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Considering A Cruise Ship Vacation? What Consumers Need To Know

It's the middle of Winter, and you are probably tired of the cold, the snow, or both. At this time of year, many people consider warm weather vacations.Last week, a friend asked about cruise ship vacations:

"Do you have a travel agent you use for cruises? A group of us who are turning 60 this year are thinking of taking a cruise to celebrate. Maybe a repositioning cruise. Are there suites for 5 people? Any advice is most welcome."

Cruise ship vacations are popular. A cruise is a good way to sample several destination ports, and return to the ports you like for a longer, land-based visit. You can board a cruise ship near where you live, or sail from a popular travel destination.

According to the industry group Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), about 20 million consumers went on cruise ship vacations globally during 2012.There are about 60 cruise lines with 400 total ships. The industry generated about 356,000 jobs paying $17.4 billion in wages to American workers.

It's not just more people cruising. Experienced cruise customers also book cruise itineraries with longer durations. The CLIA surveyed travel agents and 37 percent reported an increase in books of longer cruises (e.g., 14 to 100 days duration). If you have the time and money, several cruise lines offer itineraries of 30 days or longer.

I was happy to answer my friend's questions. Nobody wants to overpay or have their wallet "mugged" during a vacation. My wife and I have sailed on 22 cruise ship vacations to many parts of the world. For several years, i ran a cruise group of interracial couples and families. At a major creative advertising agency, I worked on web projects for a cruise line client. Interesting publications include the book, "Devils On The Deep Blue Sea," a history of the cruise industry, and industry magazines such as Porthole and Cruise Travel. So, I know the industry well and feel pretty qualified to give advice and answer my friend's questions.

1. Your interests. Decide what type of vacation you and your group like. Some people like as much beach time as possible. Others like golf. Others like Eco-tours. Others like active sports, such as hiking, bicycling, surfing, snorkeling, and scuba diving. Some like motorized excursions including off-road vehicles. Pick a cruise line and itinerary that fits your interests. Royal Caribbean focuses upon active sports.

2. Themed cruises. If you group has a specific interest, there is often an itinerary for that. So you can find singles cruises, NASCAR cruises, cruises for nudists, gay/lesbian cruises, and so forth. Carnival has the best night clubs and discos. It also has the best Las Vegas style shows. Celebrity Cruises is known for having the best food. Disney focuses upon families with children. All ships in Royal Caribbean's fleet feature rock-climbing walls. Some include specialize pools you can surf in. A good place to start looking for theme cruises is www.cruisecritic.com. Other places to look include Cruise Addicts and Cruise 411.

3. Cruise lines. Just like land-based hotels, there are entry/discount, mid-range, and luxury cruise lines. Entry/discount: Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Disney, Costa, and Norwegian. Mid-range: Holland America, Princess, Celebrity, and MSC. Luxury: Crystal, Cunard, Seabourn, Silversea, Windstar, Viking, and Avalon. The entry/discount cruise lines focus upon people under 40. The mid-range cruise lines focus on people 55+. The luxury cruise lines tend to have smaller ships with 150 or 200 passengers. The entry/discount cruise lines tend to have larger ships, with as many as four or five thousand passengers.

The primary language spoken varies by cruise line. For example, when we sailed on Costa and MSC in the Mediterranean, we noticed that the primary language spoken on board was Italian. We do not speak Italian and felt we had a poor experience on board these two cruise lines.

4. River or ocean cruises? My friend and her group seemed interested in ocean cruises. There are also river cruises. The two types are ENTIRELY different. Rive cruises are all about the shore excursions: you get off the ship every day, Usually, the shore excursions and tips are included in one cruise price. Viking River Cruises and Avalon Waterways focus on river cruises. Some destination ports are only acessible via river cruises.

5. Departure ports. When selecting an itinerary, some people start with the departure port because that is often a city you may want to explore its land-based attractions, restaurants, and sights. Then, you can get good and juiced before you board the cruise ship. When traveling in Winter, it is always wise to arrive at the departure city 2 days before the ship sails, in case your flight is delayed by bad weather. Departure ports we have sailed from: Amsterdam, Boston, Ft. Lauderdale, Honolulu, Los Angeles, Miami, New Orleans, San Juan (Puerto Rico), Seattle, and Venice (Italy).

6. How the industry works: pay their minimum deposit. Buy travel insurance at that time, too. The full amount is typically due 90 days before the ship sails. You will probably set up an account through the cruise line’s website to indicate in your profiles any preferences (e.g., non smoking, diets, physical limitations, etc.). After you have paid for your cruise, then you can select (and pay for) the optional shore excursions in each destination port.

Similar to airlines, all of the major cruise lines have rewards programs for frequent travels. Some consumers book travel with a single cruise line to generate as many rewards points as quickly as possible. Some pick itineraries based upon where they want to go, and then look for cruise lines sailing there.

Some consumers wait until the last minute and book whatever empty cabins are available. This is a good strategy for consumers (e.g., retirees) with flexible schedules who can travel on a moment's notice. It's a good way to get a cabin cheap, but you may not get the cabin location you want on a ship. This strategy works well if you live reasonably close to the departure port. If not, what you saved on a low-priced cruise may be eaten up by higher, last-minute, air fares.

7. Selecting your cabin: there is no single correct way. After selecting a ship or itinerary, some people select a cabin type: inside, outside, balcony, suite. Others pick a specific cabin on a ship they already know. All of the cruise lines have websites that present deck plans. My advice: no matter what type of cabin, you do NOT want a cabin underneath the disco, dining room, or lido deck pool... unless you like hearing footsteps overhead.

8. Use a travel agent? Some in your group will likely ask: are travel agents necessary? While you can do it all yourself and book your cruise through a cruise line’s website, you may want more service or have questions. Travel agents are there to answer your questions. They can give you the kinds of advice I mentioned above, recommend hotels in departure cities, often get you a lower price than the cruise line’s website, and book all elements of your vacation: the cruise, hotels, air travel, and transfers between airports, hotels, and cruise ship terminals. Whenever we work with a travel agent, we have in mind a budget and the probable retail price for the itinerary we want. We use a travel agent located nearby, so we can visit their office.

9. Read cruise reviews. Once you've selected 3 or 4 itineraries and ships, then it makes sense to read cruise reviews about the ships or itineraries you are considering. Many passengers write and post online their reviews. This is a good way to learn about the advantages and disadvantages of a ship or itinerary. A good place to read passenger-written cruise reviews is the Community section at the Cruise Critic site. Select the cruise line and then the cruise ship you are interested in.

As I said above, my wife and I have sailed on 22 cruises; both ocean and river cruises; and to most parts of the world: Mediterranean, Alaska, Hawaii, Bermuda, Panama Canal, the Caribbean, and northern South America. We have sailed on almost all of the above entry and mid-range cruise lines. We’ve only sailed on one of the luxury cruise lines.

Learn more: 8 tips about cruise ship vacations.

My friend really appreciated this detailed reply. If you have sailed on cruise ship vacations, what are your favorite itineraries? Your favorite destinations? Favorite ships? Any advice you have for new cruisers?

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