Are you planning to book your first cruise? Navigate the booking process with ease by following this essential guide to cruise planning.
Are you planning your first cruise? Perhaps you have been seduced by the gleaming hulks of ships and the promise of exploring new places with ease, featured on TV programmes like Jayne McDonald’s Cruising (my favourite!)?
There are lots of things to consider when booking a cruise for the first time. To have the best time possible and to create travel memories that will linger for many years to come, you will need to do your homework.
Which is the best cruise line? What should I look for in an itinerary? Should I plump for a balcony cabin? The list of questions goes on and on.
But how do you go about planning a cruise for the first time? Faced with a sea of choices (ahem!), it can seem like an overwhelming task.
To help you make the right decision, here are ten factors to considers when planning your first cruise, all based on my own experiences.
How to Plan a Cruise for the First Time
I’m going to walk you through the decisions you need to make when planning a cruise for the first time to make sure that the experience is everything that you dream it will be.
But before starting to plan your cruise, consider this: will you be able to handle living on a cruise ship?
Cruising is a little like Marmite. Some people are evangelical about it; others hate it. Depending on the itinerary, there can be days at sea at a stretch. How will you cope with that?
Are you able to navigate the waters of onboard etiquette, which varies between cruise operators? And how will you manage your days in port?
Cruising isn’t for everyone but it is often a case of if you don’t try it you will never know.
1. Plan how long you want to cruise for
Cruises come in all sizes from a few days to a whopping 245 days, courtesy of a round-the-world jaunt with Viking.
When taking that first voyage into the unknown, a two-week cruise can be a bit of a gamble. For most rookie cruisers, a six or seven-day cruise is just about right, which should offer two or three ports at least to give you a sense of what it’s all about.
The alternative is to dip your toe in the water, so to speak, and take a two or three-day cruise as a taster.
For example, from Southampton on England’s south coast, you can hop across the channel to Zeebrugge (for Bruges) or Le Havre (for Paris). Or from Piraeus, near Athens, Celestyal has a menu of short itineraries.
2. Define your cruising style: ship or destination?
There is a style of cruising to fit most travelling tribes and you need to choose the right one for you.
Also, ask yourself this question: is a well-appointed ship important to you or is it all about the destinations?
3. Research your cruise line
Choosing your cruise line is a little like choosing your perfect partner.
In a sea of choice (!), you have to pick your perfect match, deciding if your personalities match and if he/she will meet your expectations. Each cruise line has its own character and you will need to do a little research to decide which will be the right fit for you.
For example, for a very European feel, try MSC. If a West-End / Broadway show is what you are looking for on-board, then you won’t go far wrong with Royal Caribbean or NCL. For a good time with a touch of class, look towards Celebrity.
Think also about the age group that you want to travel with.
There are no hard and fast rules, but a longer cruise in term-time is likely to attract older passengers, as are lines such as Fred Olsen and Saga. Conversely, sailings during school holidays are likely to be packed with holidaying families.
If you want to avoid kids, travel during term time or choose an adult-only ship.
The younger party crowd gravitate towards Carnival and Costa.
4. Decide on your cruising budget
Except for a lucky few, budget is important when you book your first cruise.
A recent analysis has put the daily cost of cruising at $214, of which $151 is the ticket price and $62 is onboard spend. However, as there are many factors that affect the cost of cruising, I would take this estimate with a liberal pinch of salt.
Let’s take a look at some of these variables.
Like hotels, you pay for the level of luxury and service you want.
Roughly speaking, at the budget end of the spectrum you have MSC, Carnival & Costa; mid-range cruise lines include P&O, Princess, and Cunard; Seabourne, Crystal and Regent Seven Seas are luxury cruise lines.
Unsurprisingly suites are more expensive than interior cabins.
You will also to pay a premium for an unobstructed view, a larger cabin and for that cabin’s location (deck and position).
This is an important consideration for solo travellers as most operators charge per cabin not per person.
Some cruise lines do offer single cabins (e.g. NCL, P&O, Cunard, Fred Olsen, Saga, Cruise & Maritime) or discounts for single occupancy (e.g. NCL). However, it is still not a level playing field with solo cabin fares 125 – 160% greater than the per passenger rate when sharing a cabin.
If the seasonal demand is higher you will pay more.
For example, Mediterranean cruises in the summer are more expensive than the same itinerary in spring or autumn when the weather is less predictable.
Repositioning cruises, when ships move from one area to another (e.g. the Caribbean to the Mediterranean), can be good value although they do involve more days at sea.
Ports charge cruise lines to park up.
Therefore, the longer or more port-intensive a cruise, the more expensive your fare is likely to be.
Government fees will also vary according to the itinerary.
5. Look carefully at the cruise itinerary
When you are planning your first cruise, think about how many ports are included in the itinerary and how many days at sea there are.
Restless by nature, I find days at sea difficult. However, my veteran cruiser friend relishes them and adores repositioning cruises for that reason. It’s horses for courses.
Ultimately, for me, it’s all about the balance between exploring new destinations and having a spot of R&R. My ideal one-week itinerary would be four ports and three days at sea.
What might yours be?
6. Research your cruise destinations
When you start to book your first cruise, being clued up on your destinations is important. Ask yourself the following questions:
Where does the ship berth?
In an ideal world, you will be able to jump off the ship and be right in the thick of things. And this is the case for many ports.
On my cruise of the Norwegian fjords, all four ports were in the centre of town. This meant I was able to walk off the ship and explore at my own pace. Perfect!
However, this is not the case with all ports of call. For instance, the cruise ship port for Rome is at Civitavecchia, which is around 80km northwest of the city.
The issue with attractions being relatively inaccessible from cruise ports is that it can hamper your ability to visit them independently.
Let’s take Rome again as an example; you can travel into the city by train from Civitavecchia but this journey takes up to 80 minutes. Also, you are at the mercy of disruptions on the public transport system.
As an independent explorer, if you miss the departure time of the ship, you have to make your own way to the next port. Harsh but true.
This brings me on to the subject of shore excursions offered by the cruise line.
These are expensive, but if your return is delayed you are guaranteed that the ship will wait for you. For some people, that peace of mind outweighs the cost.
Bear in mind that independent operators also offer excursions from cruise ships, which can be a cheaper option. When I visited St. Petersburg on a Baltic Sea cruise, I was delighted with the two-day excursion provided by Alla Tours.
One company that gets good reviews is ShoreTrips.
Also, cruise lines or the port authority often provide shuttle buses (sometimes free) to the centre of town or nearby beaches.
Unsurprisingly, many cruise lines don’t advertise this service and it pays to do a bit of research yourself. A good resource is WhatsInPort, which will also tell you where the port is located.
How many tenders are included?
If a ship is too big to dock or the water isn’t deep enough to allow it to do so, it has to anchor in the harbour and passengers are ferried to shore in smaller boats. This is what is meant by a tender port. Looking at a cruise’s itinerary should tell you how many, if any, tender ports there are.
Apart from delays incurred waiting to board a tender boat, for most people a tender port should not be an issue.
However, they may be less suitable if you have restricted mobility, and it is worth checking how many ports are tender in an itinerary.
Are any of the ports of call a must-see for you?
If this is the case, manage your expectations.
Cruise lines cannot guarantee that they will dock at the advertised ports and may have to change their itinerary due to operational reasons or weather conditions.
This has happened to me twice.
On my first cruise to the Western Caribbean, Belize was omitted from the cruise itinerary as the tender was too dangerous in the stormy conditions.
Then in 2018, the harbour in Santander was not deep enough to accommodate P&O’s Ventura, and this port was dumped in favour of Bilbao. I was delighted because I wanted to visit the Guggenheim Museum; many of my fellow passengers were not so thrilled.
7. Choose your cabin carefully
When choosing a cruise ship cabin, you pay for what you get.
The most cost-effective option is an inside cabin, which will be smaller and will have no natural light. If you will only be using your cabin to sleep and get changed then this may suit you.
The next step up is an outside cabin, which may be bigger than an inside cabin and will have a porthole or window to allow natural light in.
I usually opt for a balcony cabin which is usually larger and has a private balcony with views out over the sea.
For me, the big plusses here are fresh air and the sound of the sea. And let’s not forget being able to sip a cheeky G&T, or have your breakfast coffee & croissants, in the comfort of your balcony.
Top of the tree are suites, which will usually have a separate living area to the bedroom.
Suites are a lot larger than the standard cabins but not all will have a balcony, favouring a floor to ceiling window. Levels of service are also higher, with some cruise operators providing a butler.
For solo travellers, increasingly cruise lines are offering single cabins. However, you need to do your homework to determine if these will work out much cheaper than booking single occupancy of a regular cabin.
When planning your first cruise, it pays to look at your itinerary and consider how long you are likely to be in your cabin. If your itinerary is close to a port each day, you won’t get much of an opportunity to enjoy the benefits of your private balcony or suite.
The type of cabin is not the sole consideration. Think also about where you would like to be on the ship – fore, aft or midship –and on which deck. Examine cruise ship maps before booking to detect duff cabins.
You don’t want to be opposite the ship’s launderettes, near service areas, right next to the lifts, near the ship’s bars or underneath the public decks (unless you like to hear the constant scraping of furniture above you).
Also worth considering are any perks that you might get from a stateroom category upgrade.
For example, Concierge Class on Celebrity gives you extra benefits including priority embarkation and disembarkation, upgraded toiletries and a personalised concierge service.
8. Consider a specialist cruise booking agent
Choosing a cabin can be exhausting and it is one area where a specialist cruise agent can be worth their weight in gold.
They do not charge extra and can also often offer exclusive perks such as upgrades, drinks packages or extra onboard credit. If you are cruising for the first time, their knowledge of ships, itineraries and cabins often surpasses anything you will glean from trawling the internet.
An independent traveller by nature, I initially resisted doing this and finally caved in and used an agent when booking a Baltic Sea cruise. I never looked back.
9. Consider a package deal
Consider what would happen if you missed your cruise departure because your flight was cancelled or delayed. This can happen and I will share a couple of true stories.
Several Canadian families embarking on a cruise from Hong Kong missed their departure as their flight from Toronto was delayed. They had to fly from Hong Kong to Hanoi and then hire a mini-bus to take them to Halong Bay, the ship’s next port of call.
Then there was the British guy whose transatlantic flight to Rio was grounded because of the volcanic ash cloud from Iceland. Arriving later than planned in Brazil, he had to make his own way to catch up with the ship in Santos.
When booking a cruise, I would consider a package deal with cruise and flight bundled together.
If you book your flight separately and these arrangements fall through, it is your responsibility to make your way to the ship’s next port of call or forfeit your cruise. With a package deal, if your flight is cancelled or delayed, most cruise lines will offer assistance.
Also, if the ship has scheduling changes or delays, the cruise line is more likely to offer assistance.
The alternative is to check if your travel insurance will cover you if your travel arrangements fall through. Or give yourself some wiggle room and plan to fly in at least a day early.
10. Book your cruise early
Finally, when booking a cruise it is the case that the early bird catches the worm. If you play your cards right, cruising can represent luxury travel for less.
You usually get the best deals by booking early and popular sailings sell out quickly. To get the cabin of your choice on the sailing of your choice it is not uncommon to book 18 – 24 months in advance.
Also, some operators, especially those at the high end, will entice early bookers with additional perks such as extra onboard credit, free flights or onboard packages.
I hope that this will help you to book your first cruise and happy sailing!