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The Cruise compass.Booking a Cruise.

27/12/2010 22:32



There are a lot of decisions to be made in the process of booking a cruise. The very first, and likely one of the most important decisions, is choosing your booking agent. Your choices include: using a travel agent, booking through an on-line booking engine, or dealing directly with the cruise line itself.Whichever you choose, first, be absolutely certain that they have a real, live contact person available for you, to deal with any problems or questions that come up. Some of the on-line booking services deal only through e-mail. If you don’t get answers to your e-mail, what do you do then?   And remember, as a general rule, all cruise lines follow this policy: If you’ve already booked with a travel agent, or booking agent, all your communication and questions MUST go through that agent. The cruise line will not talk to you directly about your booking.After that, there are two essential questions to ask your travel agent BEFORE you book: The first is:Do they honor price drops?  …If your cruise is offered at a lower price, after you have made deposit, will they give you the lower price? Not all do.  Note: some lower prices, usually those offered after final payment, are labeled by the cruise line as being for new bookings only. The TA cannot give you those price drops, as it is not in their power.The second essential question is: Do they charge a booking fee or a cancellation penalty of their own? …When you book a cruise, a deposit is required.  Typically, it’s about two hundred, fifty dollars, per person for a seven day cruise; less for shorter, and more for longer cruises.  No further payment is usually due until final payment day, which will be approximately seventy days prior to your sail date. It varies slightly by cruise line and length of cruise. (Don’t forget to make your final payment on time, or your cruise reservation will be cancelled. A good TA will remind you, but it’s really up to you to remember.)All cruise lines charge cancellation penalties if you cancel after the final payment date. The breakdown of how much they charged is based on how close to sailing you cancel, and can be found in the back of your cruise brochure, and on their web pages.  BUT some travel agentscharge an additional penalty of their own, for cancellation at any time. This can be as much as seventy-five dollars, per person. That's a hefty bite when multiplied by two persons in a cabin, or worse, a family of four.Additionally, some travel agents have other fees that you need to know about up front.  Some charge simply for booking the cruise, or for making changes of any kind.  I've even heard of one TA that charged his customers for calling him on the phone.  Most TAs do not have fees like those, so avoid the ones that do, by asking first if they charge any extra fees.If you can’t talk to a real person, and if they don’t honor price drops, or if they charge their own cancellation penalty, stop right there, and find a new TA.SO THEN, WHY SHOULD I USE A TA?

Let me start by saying that I do highly recommend using a travel agent. Because:

•          Most TA’s will charge no more than the cruise line itself, and often can offer an additional savings, and can sometimes include other perks like cabin credits and onboard freebies.

•          A good TA will keep an eye on your booking, and watch for and obtain any price drops for you. They will also watch for, and help you deal with any unexpected changes (that do occur from time to time).

•          Only use a CLIA (Cruise Line International Association) certified TA. They are trained in this specialty and have the necessary knowledge to help you plan the right cruise for you.  If you think the info on this page is extensive, it should give a small idea of the vast amount of info there is to know about the individual cruise lines, their rules, itineraries, prices and customs. This is information that a CLIA TA knows, that can be of benefit to you; providing you with a cruise that is the best fit for you, at the best price.

•          In the end a good TA is someone who will go to bat for you should there be any problem with your booking. Without the TA as your intermediary, you will be on your own, the little guy battling a very big company.



How do you get a great deal on a cruise? …..I always tell people that the best way to get a deal on a cruise is to “choose a deal”.  By this I mean, be flexible with your cruise requirements.  The more specific criteria you place on your cruise selection, the more likely you are to pay top dollar.Ask your TA, if there are any current specials available. If you are willing to cruise when the deal says, on whatever itinerary the deal offers, and on whichever ship the deal features, and in whatever category of cabin is cheap, then you WILL get a great cruise deal.  But, if you are only able to cruise during a specific week, and you must go to a particular island, and you will only be happy in a veranda cabin, on a brand new ship, with the latest thrill ride features, well then expect to pay the price.If the age of the other passengers matters to you, here are a few hints as to the demographics of each cruise:  Longer cruises tend to have older passengers, as the pre-retirement set usually has limited vacation time. So cruises, shorter than seven days, will pull in the younger crowd.  Summer time and holiday cruises will abound in families with children, while spring break cruises are notorious for their college age crowds.  So choose your dates accordingly.  The price of the cruise also influences the general passenger age, the pricier the trip/cruise line, the older the crowd.If it’s important to you that the ship be in pristine shape then choose a newer or just refurbished ship. If you are expecting rock walls, or shipboard surfing or water parks, do your homework and choose the new ship that has what you want.  On the other hand, if you know that you will never climb that wall, nor surf the FlowRider, then you may choose not to waste your money on those ships, as they will likely cost more.And don’t forget to take into account all factors when looking for the best deal. The itinerary out of San Juan, that is a hundred dollars cheaper than the one from Miami, might not be the best deal if the per-person airfare to SJU costs two hundred more than flying to MIA.Beyond that, remember that booking early gives you the best choice of ship and cabin, and often the best price. Book early and if the price goes up, you’re locked into the lower price.  If it goes down, often you can get your price adjusted downward, provided final payment has not yet been made.


Although I usually advise people that all the cruise lines are a lot more alike than they are different, they do target somewhat different markets.Although I usually advise people that all the cruise lines are a lot more alike than they are different, the cruise lines do target somewhat different markets. To give you a feel for the general differences, here is a breakdown of the major lines:Economically speaking, Carnival targets the less affluent segment of the cruise market. They have a reputation for having the lowest prices, consequently attracting the crowd that is, generally, the most budget conscious. Carnival advertizes their "low price" and "fun" theme, so they do cut a few corners trying to keep their price at a level that can be afforded by the average working guy.With the "Fun" as their signature, they attract a younger crowd, young couples and families with and without kids, a lot of first-timers, more singles and "party" people, and those looking for the most fun for their dollar. You will find all ages, but more 20 to 30-somethings than the other lines.  Their dress code is generally casual, with Carnival currently being the only major line that allows shorts in their dining rooms at dinner.  The emphasis is on activities and a busy schedule. The ships tend to be a bit more crowded and overly glitzy in decor. Expect vivid color schemes and over-the-top decor. They offer both traditional and open seating options for dinner.Norwegian – Similar demographics to Carnival, but with more children, and a little less glitz.   NCL tries to be the anti-cruising cruise line. Their advertising stresses their “Freestyle cruising,” meaning no set dining times or location, no formal nights, and generally casual dress. They try to be attractive to those turned off by traditional cruising, who think the traditional experience will be too confining for their personal style. NCL, like Carnival, also aims for a lower, affordable price, and offers a more casual experience.Costa – Expect the 20 to 50-something age range, a European influence, and excellent food. Good entertainment. Costa can be an excellent value; and depending on the season has occasionally been known to offer kids sail free programs.

Royal Caribbean targets families. Again you will find all ages but high numbers of 30-50-somethings, who tend to make the ship the destination. RCI doesn’t cut quite as many corners as Carnival, but they do try to remain an affordable and attractive vacation alternative for families with kids and younger folks. Marketing to an activity oriented customer base, their big attractions are their state of the art amenities--rock walls, ice-skating rinks, bungee jumps, wave surfing pools, etc.  Traditional nightly dress codes include both casual and formal nights. Offers both traditional and open seating options for dinner.Princess, another frequent pick of the 30 to 50+ group is good for families. It’s a step up from Carnival and Norwegian, aiming for less of a "party crowd" and a little more elegant experience. Princess tries to accommodate all preferences in terms of dining choices, offering both traditional and open seating. The price range is slightly higher, but offering a good value and good children’s program, but having fewer of those teen friendly sport features found on RCI.  Traditional nightly dress codes include both casual and formal nights. Known for their fresh water pools.Celebrity is Royal Caribbean's more upscale, elegant, more adult line. 40 to 60+ somethings.  Their hallmark is un-crowded ships, award winning food and high quality service. You will find fewer annoyances like loudspeaker announcements, fewer children and stricter dress code adherence. This is traditional style cruising with more refinement, although modern and not stuffy. Celebrity is still reasonably priced. Currently transitioning into offering a version of flexible dining in addition to the traditional experience.Holland America is also up-scale yet affordable, appeals to 40-70 somethings, with markedly fewer children. This is a more traditional line (owned by Carnival) that caters to an adult crowd. (Some might say elderly, though they really try to draw all ages.) HAL is a step up in food and service. Expect the traditional dress code, quality, art and elegance. HAL offers both traditional and open seating dining.Oceania and Azamara are smaller ship lines, with smaller (700 passenger) ships. They feature excellent food and service, but not children or teen programs and facilities. Expect less of an emphasis on entertainment and activities. Prices will be somewhat higher than the big ship lines. Both have only open seating for dinner.Then there are a number of other lines (Paul Gauguin, Regent, Seabourne, Crystal, Silverseas, etc.) that aim at a much higher priced, luxury market. They provide top-notched food, service, entertainment and accommodations, and charge accordingly.You need to ask yourself what is important to you, whether that be service, open seating, rock walls or a less crowded ship.  You’ll need to choose what suits you, and your budget.


Should we book an inside, ocean view or balcony cabin? Well, now that is a tough question, and the answer is different for each cruiser. You have to choose what is right for you.

What are the advantages of each category?

Inside cabins:

•          Provide a significant cost saving.

•          Are quieter since they are usually surrounded by other inside cabins, and away from noisy public areas and the noises on neighboring verandas

•          Are great for sleeping as there is no morning light to wake you.

•          While considered cozy and relaxing by “inside” fans, the smallish cabins do tend to encourage you to spend more time out and about, enjoying the ship.

Ocean view cabins:

•          Less expensive than verandah cabins

•          Provide natural light during the daytime

•          Have a view of the outside, albeit limited

•          Probably a safer choice than a verandah, for cruisers with small children along.

Balcony cabins:

•          Provide a great view

•          Frequently are larger

•          Have a larger feel, even when not actually bigger

•          Include actual additional space on the balcony

•          Provide the ability to step outside, at any time for a breath of that fresh, sea air

•          And the ability to get some fresh air into the cabin

•          Allow you to watch the ship’s sail away, without going up on deck. (Especially nice if you both need to be in the cabin getting ready for dinner then, as frequently happens.)

•          Provide privacy outdoors, to enjoy the sunrise with your morning coffee, watch an evening sunset, or simply say goodnight to the stars.

•          Additionally, balcony cabins frequently include some amenities, not included with inside or OV cabins.

If you can afford a balcony cabin, they are wonderful; and lots of people (like me) feel they are worth every extra penny they cost. But if money is a consideration, you can have a wonderful cruise experience in either an inside or ocean view cabin. Those that swear by inside cabins, say you don’t spend much time in there anyway. This does of course, become a self fulfilling prediction.JMHO, if you don’t spring for the balcony, you may want to skip the ocean view, and just book the inside. On many ships you won't find much difference between inside versus ocean view. Research your particular ship. On some, the outsides offer a small sitting area that the insides lack. But on most, they are usually similar in size and layout, the main difference being the window, which will be completely black most of the time that you're in the cabin anyway.Also, if you have chosen a port intensive itinerary, consider whether or not you will have enough on-board, in-cabin time to make the expense of a balcony worth the extra cost.Larger families of four may find that getting two inside cabins is a better deal than getting one family cabin or a suite.  The two insides won't cost much more than adding the 3rd and 4th person rates to the cost of a larger cabin; and will provide so much more room, with much more privacy…and an extra bathroom!


Read the deck plans carefully. Note the location of potentially noisy areas, like the kitchen, the disco or theaters and outdoor deck areas that have chairs and tables likely to be moved and avoid cabins directly above or below them.  Having only cabins, directly above and below your room, is a real plus when looking for a quiet location.And if it’s quiet you want, specifically in the early morning, here’s one hint for those sailing on the older ships: Never book near the bow of the ship.  Newer ships have dynamic positioning systems, using GPS in conjunction with the stabilizers and thrusters, to keep the ship in place. Whereas older ships have the traditional anchor and chain. When your older ship arrives at a new port in the early A.M., that anchor and its’ massive chain, drop into the sea, with a roar and a rumble akin to a nine on the Richter scale. It’s the most effective alarm clock ever.If seasickness is a consideration, your preferred location should be low and centrally located.  You will feel the roll of the ship (side to side motion) less on the lowest decks. You will feel the pitch of the ship (the up and down, forward to aft motion) less if your cabin is near the middle of the ship. And to avoid vibrations, stay away from the far aft cabins, where the engines can sometimes be felt.

Choosing a centrally located cabin also saves lots of walking, so look for something close to the elevators, but not directly next to them, to avoid the noise from people getting on and off.Also note where your cabin is located, in relation to the areas of the ship you will likely visit most.  If the dinning room is at one end of the ship, and your cabin is at the other, walking to dinner in your high heels can get pretty tiresome.Take note of the ships traveling direction also.  On round trip itineraries, it may not matter much which side of the ship you're on, as whatever view you miss on the outbound leg of the trip, you'll likely get to see on the home bound run.  But if your trip is one way, you'll want to choose a cabin that gives you the view you prefer, whether that be the shore side, or the open ocean view. (BTW, this consideration is especially important on some Alaskan cruises, so take special note of your itinerary map.) 

The Guarantee Cabin:

There is one other option when choosing your cabin category and location, and that is the “guarantee”.  With a “guarantee” you choose a minimum category and are guaranteed a cabin that is at least at that level, or possibly better. You get a lower price with the potential for an upgrade, while the cruise line gets to place you wherever they have an empty room.  So if you really don't care what kind of cabin you get, nor where it’s located, go ahead and book the guarantee. Just be very certain that you will indeed be happy with whatever cabin you may get.Lastly, when booking your cruise, never book any cabin or category less than one in which you will be happy. Sure, you’ve heard of people getting those fabulous upgrades, (booking an inside, and being assigned a balcony), but the vast majority of all cruisers get exactly the cabin they booked. True upgrades occur rarely, and most amount to nothing more than a shift from one deck to another, with the cabin being basically the same. (That is: inside to inside, ocean-view to ocean-view) Booking something cheap, while counting on a visit from the upgrade fairy, is a sure recipe for disappointment.

So, when should I book?

Do it early. You can’t count on getting either the cabin, meal time choice, or maybe even the ship you want, when waiting for a last minute deal.  Most cruise lines offer early booking discounts, and booking early locks in that rate.  Sure, it’s possible for the price to go down, but much more likely to go higher. And in general deposits are fully refundable (prior to final payment), which allows you to negotiate for the newer lower prices.  If it does go down before final payment, simply make a quick call to your TA and she should be able to get your booking adjusted to the new lower rates, or your cabin upgraded to match the price you paid.{One note: Be aware there are some new early booking categories (specifically Carnival’s Early Saver rate) that give you the lowest price, but come with restrictions and additional penalties for cancellations and changes that aren‘t currently typical of other cruise lines. Be absolutely certain you understand all the fine print before you put your money down.}


And one final note about booking your cruise:  If you plan a cruise that will occur fairly soon, be certain you either already possess, or will be able to obtain, the necessary identification documentation for the itinerary you’ve chosen. Do this, before you make any non-refundable payments. If your cruise requires a passport or a visa, there will be no exceptions if you fail to provide proper credentials.Hint: If you decide to purchase covers for your passports, consider buying different colors for you and your spouse. This helps to avoid the nightmarish experience of one solo cruiser, who showed up at the pier with her husband’s passport in hand, instead of her own.If you already own a passport, verify now that it will still be current for your anticipated sail date.  Note: The cruise lines recommend that your passport also be valid for six months past your scheduled date of return.

For some itineraries, such as most Caribbean and Canadian cruises, passports are not absolutely necessary, but remain highly recommended.  Check the details carefully.  Currently, if you are a U.S. citizen, and your Caribbean or Canadian cruise begins and ends in the same U.S. port, you may only need the following TWO documents:

•          A government issued photo ID (i.e.: driver’s license),  PLUS

•          An official government issued original, or certified copy of your birth certificate

(The new Dept. of Homeland Security rules states that all birth certificates must be official federally issued originals or certified copies.  The old fashioned, hospital issued certificates, (you know, the ones with the cute foot prints,) may not be accepted at embarkation.  BTW, they are not accepted for passport applications either. So allow sufficient time in your plans for processing of requests for both documents.)As mentioned above, the passport is highly recommended, no matter the itinerary.  There are two reasons why you would be advised to use a passport even if not absolutely required for your Caribbean or Canadian cruise:

1.         First, a passport will enable you to fly to meet the ship at the first port of call, should you miss embarkation. Passports ARE required for air travel to the Caribbean or Canada.  Miss the ship without a passport, and your vacation is instantly over.

2.         And second, the passport will also make it possible for you to fly home from a foreign port, in the event you must end your cruise early. (i.e. a family emergency at home, you miss the ship at a port of call, or an injury or illness that prevents you continuing your trip, etc).

Passenger names on travel documents (passport, birth certificate, etc.) must be identical to those on the cruise and airline tickets. Otherwise, proof of name change (e.g., a marriage license) must be presented.