How to book your first cruise – a Q&A with Douglas Ward
With the new year well under way, now is the time to get that dream holiday booked! And if you're thinking this year you'd really like to go on a cruise, you might also be thinking, 'there's so much on offer, how do I get started?' Never fear, because we've put the questions to Douglas Ward, author of the Berlitz Complete Guide to Cruising and Cruise Ships 2013. Let Douglas guide you through those first ports of call for booking a perfect cruise.
If you're booking your cruise for the first time, where should you start your planning?
The first and most important step is to decide what you want in a holiday, then decide how much time you have and what time of year you wish to travel. Then talk to a specialist cruise agent who can filter the cruises available according to your requirements. There are quite a few specialist cruise agencies in the UK and the US, who cover nothing but cruises and can offer a really useful service. As well as providing information (some of which they glean from the Berlitz Guide to Cruise and Cruise Ships), they can obtain discounts that are not available online to individuals and can sometimes also get you upgrades; in addition, in the UK they will tell you the true final price of your cruise, including all extras such as port taxes.
What should you look for in a cruise holiday?
This depends entirely on your circumstances – you should look for a cruise that meets your needs, whether that means a holiday with or without kids, relaxing or active, budget or luxurious.
How long should you go for?
Most cruises last for 7, 10 or 14 days. From the UK, cruises to the Mediterranean usually last at least a week; to the Caribbean it's two to three weeks if sailing from the UK (or a week if flying to Florida and sailing from there). Short cruises are good for party-style cruises, particularly in the US, and as a first-time taster cruise. One great advantage of taking a cruise from your home country is avoiding the hassle of airports. Some cruise lines will pick you up at home, which is perfect for those with limited mobility.
How much should you budget for a couple, and for a family, for a two-week all-inclusive cruise?
A budget of £100 to 200 per person per day will buy you a low- to mid-range cruise. All inclusive packages are great for budgeting as there are no added extras, so while it seems a lot to pay up front, it may work out better value than a land-based holiday.
Are there deals to be had for UK residents if they book a cruise via agencies in other countries?
For those in the UK, rates offered in the US may look cheaper, but there are caveats - many US companies (except those based in Florida) that offer low rates have no bonding, such as offered by ABTA in the UK. This means that if the company goes bust, you have no guarantee of a refund. In addition, these firms are not obliged to advertise the final, true cost of the cruise. You give them your credit card details and they can add on what they like in the way of taxes, surcharges, etc. Add to that the possibility of losing out in the currency exchange, and buying a cruise online from outside the UK is a fairly risky venture, which I wouldn't recommend.
You've increased the number of expedition ships in the Berlitz Cruise Guide 2013. Would you recommend this kind of cruise for a first-timer?
I increased the coverage of expedition ships because readers asked for more information on them and the facilities they offer. Expedition cruises are probably better for seasoned cruisers unless you have a very specific interest such as wildlife. A few expedition cruise vessels are very comfortable but most are quite basic Russian-icebreaker style, and entertainment is based around lectures, so it is not typical of cruise ships generally. However, while these vessels may not be luxurious, they can get you out of the ice if you're stuck in Antarctica!
What would be top three ways to spend time on a cruise ship?
Well that depends on what floats your boat (ha!). On family ships, the main emphasis is on entertaining the children and allowing the parents to relax. For those travelling without children I would say that eating, entertainment, lectures, reading round the pool, and using the spa are the most popular activities – all of them, of course, within a short distance from your accommodation. On the Queen Mary II that crosses the Atlantic, the most used room is the library. A cruise is the perfect way to recharge your batteries.
If you take your family on a Disney ship, would there be enough to do for adults?
Yes. These ships have three sections, one in the front of the ship for adults only; the mid-ship section is for families and their kids; while the rear of the ships is reserved for adults and very young children. Each of the Disney ships has 40 child counsellors, who offer hours of fantastic entertainment for kids, so that the adults can also have a good time relaxing. Disney do what they do extremely well, but you have to be prepared to buy into the whole Disney experience – piped music is Disney tunes only; it's more expensive than other family cruise lines, and the cuisine is almost exclusively fast food.
Are there usually enough options for vegetarian to enjoy dining on a cruise?
Yes, definitely; vegans are also well catered for – nearly all cruise lines offer a great variety of food. SeaDream have introduced a range of vegan, raw food cuisine, in which no ingredient is cooked above 116 degrees F (40 degrees C), and it's very high quality. Lots of ships will offer food suitable for those with allergies or food intolerance; the key is to warn them in advance of your requirements.
Thinking of a few recent incidents, if your cruise is hit by Norovirus and you are confined to your cabin, would you get a refund?
No. This is a virus carried by millions of people all over the world and is passed on easily by touching contaminated surfaces, so cruise lines are understandably reluctant to commit to reimbursing against a risk that is outside their control. However, hygiene is taken very seriously on board most ships: there are gel sprays outside restaurants in all big ships, as well as wipes for toilet door handles. The best way to protect yourself against this kind of risk is comprehensive travel insurance.
What are the best ways to make your cruise as environmentally friendly as possible?
Travel on as new a ship as possible: as technology improves, ships have more efficient engines with fewer emissions. Although cruising of course has an environmental impact, its carbon emissions are approximately one 36th of those of aircraft.
What's the best cruise line?
There is no one answer to this question - it depends entirely on what you want. Overall with cruising, you get what pay for: more money buys you better cabins, food, entertainment and facilities.
What are some of your favourite places to visit on a cruise?
My bucket list changes daily! But today I would choose the Northwest Passage, and Southeast Asia because of the amazingly varied culture and architecture, and the Mediterranean for the same reason. Antarctica is spectacular, as are the Norwegian fjords. My favourite island is Bermuda, where the flora and fauna are beautiful, and the way of life is very civilised.
Thanks Douglas! Keep an eye on the blog next week, when we return for part two – planning a cruising holiday in the Caribbean...
Find out more
With over 650 pages of colour pictures, hard facts and forthright opinions, plus a chapter on first-time cruising, the Berlitz Complete Guide to Cruising and Cruise Ships 2013 gives you all the information you need to pick the right cruise for you. It is also available as an eBook. Buy your copy now!
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