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How to choose the best cabin you can afford

On my first cruise, we crammed my entire family—two adults and two teenagers, with an average height of six feet—into one inside cabin. Only one person at a time could pass between the beds; my brother and I slept on pull-down bunkbeds and constantly banged our heads against the ceiling; and once the lights were off, we were immersed in total darkness, unable to tell what time of day or night it was.

While our onboard living space did not affect our enjoyment of our Caribbean cruise, some travelers find that an unsatisfactory cabin can ruin their vacation. As cruise cabins are much smaller than standard hotel rooms, you need to be extra careful when picking your stateroom. We at SmarterTravel.com know that the choices are overwhelming—inside versus outside, middle versus fore or aft, high versus low deck—so we’ve outlined the pros and cons of the various cabin types, allowing you to make the decision that’s right for you and get the best value out of your cruise vacation.

Inside versus outside cabins

Similar to hotel rooms, cabins on cruise ships come in varying sizes and degrees of luxury. The first choice you must make is whether you prefer an inside or outside cabin. Inside cabins are rooms with no view; they are located in the middle of a deck, with no window or outlet to the outside of the ship. Outside, or oceanview, cabins line the edges of the ship and have a window or, for a higher cruise fare, a private balcony where you can sit outside. The most expensive oceanview cabins are suites with a sitting area and a separate bedroom.

Inside cabins are the lowest category of rooms and therefore the least expensive. When you see deals advertised by cruise lines, travel agents, or online cruise sellers, the low prices you see are almost always for inside rooms. If you want to spend the smallest amount possible on your cruise fare, inside cabins are the way to go.

However, just as many of you would not book a cheap room in a chain motel when you could afford to stay at a nicer hotel or B&B, don’t book an inside cabin just to save money if you think you will be unhappy. Inside rooms can have several drawbacks; for example, the lack of natural light means that you will not be able to tell the time of day or the weather from within your cabin. I found that I had trouble waking up in the morning without the sun streaming into my room. Plus, inside cabins are often the smallest cabins on the ship. Especially if you’re trying to squeeze three or four people into one room, think about whether tempers will flare in cramped quarters. The savings might not be worth the hassle, and a bigger, more expensive outside room could provide a better quality experience, thus more overall value.

But before booking an outside cabin, keep in mind that although an oceanview cabin will have more light and often more space, on some ships, the lowest level outside cabin is the same size as an inside cabin, but will be more expensive. Also, given the multitude of activities available onboard and through shore excursions, you may only be in your cabin to sleep and dress, making the extra expense for a nicer room unnecessary.

Also, while most outside cabins directly overlook the ocean, some ships—such as the Norwegian Majesty—have rooms with windows that overlook one of the decks. These cabins will have tinted glass so other cruisers can’t see in and can even be upper-category oceanview cabins. If the close presence of a public area is undesireable, be sure to check your ship’s deck plans before you choose your oceanview cabin.

If you decide you must have an outside room and want to spend as little as possible, try requesting a room with an obstructed or partially obstructed view (usually due to lifeboats or other structural necessities). You’ll still get natural light, but often at a more affordable price.

We asked Douglas Ward, author of Berlitz Publishing’s “Ocean Cruising and Cruise Ships 2004” and president of The Maritime Evaluations Group, his opinion on inside versus outside cabins. He told us that he “would advise an outside-view cabin for a first cruise” because inside cabins are not acceptable to everyone, and first-time cruisers wouldn’t want to run the risk of being unhappy on their first cruise. He added that if you like to sleep in total darkness, then you should consider booking an inside cabin.

In general, outside cabins make for nicer rooms, but if your budget is tight and you don’t plan on spending much time in your cabin, an inside cabin can mean the difference between taking a cruise and staying home.

Cabin location

Once you’ve chosen your cabin type, you need to think about cabin location. Where you are positioned within a ship can affect your stay as much as your cabin type and size. The center of the ship is the most stable, so if you’re prone to seasickness or don’t like to feel the rocking of the ship, book a cabin in the middle of a deck. Cabins on higher decks also tend to rock more than cabins on lower decks, but these cabins are also usually the nicest and most expensive, so you may have to decide what is more important to you. Cruise ships in general do not rock like small pleasure boats unless you get caught in a storm with high seas, so rocking will most likely only be an issue for very sensitive individuals.

Some locations are also noisier than others. Ward says, “There is typically more noise if your cabin is located in the aft or back end of the ship (particularly if the ship is powered by diesel engines rather than the latest pod propulsion systems, which cause little or no vibration). Noise pollution can be bad sometimes if your cabin is located above, below, or adjacent to the ship’s disco, galley (kitchen), or engine room casing.” If you go to bed early or are a light sleeper, you may prefer a cabin far away from such public areas.

Getting the cabin you want

You can establish which cabin type and location is best for you, and you may even have a favorite deck or individual cabin on a ship, but unless you book early enough, you may have no say in which cabin you get. When you book early, you not only can take advantage of early-booking discounts, but you have your pick of rooms. You can also get deals at the last minute, but you will end up with whatever cabin inventory is left over, very likely a cabin that no one else wanted.

For some of you, the price will be the most important factor, and you’ll be very happy in any cabin. But if you do have cabin preferences, make sure you speak up about your needs and book early enough to get the cabin you desire. Because if you’re not happy with your room, you won’t enjoy your cruise as much as you should, and vacation dollars are only well spent when you have a good time during your time off.

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