As part of our ‘Everything you need to know about cruising’ series, we take a look at how to book your first cruise.
We’re not here to frighten you, but there’s little about cruising that isn’t daunting for first-timers.
There’s a dizzying assortment of cruise lines, itineraries and destinations for one thing, and a whole lot of industry jargon that might as well be Aramaic for those who’ve yet to acquire their sea legs.
This isn’t to say you shouldn’t book a cruise almost immediately, only that a considered approach is required to match your expectations with the right vessel for you. Not quite sure how to go about that?
We’ve got the pros and cons of every which way to book a cruise, and between the two of us, we’re feeling pretty confident we can help you swipe right on the trip of a lifetime.
More from ‘Everything you need to know about cruising’:
Cruise vs Resort: the pros and cons of the different holidays
Everything a first-time cruiser needs to know
Every question you ever had about cruising answered
Which Cruise Line? The dummy’s guide to choosing a cruise line
Booking on a cruise deals website
Is it a good idea to book your first cruise through a deals website? Probably not.
As far as heart-stopping moments go, stumbling across a ‘sail for 18 nights and pay only for three’ deal on a daily deals site is up there with finding a suitcase stuffed with cash on the side of the road.
If it sounds too good to be true, it almost certainly is, says Carl Frier, managing director Australasia, Cruise 1st, who advises first-time cruisers to avert their eyes and keep walking.
Experience your first-ever cruise with Celebrity Cruises.
“One of the biggest mistakes first-timers can make with these sites is that they see a ‘sail three nights for the price of a bag of chips’ and think it’s an excellent way to dip their toes in the world of cruising, but they’re often the worst experience on a ship you could ever have,” he explains.
“Often, these cheap deals attract those keen to get on the piss – hen nights, buck’s nights and every other kind of night you can think of – and if this is your first experience of cruising, you may end up with a distorted view of what cruising really is.”
Another thing to note is that many of these sites purchase whole blocks of cabins – the good, the bad and the downright uncomfortable – so that while you might think you’re getting a good deal initially, there’s every chance you could end up sharing a wall with the engine room or having your balcony view obstructed by a great big life raft.
This isn’t to say the deals advertised through these sites can’t be of great value or have their place in the market, but they’re a far better bet for those who are either experienced cruisers or at the very least, those who have sailed with the advertised ship before and are therefore familiar with the ship’s layout, amenities, pros and cons.
Take in panoramic views of the sea from the Celebrity Edge Iconic Suite.
Booking direct with a cruise line
Should I book my first cruise direct with a cruise line? Certainly but pick up the phone.
It might make sense to want to book through a cruise line’s website after you hear good things about one of its ships (after all, the advertised deals are often some of the best you’ll see), but in a world where there are in excess of 30 different cabin types, are you able to work out which one will be right for you and your family?
Are you across jargon such as ‘guaranteed stateroom’ or ‘starboard’ and do you have in-depth knowledge of hurricane seasons and school holiday periods across the globe?
Armchair cruising wizard or not, you’ll also have to factor in time and effort spent organising the extras that go hand-in-hand with a cruise yourself, says Emma Mumford, former marketing and communications manager, Cruiseco.
“This means you’ll need to work out what flights you need to make the cruise, what accommodation you’ll need to book at either end of the cruise, whether you need visas and vaccinations for ports and stay on top of organising everything yourself,” she says.
Norwegian Cruise Line ships are highly rated by first-time cruisers.
The time-poor and the inexperienced need not apply. Calling the cruise line and speaking with one of its sales representatives is a far better option.
Obviously, you’ll be locked into its portfolio of ships, but this is a great way of getting some of the best rates around because they’re keen for your custom and to keep you as a loyal passenger for life.
Don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions but remember that you will need to do the legwork where extras surrounding the cruise are concerned.
Soak in the rays at the adults-only solarium onboard Royal Caribbean’s Ovation of the Seas.
Booking a cruise through a travel agent
Is a generic travel agency ok to book my first cruise? Probably not.
Ask Mumford the question, “Why shouldn’t I book a cruise with my local, garden-variety travel agent who normally does our flights?’ and she volleys back a question of her own: “If you knew you needed a blood transfusion, would you attempt to get one from your local GP or would you undergo the procedure with someone who specialises in that field? As with any other industry, you need someone experienced in a particular skill set.”
It’s a particularly dramatic way to kick off why talking cruises with a generic travel agency won’t work for a first-time cruiser, but it’s accurate, agrees Frier, who explains that there’s not a lot of variance between what the cruise lines offer agents in terms of commissions.
Coral Expeditions will take you to the Great Barrier Reef.
“This means that [an agent] who isn’t particularly passionate about cruising will be influenced by the simplicity of a sale,” he says. “As in they’ll want to make a sale regardless of whether they truly believe a particular itinerary or cruise line is suitable or not and move on to another sale with someone else quickly.”
Inexperience and a lack of emotional investment in cruising itself could see you and your family end up on a family ‘unfriendly’ cruise simply because the agent read it had a kids’ club, or you could find yourself keeping company with a ‘knitting with pet hair’ convention simply because it looked to be the best deal on the cruise you said you’d ‘heard good things about’. It is highly likely you’ll end up on a product that won’t meet your expectations.
Do laps in Celebrity Edge’s long pool.
Booking with a cruising specialist
Should I book my first cruise with a cruising specialist? It is a good bet.
By now, there’s every chance you just want someone to listen to you, get you and tell you not only have they got their finger hovering over the cruise of your dreams at a great price, but that you will be together, booking such trips, until the end of time.
Enter the cruise specialist.
As the cruising market has exploded, so too has the number of specialist cruise agencies available – each one up to date with the latest developments within the industry, and each individual agent full to the brim with specialist knowledge.
Cruise the iconic Kimberley with Ponant. (Image: Nick Rains)
Deb Long is the former owner and founder of Weston Cruise & Travel and says not only is she a master cruise consultant who regularly cruises herself, but she also undergoes extensive training, attends trade days and conducts numerous ship inspections a year so that her Yoda-like skills when it comes to pairing the right itinerary with the right customer are second to none.
“Some of the questions I would ask a first-time cruiser is why do you want to go on a cruise? What do you want out of a holiday? What kind of hotel or holiday do you normally stay in and what kind of interests do you have? What are you looking for in a ship? And the list goes on,” Long explains.
“I already know the ships inside and out but I also need to take my time getting to know the client so we can work together to find the right cruise that not only meets their needs but gives them some surprise and delight moments.”
Long has a success rate that says she is doing something right. “Ninety per cent of our customers who book a cruise will book a second one within 18 months,” she says.
True North has purpose-built ships to access wilderness areas that bigger ships cannot go.
New best friend and peace of mind aside, cruise specialists are independently owned so they can give recommendations and sell products across the board – often with access to discounts or special offers you may not be able to find anywhere else.
Not sure where to get started? Long recommends visiting Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) to find a cruise-accredited agency and start packing your bags. “With a dedicated specialist in your corner who is as invested in your holiday as you are, you really can’t go wrong.”
Come aboard the Ponant ship and sail across Montgomery Reef.