What size ship should you sail on, where should you sleep on board, and when should you pay? These are all important issues to consider before booking. With ships more diverse in size than ever and new pricing methods being used, it's time to revisit some of the basic adages of cruising.
Does Size Really Matter?
Absolutely. But bigger is not always better. Today's cruise ships run form the small (Sea Dream's two ships with 108 guests) to the very large (Royal Caribbean's Voyager class carrying more than 3,000 guests on ships measuring nearly 140,000 tons). And with Queen Mary 2 coming along, and Royal Caribbean's announcement of the even bigger Super Voyager class, the definition of large is going to be revised once again.
As far as the onboard experience goes, there's a huge difference between small and large ships. As a general rule of thumb, the smaller the ship, the more luxurious it's likely to be. This also means fewer guests overall, and a higher space ratio -- a critical factor in judging a ship. Today's newer ships, even the larger ones, have a higher amount of space per person than the older ships. This means more elbowroom is available in all of the public areas (this is really important when it comes to dining rooms and show lounges) and there are larger staterooms overall. But at the same time, some of today's luxury ships are getting bigger, too -- consider Crystal Serenity, a true luxury vessel at 68,000 tons, carrying 1,100 guests.
But to be realistic, once you get into the 70,000-ton ships and above (and all major lines have ships this large and larger), you are into a size where you're traveling with 1,800 or more fellow cruisers. You're going to be around people pretty much all the time. So it's very important that you decide just how many people you want to vacation with. The largest of the large ships have great features (rock climbing walls, multiple dining options galore, more bars, more deck space that is usually filled, etc.). But this also raises issues about waiting in lines -- at embarkation and debarkation, and going ashore is ports, especially when tendering is involved. To me, there nothing sadder than that line-up at the end of the cruise when so many people cram the lobby of a ship rushing to get off, instead of just relaxing in a lounge and patiently waiting. And there's the frustration of wanting to go ashore in port but having to get a timed ticket for a tender.
So decide what kind of experience you want. If you agree that "the more people the merrier," go for the ships with the most options. If you want a little more privacy, go with the smaller ships within a fleet, or go with smaller ships in a higher category. It may just be worth the price.
Location, location, location!
They say these are the three most important factors is retailing. But it's also true for cabin selection on lots of ships. I was on a small ship recently and a fellow guest, who had a walking difficulty, had bought a room on a "best space available" basis. She wound up in the category she purchased, no upgrade, and the room was all the way forward, away from the elevators. Since the ship was full, she had no way to change rooms and had a problem for the entire cruise because of distances.
I was on a large ship recently and had an aft mini-suite with balcony. Now, ordinarily I love the view out the back of the ship. And indeed the room was fine and the balcony really good, but I was virtually right over the show lounge that featured loud, late-night music. The band also rehearsed during the afternoon hours. As you can imagine, the volume and the vibration were not much fun.
So you have to be very careful in selecting where you want to be on a ship. Take into account show lounges, laundry rooms, dining rooms, etc. Try not to have the room right next to the purser's lobby (non-stop traffic all day and into the night). The quietest rooms will be away from elevators and stairs, but the walks are longer. Figure out your priorities in terms of what you're going to do and try and get the room that's most convenient.
Cruise lines have also changed the way they price out rooms. On any given deck, it used to be that all rooms in the same category had the same price. Now, forward and aft rooms are priced lower than rooms in the center. This can actually be a good deal, since the new, large ships are so incredibly stable that the ride is pretty smooth no matter where you are.
There's another general pricing rule by which the cruise line will charge more for a room on a higher deck even if it is identical to rooms lower down. I do not normally think it's worthwhile to pay for this extra height. Do you really care if you're on deck 7, 8 or 9? It's all of 20 feet, approximately. Take the lowest deck you can in whatever category you're buying, and you'll save a bunch.
It really pays to study the deck plans. As an example, on Princess Cruises' terrific new ships like Coral and Island Princess, there are balconies galore. But if you pick the room correctly, you'll get a corner balcony with even better views.
Does it pay to book early?
Almost without exception, yes! All cruise lines have some sort of incentive for booking early. There's either a discount or an added feature thrown in (air, hotel, etc.). Prices are supposed to go up closer to the sailing date. There's also the added advantage that you have a better chance of getting exactly which room you want.
Is there a chance that a line will drop prices closer in? Yes. But if you pay attention to rates, either yourself or by asking your travel agent do it for you, there's a good chance that the cruise line will automatically change your price, or that they will do so once you bring it to their attention. And since you do not have to make final payment until somewhere around two months before the cruise, you have the option of canceling, getting your deposit back, and rebooking at the lower rate if it's a significant difference. This seems to be happening less and less, though. And, with cruise lines trying hard to raise their fares (and deservedly so after a number of years of radical discounting), substantial close-in price drops should disappear.