Despite a difficult economic climate in the U.S. and elsewhere over the last 5 years, the number of people taking cruises—many of them for the first time—keeps growing at a robust rate. Between 2006 and 2011, according to one survey, the number of cruise ship passengers disembarking from North American ports increased from about 10 million to about 14 million. And, as online cruise guide Cruisemates.com has also noted, as many as 50% of those taking cruises in any given year will be first timers.
This is all wonderful news both for the cruise industry and for those who’ve always dreamed of vacationing at sea. But, even for the seasoned traveler, a cruise is a different kind of travel experience. And, to make sure that the first cruise you choose is also a good fit for you, here are a few “proper prior planning” questions to ask that will, hopefully, guide you toward the right decisions.
1. When will you be able to go?
For travelers with children, school and summer schedules can be a big factor. If you have flexibility during the summer, you will have a much wider selection of cruises and itineraries to choose from. If you only have specific weeks you can travel, say, during spring break, you may have to spend a little more time researching cruise options. If budget is a factor, it’s also good to book cruises either at the beginning or end of specific travel seasons. Rates are generally lower then, but the weather can be more “iffy.”
2. How long do you want to be away?
If it’s your preference, there are cruises that last for months. There are also cruises that last for a day. So, you have lots of options. If you are new to cruising, you might want to start off with a shorter voyage, maybe just 3 or 4 nights, just to see if you like the experience. If you do, you can always plan for a longer voyage the next time. For most cruisers, the ideal length is 7 nights, and there are many cruises this length available. One suggestion for first timers: start off with a short trip to the Caribbean (leaving from Florida) or to Mexico (leaving from California). See what you like and dislike about it, and develop your future plans based on your experience.
3. Who else is going with you?
This is critical to choosing the kind of cruise you want to take. If you have children, you might want to look for providers that cater to families, such as the Disney Cruise Line. If you’re going with your one true only and you want elegant dining, candlelight, and starry skies, you might want to check out the many options well suited for romance. If you and your traveling companions share a special interest such as jazz, cooking, or dance, you can also look into the myriad of available theme cruise options. In any case, every cruise line and individual cruise caters to a specific kind of client, and it’s important to find out which choice makes the most sense for you.
4. What kind of a budget do you have?
Be clear with the people booking your tour—and yourself—about this. Money does matter. In most cases, the cost of a 7-night cruise in the Caribbean will range from $140 to $160 a day. The typical costs per day of Alaskan and Mediterranean cruises tend to be higher. But, wherever you cruise, cost can fluctuate widely depending on the kind of cabin you choose, the time of year you go, and other factors. One way to save on overall vacation cost is to book a cruise that sails from a port nearer to where you live rather than farther away. This will save on airfare and maybe even overnight lodging and extra meals.
5. What would you like to see and experience?
The Caribbean, Alaska, the Mediterranean, the Mexican Riviera—intriguing, exotic destinations abound. From tidewater glaciers to picturesque towns on out-of-the-way Greek isles, it’s really up to you to decide what you want to see and experience. The most cruise options by far are in the Caribbean. Several lines are busy there all year round, with more ships operating during the winter months. And Caribbean destinations can vary a great deal too. If you prefer peace and quiet, you probably won’t enjoy a town with a raucous nightlife or vice versa.
6. What size ship makes the most sense for you and the kind of experience you want to have?
Again, this depends on what you prefer. Today, there are roughly three sizes of cruise ships. The first is very small (about 50-100 passengers). These are wonderful for science and nature cruises. Then there are mid-size vessels that can accommodate about 2000 passengers. These are popular for Alaskan cruises and can offer more intimacy than a larger ship. Finally, there are the large ships that can serve about 5000 passengers at a time. These are like floating cities, offering a wide variety of activities and restaurants. Many people who prefer these enjoy the many options they have and say that they really don’t realize there are so many people on board.
Those are some ideas to get your synapses firing. Are there other questions you would add to this list? If so, post a comment. We’d love to hear from you. And we value any thoughts you might want to add to the ongoing cruise conversation.