In case you haven’t heard, cruising is, and has been, the fastest growing trend in travel in recent years and yet despite all the hype and the promotion, less than 2% of Irish travellers have experienced one to date, according to CLIA, the professional trade body that represents all the main cruise lines. There are many reasons for this which broadly fall into the following three categories, so this week’s blog hopes to bring some clarity to the subject and help you on your way, if it is your intention to sample your first cruise experience in 2018.
Many people are put off cruising because of a perception that persists with many people that cruising is a staid, old fashioned form of travel that is mainly experienced by what they disparagingly call the ‘blue rinse brigade’. Indeed, there used to be an old saying in the travel industry that cruising was primarily for the ‘new-wed, over-fed or nearly-dead’! Nothing, let me tell you, could be further from the truth. For starters, there are so many different cruise lines offering so many different ‘experiences’ that there is no single size that fits all. Every single demographic is catered for and increasingly, the big cruise lines are going for families and young couples with the average age group starting from the mid-thirties upwards. The facilities and attractions on board also reflect this focus with activities such as rock climbing, ice-skating, surfing (yes, surfing!), zip-lining and sky-diving all possible on many of the new super ships that are sailing in all the main holiday hotspots around the world. With a staff to guest ration of approximately 1:2.5, service levels are way beyond what you could expect even in a 5-star hotel. The food on board is generally excellent with some cruise lines making much of their culinary reputations and the entertainment is often as good as you’ll get in the West End or Broadway.
Consumers who are used to making travel arrangements that include just flights, accommodation and transfers often forget that with a typical cruise, the price includes all your meals (up to nine a day, if you’re greedy) and all your entertainment and activities so it is unfair to compare typical cruise prices with such pared down travel arrangements as you are not comparing apples with apples. Cruise packages offer some of the best value for money out there although this will necessarily vary from time to time, depending on whether or not you’re availing of some of the free drinks packages and other incentives that the major cruise lines promote from time to time, usually during the peak booking seasons such as January, February and march although they sometimes offer similar inducements at other times of the year as well.
One of the biggest impediments to consumers booking their first cruise is the relative complexity of the product and how difficult it can be to navigate your way around the bewildering choice of different cruise brands, itineraries, ships, cabin types, deck plans and dining options to name but the obvious variables. One good reason of course to choose a travel agent that knows their way around this sector of the industry!
THE BOOKING PROCESS
So where to start? Like most things in life, the filtering process usually starts with the issue of budget as that will determine which cruise brands are going to be automatically excluded and which ones remain. The following brands sit at the top of the cruise food chain: Crystal Cruises, Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn, Silversea, Ponant, Azamara. Once you’ve decided on your budget and which cruise lines that budget provides you with access to, the second step in the booking process is usually to decide which itinerary tickles your fancy? Most people usually start close to home with a Southern Mediterranean itinerary of seven days. The benefits of choosing the Med is that there are plenty of flight options and access to cheap fares with low cost carriers — particularly with popular ports such as Barcelona or Civitavecchia, which is the port that serves Rome. 7-day itineraries typically take in three destinations so represent the sweet spot of price v content. Also, most of the Mediterranean itineraries featured by major cruise lines such as Royal Caribbean, MSC and NCL are usually 7 days in duration whereas brands like Celebrity often feature 10, 11 and 14-night cruises. It is, of course, possible to do two, 7-night cruises back-to-back to undertake a 14-night cruise that doesn’t repeat the same ports on call.
Once you have zeroed in on your itinerary and cruise brand, the next decision you need to make is your choice of cabin type. Simple economics prevail here too with the cheapest priced cabins usually being interior with no sea views — perfectly adequate for those on a budget — if you don’t suffer from claustrophobia! The price rises proportionately as you go from inside to outside to balcony to suite and of course the price varies depending on the overall square footage of your stateroom. Price will also be a determining factor, based on the specific location of your cabin (fore, aft or midship) and the deck that its on. All cruise lines publish detailed deck plans, so you can identify the exact location of your cabin relative to major facilities and obstructions (e.g. lifeboats) that might otherwise interfere with the view from your stateroom (cabin).
Finally; one of the decisions you may also need to make is your choice of dining times onboard since the main dining rooms usually do two sittings each evening and that has a bearing in turn on whether you have dinner before your show or immediately after. Increasingly though, new onboard innovations such as dynamic dining and specialty dining have made it easier for ‘cruisers’ to enjoy flexibility in their dining experience.
In summary, cruising represents a whole new world of experience to those who have grown up with traditional, resort-based holidays but don’t let that put you off as it is most likely to exceed your expectations of it, provided of course that you choose carefully!