If you've never stepped foot on a cruise ship, you might not know the first thing about planning the perfect vacation at sea. Get your feet wet with Fodor's Ultimate Cruise Planner—we'll walk you through all of the important decisions and give you solid advice to help easily navigate the cruise planning process. Happy sailing!
WHERE CAN I SAIL AND WHEN SHOULD I GO?
Let's start at the beginning: Grab your atlas from the bookshelf and get inspired! Where do you want to go? Today's cruise lines offer vacations to nearly every corner of the world. Consider these regions and the best seasons to visit:
* Africa: January–April; November–December
* Alaska: May–September
* Antarctica: January–February; November–December
* Arctic: June–August; Hurtigruten offers itineraries year-round
* Asia: year-round
* Bermuda: April–October
* Europe (Baltic, Mediterranean): year-round; May–October is high season
* Hawaii: year-round
* Mexican Riviera: year-round
* Middle East: January–April; September–December
* South America: year-round
* South Pacific: year-round
What destinations are hot now? Expedition cruises to Antarctica, the Arctic, the Galapagos Islands, and Papua New Guinea are all the rage right now. Cruises in Southeast Asia are also growing in popularity, with river cruises in Myanmar and ocean voyages around Indonesia and Malaysia winning praise. More ships are also headed to the South Pacific in 2014 than in recent years.
Can I sail during hurricane season? Hurricane season is a factor to keep in mind, but don't avoid booking a cruise because of it. In all actuality, very few cruise itineraries are ever affected by major storms. Chances for storms in the Atlantic are greatest from June 1 through November 30. The Eastern Pacific season lasts from mid-May through November. In Hawaii, hurricane season is June through November. If you're traveling to Australia or New Zealand, know that March and April are considered cyclone season. The National Hurricane Center can tell you everything you need to know about these types of storms.
WHICH CRUISE LINE IS RIGHT FOR ME?
Selecting a cruise line that matches your vacation preferences will mean the difference between an excellent experience and one that leaves you wishing that you'd just stayed home instead. Families may prefer Disney Cruise Line, Norwegian, and Royal Caribbean, while seniors might gravitate to Holland America Line and Crystal Cruises. Natural-born explorers may be interested in Lindblad Expeditions and Hurtigruten, while honeymooners tend to prefer Paul Gauguin Cruises and Windstar Cruises. Want a small-ship experience? Go for Un-Cruise Adventures or SeaDream Yacht Club. Ask trusted friends and family for their recommendations, and do plenty of independent research online.
WHEN'S THE BEST TIME TO BOOK A CRUISE?
Deals can be had just about any time of the year, but there's a lot of hoopla around annual industry sale events like National Cruise Vacation Week in October and "wave season," which runs from January through March. Travel agents and tour packagers also often stage their own sales to coincide with holidays like the Fourth of July and Labor Day. Perks can include reduced deposits, discounted cruise fares, two-for-one deals, onboard credit, free kids' fares, cabin category upgrades, prepaid gratuities, complimentary beverage packages, free specialty restaurant reservations, and gratis shore excursions or spa treatments. If you're in the market for a cruise-savvy travel agent, Cruise Lines International Association maintains a database of trusted professionals.
SHOULD I BOOK THROUGH A TRAVEL AGENT OR WITH THE CRUISE LINE?
Always book through a travel agent who specializes in cruise travel and the line that you're most interested in. Travel agents often offer discounts and perks (think onboard credit and prepaid gratuities) that you won't get by booking directly with the cruise line. Travel agents are also intimately familiar with these cruise ships and can help you book the cabin that's right for you. For example, they know the ship layout and can steer you away from booking the cabin directly under that noisy nightclub.
WHICH CABIN SHOULD I CHOOSE?
Booking the right cabin will greatly enhance your cruise experience. First things first: If you've never sailed before and don't know if you're apt to seasickness, pick a midship cabin on a lower deck. That's the fulcrum point of the vessel and that means you'll feel less movement than if you're far forward or aft, or on an upper deck.
If you're on a budget, look at inside (windowless) staterooms or "guarantees". A guarantee means that you'll be assigned to at least the category of your guarantee—though you could also end up in a higher category cabin. This is a terrific option if you'd like to upgrade your accommodations, but don't want to pay out of pocket for it.
Seriously consider booking a balcony cabin. Cruise travel affords some amazing vistas and it's wonderfully convenient to be able to sit on your own balcony and watch the world go by. Balcony cabins are especially important when sailing in French Polynesia, Alaska, the Caribbean, and the Mediterranean.
WHAT SHOULD I PACK?
Your cruise line will provide you with information about any onboard dress codes, including the number of formal nights per itinerary. Also consider the climate and culture of the regions you'll visit. (Women traveling to Middle Eastern countries, for example, should bring scarves to cover their heads and shoulders and wear pants or long skirts.) Resist the urge to overpack! Most cruise ships offer laundry and dry cleaning service. While a bit on the pricey side, it's much easier to have your laundry done once during your vacation than to lug several suitcases and incur high baggage fees at the airport. Here's some advice on what to pack on a Caribbean cruise, as well as on an Alaskan itinerary.
WHAT ELSE SHOULD I KNOW BEFORE I GO?
Finally, there are a few things you should keep in mind before you leave for your cruise:
* Verify passport and visa requirements. Arm yourself with the information you need ahead of time, because if you do not have the proper travel documents in tow, the cruise line will turn you away at the embarkation pier. The U.S. Department of State can provide you with country-specific visa requirements.
* Pre-book shore excursions or hire private guides. Popular shore excursions sell out quickly so it's best to pre-book your favorites before your cruise. (You can always cancel those plans once you're onboard if you change your mind.) Alternatively, seek out private guides in each port, or do some research and go the independent route.
* Reserve dinner seating or specialty restaurant reservations. Many cruise lines have switched to the more flexible "dine anytime" format. However, if your cruise line still has assigned seating for dinner, make your request (early or late seating) as soon as you book your vacation. Likewise, make any specialty restaurant reservations in advance, as the hottest tables fill up fast.
Andrea M. Rotondo is a freelance writer based in New York City. She covers cruise news and luxury travel trends for Fodors.com and writes for a variety of outlets, including her website Luxury Travel Mavens. Follow her on Twitter: @luxtravelmavens.
Photo Credits: Where Can I Sail: Copyright Elina Manninen | Dreamstime; Which Cruise Line: Courtesy of Celebrity Cruises; When to Book: Rob Marmion /Shutterstock; Should I Book: CAN BALCIOGLU/Shutterstock; Which Cabin: Copyright BCritchley | Dreamstime.com; What to Pack: See Fodors.com; Know Before I Go: Copyright Arne9001 | Dreamstime.com