By Associate editor
updated 11/13/2008 4:10:14 PM ET 2008-11-13T21:10:14

Instead of shoveling snow on Christmas, entertaining the in-laws at Hanukkah or unsuccessfully looking for a party on New Year's, you could be drinking eggnog poolside; singing carols on deck, while overlooking the sea; eating multi-course holiday meals, prepared by professional chefs and enjoying New Year's Eve with enthusiasm (and with no worries about driving home). That's right. You could be celebrating on a relaxing, warm-weather cruise.

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Cruising during the holidays is anything but the typical week-at-sea experience you might find during less festive times of the year. Many cruise lines — and officers, staff and crew — embrace the holiday season with a cheery vigor that goes beyond the symbolic Christmas tree, occasional Santa appearances, elaborate turkey dinners and New Year's Eve midnight countdowns.

But while celebrating a holiday at sea means you can avoid the associated cooking and cleaning — not to mention escaping from crazy relatives or bonding with the family members you actually do like — you'll have the best experience if you put a little effort into planning the best cruise for your brood and setting the right expectations. From choosing the right cruise to packing advice and tips on what to expect onboard and off, here's everything you need to know about spending a holiday at sea.

Booking a holiday cruise
In general, Christmas and New Year's holiday cruises are often the most expensive of the year. Cabins at this time are usually in high demand by passengers because schools are on break, and many families want to take vacations during these weeks. However, with many families cutting back on travel, the holiday seasons for 2008 and 2009 will be a little different. As of this writing in November 2008, there are deals on 2008 cruises to be found, even at this late date. You might be surprised at how affordable a warm-weather holiday can be, and these last-minute bargains are worth a look, even if you'd previously decided not to go away this winter.

It's also unlikely that 2009 holiday cruises will book out a year in advance, as many Christmas sailings have done in the past. So, if you're optimistic about next year's winter getaway, keep an eye out for early-booking deals and last-minute bargains, and don't worry so much about ships selling out.

On the flip side, air travel at this time of year continues to be extra-expensive. Before you book that last-minute, rock-bottom rate, make sure you can afford the airfare to your departure port.

Here are a few more tips for booking holiday cruises:

When to book: In general, if you want to lock in your preferred itinerary, ship, cabin and dining group and have as much time as possible to look for affordable airfare, book early (nine to 12 months in advance). The downside? You might end up paying a premium for this level of security. However, the prediction for 2009 is that travelers will not be booking so far in advance, so you can safely wait a little longer to book next year and get the cabin you want without overpaying. If price is your foremost concern, you can wait for deals to come out, often within three months of sailing. But you might get stuck in an inside cabin or with your family spread throughout the ship, rather than in adjoining cabins.

Flights: When booking airfare, remember that flights at this time of the year can be outrageously pricey and often are oversold. Try to reserve your flights early (but not too early, as flight times can change after you book), and you may want to consider all your options, such as using frequent flyer miles or buying the cruise line's air package. You might even want to choose a cruise departing from a city close to home so you can avoid flying altogether. Another tip: At this time of year, it's a very good idea to fly into your departure city a day early. With flights so crowded, a delay or cancellation due to weather or overbooking might cause you to miss your cruise. There's no guarantee you'll get on the next flight out if there's a problem with yours.

Cabins: The holidays are a perfect time to splurge on a balcony, so you can make the most of your warm-weather escape and have more room in your cabin for presents and decorations. Families should consider family suites that sleep multiple people comfortably or book adjoining cabins. Large groups might want to book the head of the clan in a large suite that can be a central gathering point and location for private holiday parties. But book early: The best cabins — particularly family suites and anything with a balcony — may be booked way in advance by true holiday cruise aficionados who celebrate this way every year.

Itineraries: Think about whether you'd like to spend holidays in port or at sea. Ships on a regular weekly schedule are likely to maintain their normal itineraries, so you may end up in a port on Christmas Day where everything's closed but the cathedral and the beach. On the other hand, cruise lines with vessels that sail varying itineraries will often try to arrange for ships to spend big religious holidays at sea. If you want to be at sea on Christmas and/or New Year's, take that into consideration when choosing a trip. Also, think about your preferred balance of sea days and ports days. Cruises that last longer than seven days incorporate a lot of at-sea time into their itineraries, while certain lines (Windstar and Oceania, to name two) focus on port-intensive itineraries.

Ships: Entertain the big-ship-versus-mid (or small)-ship debate. Larger ships — with space for huge playrooms, swimming pools with slides and video arcades — are a great choice for families with school-age kids. However, these ships can sometimes seem overrun with youngsters during holiday sailings and are not always ideal for quiet, adults-only getaways. Mid-size ships are more conducive to parents with young children who want to socialize with other adults or multi-generational groups looking to make everyone happy. Small luxury ships tend to have fewer kids and a more mature clientele. If you're taking kids of any age, be sure to look into the youth program before you sign up. While most mainstream and premium ships have youth facilities, some offer more creative and large-scale programming than others. Babysitting options vary by line, and options for very young, still-in-diapers tots may be limited.

Pre-trip planning
Packing for a holiday cruise can be a little different from a regular cruise. You'll want to bring special holiday outfits for Christmas and New Year's Eve. In addition to your tuxes and party dresses, you might consider accessories like Santa hats, reindeer antler headbands, party hats, colorful beads or other festive items you might want to wear.

For Christmas or Hanukkah, consider decorating your cabin to get in the holiday spirit. Creative cruisers have been known to decorate cabin doors with wreaths, holiday cards and photos. To spruce up your cabin's interior, pack a small artificial tree (disassemble it for easy packing), electric menorah (you can't light candles in your cabin), strings of lights, inflatable decorations and stockings. If you're bringing Christmas or Hanukkah presents, leave them unwrapped if you're flying to the homeport, and pack some scissors (in checked luggage, please), tape and wrapping paper to doll them up once onboard. (For great gift ideas for cruise lovers, visit Cruise Critic's Holiday Gift Guide.

For New Year's, you might want to bring your favorite bottle of Champagne or sparkling wine onboard. Just check your cruise line's alcohol policy to make sure ship's security won't take your beverage from you when you try to board.

Families and large groups might want to get into the spirit by printing up matching T-shirts or hats to wear onboard.

Taking a cruise during the holidays by no means requires you to forego the celebration. In fact, cruise lines go all out for the holidays. The ships' restaurants will offer holiday menus with seasonal favorites: turkey with cranberry sauce for Thanksgiving, potato pancakes and jelly donuts for Hanukkah, roast turkey or ham on Christmas (with eggnog to drink) and midnight buffets for New Year's Eve. The ships are decked out with seasonal decorations — autumn leaves, pumpkins, trees, menorahs and wreaths.

For adults, there are holiday parties in the ships' lounges, special holiday drinks and religious services led by priests, rabbis or ministers. For the kids, count on visits from Santa, holiday snacks, craft-making and storytelling. Passengers of all ages can enjoy special performances by the ships' entertainment staff and special guests, caroling, tree- and menorah-lighting ceremonies and seasonal movies shown on in-room TV's and onboard movie screens.

For more details on the onboard offerings of specific lines, see our pieces on onboard festivities.

In port
In some regions, particularly the Caribbean, the holiday week is a time of islandwide celebrations that can make a trip memorable — and give you a hint of real island life (as opposed to the limited views one normally gets from one day in port). Take a look, for instance, at St. Kitts, where the island's national carnival runs from December 15 through January 2; activities vary, but expect parades, revelry and folkloric performances.

However, other destinations pretty much shut down on Christmas, with stores and attractions closed to visitors. Grand Cayman is so dead on Christmas that no ships are calling at that port that day. Also, beware of Boxing Day (December 26). Many Caribbean islands with British roots, such as Antigua, Barbados, Grand Cayman and St. Kitts, celebrate this December 26 holiday, and generally shops and sites are as closed up, as on Christmas. One exception: On Nevis, Boxing Day is a huge horse racing day at its Newcastle Racetrack.

In general, island retailers have gotten savvy to the fact that cruise ship visitors mean big business, and cruise lines know which islands to avoid on holidays. Carnival, for one, tells us that all the islands it visits during the holiday season keep stores open and excursions running so as not to lose out on those tourist dollars. But, before you set your heart on eating at a specific local restaurant or taking a particular tour, check to make sure they're operating on the day you're in port.


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