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Cruise noob - where to start?

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Old Sep 10, 15, 2:12 pm
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Cruise noob - where to start?

My in-laws have announced that they would like to take us on a cruise to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. I could (and still might) remain completely uninvolved in the planning process and just show up where I'm told when I'm told. However, people in our families often look to me for travel advice, so I kind of feel obligated to at least make sure their money is spent wisely. Or, at a minimum, help them avoid the most noob-ish mistakes where possible.

My background bias has been fairly against doing a cruise. I've never done one, so my opinion about cruises is almost certainly uninformed, dated, or both. However, I'm committed to being a grateful recipient of this gift , so trying to talk them into doing something other than a cruise is off the table. It appears that they have their hearts set on a cruise.

The traveling party will be 10 total people. My in-laws (in the 70's), 4 of us (all in our 40's), and 4 children (youngest age 5, oldest age 13 at the time of the cruise). We will originate from three separate airports - CHI, DTW, and MCI - unless there's some compelling reason for us all to go to one place (presumably ORD).

Timing of the trip is "Christmas 2016". That could mean depart prior to Christmas and be out on the water at Christmas, or it could mean depart the day after Christmas and return around January 1, 2017...but generally right around that time. (I'm going to guess that this is about the worst possible time to take a cruise, but it's what they want to do.)

Right now, they believe they want to do a Caribbean cruise, but I don't think this is any particular requirement. They haven't said "The trip must include St. Maarten" or anything like that.

My questions are as follows:

- Is there a board like FT that is awesome for all of these cruise questions? I know there's a timeshare one out there, and figure there must be a cruise one too? Google turns up a bunch of them but are any Flyertalk-quality boards?

- I see ads all over the place for crazy discounts on cruises. It feels like shopping for a cruise is like buying a suit at Jos A. Bank. (A suit is listed at $1699 but no smart buyer ever pays more than $500 for it.) How do you cut through all of the noise and understand what is reasonable value, regardless of what the artificially-high rack rates say?

- I realize cruise lines have elite status levels just like hotels and airlines, but is there one (or more) that emphasize this less than others? What I'm thinking is this: flying United with no status is a dreadful experience on all fronts - one where they intentionally make things difficult for you every chance they get. Flying Aer Lingus with no status is...okay...not much different than flying Aer Lingus with status. Is there a cruise line that is more like Aer Lingus and less like United?

- Do you book direct or through a third-party site? Ordinarily I wouldn't ask this question...I avoid anything resembling a travel agent whenever possible...but in the cruise world it seems like they still heavily use third parties to sell, just like airlines and hotels did 25 years ago.

- I believe the rough budget (that the in-laws will kick in) is $1500 per person. I think the rest of us are cool with covering our own "extras", but how do you figure out what the extras are? I hear stories about all sorts of nickel & diming once you're on the boat...is there a good estimate for how much this stuff will cost?

- Given that price range, I know we won't be looking at any kind of ultra-luxe ship, but are some boats a cut above others in terms of level of services, type of clientele attracted, richness/uniqueness of excursions offered, etc.? My in-laws have traveled to six continents and enjoy a wide variety of cultures, but I know they *don't* just want to dock in Cancun and go pound beers at the TGI Friday's on shore. So I guess we'd want a semi-upscale (perhaps smaller) ship that had a little more sophistication than floating Spring Break. Am I dreaming here? Do I have to jump up to a $5,000-a-head cruise to get this?

Thanks for any advice you have! (Surprised this forum doesn't have a FAQ...)
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Old Sep 10, 15, 2:36 pm
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Check out http://www.cruisecritic.com/v-5/ It is the FT for cruisers.

There are boards that are Cruiseline specific, Destination specific, and Particular Cruise specific. There are reviews on Ports, Ships, Cruiselines, etc.

Although I book directly with the cruiselines, many people use a travel agent, and some offer 8-12% credits. That can be substantial on a big party like yours.

Be aware that Trip Cancellation insurance may be important, and for those in your party that have preexisting medical conditions, they need to very carefully examine policy provisions.

For those under Medicare, they need to insure against needing medical care if they are travelling outside the USA.

You will have your hands full as a consultant, but Cruise Critic will be invaluable.

BTW, my wife and I thought we would not like cruising either, but we learned that there are some real benefits to it. Some places, like Norway and Alaska fjords are best seen from the water.

Enjoy the experience!
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Old Sep 10, 15, 3:02 pm
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It will be fun. I just completed my 38th cruise, and number 39 is coming up next month....first trans Atlantic voyage. I concur with the advice already given on Cruise Critic.

I have both booked direct and utilized the services of a travel agent. Depending on the number of cabins you book, you may find benefit in coordinating a "group cruise." I did one for my 40th birthday...there were 23 of us. I hosted a cocktail party on board, and each cabin got a $50 credit as a group benefit. I know Royal Caribbean requires you to work through a travel agent if you are cruising as a group which they define as 8 or more cabins. That could vary by cruise line.

I wrote down a few primers on cruising for beginners here. Please know that FT rules require that I alert you that the blog that follows that link is one where I am a contributor.
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Old Sep 10, 15, 3:15 pm
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Originally Posted by pinniped View Post
10 total people
4 children
Christmas 2016
$1500 per person
$1500 times 10 equals $15,000

an example of 'near' christmas

NCL haven cabins >
16 (1188) - jewel
17 (1201) - jade
18 (1197) - gem / pearl

dec 11-19 gem 8 day caribbean
$18,500 if all 4 kids in 1 kids bedroom
$14,500 if 1 couple in 2nd kids bedroom
($18,000 3BR garden villa 8 guests)
(regular rates, not senior rates)

dec 11-18 jewel 7 day mexico
prices about the same as above

http://www.ncl.com/thehaven/accommodations/familyvilla/
http://www.ncl.com/thehaven/accommodations/gardenvilla/
(jewel class floorplan)

royal caribbean also has some interesting staterooms >
two bedroom including loft (oasis and quantum class) and aquatheater (oasis class)
four bedroom presidential family (freedom class and harmony ship)

Last edited by Kagehitokiri; Sep 10, 15 at 3:35 pm
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Old Sep 10, 15, 3:46 pm
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The price and timing could be a bit iffy, especially if you want something not bottom of the barrel. The weeks leading up to Christmas are often priced very competitively, and can be a good bargain. The weeks including Christmas and NYE will be significantly more expensive. And if the budget includes the airfare, well, good luck. (Right now for this year, I'm looking at about $800 to fly dtw-mco to cruise out of miami, although our dates are a little constrained, if we could move the one end a couple of days it'd be better.) The numbers that Kagehitokiri quotes are undoubtedly much higher if you take those same cruises the week after his examples.

That said, cruisecritic is certainly where I'd go looking for info. Most of the mass-market lines are going to have a number of additional fees, generally beverages beyond some basic minimums, tips, and any excursions (which should really be booked independently for the savings and better quality choices).

Out of San Juan can offer more stops on a 7 day trip, but of course the airfare is more to get there. Panama Canal can be a nice choice, but I can tell you Christmas 2016 pricing for that route is around $2000 for an inside, and close to $3k for a balcony for a 10 day partial transit (via princess, for a cruise I'm booked on).

Smaller ships are probably out of the budget. Princess has been offering an interesting route on their small ships in the Carribbean the last couple years over Christmas, but it's a 14 day trip, and even the insides start at about $2500. But it's also probably about as off the beaten path you're going to get on a mass-market line.
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Old Sep 10, 15, 3:56 pm
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Originally Posted by pinniped View Post
Timing of the trip is "Christmas 2016". That could mean depart prior to Christmas and be out on the water at Christmas, or it could mean depart the day after Christmas and return around January 1, 2017...but generally right around that time. (I'm going to guess that this is about the worst possible time to take a cruise, but it's what they want to do.)
No matter what. Plan on flying into your embarkation city the day before your cruise leaves. This gives you some wiggle room in case weather rears its ugly head. From your departure cities, it would be possible to fly out the day-of, but it's incredibly risky.

Right now, they believe they want to do a Caribbean cruise, but I don't think this is any particular requirement. They haven't said "The trip must include St. Maarten" or anything like that.
If given a choice between Eastern or Western Caribbean, I'll take Eastern every single time.

- Is there a board like FT that is awesome for all of these cruise questions? I know there's a timeshare one out there, and figure there must be a cruise one too? Google turns up a bunch of them but are any Flyertalk-quality boards?
As noted above, Cruise Critic. I think it has twice as many members (1.3M) and posts (45.4M) than FT. It should also be important to note that the demographics of the members there are significantly different than FT.

- I see ads all over the place for crazy discounts on cruises. It feels like shopping for a cruise is like buying a suit at Jos A. Bank. (A suit is listed at $1699 but no smart buyer ever pays more than $500 for it.) How do you cut through all of the noise and understand what is reasonable value, regardless of what the artificially-high rack rates say?
Many cruiselines offer some kind of best rate guarantee. If the price of your cabin category drops, you are eligible for a refund of the different. For cruiselines like Disney, they never need to discount, and the cheapest fares are within four weeks of itinerary announcement--which you are about three months behind. I booked our December 2015 Disney cruise in June 2014. The price went up ten (corrected) weeks later and never decreased until the category sold out.

There is a website that tracks cabin prices. I'll try to dig it up. Edited to add: Here you go... https://www.cruisefish.net/

For mainstream cruiselines (Carnival, RCCL, NCL, etc.), cabin prices tend to fluctuate. Again, best rate guarantees help.

The other thing against you is that you want to cruise at/around Christmas/New Year's. Those cruises are never cheap and discounts are rare.

- I realize cruise lines have elite status levels just like hotels and airlines, but is there one (or more) that emphasize this less than others? What I'm thinking is this: flying United with no status is a dreadful experience on all fronts - one where they intentionally make things difficult for you every chance they get. Flying Aer Lingus with no status is...okay...not much different than flying Aer Lingus with status. Is there a cruise line that is more like Aer Lingus and less like United?
For mainstream cruiselines, you won't see much difference. If your in-laws spring for some kind of suite or concierge level, then there might be.

- Do you book direct or through a third-party site? Ordinarily I wouldn't ask this question...I avoid anything resembling a travel agent whenever possible...but in the cruise world it seems like they still heavily use third parties to sell, just like airlines and hotels did 25 years ago.
CruiseCompete.com pits TA against TA on giving you the best deal. And by best deal, it's who gives you the most on-board credit (OBC). You will find very little variance with the base cruise fare. Booking directly with the cruiseline usually gives you the least amount of OBC. The differentiator between TAs is customer service. You can probably search Google for reviews.

- I believe the rough budget (that the in-laws will kick in) is $1500 per person. I think the rest of us are cool with covering our own "extras", but how do you figure out what the extras are? I hear stories about all sorts of nickel & diming once you're on the boat...is there a good estimate for how much this stuff will cost?
The only extra cost you must absolutely incur are gratuities. Check with each cruiseline for their per-person, per-night breakdown ($15-ish).

There is a thread on here that goes into more details of what other "nickel and diming" you can expect. There's a lot of things. I'll post it here when I find it.

- Given that price range, I know we won't be looking at any kind of ultra-luxe ship, but are some boats a cut above others in terms of level of services, type of clientele attracted, richness/uniqueness of excursions offered, etc.? My in-laws have traveled to six continents and enjoy a wide variety of cultures, but I know they *don't* just want to dock in Cancun and go pound beers at the TGI Friday's on shore. So I guess we'd want a semi-upscale (perhaps smaller) ship that had a little more sophistication than floating Spring Break. Am I dreaming here? Do I have to jump up to a $5,000-a-head cruise to get this?
Celebrity is pushing the top of your budget (especially if you want balcony cabins). I imagine that might be what most people on here would recommend.

IMHO, I would just find a cruiseline with a good itinerary at a good price. While I had a good time and service on RCCL, I felt we actually got better service on Carnival. Major YMMV, as with anything in life.

(Surprised this forum doesn't have a FAQ...)
Honestly, this forum will never compete with Cruise Critic in terms of quality. If you want a perspective of cruise travel from people who fly/travel a lot, this is a nice, sane place to discuss.

Last edited by pseudoswede; Sep 10, 15 at 8:38 pm
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Old Sep 11, 15, 10:34 am
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Cool. Thanks for the starting info. I'll spend some time at Cruise Critic.

It sounds like some of the possible sailings have actually been announced...I had no idea they starting booking this far out. Our potential date range is likely to be, at a maximum, a window from December 22 to January 3. And I completely concur with the advice to fly a day early: we'll do that for sure, and we know the only way we'll be able to do it is using miles 330 days out (probably a mix of F and Y awards).

If this is difficult, the one proposal I might give back to the in-laws is a three-month delay. We have another window where we could all likely travel in mid-March 2017, again a weeklong cruise somewhere in the midst of about a 12-day period. Perhaps departing out of a port that isn't a big college spring break scene (San Juan?), thus making the flights easier...
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Old Sep 11, 15, 12:08 pm
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March, even being spring break period, isn't going to be as expensive as the Christmas time period. (My wife gets a week off for Easter, so either sometime in March or April, so I've definitely cruise my share of times during that period). Spring break I've never really noticed being a huge impact on the cruises to me (and even airfare not so much). President's day week tends to be worse of an impact.

And yeah, winter 2016 season cruises are typically announced in the April/May time period (or even a little before sometimes). One thing I do tend to recommend is that you watch booking the last cruise or so that's been announced for the season (so, the last cruise in probably April 2017 or so for a given ship). While not necessarily common, I do see those cruises get canceled as the lines decide where they're going to position the ship next.

Personally I do Princess, I'd consider it equivalent to Celebrity (I know there are some that could claim Celebrity is a little higher, it's arguable on many levels, they're both pretty decent). My uncles prefer Royal Caribbean because they really like that there's just so much to do on their ships. I know a lot of people like Disney, even those without kids. Does tend to cost more, and definitely more limited in what routes they do.
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Old Sep 11, 15, 9:42 pm
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I tried to communicate yesterday and somehow my tutorial got knocked off but that was just the kind of day I've had all week.
First of all I have more than a few cruises under my belt and have taught courses on cruising to senior adults.
I highly recommend your in-laws sit down with a recommended cruise agent and forget trying to book the family trip on line. It takes experience to evaluate the nuances of the different lines and their target passenger component.
You've already been given some very good tips. Cruising over the Christmas/New Year's holiday is the most expensive cruise season of any year. Experienced cruisers seeking this seasonal offering booked when the cruises were first announced. By now rates have probably increased and it is highly unlikely they will come down. It's called dynamic pricing which you may also understand from airline fares.
March, if it butts up to Easter would also be a much sought after cruise time.
One thing you might be interested in to aid cost is booking either a cabin for three or four. Not all cabins are designed for that many. Usually there is a rate drop for 3rd and/or 4th passenger in the cabin.
Many ships also have family cabins. Generally family cabins must be booked either directly through a cruise line or via a travel agent.
Planning your arrival is recommended. Planning your trip home is equally important. Homeland Security dictates that all passengers must be on board 90 minutes before sail away. Many of cruises out of Florida and Texas leave around 4 which means you have to be checked in and on the ship by 2:30. Disembarkation is a little more complicated. On every itinerary the cruise line will show the docking time but this is NOT disembarkation time. Most cruise lines recommend you schedule your flight around noon. This is a suggestion not a rule but it makes sense. The exceptions would be Cape Canaveral to Orlando and Galveston to Houston. Both airports are farther from the ports.
All of your questions can easily be answered on Cruise Critic.
Once again I highly recommend your family use a cruise travel agent.
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Old Sep 14, 15, 9:20 am
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Great...thanks again. Thanks to those who've sent me PM's, too. We've planted the seed that the family should seriously consider mid-March 2017. Easter happens to be late that year (mid-April), so it's hopefully mostly a matter of competing with spring breakers for airline seats to the port.
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Old Sep 14, 15, 9:43 am
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I definitely agree with switching it to a spring break sailing. The time period you have for Christmas is absolutely the most expensive of the year. Most, if not all, cruise lines market Holiday sailings quite differently. Higher prices, earlier payment due dates, etc.

Spring break will still be crowded but will give you more leeway. Whatever you do, with most cruise lines booking as far in advance as possible is usually a good option. While most ships these days have multiple cabins and suites that will hold more than two passengers at a time, at popular times (like spring break) those can fill up well in advance. Also, most cruise lines (unless it's a sale specifically for new bookings only), will give you price drops if you find any after booking.

Don't assume that one cabin option will be the cheapest. For example, it may be cheaper to get one big suite for everybody than to get 3 or 4 regular cabins (inside or balcony). Or it might work well to get one big suite for the in-laws and put everyone else in regular cabins. This is where working with a good travel agent is important - one with knowledge of your group's preferences AND of the differences between cruise lines and ships.

My preferred line at the moment is currently Celebrity, although most of my cruises have been on Royal Caribbean (still a good cruiseline I just think Celebrity is a step above). All of the major mass market lines do a great job though. If you are even considering a suite, of the mass market lines, the suite benefits will be best on Norwegian, Celebrity, and (with just announced changes) Royal. Princess and Holland America also do a good job for suites, but avoid Carnival for a suite booking as their suites currently as just the bigger rooms.

As to loyalty programs, unlike with airlines, on cruises the only time the benefits might be seen as impacting other travelers is at embarkation and disembarkation where, typically, higher tiered status does get priority. Otherwise, most of the benefits would be things that wouldn't impact other travelers. For example, on Royal I get 3 free drinks loaded onto my card every night, discounts on internet, etc Nothing that would impact you or that you would even know about unless you asked me.

Oh and I would absolutely avoid cruising from Galveston, at least on Royal Caribbean. The terminal they have there isn't equipped to handle the current size ship there, and they are switching to an even bigger ship in a couple of months. When you add the cost to get to and from the airports there (Hobby is 45min to an hour, IAH is 1.5 to 2 hours), any "savings" you would get from sailing out of there would be completely lost. Personally I prefer San Juan sailings, especially during spring break, as college students and families looking for a cheap deal tend to be put off by the flights. Also, the southern caribbean islands (other than St. Thomas and St. Maarten which are frequent ports on Eastern Caribbean itineraries) tend to be less crowded.

Last edited by wrp96; Sep 14, 15 at 9:48 am
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Old Sep 14, 15, 1:59 pm
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Consistently good advice on this thread. vacationstogo.com has not been mentioned. Good resource for finding what is possible from specific ports. Nod to Celebrity.
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Old Sep 14, 15, 9:04 pm
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Originally Posted by hedoman View Post
Consistently good advice on this thread. vacationstogo.com has not been mentioned. Good resource for finding what is possible from specific ports. Nod to Celebrity.
I agree that vacationstogo.com is a good research tool because you can see a wide range of cruises in just about every ship and major line. That said it's a rotten place to book a cruise.

Last edited by Randyk47; Sep 27, 15 at 8:04 am
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Old Sep 14, 15, 9:56 pm
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One of the reasons I recommended using a travel agent is just the point several posters have mentioned. On some lines, like Celebrity, booking different classes (suite or Aqua class and anything else) defines the amenities involved, including designated restaurant. A good travel agent can explain the value of your family traveling together and enjoying the same benefits.
Keep in mind the family budget and the availability of cabins within a general area/deck for a spring break cruise.
Our next several cruises are on Celebrity and I recommend the line but for this family the price point for a balcony cabin could put them in an undesirable location. Once again, a cruise travel agent is the family's best friend.
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Old Sep 15, 15, 2:29 am
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Originally Posted by Randyk47 View Post
I agree that vacatobstogo.com...That said it's a rotten place to book a cruise.
Can you expound?
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