Top 10 Tips For a First-Time Cruiser

| Monday, 03 Jan. 2011

How to make your vacation at sea more affordable and fulfilling.

It appears 2007 will be another record year for the cruise industry, with the number of passengers surpassing 12 million. And as many as 50 percent will be first-time cruisers. If you're planning your first cruise vacation this year, here are some key strategies that can save you big bucks.

Book Early or Late You generally get the best deals by booking well in advance or at the last minute. Reserving space three to six months prior to departure provides "early-bird" savings of 15 to 50 percent (and occasionally more), and also gives you access to the widest selection of available cabin categories (inside, outside, outside with veranda, suite, etc.). Those who would rather not commit until the last minute may find substantial discounts available within a week or two of the sailing date. However, there are risks with last-minute bookings: If you need to fly to the port, it may be difficult to get an inexpensive flight because many cheap airfares require a 21-day advance purchase; also, you will probably not get the cabin category of your choice and will have to settle for whatever is available.

Seek Out a Cruise Specialist Whenever you reserve space, it's a good idea to consult a travel agent that specializes in cruises. True, many web sites provide information on individual cruise lines and also offer bargain rates, but booking a cruise online is not simple — there are many factors that require expert advice, like distinguishing between cabin categories, determining which cabins are adjacent to noisy areas of the ship, reserving dining room seating, requesting a special diet, etc.

With thousands of cabins to fill week after week, the cruise industry has deals and discounts throughout the year, and a savvy agent is the best source of information on the hottest ones available. An experienced agent who sells a large volume of cruises will often be rewarded by the lines with access to special discounts on ships of major companies like Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Princess.

Drive Rather Than Fly The trend toward "homeland cruising" has dramatically increased since 9/11 as many travelers want to avoid the hassle of airports. Driving to the port is also a real money-saver as it eliminates the cost of airfare. Major cruise lines have repositioned many ships within driving distance of most regions of the U.S. Thus more cruises than ever are departing from "close-to-home" ports such as Boston, New York, Bayonne (New Jersey), Philadelphia, Baltimore, Charleston, Jacksonville, Tampa, New Orleans, Mobile, Galveston, Los Angeles, Long Beach, San Francisco and Seattle.

Try a quickie cruise first It's a good idea for first-time cruisers to book a three-, four- or five-day itinerary to "test the waters" and get the feel of the cruise experience. While many love to cruise, others find it a bit too confining and rather dull. So take a weekend quickie to see whether this is the type of vacation for you. A number of ships sail on short cruises to the Caribbean, as well as along the Mexican Riviera and to New England/Canada.

"Cruise together, save together" Contrary to popular belief, the typical cruiser is no longer "newlywed or almost dead," as baby boomers now make up the heart of the market; 34 percent of cruisers are in the 35 to 54 age bracket. Family cruising is also on the rise. Last year, 16 percent of cruisers brought along children under 18, and more than a 1.2 million children are expected to cruise this year.

Not only are parents with children cruising together more nowadays, but so are multi-generational and extended families with grandparents, parents, children, aunts, uncles and cousins, as well as groups of families and friends. Most cruise lines offer discounts for families and other groups with at least 16 people; besides the group discount, the 16th cruise ticket is complimentary. Groups may also qualify for other special freebies such as a cocktail party and/or additional onboard amenities.

Families with up to three kids are eligible for a discount if they share the same cabin. Companies like Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Disney, and Norwegian Cruise Line have "family friendly" rates with the third, fourth and fifth passengers getting 50 percent or more off the standard adult fare. While it may be a bit crowded at times, the savings more than compensates for the lack of elbow room (note: toddlers under age two can cruise for free on NCL, Costa and Cunard).

The best equipped vessels for accommodating families are mega-ships with elaborate children's facilities, from playrooms and video arcades to computer rooms and teen discos. Both of Disney Cruise Line's ships, Disney Magic and Disney Wonder, have dedicated almost an entire deck (15,000 square feet) to kids encompassing playrooms and a computer area plus a children's pool area, teen club and a special family lounge.

Beware of added charges While cruise lines tout "all-inclusive pricing," there are many potential costs not covered by the cruise fare. These include money spent at casinos as well as the cost of alcoholic beverages and photos snapped by ubiquitous photographers. Other temptations that tug at your wallet include shopping (many ships resemble floating shopping malls) along with surcharges of $10-$25 per person for dining at specialty restaurants. So budget in advance how much you want to spend once the cruise gets underway, because incidental expenses can accumulate quickly and add up to a hefty bill slipped under your door at the end of the cruise. If you must buy something onboard, wait until the final day of the cruise—most of the stores will throw a sale then.

From ship to shore—saving on excursions One of the largest extra expenses is for shore excursions; these range in price from as little as $25 per person for a bus tour to $300 or more for helicopter flight-seeing. Tours run the gamut from traditional sightseeing tours to more active pursuits such as hiking, biking, kayaking, and snorkeling. While some tours are truly exceptional and enhance the overall cruise experience, others are impersonal, time-consuming and not worth the price. Passengers seeking to conserve funds can explore ports on their own, and/or arrange their own excursion; some attractions may be within walking distance of where the ship docks, while others can be reached by sharing a cab or renting a car. For two couples or a family of four it is typically less expensive go by taxi or rental car than for each person to pay for an organized excursion.

To find a reputable travel agent specializing in cruises, contact Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) at www.cruising.org, which lists agencies staffed with Master Cruise Counselors (MCC) and Elite Cruise Counselors (ECC). Another good source for cruise expertise is the Institute of Certified Travel Agents at www.icta.com; and membership in the American Society of Travel Agents (www.astanet.com) ensures that the agency is monitored for ethical practices.

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