Last month, we discussed some basics of choosing a first cruise. It was also aimed at those who haven’t cruised much and may be considering something different. There are a few more subjects I want to cover, but before you read further, check out Tim Rubacky’s CruiseMates article “Understanding Cruise Costs” – it’s extremely well done and should provide insight into the increasingly confusing world of cruise pricing.
By far the most popular destination for first-time cruisers is the Caribbean -- usually a seven-night sailing to the Western or the Eastern Caribbean. The most visited ports are Nassau, St. Thomas, Cozumel (well, before Hurricane Wilma anyway), San Juan, Ocho Rios and the like. Usually, there are three or four ports, a day or two at sea, and maybe a day at the cruise line’s private island. This is Cruising 101, and it’s a great way to start, regardless of which line or what size ship you choose. Sailings most likely will depart from the Port of Miami or Port Everglades (Fort Lauderdale). But be aware that some ships sail to the Caribbean from other ports, like Tampa, Galveston, Mobile and Port Canaveral, so you might want to consider them as well. Nowadays there are even ships that sail year-round out of New York City to the Caribbean (a renaissance harkening back to the old days of cruising; this modern version has been pioneered by NCL).
If the regular Caribbean ports don’t appeal to you, I’d suggest flying into San Juan and starting the cruise from there. You’ll get deeper into the Caribbean, reaching such islands as Barbados and Dominica -- two jewels not available on a seven-nighter from Florida.
I also see no reason why someone should not take their first cruise to a more exotic destination such as Europe, Alaska, or even more distant points. The on-board experience won’t be that different, and these other places may be more appealing.
There are also shorter or longer cruises to consider. Lots of people start their cruise experience with a three- or four-nighter. I’m not such a big fan of these, as they tend to involve a real ‘party ship’ atmosphere and are not truly indicative of what a longer cruise is all about. A seven-nighter gives the cruise a beginning, middle and an end, letting the experience play out at a reasonable pace.
Most cruises give you an option of main seating or late seating for dinner; that means approximately 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. Some lines stagger this to provide more options. Two lines, NCL and Princess, go way beyond the norm. Princess lets you choose whether to be assigned to a table in a main dining room, or dine whenever you want, including the specialty restaurants. NCL has all open seating with a wonderful range of dining options, from big rooms to small. You have to figure out essentially when you want to eat and take it from there. If you like to stay at the pool or destination until the very end of the afternoon, early dining is not for you. On the other hand, if you like to go to sleep early, late seating isn’t going to work.
If you choose to dine at one of the assigned times, you also have a chance (well, usually) to determine whether you dine with or without other people. If you choose to sit at a large table with strangers (or ‘newly-found friends,’ as some lines like to say), it’s a bit of a crapshoot. If you’re gregarious, this can work out well. If you are sort of quiet and like to be alone, go for a smaller table. If you wind up at a table you consider unsuitable, talk to the maitre d’, who may be able to help (especially if a small gratuity is offered).
If you are likely to change your vacation plans for any reason, insurance may be for you. If you have never changed a plan once it has been made, you may be able to go without. If you do take it, make sure you check out what the cruise line is offering; they have a vested interest in making sure their customers are happy. Whatever plan you wind up with, make sure you read the details carefully; once you buy it, it’s too late to get coverage for something not covered.
This is a very hot subject right now in view of the many travel changed plans recently, due to hurricanes and the like. Having the cruise line book your air may be more expensive these days. It may also require you to take a routing that is less convenient than you might get if you book your own trip. But if the cruise line handles the air arrangements, it has a more vested interest in your trip than if you do your own. They will know where and when you are supposed to be traveling and will do their best to make sure you do not miss your trip. And they work very hard to re-accommodate you in case of an itinerary disruption. Would you rather do that yourself?
Have a great cruise. If you have any questions or comments, send me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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