Finding the right cruise is a bit like dating – there may be a few hits and misses until you settle in with the right ship and cruise line. Each cruise ship, line and itinerary is unique – each sailing is unique based on the passengers you encounter. The people you meet on cruises are like no other in my experience, if you are lucky, you’ll meet lifelong friends who share your passion to explore. Either way, you will have stories, so many wonderful stories of your adventures on board and in port. My first time cruise (solo to the Baltics) was seven years ago and I’ve been on many cruises since then. I was surprised that I’d like it, surprised that I could craft my vacation as I wanted it to be.
But you’ve heard things – bad things like buffet lines, shared dining tables with forced conversations, belly flop contests, and old people. Sure, you can find those if you want but the cruise of today can be customized around you and what you (and your family) want. It is a travel product that is never the same no matter how much you try – there are too many variables to factor in. How you design your cruise is all up to you!
My friend said “I won’t like a cruise, I really don’t want to go but my girlfriend is making me”. I laughed and said “you’ll see, you’ll love it and be a convert” and as he sent me photos during the cruise I knew that the cruise industry just added a new customer. When he returned it pained him to tell me “you were right, I really had fun”. I said “what about all those bad things…like other people?” he replied “we found quiet spots and enjoyed our private vacation”.
As more cruise lines expand their offerings to cater to high end luxury, aspirational luxury, multi-generation families, groups and theme cruises as well as help the entry level first time cruise passenger, it really has become a vacation for everyone. Below are my First Time Cruise Tips to decide if you are ready for a cruise vacation as well as my Cruise Budget Builder (A to Z) to give you a realistic glimpse into the costs of a cruise.
First Time Cruise Tips
- Cruise Critic – Sign up, consume all the tips and information you can. Once you decide on a cruise, visit the board for that particular sailing to meet other passengers (up to a year in advance!). You can join a free happy hour on the ship, arrange for a cabin crawl (where folks in the group show you their cabin at each category) or find people to tour with in port on a private tour. Great resource for all.
- Research, research, research – A good cruise vacation really depends on your personality, what type of vacation you want, the food you like, where you want to go, how busy you want to be, your budget, etc.
- Find a Cruise Travel Agent/Specialist (yes, I’m biased as a travel advisor) – A good cruise agent will ask you many questions to find a good match. We’ve completed specialized training with the cruise lines to understand the products available and/or have sailed many time with the cruise line to have first-hand knowledge. With access to last minute specials, promotional fares and upgrade offers, a cruise agent is a great resource to save you time and money.
- Prices Change With “Specials and Bonuses” so you can’t really compare prices. Know what your budget is and work backwards from there (see Bonus First Cruise Tips – The Cruise Budget)
- Ship Cabins start at tiny and work their way up to suites. Frankly, you only sleep and shower in the cabin so the only decision in my opinion is “do you want to spend more for a balcony?” Is the additional cost part of a special occasion and worth it?
- Solo cabins are plentiful on a few Norwegian ships like Epic and Breakaway but book early as they go quickly. Thankfully other cruise lines are starting to add a handful of solo cabins (it’s a start).
- Single supplements SUCK – cruise lines charge per cabin (just like a hotel) however unlike a hotel they advertise per person. So while a hotel will say $200 a night, a cruise line will say $100 per person. As a solo traveler, you will pay the full cost of the cabin (quoted as 200%) so a $699 pp fare just became $1,398 for you. Last minute deals of 150% do occur so work with a travel/cruise agent to keep you in the loop.
- Cruises are NOT all inclusive – that ship sailed a long time ago for the most part (there are high end luxury cruises that are all inclusive but you & I aren’t looking at those are we?). Now we all want to customize our holiday and pay only for what we use, eat, enjoy so the cruise lines are happy to nickel and dime you or dollar and pound you with each want and whim. (See Cruise Budget Bonus below)
- Cruise lines do a great job with kids clubs. The kids get to meet others from around the world and have their own mini vacation.
- Food allergies – the cruise lines excel at catering to food allergies in my experience. You need to indicate in your reservation but also check in with the maître d upon boarding. I was able to order my food a day ahead in most cases and indicate a bespoke preference. The only ship I had problems with was Norwegian Epic “dine anytime” plan. Celebrity, Royal Caribbean, Princess and even Carnival are fabulous with food allergies.
First Time Cruise Tips (Bonus) – The Cruise Budget
No cruise costs what is advertised. The low price per person is enticing. Just $499 for a 7 day cruise?! Wow! Until you get the final bill and realize that it’s more in the $2,000 – $2,500 per person range (unless you live in a port city and can drive to the dock). Be realistic in your cruise planning, here is my list A – Z of the real cost of a cruise to help you build a cruise budget.
The Realistic Cruise Budget Builder – The “A to Z” costs
These are the costs to consider when building out your cruise budget.
- Airfare & Parking/Transit to/from
- Cruise Cost
- Cruise/Trip/Air Insurance
- Pre/Post Hotel & Food Costs (always arrive to the port city the day before sailing)
- Tips/Gratuities Automatically Added and Additional
- Beverage Package (beer, wine, soda, bottled water) or pay by consumption
- Tours in Port (cruise line tours, private guides, DIY)
- Tours on Ship (kitchen, bridge, etc.)
- Bar Tasting Events (Wine, Margaritas, Martini, etc.)
- Spa Treatments
- Gym Classes/Private Training
- Medical Reviews/Services like Acupuncture, Botox, Physicals
- Art Auctions (waste of time and money in my opinion, I’ve been duped once and never again)
- Photography Studio
- Internet (not worth the exorbitant cost – remember dial up? It’s slower than that in my experiences)
- Specialty Restaurants (the steak will never be as good as at home so save the $35+ pp)
- Activities on Board
- Special Shows/Entertainment not included in the base fare
- Port Transfers
- Coffee Shop/Bakery/Ice Cream Bar (love Starbucks – pay extra! Cupcakes – extra! Ice Cream – Extra!)
- Fresh squeezed juice bar (my morning OJ was worth the extra! The free stuff is sugary crap)
- Bingo cards
- Shopping on board (please, please, don’t buy gold by the yard for your bracelet)
- Shopping in Port (still made in China folks! Spend your money on local artisan made goods that support the local economy, small business owners and provide you a unique item/story to bring home)
- Room Service (a few cruise lines are adding fees here)
With small ships (under 500 passengers) to behemoths (over 5,000 passengers), there is a cruise for you, me and everyone else. Find a river, find an ocean, explore the seas or cruise in the canals you’ll find a way to have fun on the water. Visit a port for a day as a teaser to return for a longer visit. A cruise allows you to sample the world, unpacking only once. If interested in a cruise vacation, let me know how I can help you find the right fit for you.
Have you been on a cruise – what did you like best and hate the most? Share your tips to help others consider their first cruise.