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Choosing a Cruise

Probably at least as important as where to go on a cruise is which ship.  Each cruise line has its own ethos and even each ship has its own character and it is important that you choose one that suits your personality and what you want from a cruise

Size of Ship

Larger ships typically have lavish West End style productions. (Photo courtesy of Princess Cruises)
Larger ships typically have lavish West End style productions

Cruise ships go from carrying a few dozen passengers on a boutique cruise ship to 6000+ passengers on the larger resort ships.  As you can imagine, the cruising experience on these two extremes is very different, with each having its own advantages and disadvantages.  The larger the ship the more facilities you can expect for a given price, the bigger the public rooms, the more dining options and the less the effects of weather.  The smaller the ship, the more personal the service, the larger the choice of ports, the quicker one can embark and disembark and possibly the more interesting the food.  On a large ship, it is possible to never meet someone twice in the entire voyage.  This can be advantageous if you dislike them, but, (as happened to a good friend of mine), if you meet someone eminently eligible in the lift arrange to meet or you may spend the entire rest of the cruise failing to bump into them again!

Age of Ship

The Cruise & Maritime Voyages MV Marco Polo
At over 40 years old the MV Marco Polo is one of the older cruise ships

Whilst there are very few really old ships (although the 1931 Sea Cloud is a notable exception), there are several ships that date back to the 1970s and these tend to be distinctly different to the more modern ships.  These differences have been introduced for various reasons: changes in technology, safety at sea regulations, expectations of passengers or simply the style of cruises.  The more modern ships meet the latest safety standards; they can have more modern, vibrationless propulsion systems; have shallower draught, so that they can enter smaller ports for their size, a modern layout and up-to-date plumbing and air conditioning.  The older ships tend to be more robust, with stronger and deeper hulls and, hence take bad weather well, their cabins are frequently larger and there is more traditional materials in their interiors.

The Aesthetics of the Ship

Some ships are sights of wonder: for example, Sea Cloud and her sister or the ships belonging to Star Clippers, particularly, in my opinion, the two barquetines, and traditionalist may like the two twin funnel ships of  Disney Cruise Line.  Unfortunately, however some cruise ships resemble car carriers with balconies.  Most lie somewhere inbetween.  Whilst the exterior aesthetics of a ship is probably not the main reason to choose one cruise over another, it is nice to be able to look across the port and think, with pride "that's our ship", and it does make for a more impressive postcard!

Whilst the exterior of a ship can be ignored, you will have to live with the interior for normally at least a week.  Ships decor can vary from the exhuberant to the minimalist, the traditional to the modern.  What ever your taste, it is better to try and find a ship that matches it.

Size of the Cruise Line

The cruise industry is dominated by 11 major lines: Carnival, Celebrity, Costa, Cunard, Holland America, MSC, NCL, P&O, Princess, Royal Carribean and Star Cruises.  They will all give you an excellent cruise experience: a mixture of port and sea days, plenty of food, reasonable to good service and large production shows.  Their facilities will include a choice of dining and drinking venues, a casino, shopping malls, and extensive spa and fitness facilities.  Their ships will be large to very large and spend a lot of their time cruising in similar waters: the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, down to the Canaries etc.

However there are many other, smaller cruise lines aimed at a more niche market.  These range from the very child friendly cruises of Disney Cruise Line, the French Polynesian cruises of Paul Gauguin, the cultural cruises of Swan Hellenic Line to the unique floating country house party of the Hebridean Princess.

Style of cruise

Character Breakfeast, Disney Cruise Line
Not all dining on cruise ships is formal ©Disney

This is probably the most important point to consider.  Questions to ask include:

  • Is there enough of the right kind of things to do on board?  This is possibly of particular interest to families.  Some cruise companies are very child friendly (some of P&O's ships are good examples, and obviously Disney Cruise Line) whilst others are not.  This does not necessarily mean that they are hostile to children, only that they do not provide the continuous entertainment that other cruises do.  Some cruises are child-free.
  • How formal is the cruise?  Some ships suit passengers who like dressing for dinner whereas others are more casual in nature.  It is definitely not a question of cost or number of stars; there are some very informal 5* cruises, particularly the boutique cruise ships, especially if they are popular with Australians!  As a rule of thumb, the cruise lines aimed at giving their passengers a "traditional British cruise experience" such as: Cunard, P&OFred Olsen or Cruise & Maritime Voyages will have some nights where formal attire is expected.  This typically consists of dinner jacket or dark suit and tie for men and formal dress for ladies.
  • The nationality of the ship; or more particularly, the language of the passengers.  Some might enjoy a cosmopolitan feel to the ship, but if the passengers are multilingual, then so are the announcements.  Also, the style of any shows are likely to be affected; more spectacle rather than witty banter.

 The cost of the cruise

Obviously there is the headline price of the cruise.  However there are a few things that are worth considering that can affect the amount of enjoyment you get for your money

  • The cabin: the least expensive cabins are inside cabins (except on smaller ships, which may not have them).  As one moves up the grade of cabin, you go to larger cabins with more light, (even a balcony) on a higher deck.  However for the price of the top of the range accommodation on say a 3* cruise ship, you can get an inside cabin on a 4* or even a 5* cruise.  On most ships the access to the public facilities is more-or-less the same where ever you are staying.  So, unless you are planning to spend a lot of time in your cabin, it may be worth considering one of the less-expensive options.
  •  The ship's excursions can work out expensive, so it is worth while doing a bit of research to work out how easily you can see all the atractions that you want to see independently.  In any case, if you have an interest in something in particular, the ship's tours may not give it the time you believe it deserves.  The one thing to be wary of is that the ship will not wait.  If she has sailed then it is your responsibility to catch up with her; or in the worse case, get yourself back home.  Top-tip: if you are going to visit somewhere that requires a visa, say St Petersburg on a Baltic cruise, and are only going to spend a day there, it can be cheaper (and certainly more convenient) to pay for an excursion and go on the ship's visa, rather than buying a personal one. Alternatively, going ashore is not compulsory.  It can be nice having the ship almost to yourself and, even better, if you want some form of spa or beauty treatment, port days are often the cheapest.
  • All inclusive cruises.  Whilst most cruises are full board (at least whilst you are on the ship), this does not normally include alcoholic drinks.  Also the cost of going on several of the ship's excursions can mount up.  Plus, on many ships, a "voluntary" service charge is applied or a daily tipping rate is suggested.  Most of these can be avoided by going all inclusive.  Unfortunately, the ships that are  all inclusive tend to have a higher star rating, and hence inherently more expensive.  They also tend to be the more niche market ships.  Several of the mainstream cruise ships have introduced pre-paid drinks packages, where it is possible to buy access to a range of different drinks from soft drinks packages, wine packages to fully all-inclusive.  Unfortunately, depending on the package, all members of a group may have to buy it, which can work out expensive if say, only the husband drinks.
  • When you book your cruise.  Late deals are obviously nice, if they are available. However, you may then have very little choice of cabin.  Even for the same grade cabin, some are much nicer than others. Also the cheapest and interestingly, the most expensive, tend to sell out first.  For a reasonable saving and maximum choice of cabin it can be a good idea to book a cruise immediately after the brochures are released.  Some cruise lines, (e.g. Cunard, P&O, Princess Cruises and others) now guarantee that if the price drops from the release price, they will either refund or make up the difference.