A Beginners Guide to Choosing Your First Cruise: 10 Things to Consider

by - August 25, 2021

Title: 10 things to consider to choose the perfect cruise

If you’ve been thinking about taking a cruise but are you're not sure where to begin planning, what to expect or what you're even getting yourself into, this is for you!

With the acceleration of the vaccine rollout, I think we can start dreaming about journeying beyond our borders. And with the cruise line industry currently in the process of relaunching and heading back to sea with guests for the first time since March last year, this may be the perfect time to think about cruising. There are currently still some great cruise deals available, so if you’ve been thinking about testing the waters, this is the perfect time to do it! 

If you’ve never taken a cruise before, here are 10 factors to consider to help you 
find the right cruise for you:

1. Luxury or mainstream

Cruise lines tend to fall into one of two categories: mainstream cruise lines and luxury cruise lines. As a general rule, the mainstream cruise lines, such as Royal Caribbean, Carnival Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line and MSC, tend to be popular among families, while the luxury cruise lines, such as Viking Cruises, Oceania, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Silversea Cruises, Crystal Cruises, Seabourn and Azamara, tend to be associated with a more sophisticated, upmarket and often mature crowd. Either way, the biggest difference between these two categories is the price range and the level of service.

2. Your age and family status

There is a misperception that cruises are for older people, with many people thinking of them as floating retirement villages. This is definitely not true. There is a wide range of cruises available for almost anyone of any age group or demographic. (And if you think there isn’t, this list of special-interest theme cruises that were naively planned for 2020 - little did we know -  may just prove you wrong.)

  • For families: Some lines have elaborate entertainment programs for kids and are very popular among families. These include MSC Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, Carnival Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean, Princess Cruises and P&O. Obviously Disney Cruise Line is possibly the best option for family entertainment at sea and is definitely not the best choice for anyone who dislikes children.
  • For parents of babies and toddlers: While the kids’ entertainment programs usually cater for children aged three and up (with selected activities for smaller kids accompanied by parents), certain cruise lines do have creches if you’d like time away from your baby or toddler. These services are sometimes only available on selected ships (not the entire fleet), at certain times and usually cost extra. Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas and NCL’s Escape are two ships with nurseries.  P&O and Carnival also offer babysitting services for babies. Always clarify what your ship offers and what the minimum age requirement is prior to booking if this is important to you. 
  • For the retired or more mature: Ships with longer and more expensive itineraries will generally have more older folk and fewer children. Cruise lines such as Viking Cruises, Holland America, Regent Seven Seas, Silversea, Princess Cruises, Crystal Cruises and Cunard tend to attract an older crowd while some cruise lines cater specifically to more mature clientele in general like Saga, which even has a minimum age requirement of 50. 
  • For adults only: Virgin Voyages permits no children at all. It’s hard to know what to predict from this new cruise line which only officially launched this month. It was scheduled to launch in April of 2020 but for obvious reasons that didn’t happen. Considering I saw an ad where they were actively looking for crew members with visible tattoos and extreme hairstyles (things that would make most applicants ineligible for onboard positions with other lines), I suspect that this cruise line will be popular among the younger edgier more millennial / Gen Z crowd. 
  • For the single or those cruising solo: If you’re single or if you’re cruising without your partner, some cruise lines have specific cabins for only individual cruisers as well as programs to help you to meet new people and interact with each other. These include P&O, Cunard and Marella Cruises. Celebrity Cruises, Royal Caribbean and Virgin Voyages are also equipped with solo cabins. Saga Cruises dedicates over 10% of all cabins to solo passengers, while Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines has gentleman hosts to dance with ladies seeking a partner. Norwegian Cruise Line was possibly the first cruise line to build cabins exclusively for solo cruisers and even offers a dedicated studio lounge in the vicinity of those staterooms exclusively for the use of those staying in them. (And there’s usually cookies!) Facilities and programs often differ from one ship to the next so be sure to clarify before you book. 
Woman looks through binoculars across the sea


3. The ship size and features

Some people cruise because they want to experience the ship, other people cruise because it’s a convenient way to travel between incredible destinations from the same floating hotel. While most cruises cater for both types, they tend to lean (or maybe ‘list’) in one direction or the other, maximizing on incredible onboard facilities or amazing itineraries. And often different ships in the same fleet lean, or list, in different directions. 

Which kind of cruiser are you? It is often the bigger ships that tend to have more bells and whistles so if you favour the onboard experience, go for the mega-ships (the 4000+ passenger vessels). If you’re all about the itinerary and spending as much time in port as possible, you may tend to find yourself on a smaller ship. It’s not that the mega-ships don’t do incredible itineraries, they just don’t do them as often and the itineraries usually include a number of sea days to enable guests to enjoy the ship. 

Some tips on where you can find some of the most impressive ship features:

  • Carnival Cruise Line has a SkyRide (which is something of a suspended bicycle track), a craft brewery (that makes beer out of desalinated seawater) and the world's first roller coaster at sea.
  • Norwegian Cruise Line has go-carts, ice bars, laser tag and a ropes course that allows you to ‘walk the plank’ off the side of deck 20-something.    
  • Royal Caribbean ships have ice rinks, FlowRiders (surf simulators), sky diving simulators and bionic bars with robotic bartenders. 
(Obviously available on selected ships)

Girl walking the plank on the Norwegian Escape ropes course
Walking the plank on the Norwegian Escape:
If you pull on that string, a camera captures your terrified expression

Other things to keep in mind:

  • If you’re an introvert looking to avoid social interaction, don’t assume that that the mega-ships have more space. Bigger ships tend to equate to more crowded public areas. You’re way more likely to find an available deck chair at the poolside on a smaller ship.
  • Keep in mind the smaller the ship, the more you’re likely you are to feel the movement of the ship when it's at sea so if seasickness is a concern, the mega-ships may be a better option for you.
  • The range of spa and gym facilities also vary greatly among cruise lines and the ships within them. In addition to the traditional steam room or sauna, some spas include snow rooms and salt rooms, swimming pools, etc. If this is important to you you may want to check what’s on offer before you book. 

4. Your ideal destination (obviously)

If you want beautiful beaches, the Caribbean is for you, if you’re looking for history and culture, you’ll find it in Europe, and if you're looking for the best of both worlds, the Mediterranean may be the right option.  If you’re after cooler climates and natural beauty, Alaska, Norway or even Antarctica may be suited to you.

These tend to be the most popular itineraries among readers of my blog but there are obviously also cruises to South America, the Middle East, Asia, Australia and obviously local cruises here in South Africa, that visit our own ports or those of neighbouring countries and nearby islands. 

Make sure to scrutinise the docking and sailing times before you book. Sometimes cruises only dock in certain locations for half a day, other times they dock overnight for a night or two (like cruises from the USA to Bermuda that often remain docked for three consecutive days). Also, pay attention to how many sea days you are likely to have. Don’t assume that these will be boring. A sea day is often a welcome break between busy port days and there’s always plenty to do on any ship.

Before you book a cruise for one specific port in its itinerary, keep in mind that a port of call can be cancelled with little notice in the event of poor weather, natural disasters, political unrest (it happens) or other emergencies.

Plastic lawn flamingo on beautiful beach
Rodrigo on a secluded beach in Bermuda

5. The embarkation and disembarkation ports

Choosing to cruise from the port closest to you versus spending money on international flights and pre-cruise hotel stays can greatly impact the overall cost of your vacation. 

If your embarkation and disembarkation ports are different from each other then your flights may cost more as you are purchasing two separate flights instead of one return flight. On the plus side, this will also allow you the opportunity to stay in these places for a few nights on either side of your cruise and explore more than one destination in more detail. 


There is also the option of doing an ocean crossing, such as a transatlantic or a transpacific, or a repositioning cruise from one part of the world to another (such as from South Africa to Europe or Asia). As these cruises usually include a large number of sea days, they offer a different type of cruise experience and make for a very interesting and quite cost-effective way to travel large distances at quite a slow speed. 

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View of Miami from cruise ship
Cruise ship docked in the embarkation port of Miami

6. Cruise length

You can dip your toe by going for just a weekend or you can go for much longer periods of time depending on your availability and budget. If time and money are no object, the Viking Sun's Ultimate World Cruise is 245 days in length. 

A lot of people are under the misperception that the ships have some recovery time between cruises but this is not true. Usually they disembark guests in the morning, restock and refresh the ship while the next set of guests is embarking and set sail again the same day. 
Sometimes you’ll find that the same ship does different itineraries each cruise so you can do two or more cruises back to back to make one longer cruise.


7. The time of year

Obviously the seasons affect the itinerary and the type of experience you are likely to have in that destination. Certain itineraries only operate at certain times of the year, while tropical itineraries tend to run year-round but are subject to change with little notice in hurricane season. People often cruise to the arctic part of Norway in the summer to experience perpetual twilight, while Canada / New England itineraries are popular in Autumn when the leaves change colour.

It’s also important to consider that the demographic will change with the seasons with more children cruising during the summer holidays of the embarkation port. Low-price US-based cruise lines are also inundated with intoxicated college students during spring break. 

Some holidays and special occasions are really fun to experience at sea, such as the Fourth of July (if you’re American), Halloween, or my favourite, New Year's Eve. (And yes, I have seen Poseidon!)

Glow party on Norwegian Escape


8. Assigned or freestyle dining

Certain cruise lines have assigned dining times, where you eat at the same time in the dining room each night, usually at the same assigned table with the same group of people. The maitre d' often assigns people of a similar age range and life stage to the same table, which allows you the opportunity to get to know new people and sometimes make life-long friends. 

There are usually alternative dining options in the form of the buffet (or whatever the post-pandemic buffet replacement is) or speciality dining restaurants if you feel like giving group dinner a skip. You can also chat nicely to the maitre d' if you really don’t like your seating arrangements or new "friends".

This was the way dining was traditionally done on cruise ships. Then Norwegian cruise lines introduced 'freestyle dining' where you are seated usually only with your party when you are ready to dine, much like you would at a land-based restaurant. It was such a success that other cruise lines like Carnival and Royal Caribbean started to offer this as well, often in addition to assigned dining as opposed to in the place of it.

If you would prefer to keep to yourself, it may be worth your while to choose a cruise line that offers ‘freestyle’ / ‘My time’ / ‘Any time’ dining and if you'd like to meet new people and make friends, being assigned a table on a ship that offers traditional dining is a great way to do it.

Cruise Lines that offer assigned / traditional dining include: 

Costa, Crystal, Disney and MSC Cruises.

Cruise Lines that offer freestyle or open dining include:

Norwegian Cruise Line, Azamara, Hurtigruten, Oceania, Paul Gauguin, Regent, SeaDream, Star Clippers, Uniworld and Viking.

Cruise lines that offer both include: 

Carnival, Celebrity, Holland America, Princess and Royal Caribbean.


9. Dress code 

The general rule is that the mainstream cruise lines tend to be more casual and the luxury cruise lines tend to be more formal. Either way, you can assume that swimsuits, tank tops, flip-flops, and often casual shorts and sleeveless tops will most likely be banned from the dining rooms. 

Even on the mainstream cruise lines, the one exception when they tend to be stricter about what you wear is on formal night, ‘cruise elegant night’, or the night of the ‘captain’s dinner’. While the name may differ, most (if not all) cruise lines tend to have at least one of these per cruise. Some cruise lines are quite serious about their dress code barring people from dining in the dining rooms on these formal nights if not dressed in formal attire, while others opt for a much less strict ‘dress up or not night’ such as Norwegian Cruise Line. 

Girl climbs rock wall in cocktail dress
Don't worry, the dress code usually doesn't apply to the rock-climbing wall even on formal night.

10. Budget and included amenities  

The beauty of cruising is that your meals and entertainment are all included. Beyond that, there’s a whole range of amenities that may or may not be included and may greatly impact the overall cost of your cruise. 

  • Before booking make sure whether or not gratuities are included. These are the tips for the waiters, buffet staff and stateroom stewards. If your gratuities are not included, the cruise line will usually automatically add them to your onboard account. You can adjust or remove this amount but if you don’t factor this in, you might get a nasty surprise when you get your bill. 
  • If alcohol consumption is important to you, you can look for a cruise that includes an open bar package or at least factor in the cost of the open bar package, or the price of individual drinks into your decision. 
  • The food is included and I’ve never been disappointed by it, however, if you are a foodie, you might also want to look into the cost of the speciality dining options. 
  • Shore excursions are usually not included in the cruise fare and usually, you are free to book a ship-organised tour or go off on your own or with an independent tour operator in port. However, as the cruise lines begin to open up after the COVID pandemic, some are restricting the guests’ ability to leave the ship to going only on their pre-arranged shore excursions that match up with their health protocols to reduce the risk of infection in port. For this reason, you may want to investigate if this rule applies to your cruise prior to booking and factor in the price of ship-organised tours. 
  • Most ships have onboard fitness centres and spa facilities such as saunas and steam rooms, access to which is usually complimentary. There are however always added extras, specialized fitness classes, spa services and sometimes exclusive spa facilities that require an additional fee. If this is important to you clarify what is included before booking.
  • Wi-Fi can be both slow and expensive at sea. More and more cruise lines are starting to offer free Wi-Fi, however, this is not always the case. If you need to stay in touch with people back home, you may want to look into this before you choose your cruise.
As cruise lines are starting to open up, a lot of them are offering a number of these amenities for free, so now is a good time to look for special offers.


For my South African readers, if you are looking for a local cruise, here are some of the cruise lines that have cruises (where English is spoken on board*) scheduled to leave from local ports later this year and early next year:

(*If you speak German, you have a lot more options)

Travel toy flamingo looks at Table Mountain, Cape Town


Cruises that are cruising from South Africa during the 2021 /2022 cruise season:

Cape Town: 

Offering cruises to South African ports as well as Namibia, before repositioning to Dubai, United Arab Emirates via ReunionMauritius, Seychelles and Oman.

Offering cruises to South African ports as well as Mozambique, before repositioning to Lisbon, Portugal via Namibia, Angola, Ghana, Ivory Coast, The Gambia and the Canary Islands. 

Offering cruises to different ports in South Africa and Namibia

Durban

Offering cruises to different ports in Mozambique as well as Madagascar, Mauritius, Reunion and Cape Town. 

(At the risk of stating the very obvious, everything is subject to change.)

Pinterest pin: A beginners guide to cruising

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