How To Plan A Cruise Vacation, from Start to Finish

How To Plan A CRUISE VACATION

From Start to Finish

 First you should know that planning a Cruise takes a lot more than just sitting down in front of your computer, and choosing a cruise that appears to be offering the cheapest deal you can find. It requires a great deal of thought, along with proper planning and execution (knowledge of the cruise lines and their fleets is also a must) if you wish to plan on getting things right, as compared to; just getting it! Get It?

What to Buy – Economy – Regular/Mass Market – Premium or Luxury?

It used to be a simpler decision-making process, when cruise lines catered to specific segments of the marketplace. Like an economy cruise line (For Families and/or the young at heart). Or say a Premium Mass Market cruise line (for the active mature or mobility restricted). Or even a Luxury Cruise (for the upscale or want to be “totally pampered with the best” minded individual). So before you can begin to set out on planning your cruise, you will need to decide just what type of cruise experience you desire, and which type of cruise product you will ultimately decide to purchase.

While the playing field has become a bit more complicated in recent years with almost all of the major cruise lines fogging over their defined playing fields offering more things that will appeal to the masses on the Luxury Lines, while the mass market players have stepped up their game a great deal in offering larger, and more luxuriously appointed accommodations. The field is still somewhat defined with Mass Market lines such as Carnival, NCL, and Royal Caribbean (to name just a few) offering the more economical (less frills) cruise experience, to the Middle of the Road lines that offer a lot more upgraded suites and services that accompany them, like Holland America, Celebrity, and sometimes Princess as well. The there is the true Luxury oriented, and cruises that offer the ultimate in comfort, spoiling, and a true adventure experience, as well as being more apt to find a “all inclusive” approach to cruising such as Crystal, Seabourn and the likes. TIP ALERT! Some of the best deals out there with the depressed economy are in the luxury products, especially considering that most of them are including FREE Air Fares, as well as 2 for 1 Cruise Pricing, and many other frills. By the same token however, just because a cruise ship has “suites” to sell you, doesn’t necessarily mean they offer the best in true suite level service to support them! They are merely simply Larger Staterooms, rather than true suite service accommodations. This is where having a cruise professional can really help you in the long run.

While the cruise lines have been feverishly busy with all of the additions and renovations they have been making to their fleets over the last 10 years (with 24 more brand new ships to come between 2009 and  2014),which ultimately has made for a more confusing situation than when Ma Bell got split up. Similarly the Cruise Industry has also become very competitive (at least cost wise) ultimately leaving the cruising public even more confused than ever.

Consider Some Expert Advice or Assistance:

Using Expert Advice:  Such a confounding climate has made it even more important that the prospective cruise customer is best advised to secure a knowledgeable cruise planner and/or travel agent. Someone who is able to negotiate through all of the cruise line offers, specials, and incentives taking place out there (especially with the web), as well as the vast differences between cruise lines, and even ship changes, it’s really a lot to stay on top of. It requires a professional to be able to distinguish the true offer(s), and the best alternatives so the cruise customer can be able to compare apples to apples. For these reasons it’s not only good to have/use the services of an expert, but to be sure the expert is one who is an avid cruiser themselves, possessing the requisite knowledge about the Industry as well as its ever-changing products and services.

 With that being said, and you are convinced you can do this on your own, how do you know what type of cruise will best suit your needs and desires? Often times you can judge what you will most likely enjoy in a cruise vacation, based on your current everyday style of living. Consider things such as:  type of home you live in, brands of hotels you like to patronize, when you fly do you choose coach, business, or first class, what kind of car do you drive. Sounds strange you say? Not at all. The reason these questions are so crucial in getting things right for the customer, is so that you don’t waste time or effort in researching cruises that just won’t make for a good fit. Cruise ships services and accommodations, which fall short of being able to make you wowed! When you go on a vacation adventure, the accommodations, services, and food better be (at a minimum on par with or even more so), better than what you are accustomed to on a daily basis, or could seriously run the risk of being less than impressed and quite possibly even let down.

Now just because you live in a custom build, and drive a Mercedes Benz, doesn’t mean you need to choose only a Luxury Cruise, but by the same token you might wish to avoid considering an Economy Cruise (such as Carnival), as you could wind up sorely disappointed as well. Likewise, even though you may have the means to purchase a wonderful upscale sized suite on a particular cruise ship, you might not want to consider it, if you know that the service level makes for nothing more than just a bigger room on that particular class of ship. So you can begin to see, where often the cruise planner/agent (professional) must go further in making sure you understand why they might think there are better options for your cruise. Yet there are still those who sit down and click on an internet “deal”, which often times can end up a cruise disaster. Tell you what, next time Save yourself the Internet Provider Service Fee Charged and come see me with the same amount of money and you will at least be assured of a cruise choice better made!

Another important aspect of the responsibility of the planner/agent is to set the proper level of expectations. For the first time cruiser, the planner/agent needs to do much in the way of educating them as to what they are going to experience. As compared to the more seasoned cruiser, where the planner/agent must be sure to match the needs and desires of the customer, and to ensure there are no disappointments or unexpected surprises they were unprepared for. I would seriously recommend that before you attempt taking on the challenge of booking your own cruise vacation, that you at least read through our FREE Cruise Academy first level courses called “Cruise Mini Camp”, which you can avail yourself to by (clicking here) to view all of the modules.  

 The Nuts and Bolts of Planning a Cruise:

When planning a cruise, there are some all important issues that you should be asking yourself. Actually the planning of any travel adventure is half of the fun itself. So you should make the most in your planning process, which will allow your decision-making to be that much easier, and certainly lend to a far better outcome in the end as well. Here is my list of the top ten things to consider when planning a cruise.

1.   Who is going? Planning your first cruise adventure can certainly be a challenging ordeal, especially for those who haven’t cruised or traveled much. They can be fun, but they can also result in devastating consequences. Family, Friends, or Co-workers, and even ill-informed travel agents may be well-meaning, but they can easily pass along rumors and tales they have only heard from others (or who read something, somewhere) and you can be the real loser in the end. First time cruisers should always work with a travel agent, (or even better a professional cruise consultant), and one who is not only experienced at booking cruise vacations, but one who is well versed in traveling the various cruise lines and ships as well. All age groups are welcome aboard cruise ships, (provided they are more than 6 months old), and you should know that the cruise lines have worked very hard over the past few years in “upping their game” especially in the area of “children” and “challenged passengers”. Knowing the specifics as to who is going (even for myself) is a key component to matching the customer(s) to not only the best cruise line, but in many cases the right cruise ship itself! If you don’t have children cruising, and/or you wish to not be around ships with lots of children, be sure to let your cruise professional know this, as it will make a huge difference in the selection criteria process.

2.  How much are you prepared to spend? While it is generally a good “rule of thumb” to be prepared to budget approximately $100 per person per day (not including air fare, and any extras like alcohol and shore excursions, etc.) This figure is a good starting place, as a minimum. As for maximum that of course can be easily increased with say premium or luxury cruise lines, or extravagant or elaborate shore excursions just to name a couple of pricier examples. You should ALWAYS bear in mind, that the cruise lines are charging for more extra’s these days, that folks don’t always account for before embarking on their cruise adventure, only to wind up at the end of their cruise with an on-board cruise account figure that looks as much, if not more than the cruise fare itself. So you need to be keenly aware of this. On board cruise accounts are for those cheesy photos you posed for (posing is free, while the prints aren’t cheap). Those delectable looking drinks of the day (complete with souvenir glass) are not only $6 to $8 bucks a pop, and speaking of pop; sodas can and often do cost as much as an alcoholic drink on cruise ships. Oh Yeah! and they both come with a general hefty 15% gratuity already charged on the bill slip you sign for. Bottled water is not free either. Those (depending on size), can run anywhere from $3 to $6 per bottle plus tip (unless you buy it in the general store area). Gratuities: Everybody wants to participate in rendering the appropriate tips for the ship’s personnel that take good care of them while on board the ship. Consequently while a figure of $10-$12 per day might not sound so bad before you take out for your cruise, when you multiply that figure by number of persons in the room, by number of days in your cruise; you can be looking at over $165 just in gratuities in an instant. While there are lots of suggestions that I can give you for keeping those on-board expense accounts down, which I happily give out to all of my customers, but here are just a few of the basic suggestions on how to start off saving more money on our cruise fare daily budget.

  • having more than two persons in a stateroom
  • booking  your cruise early (6 months or more out)
  • consider a longer cruise (8 to 10 days, rather than 7)
  • consider taking a repositioning cruise (generally great deals)

 3.       How long is your vacation time?  Cruises can encompass practically any time frame you have to work with from a “weekend” cruise to nowhere which allows passengers the ability to cruise for generally a long weekend and don’t do much more than pull out of port and cruise around without stopping at any ports and allows you to get the feel and experience of what a cruise is like. These are generally excellent first time jaunts, to see if you like cruising, before plopping down a huge sum of money, only to find that you didn’t enjoy this type of travel. You can also choose a cruise for less than 7 days (3, 4, or 5 day cruises) which are pretty much limited to the Bahamas, Mexico, and certain parts of the Caribbean. There are repositioning cruises which moves a ship from say New England or Canada to a seasonal home port in Florida, or Los Angeles, or San Diego to summer port in say Seattle, or Vancouver. Repositioning cruises are generally offered at tremendous savings, basically due to their starting in one port and ending in another much further away. For sailings of 7 to 9 days allows you to have more in the way of destination choices. Should you be able to squeeze out from 10 days up to two weeks, then your options are pretty much increased to the max, as the world is composed of more than 75% water, you now are pretty much open to all seven continents of cruise travel possibilities.

 4.       When do you want to travel?  Cruising is not much different from all other forms of destination and air travel from the standpoint of their being subject to peak pricing periods. Generally speaking , if the kids are out of school it is going to be more expensive; cruises, air fares, hotels, just about everything. The laws of economics being driven by supply and demand, are very much the driving forces behind cruise fares. While there are some generalities which often prevail, there can and do occur circumstances that can make inventories vast, and those that make inventories quite scarce. Time that you book (or reserve) your cruise can also effect the cruise price as well. Generally speaking cruise prices will become higher (costlier) the more the ship fills. So now that you have just a few cruise pricing basics, lets talk about cruising seasons and their effect on prices. Some destinations have generally short seasons such as Alaska (April to September) just the opposite in the southern hemisphere where the Exotics like Polynesia, Australia, New Zealand, and much of Southern Asia, has their cooler weather opposite to what we have here in the States. So October to March is their warmer, rainy, humid seasons, so prices will be better then. Likewise Antarctica and southern South America’s good weather make for a shorter sailing season with November through February being generally when you will find cruises to these destinations. The major difference to bear in mind is that for the tropical destinations (which we call the exotics), their dry season is similar to the States with summer time being the hottest,  and their rainier times are during the Winter Months, so if you are seeking the cheaper cruises that period would be November through March. Holidays can be tricky; as some are more expensive, say Holy Land Cruises at Easter time (everybody wants to go there then). While the absolute cheapest time to take a cruise in the North American Market is the week before Thanksgiving, as they have the hardest time filling cruise ships for that week. It’s just important to be aware what is going on with weather patterns before booking your cruise since you would want to plan for a bikini party cruise when it is snowing!!

 5.       Where would you like to cruise to?  Selecting a destination is generally the most difficult decision for potential cruise passengers. In addition to all of the major continents being accessible, even those typically thought of as land locked offer wonderful river cruises (see my article on river cruises) to locations in central Europe, Russia, Cambodia, and Vietnam, as well as the Interior United States. If you are not familiar with River Cruising I offer several articles that describe how they differ from Ocean Cruising.  Every cruise destination has its own special characteristics and diverse culture to explore! Here are just a few to consider when planning a cruise vacation.

 

  • Alaska Cruises (and cruise tours)
  • Antarctica (and South American)
  • Asia Cruises
  • Australia and New Zealand Cruises
  • Bahamas and Bermuda Cruises
  • Canada and New England (great fall foliage destinations)
  • Caribbean Cruises (Eastern, Southern, and Western sailings)
  • European North (Scandinavian & Baltic) Cruises
  • European West (UK , Ireland, Scotland) Cruises
  • European River Cruises (Inland Holland, Germany, France, Hungary,etc)
  • Mediterranean (Eastern) Italy, Turkey, Aegean, Greek Isles, Black Sea
  • Mediterranean (Western) Spain, Monaco, Portugal, France, Italy
  • Mexican Riviera Cruises
  • Panama Canal Cruises
  • Repositioning and Trans Atlantic Crossing Cruises
  • World Cruises

6.       What are the activities that you like (or would like) to do? One of the very best things about traveling on a cruise, besides the fact that you generally only have to pack and unpack just once, is the variety of activities that are available. Sometimes the very ship itself can even be the destination, and you could care less exactly where the ship is going. Some of the Mega ships nowadays offer everything from putt putt, to zip lines; to rock climbing walls………you get the idea. They offer just about anything you could want to do on the ship itself. But in general on a cruise you can do anything from catching some rays on the deck, to exciting excursions involving hiking, scuba and snorkeling, and just about any other type of water sport you can imagine. Horseback riding, Cycling, RV and Jeep Treks, and just a host of other sporting activities including golfing at some of the finest courses in the world on your ports of call. European destinations offer some of the best museums, architectural and cultural areas in the world. Many locations offer great excursions via motor boat, airplane, and helicopter, and your cruise expert and the cruise lines can be helpful to let you know the many excursions you can choose from. Just remember that if it sounds like a great adventure, probably everybody else is thinking the same thing, so as many excursions are limited to the number of people on each ship that can be accommodated, this is another reason it’s good to book early, so you can get the best availability when you have paid your fare in full, as you have already looked at the available excursions and can get in there while there is still space available. Note: it is NEVER a good idea to wait until you get to the ship to buy your shore excursion as mostly ALL the popular stuff will be already sold out! (See a video on a popular excursion “zip line” on Catalina Island)

 7.       What type of stateroom would you like?  While generally the type of stateroom one selects is largely a function of the Cost Question, I always caution my prospective customers, do not select on the basis of just price alone. Let me explain. First of all you want to have the best experience possible right? Of course, so if you were to choose say not the cheapest category (inside staterooms with no window to view anything), say you opted for an Ocean view stateroom that will afford you a porthole (smaller round or square window) up to and including a larger picture window type view. If you are doing an Alaska inland passage cruise where your ship will be staying relatively close to the shoreline, entering fjords, and pulling up to the glaciers, you would really enjoy more a balcony stateroom, where you can really experience the adventure, and you have your very own binoculars, and warmth of your entire wardrobe at hand if it gets too cold, to just sit and view the wildlife and nature go by. Or for another example imagine you are taking a Panama Canal cruise; you definitely want the experience of the locks, and lakes to be able to enjoy from your very own private balcony. Here’s the real clincher, in many cases especially with early booking, you can often get that type of stateroom for maybe only 10 to 15% more in price. So if you were paying say $100 per day to be stuck inside a room, wouldn’t it make more sense to pay $115 per day, and get to experience it from your very own private veranda? You bet it would. In my book on most cruises, Balcony is the smart buy!  Most all of my customers who cruise on a balcony, never want to cruise any other way. Another issue that often comes up is which side of the ship do you choose if an ocean view or balcony stateroom is your choice. Here is definitely where the expertise of a cruise professional can help you make the most of your cruising experience. Someone who not only has been there before, but knows the cruise line and ship particularities, so that you can know in advance what particular things you really wish to see. Did you realize that sometimes ships turn around and/or are backed into their berthing spots in port?

8.       What time would you like to eat dinner at?  While dinner times vary with cruise line and ship, they mostly have some things in common. A first seating around 6’ish and a second seating around 8:30, or so. Many, if not most of the cruise lines now offer what is called an “anytime or open seating” option, where you can come to dine anytime between 6 and 9pm. The only difference being that your seating will not be at the same table or with the same wait staff each and every night. It will vary. For me personally one of the things that really make a cruise experience for me is the interaction with the ships staff, and I personally find that the best personalities aboard ship are usually at the fixed seating staff, but then that is just my opinion. There are some advantages of anytime dining, such as giving yourself extra time to get ready for dining if you’ve come back at say 5:30 from a long day’s excursion or sightseeing, or maybe too much shopping (if you happen to be with my wife), then you are not rushed to have to go to eat or having to miss your dining room meal time. The negative for such anytime dining, it the cruise lines normally require that you prepay for your gratuities (up front) if you select anytime dining.  As mentioned, maybe you might opt for the late seating, and don’t worry about missing a particular show as normally the performances have an early performance for those folks that have a late dining seating. Many customers of mine love the idea of going to see a show, and then going straight to dinner. They say it reminds them of their dating years gone by. But whichever you choose there are accommodations for all. One other thing to note that on a ship when you have selected a particular first or second seating, the cruise line will ask you for a table size preference generally as small as two, up to as many as 8, (and even some 10 or 12 by special requests for groups). Often times the number of smaller tables is limited, so you will want to let your cruise professional know if you desire a table for two; so that they can get that request into the cruise line as early as possible.

 9.       Do you enjoy dressing up for dinner?  Many of the cruise lines allow for at least one or two nights on a sailing which are designated as formal nights. Now with the recent trends of most of the cruise lines opting for a more “resort casual”, or “country club casual” dress code. We continue to see formal wear less and less these days. However, certain more premium lines such as Holland America, and Celebrity, still practice the formal night’s tradition. Now with the added luggage space needed to pack your formal wear let me tell you just a couple of things which I call “food for thought”. Extra Bag fees for the both of you for your formal wear, tux and two gowns can be as much as $70, each way on the plane for say an additional $150.00. Many if not all cruise ships offer tux and evening gown rentals that would be commensurate to such cost. However most of my women customers would NOT be caught dead in a rented gown. So here is another idea. Remember that generally on a seven-day sailing there will only be one formal night. Therefore, you should be able to get a gown and a tux or suit into a single garment bag just fine. This will limit the amount of extra bag fees necessary to have your formal wear with you. If you don’t particularly care for really formal dress up, in formal attire even on the premium lines, it is not absolutely required. Men normally need only a sport coat (or in some cases merely a collared shirt) and tie, and a nice medium length dress for the ladies. No halter tops, shorts, sandals, nor jeans (for adults anyway) are allowed in the formal dining room. But again that shall depend a great deal on the actual cruise line you will be travelling on. Be sure to consult with your cruise expert on this subject in more detail. If you are planning your cruise on your own, be sure to read the brochures and web site carefully to determine the dress code for your cruise ship’s dining room.

10.   How will you be transporting to your cruise ship?  You will most likely being either flying, or driving to your cruise port terminal. Normally folks will only drive if the port is situated within a day’s drive to the cruise ship departure city. However, there are some situations where you can find hotels in or around the port city that have “snooze & cruise”, or “park & cruise” special packages that offer one night’s hotel stay, parking at the hotel, and transportation to and from the hotel to the port terminal for one great package price. Many times (especially in San Diego, or Los Angeles) you will find these deals not to be too much more than what one would pay for the parking fee alone at the terminal parking garage. Some of the hotels even throw-in a continental breakfast for cruise morning in the deal. So that is something you might wish to check on, or ask your cruise professional about. (You may wish to click here to see my alternative travel suggestions). I definitely try to encourage my customers not to attempt to fly into the port city on the day of their cruise. Over the years I have had way too many disappointed cruise passengers on account of the airlines as they always seem to have weather, mechanical, or crew related issues that keep them from making their scheduled times, which if you are depending on the airlines to be on time to make your cruise ship, is not a good thing to be doing. This is especially true, in the case of international departure ports. Now while on the topic of airlines, most cruise lines offer packaged cruise-air pricing, which is often times much easier to purchase, you will just need to be the judge as to whether the price from the cruise lines is better than booking the flights on your own. If you intend to use frequent flyer miles, then this will be something that you definitely will need to do on your own with your air carrier (and not through the cruise lines) and you should be mindful of my warnings already issued regarding the airlines schedules and delays. Some benefits of using the cruise lines “cruise-air” is that typically their price includes transfers to/from the airport and cruise ship, which the price of that alone can add up to a pretty good savings (so be sure to consider that when pricing). Another little known benefit to using their air, is that SOMETIMES the cruise ship will wait for late arriving flights, especially when they’re a number of “their passengers” on those flights, especially since under the terms of the carriage contract, if you purchase their air, and the scheduled plane is late and the ship leaves without you, they (the cruise lines) have to accommodate and fly you (at their expense) to the first port of call to catch back up with the ship. AHhhh! Some more food for thought.

 Summary:  So, there are lots of things you need to consider when planning your cruise vacation. It is advisable that you always use a professional cruise planner to help you. You get the best in knowledge, and experience, that costs you nothing to have the best. Cruise Agents have the very same prices that on-line services do, and probably (if the truth be stated) even better. All online services will be charging you a $25 to $35 service fee that they don’t even have to disclose to you (until just before they charge your credit card) for each person that they book, for every reservation (I.e. cruise, hotel, etc) so that it can actually get pretty pricy, and you don’t even realize that normally till “after” your credit card has been charged, as the fine print is way too small to be able to see.-Bon Voyage!

The End

For more information on cruising and traveling, you can contact Mike via email mberryhill@cruiseholidays.com   . You can tweet (or follow) Mike at http://www.twitter.com/cruisewithmike  . To “Join” our Travel Club go to  http://meetup.com/Sun-Cities-Travelers-Group/  .

Please feel free to leave a comment below on this articles’ contents. We are always looking for ideas or suggestions to expand and improve on our content! If you found the information helpful why not include (a tweet to followers) or (share a like) with your facebook friends, that they might benefit from the information as well. Thanks For Visiting, and please come back often to this daily Blog. – Cruise with Mike

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About cruisewithmike

Mike is a Professional Cruise Wedding Planner, Wedding Officiant,and owner of CruisewithMike Wedding Planners. With over 20 years of experience in the Travel Industry, as an Independant Travel Consultant, Customer Service Agent, and a retired Va. Magistrate, and Clergy. Mike has a very unique perspective on Customer and Wedding Service Needs and strives to provide custom service that's "TOPS" Totally Outrageous Professional Service, with every customer he works with.
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