How to book your ideal cruise?
Booking a cruise can be a minefield, with hundreds of cruise lines around the world and thousands of itineraries and ports, not to mention the dizzying number of packages on offer. It’s no wonder you can end up frazzled before you start. Coupled with that, the internet is rife with conflicting advice – do you book a cruise early or leave it late? Use a travel agent or do it yourself online? From choosing your destination and cruise line right through to weighing up packages, when to book and choosing a cabin, we’ve compiled the ultimate guide to booking your ideal cruise.
How to book your perfect cruise
Deciding your destination
The first decision that needs to be made when booking a cruise is your destination, something most people will already have a good idea of in their heads. Cruise lines operate on most of the world’s oceans and seas, as well as rivers, and passengers can cruise in all seven continents – including the Arctic and Antarctica. Popular cruise destinations include the Caribbean, Mediterranean, Baltics and Atlantic Islands, with cruises to Africa, Asia, the US and South America increasingly popular. Those undecided on destinations should read our in-depth guide to the regions of the world, including which ports and countries you can sail to, from Southern Africa and Australia to the Norwegian Fjords and Caribbean islands.
With cruising becoming even more popular, many smaller, boutique lines are now offering sailings to more remote and exclusive destinations, such as the Indonesian archipelago and Komodo Island, the Arctic, Antarctica and Easter Island. Consider opting for a smaller ship if you want to sail into ports like St Barts and St Tropez, and also if you want to dock in Venice – as large ships are banned from entering the lagoon.
Where to sail
For nature and wildlife lovers, consider a cruise to the Arctic, Alaska, Antarctica, Australasia and Africa, where cruise itineraries boast excursions like a visit to Kangaroo Island, stops in Tasmania, safaris through the South African bush and polar bear, whale and penguin spotting. There’s also the inimitable Galapagos islands – one of the world’s most diverse biospheres and home to species like the Galapagos turtle and blue-footed booby, where your cruise is akin to a floating safari.
Sun-seekers and those in need of some relaxation will love the Caribbean, the quintessential cruising destination where weeks are spent islands hopping, sunbathing, swaying to the sound of steel drums, hiking and sipping rum cocktails. For those who love the sun, but are looking for more culture and history, there’s no place like the Mediterranean – home of Rome (for the Colosseum and Vatican), Athens (the Acropolis) and the castles and ancient city walls of Croatia.
For those that want culture, history and exciting cities – without the heat – then a cruise to the Baltics and Northern Europe is perfect. These cruises can often set sail from the UK and include stops at Copenhagen, Stockholm, Tallinn, Helsinki and Russia’s city of palaces, St Petersburg – where many offer an overnight stay.
Honeymooners and those celebrating a big birthday will want to look for sun-drenched, laid-back, paradise destinations like the Pacific Islands – where the likes of Paul Gauguin Cruises, Crystal Cruises and Coral Expeditions offer sailings around French Polynesia and Tahiti.
To fly or not to fly
Another thing to consider when deciding on a destination is whether you want to fly or not. Many cruise lines offer both ex-UK cruising and no-fly cruising, with ex-UK cruising meaning cruises depart from the UK. Both offer fantastic destinations and benefits.
Ex-UK cruising is where a cruise departs from the UK, in ports around the country such as Portsmouth, Southampton, Dover, Newcastle, Liverpool and Leith. The key benefit of this is not having to travel by air, reducing the travel time and potentially the cost. Flying from the UK will eliminate all the stress of catching a flight, and the flight potentially being delayed, and is a safer option for those wary of air travel after the Covid-19 pandemic. Not catching a flight also means a much higher luggage allowance and being able to take pretty much what you want on board.
Surprisingly, there are some fantastic destinations to choose from when booking an ex-UK cruise, and passengers can even go as far as the Caribbean. Northern Europe and the Baltics are popular destinations, due to proximity, but you can also sail to the Mediterranean, Canary Islands and as far as North Africa and Morocco. Many cruise lines even offer transatlantic sailings to the USA and Caribbean, such as Cunard with its iconic Southampton/New York crossing and even P&O Cruises with sailings to Barbados. Be aware that ex-UK cruises, unless around the British Isles, are usually a lot longer than fly-cruises due to time sailing away from the UK and lots of sea days to reach the destination. A huge array of cruise lines offer ex-UK cruising, including mega lines like Princess Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Lines and MSC Cruises. Smaller, more boutique lines like Viking Cruises, Oceania, Fred Olsen Cruise Lines and Scenic also offer no-fly cruise from the UK, along with UK-based lines like The Majestic Line and Hebridean Island Cruises (based in Scotland).
A fly-cruise is where you fly to meet your cruise ship, so the number one benefit of this is having a wider option of destinations to choose from. With a fly-cruise, you can fly to meet a cruise anywhere in the world, from Australia and South Africa to Antarctica and the Far East. Taking you straight into the cruising area, a fly-cruise cuts the amount of sea days dramatically, so is a good choice for those with less time on their hands – even if sailing to the Mediterranean of a European destination. Of course, the downsides are catching the flight, the stress of travel and aeroplane luggage allowances. Fly-cruises can also cost more due to flights and hotels needed before and after the cruise.
When to travel
After deciding on your destination, it’s important to understand the best time of the year to travel. Don’t always be lured in by cheap cruise deals out of season, as you may end up visiting Southeast Asia during monsoon season or taking a trip to see the northern lights, during the midnight sun…
For Mediterranean cruises, it’s best to sail between May and October, when ports are at their liveliest, weather is great and most restaurants, bars and shops are open. June, July and September are the best months to cruise this region, with fewer crowds, hot weather and the season still in swing. Come after October and you may find ports quieter and the weather not as reliable.
In Northern Europe and the Baltics, cruising can be done all year, with mild temperatures in summer and icy, often snowy conditions in winter and lots of Christmas markets. When embarking on a northern Norway or Arctic cruise to see the northern lights, be aware that they are only really visible when the skies are at their darkest (November to March. Come in summer and you’ll see the sun never set and experience the midnight sun. Some cruise lines offering fantastic northern lights sailings include Princess Cruises, Hurtigruten, P&O Cruises, Cunard, Celebrity Cruises and Seabourn.
In Southeast Asia, avoid the months of June to October – monsoon season – and try to avoid the summer months (May to September) when cruising in Egypt – as the weather can be unbearably hot. For the Caribbean, it’s best to cruise from December through to April, where the weather is warm, less humid and you can avoid hurricane season.
Make sure to look out for special public holidays and events that will enrich your cruising experience, such as Carnival in Rio de Janeiro and the Caribbean, the Grand Prix in the likes of Monaco and Abu Dhabi, Mardi Gras in New Orleans and the Venice Carnival in February.
Choosing a cruise line
Once you’ve decided on your destination, the next step is choosing the perfect cruise line for you. There are currently 51 ocean and 27 river cruise lines in the world, and each is totally unique, aimed at a different audience and has its own cruising style. When people say: ‘cruising isn’t for me, they just haven’t found the cruise line for their personality.
Families and those after an action-packed time will probably get along well with the cruise giants of the world, in particular Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line, Carnival Cruise Line and MSC Cruises. These cruise lines have large fleets of megaships and are more like floating holiday resorts than ships. Children and adults alike will love features like the world’s first roller coaster at sea (Carnival Cruise Line), the various water parks on Royal Caribbean and the go-kart tracks on Norwegian. Choose these big cruise lines if you’re after an action-packed time on board, filled with entertainment, fun, laughter (and screaming children) and a solid programme of events, along with additional perks like 24/7 buffets.
While the likes of Royal Caribbean and Carnival offer a lively cruise experience, there are other cruise giants that offer a calmer cruise experience, like Celebrity Cruises and Princess Cruises – lines that offer all the loved facilities but are not geared as much towards lively fun – more about relaxation and enjoying the destination and calm on-board experience.
Boutique cruising is also becoming more and more popular, and this style of cruising would suit independent travellers, those focused on the destination and looking to truly relax and enjoy being at sea. Lines like Fred Olsen Cruise Lines, Oceania Cruises and Saga Cruises offer boutique sailings, with great dining outlets and refined amenities and experiences on board.
Those after more space, fewer passengers, fewer gimmicks, a more intimate cruise experience and more focus on the destination should opt for a small-ship cruise line, such as Seabourn, Azamara or Scenic. Yacht-style cruising is also becoming more popular, with lines like Emerald Waterways, Crystal Cruises, SeaDream Yacht Club and the Ritz Carlton Yacht Collection offering a super-premium yacht-style experience, equipped with perks like on-board helicopters and submarines.
The more mature and traditional traveller should opt for classic likes lines like Cunard, Azamara, Viking and Oceania, which offer a refined and sophisticated cruise experience with activities geared towards culture and enrichment, like lectures, on-board planetariums and exhibitions – with Cunard hosting cultural and literary festivals at sea.
Forgetting the traditional ship, travellers can now sail on bespoke and unique cruise line vessels, such as the sailing yachts of Windstar Cruises and Golden Horizon, the world's largest square-rigged sailing ship and the debut cruise ship from Tradewind Voyages.
The cruise line you decide will have a big impact on the types of people you will meet on board, and who your fellow passengers will be. British cruise lines like Fred Olsen Cruises, Saga, Cunard, Marella Cruises and P&O Cruises will have a mainly British audience and cater for Brits with comforts like tea and coffee making facilities in the room and familiar branded products. On the likes of Carnival Cruise Line, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean, you’re likely to encounter a predominantly American audience, with lots of multi-gen groups and families. However, this depends on where you’re sailing from, as ships sailing out of Florida will have more Americans, sailing in Europe more Europeans and the same goes for sailings out of Asia and Australasia. Dream Cruises is geared towards the Chinese market, and AIDA is for German-speaking cruisers, while MSC Cruises and Costa Cruises targets the European market – so expect a melting pot of European cultures on their ships.
The itinerary will also alter who is sailing, and sailings during school holidays and to more affordable and popular destinations, like the Mediterranean, will most likely have more children and families on board. Destinations that are more expensive and harder to get to will have fewer families or young adults on board, with the average age around 60. However, you may encounter young couples celebrating their honeymoon on lines like Silversea, Seabourn, Scenic and Crystal Cruises and in destinations like the South Pacific. Luxury lines like Silversea, Seabourn, Crystal Cruises, Viking and Oceania attract a mature and sophisticated crowd, so expect passengers in their 60s and above and hardly any children or young families.
Deciding on ship
Once you’ve chosen your cruise line, it’s time to choose your ship, which will most likely depend on which destination and itinerary you’re going on. Most cruise lines have pretty uniform cruise ships, like Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line with their megaships and Viking Cruises with its identical Scandi-chic vessels, but some have a varied line-up of vessels, like Princess Cruises which has the pint-sized Pacific Princess in its fleet. Make sure to check each individual ship’s amenities and facilities, such as gyms, spas, wellness centres, shops, dining venues and even if it has childcare or not.
Choosing a cabin
Choosing your cabin is perhaps one of the most important decisions when booking a cruise, after all, this will be your space on the ship. A cabin is akin to a hotel room, so it's important to make sure the facilities and amount of space suits your needs. Choosing a cabin can be challenging, with so many cabin grades, categories and opportunities to save money by not choosing your exact. Cabin location, just your cabin grade. However, it’s very important to know what you’re getting in for, to save any heartache when on board.
Many cruise lines will offer cheaper deals to people who only choose their cabin category but not location, but location is also important. The lower you are in the ship, the less roll and sea sway you will feel, but those who love being outdoors and dub the pool may want to consider a high-up cabin, closer to the sun deck. Make sure to check the map of the ship and see where you'd most like to be located. Passengers who want a specific cabin location should book a ‘guarantee cabin’, which guarantees your spot and is sometimes offered as an early booking incentive.
Inside cabins – Inside cabins are usually the cheapest on the ship, and these are small staterooms located in the ship's interior with no window or balcony. Some lines, like Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line, make the inside cabin more appealing with large screens giving the illusion of a balcony or sea view.
Outside cabins – outside cabins (or ocean view) are the next category up, usually similar sized to an inside cabin (or a bit larger) but with a window or porthole giving sea views.
Balcony cabins – balcony cabins are usually larger than their cheaper counterparts and feature a balcony for guests to set outside and make the most of being at sea. Balcony cabins offer fresh air and space and guests can dine, drink and relax on their balcony with complete privacy.
Suites – suites are the highest cabin category on a ship, and many cruise lines will have various levels of suite increasing in cost. Suites tend to have a separate living and sleeping rooms and can come with perks like butler service, free room service, higher-quality toiletries, bathtubs and perks like priority booking at restaurants and shore excursions. Suites are spacious and large and can have more than one balcony.
Which package to book
Of course, the cruise with no frills and the least included will be the cheapest, and you may think you’ve got a great deal. However, looking at the fine print and you may find that that cruise you booked for cheap will double in price when on board, thanks to additions like drinks (alcoholic and soft), gratuities, shore excursions and use of the ship’s facilities.
Budget and mass-market cruise lines will usually offer the minimum as an inclusion, that means accommodation, full-board in complimentary restaurants, water, access to the ship’s facilities – but that’s pretty much it. This will suit someone who only drinks water and plans on taking it easy, but for those who love a drink the price of a daily drinks package can make the cruise fare shoot up. If you’re a drinker, or even love your soft drinks, make sure to purchase a drinks package before boarding, as it will be cheaper in the long run.
For those looking to make the most out of their cruise, dine in fancy restaurant and book onto a host of shore excursions, it might be worth splashing out more money initially to save money in the long run. Booking an all-inclusive cruise like Viking, Crystal Cruises or Celebrity Cruises may be pricier, but there won’t be any additions. Gratuities is also important to look out for, as many lines will add an average of $15 per person per day onto your bill as a tip for the staff. Opting for a package with gratuities included will eliminate the chance of any nasty surprised on your bill.
How to book
Using a travel agent
When it comes to cruises, a travel agent is still one of the best ways you can book. Booking a cruise can be complicated, from which cabin category and the location on the ship to which package is the best option, not to mention organising shore excursions and extras like gratuities. Travel agents are highly experienced in cruises and will guide you through each step of the way. It’s a misconception that travel agents charge a higher price, but a travel agent makes their money from commission from the cruise line – so the cruise line is missing out, not you. This means travel agents will often have exclusive and attractive deals, discounts and other perks like free drinks put out there by the cruise line to encourage booking. Make sure to book with an agent that’s ABTA and ATOL protected, in case things go wrong and you need compensating. Sometimes, you may find a bargain on the internet yourself by trawling through cruise comparison websites and agent websites, so make sure to stay alert and shop around.
When to book
Both booking early and booking late can secure you a great cruise deal, it depends on when you are sailing, extenuating circumstances and cruise line. It’s worthy weighing up them both when deciding when you should book.
Booking a cruise far in advance will often secure you the best deal possible. ‘Cruise holidays work differently from last-minute package holiday deals,’ says Paramount Cruises’ Sam Redfearn. ‘Typically, we see that the earlier customers book, the better the deal. Cruise lines offer special early-bird prices, plus incentives such as onboard credits, drinks packages or excursion credits for booking well in advance. And the higher grades of cabin will have the most generous offers, which is a great way to get the best cabin for your budget.’ Booking early will give you peace of mind, ensure you are actually booked onto your chosen cruise, you can choose the best stateroom, you can spread the cost for longer and give you time to plan (book holiday/organise transport). Some cruise lines will even match your price if it drops after you’ve booked and many offer deals and discounts, such as free on-board credit, to early bookers.
Yes, we know we’ve been harping on about booking early, but it can also be worth hanging on for those last-minute deals, especially if you don’t mind where you go. Cruise lines hate sailing with unused capacity – so as departure approaches, any staterooms that remain unsold are offered at knockdown prices. Depending on the length of the cruise, a last-minute deal could pop up anywhere from three months to just a couple of days before the ship sails. Stay on top of pricing trends, and if you notice a sudden drop, nab your cruise there and then. These tickets are priced to sell quickly, and they always do. The downsides of booking late are, of course, not being able to plan ahead, not getting the best stateroom and having to pay upfront. Sometimes it can depend on the cruise line Saga Cruises and Titan Travel offer early booking discounts and guarantee booking early gets the best price, while mainstream lines like Norwegian Cruise Line and Princess offer enticing last-minute deals.
Finally, it’s important to remember that there is a cruise for everyone – from yacht-style and luxury to family-friendly and gastronomic – and the best way to book a cruise is to do your research, talk to friends and fellow cruisers and reach out to travel agents, and even us at World of Cruising. More and more exciting destinations and itineraries are added each year, so that exotic paradise islands you’ve always wanted to visit, or those ancient ruins, may become a cruise stop next year (or may already be so).