You’ve heard the stories of people going out to sea on a cruise and coming back with tales of beautiful ports, all you can eat buffets, dancing all night, and loving every minute of it. If you’re thinking about setting sail, you likely have cruise travel on the brain.
So, what is cruise travel?
It’s all about exploring the world while on a luxurious, all-inclusive vessel that offers you one-stop to manage your accommodations, transportation, hospitality, dining, and attractions.
Cruise travel is perfect for travelers who want the best of all worlds. You want adventure, comfort, convenience, and even something a bit more budget friendly, since cruises can offer you all-inclusive pricing. Whether you’re heading to a private island, booked a cruise to nowhere, or you’re on a 3 week repositioning cruise, cruise travel truly has something for everyone from a beginner traveler to a veteran traveler.
It’s not just about the destinations, though. Yes, ports are a huge part of the cruising industry, and are often a major selling point. Cruise travel is also about this exciting opportunity to be in what is essentially a floating resort equipped with just about everything you need, including quite a bit of vitamin sea. You can take advantage of the delicious food of many varieties, as well as all of the entertainment afforded to you. Honestly, some cruisers never get off the ship until debarkation.
Keep in mind, though, cruise travel isn’t without its challenges. There are concerns of sustainability and ecological impact since each ship can be thousands of people hitting a port at once. That leads to growing concern about the potential destruction of natural and cultural resources. Especially if the port city becomes more dependent on cruise tourism dollars. There are also health concerns due to a large number of people being relatively isolated with one another. And, of course, unpredictable weather is always something to think about.
Why is it a growing industry?
Some analysts see cruise tourism starting to rebound (2022) since the huge decline we all saw during the pandemic. In 2019, cruise tourism was estimated at over $13 billion. 2020 saw that drop to around $2 billion. 2021 saw that increase to over $7 billion. The industry is growing again, but it’s also having to adapt. For instance, river cruises are a huge growth market within cruise tourism. Smaller vessels are very attractive to the post-pandemic cruiser.
The traveler of today is very perceived value driven, so the all-inclusive nature of cruising aligns well with today’s tourism. And while perceived value generally matters more than overall price, the fact that cruising offers a wide variety of pricing options makes it a more desirable vacation. Typically, cruise lines are divided into three categories: Mass Market (offering budget and mid-range options), Niche (which includes scientific vessels, river cruises, smaller ships), and Luxury (which is the highest cost and often the most exclusive).
Additionally, cruise travel allows the traveler the opportunity to explore multiple new-to-them destinations. Planning a trip to a brand new locale can be really stressful, especially when you account for accommodations, transportation, paperwork needed, attractions, food and beverage. Cruising gives you the opportunity to visit multiple places for a half day or so a piece so you can have a lower stress, and somewhat lower risk, opportunity to determine if you want to spend more time at that destination during a longer vacation.
All that being said, cruise travel can feel very intimidating to a beginner, so let’s chat basics.
Determine Your Budget
As I mentioned earlier, cruise travel has a wide range of options when it comes to budget. Like most travel, cruising can be done more economically or more luxuriously depending on the budget you have available and want to commit to this vacation.
There are some things to consider when planning your cruise. First, while cruises are considered all-inclusive, there are some things that aren’t generally included in that price. Gratuities are often not included in the quote price. Some cruise lines include some beverages but require packages for alcohol and soda, etc. There are often dining experiences that are an add-on cost, especially with the more budget mass market cruise lines. Excursions (fee-based activities) will also often be a separate charge based on what you want to do. Wifi access is another thing that will likely cost you extra. There are all optional things, so you can account for them in your budget or determine what you can do without.
I highly recommend planning as far ahead as possible. Most cruise lines allow deposits and then will accept payments made over time while you count the days until your cruise. Some cruise lines will also price match if a better deal for your exact cruise becomes available.
Pick Your Cruise Line
Picking a cruise line is tough. Honestly, there will be ups and downs to every cruise line out there. I’m sure you’re familiar with some of the mass market cruise lines, like Carnival and Royal Caribbeans. They have commercials on tv and streaming services and ads all across social media.
For me, it’s all about the experience I’m trying to have. Remember those cruise categories I shared with you? Let’s dig in a bit more:
- Budget: These are often bigger ships with more economical pricing and younger individual or more “family friendly” or “party” marketing. 2000-5000 passengers. Think Carnival, Norwegian, Costa, Royal Caribbean.
- Mid-range: These ships are usually slightly smaller and offer upgraded amenities. They will often advertise to an older demographic. Think Celebrity, Cunard, Holland America, MSC, Princess.
- Expedition Vessels: These ships are typically much smaller, with accommodations for 100-200 guests. They are often considered research vessels and their small size allows them to get closer to coastlines, such as Antarctica cruises. Think Oceanwide, Quark, Silversea, SunStone.
- River Cruises: These smaller vessels can visit lesser known ports along riverways and often keep guests at 200 or under. You will also often get more port time due to this method of travel. Think AmaWaterways, Avalon, CroisiEurope, Emerald, Tauck, Uniworld Boutique, Viking River Cruises.
- Smaller ships, like yachts.
- Premium: These ships are even smaller and typically really all-inclusive, so no surprise fees or add-ons. Or, at least, no meaningful ones. Prices can be many, many times that on the budget and mid-range costs. The sky’s the limit here. Think Azamara, Crystal, Hapag-Loyd, Oceania, Paul Gauguin, Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn, Viking Ocean Cruises, and Windstar.
Choose Your Cruise Destinations & Embarkation & Timing
You can find a cruise that goes just about anywhere, so really the only limiting factors are your imagination (and maybe your budget). Keep in mind that factors like ports of call, embarkation and debarkation ports, as well as time of year will greatly impact your budget.
The Caribbean is often a first time cruise destination. If you’re looking for a great combination of relaxation and adventure, partying and cultural experiences, the Caribbean really has it all. If you’re cruising out of the United States, Caribbean cruises are often seen as extremely economical, as well. You can also find cruises or varying lengths, often from 3 days to many.
Europe, the Mediterranean, Scandinavia, Alaska, Antarctica, Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Australia, South America, the Panama Canal. There are so many itineraries to choose from.
Here are some questions I ask myself in order to narrow down my options:
- When can I cruise?
- What kind of experience do I want? (Relaxing, adventure, family, party, cultural, port heavy, more time on the water, etc.)
- What embarkation port works for my schedule and budget?
Once you’ve asked and answered those questions, it’s all about plugging your preferences into the search option for your preferred cruise line and seeing what works for your schedule and budget.
Figure Out Your Cruise Length
Once you’ve determined the budget, cruise line, and ideal destinations, you need to figure out what cruise length works for you. For many, they start with a shorter cruise, like a 3 day weekender. My first cruise was a 4 day (that turned into a 5.5 day due to weather). Truly, you can cruise from a couple days to over 200 days. And if you book back-to-back cruises, you can cruise all year long.
My recommendation for the beginner cruiser? You’ll either love or hate cruising, so if a North American embarkation port works for you, book a 3-night Caribbean cruise hitting 1 or 2 ports and dip your toes in the water. This way, if you love it you’ll be prepared for more. If you hate it, it’s only a 3 night investment of your time.
I prefer 7-10 day cruises with a good balance of port days and sea days. I tend to keep my schedule very busy so forced relaxation is an important part of cruise travel for me.
Decide On Your Cabin Type
Cabin type is another area of cruise travel where you can really determine your priorities relating to accommodations as well as budget. Every stateroom category will have different amenities and square footage to go along with its price tag.
On most mass market cruises, your options will generally include: inside, outside/ocean view, balcony rooms, and suites. Within those categories, you’ll find different styles of staterooms, as well as rooms that can come with additional privileges. Some cruise lines offer special suites or family-style cabins to be a bit more family friendly.
If you’re just beginning to cruise and your budget is a bit tighter, see if your cruise line has porthole rooms. They are generally priced like inside cabins, but still give you a little window to let natural light in. I also recommend looking to see if there are accessible cabins available closer to your sail date. They tend to offer larger bathrooms which can be really helpful.
Here a little more information about some stateroom categories that are common on cruise ships:
- Interior: These are typically the smallest and cheapest rooms on the ship. They do not have a window or balcony (or if they do, it’s not facing the ocean). Some cruise lines will add faux windows or extra lights to make these rooms feel more open. These rooms will often be situated on the “interior” or “inside” side of the hallway.
- Oceanview: These rooms have some sort of window looking out onto the water. Depending on the floor and positioning on the boat, it could have porthole(s), one larger window, or even floor-to-ceiling windows. While porthole rooms are an oceanview stateroom, some cruise lines price them similar to interior rooms. Porthole rooms are a great budget option.
- Oceanview with Balcony: Sometimes called Verandah Staterooms, these are the most popular stateroom type on cruise ships. Some ships have 95% balcony rooms. Balconies give you your own private viewing space on the ship. Like all rooms, not all balcony rooms are created equally. If you are looking for more budget options, some ships will have obstructed view or non-ocean view balcony staterooms that might interest you.
- Suite: This category is the broadest. Suites can range from a slightly bigger verandah stateroom to a palatial, multi-story mansion on water. Suites will often come with additional perks, such as private concierge, special dinner reservations, dedicated access to amenities, etc.
If you don’t have any cabin opinions yet, see if your cruise line offers a deal for you letting them choose your cabin for you.
How Do You Want to Dine
This one is simple. Some cruise lines will give you options for choosing when you want to have dinner. If you’re a beginner cruiser and aren’t sure about when you’ll want to eat, see if they have a flexible dining option.
It’s also a good time to look into table arrangements. If you want to sit with just your party vs sitting with other guests. If you have a preference, make sure your account is properly notated. Also, look into alternative dining options and see if you want to make any reservations, if needed. Do all of this before sailing, if possible.
Look into dress codes for dinner, as well, while you’re at it. Many cruise lines have specific dress codes for the dining room that you need to be prepared for.
Plan Your Excursions and Activities
So much of the fun of a cruise is figuring out the excursions and activities you want to partake in. When it comes to shore excursions, I highly recommend planning those ahead of time. For one, that will help guarantee your excursion doesn’t sell out. It will also reduce waiting in lines or trying to manage bookings while onboard.
You are not required to book an excursion with your cruise line, but there are potential downsides to booking with a third party. Most of the time, a cruise will offer protections if you book an excursion with them. For instance, if your excursion runs late, the cruise ship will wait for you. If there is a cancellation, they’ll refund you if it’s covered. If you book with a third party and you are late to board the ship, it won’t likely wait for you. Some people also feel safer knowing the excursion is through the cruise line, although I think a very well-researched third party excursion is something I feel comfortable participating in.
Keep in mind that you don’t have to book excursions. There are often free things you can do at port. The Caribbean is chock full of free beaches that are often not too far from the dock.
First and foremost, when packing for a cruise, you’ll need to consider:
- Dining dress code (Casual, Elegant, etc)
- Excursions & Activities
- Toiletry Needs
- Electronics Needs
- Documents & IDs needed
Even if you book a suite, staterooms are still tight with limited storage space. Packing efficiently is going to be extremely important if you want that stateroom to remain functional.
Something to note – your luggage may take some time to get to you on embarkation day. If you have any urgent needs, it’s recommended to pack a small carry-on with anything you need constant or quick access to during that first half day.
There are days you may end up in 3 outfits. A day outfit, a bathing suit, a dinner outfit. Be mindful of that possibility and plan accordingly. Most ships will offer laundry services, but they can be pricey.
I also recommend looking into any items that are banned. Every cruise line will have a list of things you’re not allowed to bring with you on the cruise. Candles, surge protectors, alcohol, etc. This will save you a bunch of trouble in the long run.
Finally, make sure to print out all of the pre-boarding documents you need. Also look into what identification you need for your trip. Even if they say a passport isn’t needed, if you are setting foot on foreign soil, make sure to have your passport. If an accident or emergency occurs while you’re international, you’ll need your proper identification. If you are traveling with a child as a solo parent, look into what documentation is needed to cruise with your child, as well.