How to Choose the Right Cruise

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A cruise can open a traveler's eyes to previously unknown wonders. In this economy, it can also represent the bargain vacation, but you have to do your homework. Part of the fun of choosing the right cruise is discovering your options -- and there are plenty.

Photography by the authors.A cruise can open a traveler’s eyes to previously unknown wonders. In this economy, it can also represent the bargain vacation, but you have to do your homework. Part of the fun of choosing the right cruise is discovering your options -- and there are plenty.

The cruise vacation is unlike any other travel experience. Holland America Line has pioneered the Alaskan voyage.

First understand the market. Short cruises, understandably, cost less. They’re usually favored by young, informal, noisy vacationers, but present a great way to sample the cruise experience. Longer cruises tend to be preferred by older travelers and families -- and really long or special-destination cruises are often chosen by retired persons who have the time and the money. It would probably be a mistake to take a long cruise if you haven’t tried a short one first, because cruising is not for everyone.

Cruises can take you to many hard-to-reach places: The Alaskan glaciers, the rice fields of Vietnam, the Marquesas Islands.

Second, consider the objective of your cruise. Do you want a specific departure port, perhaps Fort Lauderdale, Fla.? Do you have a destination in mind, say, Vietnam? Is there an activity, such as a zip-line canopy adventure in Mexico you’d like to experience? Or do you see a cruise as a family experience that, ideally, offers fabulous children’s programs that would allow parents to have some long-awaited private time? These are all valid reasons for taking a cruise and will help you to narrow down the list of cruises you might choose.

On Royal Caribbean International’s gigantic liners, kids can climb walls, play ball games and go putting — for starters. You may barely see them for the rest of the cruise.

Reaching the departure port, of course, adds to your costs. If you live on the Pacific Coast, it is more expensive flying to cruise the Caribbean -- by far the most popular cruising area -- than it would be if you lived in Florida or Texas. It’s also difficult to get a flight from the West Coast that brings to your port of departure in time to embark the same day, so you may have the added expense of an East Coast hotel the night before. (This can also be a factor when considering a European cruise.)

Next, you must choose the cruise line. Some lines charge about $100 per person, per day, which really is extraordinary value when you consider what’s offered: a cabin, meals as good as any you’d get in regular travel and a wide variety of entertainment. Carnival Cruise Lines, for example, offers a number of low-cost, entry-level cruises. Upscale lines might charge as much as $800 per person, per day, but they offer more in the way of service and amenities, and they don’t nickel and dime you as some lines typically do. For example, Silversea Cruises stocks your cabin refrigerator with the alcohol of your choice, features fine-dining and offers many shore excursions that are included in the cost of your cruise. That said, Silversea’s ships are small, which raises the next issue.

On a small-ship Uniworld River Cruises trip, you will not only see Budapest’s Houses of Parliament from your deck chair, but you’ll be able to walk to them from where your boat docks.

Small ships get in close. With the European river boats, you are often tied down right in town and it’s easy for the 300 or so passengers to walk off into their own shore excursion. Large boats sometimes have to anchor off shore and tender in, which can be tedious for thousands of impatient passengers.

Onboard lectures by knowledgeable experts are the highlight of many cruises, whether you are sailing the Yangtze with Victoria Cruises or Russia’s Volga with Viking River Cruises.

What about shore excursions? They can, for sure, add considerable costs to your voyage -- from a low perhaps of $30 to be driven by bus around, say, Mexico’s Puerto Vallarta, up to perhaps $500 per person for the helicopter flights over Alaska’s glaciers. Can you do better privately negotiating with a local tour operator once the ship docks? Possibly, but if you’re in a faraway place with taxi drivers who don’t speak English, the ship may have sailed by the time you belatedly return to the dock. It’s a real risk in, say, South East Asia, where interesting places may be miles from industrial docks along routes that cross many canals.

We’ve saved money on cruise excursions by renting a car in Tahiti to save the price of a shore excursion, and we declined to pay $55 for afternoon tea at the famous Empress Hotel in Vancouver when we found we could sit on the same patio and nurse the special 1908 cocktail celebrating the hotel’s 100 years — for $10.

But if you’ve spent big bucks to go halfway across the world and the cruise is a once in a lifetime experience, does it make sense to dedicate yourself to cutting costs? Time is money and maybe it’s better spent having fun. If a Victoria Cruises boat on the Yangtze offers a side-cruise up the Lesser Gorges of the Daning river, or a Cruceros Australis ship cruising Patagonia a chance, in an inflatable, to get really close, maybe too close, to a glacier, the cost is almost academic: In nearly all cases, you will never be able to have that specific experience again for less money than you’d spend right now.

Some excursions are included, some cost extra. Your cruise line brochures and websites should tell you what is, and isn't, included in the cost of your trip.Most veteran cruising passengers anticipate additional charges will add about 40% to their initial cruise booking cost. The extras come from onboard impulsive purchases, shore excursions, spa treatments, fine-dining restaurant bookings, alcohol and soft drinks, taxes and gratuities.

Even as cruise lines, in this economy, offer deep discounts and upgrades to their regular customers -- a good reason to develop cruise line loyalty and sail with the same company (if you enjoyed your first cruise with it) -- they are sneaking in a variety of methods to squeeze more money from travelers. The first time we took a cruise, an announcement sent all passengers on deck to wave goodbye to our departure port. Wait staff moved around handing out pink drinks with little umbrellas. Recently on a cruise with the same line, the waiters asked us for our cabin numbers. The free rides are over!

It’s worth studying the daily newsletter you find each night in your cabin. The complimentary chefs’ demonstrations are always popular. Veteran cruisers who want to buy jewelry onboard know to wait until the last day, when prices usually drop significantly. They learn not get caught up in the art auctions, too.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the New Hampshire Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the American Society of Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.