If you’re a fan of cruising, the world is your oyster: a never-ending stream of cruise offers appears in your inbox, enticing you to travel the world on a glitzy new ship, or even a bargain-priced old one. They’re all tempting, but choosing a cruise isn’t quite as simple as it sounds. A lot of factors can affect your enjoyment of the cruise, and the amount you end up paying for it.
Here are a few questions to ask before you put down the deposit on that next cruise:
Where does the cruise start and end?
Cruises to exotic ports are great, but where they start and end can have a big effect on the overall cost. For example, your Asian cruise may start in Hong Kong, some Caribbean cruises start in Puerto Rico, and some “grand tour” cruises start in one country and end in another. That means you have to fly to and from those countries, which can add several hundred dollars (or more) to the price of your vacation. In some cases, a more expensive cruise can end up cheaper if it’s easier to get to the home port. One redeeming note: if the home port is a place you’ve wanted to see, you can add a few days to your stay and make the extra cost worthwhile.
When do you arrive in port, and when do you leave?
Great — you’ve got two days in the city you’ve always dreamed of visiting! But wait — the ship arrives in port at noon the first day. That means you’ve actually got a day and a half to go exploring, and you’d better hustle if you want to see much the first day. With the tight schedule cruise ships often face, these compromises are pretty common, so it’s worth looking closely at the arrival and departure times.
When was the ship refurbished?
Unless you’re travelling on a new ship, the condition of the vessel itself can make a difference to your enjoyment of the cruise. If things are looking a little shopworn, it detracts from the whole experience. Check the cruise company’s website or Cruise Critic for the ship’s fact sheet and see when it was built — and if it’s an older ship, how recently it was refurbished.
Will you need a visa?
For most cruise destinations, you don’t even need to show your passport to enter the country — just stroll off the ship and enjoy yourself (this still amazes me). However, there are some countries that require a visa before you can set foot on land, and obtaining these can take some time and money, so it’s best to know about it early. As I wrote here, to enter Russia you need either a visa or a reservation for an organized tour — great news for companies selling pricey tours.
What perks can you get?
The cruise business is competitive, and to attract customers, cruise lines and travel agencies put on special offers periodically. It’s always worth checking cruise agencies such as CruCon before you book to see whether they’re offering any special sweeteners: common ones are shipboard credits (generally $50 to $200) that you can use for drinks and services, reduced deposits and things like free drinks packages. If you’ve cruised with one line more than once, check to see if you’re eligible for any perks under its loyalty program, such as free internet, free laundry service or a cabin upgrade. These aren’t huge, but they can tilt the scales when you’re comparing cruises.
What’s the cruise line’s carry-on booze policy?
Cruise companies are stingy about letting you bring your own booze aboard. They make a lot of money selling you drinks, and they don’t want to lose sales while you drink your own. However, some, like Carnival, Celebrity and Holland America, allow you to bring a bottle of wine (but not liquor) aboard at the start of the cruise without charge. You pay a corkage fee (generally $15 to $30) if you drink it in a bar or restaurant. Others, like Costa, will confiscate your tipple and hold it till the end of the cruise, and still others, such as Royal Caribbean, automatically make you pay a flat corkage fee for all wine brought onboard. As well, some lines let you bring wine aboard during the cruise for a fee. Confusing? Check Cruise Critic’s handy listing of the major cruise lines’ policies before you cruise.
Could there be a problem entering port?
Sounds like an odd question, but if you’re headed for places like the Falkland Islands that get battered by a lot of stormy weather, it’s possible you may not get into port. Check if the cruise line has a Plan B. As well, if a country you’re bound for is experiencing civil unrest, the cruise line might deem it too dangerous to let you ashore. A woman I met on board said her last cruise never made it into Cairo; they just sat offshore listening to gunfire from the city.
Are there laundry facilities on board?
This can be a real factor if you’re travelling with a family, and especially if you’re travelling for a while before the ship embarks. If there’s no self-service launderette, you’ll be paying for the ship’s laundry service. And while it’s nice to have your clothes delivered to your cabin all cleaned and freshly pressed, it’s expensive. Hint: if you hold out for a while, ships sometimes offer special deals on laundry during the cruise. And if you can’t, some cabins also have clotheslines in the shower so you can wash out a few things. Again, Cruise Critic has a handy list of facilities on different lines.
The best advice for anyone who cruises is just to relax and have a good time as your worries disappear over the horizon. That said, your cruise will be a better experience if you know what to expect, and asking the right questions can help ensure it’s smooth sailing all the way.