In Episode 25 in my travel podcast series, I talk to travel blogger and podcaster Gary Bembridge about cruises: everything you might need to know if you’re planning a cruise for the first time. We cover booking and planning your cruise, the different types of cruise you might consider, what your typical activities on a cruise might look like, as well as what to wear and how to budget for extras like excursions and tips. Gary’s a real cruise enthusiast and he’s now been on over 20 cruises so he really has some great tips and advice to help you get the most from your first cruise.
Gary’s first cruise was through work when he attended a marketing conference that was held on a cruise ship and enjoyed it so much that since then he has been on 20 cruises. For those of you who prefer to read rather than listen to the podcast, you’ll find the tips for first time cruisers that Gary gave me below;
What are the benefits of a cruise compared to other types of holidays?
For Gary, being at sea is the best part of the cruise, so he prefers cruises that have a lot of sea days. In the middle of the ocean, when you’re surrounded by sea and sky, and phone and internet are limited, the pace of life slows down and you are able to unwind. From a ship you can also reach places like the Norwegian fjords that are difficult to see from land, experiencing the incredible scenery and views from the ship. You’ll be able to get a taste of multiple destinations without committing large amounts of time or money to any one place, which means that you can see which places you enjoy most and plan to return at a later date. There is also a sense of community and welcome on a cruise, with a range of interesting people to talk to and everyone is generally very friendly on board the ship.
Who does a cruise suit?
It depends on which ship and route you choose, for instance the transatlantic crossing attracts a younger crowd whereas the Norwegian fjords attract an older age group as the cruise is more peaceful. In general the typical age for a cruise in in the 50s and 60s but this will depend on the cruise line. Some ships, for instance Disney cruises, are aimed at customers with young families. I know a family that love to cruise with their children and Gary also mentioned a friend of his who loved cruising with her 2 young boys as there are kids clubs to entertain the children and a sense of security that you always know where they are. Cruising is also becoming very popular with solo travellers as it’s so easy to meet people at meal times and on excursions, and cruise lines are beginning to reintroduce solo cabins and some don’t charge a premium for solo travellers.
What different types of cruises should people consider?
Taster cruise – This is an inexpensive way of finding out if you like the cruise line and if cruising is for you. Most cruise lines will run taster cruises from 2-4 nights and they are competitively priced. The downside is that taster cruises have a reputation as a cheap long weekend where people look to eat and drink a lot so you may not get the full flavour of a longer cruise.
Transatlantic cruise – This is typically a 7 day cruise, such as the Cunard crossing from Southampton to New York. This is a very relaxing type of cruise with days at sea where there is a lot to do on board.
Repositioning cruise – These cruises are normally 10-14 days where cruise companies move their ships from the Caribbean to the Mediterranean at the start and end of each season. You will stop at a couple of destinations, then sail across the Atlantic which can be very relaxing. Repositioning cruises are often well-priced because cruises with a lot of sea days are not as popular. Also sea sickness is not such an issue as the route is further south and not as rough as the North Atlantic.
Norwegian Fjords – This is a cruise that is very calm and peaceful with amazing scenery, and ideal for people who like hiking, cycling and outdoor activities.
Mediterranean cruise – These are very popular and great for summer sun in June – August. You need to look carefully at the routes which may include places such as Rome or Florence but you should be aware that you may need to drive 3-4 hours from the port to reach these places. Island destinations such as the Greek Islands enable you to see a lot more of the destination more easily.
World Cruises – These last over 100 days but you can do one leg of the cruise, for instance Gary is cruising for a month from Sydney to Dubai passing through many destinations of South East Asia, which gives you a taste of many different places that you might want to explore in more depth later.
Caribbean cruises – these are the most popular cruise destination and again you can see a number of different islands and get a taste for where you might want to explore in more depth later.
How can you get the best deal when booking your cruise ?
Even if you are used to researching and booking your own travel, Gary’s strong recommendation is to use a specialist cruise travel agent. They will help you choose the cruise line that will suit you and also the individual ships which can be very different, depending on whether you’re looking for a cruise that is more formal or more relaxed. A specialist cruise agent will also give you the best price and they may throw in on board credit or free excursions or keep the price down by giving up some of their commission.
It is worth signing up for newsletters with any cruise lines that you are interested in to be informed of special deals or promotions, but then you should still go back to the specialist cruise agent to make your booking as they should be able to match or beat any special offers the cruises are offering.
Some of cruise lines such as Cunard, P & O and Carnival offer a price match guarantee which means that you can book early and they later reduce the price, they will give you the difference in on-board credit, excursions or cabin upgrades, and this is something that you should also ask your cruise agent about. If you wait until 90 days before the cruise leaves, this is when customers who have booked need to pay their balance, so this is also when cruise lines review their booking numbers and may make price reductions.
What happens when you board the ship?
When you arrive at the cruise terminal you hand over your bags and then they are taken to your cabin, so you don’t have to carry any heavy luggage around. You will be allocated a boarding time, depending on your class of cabin but you should get out and explore the ship as early as you can, to familiarise yourself with the layout. Check the table you have been allocated because if you don’t like the position you may have a chance to change it if you are there early. Gary recommends that you request a table for 8 people or the biggest available which means that there will be plenty of different people on the table to talk to and you should find some that you get on with.
A typical day on your cruise
Sea day will have lots of activities, such as behind the scenes tours, cooking demonstrations, talks and how to classes, the problem is more what not to do because there is so much choice. Despite the numbers of people on board, you should find plenty of space on board to just relax and read a book.
Port days are a lot more hectic and excursions leave around 8.30am. It can be quite tiring if you go on an excursion every port day, so you may want to spend one of the port days on the ship when it will be a lot less crowded.
Planning what to pack
You don’t need to pack light if you depart and return to the same port and if you fly to meet the ship you will be limited only by what baggage allowance you have on the flight. The number and type of clothes will be determined by how formal the evenings are on the cruise line that you choose. For instance, on a Cunard cruise there are more formal nights so you will need more clothes. Typically on a 7 night cruise there will be 3 formal nights with gents in Black Tie and ladies in glamorous evening gowns; 2 semi-formal evenings with gents wearing a suit and tie, ladies in a cocktail dress; the other nights gents in jacket and open neck shirt and ladies in smart wear. A cruise line such as Carnival or Princess would be a lot less formal so if you hate dressing up and taking lots of luggage then choose your cruise line accordingly. In general the US based cruise lines tend to be more informal in their dress code.
As there are shops on board, you can buy anything that you forget and there is even a big pharmacy so you can get any medication you need although you should take any prescription medication with you. You should also check what adaptors you might need on the ship as even the ships that are UK based tend to have US plugs, so take a couple of adaptors.
What cash should I take?
You don’t need as much cash as you might imagine, as everything that you buy on board is charged to a cruise charge card which is then charged to your credit card. You do need a credit card rather than a debit card, as when you check in they will do a pre-authorisation. You will need cash for tips for stewards and waiters and also in port depending on whether the excursions are pre-paid. You should get the local currency from the ATM machines in port as the Cruise lines have poor exchange rates, and if you want to gamble in the casino you should take cash as the cruise line will charge commission to change your money.
What extras should I budget for?
In recent years cruise lines have been under pressure to keep the basic cruise price down and as a result they have been taking out things that were previously included in the overall price and charging them as extras. You need to check with your cruise line what is included, for instance on some cruises all drinks are included but on most they will not. Typical extras are the spa, internet on board, alternative dining options which could be $20-30 per person, drinks, specialist coffees. Excursions are also expensive, the cheapest can be $50-150 per person, which can mount up if you are going on excursions at every port.
Advice about tips
You need to check before you go how tips are dealt with as on some cruises they may be included in the cruise price, others may charge them to your bill and on other cruise lines you will need to take cash for tips. $11-13 per person per day is a typical tip amount. If it is already added to the bill you should not feel any obligation to tip further, unless you have received some exceptional service. Some people give $10-20 as a tip to the stewart when they first arrive on board to ensure they get great service. It the tip is added to your bill then the tips are spread around all of the staff behind the scenes, as well as your steward and waiters.
Advice about excursions
Excursions organised by the cruise lines tend to be the most expensive, as you are paying for the cruise line to make a margin. However, they are convenient and if the excursion booked through the cruise line is late back, the ship will always wait for you, whereas if you book an excursion independently the ship won’t wait. When Gary was in the Norwegian fjords, he found that a boat excursion was around 30% less by booking directly with the provider than the cruise line. It’s best to look at what the cruise lines offer first and then also look at options offered by independent tour providers such as Viator or Shoretrips.com and some tour providers will guarantee to return you to the ship on time.
If you just want to look around at your own pace, you’ll always find that the cruise line or tourism board will lay on a shuttle bus to take you into town and the tourism boards will be there when you get off the ship to offer you maps and information. This will enable you to explore some of the smaller or unusual things to do and you will be spending more money in the local economy.
Ethics and Environmental issues
There are different views over these issues, and the cruise organisations would argue that they are putting huge amounts of money into the local economy in port fees and what passengers spend. However, others would argue that not enough of the money from excursions and other activities goes into the local economy so it’s worth looking out for local markets and shops where you can buy your souvenirs rather than the chain shops at the port.
On the environmental side there has been a huge change – the cruise lines now recycle everything except food waste which is pulped and discharged at sea. As passengers we should try to ensure that we spend money in a way that gets into the local economy. CLIA is based in the US and if you go on their website you can learn about environmental policies and on behind the scenes tours on the ship you can talk to the environmental officers.
You can find Gary Bembridge at TipsforTravellers.com where he writes a lot about cruises with tips and advice. Gary is also on Facebook and Twitter @GaryBembridge and you can find his videos on Youtube.
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