Top 10 things to consider when booking a cruise

Jan 1, 2023

Cruising is an easy all-in-one escape that brings guests all over the world, with all the essentials of a dream trip bundled into one neat (and moving) package. Whether you’re a first-time cruiser or a frequent floater, it never hurts to get back to basics in pursuit of the perfect voyage.

1. What matters most?

Holland America's MS Nieuw Amsterdam

Every cruise ship is unique: some specialize in gourmet cuisine, luxury experiences, rare itineraries or awesome entertainment. Before committing to a cruise, the best place to start is by figuring out what matters most to you on vacation. For some, great food plays a significant role in a great trip. Other people could care less about meals and want to visit unique port cities. For families, it might be all about the kids clubs. Figuring out what matters most to you will help guide you toward the brand or specific ship that will best suit your needs.

2. Who’s on board?

Celebrity Equinox

Contemporary brands: Norwegian Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean and Carnival Cruise Lines

What to expect: a fun atmosphere. Plan to see a mix of families, couples and friends with a bevy of bars and lounges, onboard games and activities, plus amenities such as rock-climbing walls, sports complexes and waterslides on newer ships.

Premium brands: Princess Cruises, Holland America, Disney Cruises and Celebrity Cruises

What to expect: A more refined onboard experience with a focus on upscale dining, impressive entertainment and expansive art collections. Packed daily schedules and fun activities are part of the experience, so these ships welcome guests of all ages while speaking to a more mature crowd.

Upscale brands: Oceania Cruises, Regent Seven Seas, Virgin Voyages and Windstar

What to expect: Affluent travelers. These ships are smaller and more intimate with a relaxed ambiance, cuisine made to order and five-star service.

The dynamic of the cruise can also heavily depend on what season it is; summertime and school breaks imply more children on board, while cruises during the school year will be slightly quieter.

3. Which stateroom should I choose?

Balcony cabin on Norwegian Epic

Interior: The most basic cabin type with no windows. Great for the sleep-deprived, as the uninterrupted darkness of the room can elicit some much-needed zzz’s.

Oceanview: Similar to an inside cabin but with a porthole window. Great for people who don’t plan to spend much time in the room, but crave a connection to the outside world.

Balcony: More spacious cabins with outdoor seating areas. Ideal for those seeking a slice of seclusion, as nothing is more relaxing than coffee or a good book with endless blue sea as your private backdrop.

Suites: Can range from mini-suites to larger suites with multiple living spaces, almost always with a balcony. Perfect for travelers who require slightly more space or are traveling with a family.

Cabin categories are the different options which exist within each cabin type. Cabins in the front of the ship (forward) and back of the ship (aft) are often less expensive as they feel the motion of the ocean the most. Mid-ship cabins are the most stable and ideal for those prone to seasickness. “Guarantee” cabins are also available and cost effective -- instead of choosing your exact cabin location the cruise line will select your cabin for you within your chosen cabin type (inside, oceanview, balcony or suite).

4. The onboard experience

Norwegian Gem

Dubbed as “floating hotels,” cruise ships have it all: cabins, restaurants, nightclubs, bars, lounges, pools, hot tubs and theaters. By day, action-packed schedules keep guests entertained with games, movies, art auctions, gym classes, card games, live music and seminars.

After dark, dance the night away at themed parties, marvel at acrobats, dancers and singers in the theater, explore your vocal prowess at karaoke or try lady luck at the casino.

For meals, savor multi-course menus in the dining room with the ability to order as much or as little as you want – all for free. There’s usually a buffet with a diverse array of cuisines available as an alternative for all meals. Additionally, most ships feature specialty restaurants, which offer upgraded fare at eclectic spots such as steakhouses, Italian eateries and French bistros for a small per-person fee.

5. Cruise lengths

Naples, Italy

Cruises range from two-night getaways to weeklong escapes and 14-night jaunts all the way to year-long world expeditions. Cruises up to seven nights are a safe place to start for first-time cruisers looking to get their feet wet.

6. Seasonality

Cruising in Alaska

Caribbean and Mexico cruises are available year-round, but if you’re willing to brave hurricane season, the best prices can be found August through October. Although July and August are the warmest and most popular months to cruise Alaska, the best prices can be found in May, early June and September.

Europe and Canada/New England offer competitive pricing in winter when temperatures are chilly, but the best months to visit are between April and November.

7. Itineraries

San Juan, Puerto Rico

Take your pick: wake up in a new locale each day or unwind with a backdrop of endless ocean views. Cruising offers the best of both worlds with port heavy cruises and leisurely itineraries. On a port heavy cruise, guests spend most of their time on land. These action-packed trips offer a bevy of shore excursions and take place in the Caribbean, Europe and Alaska.

Leisurely cruises provide more sea days, where guests can truly disconnect from the outside world -- a rarity in today’s society. This includes Hawaii cruises departing from west coast cities and transatlantic cruises, where the ship takes a one-way journey between the U.S. and Europe.

Bermuda cruises are unique in that the ship docks in one port for multiple days, allowing for overnight stays and more time to immerse in the island’s culture.

8. Ways to save

MSC Divina

What’s included? All meals, entertainment and accommodations. What’s not? Extras such as cocktails, massages, specialty dinners and frequent casino visits. Luckily, there are deals with certain perks that can help keep costs down.

If you want to indulge in spa treatments, cooking classes or at the souvenir shop, look for deals with onboard credits.

Unlimited drink packages hold the highest value for people who love a cocktail on vacation (imagine paying nothing for open bar, 24/7) and shore excursion credits are helpful for those who want to maximize time on land with activities and tours.

9. Traveling with kids

Disney Magic

Cruising is even easier as a family with built-in babysitters on board. Most major cruise lines offer at least one complimentary kids club -- if not multiple for different age groups from toddlers to teens to keep the youngsters occupied. Many have multiple activity areas, kiddie pools, teen nightclubs and arcades.

Kept constantly busy, kids will never be bored on board. Parents can unwind, have a date night, or experience the nightly activities for adults before picking up the kids.

10. Getting there

Royal Caribbean's Anthem of the Seas

For a flight-free getaway, drive to the nearest port -- long-term parking lots and garages are available at every major cruise port. Additional options include fly-and-cruise packages where the air is already bundled into prices.

Cruise lines can also book air on your behalf, which guarantees that guests will arrive to the pier and depart on time. In the case of unexpected flight delays or cancellations, it is the cruise line’s responsibility to get you where you need to be -- a perk somewhat similar to trip insurance.

Once you're ready to set sail, check out Travelzoo's best cruise deals.

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