There are plenty of people ready to hand out advice for those planning to book a first cruise. You know the type – probably best friends with Hyacinth Bucket, or in the running to become a captain (of the local golf club). Their words of wisdom are often best ignored. Here’s why:
Book early for the best deals
Reservation departments love to be able to go to their bosses and show how well cruises are filling up months – and sometimes years – in advance. The bosses can tuck the deposits away for a couple of years and build budget projections that show how well they are performing. Despite what they claim, however, the best value-for-money deals are more often found closer to the sailaway date.
Only on rare occasions do cruises completely sell out early. Chances are, there will still be cabins to fill as the departure date approaches. There are two main times for customers to take advantage.
1 Some passengers back out when it’s time to pay up in full – either forfeiting their small deposit, or using it on an alternative sailing. This is often when the first deals go on offer.
2 If there are still unsold cabins as the departure date nears, prices will fall again – sometimes dramatically. Some deals are promoted on the cruise line website, others are packaged up and placed with a major travel agent who will add their own promotion.
There are exceptions to the “wait-and-see” rule. A few lines, including Saga, offer a price promise; if the fare is reduced after you book, you will be refunded the difference. This does not always come in the form of cash, however – it might be an upgrade to a larger cabin, or it could be in the form of on-board credit.
Also, if you are planning a cruise to coincide with a special birthday or anniversary, you may want the security of knowing you have secured the appropriate dates, and if you want to specify a particular cabin or suite, then there may not be an alternative to committing in advance.
Book the smallest inside cabin – you won’t spend much time in it anyway
Although ships have some spectacular public rooms and you may well be spending most of your days on excursions or simply lying by the pool, there are also times when you might want to retreat to your cabin for a midafternoon nap, or just to watch a film on the TV. A larger cabin will make this a more enjoyable experience.
Our advice would always be to go for a balcony if you can afford it – and the newest ships have a higher proportion of accommodation with balconies (although those on Norwegian’s Breakaway class, Princess’s Royal class, and P&O’s Britannia are not generously-proportioned). The perfect location for a Champagne breakfast or a spot of secluded tanning (provided you’re not overlooked from above), and ideal for enjoying the scenery as the ship cruises through the Norwegian fjords or past Alaskan glaciers.
The chances of having to suffer passive smoking from your neighbours are much less than they used to be as most cruise lines have now banned the practice. Please don’t use the balconies to feed your left-over food scraps to the gulls, however, or you’ll find yourself very unpopular.
On departure day, check in as early as possible
It is advisable to arrive at your port early; a day ahead when flying to Florida or the Caribbean, for example, or even if you’re driving long distances to Southampton. It saves the stress of worrying about missing the ship in case of inevitable delays.
But when it comes to actually boarding the ship, it’s better to wait. Many people arrive way ahead of time, even before check-in facilities are up and running, so the queues can start to build up early. Cabins are rarely available before 1.00 pm or later – they have to be thoroughly cleaned after the previous occupants – so you might find yourself scrambling for a seat in the lunch buffet while trailing your hand luggage behind you. Why not relax with a drink or a meal ashore? Or complete some last-minute shopping. Leave your check-in a bit later and you’ll miss the crowds, and you have all week to explore the ship. Just don’t leave it too late – you don’t want it to sail without you.
There ARE exceptions; Carnival pioneered a Faster to the Fun programme offering priority embarkation for an extra fee, and P&O Cruises is rolling out their own ‘Pride and Joy’ programme with similar intentions – and at no cost