Starter guide for first-time cruising

Summer’s over in the northern hemisphere. Many are already thinking vacation — next year’s vacation, possibly a winter getaway from the coming cold winter weather.

One winter vacation opportunity is cruising. For those who have never cruised, there are many choices to make that can make or break your cruise. To help, I’ve got a starter guide for you.

1. Budget.
Don’t go crazy spending for more cruise than you can afford. Like any vacation, you’ll return home unhappy if you overspend.

2. Before booking, understand what’s included and what’s extra.
According to the cruise and the cruise line, there are many items included or extra, such as alcoholic beverages, soda, meals not in the main restaurant, port excursions, etc. To know what your cruise vacation will cost, you’ve got to understand what’s included and what’s not.

3. How long do you want to be away.
For a first cruise, cruise longer than three to four nights and no longer than a week. That will give you a chance to visit multiple ports, but if you end up not liking cruising, your cruise will be short enough to avoid being a cruise from hell.

4. Minimize but don’t eliminate sea-days.
Eventually, if you cruise, you’re going to have some sea-days, days when your ship doesn’t stop at a port. These are sometimes required to get to the first, last or next port. Some cruises have multiple sea-days, sometimes for several days in a row.

I prefer to minimize sea-days, but not eliminate them entirely. On longer cruises which are port intensive, sea-days give you time to refresh and relax.

For first-time cruisers, it’s important to learn what sea-days are like. For those who want the day packed with on-board activities, the ship will oblige. For those who want a relaxing day, that’s available too.

5. Choose you destination area.
The Caribbean is a great choice to get away from cold winter weather. With the recent hurricanes, many Caribbean cruises are being retooled by the cruise lines. By winter, many ports in trouble today will have been able to make great strides in rebuilding. Many damaged ports are already up and running.

For summer cruising, Alaska and Mediterranean cruises could be great for a first time cruise.

6. Choose a cruise line and ship size.
For young couples, smaller ships could be a good fit. They offer personalized service and focus on ports instead of big entertainment. For older cruisers, luxury lines with ships under 1,000 passengers are a wonderful choice for many. They often bundle air and are mostly all-inclusive, even including most port excursions. They offer some good entertainment too. For families, larger ships are generally a great fit. They offer a wide range of on-board activities for kids and adults alike, plus multiple choices for meals, etc.

7. Choose a stateroom.
This is one of the more difficult choices for first-time cruisers, even between inside, outside, and balcony stateroom choices, which are the main choices on most cruise ships.

On cruises that concentrate on visiting ports, an inside cabin may work great for you as you likely won’t be in your cabin most of the cruise. They also fit smaller budgets. I prefer to be able to look outside from my stateroom. For some that means an oceanview room with a big window, but I personally prefer a balcony stateroom. Balconies provide a private spot overlooking the sea for relaxation, a breakfast or a place to read a book.

After you decide on a stateroom type, there are other choices to make. A room in the middle of the ship is more stable in rough seas for those who easily get motion sickness. I recommend staying away from elevators, restaurants, casinos, shops, stairwells, kitchens, and outside doors to decks which can all be noisy.

Use the ship’s deck plans to help you choose a stateroom.

8. Reserve shore excursions early.
Shore excursions booked on your own or through the cruise line fill up fast, so reserve them as early as possible. Some ports lend themselves to directly booking excursions. I generally book my shore excursions through the cruise line, even though they may be somewhat more expensive. A few times this has saved me when the excursions finished late, getting us to the dock late. Rather than leaving on time, the ship waited for us because they had a responsibility for us, since the excursion was theirs.

9. Avoid flying to your port of embarkation at the last minute.
Especially in the winter when weather can disrupt flights, consider flying into a domestic port a day ahead and an international port at least two days in advance. Flying in ahead of time has saved me from missing cruises twice.

10. Should you book online or through a travel agent?
With the myriad of cruise choices and deals available, I book my cruises with a quality travel agent. They help me make the best choices for us and get the best deal available. Using quality travel agents have never cost me more money than booking directly and generally have saved me money.

Cruising vacations can be wonderful. If you’ve never taken a cruise, but are considering one, it’s important to make each choice carefully. Bon voyage.

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