Cruising has become so much more than a means of island hopping around the Caribbean. These days, you can enjoy world-class dining, spas, zip lines, a meeting with Mickey Mouse, golf, or even a ride on a water coaster, all while on the ship! Due to a seemingly endless array of options, choosing the right cruise can make or break your vacation experience. With new cruises, itineraries, and amenities being unveiled all the time, finding the right cruise can seem like a daunting task--especially for first timers. Here are a few tips to help take out the guesswork and help you find the perfect cruise experience.
WHERE TO GO
First, consider where you want to go. The Caribbean is a popular destination for cruises, and there's a reason why--it's great for families, couples, and singles alike. Caribbean cruises are very relaxing because there isn't a ton of pressure to get off the ship early to explore. If you're someone who tends to get cabin fever or just likes to explore, you'll want to choose an itinerary with plenty of time off of the ship in exciting ports like Europe, South America, or even Africa. Cruising removes obstacles that can make international vacation planning complicated, such as transportation and language barriers, making it one of the easiest ways to enjoy exotic foreign destinations.
WHEN TO GO
Often vacations must be planned around school schedules and holidays, so you'll want to choose a destination that has optimal weather for the time of year you can travel. For winter cruising, the Caribbean, Hawaii, and Mexico are popular destinations, but South America and Southeast Asia also offer prime cruising weather for travelers looking for something more adventurous. In the summer, consider Alaska or Europe. The warm weather in these regions is worth the crowds you'll likely experience. If you're hoping to save money and avoid crowds for any destination, consider sailing during shoulder season when prices are lower but weather is still pretty reliable.
CHOOSING THE RIGHT CABIN
If you're someone who plans on spending a lot of time on the ship relaxing, you may want to splurge on a larger cabin. But if you plan to leave the ship and take advantage of excursions everyday, then you may wish to book a smaller room and save your budget for tours. Likewise, if you're an extremely social person and plan to spend a lot of time socializing, it may not be worth it to invest in a private balcony. It's important, though, to be realistic about what you can tolerate. If you're someone who will get seasick or claustrophobic without a window, an upgrade is mandatory. Otherwise, the money you'll save will come at the cost of a pleasant vacation.
CONSIDER YOUR COMPANIONS
Next, you'll want to consider who you're traveling with. Are you traveling with your spouse for a romantic getaway, your children for a fun family vacation, or a multigenerational group looking to enjoy some memorable shared experiences together? If you're with your entire brood, consider Disney Cruise Line, which specializes in entertaining the whole family. However, if you're looking for a line that will whisk you away in an intimate and romantic setting, luxury lines like Azamara Club Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises offer exceptional style and some of the best value.
Choosing ship size--mega ship or boutique vessel--has a huge impact on the cruise environment. Large cruises offer an exceptional array of entertainment options, dining venues, and amenities and are typically the way to go if you're traveling with younger children or a large group looking for lively nightly activities. However, if you're hoping for a more intimate, relaxing luxury experience with attentive service and a sophisticated ambiance, consider choosing a smaller luxury cruise.
CONSIDER HOW YOU WANT TO SPEND YOUR TIME
When you envision yourself aboard, are you unwinding by the pool or up early taking advantage of excursions offered in each destination? If you're hoping to spend most of your time aboard, you'll want to choose a boat with plenty of activities so you don't go stir crazy.Royal Caribbean International caters to cruisers of all ages with on-board zip lines, bumper cars, rock climbing walls, and even ice-skating rinks. Their entertainment is also top of the line--Broadway-caliber shows and Mystery Dinner theaters will entertain families and couples alike. Likewise, Disney Cruise Line offers countless activities onboard--themed dinners, meet-and-greets with Disney characters and many kid-oriented pool and sports activities.
If you're less concerned with flashy on-board amenities and more interested in what you'll see when you leave the ship, consider choosing a cruise that specializes in destination immersion. Azamara Club Cruises caters to a sophisticated clientele whose priorities are to maximize time off the ship, with overnight stays at ports and late port departures. Likewise, Oceania Cruises also offers late port departures, which allow guests to experience each stop to its fullest.
GETTING THE MOST VALUE
Think about what you want out of your cruise experience and where you'll end up spending the most money and then choose a cruise that offers the best value for that element. Food connoisseurs should look for a line with a heavy focus on culinary quality. Crystal Cruises offers cuisine crafted by celebrity chef, Nobu Matsuhisa, while Silversea Cruises offers the only Relais & Châteaux-affiliated restaurant on a cruise ship. If you value fine wine and spirits, consider choosing a cruise that offers all-inclusive packages that include alcoholic beverages in the cruise price. Azamara Club Cruises offers complimentary standard spirits, sodas, and specialty coffees, with unlimited premium packages available for only $12.95 per person/per day. Regent Seven Seas Cruises also offers unlimited beverages. If instead you hope to explore each destination, Regent Seven Seas Cruises offers free, unlimited shore excursions in each port of call. And with the Insider Access program and AzAmazing Evening offers, the Azamara Club Cruises also provides quality destination immersions.
Katie Lara is a freelance travel journalist and video host based in New York City. In addition to Fodor's, her writing and photographs have appeared in U.S. News and World Report, The Huffington Post, Forbesand Fox News. Keep up with Katie's adventures on her travel blog Travelingpanties, Twitter, Facebook & Instagram.