Finding and Comparing Cruise Vacations

Tahitian Princess at sea
Tahitian Princess at sea

Cruising can be an exciting and affordable vacation option. Of course, it's important to find the right cruise for your getaway. There are more than 160 ships in the fleets of the 24 major cruise lines and thousands of itineraries worldwide. Here's what to consider when looking for the perfect world cruise vacation.

Style of ship and cruise line

Cruise lines have their own distinct personalities and ships that reflect them. The size of a ship really does matter - large ship cruise lines provide a party atmosphere with glitz and high energy. Small ship operators focus on quiet luxury and a more refined experience. There are several lines with a mix of big and small ships in their fleets.

So, how do you choose? There are some questions to ask yourself: do you like structure or do you balk at too many rules? Do you need a lot of personal space? Are you more interested in fancy dinners and theatrical shows or wildlife?

Another item to consider is that dining rules vary on different lines. On some world cruises, you're required to eat dinner at a set time every day at the same place, while others allow you to dine around and make your own restaurant reservations.

Your goal is to find a ship and cruise line that is comfortable to you. To make sure a line's regular clientele, ship and activities are a good match for you, read over the line's brochures and website and ask a knowledgeable travel agent for advice.

Where to cruise

Cruise ships can take you almost anywhere on the planet, from the Caribbean or Europe to Asia or Australia, so explore the possibilities before settling on a preferred route. When you've found a trip you love, go over the schedule carefully. If traveling internationally, make sure you have valid passports, visas and any required immunizations.

If you need to fly to your cruise port, make sure you allow enough time to get to the ship. Ideally you should try to get to the port at least a day in advance. This added buffer allows you to start off your cruise vacation with less stress.

When to cruise

The holidays, spring break and summer are peak seasons, which usually means higher prices. The shoulder seasons of mid-fall and early spring offer great cruise deals and may be even more appealing than peak season. For example, a South American cruise in May or September, when kids are in school, translates into fewer people in port.

Just before and after shoulder season, cruise lines move their ships from one home port to another in a strategic fleet movement that's called "repositioning." Of course, those ships don't move around empty. Instead, what you get is a "repositioning cruise" - a unique, one-way itinerary that is available only once a year. Repositioning cruises are often highly discounted, meaning they are a great value.

Lastly, some of the best values come during the Caribbean's hurricane season, particularly in September and October. The price can come at a cost though - your itinerary may be changed and your cruise could be shortened or prolonged.

Choosing the right stateroom

Consider your itinerary when reserving a stateroom. If you can afford to splurge, a balcony stateroom provides you a private space to relax and get away from the crowded decks. The appeal of a balcony on an Alaska, Caribbean, European or Asia cruise is the amazing scenery that should not be missed. Smaller inside staterooms are adequate for budget-minded cruisers who prefer to spend most of their time utilizing the ship's public spaces.

It's important to study the ship's deck plan to find the right stateroom location for your needs. Passengers with disabilities might want to book rooms near elevators. Watch out for staterooms with obstructed views - usually the lifeboat deck and those with close proximity to more active areas like lounges, discos, theaters, pool areas, room service and steward service areas. Staterooms midship on lower decks are best for those prone to seasickness.

Cruise costs

Cruise lines offer travelers a host of discounts, so consider every source when looking for a deal. Check out your credit card, as many offer discounts or points toward cruises. Look at all the clubs you belong to, from AAA, airline frequent flier programs and college alumni associations to union memberships - see if they offer any deals or special rates for members. Also, if you've previously cruised with a line, you may be in for a repeat cruiser discount.

The majority of cruises are booked by travel agents. Big online agencies may offer competitive prices on a number of cruises. Still, many people prefer to use a local travel agent, but make sure you shop around. Visit Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) at Cruising.org and search by ZIP code. When you talk to an agent, ask about last-minute specials and if they are holding any group space on Europe cruises. Keep in mind the best prices are often booked months in advance for popular itineraries.

Finding and comparing cruise vacations doesn't need to be a vexing process. If you do a little research, you can board the ship without a care in the world, and that's the only way to cruise.