I receive quite a few questions about cruising—especially from what appear to be travelers thinking about taking to the sea for the first time. Whether you're new to cruising or an old hand, these questions and answers will help lead you to the right cruise choice.
What are the best places to cruise?
Questions don't come any more basic than that, and, as is so often the case, no one answer fits all. But I can provide a few ideas, depending on what sort of experience you prefer:
- Consistently warm weather: The Caribbean, Greek Islands, Hawaii, Mexico, and the South Pacific
- Cool weather: Alaska, Canada, Norwegian fjords
- Full-time up-close scenery: Alaska Inside Passage, river cruises
- Historic ports of call: Mediterranean, Asia
- Extreme or special environments: Arctic, Antarctica, Galapagos
- Extended open-sea time: Transatlantic positioning cruises, mainland to Hawaii or the South Pacific, round-the world cruises or major segments
These opinions, of course, are personal, but I think many cruisers would agree.
Where are the least expensive cruises?
A good way to assess the cost of a cruise is on a per-day basis, and you almost always find the lowest per-day prices in what I call the "mass market" cruise areas: Caribbean, Mexico, and Alaska. Right now, cruises in these areas start at less than $100 per person per day, either for later this fall or for next spring. That means a full week for a couple for $1,400 or less—a pretty good deal compared with the costs at a major resort.
Another approach to "least expensive" is to look for relatively short trips. Three- and four-day cruises have become quite popular over the last few years, especially from Florida to the Bahamas and Southern California to Northern Mexico. Over the last few years, cruise lines have offered short cruises from quite a few additional U.S. ports. That means you can at least sample the cruise experience at rates starting around $300 per person.
"Least expensive" also generally means sticking to the mass-market lines: Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Disney, Holland America, Norwegian, and Princess. You can easily pay two to three times as much, per day, on the upscale niche lines such as Seabourn and Regent Seven Seas (formerly Radisson).
When's the best time to buy a cruise?
Every year, the big cruise lines vow to stop cutting prices for last-minute cruise buyers—and every year they fail to honor that vow. No matter how much the industry may try to achieve "price stability," when the sailing date is only a month in the future, the pressure to fill empty cabins becomes compelling for any cruise line. So "at the last minute" is still a valid answer to the question, with the caveat that not all ships have empty cabins when sailing nears. If you opt to wait for last-minute price cuts, you have to be prepared to accept what's available rather than what would otherwise be your preference.
The industry's preference is to offer the best deals early rather than late, and you certainly do find some attractive "early bird" rates. Whether to book early or late depends on how important it is for you to select exactly what you want. Early bookers get the best range of options, but late bookers still get the lowest prices.
Which are the best ships?
Again, that's a matter of taste. Fortunately, you have lots of information sources.
Several websites post extensive reviews, both by individual travelers and by experienced travel writers. Cruisemates is one of the most complete online sources of cruise info, including evaluations of individual cruise lines and ships. Since it doesn't sell cruises, it can be relatively unbiased. Also good are Cruise Critic and Cruise Reviews. My main beef: Reviews by individual cruisers can get incredibly wordy.
Berlitz, Frommer's, and other guidebook series also publish cruise guides that include cruise line and ship evaluations.
What's the best way to see the ports where our cruise stops?
As far as I know, all cruise lines arrange port excursions. You reserve and pay at the purser's desk. The upside to these tours is you're practically guaranteed to see what there is to see in each port. The downsides are (1) you're probably forced to see some things in which you aren't interested, (2) the pace of the tour is dictated by the slowest member, (3) you'll almost always be forced to stop at souvenir stands chosen because of the kickbacks they give rather than the merchandise they sell, and (4) they're generally overpriced.
My preference has always been to arrange my own excursions by:
- Walking around the port, on my own
- Arranging a tour at a local sightseeing operator's desk after I disembark
- Arranging with a local taxi driver to take me where I want to go
- Renting a car and driving myself
- Using public transportation
The choice among these options, of course, depends on where I am. In Juneau, I rent a car; in Marseilles, I use public transport; in Nassau, I walk.
Doing your own port plan requires some advance research. The websites and guidebook series I mentioned above provide extensive information about each port—enough to give you a pretty clear picture of what you want to see. The Frommer's guides are especially good on using public transportation and other economical approaches to port excursions.