10-step Approach to a Perfect
By Harry Shatuck
February 21, 1999
RARELY does a week pass that I don't hear
the question several times: What do I recommend for a first cruise?
While I've never been one to pass the buck,
my standard response is: What are your priorities? Every traveler has different
interests, and I can't assume that others share mine.
Besides, I don't have a favorite ship other
than the SS Shattuck, and it exists only in my dreams. It combines
the pool and sun decks on Carnival's Fascination and the Sun Princess;
the spa aboard Celebrity's Galaxy; the entertainment on Crystal Harmony;
the staterooms on the Silver Cloud and Americana; the formal dining on
Crystal Symphony and the Zenith; the casual dining on the Sun Princess;
the dedicated service and intimacy of Radisson Seven Seas' Song of Flower;
the friendliness on the River Explorer; and the convenience of the Norwegian
Sea. And during a 12-day sailing -- my idea of the perfect duration --it
takes me Scotland's Orkney Islands, Alaska's Glacier Bay, France's Bordeaux
wine region and the Caribbean island of Aruba.
But back to reality.
One mistake some potential first-time cruisers
make is to place vacation options in broad categories -- i.e., land vs.sea.That's
what I did almost 20 years ago when I naively told a travel agent, "Just
book us on a cruise that doesn't cost too much. They're all the same, aren't
I was fortunate. Royal Caribbean's Song
of America whetted my appetite for future sailings. Over time I've come
to appreciate that a Vancouver-to-Anchorage voyage aboard the Regal Princess
and a Miami-to-Nassau excursion on Carnival's Ecstasy are as different
as, say, Fredericksburg and Walt Disney World. And each has its appeal.
If I were starting anew, here is a 10-step
approach I would take in selecting and purchasing a first cruise:
1. Make an honest assessment of your vacation
objectives (and those of any traveling companions).
What matters most? An intriguing itinerary?
Professional entertainment? Gourmet cuisine? Spas? Sun? Scenery? Service?
Companionship? Children's activities? Wheelchair-accessible facilities?
Adventure-oriented shore excursions? Shopping? A stateroom with private
balcony? Or with the lowest price? An opportunity to don tuxedo or evening
dress? Or sneakers and gym shorts?
Contrary to some preconceived notions,
most cruises today are not designed for the ultra-rich or the sedentary.
As the industry continues its rapid expansion, competition with land resorts
for the vacation dollar is so intense that cruise lines offer a wide range
2. See a travel agent or contact cruiselines
to obtain brochures.
But don't make an early commitment. And
use brochure prices only as a guide; as with purchasing a new car, almost
nobody pays the published rate. Instead, look at the pictures in the brochures;
what are the ages and attire of the passengers portrayed? Are any kids
shown? Read the text; beyond the flowery descriptive phrases you'll gain
perspective on the line's basic philosophy.
3. Visit a bookstore or library to peruse
new guide books that evaluate each ship's specific features. Especially
recommended for first-timers: The Unofficial Guide to Cruises (Macmillan,
$18) by Kay Showker and Bob Sehlinger; The Complete Idiot's Travel Guide
to Cruise Vacations (Alpha Books, $16.95) by Fran Wenograd Golden; and
Stern's Guide to the Cruise Vacation (Pelican, $18.95) by Steven B. Stern.
Other good information sources are Internet
addresses on which passengers write reviews of ships. Recommended sites
include America Online's Cruise Critic (available to America Online subscribers);
4. Look closely at advertisements in thisTravel
section and elsewhere, especially if price is a factor.
5. Talk with friends who have cruised.
Were their expectations met? Weigh their input with your awareness of their
preferences as compared with yours.
6. Match your preferred destination to
the dates you can travel.
This is a good time of year to cruise through
the Panama Canal or to Mexico. Alaskan itineraries are usually offered
late May through September. Most European sailings are in summer and early
fall. The Caribbean is busy year-round (more so in winter), but keep in
mind the potential perils of hurricane season.
7. Are you concerned about feeling confined
aboard a ship (fears that usually are quickly alleviated)?
Do you get bored easily? Enjoy tours that
emphasize nature or adventure? If so, consider an itinerary that includesa
port call on most days.
8. In choosing a stateroom, don't get confused
by price structures.
On many ships, the higher the deck, the
higher the price. And in some instances (when balconies or butler serviceis
included) this differential is justified. But on most vessels (including
the Houston-based Norwegian Sea), standard cabins are all but identical;
you pay more only for the "status" of a higher deck. You'll often get the
smoothest ride in a less-pricey stateroom midship on a lower deck. (But
don't fret about seasickness; it's rarely a problem.)
9. In firming your budget, allow for extra
expenses beyond the basic fare. These include shore excursions, spa treatments,
cocktails and gratuities.
10. Once you are prepared to make a decision,
With few exceptions, travel agents offer
the best bargains; many lines sell exclusively through agencies. But you
could conceivably approach five agencies and receive five different fare
quotes. Based on the percentage of business an agency does with a cruise
line, it may offer lower rates or special deals.
Unless you already have a strong, positive
relationship with a local travel agent, visit or call several agencies.
Compare not just prices but the interest the agent shows in you. Make sure
he or she explains first- and second-seating meal options. Inquire about
cabin upgrades and on-board spending credits; these may be unavailable,
but it never hurts to ask.
Most important, be prepared to tell a travel
agent exactly what you want from a cruise. If you follow Steps 1 through
9 first, Step 10 will be easier.