Author: Philip Tetley-Jones - Article originally published in LUXURY Holidays & Corporate Travel magazine Issue 24, 2014.
So you’re considering a cruise. The idea of touring exotic ports in a floating wonderland of luxury has finally become too hard to resist. Or perhaps you’ve had friends return from a cruise raving about the experience. It’s time to dip your toes in the water. Before you get out your credit card and spend a four or five-figure sum, make sure you know what you’re getting into. Here’s our inside guide to making the most of the cruise experience.
Use a specialist cruise travel agent
Our first tip is to spend some time with a travel agent – and not just any travel agent, but one who specialises in cruise holidays. A cruise specialist won’t just grab the nearest brochure and push you to make a booking. He or she will listen to your ideas, suggest options you may not be aware of and share insights gained from experience. Weighing up the merits of different cruise lines, destinations and packages can be quite a saga, so make sure you get expert guidance.
Understand cabin types
You should definitely get the travel agent’s advice on the various cabin types. Do you yearn to sit on a balcony or luxuriate in a suite? Options abound at a range of price levels. And make sure you see the ship’s deck plan so you can check the location of the engine room and restaurants – and ensure you are near them if mobility is an issue.
Your travel agent can also help you understand the level of service you’ll receive on the different cruise lines. Some luxury cruises offer a very high staff-to-passenger ratio, so you’ll have the sensation of being waited on hand and foot. Other cruise lines provide an experience that’s still glamorous but with less of the grand hotel feeling. Another area to be aware of is the policy on gratuities. Knowing what to expect is the key to avoiding disappointment.
If your cruise is for a special occasion, please don’t hesitate to let the staff know. Birthdays and anniversaries can be celebrated onboard and you can often pre-purchase special ‘celebration packages’ for your loved ones such as a cake, flowers, spa treatment or dining at a specialty restaurant.
Book in advance
Made your choice? It’s smart to book well in advance as cruise lines frequently offer earlybird specials. The most popular cruises sell out first so don’t hold back in expectation of last-minute deals – there may not be any.
Suites and cabins with balconies also sell-out fast so book early to secure your position or you’ll have less choice. Because river cruise ships are smaller they can often sell out up to one year in advance.
Pack appropriate clothing
As the embarkation date looms you’ll need to start packing. This can be a little different from preparing for an ordinary holiday. For a start, you’ll need to include a few smart outfits for formal nights (or choose a cruise line with alternative dining options). Make sure you pack appropriate clothing for every port and climate zone you’re travelling through.
One of the great things about cruising is that you have the same room for your entire holiday. Without the need to constantly haul baggage from airport to hotel to taxi and back again, you can bring some large suitcases with everything you need, unpack them once and get on with enjoying your holiday.
If you’re cruising within a tropical destination, you may want to consider taking your own snorkelling gear as it can sometimes cost to hire, or you may just prefer to use your own.
Bring your own beverages
Do you like the idea of relaxing with a quiet drink on your private balcony or in your own stateroom, away from the crowd? Most cruise lines allow your own non-alcoholic drinks onboard, so long as it’s within your luggage allowance at embarkation and consumed in your cabin.
Some cruises allow you to bring your own alcohol on board. Make sure you check the cruise line’s policy before you leave. Drinks packages are also offered on some ships and these offer excellent value for money.
One of the best parts of a cruising holiday is going ashore. Your itinerary will include a succession of ports, and these may come with a choice of shore excursions. Some cruise lines offer extensive options while others let you take the initiative on the basis that their customers enjoy the independence of exploring new destinations on their own. Perhaps you have a special interest in cuisine, sightseeing, culture or adventure. Ask your travel agent what’s on offer, and don’t forget to factor in the extra cost of any shore trips.
While we’re talking about excursions, make sure you book at least one day trip with a ‘wow’ factor. Imagine diving with tropical fish in the waters of a little-visited atoll, or walking through history as an expert guide brings to life the story behind a 3,000 year-old Greek temple. These are the sorts of experiences you never forget. Yes, cruising on a luxury ship is a holiday in itself, and a true escape from the everyday. But the true value of a cruise holiday is the way your floating luxury hotel takes you to a succession of destinations that are outstanding in their own right.
Seeing Venice loom out of the Adriatic, then docking and spending a day exploring the magnificent sights of the city, is an experience that will live forever in your memory. Money spent on a shore excursion like this is money well spent.
Another word of advice is to attend the port talks as they are a huge source of local information and insights.
Onboard spa treatments
As ship spas become increasingly popular, it is advised to pre-book your treatments on-line (where possible) before your cruise commences or otherwise do it as soon as you get onboard. Of note, is that on port days, treatments are often discounted – good for those who might want a day off from sightseeing.
Sadly, all good things must come to an end. As your ship approaches the final port it’s time to start getting ready to vacate your cabin and return to the comforts of home. One tip to make the end-of-cruise experience a little less jarring is to check and pay your bill the night before disembarking. You’ll avoid the last-minute queues and be able to smoothly move onto your next destination without delay.
Keep an open mind
Our last piece of advice applies to all holidays, not just cruising ones. It’s to keep an open mind and embrace the attitude that each new experience is one to be savoured. Cruising offers you a seductive combination of comfort and adventure on a well-appointed ship that exists to make life fun. Entertainment, excellent food and a range of pleasant diversions are all part of the package. At times you’ll be challenged by the unexpected but you’ll have helpful staff on hand to help you navigate it. Enjoy the experience to the full and then come home and reflect on the memories you’ve created.
Chances are, you’ll be hooked on cruising. Before too long you’ll be scanning the brochures, surfing the Web and talking to your travel agent about the next exotic cruise that you just can’t wait to take.