Planning a cruise can be a challenge—even for an old hand. Here, 12 tips for avoiding storms at sea.
1. Do the research (or use an experienced agent) to ensure you book the ship that's right for you Each cruise line has its own personality, and you want to make sure you're choosing the one that fits your taste. Travelers who are particular about food should consider Crystal Cruises or Radisson Seven Seas Cruises, while those who are seeking educational trips should look into Lindblad Expeditions. Even within a line, there are differences between ships. For instance, Royal Caribbean International, known for providing extreme sports on board, has ice-skating rinks on only five of its ships. Check out ship reviews and message boards on Cruisemates.com and Cruisecritic.com or find a travel agent who specializes in cruises on T+L's A-List (www.travelandleisure.com/alist).
2. It pays to shop around If you're price-conscious and you already know which line and ship you want, it's worth shopping around on general travel sites, such as Travelocity and Expedia, or cruise-specific on-line agencies, such as Cruise411.com. Cruisecompete.com and the bargain-finder feature on Cruisemates use a "reverse auction" that allows you to post your desired cruise and dates, and travel agents will e-mail you back with their best deals. Also, when companies offer those increasingly rare 60-percent-off deals, it's often via e-mail. You can sign up for these e-mails at the lines' Web sites. Many offer small discounts (up to 5 percent) to passengers who pay in full up front or to those who book their next cruise while still on board.
3. Book at the right time Last-minute deals are rare these days. As ships fill up quickly, early-booking savings—which can amount to as much as 40 percent off—are once again the best deal. Some exceptions: shoulder-season cruises may still be discounted, and repositioning cruises are often available at lower fares. (You'll save even more by booking early on these cruises too.)
4. Scrutinize arrival and departure times before you book Some people plan Mediterranean cruises thinking they'll get to sample the nightlife in lively ports; however, cruise ships often pull out of port just before dinner—you can find yourself waving good-bye to Barcelona before the sun even sets. But many luxury cruise lines do have itineraries with at least one night in a port, so study the brochure's schedule.
5. Price out airfare and transfers on your own Booking airfare and airport-to-ship transfers through the line is convenient and it may offer added protection if your flight is delayed, but those advantages can come at a price. Many lines' ships depart from the same ports on the same days, making plane tickets more expensive. To find a cheaper flight (and enjoy a quieter time in port), scan several companies' Web sites (or your port's site) for a ship that sails on a day with few departures. If you do buy airfare through the cruise line, however, you can veto any indirect route they choose for you by paying an "air deviation fee" (usually $25 to $50 per person).
6. Study the deck plan Many people pick a cabin category and leave the cabin selection up to the cruise line. They shouldn't. Cruise brochures come with deck plans for a reason—and not all cabins in a category are created equal. Mid-ship cabins are generally the best in rough waters, but otherwise, each ship has its peculiarities. On Oceania Cruises' three ships, the balconies on veranda staterooms that face aft are larger than those on other veranda staterooms, and on Radisson Seven Seas' Mariner, the verandas on the aft suites are more than twice the size of those on the forward suites. An expert travel agent should know your ship's quirks. Once on board, inspect the deck plan again for out-of-the-way spots. Repeat cruisers on Yachts of Seabourn ships often ask the crew to deliver champagne and caviar to the less well known whirlpool tubs on Deck 5.
7. Embark and disembark at unpopular times Don't arrive at the dock before the ship begins boarding. Depending on the size of the ship, you could wait in line for hours as thousands of people clamor to start their vacation as quickly as possible. Show up a few hours after you're allowed to board, and chances are, you'll walk right on. An exception: you can board Crystal and Radisson Seven Seas ships two to three hours before embarkation officially starts. The crew will stow your luggage while you have lunch on board, for no extra fee. On Silversea Cruises, you'll pay $100 per person for the same service.
8. Eat like a king Don't be shy about letting the maître d' know your preferences. With a couple of days' notice, most kitchens can whip up just about anything. Love lobster thermidor?It can be on your plate tomorrow night. Want escargot as an appetizer?No problem. Silversea Cruises takes food requests 90 days before sailing—passengers can make sure that every craving for FrootLoops or Red Bull will be satisfied. Note that while Crystal Cruises, Yachts of Seabourn, and Silversea all offer unlimited caviar (even when it's not on the menu), Radisson Seven Seas charges $25 per order, unless it is on the menu.
9. Don't assume that your trip is "all-inclusive" Once upon a time, cruise ships were considered all-inclusive vacations. Today, on most lines you'll pay extra for everything: shore excursions (around $300), liquor ($11 per drink), even soft drinks ($2.50). There are some exceptions, so be sure to find out what your vacation includes before you book. Some lines, such as Carnival, offer drink cards that cover unlimited non-alcoholic beverages ($39 per adult for a seven-day voyage). Other lines, such as Yachts of Seabourn and Silversea, still include unlimited alcohol in their prices; Silversea and Radisson Seven Seas stock staterooms with a few bottles of liquor.
10. Purchase insurance through a third party Not all cruise lines offer the same kind of insurance, and none of them protects you if the line goes out of business. Book insurance through an outside vendor such as Access America (www.accessamerica.com) or Cruise Guard (www.travelguard.com), especially if you're concerned that your line may be in trouble. The cost can be anywhere from 5 to 7 percent of your cruise price.
11. Take advantage of new ways to keep in touch Most ships have some type of e-mail access on board—whether it's one or two computers or a full-fledged Internet café. Several lines, including Carnival, Holland America, Norwegian, Princess Cruises, and Seabourn, have begun introducing Wi-Fi (35 to 75 cents a minute; some lines add a small activation fee). Some ships even have cell phone service—at press time, passengers could use their global phones on Norwegian and Royal Caribbean ships (rates vary, depending on your plan).
12. Pack your own toys Though some ships provide DVD's, CD's, and books, their collections can be limited—so bring your own. If your cabin doesn't have a CD player, consider packing a portable one with a set of small speakers, so you can listen to your favorite tunes while dressing for dinner or sunning on your veranda.
SHERRI EISENBERG has written for Martha Stewart Weddings and the Boston Globe.