Most people who book a cruise for the first time (92%) will make their selection based on when they can go and how long they can stay. The second most important factor will be how much it costs. Everything else is dependent on those two items. In 2006, there were 112 different cruise ships operating out of US ports about 10 million passengers on some 4,500 cruises. 70% of those 10 million people went to destinations in the Caribbean, and four cruise lines (Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian and Celebrity- The Big Four) accounted for about 3/4 of passengers.
If you fall into that broad category, your choices will be fewer, but that does not mean you have to settle for something you do not want. But simply asking "What's the best ship (or cruise line)?" is kind of like asking "What's the best beer?", or "What's the prettiest color?" The very things that one cruiser likes about a cruise are the things that other cruisers vigorously dislike. The good news is that whatever you do like, there is somebody out there doing a bang-up job providing it.
Generally speaking, the Big Four specialize in the "more-is-better" approach to cruising, while smaller cruise lines focus on more specific areas, such as 5-star quality, small intimate ships, enrichmentment, etc. Here are some factors you can consider when choosing your cruise.
Size of the Ship.
Here some general observations one can make regarding the size of the ship.
What the passengers are there for.
The bigger the ship, the greater the attention paid to make sure that the ship-board experience is as unforgettable as possible. This translates into activities, distractions and a festive, socially liberal, fun-and-games atmosphere. If that annoys you, these big ships may rub you the wrong way.
How many people you'll be traveling with.
The bigger the ship, the more people there will be on it (duh). Generally speaking, families, singles and singles traveling in groups will prefer the non-stop beat of the large ships. On the other hand, if you prefer quiet and do not like the crush of crowds at poolside or in the dining room, you'll have much better luck in the smaller ships, especially the ones that hold fewer than 1200 passengers.
The types of ports you will visit.
Big ships go to big ports. Certain ports, such as Roatan, Honduras or Vera Cruz, Mexico, are only available to smaller ships. Sometimes those ports are the very thing that makes the cruise quite special. If the ports of call are at the top of your list of reasons to take a cruise, consider booking passage on smaller ships that have extended itineraries.
Age of the Ship
"Old" is a relative term in the cruise industry, meaning ships that were launched around 1990 or before (15+ years a go). Many of these ships were state-of-the-art at the time and trumpeted the absolute best cruising had to offer. But in the last 15 years, cruise ships have gotten bigger and more extravagant in ways that were unimaginable two decades ago.
Older ships are not bad, just different. Many are less efficiently designed and have more traditional layouts. Some of the extras and amenities that are common on the newer ships, like internet in your cabin, themed alternative dining restaurants, wave pools and ice rinks do not usually exist on the older ships. Cabins are smaller, critical traffic areas (such as elevator lobbies and disembarkation lines) are congested and shops can be pretty cramped. Some passengers (not all) notice stale odors or complain that the ventilation systems in the cabins are cranky.
On the flip side, many of the older ships have been up-fitted and remolded in the last few years, and so are fine cruising vessels. They are primarily used on the shorter cruises (3-5 days) and generally charge lower fares. Take into the account the value of the cruise experience. Maybe the older ships are not as fresh and perfect as the newer ones, but the value they offer – what you get for what you pay – can be outstanding.
Design of the Ship
Whether it's accomplished with an extreme makeover or during the building stage, cruise ships place a premium on the design. Some are designed for luxury, some for fun, some try to strike a middle ground. Ships are often given "star" ratings similar to those given to hotels. Some ships are 5-star, such as Holland America. Others are 4-star, such as Carnival or Royal Caribbean. Keep in mind, if you want 5-star, take a cruise on a 5-star ship. Do not take a cruise on a 3- or 4-star ship and then be unhappy because it's not top quality. A good source available on the internet, is the "Galaxsea.com" Cruise Ratings site ( http://www.galaxsea.com/ratingings.html ).
I also highly recommended the various message boards that populate the internet. Such sites as Cruisecritic.com or Cruisemates.com are an excellent way to see what other people say about the ship and the itinerary you are considering. You can browse the hundreds of posts by people who have been there, and you can ask specific questions of people who take cruising very seriously.
Type of Entertainment
Whether it's the combo that plays at poolside, the bands that perform in the clubs or the glitzy production numbers that grace the theaters, cruise ships put a lot of thought and a ton of money into presenting entertainment. Pick the right entertainment environment and you'll spend sun-drenched days in blissful happiness. Pick the wrong one, and you'll feel like you're surrounded by a bunch of people scratching their fingernails on a chalkboard.
Entertainment is not just about the lounge / club / party scene. It's also about cooking classes, lectures, watching a movie, wine tasting, the casino, getting your golf swing computer analyzed, karaoke, bingo, "game-show" games or touring the galley. You can get a good feel for the type of entertainment and activities a ship offers by going online and checking out the ships on-board newsletter. It lists EVERYTHING happening on the ship. Each cruise line's website will have a sample version of their newsletter. If your travel agent is any good at all, they will have copies from a variety of cruises they have taken.
For many people, a cruise is all about the food. If you're one of them, you'll want to learn what your prospect ship has to offer.
Main Dining (aka Formal Dining). All cruise ships have at least one Main Dining venue and many ships have more than one. The main dining room is the embodiment of luxury and service on your ship and they all work hard to offer classy selections. It's an opportunity to try food and preparation styles that you would never experience otherwise. The main dining rooms will also open for breakfast and lunch. There is no assigned seating for these meals, but you still get great service and the menu selections are very good.
Many ships now offer alternative restaurants that require reservations and / or a surcharge in which you can choose from restaurants that specialize in French cuisine, seafood, or any number of other themes. There is a $ 5 – $ 15 surcharge for each person, but for people that like the choice, it's well worth the money. This option usually is not available on ships built before 1990, because the idea was not popular enough to include the extra space needed.
Alternative Dining. In addition to the main dining room, all ships have a variety of interesting food options. Each has their own version of buffet lines that operate through-out the day, and naturally, some are better than others. New York style delis, pizza and sushi bars, and the always popular poolside grills are but a few of the ideas that are employed. Most ships now also provide coffee shops, bakeries and ice cream counters which usually cost extra. Room service is available 24-hours a day (no charge), with pastries and fruit in the mornings and sandwiches and pizza the rest of the day and night.
Child Care and Youth Programs. Cruise lines understand that the people paying the tab need to have a good time if they are going to come back again. And the way that you make sure parents have a good time is to make sure the kids they are traveling with have a good time.
If you are planning a family cruise, you'll want to travel on a ship that provides the best environment for the youngsters in your group. On the other hand, if you do not want to have your space invaded by youngsters, you'll want to stay away from cruise ships that make their youth programs a priority (such as Disney). Programs are set up to provide age specific activities and are usually free of charge. There will be an orientation about the youth programs on the first day of your cruise so you can get all the information you need, as well as meet the people who will be overlooking your kids.
Almost all ships provide in-cabin baby-sitting services for an extra fee. When provided, these services require you to pay cash directly to the sitter, rather than place the charge on your ship-board account.
Educational / Enrichment Programs. Alongside the more traditional programs like yoga, nutrition counseling and towel folding, some ships now offer programs on gourmet cooking, wine tasting, art education, digital photography, computers, flower arranging, ceramics and much more. Most are offered at no extra charge. The availability of programs increases the longer the cruise. Shorter cruises usually only have a single day at sea, which is the most popular time to offer these classes. Some cruise lines place as high a premium on enrichment programs as other cruise lines place on partying and fun.
Spa Facilities. Across the board, most ships consider a good spa and gym to be essential. Most cruise lines outsource their spa operation to Steiner Leisure Ltd. of London, England, who operate the spas on over one hundred cruise ships, including all of the spas on Royal Caribbean, Carnival and Disney ships. In all probability, no matter which ship you select, you'll have a quality menu of options and a good spa.
Gymnasium / Fitness Center. While you can generally count on a consistent level of quality and service in the spas, unfortunately the same can not always be said of the gyms. Some are absolutely spectacular. Others are little more than a closet with treadmills. The newer ships will have very nice gyms regardless of the cruise line. The older ships, ie, those built before 1990, may or may not, depending on whether the ship has been recently refit. Exercise equipment typically includes treadmills, stationery bikes, weights and cardio machines and most come staffed with one or two Fitness Directors. Fitness centers usually include men's and women's locker rooms, whirlpools, saunas and steam baths.
Internet. Most ships have some kind of internet access, but it is a relatively new technology as far as passenger services go. On the newer ships, there is access all over the ship, even in many cabins. But the older vessels have more limited access. "Internet Cafes" are as common as casinos. Cruise lines are working hard to implement ship-wide wireless internet access and they are definitely getting there. But that does not mean you'll be able to check your e-mail at poolside. In some cases, wireless access is limited to one or two locations. If you do bring your laptop, finding electrical outlets on the ship can be REALLY hard. Make sure your battery is charged. Laptops and wireless cards can be rented on board.
Cabin Size and Options
There are basically four options for cabins; inside, ocean view, suite or balcony (some ships call it "verandah").
Inside: The least expensive cabin aboard. The size of cabins can vary greatly from one ship to another. RCCL Sovereign-class ships are ridiculously small (119 square feet), whereas a similarly priced cabin on Carnival is about 50% larger (187 square feet).
Outside: Usually an identical layout to the inside cabins, but has a window or portal. The difference in price between a standard inside cabin and an ocean view cabin ranges from $ 10 – $ 40 per night (NOT per cruise) depending on the ship and the time of year. In almost all cases, outside cabins, whether or not they have balconies, are larger, sometimes by as much as 15%. If your outside cabin is on one of the decks that has an exterior deck, you will not need to see much ocean and you'll have to deal with people walking outside your window all day.
Balcony. Before 1990, balances were not considered important, and so most ships built during that time either did not have any at all or have only a few. For all of the newer ships, ie those built after 1995, balconies are plentiful. A balcony will add $ 20 – $ 30 per night to the cost of an outside cabin, which usually works out to about twice as much as the cost of an inside cabin. For a 3-day cruise, given the short amount of time you'll spend in your cabin, a balcony may not be worth double the cost.
Suite. Actually, "suite" is a pretty generous description, since what you're actually getting is an extra large cabin (about twice the size of your standard cabin and 3 – 4 times the cost). There are some suites that provide separate sleeping quarters and private hot tubs on the balcony but these are very limited and very expensive (5 – 10 times as expensive as an inside cabin). Most suites are a larger, and usually better furnished, version of a standard cabin.
When considering cabin options, think about how many people will be sharing it and much time you'll be using it. The longer the cruise, the more important size and balances become. Location of the cabin also determines desirability (and cost). For example, lower cabins sometimes pick up engine noise or the sound of the anchor dropping, but they do tend to be more stable in rough seas. Cabins located close to the action near the middle of the ship are convenient, but may also be in high traffic areas which translates into noise in the hallway outside your cabin.
Caribbean cruises are broken down into 3 broad regions – Western Caribbean (Cozumel or Playa del Carmen, Mexico; Grand Cayman; Key West, FL; the Dominican Republic; Jamaica; Belize; or Costa Rica), Eastern Caribbean (Bahamas, St. Thomas , St. John, Puerto Rico, or Turks & Caicos) and Southern Caribbean (Aruba, Martinique, Barbados or St. Thomas).
Western Caribbean cruises tend to include more sea days because the destinations are so far apart and the distance one must travel across the Gulf of Mexico is so long. If you take one of these, make sure you choose a ship you're going to like because you'll be spending a lot of time on it.
Eastern and Southern Caribbean cruises usually include more ports of call (the islands are right next to each other) and therefore offer a wider variety of venues. That does not mean you'll have a wide variety of activities. The basic offerings from port to port will generally be the same type of activity, just different scenery.
Some things you'll want to consider in addition to where you are going:
How long will you be there? Ships that are in port for only part of a day only allow enough time for one shore excursion and may not leave time for shopping or bar hopping. Ships that stay in port overnight, or at least until midnight allow for more diversity of activities in port.
When do you arrive / leave? This can matter, for example, if you want to do a sunset dinner cruise, but the ship pulls out sundown. Likewise, if you've booked a shore excursion on your own that requires a pick-up time at 9:30 am, but your ship does not dock till noon, you'll lose your money.
How do you get ashore? Sometimes the cruise ships tie up at a pier and you just head down to the gangway and walk ashore. Other times the ship has to anchor away from the dock and deliver people ashore via tenders, which means there will be a bottle neck getting on and off the ship. This can be a major pain, especially if the ship is one of the super liners that has to disgorge 3,000+ passengers. Also, the roughness of the wind and water can hamper tender activities and can even cause the ship to decide to not stay in the port.
For many cruisers, you will not really care about all of these factors. No problema. Just pay attention to the ones that are important to you. Whether you are booking through a travel agent or directly with the cruise line, ask about the issues that are important to you and make sure you check out the online reviews and message boards to get objective info.