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Pick the right cruise cabin

You're thumbing through the cruise brochure and you see about 25 different cabin categories. Heck, they all look the same to you. Alas, not all cabins are created equal. Before you sink your hard-earned cash into a closet with a porthole, learn how to be a smart cabin cruiser.
Royal Caribbean
/ Source: Tripso.com

In the old days of cruising, you didn’t ask much of your cabin. A bed, a head, and a porthole would do. After all, you didn’t expect to spend much time in it — not unless you were seasick. But cruising has changed. Today’s cruise ships are floating resorts, and the cabins aspire to be holiday havens. Some succeed and some don’t, so it pays to give a little thought to your cabin selection. Here are some tips from lessons learned the hard way.

CABIN CATEGORIES

Just the facts. There are four basic types of cruise cabins: inside cabins, outside cabins, balcony cabins, and suites. Inside cabins are located on inside corridors and so have no window. Outside cabins are located on the outside wall of the ship and have a window. Balcony cabins, also called veranda cabins, are outside cabins with a private deck. Suites are larger outside cabins with bigger private decks, separate bedroom(s), and a sitting area. Some suites have two or more bathrooms and perhaps some exclusive services, like your own personal butler.

CABIN AMENITIES

Just the facts. The average hotel room in the United States measures 300 square feet; in contrast, the average cruise cabin measures about 175 square feet. It’s what you get for that space that’s important. For the most part, standard cruise cabins are sensibly decorated and offer comfortable beds, reading lamps, ample storage space, bathrooms that have either a shower (but no tub) or a small tub with shower, and individual climate control. In addition, most cruise cabins come with a television, telephone, hair dryer, personal safe and a writing area with a desk and chair.

On premium and luxury cruise lines, standard cabins may offer more impressive amenities like high thread-count sheets, pillow-top mattresses, down duvets, larger bathrooms (with tubs), mini-refrigerators, flat-panel TVs, VCRs, DVD players, Internet access, and a sitting area with loveseat and chairs.

  • Having trouble picturing how your cabin will look? Check out CruiseStateroom.com, which offers panoramic 360-degree video views of all cabin categories for most cruise lines. This is one of the best cruise cabin resources on the Web.

SLEEPING AROUND

Just the facts. Most cabins accommodate two passengers, but you can also get triples and quads. Even larger cabins are available on some ships catering to families and small groups. Disney Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean Cruise Line, MSC Cruises and Princess Cruises all offer cabins and suites that can accommodate six to eight people.

Not all cruise beds are the same. In fact, the size and arrangement of beds (also called “berths”) varies widely. Most cabins on newer ships have two twin beds that can be “converted” (i.e., moved together) to make a king. But not all. You might get a queen, or two twins that can’t be moved, or one twin on the floor and one fold-down Pullman. Third and fourth beds in a cabin are usually convertible-sofa beds or upper Pullmans, which you reach by ladder (a restraining bar keeps you from falling out). During the day, Pullman beds can be folded up against the wall or into the ceiling to provide more space.

  • Your cabin arrangement can come as an unpleasant surprise. Several years ago, when I was sailing aboard Princess Cruises’s Sun Princess, I ended up with a quad balcony cabin with four Pullman beds. This configuration shocked me — and my travel agent — since we had researched Cabin A640 before booking and understood from the deck plan that the room had two Pullmans (for the kids) and two convertible twins (for the grown-ups). I hated this cabin. The beds were uncomfortable and it wasn’t fun sleeping without the hubby. I was supposed to be on the Love Boat, but I felt trapped in a 1950’s sitcom.

According to Princess spokeswoman Susanne Ferrull, Cabin A640 still has four Pullmans. “Most quad cabins on the Sun Princess (and her sister ship Dawn Princess) do not have this designation,” she says. “But a few do.” Again, it pays to ask.

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION

Just the facts. On most cruise ships, passenger cabins are interspersed among the ship’s restaurants, theaters, casinos, lounges, pools, spa, and other public facilities. Only Silverseas Cruises, a luxury cruise line, offers a separate cabin section. Each of its four ships is designed with the cabins in the forward part of the ship; the lounges, bars and restaurants range from midship aft.

  • Many cabins get noise and vibration from the ship’s engines throughout the voyage, and some get noise when the anchors are lowered. Some people like these “nautical noises,” but if you don’t, you might find it quieter in the middle of the ship.


  • You have more control over human noise, and if everyday hustle and bustle bothers you, you should stay away from the children’s playroom, high-traffic elevators, self-service laundries and crew work stations. Try especially hard to avoid cabins above the disco and below the pool area. New York City resident Cindi Ludaken remembers a long, sleepless night on a Caribbean cruise listening to dozens of passengers on the Lido Deck above her cabin singing karaoke. “There’s nothing worse at two in the morning than a universally bad version of ‘I Will Survive,’” she says.


  • Some cruise lines discount cabins that have noise problems. For example, Carnival Cruise Line offers “Night Owl” cabins aboard the Carnival Destiny. These inside cabins cost $200 less per person than identical cabins down the hall because they get a lot of thump and noise from the disco overhead.


  • One way to avoid cabin trouble is to study your ship’s deck plan. See exactly where your proposed cabin is located in relation to noisy common areas. Check, too, for any unmarked white or gray spaces nearby; these often represent a housekeeping or room-service station that may house noisy carts and ice machines.


  • Even the best-laid plans can go astray. Remember Cabin A640? Not only did it come with the dreaded Pullman beds, it was located directly under the Spa Deck door (door banged constantly) and near the maid’s closets (loud talking and banging ice at 6 a.m.). The only thing you can do in a situation like this is buy some earplugs at the next port.

ASSIGNED CABINS AND “GUARANTEED” CABINS

Just the facts. If you book early, you can often reserve the exact cabin you want to occupy; for example, Cabin A640. That’s an “assigned cabin.”

A “guaranteed booking” is different. A guaranteed booking gets you an unassigned cabin within a specified cabin category, along with a chance of being assigned to a higher cabin category at no additional cost. How does this work? Like airlines, cruise lines overbook. When demand for one cabin category exceeds the supply, cruise lines use their guaranteed bookings to help control cabin inventory.

Which of the guaranteed bookings actually gets upgraded? That depends on the cruise line. Some will upgrade passengers who booked early on. Others upgrade passengers who book through top-selling travel agencies — yet another reason to put your cruise business with a good travel agent.

Choose your cabin carefully and you’ll sleep much better — from the moment you put down your deposit. Bon voyage and sweet dreams!

Anita Dunham-Potter is a Pittsburgh-based travel journalist specializing in cruise travel. Anita's columns have appeared in major newspapers and many Internet outlets, and she is a contributor to Fodor's "Complete Guide to Caribbean Cruises 2006." or visit her Web site .