So you’ve decided to take a cruise. But where should you go? Cruises cover the globe, reaching every continent (to be fair, due to new regulations it’s very difficult now to cruise to Antarctica) and going to places you might never have imagined. So which cruise is right for you?
The first thing you should consider is what you want to get out of your vacation. Are you interested in lying on a beach, soaking up the sun, water sports and snorkeling? Are you interested in nature and wildlife, outdoor experiences? Are you interested in visiting cultural landmarks and museums, and seeing UNESCO World Heritage Sites? Are you interested in immersing yourself in a place with a completely different language? These things should be taken into consideration when selecting a cruise itinerary.
If beaches are your primary interest, the Caribbean is popular for those who want to visit a variety of different beaches, or snorkel and swim with marine creatures (such as dolphins and sea turtles). Hawaii and the South Pacific offer similar experiences, but with a more exotic flair that can be difficult to reproduce elsewhere. Hawaii can also add a touch of historical significance to your trip when cruise ships stop at Honolulu; excursions to Pearl Harbor are very popular.
Australia is also known for beautiful beaches, but also offers immersion in a more European-based culture, as well as visits to the world-famous Great Barrier Reef (which really is just as it was depicted in Finding Nemo). New Zealand offers fewer beaches, but much in the way of natural beauty, with a European atmosphere in their cities.
If outdoor experiences are what interest you, then Alaska is a good destination choice. You will have many opportunities to see wildlife close at hand (from whales to salmon to bears, with everything in between) as well as glaciers and nature at its finest. You can have a sedate experience (from inside a bus, boat or train) or increase the excitement with hiking, rock-climbing, and other thrill-seeking excursions. A Canada/New England cruise offers an interesting combination of nature and culture, taking you from colonial centers to national forests and French outposts.
For even more cultural experiences, Europe is an exciting option, with seemingly endless variety in every port, allowing you to visit ancient castles and fascinating museums. For an even more exotic experience, Asian cruises are becoming more popular, visiting countries still relatively new to cruising, yet with a lot to offer. South American cruises can be exotic and cultural, or full of natural beauty (especially if you experience one of the unique Galapagos cruises).
Hopefully this has given you a lot to think about. But once you’ve decided on your interests, reality has to set in. What kind of budget do you have for your vacation? Many things can affect the cost of a cruise itself (more about that in next week’s blog post). But a significant add-on for many cruisers is transportation to the port itself. Depending on where you travel in the world, the cost of ‘getting there’ can be as much, or more, than the cruise fare itself.
Driving to a port close to home is always the cheapest option. In North America, cruises depart regularly from Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego in the West, Houston/Galveston, New Orleans, Tampa, Miami and Fort Lauderdale in the South, and New York, Boston and Baltimore in the East. Occasionally, you will see cruises from other ports as well, such as Montreal or Anchorage. In Europe, Southampton, Copenhagen, Barcelona, Rome, Athens and Istanbul are common departure ports. In Australia, Sydney is the most popular cruise origination point, and in New Zealand it is Auckland. With the recent increase in Asian cruises, more ships are departing from Japan, Singapore, Bangkok and Shanghai. South American cruises leave from Rio and Valparaiso.
If you cannot drive to a port, chances are that you have to fly. Airfares have gone up significantly over the past few years, and while ten years ago a $500 round trip airfare to Europe was the norm, now $1,500 is far more likely. No matter how cheap the cruise, if the airfare is pricey, it can break the entire deal. Like any vacation, the cost of the airfare must be factored in when deciding on a cruise. For this reason, cruises departing from North America have become much more popular over the past few years.
Keep in mind that not all cruises depart from and return to the same port. Such cruises are known as ‘open jaw’ cruises. While a ‘one way’ cruise allows for traveling further distances and visiting more ports, it can also prove to be a transportation headache, as airfares increase in cost when you cannot book a round-trip ticket. Occasionally, you can work around this. For example, once my family took a cruise from Venice to Rome. We booked round-trip airfare to Rome, arriving a few days before the cruise began. We rented a car at the Rome airport and slowly made our way up through Northern Italy, touring along the way, before dropping the car off in Venice and boarding our ship. In this way, we were able to book a much cheaper round-trip airfare. On another European trip, we were sailing from Southampton to Rome. We booked round trip airfare to London, with a separate one-way ticket from Rome to Heathrow at the end of our cruise, which we were fortunately to get at a low price by taking an unpopular Saturday evening flight.
Most cruise lines now offer their own air package that you can add onto your cruise face, but in my experience, the discounts are few, if any. The big advantage to booking airfare with a cruise line is that if for some reason your flight is delayed or canceled, the cruise ship will wait for you, or if they cannot, will pay to fly you to the first port, where you will be able to join the cruise in progress. This is a real concern, as we all know that flights can be delayed or canceled at a moment’s notice. Because of this, if you decide to book airfare on your own (which I would recommend in the majority of cases) then you would be smart to fly into port at least one day early. This extra day of time is a valuable cushion in case something goes wrong. Most of the time you won’t need it, but sometimes you will. Think of it as insurance: if you don’t need it, it’s a luxury, but if you do need it, you will be very glad you have it. In the case of flying a day early, the cost of this ‘insurance’ is one night of hotel close to the cruise port, which isn’t generally a significant cost, and well worth the peace of mind.
In our many cruises, there have been two situations where I have seen the value of flying in early for a cruise. The first was when we took a round trip cruise from Los Angeles to Hawaii, which departed in December. The day before the cruise, a terrible snowstorm hit the east coast. All of the New York area airports (including Newark) were shut down, as were Boston and the airports in Washington, DC. Many of the cruise passengers coming out to the ship found out at the last minute that their flights were canceled, and this caused them to miss the cruise departure. Since the first port was Hilo (four days later) it meant missing a big chunk of the cruise. Fortunately, since we live in California, we were able to drive to the departure port, but I will never forget seeing those bedraggled families waiting to board the ship in Hilo, one third into the cruise.
The other occasion was more serious for us. We were heading to Boston to board a Canada/New England cruise when my son tripped at the airport, banging the back of his head on the metal arm of a chair. The cut was deep, and required stitches. The airline was willing to allow my son and one adult to move their flight to the next day, but not all of us. So my daughter and I flew on to Boston, while my husband and son stayed behind, getting my son stitched up and then taking a red-eye out that night. Fortunately, after being treated, my son bounced back and was ready to go, so I was able to meet my husband in Boston the next morning and we all boarded the cruise together as a family. We ended up having a wonderful cruise, and the onboard doctor was even able to remove the stitches halfway through the trip with no problem. But if we had not been leaving a day early, my son’s accident, whether significant or minor, would have caused us to miss the ship.
So after all of this, what’s the advice I’m giving in this blog post? Figure out what you want to get out of a vacation, and choose a cruise itinerary that meets those needs. Don’t forget to consider the costs of transporting yourself to/from the cruise port. And if you are flying in, always make sure you plan to arrive at least one day before the cruise departs, just in case of any difficulties.
Next week, I’ll talk about the costs of cruises and how to evaluate the price of a cruise.