Steve's Guide to Cruising

Me and My Wife on Our First Cruise

For some time now we have been interested in going on a cruise. I suppose it is the idea of a “care free” holiday with all of your meals taken care of, seeing new sights without having to pack and unpack all the time, and travelling, all at the same time. All of these are benefits are true but as we have looked into cruising we have learned a few things along the way…

Is it really just for seniors?

Absolutely not. Though the type of holiday obviously appeals to those that are retired you will also see many families with small children or newlyweds on board. The entertainment and food reflects this mixture of the social structure and in today's competitive market these are both often quite good indeed. A cruise line that provides basic or tasteless food will not stay in business for long no matter how cheap they are…

What Type of Cruise

There are many different kinds of cruises available from you to choose from:

  • Ocean cruises - Generally with few ports of call, these are mostly “huge entertainment complexes on the water”. If you want to get away and are not bothered about seeing too much, this is a great choice with often huge selections of entertainment and relaxation options. At the high end of the market is the historic Cunard Line with boats including the Queen Mary 2 and Queen Victoria but there is also the lesser prices of the massive ships of Carnival.
  • River cruises - These are often long, slender boats with limited capacity (though most have generously sized rooms with balconies) that ply their trade along the major rivers of the world. These tend to cater to those more interested in culture than a “hotel on the water” in other cruises. The Nile, for example, is a popular destination with stops at wonderful historic Egyptian sites and, of course, very warm weather all year round. In Europe there are a number of river cruise operators including the upscale (expensive) Viking and Riviera.
  • Expedition cruises - These cater to those who really want to learn something or take in the scenery with cruises to places such as Antarctica and northern countries in Europe and America. Often these are the priciest cruises that offer “once in a lifetime” destinations. Amenities often include destination-themed lectures, Kodiak excursions, etc which of course all contribute to the high costs. One of the biggest and best operators in this market is the Norwegian cruise company Hurtigruten.

When Picking a Cruise

Obviously, for many people the destination will be a large part of why you might pick a particular cruise though there are some things you should also be thinking about:

  1. The cruise line - Some are better than others with the general rule of thumb “the more expensive the better” quite often true though sometimes a price to good to be true may indicate you will be on a ship with 10,000 other people (great if that is your sort of thing…not so great if it isn't). Some cruise lines
  2. The price - If you want to go on a cruise price is going to be a big factor (for most people). Though there are bargains to be had I would not count on this too much as you very quickly might be inundated with extras that make that higher priced “all inclusive” cruise far cheaper. Prices will generally be cheaper the further in advance they are purchased though you can often find last minute deals on-line (though going “last minute” on a cruise may be a bit more stressful…).
  3. The room - The cheapest rooms on a cruise ship will generally be windowless and often deep in the bowels of the ship (even, possibly, below the waterline). From cheapest to most expensive (again, generally corresponding to the lower to higher decks):
    1. Inside room
    2. Outside room with a porthole
    3. Outside room with a window you can open/close
    4. Outside room with a balcony
    5. Outside suite with a balcony (possibly with hot and cold running maids and butlers…)
  4. The food and drink - Yes, often basic food will be included but on cheaper cruises drinks will not with a series of “packages” available. Indeed, even on the all-inclusive they will not include drink at all or limit what you can have. Meals will generally be at set times with a buffet restaurant you can visit or, with a reservation, an actual sit-down, full-service restaurant.
  5. Excursions - These can be the priciest part of your cruise if they are not included in the price. When arriving in any port you are often free to leave the boat (returning at the designated time) as you wish or you can chose from any number of excursions that may be on offer. These may use local tour guides or use members of the crew. If you decide to forgo the extra costs and do it your own be aware that often when cruise ships arrive at a port it is in the middle of an industrial area which may be quite a distance from anywhere interesting.
  6. Logistics - How will you get to/from the boat? Many offer package trips with flights at either end but others will rely on you getting to the port of departure and arrival yourself: Is there parking or can you get there by public transport? What about the time you are not on the boat, do you need a hotel? Often the cruises will include a day or so on the boat before departure to allow for arrivals throughout that time.

Food

I would suggest you read up on various cruise lines before picking one and remember: Do not pick solely on the ticket price which will often be extremely deceptive!

There are various companies that broker between a number of cruise lines including Cruise Nation, Cruise.co.uk and Cruise Direct. I have used “Cruise Nation” quite successfully which seems to have a great selection. Most have mailing lists which are good to get onto to be notified of deals as they come up.

Preparing for Your Cruise

If you are just going for a holiday on a huge ship with few, if any, ports of call then little research is probably required but otherwise reading up on where you will be going is always going to be helpful. A few other things to think about:

  1. Visas - If you are visiting another country often the cruise line will not help with visas so this will be up to you. You need to check whether you will need one for any country you visit. When arriving at a new country the immigration officials will either come on board or you will need to pass through an immigration facility much like those at most airports.
  2. Immunisations - If you are visiting a tropical destination, as with any travel, you will need to worry about having the appropriate inoculations against whatever nasties might be waiting for you.
  3. Packing - Pack like you were going to any hotel/resort: Tooth brush/paste, hairbrush, a swim suit, clothing (both relaxed and more formal for any “gala” nights), etc. Don't worry about soaps or shampoo as this is often included. Also often there will be laundry facilities which is particularly important on longer cruises. The bonus of packing for a cruise is often you are not limited in the amount you can bring on board or, at least, it is MUCH more generous than what you are allowed on a flight.

The Cruising Experience

Water Slide

Boarding

Boarding

When arriving at the port to board your boat you will likely first have to be checked in, with your luggage taken and delivered to your cabin. You will likely also be given some sort of access card/mechanism for using on-board facilities which can be tied to a credit card if you want to pay for any extras (which most likely there will be many of). A good idea when you arrive is to walk around the ship to make yourself familiar with it and ensure you can find your room. You will likely be given a welcome pack that you should read through carefully as it will probably contain logistical information you need to be aware of.

Room on Arrival

On most cruises the first day there will be a lifeboat drill which is mandatory. Every passenger is issued with a life jacket and you will be required to correctly put it on and report to the correct lifeboat station during the drill. This is a serious thing which should not be treated lightly so keep down the talking and no pictures…

Daily Life

Party

Most cruises will have a daily newsletter which is useful to read containing logistical details for the day including any itinerary changes and perhaps even meal times. Other than this your time is your own. Look out for special events such as shows, banquets, dances or receptions. These are an opportunity to sample a bit more of what the ship has to offer and can be surprisingly well done.

Show

If you decide to leave the ship for an excursion or on your own be extremely careful to arrive back at the ship ahead of departure as they WILL leave on time with or without you.

Picture

The staff are generally always very helpful and friendly so do not be afraid to approach them should you need any information or help as they will be happy to point you in the right direction even if they cannot speak your language. Though they are working they know passengers are here for a good time so want to make sure you have it.

Banquet

Disembarking

Docked

Leaving the ship is a sad occasion but it is often made extremely easy. There will often be a pre-disembarkation meeting which is useful to attend to get the logistical details as often on larger ships, there will be staged departures. On the day of your departure leave your luggage as instructed, make sure your payment card is cancelled and, well, leave. Be sure to have arranged your transport to your next destination or have a good idea of how you will manage this before you lave the ship…

Port Facilities in St. Petersburg

Personal Note

Sitting on the Deck

We have already done a cruise with the inexpensive Costa Cruises in Northern Europe taking in the amazing Stockholm, the rather dull Helsinki, the incredible St. Petersburg, and the surprisingly interesting Tallinn. The cruise was absolutely wonderful though it did seem we were often being “nickled and dimed” on everything with very few items on the cruise provided for free. The ship (the “Coasta Magica”) was a bit dated and quite garish for our tastes. There were a lot of kids on board so we made it into the pool only a couple of times. The food was very good in the restaurants and the buffet was good but not stupendous (though the buffet menu changed daily, it was not by much) with seating quite difficult to come by. Generally, a good experience that gave us a good idea of what to look for in our next cruise (oh yes, we will be going on more) and took us to an area of the planet we have always wanted to visit with amazing things to see.

Next we are hoping on a Nile cruise and I have always wanted to take a cruise to Antarctica though the later is, shall we say, quite expensive…

Portal to the World

Further Information

For further information, please see:

  • World of Cruising Magazine - Both online and in print, this offers a comprehensive list of cruises and cruise companies as well as useful articles.