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Alright, now that we’ve covered the When, Where, and Who of cruising (see Parts 1 and 2 of this series), we can go over the Which (picking a ship).

Which?

With so many ships to choose from, how do you begin to sort through them all? Thanks to dedicated past cruisers, there are a plethora of customer reviews and photos out there regarding what each and every ship on each and every cruise line has to offer. So, there’s absolutely no reason to go into the selection blind.

Here are some factors you may want to take into consideration when determining what kind of ship is ideal for you:

  • Size: This is actually a huge factor because there is a direct correlation between a ships size and the kind of amenities it can offer you.
    • Bigger ships (2,000-4,000+ passengers) will offer you tons of variety in terms of dining and entertainment. Since the current cruising trend is toward larger ships, the facilities tend to be newer, using state of the art equipment in the casinos and theaters. However, as a result, the crowds on the ships are bigger and it may be harder to find a deck chair or secluded area to relax. The ports that you can visit are more standard and limited, as smaller, more exotic locations don’t have a pier or terminal big enough to handle gigantic vessels. Also, you may get a vague feeling of being part of a heard, as it’s harder for the crew to make the experience Uber-personalized with so many passengers on board.
    • Medium ships (1,000-2,000 passengers) are able to offer the amenities that cruises are known for while making you feel like you are being personally catered to. There are always several dining or entertainment options, but not so many that you can try somewhere new each night. Facilities such as the spa or gym are present, but they will be smaller and have fewer options than the big guys. Since there is less to do than on a large ship, the atmosphere is less party-like. However, very few cruise lines are debuting new ships of this size, so the facilities on board are likely more outdated and staterooms will probably be smaller.
    • Smaller ships (fewer than 1,000 passengers) offer highly personalized service with shorter lines, a relaxed pace, and delectable dining options. In fact, many smaller ships even have Michelin-level restaurants on board. Luxury is typically emphasized, so the ships will have up-to-date amenities and top-notch enrichment programs. As a bonus, items like alcohol and gratuities, which usually cost extra on larger ships, are often included in your cruise price. No hidden costs. However, as a result, these tend to be the priciest of cruises. Also, due to the atmosphere on the ship, there probably aren’t any children’s programs. In fact, some ships will discourage bringing children aboard. Since there’s limited room on board for facilities, features like pools, gyms, and spas will be tiny, if they’re there at all.
  • Makeover: When was the ship built or refurbished? Generally, we all like things that are new. Worn out carpets, ratty bedspreads, and lackluster dining rooms don’t win raving customer reviews. Recently refurbished ships will offer technology such as wifi or iPads that you can use in your stateroom to order room service or check your spending account. You know a recently built ship will have the latest in theater and sound equipment, plus the newest in gaming for the casino.
  • Amenities: Remember that even though a cruise line may be known for its onboard surf park, water roller coaster, bowling alley, or ice skating rink, it doesn’t mean that each and every ship from that line has those amenities available. Likewise, you may have heard rave reviews about a certain alternative restaurant, only to discover that it’s not on the ship you selected. Do your homework. If you have your heart set on a certain experience, it will help to rule out a number of ships.
  • Attitude: Yes, we’re already gone over the general attitude and feeling of each cruise line; however, each ship has its own personality. Certainly, the Norwegian Epic (4,100 passengers) has a completely different feel than the Norwegian Sun (1,936 passengers). Go online and look up what people had to say about the ship and about fellow passengers on board. Try to find reports from people who are taking a similar itinerary at a similar time of year as you want. Those will help give the most accurate picture, in terms of population, crowds, and atmosphere. Just remember to read the reviews with a grain of salt… some cruisers are delighted by everything because they’re just happy to be on vacation. On the flip side, there’s just no pleasing some people.

Well there you go, faithful readers. Take these factors into consideration and you’ll be well on your way to the cruise of your dreams. Happy sailing!

Alright, now that we’ve covered the basic When and Where of cruising (see Part 1 of this series), we will now explore how to figure out the Who (picking a cruise line) of cruising.

Who? 

Selecting the cruise line you want to patron is kind of like selecting a college. You can pick one based on its reputation for parties, sophistication, affordability, or its focus on a specialty that’s right up your alley. Sound daunting? Don’t you worry, there are no standardized tests required before boarding your cruise.

Take a moment and look at the cruise line’s marketing brochure. Do the photos feature young folks dancing through the night? Silver-haired passengers in formal wear? Children splashing about? This is a good clue as to the kind of vibe the company is going for.

That being said, here’s a quick rundown of the major cruise lines and what they are best known for.

  • Carnival: Your cruise director really earns his or her wages on this line. There are lots of entertainment options throughout the day, night, and wee hours of the morning. This, plus the affordability of the line, results in a younger clientele who are ready for a fun time. There are also more families since cheaper prices enable many people to bring their kids along for the vacation.
  • Celebrity: This line focuses on posh sophistication. Entertainment options are more likely to include guest lecturers and cooking classes than late-night discos or belly-flop contests. Generally, the ships offer top-notch cuisine and superb service. The line spends a good deal on keeping the ships looking and feeling modern, which results in a higher quality experience and higher price tag.
  • Disney: Naturally, this line is Uber-family friendly. Disney has succeeded in bringing magic to the seas. They have excellent, high-quality programs for children of all ages, including teenagers. The “Disney-ness” is both obvious and elegant; costumed characters roam the ships but the designers have made sure that the overall theme is classy ocean liner instead of overwhelming amusement park. Since the line expects families to vacation together, the staterooms are larger than average. However, all the magic comes with a steep price tag.
  • Norwegian: NCL is an excellent generalist. They offer a little bit of everything at a reasonable price. They offer premium dining experiences for an additional cost, decent children’s programs, and a flexible dress code. On formal nights you’ll see anything from plain front shorts and Hawaiian shirts to tuxes and cocktail gowns. NCL offers top-notch entertainment, performing well-known musicals and hosting genuinely clever comedians from Second City. The variety of bars and night clubs ensures that there’s always a party going on somewhere.
  • Oceania: Prepare yourself to be immersed in a luxury experience. Since you’re paying top-dollar, well-trained staff provides gracious service, the décor is full of beautifully polished woods and thick carpets, and there are specialty restaurants that don’t require an additional fee. The menus are prepared by a James Beard Foundation trustee known for being personal chef for three French heads of state. (Oh lá lá!) The passengers on these lines tend to be over 50 and, though it does not discourage children from coming aboard, there are very few families since there are no children’s programs.
  • Princess: Princess is great at providing you with options. You’ll never feel as through you’re being diverted into the same eating and entertainment pattern as everyone else. The line offers flexible dining plans, an array of alternative eateries and chef’s table experience (for a fee), plus numerous enrichment classes ranging from cooking to digital photography to pottery. This is another reasonably priced line that offers something for everyone, so passenger demographic is wide and varying, depending on the itinerary and time of year.
  • Royal Caribbean: This is another good all-around line. The food isn’t superb but will please just about everyone with its buffets, flexible dining, and alternative (for a fee) restaurants. Ships can offer a variety of active options, such as rock climbing walls, mini golf courses, ice skating rinks, zip-lines, and/or surfing. For entertainment, there are flashy productions in the theater, great live music through the ships’ many venues, and amusing audience participation game shows. Like with NCL and Princess, the affordability of the line means a slightly younger demographic and fuller ships.
  • Windstar: Want a relaxing, country club experience? Then Windstar is for you. The dress code is always “casual elegance,” even during dining hours. These smaller ships don’t have a gamut of entertainment options with gaudy productions or embarrassing game shows. Instead there may be talks about the next port of call or lavish buffets that never come to a close. Each vessel offers a water sports platform with complimentary snorkeling, windsailing, paddle boating, and water skiing. The passengers of Windstar tend to be active adults who are willing to pay a higher price for a quality, peaceful experience.

Tune in next week when I discuss the “Which” of cruising (selecting a ship) in the final part of this series.

 

One of my travel dreams is coming true! My husband and I are going on a Southern Caribbean cruise. That’s right; we are trading increasingly cold New England for sugar sand beaches and snorkeling.

For me, part of the joy I will get out of the vacation will be seeing all my research come to fruition. As this is a first cruise for both of us, I did an immense amount of research to try to figure out the ideal cruise for us. There’s just so much to consider! Prices, destinations, cruise lines, times of years, etc. Thinking about a cruise for yourself? I’ve done my best to outline factors that will help you determine which cruise is right for you.

Bear in mind that these factors are not in any particular order. It’s up to you to determine which is most important and then go from there.

Where?

Once you decide you’re going on a cruise, the inevitable question that others will ask is: Where are you going? As the cruise industry is rapidly expanding, you can go almost anywhere on a ship. You can go to standard places like the Caribbean or Mediterranean, more unconventional destinations like Asia or Africa, take a river cruise through Europe, or even go nowhere (just spend a few days floating out at sea).

Where you go is all about personal preference. Want an experience steeped in fine art and cuisine? Try a cruise that stops in Italy and Greece. Have a desire to get in touch with your inner beach bum? Make sure to find a cruise that stops at as many beaches as possible.  As you search, just keep in mind that parenthesis matter. What do I mean? Well, at first glance, you may think your cruise makes port in Rome. Your head immediately fills with visions of the Coliseum, Pantheon, and Trevi Fountain. However, you’ll soon see that Rome is in parenthesis and you’re actually stopping at Civitavecchia, a town roughly 50 miles away from Rome. Sure, it’s only an hour away, but it means you’ll probably need to take a shore excursion to get into the city or do some advanced planning to get there on your own. Do your research. Make sure you’re stopping where you think you’re stopping.

You may also want to think about how many different stops you want to make. Some cruises will stop at a different port each night while others will dock in one spot and stay for several nights.

When?

Wherever you end up going, you need to consider that each region has a high season and a low season. Prices are at a low for the Western Caribbean in September, but that’s partly because you’re going to be there smack dab in the middle of hurricane season.  There are pluses and minuses to each region’s high or low season. In general just know that high season is more crowded and expensive while low season tends to have iffier weather but great bargains. Here’s a quick summary:

Alaska

  • High Season: June-August. Temperatures are warm and you’re more likely to see wildlife, but the demand is higher so crowds are bigger.
  • Low Season: May & September. The possibility of snow (read: higher chance of a cancelled excursion) means fewer people and lower prices.

Bermuda

  • High Season: June-August. A wide selection of ships and departure ports, plus families get to take advantage of summer vacation. As a result, the ships are more crowded.
  • Low Season: April/May & September/October. The weather is mild and wonderful… unless there’s a hurricane.

Caribbean

  • High Season: June-August, the winter holidays, February-April. Convenient times since school is out of session and you have the chance to escape winter. The result is crowded ships and lots of families and children. However, there’s a high price to pay when trading snow for sunshine.
  • Low Season: April/May & September-January (excluding holidays). Great weather and smaller crowds, but it’s also hurricane season. Most ships will simply go to a different port to avoid bad weather, so if you have your heart set on a given port, you may be disappointed. Also, bad weather may make it challenging to get to your point of departure.

Mediterranean

  • High Season: May-August. European and American families alike use summer vacation as an enriching experience for themselves. However, the temperatures are high and the crowds are big. Beware: Some parts of Europe are in high season all year round.
  • Low Season: March/April, September-November. Milder weather, fewer kids, great bargains. However, not all cruise lines have a low season.

(to be continued in Part 2 and Part 3