CONSIDERING TAKING A CRUISE FOR your next vacation? You’re not alone. According to the Cruise Line Industry Association, 25.8 million people cruised in 2017. But with more than 50 cruise lines to choose from, each with its own personality, making the right choice presents a dizzying challenge, particularly if you’ve never cruised before.
“First-time passengers often have preconceived notions about what they will and won’t like,” says Carmen Roig, senior vice president of marketing and sales, Crystal Cruises. Research supports Roig’s experience: A recent study by CLIA indicated many services and activities clients deem important, such as child care, are underutilized, while onboard entertainment and shows, a deciding factor for only about 36 percent of passengers, see around 70 percent of a ship’s guests by the end of the cruise. So what’s the best way to determine which cruise line is right for you? Experts say once you’ve decided on a budget and a destination, look through each line’s specific offerings to build a profile of what’s important and what’s not. Once you’ve narrowed your choices down to two or three lines, sit down with an experienced travel advisor who can fine-tune your notes with real-life experience. “A client recently booked herself in top-tier lodging in a middle-market cruise line,” said Sandra Sparks, advisor, Pro Travel International, a Virtuoso-affiliated agency located in Tarzana, California. “She’d assumed that her big suite would come with priority boarding, but it didn’t, and she was disappointed. A travel advisor would have known that and steered her to a different line.”
Michela Bisciglia, travel planner, Specialty Cruise and Villas, part of the Virtuoso network of travel agencies located in Gig Harbor, Washington, says determining where you land on the topic of inclusions — the activities and amenities included in the cruise fare — should be among the first things to consider in choosing a cruise line. “Some clients love the idea of not getting a bill at the end of their vacation or being able to join friends for a drink and not worry about who will pay the check at the end of the night,” she said. “Others feel like an all-inclusive cruise forces them to pay for everyone else’s splurges and activities. Once you add it all up, the cost is really about the same, so it really boils down to preference. Value is absolutely subjective.”
Lauren Frye, who works with Scenic Cruises, suggests looking at how much freedom you want or need. “Included excursions make it easy to get out and explore a place without adding to the cost of your vacation,” she said. “But if you’d rather spend your days on your own, look for a cruise line that facilitates individual exploration as well. On Scenic Cruises, for instance, bikes are free and available. If you’d rather not participate in the tours, they’re a great way to see a town on your own.”
Before tossing a cruise line overboard because you don’t want or need planned excursions, take a hard look at the destination and the included excursions offered. Some, like a behind-the-scenes tour of a Sri Lankan tea plantation (Regent Seven Seas) or a meal in the home of a local family, offered by river cruise lines including Viking, AmaWaterways and Uniworld, are challenging if not impossible to pull together on your own. Check out where you’ll be docked, too. River cruise vessels are generally small enough to dock in town, making solo expeditions easy; oceangoing ships often must utilize ports located miles from the center of town.
Ship size can also steer you toward a specific line. Cruisers looking for mega-fun should consider Norwegian and Royal Caribbean, who sail some of the largest ships at sea. These floating cities, along with ships under the Carnival, Celebrity and Disney flags, are also top choices for kids, thanks to activities like giant water slides, zip lines and surf simulators. But you can have a luxury experience aboard a large ship, too. Cunard and Princess both sail large, amenity-laden vessels known for elegant service; another approach is to book a concierge- level suite on lines like Disney, Norwegian and MSC, which offer exclusive access to features like private pools, relaxation areas and restaurants but with full access to all the fun. Multigenerational travelers should consider this strategy — it’s an easy way for family members at different ends of the financial spectrum to travel together.
One of the best features about cruising is the chance to experience a number of locales without having to pack up each day. But being on a cruise also means sticking to an itinerary. Some cruise lines travel by night, giving passengers full days to discover each city. Others allow passengers to see a city after dark by planning late departures or even overnight stays. As you compare brands, be sure the time spent in each destination matches the way you hope to enjoy it. Azamara Cruises, for instance, organizes overnight, off-ship excursions that allow passengers on various voyages to take in a safari, tour the Kremlin in Moscow and visit remote areas of Myanmar; Royal Caribbean and Celebrity (also known for its overnights in port, particularly in the Caribbean) offer similar programs. Even if your ship doesn’t offer late- night enrichment, if there’s a city you’re keen on exploring, make sure the itinerary offered includes enough time there.
In rare cases an itinerary will be so special only a small number of brands make that particular voyage. Norwegian Cruise Line is famous for its cruise around Hawai’i which begins and ends in the islands instead of a port like Los Angeles or Vancouver; CroisiEurope uses a specially built ship to sail the Loire River in France and is one of the few lines to offer a cruise that explores the Croatian archipelago. In Norway, Hurtigruten stops at dozens of tiny towns from Bergen to the Norway/Russia border. Passengers can disembark anywhere along the way and re-embark (on another ship) when they’re ready to continue their journey.
Adventurers with a bent toward luxury will want to look at the new class of expedition ships by Ponant, Silversea, Celebrity and Seabourn, all of which deliver a 5-star experience to cruisers looking to hike, swim, trek and climb in remote locales like the Galápagos Islands and Antarctica. “People travel today with a sense of purpose,” says Navin Sawhney, CEO, Americas, Ponant. “Expedition cruising draws those who have never considered a cruise.”
As you consider various cruise brands, don’t forget loyalty programs, which offer access to exclusive onboard events as well as shipboard credit, cabin upgrades, booking discounts, priority boarding and other perks. Carnival’s program even includes kids.
Cruise ships of old were known for stuffy dining rooms serving uninspired cuisine, midnight buffets and watery drinks. Today’s ships offer a huge variety of quality dining experiences ranging from the extravagant — Oceania’s new Dom Perignon tasting menu — to the flat-out fun of kids dining with Disney characters. Flexibility is a key question: Some cruise lines offer set seating times for dinner; others allow passengers to dine when and where they prefer. Foodies will want to check out specialty dining options that include well-known American brands like Johnny Rockets (Royal Caribbean) and Guy’s Burger Joint (Carnival) to fleet-specific restaurants created in partnership with celebrity chefs such as Nobu Matsuhisa (Crystal Cruises), Jacques Pepin (Oceania), Thomas Keller (Seabourn), Jamie Oliver (Royal Caribbean) and Daniel Boulud (Celebrity Cruises). Prices vary: Guy’s Burger Joint, Nobu’s Umi Uma and Pepin’s Red Ginger are complimentary; others may pack a hefty supplement or limit you to one visit per cruise.
The good news: Even if everything isn’t perfect on the line you choose, you’re bound to have fun. Cruise ships make vacation easy and let you see a bit of the world along the way.
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