Choosing a Caribbean Cruise

How to choose the right cruise for you

Photo credit: © Pavel Losevsky | Dreamstime.com
 

Imagine sailing into the sunset aboard a luxurious cruise ship; lounging on a deck chair, tropical drink in hand while breathing in the fresh sea air. Or, maybe it's the idea of visiting several exotic locales in a few short days that draws you in. Whatever strikes your fancy, there are many decisions to be made when you stop dreaming and decide to take a cruise in the Caribbean.

With nearly every major cruise line serving the region, and hundreds of widely varied itineraries to choose from, planning a cruise can be a little overwhelming for some. But, if you go about it in an organized manner, the decisions will come easily.

Priority number one should be choosing a cruise ship or cruise line. However, you should also take the time to research and think about where you'd like to travel. Not all Caribbean islands are the same, so your choice of itinerary can impact how much you enjoy your trip.

If you find it difficult to make decisions, consider finding a good travel agent who specializes in cruises; they can save you time, and help sort through the many options available. Before selecting an agent, try getting references from friends and relatives who have been on prior cruises. You should also consider verifying your travel agent's advice by doing a bit of your own research, using the many resources on the Internet, including this website.

By taking these steps, you will help to ensure that your cruise is every bit as ideal as you imagined.

Deciding on your ports of call is a key step in choosing the best cruise for you. The Caribbean is one of the world's most popular cruise destinations, and it offers many options to choose from. Most cruise lines split their offerings by sub-region: southern, eastern, and western; so researching the ports of call falling within these broad categories can help you make decisions. For instance, if you've always wanted to experience the birthplace of Reggae, a Western itinerary that includes Jamaica may be the obvious choice. If you love shopping, an Eastern itinerary that includes St. Thomas and St. Martin may be the better choice for you.

Each ship will stop at several ports-of-call, so a longer cruise will offer a greater variety of shore experiences. Before booking a specific cruise, just be sure the ship's scheduled ports include some destinations you'd love to explore.

Another aspect of choosing a cruise is choosing your departure city. For many cruisers, traveling to the embarkation port is key expense, so they choose a point of embarkation that is close to them, or one that is served by several competing airlines from an airport near where they live – since these factors greatly influence the cost of airline tickets.

The most popular embarkation cities in the United States are in Florida – particularly Miami and Ft. Lauderdale. However, depending on the season, travelers may also find departures from other locations along both the Gulf and Atlantic coasts of the United States. Some cruises even originate within the Caribbean region, particularly from San Juan, Puerto Rico. While your flight will be longer, this might be your best choice if you want to see many different islands, since you won't expend a couple of days cruising to and from the mainland.

Regardless of where your cruise originates, spending a few days in your embarkation city can be a great way to extend your vacation at modest cost – and introduce some further variety to your overall experience. So, consider choosing a city that you'll enjoy spending time in, and spending a few days visiting local landmarks and attractions.

In addition to deciding where to cruise, you must also decide on the type of cruise you'd like to take. Some people choose cruises that cater to their particular interests and lifestyle. Some cruise lines, like Royal Caribbean, cater more to families with young children; others, like Carnival, are marketed more to couples and singles, looking for night life or an inexpensive romantic time away.

There are many options, including sailings that are marketed to the gay and lesbian community, cruises that offer lectures and films about specific topics, as well as 'singles only' cruises, just to name a few. If you would like the opportunity to meet others who share your interests, choosing a cruise that is specifically designed to appeal to people like you can be exciting option.

Many cruise lines also cater to those planning special events such as family reunions, anniversaries, honeymoons and even weddings at sea.  If you plan to hold your special event aboard a cruise, be sure to contact the cruise line in advance, for information on how to make it happen.

Other, more fundamental differences also exist between different cruise lines and cruise ships. Most obviously, the cruise industry spans the entire range from super-luxury to economy cruises, and the cost of the former option can be 10 or more times the cost of the latter.

On luxury cruises, you'll receive the red carpet treatment in all that you do, from luxurious cabins to five-star gourmet meals. Conversely, an economy cruise line will offer smaller cabins, fewer amenities, and more basic food choices. Still, even the least costly cruises can be a great vacation experience, and they are ideal for someone who is on a tight budget and has realistic expectations.

Another factor to consider is the size of your ship; size can make a difference, since smaller ships tend to visit smaller, less crowded ports of call, while today's megaships offer an amazing array of sports and entertainment options – something that simply isn't feasible on a smaller ship.

However, if you are considering one of today's larger ships, it's important to realize that you will be arriving at each port with a thousand or even two thousand of your fellow passengers. Hence, even the smallest, most unspoiled islands may feel a bit crowded and Americanized during the few hours of your visit – particularly if you stay inside town, or only venture out on a tour that is organized by the cruise line. If the “real” Caribbean seems more appealing to you, and Broadway style shows and rock climbing walls aren't a priority for you, consider a smaller ship that mostly visits smaller islands, or stops at smaller, less-visited ports on some of the larger islands.

There are just a few more important details to consider when it comes to choosing a specific cruise. If you don't already have particular travel dates in mind, you can look for cruise dates that happen to be heavily discounted. Cruise lines strive to fill every cabin on every sailing, so you may find the same cabin on the same itinerary at half the price, if you have the flexibility to choose your dates from amongst the least popular sailings.

Aside from the time of year, another factor to consider is how much time you spend on the water. Cruise lengths range upward from three days, with the most popular lengths being 7 and 10 days. However, you can also find longer itineraries, particularly if you combine two or more sequential sailings going to different ports of call. Don't forget to factor in the time you will need to travel to and from the departure port, and any time you want to spend in or near the departure city.

Your budget is another influential factor to consider. The amount of money you are willing to spend can determine the length of your cruise, which cabin you can book and which vacation spots you can choose from. Have a specific amount in mind when you are browsing cruises.

Everything you've done thus far in thinking about your ideal cruise will help immensely with the next step: choosing a specific cruise ship. If you have made concise decisions regarding when and where you would like to travel to and what type of cruise you'd like to take, your search should be narrowed down to just a few ships that fit your criteria.

If your options are still broad, the best thing to do is to revisit cruise line websites and brochures, speak to travel agents and read reviews written by other passengers. The information you hear and read by doing these things may help you to choose the best cruise line and ship for you.

Congratulations, you are almost ready to book your cruise! But before you do, check with those friends and relatives you know who have previously gone on a cruise. This is the best way to learn minute details you may not have considered before, and they might just know how you can get a good price on a cruise or be able to give you advice on a location you may enjoy.

Online forums and message boards are also great places to ask any questions that you have and websites like this one can also provide many helpful tips and suggestions. Travel agents and online travel agencies specializing in cruises will know about any special cruise pricing, as well as upcoming price promotions that are not yet listed to the general public.

All of these resources can be helpful before making your final booking. A cruise can be the vacation of a lifetime if you treat it as such, and the more you know, the better you can plan.

If you've taken all the steps listed above to heart, you should be ready at this point to book your cruise. So contact your travel agent, call the cruise line, or log onto your favorite travel website and make your plans official. Now, the hardest part is waiting until your cruise departs. If all goes well, you'll be lounging on that deck chair, smelling the salty air before you know it.

 

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