Choosing a cruise: A discerning guide to getting it right!

The "fun ships" were on the agenda in the early days. Art & Ian going ashore in the Caribbean from the Carnival Triumph (back in the day).

We’re about to embark on cruise number eleven.  Eleven! In the winter of 1999 when we made a decision that our family vacation would be on a cruise ship, little did we know that we’d be hooked.  And little did we know that we’d become (if you’ll pardon the expression) cruise whores.  You see, over the years we have not been happily loyal; rather we’ve been happily jumping from one cruise line to another, every once in a while returning to an earlier favorite – but moving ever up the cruise food chain so to speak.

But, what exactly motivates a discerning traveler in making a decision about which cruise to choose?  There are lots of different reasons to choose one cruise over another, and the truth is that the priority you place on one over the other can and will change as you become more discerning in your travel planning.  The most important factors are the following:

  • Amenities
  • Itinerary
  • Price
  • Overall experience

…come along with us as we share a few stories of how these factors played into our decisions over the years.

Let’s start with amenities.  Back in 1999 we were traveling with a 10-year old.  We began our search for the perfect cruise by chatting with our travel agent.  Rule number one for cruising: Always, always, always use a travel agent.  We’ve extolled the virtue of our travel agent before, but it’s so important when you’re planning a cruise.  They have access to information that you don’t have and can be your go-between through the planning process.  They can also hold a booking for you while you decide on flights, hotels etc.  Back to the plan for the first cruise.

A young Ian poses in the (little) verandah stateroom aboard the Carnival Triumph.

“Well,” Alan our travel agent said to us at the time,” I’m going to recommend Carnival.  Now, if it were just the two of you, I would never recommend them to you.  But with a kid…”  So, Carnival it was.  A week-long Caribbean voyage on a sparkly, new ship with a recommended children’s program seemed like a good way to get our feet wet (!).  Sparkly it certainly was!  The glitz, glitter and all that neon were a bit jarring, but fun.  Ian loved the children’s program and we immensely enjoyed our verandah stateroom with the third berth.  It was tight, but we didn’t know that it could be any bigger.  Oh, how times change.

Alan was right – as he always was.  It was not a cruise that we would have gone on just the two of us.  Drunken spring breakers spent the full week on the deck, never once making it to the dining room.  Oh well, it meant that dining was a relaxing event with lots of staff to cater to our every whim.  But, would we ever go back on a Carnival cruise?  You couldn’t pay us!  All that neon, glitz and partiers are not our style.  So, amenities in the form of a great children’s program led us to begin our cruising life, but amenities as a priority decision-factor has changed over the years.

So, then there’s itinerary.  Where is the ship going?  Probably the time that this issue was most important to us was when we decided to spend our 20th wedding anniversary on a Mediterranean cruise.  So, we began by searching for a great Mediterranean itinerary.

Art & Ian celebrate our sail-away in our Queen's Grill suite aboard the Queen Mary 2.

We’d been on Holland America in the intervening years, but Celebrity was offering really interesting cruises starting in Barcelona.  So, in the end, the itinerary that would take us from Barcelona to Marseille, Monte Carlo, several stops in Italy, Corsica and Northern Africa entranced us sufficiently that we booked our celebration aboard the Celebrity Century. And we decided to treat ourselves to a Royal Suite.   As we’ve mentioned before – once you go up to a suite, there’s no going back! And so to the discussion of price…

Discerning travelers are always looking for value.  That means that we’re judicious about how we spend our money.  This means that price is not the guiding principle for us in choosing a cruise.  And perhaps you might consider putting it a bit further down your priority list as well.  Hear us out.

Your enjoyment of a cruise will never be based on its price.  Obviously, we all have to stay within our budgets, but we assure you that you’re playing Russian roulette with your holiday money if all you go on is price (that is of course unless you plan to eat and drink yourself into a stupor  so that you don’t notice anything else– in which case you could do that on your own couch in our view).  We’ve been listening and observing through the years, and we have concluded that it is safe to say that not every cruise line is for everyone.

Recently, a colleague of Art’s returned from a family cruise aboard a line that we have always avoided.  Knowing ourselves the way we do, it seems that we were right to do so.  The colleague complained that it was so laid back and casual that people even dined (in the main dining room) wearing T-shirts and ball caps.  If that’s your style, go for it – but we would not enjoy that, and neither did she.  So, you really do need to do some research – and travel agents are the best place to start.

And this brings us to the all-encompassing decision-making factor: the overall experience.  Lately, this has been our guiding principle.  What kind of ‘experience’ do we want?  We clearly chose last summer’s trans-Atlantic crossing on Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 because we wanted to experience the traditional voyage on a ship purpose-built for these kinds of crossings – we didn’t want to be on a re-positioning cruise.  Several years earlier, we chose a Holland America holiday cruise when we wanted to spend Christmas at sea en famille.  At that time, the overall experience we were seeking was Christmas at sea some place warm.  They did not disappoint!

Clearly, we do enjoy a bit of dress-up. We pose on the Queen Mary 2.

It’s hard to categorize the kinds of experiences that you want, but here are a few questions you might ask yourself before you spend your hard-earned money on the cruise of a lifetime:

  • Do you like to get dressed up once in a while, or do you prefer to wear your baseball cap to dinner?
  • Is the ship the destination for you, or are the ports more important?
  • Do you like to be surrounded by (other people’s) children, or  do you prefer the company of adults?
  • Do you need to have a place to retreat to (like your own verandah), or do you always prefer to be around other people?
  • Do you like quiet evening entertainment, or must you have a full-on, Broadway-type show?
  • Do you like glitzy extravagance, or does your personal style run more to the elegant?

Once you have answered these questions for yourself, you can take your answers to your travel agent and you’ve begun a discerning journey to a memorable (in a good way, we hope) cruise vacation.

Our own answers to these questions led us to our upcoming Puerto Rico to New York via Bermuda cruise with a revisit to a Royal suite.  We’ll let you know how that goes!

3 thoughts on “Choosing a cruise: A discerning guide to getting it right!

  1. A much appreciated well written account of possibilities that promotes the often neglected self reflection so necessary in making travel decisions

    1. Thank-you, Cheryl. Everyone’s travel interests and desires differ so much. We all work hard for the means to support our travel habits and we need to know that we’re getting it just right – for us! That notion of self-reflection is one that we apply to other parts of our lives — we need to apply it in our travel decisions as well.

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