Are you planning to book/take your first cruise on a luxury cruise ship anytime soon? Is it one of those flight and cruise packages? Then this beginner’s guide to cruises is for you! It has everything you need to know, from when to book to onboard entertainment to how to manage your expenses.
When to book?
Big companies start advertising their cruises early (even a year in advance) and may also feature early bird prices. Equally, last-minute deals feature good prices but don’t rely on that if you want to go on a particular cruise. What you can do is instead is one (or more) of the following.
How to know when to book?
I think the best way is to do your research.
- I’ll start with an example of my a family summer holidays in 2011. After my family and I had returned from our 2010 summer vacation, I was looking the travel brochures that we had at home, and I found some cruises and a deal that mentioned the early bird prices and their deadline of that season. So I had that in mind, and in January 2011, when the final cruise itineraries were published from our local travel agent, we started thinking more seriously about it. It may sound odd to book your summer holidays 6 months in advance, but it is a good way to save money (in my case, the early bird deal included savings of up to €400 per person).
- Another way to find out when to book is by subscribing to newsletters from your local travel agent, a travel agency that specialises in cruises or even a cruise company itself. In this way, you will be notified when they will start advertising their cruises.
Hint: Cruise ships run all year round, so if you are flexible on the dates you can find cheaper deals if you travel during off-peak periods. Of course, that’s true for any kind of holidays you choose to make.
Flight and cruise?
If you are combining flight and cruise, check what’s included in the price. Sometimes, flights are not included, and you need to book them yourself. In that cases, it will be good to check all the available departure ports to find the most convenient flight, not only regarding money but also concerning time. You need to ensure that you have plenty of time to go from the airport to the port and vice versa.
Step 1 done! What’s next?
Relax and plan! Because you’ve booked early, you will have plenty of time to arrange the rest. What does that include? Any flights, hotels and transport bookings you need to make. Besides, have a look at the offers that the cruise company you are travelling with has. Most of them you will be able to find them onboard too, but check in case there are any special prices.
Another thing you need to consider is what you will be doing at different destinations. Options include taking a shore excursion organised by the cruise company or “going solo”. If you choose the first one, then you literally have nothing else to do but to pack. Now, if you choose the second, you need to take into account a few more things, which are discussed below one by one. The answers to the following questions may also indicate if you prefer an organised excursion instead.
How much time will you have at each destination?
If you have the whole day (and by that, I mean at least 6 hours), then you have plenty of time to enjoy the city centre, go to a couple of museums, have a proper lunch and walk past the main sights. If you have a half-day, then think about what you like doing more, i.e. do you want to pass your time in a museum or explore the city? The choice is yours. If you decide the second, then I suggest to plan a self-guided tour (if you don’t want the option of going on an organised tour) or take a Hop-on Hop-off bus (if there is one). Those buses, are good if you are short on time (this is what we did when we were in Barcelona and had only a morning to spend there). Read my reasons (and their pros and cons) here.
How far is the port from the city?
This is an important factor, especially if it is not a walking distance. An example is the Civitavecchia port an hour away from Rome. Then you have the following options: take a taxi (not recommended unless you don’t mind paying a lot) or use public transport (if convenient). The only problem with public transport is that you may not want to waste time to get tickets, wait for a late train/bus, do all those intermediate stops etc. So, before deciding, check if anything is offered from the cruise, as a direct shuttle bus. It most probably won’t be as cheap as public transport, but it will be cheaper than a taxi (if you are not a lot of people in your group).
Another way of getting to the city centre is by ferry. Usually, services will be advertised, or you will be advised accordingly. Remember to check when is the last service to take you back.
How easy is to move around in that city?
This last point will determine if you want an organised tour. If the city is packed, and you can cover most of it on foot then go ahead you don’t need anyone! 😉 Otherwise, check what public transport has to offer, but again I don’t recommend it for the same reasons as above. If it is going to be your first time there, maybe you want to see and learn as much as you can, so it could be more convenient/reasonable to get an organised tour. On the other hand, if it’s not your first time, you may be more experienced in moving around alone and you may want to explore another part of the city not easily reached. In that case, check the easiest and quickest way to get you there. Again balance your options!
I just got onboard! What to do now?
Brilliant! Explore the cruise ship! The ship we were travelling on had 18 decks. That meant swimming pools, casino rooms, shops, outdoor and indoor games, restaurants, cafes, bars. Your cruise ship will probably have all of them, if not more. However, you need to keep in mind that most of those are not free of charge.
So, what’s included in the price?
As I wrote above, this depends on the deal you get. Definitely, the cruise itself, your accommodation and your meals on board (breakfast, lunch – if you will be in, sometimes afternoon tea and dinner). Drinks are not included in most cases, but you may be able to buy a specific number of drinks or unlimited drinks with your meals. Most probably you get free access to the swimming pool(s), casino room(s), the entertainment show(s) on
board and maybe some other stuff. Perfect, I don’t need to spend on anything else! Well, if you manage to do that, I admire you! But, the truth is that you will. From photos to drinks to shopping and onboard games and other activities. Other things that in most cases are not in the initial price are gratuities and shore excursions.
When should I take a shore excursion?
Basically, when it is your first time to a large city and want to get the most of it. When we were in Rome, we took a shore excursion for this reason. Another factor is how well you think you can navigate in the city, including simple conversations in the local language or simply if you are just visiting a destination with a totally different culture than yours. An example from my trip is the shore excursion we took when we were in Tunis. For more reasons, look the numbered part above.
How to save money onboard?
That depends on how much you want to save! If save means not spend anything else on board then just follow the free activities of the day and don’t buy anything! Now, if it means how to reduce your expenses, then there are a few tricks. The most important thing to do is to check for bundles and early bird prices. The more you research, the more you will find!
What to do onboard?
There are many things to do onboard as mentioned above from staying in your room and watching TV to going to that fancy water slide or whichever cool activity your cruise ship offers. Some of them are for free, some of them are with an extra cost. Make sure to check the daily activity list in advance and plan accordingly. Options like bingo, dance classes or thematic afternoons are usually available. Evening entertainment is usually the highlight of the cruise and varies each night so be sure not to miss it. In my case shows included opera, acts and dance.
Any last tips?
Cruises are a great opportunity to meet people from around the globe. So get the most of it! Time on the cruise ship can pass super-fast or too slow. So, put a deck of cards (or indeed any portable board game you like) in your bag, just in case you need it.
My favourite moment every day was breakfast! It wasn’t only the variety of options, but also the view. Every morning it was different! In general, all meals onboard were amazing. Buffet lunch (if we were on board), afternoon tea (some days) and a la card dinner! Mmm… The only disadvantages were the long queues and the fact that sometimes we were struggling to find a place to sit during the peak hours of breakfast and lunch, despite the huge dining room.
Nevertheless, I had fun, and I would definitely go again! Now, it’s your turn! Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!
Enjoy your cruise!
P.S. This post is based on my experience from my 2011 trip. You can find out what I did here.
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