The popularity of cruising has grown steadily over the last few years, and with it the choices of vessels, itineraries and focus (e.g., entertainment, exploration, singles, family, luxury and much more).
For every huge cruise ship with a gajillion forms of entertainment, there’s a smaller one that can travel away from beaten tourist paths. For every all-inclusive package, there are loophole costs to consider. For every swell on the open ocean, there’s a way to avoid nausea and stay healthy.
And for every suitcase you plan to bring, there’s one rule of thumb: keep it light.
Here are some great tips to help you choose a cruise – whether it be at sea or on a river – and then keep your luggage, schedule, budget and personal equilibrium in balance while having an absolutely wonderful vacation.
Finding the right cruise for you
If you’re planning to take to the world’s waterways for your first cruise but aren’t sure which style of cruise is right for you, be sure to ask yourself these key questions:
- Would you like to explore foreign ports or merely divert yourself onboard?
- Do you like a lively crowd or one that’s more sedate?
- Are you hoping to just spend time with your companions or meet new people?
- Do you want to be on the open ocean or would you prefer a river?
Your answers will point you away from a costly mistake and towards a great vacation. Know that the larger the ship, the more opportunities there will be to seek out a blend of each either/or question.
Know that most cruisers are between 45 and 60 years old, but the 25-39 age group is growing, and so is the 60-and-over cruising set.
If you’re looking for an older, more relaxed crowd, seek out longer voyages. Any cruise that’s longer than seven days will generally attract a retirement-age population with plenty of vacation time on its hands. To further insure a mature population, try a cruise to a cold climate like Alaska, Nova Scotia or the Baltic.
If you’re looking for a younger crowd, stick to cruises that are seven days or less, headed somewhere warm and laid-back. If it’s specifically a party you’re after, seek out cruises that take 2-4 days to travel to and from the upper coasts of Mexico or the northern Caribbean.
What to pack
The short answer: as little as possible.
Even on the largest cruise ships (at this writing, Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas, with capacity for 6,318 passengers and 2,384 crew members) the average stateroom is generally the size of the smallest hotel room you’ve ever seen.
You may have a closet just big enough for two, a few cubbies and a drawer or two, a bit of counter space in the bathroom and a a small swath of tabletop. It’s advisable to unpack and store your empty luggage underneath your bed.
Keep shoes to a minimum. For most locations, one pair of sneakers, comfortable sandals and/or reef shoes, flip-flops, and formal shoes will do the trick.
Think wrinkle-free fabrics (e.g., jersey and cotton-blends) and layers; it can get chilly at night out at sea, no matter how warm the ports you’ll visit. Always pack a light raincoat with a hood, preferably one that zips up into its own pouch for easy packing and transport. Showers occur frequently in tropical climates and out at sea.
There will almost always be a formal night onboard, requiring you to bring a suit and/or fancy dress; try to keep these outfits as streamlined as possible.
For more specifics on what to pack, check out this universal list that suggests how to pack for different cruise destinations around the world; this general packing list for women, men, and children; and this Alaska-cruise packing list for both land and sea.
Scheduling your time
While you’re on a cruise, you generally set your clock to the ship’s time rather than any datelines you may cross. This time is what dictates meals, appointments and excursions.
Excursions are where most cruise lines makes their money, so there will be a lot of energy spent on urging you off the ship and into an organized tour or activity. You can book these ahead of time or onboard, and even as late as the night before if space is still available.
However, every hour spent on an excursion is one not spent relaxing on deck (when more than half the passengers will be elsewhere) or indulging in the spa, sports center, wine tasting sessions, educational lectures, hobby classes or much more; especially on larger ships, it can be hard to find the time to do everything you’d like.
The good news is that you’ll generally have at least one full day at sea, when you can try to fit in as much or as little as possible onboard. Fortunately, big and mid-sized cruise ships generally offer a daily newspaper whose sole purpose is to announce that day’s excursions, activities, performances, events and more. You might want to bring along a highlighter pen to help you keep it all straight.
On smaller ships and vessels, announcements of the day’s (far simpler list of) activities will be made at dinner the night before and/or via a short newsletter delivered to your stateroom.
Assigned seating vs. Freestyle dining
To enable efficient and personalized service at dinner each night, most cruise lines will assign you seats at a group table in a public dining room; especially on smaller ships, you can find yourself all but stuck with the same passengers every night for the length of your cruise.
However, this isn’t necessarily as fearsome as it sounds. Your cruise staff will have taken the time to fill a table with passengers who are at similar stages in life (couples, singles, retirees, etc.); just by showing up to dinner each night, you could end up making some new friends.
On big and mid-sized ships, you’ll generally have the option of “freestyle,” or dining at several onboard restaurants; for an average of $20 per person (in addition to your dining plan), you’ll be able to sit with just your own companions. Over the course of the average 7- to 16-day cruise, though, these additional charges can easily blow your budget.
In addition, while the cuisine served in these restaurants usually differs from the dining room menu, this isn’t always the case. For instance, on budget cruise lines, you’ll sometimes see similar meals in even the fancier restaurants.
Either way, additional charges at onboard restaurants allow you the privilege of privacy. To give you an occasional break from your table mates and vary your experiences on the ship while still keeping your costs down, consider dining “out” on only a few nights.
Other additional charges to expect
On many vessels – especially larger and mid-sized – you’ll be given a plastic card that serves as an onboard ID and credit card. In addition to allowing you to be tracked leaving for/returning from excursions, the card can be used to charge additional beverages (usually sodas and specialty coffee drinks) and meal charges, spa and salon visits, fitness classes, souvenir photographs, etc.
To help yourself stay aware and informed of your expenses, bring a small calculator (most smartphones include these) and keep track of your receipts. Taking your own accounting of what you’ve spent on board will help you avoid surprises upon receipt of your final bill.
Also be sure to have cash with you on excursions to tip drivers and guides (10% is standard), and onboard by week’s end, for your room steward (15% is standard) or other crew members who made your stay particularly enjoyable.
Ah, nausea at sea — it makes a simple argument for a river cruise.
However, it doesn’t have to happen. If you tend towards seasickness, or even think you might, be sure to bring two key items with you: Seabands. This duo of miraculous elasticized cuffs sit directly on pressure points at your wrists, serving to maintain your equilibrium. And bonus, at about $7 a pair and approximately two and a half inches long, they’re cheap and easy to pack.
Keep ginger pills or chews (a well-known aid for nausea) and/or an orange with you at all times. (On big and mid-sized ships, you can always find oranges at the breakfast buffet; if you’ll be on a smaller or mid-sized ship, be sure to ask for them ahead of time.) Smelling the inside of the peel can do wonders to calm your mind and body in the event of unsettling swells. And, you can give the orange sections to your non-afflicted companions while they wait for you to feel better.
If you’d rather rely on bigger guns, stock up on “the patch” (Transderm, Scopolamine), Dramamine or even Bonine. Know, though, that the former two can cause drowsiness, sleeplessness or dry mouth. The patch is certainly effective, but suggests that you avoid sun and alcohol — restrictions that tend to be at odds with cruising.
Ask for a stateroom that’s a bit lower-seated on the vessel: the higher your room is in relation to the waterline, the more you’ll feel the motion of the boat. Be sure to keep food in your stomach every few hours, keeping acidic foods to a minimum. An empty or acidic stomach is more prone to seasickness than a full one.
However, if seasickness ends up hitting you by surprise, head towards fresh air on the deck, look towards the horizon to steady yourself and stop drinking liquids immediately; sloshing in your belly can quickly equal…well, you know.
Cruise lines from which to choose
Behemoths of the sea garner most of the publicity these days, but oversized glamour still exists: to sail the best-reviewed cruise line in the world, try an ocean voyage on the almost-3,000-passenger capacity ships of Cunard.
There are also plenty of providers offering small-ship sails through every waterway on Earth. For hidden corners of the South Pacific, try Paul Gaugin. For inlets of Alaska that larger ships can’t reach, try American Safari or SeaDream Yacht Club.
For the canals and rivers of Europe, Russia and China, check out Uniworld, Oberoi andViking. For intrepid journeys that focus more on learning and exploring than entertainment and creature comforts, take a look at Lindblad.
Note: The cruise lines listed here are by no means the only companies out there, just the most well-known.
BIG SHIPS (2000-4000+ passengers)
SMALL SHIPS (Under 1000 passengers)
American Safari - Fred.Olsen - Grand Circle - Lindblad - Oceania - Orient Lines - Princess -Saga Holiday - SeaDream Yacht Club
Azamara - Hapag-Lloyd - Paul Gaugin - Regent Seven Seas - Seabourn - Silversea - Swan Hellenic - Tauck - Windstar