Sep 5, 2013

Cruise Planning: Where to Start & How to Make It the Best Trip Ever- Part 1


Prior to a year ago, cruise vacations weren't even on my radar. I had all those preconceived notions about cruising clouding my head...crowds of people, cramped spaces, sub-par food, tons of old people (like nursing home old), sea sickness...yadda yadda. Nothing about it sounded appealing. I also rode that elitist independent travel high-horse. You know the one...where you think that you can't possibly enjoy and glean everlasting travel memories by spending one day at any destination. The one where you think cruisers are missing out on unique travel experiences that can only be found by straying off the beaten path and getting in with the locals. The one where you can't fathom spending the day attached to a tour group and you're quite sure following around a woman holding up a red umbrella is some cruel form of travel torture. Yeah, I used to think all those things, too. I was a believer that there was no way cruising could provide anyone with out-of-this-world travel memories and pleasant vacationing conditions. But, I'm here to tell you it IS possible to cruise and have the best vacation of your life. It is possible to have those coveted unique experiences in exotic locales that will keep your friends jealous for years to come. I'm living proof of it. You'll have to work for it, but the reward you'll reap will be worth every second spent researching and planning. After cruising 2 different times this year on 2 different cruise lines (with a third sailing coming up for us in October!), I've gotten lots of emails asking how I planned our cruises and where I found the best deals. You asked, so I'm here to reveal all my tips and tricks to get you started building the cruise vacation you never thought you'd be taking. There's a lot to tell, so I'll be braking this series up into multiple posts so you get every single detail. I'll have you as a cruising convert in no time! :)

First things first...DO YOUR RESEARCH! It's tedious (I won't sugar coat it), but integral to finding a cruise that suits your travel wants and needs. You'd have to do the same in planning any other kind of vacation, right? So, just hike up your bootstraps and get to it! Now, where do you start? Once you've picked a destination (ie. the Caribbean, Eastern Mediterranean, Alaska, Asia, etc.), you'll need to find a cruise line that sails to your ideal locales. There are quite a few to choose from and in varying price ranges (Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Norwegian Cruise Line, Carnival, Costa, MSC, Holland America...the list goes on and on). Keep in mind, not all ports are created equal. You may have a few key countries or cities you're dying to see, but those may also be grouped into a cruise that sails to places you could care less about seeing. Find a sailing with a good selection of "must-see" ports and consider the rest bonuses. Or just stay on the ship in those less desirable ports and have yourself an impromptu "sea day." Sometimes those are my favorite! Also, keep in mind not all cruise ships and cruise lines are created equal either. Some have amazing amenities, outstanding service, and unparalleled attention to detail. Others? Not so much. The key is to decide what amenities and standards are important to you (and are within your budget) and compare the various cruise lines and their respective ships. The truth is (in our experience, at least) the more you pay, the better everything is. From the service, food and staterooms, all the way to what ports you stop in. If you pay a bit more, you'll get a bit more. It's the way of the world, my friends. You do, indeed, get what you pay for.

Once you've narrowed down where you'd like to sail and what kind of vacation experience you're looking for, then you can really get cookin'. Hone in on that budget and start combing through cruise search sites for prices and sail dates. It's always a good idea to check with the cruise line's website to see if they're offering any deals or lower prices for booking directly with them. In addition, if you feel comfortable working with a travel agent, feel free to give them a ring and see what kinds of deals they can score you.

Sites to Search:
Cruise.com- We used this site to book our upcoming Spain & Canary Islands cruise in October. They've been so helpful and we scored some unbelievable deals and cruiser perks (like on-board credits and prepaid gratuities!). They also offer some pretty great travel insurance via Travel Guard.

Cruise Critic- This site is the end all, be all of cruise planning. I ADORE Cruise Critic! I've used it more than any other cruise planning site out there. It's chock full of any and every kind of cruise info you'd ever want to know...from port reviews to specific stateroom reviews on specific ships...you'll find it on Cruise Critic straight from the people who've cruised before you. Be sure to register and take part in their extensive cruising forums. There you'll find lots of info on shore excursions, cruising in's and out's, and my personal favorite, tour sharing! Saves you lots of money, people! But, more on that later.

Cruises.com- Very similar to cruise.com...just with an extra "s" on the end.

Military Cruise Deals (for military families only)- we haven't used this site yet, but I've heard great things! Especially for Caribbean sailings.

Cruise Compete- I used this site a lot in my beginning stages of planning to see what kind of deals are out there. On this site, you can send out requests to different travel agencies and they email you quotes on your requested sailing. The results pop up in a little chart so you can compare agents and see who's giving the better deal and how to get in contact with them.

TIP: Check to see if your credit card company offers any options for cruise deals and bookings. D and I booked our first cruise through my Discover Card and their Cruise and Vacation Desk. We scored a free room upgrade, on-board credits, and 5% cash back on our entire booking! You might be able to book using your reward points, too!

TIP: Don't forget to think about all the other expenses that come along with cruising aside from the fare itself. You'll need to budget in any possible air fares, pre or post-cruising hotel stays, gratuities, drink packages (sodas, bottled water, fresh juices, specialty coffees, and alcohol aren't included!), shore excursions, transfers to and from the port, travel insurance (which I highly recommend getting), and spending money while exploring ports of call.

TIP: Do you have a specific time of year you can travel? Or are you flexible? If you've got some wiggle room, try and find a cruise that sails either at the beginning or end of your destination's prime season. That way, you'll miss the crowds and you'll score a better deal on your sailing!

TIP: Booking 7 months to a year in advance can offer lower prices and numerous cruiser perks. Fares go up as sailing dates get closer. Waiting until the last minute to book will most likely have you scraping the bottom of your wallet and put you in undesirable spots on the ship. Booking in advance also gives you time to plan excursions and pre/post cruise travel plans, as well as obtain necessary travel documents (i.e.-passports, visas, etc.).

TIP: Make sure to look for cruiser perks! These can be in the form of on-board credits, prepaid gratuities, reduced booking deposits, free room upgrades, complimentary beverage packages, or spa credits (just to name a few). Don't book a cruise without getting one or more of these perks added on to your sailing. There's so many of them out there, why not score some free stuff!

Just for reference (and if you've been a loyal blog reader of mine, you already know this), D and I are BIG fans of Celebrity Cruises. I will sing their praises until the day I die! In fact, we just recently booked another cruise with them set for next May. If you're in the market for being treated like royalty while sailing, Celebrity is the way to go. They are one of the higher-priced cruise lines, but worth every single penny. We've also sailed with Royal Caribbean, Celebrity's sister company, but had a little less than desirable experience with them. That's not to say we won't sail with RCI ever again...we'll just pick our ship a bit more wisely. Our upcoming cruise in October is with Norweign Cruise Line, so I'm interested to see how they'll compare to my beloved Celebrity. Fingers crossed!  

 Stay tuned for more in this cruise planning series. I've got lots of great info to share!
And make sure you link up with the lovely Jenni at Story of my Life for Blogtember! Today's prompt was to pass on some useful advice or information (hence all my cruise talk), so search your noggin', write about something you know, and share it with us all!

25 comments:

  1. I used to work for Holland America. Loved it. Love cruising. I've been on more cruises than I can count.

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  2. We went on a family cruise my senior year of high school and I thought it was fantastic! Our port in Jamaica wasn't anything special but we went swimming with sting rays in the Caymans and it was amazing. I probably never would have done that if we hadn't done it through the cruise.

    Dannielle | Chic-a-Dee

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  3. Great advice!! SO ready for another cruise! :)

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  4. Well my day is officially being spent daydreaming about cruising!

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  5. I love cruise.com! I check it all the time in search of the ideal cruise for our five year wedding anniversary next year. I will totally be using cruisecritic thanks to you when the time comes :-)

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  6. Great tips! To be honest I've never given cruising too much thought. As a travel planner, I love trips that you can build to your personal interests and that allows you to get a true sense of the city and culture you are traveling too. To me cruises are for relaxation, and no one needs a travel planner for that. :)
    http://liveitinerantly.com

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    1. I totally agree with you...I was that kind of travel planner, too! I remember arguing with D years ago about how I never wanted to cruise. When we moved to Germany, I gave it a lot more thought and realized that with limited time to see all the counties we want to see, cruising could provide the opportunity to see multiple countries in one vacation. After that first Med cruise we went on, I was sold on the whole cruise vacation lifestyle!

      I also have to say, I did quite a bit of travel planning for our cruises! Deciding on what to see and do in each port is quite the time consuming task. While relaxing in some ways, in others, it can be just as difficult as planning a regular vacation!

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  7. Love this! Despite everyone's issues with Carnival, we actually had a great experience with them. But prior to our first cruise, I was the same way. I didn't think it would be worth it to spend one day in a port, then leave. I am soooo glad that Josh bugged me about cruising so much that I caved. It was a great experience and the best vacation I have ever had!

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  8. This has officially been bookmarked! As a cruising newbie these tips are like gold - I had no idea about the perks, drink packages, etc. Thanks for sharing the goods :) xxx

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  9. Wonderful information! I will keep it for future reference...fingers crossed that there will be a cruise sometime in the future.

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    1. Thanks, Gina! Hope that day comes sooner rather than later! :)

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  10. Awesome information! Luis (my hubby) and I have been toying with the idea of going on a cruise in the next few years. Definitely going to pin this for later :D

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  11. Great tips!!!
    I have yet to go on a cruise, but I will make that happen soon enough! Thanks for sharing these tips!!
    Love reading your blog!

    xo
    Christina
    pieceitalltogetherx3.blogspot.com

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    1. Thanks so much, Christina! Always happy to share! :)

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  12. I love this post! What great tips for cruising. I am definitely ready to forgo my previous horrible cruise memories and give it another go! I am thinking Greece needs to be the next destination.

    xo,
    Moe

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    1. Oh yes...give it another go! Hopefully next time will be better for you. And Greece...ahhh you can't go wrong with Greece!

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  13. I have never been on a big cruise style holiday, but part of my travels around Egypt involved some time on a modest, very friendly river cruise ship. It was small so you got to know the other passengers really well and I had the best time.

    Molly xo

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    1. Ooo that sounds like fun! We met a great group of friends on our Med cruise last May. We still keep in touch to this day!

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  14. I'm so glad you did this post! I would love to take a cruise someday, but have no idea where to start. I too worry about getting stuck on a floating old folks home eating crappy food. I'm pinning this for future use :-)

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  15. I loved reading this! I use to own a travel company that focused in selling cruises. There are so many people that havent tried cruising yet and to have first hand experiences is amazing!

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  16. Wonderful written and enjoyed this read so much... Planning in advance is essential to assure success whether it is in business or going on a vacation. I love cruises and surfing vacations both are enjoyable and am a travel fanatic.. I found great tips which I was seeking from a long time. Thanks for sharing these incredible tips.

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  17. While I always invest in travel and medical insurance for more expensive trips, I never buy directly through the company I booked the tour, air travel or cruise. It saves me their premium.
    go insurance

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  18. Thank you for sharing the information. I would like to tell that I have recently came across a firm who is providing the service of cruise to passengers. They are providing the service in a very decent budget.
    Cheap Holiday Deals For Caribbean Cruise

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I appreciate your feedback, friends! I read every comment and try my hardest to respond to each one, but if your email address isn't attached to your blogger profile, you might find my response in the comment thread instead. As always, thanks for reading!

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