The good news: You’ve decided on a cruise line, a destination and maybe even the ship and a sailing date for your first cruise. The bad news: It's hard not to wander into the booking process and encounter unexpected questions and alien terminology.
Here’s how to make the process go more smoothly.
A travel agent can be a great ally
Although you can book a cruise direct with any cruise line, travel agents are paid a commission by cruise lines and have access to pretty much all the same deals that you do. In other words, if you have your heart set on a specific ship or itinerary, let a travel agent do the legwork to locate the best price. And when you don’t know the exact cruise you want, a good travel agent will work to match you with the right cruise line and vessel and source the best price. Our experiences with travel agents have not always been perfect—find one that specializes in cruises and has performed lots of ship inspections, get all promises in writing and, when you find a good agent, reward them with your future business.
Never pay full price and watch for onboard credits
With rare exception, virtually every cabin on every ship sells for less—often considerably less—than the “brochure” rate. The brochure price is the published fare for a cruise, a price that’s usually set more than a year in advance. But as soon as cruise fares are announced, the special offers start to materialize, starting with early booking discounts. These can be a good deal, but for most cruises additional sales will lower the rate even further. If a cruise isn’t selling well, the price will drop dramatically in the last few weeks before departure. Conversely, when the cruise is nearly sold out, deals will evaporate. Note that discounts are often less pronounced for unique itineraries that aren’t repeated throughout the year. But those who can travel on less than a month’s notice and are flexible with travel dates can often find discounts off brochure rates of 70 to 80 percent, even on luxury cruise lines.
Onboard credits are a neat incentive, in effect a rebate on your cruise fare that comes in the form of a credit to your cabin account. The credits can be as little as $25 or $50, or they can amount to hundreds of dollars, especially for cruises longer than a week or for more expensive cabins. Unless you’re booked on an all-inclusive luxury cruise, don't worry—you’ll spend it. Tips run about $12 per day, per person, and most cruise lines even charge for sodas. Always get onboard credits in writing and check your onboard account soon after embarkation—we find credits are often not properly communicated to the cruise line in advance of sailing.
Know what’s included
This is where things get tricky. While cruises used to be a fairly inclusive product, in recent years cruise lines figured out that one way to increase overall revenue was to lower the upfront price of a cabin, but charge for many of the extras we used to take for granted. When comparing the major cruise lines, the list of inclusions varies. Most charge for sodas, but Disney Cruise Line doesn’t. Celebrity charges for pay-per-view movies on your TV, but Holland America has an extensive DVD library on each ship, delivered gratis to your room. All of them include meals at the main dining room and grazing at the buffet, but they charge for specialty dining—experiences that can range from $5 to $95. And don’t forget to check airfares before locking in a booking. A great deal on a swanky Mediterranean cruise during peak season isn’t necessarily hard to find, but Europe’s summer airfares may give you heart palpitations.
Understand the cabin types
There are four basic types of cabins on almost every ship. Cheapest will be the interior or inside cabins—that is, a windowless room with no view. While we haven’t met anyone who actually prefers an interior cabin, the savings can be significant. Often identical in size and features to an interior, ocean view or outside cabins will be found along the exterior of the ship, most frequently on lower decks. The views can vary considerably—from round portholes barely one-foot-wide to floor-to-ceiling windows allowing ample natural light. Note also that ocean views can be obstructed by lifeboats or railings; these should always be identified as such on cruise booking websites.
Next up are balcony or verandah cabins and, again, the size of this feature can vary—from Juliet-style, big enough only for one or two people to stand on, or spacious enough to set up dinner at a table with two chairs. Cabins with balconies usually command a premium—sometimes double the price of an ocean view cabin. Before plunking down on a big fare, think carefully about how many hours you expect to be out on the balcony, gazing at that sea view. The fourth category is, of course, suites, and in size and amenities these vary greatly from one cruise line to the next. Considering the expense, suites are one more reason to work with a well-versed travel agent who can walk you through cabin layouts and amenities.
Note that within each type of cabin are sub-categories. So, the cheapest ocean view will probably be an obstructed view or one with a small porthole view, while a few dollars more will buy a better view. A few dollars more will put you in an ocean view cabin towards the middle of the ship, the location preferred by most cruisers.
Consider a guarantee
During the booking process you will choose your cabin from within the category you have booked. While there are reasons for choosing one room over another, there is often another option to consider, a guarantee cabin—one of our favorite ways to save. In this instance, most commonly availed to those booking in the final months before sailing, by choosing a guarantee cabin, cruisers put the cabin choice in the hands of the cruise line. In exchange, the cruise line offers a lower rate than the lowest for that cabin type. So, the cheapest ocean view cabin for a given cruise might be priced $1099 per person, for an assigned cabin, but those choosing a guarantee ocean view will pay $999. The downside is that you could wind up with the worst cabin in that category—a slightly smaller room or obstructed view, or an unfavorable location, but it’s possibly the same one you might have paid $1099 for anyway. The upside—in addition to the savings—is you might be upgraded to a better cabin.
When do you find out your assigned cabin? We’ve usually gotten our cabin number a few weeks before sailing, though once we didn’t find out till we arrived for embarkation. And the results have panned out both ways: We’ve chosen a guarantee and wound up in a less desirable cabin, and on other occasions we’ve been upgraded to a better cabin than our budget could afford (from an ocean view to a balcony on one luxury cruise). But we’ve never been downgraded to a lower cabin type (i.e., from an ocean view to an interior), so when the savings are good, we usually take the risk.
Know Your Dining Options
In addition to table size, there are usually two basic dinner choices that you will be presented during the booking process on most of the mainstream lines: One of two set dining times in the main dining room—usually around 6 and 8 p.m.—or an open seating option, whereby you can have dinner in the main dining room any time from about 5:30 to 9 p.m. Once you lock in your choice for a set dining time or the open plan, it is not always possible to switch it after embarkation, so give this step of the booking process careful consideration.
While the open seating option (which goes by different names for each line) would seem to be the easiest pick, allowing the greatest flexibility, there are downsides. At prime time (around 7 p.m. for most cruises) there may be a wait for a table, especially for parties larger than four. You will be seated in a different location nightly and, unless you request a private table—not always available—you’ll be dining with different guests nightly. If you opt for the traditional set meal times you’ll be assigned the same table and waiters each evening and break bread with the same fellow cruisers nightly.
Whichever option you choose, this impacts only your dinners in the main dining room. For breakfasts and lunches here you will be seated at the first available table—usually without a wait. And you’ll be able to dine anytime at the ship’s buffet (at no charge) or specialty dining venues (with a surcharge and, usually, a reservation).