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6 Tips for Booking Your First Cruise

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Planning your first cruise can seem really intimidating, especially with so many options to choose from — where to sail, which cruise line to travel on and how to get the biggest bang for your buck. TPG Senior Points & Miles Contributor Richard Kerr offers his best tips, from the best credit cards to use to picking the perfect ports.

I come from a long line of cruisers and water lovers — my grandfather was an avid cruise enthusiast and every room in his house was covered with pictures of his and my grandmother’s adventures. He introduced me to the world of cruising when I was in high school and it’s safe to say I’ve never looked back — after more than 10 cruises throughout the Caribbean, Europe and Alaska, as well as my current career in the Navy, my love for the water has become a significant part of my life. Here, I’ll take what I learned from those experiences and share six tips every first-time cruiser should consider before booking a voyage at sea.

1. Understand the Modern Cruising Experience

Water slides on the Carnival Breeze. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
Water slides on the Carnival Breeze. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Most people who are initially against the idea of a cruise vacation have one of a few objections — they have no desire for a scheduled vacation, are perhaps a bit nervous about heading out to sea or they’re just picturing the dining room of a senior citizens’ home with a mediocre jazz band playing in the background.

The reality of today’s cruise experience is quite a different story. Norwegian Cruise Line’s slogan is “Freestyle Cruising,” and most major cruise lines have as many activities and dining options as you could ever hope to find on a single ship. You can do — or not do — as little or much as you want. For dining, you can eat at a plethora of onboard restaurants, in your room, at the buffet or in the dining room. You don’t have to sit at a formal dinner with strangers if you don’t want to, though this has always been a blast for me as the cruise line does a good job matching ages for table sittings.

While there have been some notable exceptions to the rule, cruises generally make for safe vacations with the most qualified officers and crews at sea onboard to ensure your safety. Modern ship designs have wonderful safety features and retractable stabilizers to minimize port and starboard rocking while Azipod propulsion now makes even the largest ships able to turn on a dime.

Onboard entertainment has taken a noticeable step forward, too, even since I began cruising. While magicians, comedians and musical reviews are still in the picture — and quite enjoyable — you can now bowl, ice skate, ride bumper cars, zip-line, take cooking or dance lessons, learn computer programs, become a wrist watch aficionado, ride wild water coasters, see an onboard production of a Broadway show and enjoy top-of-the-line spa treatments along with many other intriguing experiences. Add in a few extra perks, like visiting several new countries or ports while never having to repack your suitcase, and you have a week of as much, or as little, excitement and fun as is possible anywhere.

2. Choose an Itinerary That Works For You

The MS Westerdam Holland America cruise ship in Sitka, Alaska.
The MS Westerdam Holland America cruise ship in Sitka, Alaska. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Caribbean cruises are great but they may not be what you want for your first ocean vacation — perhaps visiting historic sites in Mediterranean countries without having to hop from airport-to-airport intrigues you. You can cruise almost anywhere that has a port today, so take these factors into consideration when choosing your itinerary:

  • The weather in your destination — what season is it there and will it be as warm or as cool as you want?
  • Length of the cruise — how many days at sea and how many days in port would you like?
  • Size of the ship — the motion of the ship in addition to the amenities onboard differ, so check what the different ships offer and go with your favorite option.
  • High/low seasons — typically April and May are low season months for an Alaska cruise due to lingering cold weather, which in turn might end up yielding better prices.
  • Cruise line — while every cruise line gives you plenty of options, each also has its own distinct personality.

3. Pick Your Ports and Prepare

Cruise ships docked in Nassau, Bahamas. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
Cruise ships docked in Nassau, Bahamas. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

While considering which itinerary to pick, the ports you’re visiting should play a huge part in your decision. Regardless of where I have been on a cruise, most ports and cruise lines have a few similarities. They all offer set shore excursions for guests to take advantage of at every stop and the port itself will also have tour vendors right at the pier waiting for guests who have not booked excursions directly through the cruise line.

The advantage of booking these through the cruise line is that the tour provider has been vetted and the logistics of the tour itself are convenient, allowing you plenty of time to get to and from the ship. The downside of booking through the cruise line, though, is the price, which can be much higher compared to smaller, locally run tours.

I usually do my research beforehand and either book a tour online through a company beforehand — sometimes the exact company taking my fellow guests, only I’ll have paid about half of what they did — or I’ll haggle with the people on the pier and set off on what can turn out to be a surprise adventure. Haggling is not for everyone and you have no protection or recourse if what you book yourself turns out to be subpar, but you will save a lot of money. Either way, not properly preparing for your shore excursions can cause both your wallet and head to ache.

4. Get the Right Room

Cruise lines have become clever with the marketing and layout of the different room types onboard each ship. There are usually upwards of 15 categories, many with minor differences that you may pay more for but will not notice. Research your specific ship class on sites like Cruise Critic and understand the category differences before you book.

Generally, there are interior rooms with no windows, oceanview rooms with windows, balcony rooms with either interior or oceanview verandas and suites. It gets a bit more complicated with additional options like spa rooms, which offer added amenities and private entrances, so be sure to do your homework ahead of time so you know what to expect.

I usually book whats called a ‘balcony guaranteed’ room, where I don’t know what specific balcony room I will have as it will be assigned closer to booking based on availability. This is a good money-saving tip as these rooms often cost less — it helps that I’m also not picky about where my stateroom is located.

5. Book Your Cruise with the Travel Agency Offering the Most Incentives

I have booked all but one of my cruises from third-party online travel agencies because of the extras given on top of the cruise fare like onboard credit, beverage packages, shore excursion credit, a specialty dinner at an onboard restaurant or casino free play. You could really be giving up a lot of freebies by not shopping around.

Sites I peruse often for cruise deals include VacationsToGo, CruiseDirect, CruisesOnly, and CruCon Cruise Outlet. In 2010, I found a last-minute deal for a balcony stateroom on the Costa Concordia for seven nights at $360 per person through VacationsToGo, so you never know!

6. Use the Right Credit Cards

Listening to the ‘white lightning’ of glaciers calving in Alaska was magnificent. Image courtesy of the author.

While cruises aren’t traditionally considered to be the best use of points and miles, if your goal is a free cruise solely on points, it can be done — you can divert all of your credit card spending to cruise company co-branded credit cards as well as generic cash-back or reimbursable travel expense cards like the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard. Before doing this, consider the opportunity cost of not earning transferable points with your credit card spending. While you can redeem transferable points for free cruises, I highly recommend cashing them in on free premium-class flights or hotel stays before or after your cruise rather than wasting them on the cruise itself.

Credit cards can still be particularly useful when it comes to cruising for a few reasons. Travel insurance in the form of trip interruption or trip cancelation can be extremely valuable. Think of it this way — if your flight to the departure port is cancelled and you cannot be rebooked in time, your cruise could be over before it even started. I have used this benefit courtesy of my Chase Sapphire Preferred card my Citi ThankYou Premier card, so it’s nice to have this option for peace of mind.

Even better for cruises are cards that give you extra points for travel-related spending. All of your onboard expenses are tied to your room key and a credit card given at check-in. Remember, all expenses, including cash withdrawn at the casino on some cruise lines, are added to your portfolio and charged to your room, so choose your card wisely to maximize the amount of points you’ll earn just from charging things you were going to buy anyway.

Bottom Line

Booking your first cruise can be a little intimidating but with a little planning and the proper research, it will make for an unforgettable experience. My family has seen glaciers calve, toured ancient ruins at Ephesus, been diving on Caribbean reefs and seen an active volcano thanks to our vacations on the high seas.

What advice would you give people who are about to take their first cruise?

Featured image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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