The First Timer's Guide to a Heavenly Cruise Vacation

The other day a customer came into our office to find out about taking a cruise. He was, “a cruise rookie”, because this would be his first cruise and most of his knowledge about cruising had come from “The Love Boat” television show and from legends from his friends.

He was familiar with international travel and had vacationed at resorts in Hawaii, Mexico and in the Mediterranean. But the whole subject area of cruising was still something of a mystery to him.

These are some of the features of a cruise vacation we passed along to “Mr. First-timer”:

There are many different types and kinds of cruise ships available for a wide variety of interests

When the Queen Mary II made her big splash this winter she became the world’s largest cruise ship holding more than 2500 passengers. Other new vessels, such as Princess’ Caribbean Princess can carry as many as 3100 passengers on seven-day Caribbean mega-resort vacations. On the other hand, Oceania Cruises has two ships holding only 600 passengers, but offer many of the features of their much larger sisters at sea. And, for the most discerning passenger one might choose the 148 passenger Wind Star, or 320 passenger Silversea cruise for six star quality (and quite pricey!) exotic cruise almost anywhere in the world. Or. Perhaps you might choose a steamboat on the Mississippi, a barge in France or an exploration ship in the Galapagos or Antarctica, the choices are endless.

Keep in mind, the larger the vessel, the more likely it will be in service in the mass market spectrum, offering the most popular seven, and three and four-day cruises in places like the Caribbean, Mexico and Alaska. The biggest cruise lines, Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line all feature large ships with a wide array of features and highly popular with both family and single cruisers. These vessels usually have the lowest prices.

The next group of ships are what is known as the premium level of cruise product. The best example of these ships are Holland America Line, Celebrity Cruises, Oceania Cruises and Princess (the Love Boats would also fit in the mass market category because of their larger size). These ships tend to be a little smaller and put emphasis on dining, spas, quality of service and repeat cruisers. Usually their passengers are a little older and a little more experienced and affluent than their mass market cousins. Sometimes great value bargains can be found in this class of ships.

Another category is the upscale level of ship. Radisson Seven Seas Cruises, Windstar, Crystal, Seabourn and Silversea Cruises are the primary competitors in this group. They tend to be smaller and offer more exotic destinations usually not in the mass market locations. They are very much into gourmet dining, spa activities, and sophisticated entertainment and education. These vessels are the cream of the crop, much like the most famous land-based resorts might be.

The bottom line is that all ships are not created equal. It takes an expert to help guide you to the correct vessel. Even within the same cruise line some ships are best avoided.

What are the most popular cruise itineraries?

The Caribbean is popular year-round, with seven-day voyages departing from Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, Port Canaveral, Houston, New Orleans and elsewhere. The eastern Caribbean with St Thomas, Saint Martin, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas and private islands is best known for its shopping and wonderful beaches. The western Caribbean usually visits, Grand Cayman, Jamaica, Cozumel and the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, and is considered great for snorkelers and SCUBA divers. And, there is also the deeper, or Southern Caribbean routes, which often leave from Puerto Rico and might visit Barbados, Martinique, Grenada or Curacao and Aruba. Some southern Caribbean itineraries even include a day-trip through the eastern locks of the Panama Canal.

The Mexican Riviera cruise departing from Los Angeles, Long Beach, San Diego or San Francisco has long been a cruising mainstay. Usually the ships visit Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta, with a few venturing on the Acapulco and Ixtapa or up the Gulf of Mexico to La Paz and Loreto. Three and four-day Los Angeles cruises are also available usually only going as far south as Ensenada.

Mexico cruises are very popular with west coast folks because they don’t require a forced overnight before the ship departs like the eastern Caribbean itineraries do.

A third popular cruise destination is Alaska. From May through September the 49th state is open for cruise visitors. Recently Seattle has joined Vancouver, B.C. as a prime homeport for an Alaska cruise adventure. Cruise-tours which include places like Denali National Park (home of Mt. McKinley), Fairbanks, Dawson City, Whitehorse and Anchorage are also highly popular. Cruises from seven down to three days can be combined with an Alaska tour. For scenery and wildlife lovers, Alaska is a destination at the top of the list.

Europe and the South Pacific are also excellent cruise choices. In both instances the cruise ship takes the place of very expensive land resorts or hotel and makes for a great value in visiting these wonderful places. Tahiti, Hawaii, the Mediterranean and the Baltic are served by a wide range of ships and itineraries.

Other itineraries which are often requested might be Trans-Canal voyages from Florida to the west coast, or vice versa. Traditionally only offered in the Spring and Fall, some lines offer all-winter canal cruises as well. Winter (Summer for them) cruises go to South America and to Australia/New Zealand. And, it’s always possible to do a world cruise which usually departs in January and can last more than 100 days in length.

What do I get for the price of my cruise?

The basic cruise fare includes a stateroom on the vessel and transportation to your destination, all meals, onboard entertainment (review shows, movies, piano bars, Karaoke and Disco, sports bars, etc.), the use of the gym and pools and whirlpools and special shipboard parties. For example, most ships now include 24-hour room service, some kind of 24-hour buffet or snack service, breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert bars, various grill locations, and bar snacks—all of which are included in the basic fare. And of course, cruises are famous for their midnight buffets or dessert extravaganzas.

You also received the dedicated service of your room steward, and the rest of the amazing staff onboard the ship. Pampering is the byword for what you’ll experience.

Your stateroom will be compact, unless you opt for a more opulent suite. All staterooms include beds convertible from two twins to a queen-size configuration. A bathroom with a shower (and often a tub as well), a toilet and washbasin are also included. Closets, desk area with television (and usually a refrigerator) are also in the room. The choices are either inside (no window and most inexpensive), oceanview with a window, verandah which includes a balcony and suites of various sizes. Prices are usually determined by how high the stateroom is located on the ship, with the least expensive in the bottom and the suites at the top. New ships tend to have about 66% of their staterooms in the verandah category because that’s what most in demand by cruisers. Often times families will buy a verandah for mom and dad and put the kids across the hall in an inside stateroom.

Each night on the cruise a program for the next day’s activities will be delivered to your cabin. Literally, more than 50 things might be listed, but you can choose whatever you like and ignore the rest. Some of the items might include, early morning walking groups, special food demonstrations, bingo, afternoon teas, port lectures, talent shows, blackjack and slot tournaments, palates classes, movies, stage reviews, concerts and entertainment programs, etc.

The cruise will also offer a variety of shore excursions when the ship is in port. These might include beach parties, helicopter flights, swimming with the dolphins, taking a submarine ride, visiting ruins or geological sights. The choices are endless and prices will start at about $20 per person for the most basic, up to several hundred for a helicopter exploration. Usually a port lecture will take place early in the cruise to explain shore excursion options. Many cruise lines offer pre-booking of shore excursion via their websites, and it’s possible for the agency to book advance purchase shore excursions as well.

Back to food, up to seven different meal choices are available on most cruise lines. All cruise lines have a breakfast and a lunch buffet, and most now offer a casual dinner buffet option as well. Room service is included and usually is available 24 hours a day. Coffee, tea, milk, juices and water are included, other drinks are not. In the evening the main dining room usually requires a minimum dress code (no shorts, bathing suits, etc.). Most cruise lines will have at least two “formal” nights onboard, which these days means a coat, slacks and tie for men, and cocktail dress or dressy pants suits for the ladies. For those not wanting to participate in formal nights, alternative dining arrangements are available. One of the formal nights is usually the Captain’s cocktail party, with free drinks and a chance to formally meet the Captain. Many celebrate anniversaries, birthdays or other special events during formal nights onboard.

Many ships now include extra-fee alternative dining. Usually it’s a specialty supper club with perhaps Italian, Pacific Northwest, French or Mediterranean cuisine. Some ships have several of these restaurant choices ranging in cost from $10-25 per person for the meal, but these are strictly optional dining choices.
And, while soft drinks and liquor is an extra cost, some cruise lines offer pre-paid cards allowing unlimited consumption at a value price.
Remember soft drinks may cost $1.50-2.00 and a glass of premium wine $7.50. Wine can be purchased at lunch and dinner, and bars around the ship are open nearly all day and night.

While gyms with state-of-the-art exercise equipment, and walking and jogging tracks are available at no charge, Spa services do cost extra. Spa services include massages, hair and skin treatments, aromatherapy and a wide variety of other spa products. These items can be reserved after boarding the vessel by visiting the spa office next to the gym. Extra cost classes such as Yoga, Pilates, Spinning, Low-Impact Aerobics, etc. are also available at a minimal expense.

On the night before your cruise ends you will receive a bill for all of your onboard purchases. When you board the ship you will be issued a plastic charge/identification/room key card. The card will be used for all on-board purchases and has a photo of you embedded on the magnetic stripe. The card opens your room, is your personal id card and is connected with a charge card you present at check-in, just like a hotel or resort.

Most cruise lines include tipping in your bill (about $10 a day per person). The charged tips are for your room steward and dining room waiter and busboy. A service charge is included for each drink you purchase from any of the bars. If you do not wish to have the tips included in your bill, notify the ship’s purser to remove them when you receive your final bill, the choice is yours.

Cruise prices have remained the same for the past 15 years, and represent one of the best values in travel. The satisfaction level for a cruise vacation is rated as 90% outstanding by all cruisers surveyed.

The ships themselves are amazing and the onboard service is outstanding! In the words of the President of Carnival Cruise Line, “Your worst cruise vacation will still rank as one of the best vacations you’ve ever taken. Cruise Holidays of Woodinville has a full staff of experienced cruise counselors who can fit you with the right ship for a wonderful cruise vacation.

To book your first cruise, please fill out our contact form or call our Luxurient Travel Experts at 866-487-4001.

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