How to choose your cruise

Thinking of taking a cruise? Then don’t let marketing hype get you down. To minimize the confusion, simply picture the choosing-a-cruise process as three rungs on a stepladder.On the bottom rung are the budget cruises. On the top rung are the boutique cruises. And everything else — the bulk of cruise vacations -is grouped somewhere in the middle.

It’s easy pinpointing a budget cruise because the price (at $150 a day, Caribbean itinerary) usually sounds too good to be true. On the other hand, the cost of a boutique cruise (at $500-plus per day) would make most of us gasp. That’s why 90 per cent of ships (the $200- to $400-a-day fleet) have positioned themselves in the middle.

Most lines package the “cruise experience”in pretty much the same way — it’s a universal formula, devised and developed over the past 30 years or so, that works every time. While it’s true that middle rung ships will vary to a degree in luxury and style, the differences are usually not all that great — in fact, they vary as a Hilton does to a Marriott, or a Westin might to a CP hotel: Not a great deal. In other words, with mid-market ships — like the newer vessels of Carnival, Norwegn, Royal Caribbean, Princess, Celebrity, Holland America, Cunard — you can’t go terribly wrong.

For example, on all lines you get lavish meals, attentive cabin service, day and night-time entertainment, scheduled on-board activities, port-of-call lectures, a shopping and entertainment promenade deck, an array of dance floors, midnight buffets, a casino, a fitness facility, a swimming-pool deck and topping it all there’s the enthusiastic hosts, staff, and management coordinating every last detail.

Cruise lines have different specialities
What you should note, however, is that some cruise lines do emphasize some elements more than others. Some specialize in cabaret and stage productions, others have the edge on cuisine. Some have developed superlative children’s programs, while others build ships to cater to an older clientele, still others go by the maxim that build them bigger, higher, and faster is better.

Cruise specialists suggest that once you identify your preferences, it’s easy to find the right ship. And, since most cruise lines follow an industry-wide formula, that leaves no more than three or four components to worry about. Start by targeting your comfort zones as they apply to people, food, sleep and price.

Price is a tempting place to begin. Once you’ve nailed down the most you’re willing to pay, you can begin to explore the best cruise your money can buy. But try to resist getting categorized by price. Once you’ve established a cruise is within your mid-market range, you’ll find almost every vessel has a cabin you can afford. On the pricier ships it might be on a lower deck, but you’ll still get every single one of the ship’s upscale services. It’s more important at the outset to determine your social style and circumstances. Consider the following questions: What level of formality do you require? Are you outgoing and do you prefer the people around you to be outgoing too? How well do you adjust to dining with strangers? Do you have dietary concerns? Disability concerns? Do you want to bring children or grandchildren? Is it important that those around you are close in age? Are you looking at a cruise as a getaway retreat, or as a way to make new friends? Once you’ve answered all these questions, you’ll be in a much better position to make your choice.

For most passengers, meals, food quality, and the over-all dining experience are cited as the most important elements of a cruise. Fortunately, most ships pull out all the stops by offering a variety of dining options, from room service to formal sittings, pool-side grills, specialty restaurants and lavish multi-course buffets. Keeping in mind that most mainline ships serve from 300 to 1,300 meals at one sitting, it’s rare to get a dish cooked to order. Still, they all do remarkably well at turning the nightly dining experience into a feast.

Room with a view – or without
When it comes to sleep and accommodation, imagine the cabins to be about half the size of a standard hotel room — or even smaller if the ship is more than 10 years old. Cabins are designed with efficiency in mind — lots of hooks and hangers, shelves and drawers. Bathrooms are compact and highly functional — once you get used to sentry-box showers and high-velocity suction toilets — and once you’ve stopped stubbing your toe on shower and doorway lips.

So why, people ask, do cabins vary so much in price throughout the ship? Rates can be double and triple on different decks for virtually the same experience. It’s true, the cabin size and in-room amenities don’t change that much from deck to deck (suites excepted). Rather, price categories are based on location — on the subtleties of convenience, comfort and privilege. The lower you go, especially on older ships, the greater the risk of air temperature variations, engine noise and portholes with obstructed views. Irritations are marginal, but they’re possible, just like operating irritations are possible anywhere on a ship.

Next page: Questions of comfort

Ask yourself if you really need to pay more if cabin facilities and services are basically the same? Will an “inside” location with no natural light be alright for seven days? Are you a light sleeper? Is a bathtub a must? Is a single bed, or bunk, out of the question? After all, sweet dreams, they say, make for happy cruise customers.

Cruise Tips
Cruise lines add ships, refurbish older vessels and make changes all the time. Kay Showker’s and Bob Sehlinger’s 800-page The Unofficial Guide to Cruises (Macmillan USA; $24.95) keeps abreast of the news. They critique the strong points and weaknesses on all the main lines, and explain how vacationers can get the best deal.

Cruise agencies:
For a travel agency in your area that specializes in cruise vacations, look in the yellow pages. Alternatively, call CARP Travel for details of any special rates for CARP members. Or ask people you know who have taken a cruise. Word of mouth is often the best way to get top quality help. Here are some you might want to consider:

Which cruise lines best suits you?
Where possible, select a ship no more than 10 years old, unless it’s been substantially refurbished. Mix and match the opinions below with that of a cruise counsellor to determine which line would suit you best.

Overall Best, price no object:
Seabourn Cruise Line, Silversea, Windstar Cruises, Crystal Cruises.

Best mid-priced cruise ships for ages 50-65:
Celebrity Cruise Lines, Princess Cruises, Holland America.

Best mid-priced cruise ships for ages 65+:
Holland America Line, Princess Cruises, Cunard, Crystal Cruises.

For fun-seeking vacationers of all ages:
Carnival Cruise Lines, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, Princess Cruises, Disney Cruise Line.

For families:
Premier Cruise Line, Disney Cruise Line, Carnival Cruise Line.

For cuisine:
Crystal Cruises, Celebrity Cruises, Cunard, Radisson, Windstar.

For non-smokers:
The MS Paradise, the world’s first totally non-smoking vessel with Carnival Cruise Lines.