How to Choose and Book Your Ideal Cruise Vacation

Read our expert’s insight into the major cruise lines and tips for booking your cruise travel.

Choosing and booking a cruise can be overwhelming if you’re not familiar with the industry and the destinations served. However, it doesn’t have to be. Here are a few tips to help you decide what you want from a cruise vacation, how to pick the best cruise line for you, and how to go about making your booking.

Where Do You Want to Go?

The first decision to be made is where do you want to go? These days you can cruise just about anywhere in the world, so your options are nearly endless. Read our Cruise Destination article for location ideas, and our What to Do in Port article for excursion recommendations.

Which Cruise Line Matches Your Travel Style?

Your second decision is the cruise line and ship that matches how you want to travel. Are you looking for a family vacation, a romantic getaway, or do you just want to escape the daily grind? The type of vacation you’ll have will depend on two things: the cruise line and its itinerary.

There are plenty of cruise lines to choose from, with fleets of large mega ships or smaller intimate, luxurious vessels. The more exclusive lines offer a whole different class of cruising from the mainstream, more commonly known companies, and are generally more expensive.

Onboard amenities cover everything from the spa, salon and fitness centers, to art auctioneers, casinos, bars, specialty restaurants, photo centers, shopping and more. Ships are floating hotels and besides the fact that you are sleeping in a cabin, it is pretty much the same. Every year newer and bigger ships hit the high seas as the cruise lines compete to be the biggest and best in the industry. Their fleets usually consist of a few older and smaller ships, with the newer ones being the most recent additions. Currently the largest ship afloat is Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas, however she won’t hold the title for long as newer and larger ships enter into service.

No matter which cruise line you choose to sail with, be sure to research the itinerary, ports of call and shore excursions offered. The most popular cruises last seven to 10 days, while the more exotic one last anywhere from 12 days or longer. Check what onboard amenities are offered and be sure to budget for your optional shore excursions. Either way you are bound to enjoy your voyage on the high seas.

I worked onboard a variety of major cruise lines for more than 15 years and know each pretty well. Here’s a guide to what each line has to offer to help you find the right cruise to match your vacation needs.

$: Inexpensive ($700 and under)
$$: Moderately priced ($701 to $1,500)
$$$: A little more expensive ($1,501 to $3,000)
$$$$: Expensive ($3,001 to $5,000)
$$$$$: Very expensive ($5,000+)
Price ranges are approximate as cruise pricing depends on ship, dates, cruise location, cruise length, cabin location and other variables.

Elite and Luxurious: 5-star +

Luxury cruise lines offer a more intimate cruising experience, with plenty of perks and all inclusive amenities. For the most part the more exclusive lines cater more toward adults traveling without kids. These luxury cruises are a perfect choice for couples and older, more experienced travelers. No matter which line you choose, you’re guaranteed to spend your vacation in the lap of luxury

Seabourn Cruise Line: $$$$$

Luxury at its best, the Seabourn yachts are elegant and stylish. With three ships carrying 208 passengers and the Odyssey accommodating 450, the ships are intimate and personal. The cruises are all inclusive (with open bar), the staff members are very attentive and the service is impeccable.

Crystal Cruises: $$$$

Crystal Cruises is known for lavish ships, incredible service and top-notch dining. Over the years the company has teamed up with world-class chefs including master Chef Nobu Matsuhisa. Crystal Cruises offers numerous lectures as part of their Creative Learning Institute aimed at enriching the mind, body and soul. You can even take computer lessons in their Computer University at Sea.

Regent Seven Seas: $$$$$

Regent Seven Seas is one of the few cruise lines that offer a truly “all-inclusive” cruise. Not only are you pampered and waited upon with a level of service fit for a king, all your shore excursions are included. You can pick and choose an unlimited amount of excursions in any port of call call (book by May 31 for this offer on remaining 2009 cruises). Itineraries also follow the road less traveled, calling in more exotic and uncommon ports.

Windstar Cruises: $$$

The Windstar ships offer a unique style of cruising vessel—a motor-sail-yacht (somewhere in between a sailing ship and a luxury yacht). With the flip of a switch, the ship’s motorized sails kick in and the yacht becomes a sailboat. With only 148 passengers onboard the Wind Star and Wind Song, and 312 onboard the Wind Surf, the friendly surroundings provide the perfect alternative to the average cruise. Windstar Cruises are a great choice for water sports lovers. Equipped with a fold-down sports platform, complimentary water sports are offered right off the back of the ship while at anchor.

Silversea Cruises: $$$$

Silversea tends to visit more remote ports of call and offers some great itineraries. The personalized service is very evident in its attention to detail. Silversea offers a wide variety of enrichment programs from wine and culinary cruises to arts and culture. With ships accommodating 132 to 540 passengers, they’re spacious and ultra-luxurious.

More Mainstream

Fitting a wider range of passenger, the more mainstream cruise lines offer everything from party cruises, laid-back vacations and adventure travel, to honeymoon getaways and everything in between.

Higher End of Mainstream

Holland America: $$$

Holland America caters to a sophisticated crowd looking for a quieter, more reserved cruise. With almost one crew member for every two guests, the service is impeccable. If you’re into food and wine, check out its Culinary Arts Center. Presented by Food & Wine magazine, the center features classes, demonstrations and cooking seminars.

Princess Cruises: $$$

Although more of an upscale cruise line, Princess fits a wide age range of passenger and is one of the few cruise lines that combines cruises with full land packages. In conjunction with Princess Tours, you can spend a week exploring before joining the ship. This is especially popular in Alaska, with the Denali National Park tours.

Celebrity Cruise Line: $$$

Celebrity ships are known for being spacious with nicely sized cabins, which offer you a comfortable atmosphere. The ships are refined, classy and a little more laid-back.

Cunard: $$$

Cunard’s fleet consists of three magnificent ocean liners. Built in the grand style of the original liners, the ships are sophisticated, stylish and beautifully decorated. In sticking with tradition, Cunard makes your cruise experience true to the original White Star service. With all three ships doing world cruises, this would be the cruise line to choose.

Mid-Stream Cruise Lines

Costa Cruises: $$

Costa has a big presence in Europe, and although the ships visit worldwide destinations, the audience is for the most part non-American. Ships are nice and clean, and good for families and young professionals.

Royal Caribbean Cruise Line: $$

Besides owning the largest ship afloat (Freedom of the Seas), Royal Caribbean is known for onboard amenities and quality of entertainment. Activities include fun things like climbing walls, FlowRider surf parks, miniature golf, water parks, whirlpools, basketball and even an ice rink. Royal Caribbean is a great choice for the whole family, especially teenagers and younger kids.

Disney Cruise Line: $$$

In keeping with tradition, sailing onboard Disney Cruise Line is as entertaining as visiting Disneyland. It’s the ultimate vacation for young kids, as they cruise with the entire cast of Disney characters. Pre- and post-cruise offerings often incorporate a trip to Disney World in Orlando. There are no casinos onboard—we don’t want to corrupt the kids!

Casual Mainstream

Norwegian Cruise Line: $$

Norwegian Cruise Line’s (NCL) passengers tend to be a mix of young professionals, older couples and families. The onboard amenities are extensive, and dining options are plenty. A perk to sailing with NCL is FreeStyle Cruising, which offers open dining. No first or second seating; eat when you want, with whom you want and with no pressure!

Carnival Cruise Line: $

Carnival is known as the company with the party ships, and for good reason. Filled with Spring Breakers, college kids and young couples, the company caters more to those festive folks. Its large fleet of ships tends to stay in North American waters, offering inexpensive cruises.

Tips for Booking Your Cruise Vacation

There are several things to keep in mind when you book a cruise, whether through a travel agent or Web site. If you know which ship you want, book directly with the cruise line. If you book in advance, you won’t find dramatically discounted cruises; instead, cruise lines offer various perks like onboard credits and complimentary transfers. Last-minute booking is generally where you’ll find the most discounts as the cruise lines try to fill their ships before sailing. If you wait to the last minute, however, your choices are a lot slimmer. But, if your cabin allocation and travel dates are flexible, then check it out. Here are a few more tips for booking a cruise:

1.  The first thing to take into consideration is the time of the year you’re planning on sailing. The beginning and end of the season is always a cheaper time to go; however, especially in the case of Alaska and Scandinavia, the weather is not always the best and the seas can be a little rougher. June and July are peak times to travel, but are priced accordingly.

2.  Your cabin allocation and category is also a factor in the price of the cruise. Do you want an inside, outside or balcony cabin, or would you prefer a suite? On a Caribbean cruise, you don’t spend much time in your cabin; however, on more scenic cruises, you should consider a balcony. There are also certain parts of the ship that are better than others. The more central you are, the more stable the ship is. Always check to see what is around and above your cabin. You definitely don’t want to be under the disco or basketball court.

3.  Should you book air travel through the cruise line? This depends on where you are joining the ship. If it is a North American cruise, you’ll probably be able to find a good price on your own. However, if you’re traveling to a distant destination, it’s advisable to check out the cruise line’s air and sea packages. By traveling with other passengers, if your flight is delayed or you don’t make the ship on time, the cruise line will delay sailing until everyone has arrived. But, if you are traveling on your own, the ship won’t wait for you.

4.  Almost all cruise lines offer pre- and post-cruise stays near your port of embarkation. Again, if you’re traveling long distance, I strongly suggest arriving a day or two prior to your cruise departure. This gives you time to take in the sights and rest before departing. It also assures that you’ll make it to the ship on time. You can choose whether to go with the cruise line’s hotel package or get your own.

5.  When booking your cruise, be sure to find out about the transfers to and from the ship. They cost extra but well worth it—one-way or roundtrip. You are met upon arrival and transported to the ship or you can cab it if you want to be on your own.

6.  Most cruise lines offer the opportunity to book a future cruise onboard the ship, so if you are thinking of taking another cruise, be sure to check it out. This is where you’ll generally find some good deals and special offers.

If organized properly, you won’t need to sweat the small things. Just hop onboard and enjoy your cruise!

Themes: Cruises

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Where is Oceania on your list?