (Check out their Web sites for a better feel for the differences in ships.) Other ships visit Tahiti, which has been compared to the Hawaii of 30 years ago, as they circumnavigate the globe on world cruises. French Polynesia, along with other South Pacific islands where the year 2000 arrived early, was among the most popular millennium celebration sites on Dec. 31, 1999. Other more exotic tropical favorites include the Galapagos Islands off South America and the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean off the East African coast.
Some popular itineraries focus on cruising famous rivers, such as the Nile in Egypt (a trip not to be missed!) and the Amazon in South America. The cool thing about river cruising is that you get a better feel for the people and what their lives are like because you can see them living life from the deck or from your stateroom window! Vessels sailing the Nile are, by necessity, small, and are available in a variety of prices and types. (U.S.-based Sonesta has two ships on the Nile offering amenities similar to those offered by mainstream cruising.) Ships of all sizes offer Amazon River cruises. Here's a tip: smaller ships are better able to anchor in the river and send passengers off in canoes and riverboats to explore the various tributaries and villages. Big ships don't generally have that luxury.
If you prefer cool weather cruising, a lovely way to celebrate autumn is a cruise of Canada and New England. (Princess offers terrific cruises, often on the Royal Princess, which was the first ship to offer the popular balconies over most of the staterooms.) For a chilly adventure, try the glaciers and fjords of Alaska, Norway or a new favorite, the Patagonia region of Chile and Argentina. Cruising in Alaska was pioneered by Princess and Holland America and these lines still know it and do it best. In the past five years or so, they've been joined by so many ships from other lines that the streets of small Alaskan towns like Juneau are swarming with cruise passengers. So, if you'd like to take a river raft ride through the bald eagle preserves, fly via helicopter to a huge, icy glacier or enjoy some of the northern state's other natural resources, go sooner, rather than later, since it's only going to get more crowded.
Many cruises to Norway depart from London and visit several charming Norwegian ports, such as Stavanger and Bergen. The "new Alaska" for cruising is Patagonia, which is considerably wilder and less developed than its U.S. and European counterparts. Royal Olympic offers a 14-day cruise that sails from Puerto Mont, Chile to several Chilean and Argentinian ports, ending in the "Paris of the South," Buenos Aires. The Patagonia cruise offers excursions out to the region's many beautiful national parks and glaciers and close encounters with in-your-face wildlife, including penguins, llamas, sea lions and brown foxes. It's also a bird-watchers' heaven -- Audubon Club members on the Odysseus stayed up on deck all day, every day during their cruise of Patagonia!
Cruise destinations have become ever more exotic as cruisers have expressed their interest in going farther off the beaten path. For example, cruises of Southeast Asia are in demand; most now include calls at Vietnam, which, 20-plus years after the Vietnam War, seems to hold special interest for U.S. tourists. Cruise traffic in the region also includes a stop at Hong Kong, which, almost three years after it reverted to Chinese rule, is undergoing interesting times that tourists seem eager to experience. Cruises along the coasts of Africa are immensely popular (many include optional land safaris before or after the cruise). (See How a Safari Works for more info.)
Europe is always popular, especially with people who like port-intensive cruises. Depending upon current events, cruise lines are sometimes forced to alter schedules to keep passengers safe. For example, due to recent fighting in the Balkans, some lines removed lovely Dubrovnik from their European itineraries, and many changed their homeport from Venice to Genoa to take cruisers farther away from the fighting. By mid 1999, several cruise lines had added Dubrovnik back to their schedules. The lesson here is to read about what's going on in countries you'd like to visit before you book your cruise. (Check with the U.S. State Department to see if any warnings are in place for your destination countries.) Remember, too, that cruise lines are going to err on the side of caution and will change itineraries as needed. (This also holds true in case of inclement weather!)
What Is Shipboard Life Like?
Activities -- Remember the old news footage that showed elderly people playing sedate games of shuffleboard on the deck? Forget that! Cruise veterans will tell you that, not only will you never be bored, but you won't be able to participate in all the activities offered on the ship! You'll probably need a vacation to recover from your vacation if you do even half of what's offered -- dance classes, casino lessons, shopping, cabaret shows, bridge, spa treatments (massages, manicures, pedicures, facials), health clubs, wine tastings, golf chipping, skeet shooting, cooking demonstrations, ping pong, fashion shows, galley (the kitchen!) and bridge (where the navigators work!) tours, lectures, crafts, movies, reading (in the library, on the deck, in your cabin!) and eating at least six times a day. (That's if you skip a couple of opportunities to chow down!) If you're the energetic type and plan to race around while in port, you might want to take it easy on the deck with a book and a cold drink when the ship's at sea!
Entertainment -- Entertainment varies from one cruise line to another, since they, like all businesses, have different ideas about how they want to spend their money. For example, Princess, Carnival and Royal Caribbean International, as well as Disney Cruises, present major musical dance productions with glitzy costumes and scenery. Other lines offer scaled-down cabaret type shows; some of the most innovative shows are being done by talented young performers on the Silver Wind. Some lines bring name performers on for shows, but these occasions are usually on holiday or inaugural cruises. A newer development in ship entertainment -- one that cruise directors say passengers want -- is classical music. Several upscale ships offer at least one classical act per cruise. Other standard shipboard entertainment includes jugglers, magicians and musicians. (Why magicians? Cruise directors say they're less controversial than comics and appeal to a broad audience.)
Theme cruises -- In keeping with their philosophy of offering something-for-everyone, the cruise industry thrives on theme cruises. You like Elvis, NFL football, chocolate, Star Trek, opera, whale watching, Cajun food? There's a cruise for you! (Hey, how about a HowStuffWorks cruise? Stay tuned!) Most of these theme cruises are listed in cruise line brochures or you can ask your cruise consultant to check on them.
Meeting People -- One of the most pleasurable aspects of cruising is meeting new and interesting people -- both the hard-working ship's staff and your fellow passengers. Ask the staff about their homelands and families -- they'll appreciate it! On most cruise ships, you'll be assigned to a regular table for meals (you can request early seating or late seating, about two hours later). If you're lucky, you'll have a tableful of new friends. If you're not so lucky, discreetly -- and after that first meal -- ask the maitre 'd hotel for reassignment. Or, take a night off from the dining room to eat in one of the alternative restaurants (they're just like small restaurants, operating with reservations and on a first-come-first-served basis. Some veteran cruisers really like the all-inclusiveness offered by upscale lines, such as Silversea and Seabourn and find it a nice social plus. On these top-of-the-line cruises, all drinks (soft and hard) are included. This means that new friends who want to meet for a drink before dinner don't have to take turns grabbing for the check. (It's already taken care of in the price of their cruise!)
If you're lucky enough to snag an invitation to the captain's table for dinner (and each cruise line has different criteria for selecting the captain's tablemates), remember the following bits of shipboard etiquette:
Attire -- If it's formal night, dress accordingly. (On most ships, men can get away with dark suits and some ships even have tuxedo rental on board.)
Follow the captain's lead -- Don't drink your wine or begin dinner until he gives a toast or a "bon appetit" indicating that it's okay to begin.
Ix-nay on the Avel-tray ories-stay -- Don't bore the poor captain (who has to sit through these dinners on every single cruise!) with long, drawn-out stories about your travels. Remember, he's been everywhere we've been -- probably 10 times over! He might actually find it refreshing to be asked about his favorite destinations.
Be a polite dinner partner -- Make an effort to speak equally with dinner partners on your right and your left (even if one is way more interesting than the other!).
Is a Cruise Ship Like a Hotel?
It's no accident that many cruise lines advertise their vessels as "floating hotels." Most mainstream ships offer U.S.-style accommodations, with tasteful (or sometimes not!) decor, televisions and room service. However, unless you can afford a suite, get used to the idea that your stateroom, or cabin, is not going to be palatial in size (think more in terms of about 150 sq.ft.). Some of the older ships, such as the Stella Solaris and the Enchanted Isle, have the largest staterooms (but not generally the most luxurious). If you want a sitting area or a balcony (the single most popular ship feature with cruisers today), you're going to pay more. However, if you're going on a long trip, or if you get claustrophobic, it's probably worth the extra money. Windows are replacing portholes in a big way on new ships, so be sure to ask your travel agent about that. (Also, if the view is important to you, make sure yours isn't partially or completely obstructed by lifeboats!)
Again, unless you're traveling on a newer ship or have a suite, queen-size beds are a rare commodity. On some ships, singles can be pushed together; on others, they're bolted to the floor. Some rooms have two beds on the floor and two bunks above that fold into the wall. Try to work out your sleeping arrangements in advance with your cruise consultant!
Shipboard features that always draw comedians' best lines are the very loud, pressurized toilets and the doorway ledges that require passengers to step up and over or else suffer the consequences (smashed toes!). Other little things you'll quickly become acclimated to include weighted chairs -- they're a little tougher to move around in the lounge!
One of the first things you'll need to learn in order to find your way around your ship is the proper use of the terms, starboard and port. Starboard refers to the right side of the ship (when you're facing forward); the port side is the left side of the ship. You'll also hear forward and aft, which refers to the front and back of the ship.
The public areas on ships -- show lounges, auditoriums, lecture halls -- are usually roomy and attractive. On most ships, there are plenty of little nooks and crannies where you can sit quietly and enjoy the view or read a book -- you just have to find them!
What About Seasickness?
This is one of those questions that you, as an individual, have to consider. A clue that you might be prone to seasickness is that you become nauseated in a car or airplane or sailboat. If you're concerned that seasickness might be a problem for you, check out your itinerary, looking closely at geographic factors that could influence the motion of the ocean. (Some spots are known to be a little rougher, like the cruise through the Strait of Magellan and that stretch of ocean between Manila in the Philippines and Hong Kong.) However, that doesn't account for those unforeseen occasions when the ship passes through a storm and becomes a little rocky for walking and dancing. Here are a few anti-nausea aids and old sailor's cures:
The old stand-by antihistamines, such as Dramamine and Bonine. These tend to make you drowsy but are better than the alternative. The key is to take the tablets BEFORE you're seasick! Once the nausea hits, they don't do much good. (Most ships offer free tablets at the reception desk.)
Some cruisers swear by the gray, stretchy wrist bands, made by SeaBand or TravelGarde. These place nodes at acupuncture points to relieve the symptoms of nausea. Some people are very successful with them; others say they get no benefits. (It'd be nice if they'd make these things in fashion colors!)
Also not pretty are the round cardboard ear patches, which were for several years removed from the U.S. market. The patches generally contain about 1.5 mg. of scopolomine, which reportedly reduces nausea by suppressing a reflex that minimizes the distance between input perceived by the inner ear and visual input. Each patch, worn behind the ear, lasts about three days. Side effects include blurred vision and headaches. Consult with your doctor, since these are by prescription only in the United States.
Some of the "folk" and nontraditional cures even work. Ginger root, which can be bought in any drug store or health and vitamin store, is a popular treatment. And one ship captain's cure-all: eat crackers, which are salty, and apple slices, which are acidic, and the combination acts as a calming agent in your gut. He also says to avoid your natural inclination to drink soda or ginger ale when you're nauseated. "It's just more in there to slosh around," he grinned.
Everybody knows it's folly to stare at those big waves! Look at the horizon instead, experts say.
If all else fails, you can always visit the ship's doctor for a super-duper antihistamine injection that works more quickly and effectively than a pill. You'll have to pay the doctor and you'll probably sleep for a day or so, but if you've ever been seasick, you know that it's worth it!
How Much Does a Cruise Cost?
Of course, there are millionaires who cruise, but you don't have to be one to enjoy a wonderful vacation at sea! Many people don't realize how economical a cruise can be. Cruises start at as little as $100 per person per day (double occupancy), which wouldn't pay for a night at most land resorts or hotels. When you consider that all your meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, afternoon tea, midnight buffet) and entertainment (shows, movies, dances and lectures) are also included, it becomes a terrific deal! A one-week cruise generally ranges in price from $600 up into the thousands. (Pay attention -- some of those higher prices may include soft drinks, alcoholic beverages, airfare, port charges and excursions -- all the things that cost extra on most ships!)
Once upon a time, cruise line rates were structured so that last-minute-Joe could scoop up a still-vacant cabin for a fraction of what passengers who planned ahead paid. That became a public relations problem for cruise lines. So the new rate structure, now in place for a few years, rewards those who plan ahead six months or a year with discounts or shipboard credits. This is also a winning strategy for cruise lines -- ships are filling up more quickly! Also remember that, since repeat cruisers are the lifeblood of most lines, the more you cruise with a line you like, the better your incentives will be.
Make sure you know what your cruise includes. Ask about tipping policies. Since many cruise ship cabin stewards/stewardesses, waiters, busboys and other service staff are paid small base salaries and are dependent on tips to make a living wage, it's important that you know your ship's system. Except for top-of-the-line cruise ships in which tipping is not allowed (or is included), most ships recommend per diem tips per person, usually adding up to $9 to $12 per day per person; a recent trend, in light of more restaurant-style open seating arrangements for meals, is for ship department heads to pool tips and distribute them fairly among staff. In keeping with the cash-less system, tipping is done in person on the last day of the cruise -- not all along. Do what you will with the ship's guidelines; however, be fair and forgiving of little imperfections. Don't ever stiff them -- they work hard!
All cruise lines offer excursions in the port cities visited by the ship. You can go to a cruise talk or lecture and learn about the various places you'll be visiting and then decide what you'd like to do at each stop. The cost of excursions is rising; cruise lines say they don't have any control over that since they must work with local vendors, who set their own rates. You may not need to pay for a tour -- you might be able to do it on your own. Investigate and ask the shore excursions staff about ground transportation for passengers not going on group tours. However, you'll find in some more exotic locales that it's best to avail yourself of the excursion transportation. (For example, you'd have difficulty getting from the port of Kusadasi, Turkey, to the ruins of Ephesus (40 minutes away) on your own. If you were able to arrange transportation, it'd cost a fortune! So go with the tour -- sometimes local guides are wonderful!) These tours range in price from $25 or $30 (per person) up. (Hint: if part of your excursion includes travel by airplane or helicopter, you'll pay more!)
If you want to take your family on a cruise, inquire about lines that offer special deals for children. American Hawaii just announced free passage for children traveling with full-fare-paying parents. And many lines offer special add-on rates for parents who are brave enough to cruise four-to-a-cabin with their kids. In today's market, a family of four could probably take a one-week Caribbean cruise for about $2,200, give or take a couple hundred dollars. And remember, that includes food and entertainment for four for a week!
Most cruise lines offer add-on airfare from major gateway cities. You may or may not be able to beat their rates (check some of the low-rate airfare Web sites). It's not necessary that you travel on the same flights with other passengers, but there's one good reason to do so, especially if you're traveling great distances: cruise lines know which flights contain their passengers and they're more likely to hold the ship for a late flight for a group of their guests. If you travel independently, they don't necessarily know your arrangements and you're on your own as far as making it to the ship on time. (If you're late, there are often ways to catch up with your ship in the next port, but they're expensive and disruptive and you don't want to try them out!)
At each destination around the world, there's high season (the most popular time to go) and off season. Obviously, this affects prices. Most cruise brochures print high season and economy season rates and schedules, so you can see the difference. One more word of advice -- don't pay "sticker price" without checking with a cruise specialist to see what else is out there. Travel agents get regular notifications of empty berths and special deals, information they'll gladly share with you.
When Should I Go?
The best time to go depends on where you're going and what you're doing! Check out seasonal and calendar factors (for example, when it's winter in the United States, it's summertime in South America). Of course, some cruises operate on short, specific seasons. These include Alaska, Norway and Patagonia, which are virtually inaccessible during the winter. (Visit Norway during June, July and August, and Alaska and Patagonia from late May to September.) If you plan to spend much of your time in outdoor activities, choose the best season for that. If you just want to wander in and out of museums in Europe, perfect weather might not be necessary for a great vacation. In addition, remember that the perfect time for your family to travel (during spring break or Christmas vacation) is also the ideal time for everybody else to travel! Plan ahead!
Whatever you decide, bear in mind that your mode of travel is a ship. Cruise veterans know that there's a very different feel to cold-weather cruises, where passengers don't spend too much time on deck, and warmer cruises, where the deck is a lively hub. It's something to consider when you imagine your perfect cruise!