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Choosing a cabin

Choosing a stateroom can be fun and challenging at the same time, and not just a little bit frustrating on occasion. Before booking your stateroom, ask yourselves these questions ...
A chamber maid prepares a cabin aboard t
When you cruise, do you use your cabin just as a place to crash, or is your room there to get away from the crowds? There are a number of questions to ask yourself before booking your cabin.Afp/getty Images / AFP/Getty Images
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Choosing a stateroom can be fun and challenging at the same time, and not just a little bit frustrating on occasion. Before booking your stateroom, ask yourselves these questions:

  • Do you tend to get seasick?
  • Do you prefer to nest peaceably on your balcony rather than hangin' with the crowd around the pool area?
  • Conversely, is your idea of a stateroom simply a place to flop into bed at 1 a.m. — no fancy notions necessary?
  • And do you, like me, tend to go just a little bit crazy if all of your cabin furnishings face aft when you know you're moving forward?

Despite the fact that some cruise lines present as many as 20 or more "categories" per ship, it's helpful to remember that there are essentially only four types of cabin on any cruise vessel:

  • Inside: no window, in an inside corridor
  • Outside: window or porthole with a view to outside
  • Balcony: a verandah allows you to step outside without going up to a public deck
  • Suite: mini, junior, superior, deluxe, grand, owner's, penthouse, garden or villa

It's the permutations (size, location, amenities and price, for example) of the four basic cabin types that can make choosing difficult, so we are providing a guide to help you make the selection that is best for you. Note: Staterooms designed for physically challenged guests can fall into any of the above categories and will not be separated out.

Location, location, location
The "real estate" that your stateroom occupies, no matter the type, can either make you seasick or keep you up all night with noise — or it can lull you like a baby and provide exquisite views of your surroundings. That's why doing your homework is important.

Stability: If you tend to get seasick, cabin location is really important. It's a question of engineering, really: The lower and more central you are in a ship, the less roll and sway you will feel. Even if you choose a balconied stateroom, choose the lowest level and the most midship one you can find.

Noise: For some reason, most cruise lines assign their highest level of cabins to the highest decks, usually just below the Lido Deck (most likely because if you have a window or balcony, you have a more sweeping vista). Still, it's the Lido Deck that often causes the most noise problems, so if you don't want to hear scraping chairs at the crack of dawn or yee-hawing pool parties until the wee hours, go down a level. In fact, when it comes to noise, the best bet is to select a cabin that is both above and below other cabins. Other pitfalls? Service areas adjacent to or above your stateroom; show lounges or bars adjacent to, above or below your stateroom; and those that are either low and aft (because of their proximity to engine noise, vibration and anchor), or low and forward (bow thrusters).

For your viewing pleasure: When aft balconied staterooms first became available in the late 1990's, they were disdained by most for at least a year. And then, with the help of Cruise Critic's member boards and other communications outlets, cruisers discussed their experiences, and the aft balconied cabins became the most prized standard balconied cabins afloat. Why? Because they can make you feel as though you are at the end of the world, offering 180-degree views over the stern's wake. And, the balconies are almost always at least 50 percent bigger than standard balconies located along the sides of the ship. There are three drawbacks to this location, none of which serve to deter those who love these cabins. They are at the very back and therefore are far away from a lot of activities. Also, they are usually uncovered or only partially covered. Finally, they are almost always "stepped out," allowing not only those in cabins above yours to see down into your balcony, but those looking over the rail from the Lido and other public decks at the aft as well.

Some standard rooms and many suites are located at the aft "corners" of a ship, with a balcony that curves up the side. Take one of those, and you can see where you're going and where you've been at the same time!

Front-facing balconied cabins are almost always suites.

There are some passengers who love, and swear by, cabins located on the promenade deck, but the design has changed in most recently-built ships and outside promenades are usually located on activity decks now. Still, Holland America's Statendam-class ships, or NCL's Norwegian Wind and Dream, have outside cabins that face the promenade deck and offer the advantage of easy access to fresh air without paying for a balcony.

Holland America, in particular, has maximized this for their guests — there are doors to the outside located every few feet. The two biggest drawbacks of promenade-deck staterooms are that they tend to be dark because of the wide overhang above the deck, and anyone can see into them when the lights are on. Close those drapes!

Other viewing pitfalls include balconied cabins under the Lido overhang, which limits visibility; cabins above or adjacent to the lifeboats; and forward balconied cabins located close to the bridge wing.

If the amount of view you get relative to the amount of money you spend is important to you, look for "secret porthole" insides, or "obstructed view" outsides. The secret porthole cabins are those sold as inside cabins that actually have windows with obstructed views and the obstructed (or fully obstructed) cabins are sold as outsides but often at the price of an inside. And look into the interior-view cabins, like the atrium views that look out onto the interior promenades on Royal Caribbean's Voyager-class ships. These are typically sold at a price that falls somewhere between the insides and outsides.

Finally, take a good look at your cruise itinerary before selecting your cabin, specifically if you are choosing an outside or balcony. On a roundtrip Caribbean cruise or a trans-Atlantic crossing, for example, the side of the ship you are on doesn't really matter. If, on the other hand, you are doing a southbound Alaska cruise, or a trip from Barcelona to Rome, you might want to consider choosing a cabin on the side of the ship that faces the land. Sometimes the views can be breathtaking and you won't get those views from the cabins that face out to the open sea.

Size Does Matter
In this age of megaships, those with tons of raucous activities and non-stop entertainment, cabin size does matter for most. Newer cruise ships are expanding the size of even their most basic cabins to give cruise guests the opportunity to "get away from it all," to cocoon in peace and quiet before returning to the fray.

If you absolutely need the most expansive space available, for just under $30,000 per week you can take advantage of Norwegian Cruise Line's Garden Villa suites. These feature private saunas and hot tubs, a kitchen and butlers, and a private elevator entrance.

Don't need to go that far but still want a suite? There are plenty of suite categories available but some of them, especially on older ships, are neither significantly bigger nor considerably more elegant than standard cabins are on newer ships.

At the same time, some ships' standard cabins are more elegant and spacious than some ships' suites: Disney Magic and Disney Wonder, for example, have standard staterooms that would be considered suites or mini-suites on most ships. Silversea, Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Seabourn ships feature all-suite accommodation.

When it comes to choosing suite accommodations, it's best to figure out how much space you really need, what amenities are important to you and what you can afford to spend. Suites on most ships are the first category to sell out, partly because there are fewer of them, and partly because they often offer extremely good value. For this reason, it's important to decide early what kind of suite you'd like.

Amenities: Do you have to have a whirlpool bathtub? Is a butler or concierge an absolute necessity? Will you be entertaining, and thus in need of a dining table that can seat six or eight? You can find those amenities and more in most of the upper-level suites, but if what you need is just a bit more space and an expanded verandah for stretching out, you might consider a junior or mini-suite, often one larger room with a drape or curtain separating the seating area from the bed.

Family: Most of the newer ships, and especially those that cater to families, have standard staterooms that comfortably sleep four, and some that sleep five. Since cruising has become a popular family vacation, more and more new ships have built "family accommodations" into the actual design. These are often suites with a separate room for the kids, sometimes a small alcove with bunk beds, sometimes an entire adjoining cabin. Again, choosing the one that's right for your needs depends on the size of your family, the amount you want to spend and the ship you are choosing for your vacation.

Getting Butled: Having a butler can be a wonderfully pampering experience, and some cruise lines include the butler service as part of your fare when you select a suite or "concierge level" cabin. But, look carefully at the difference in the cruise fare and decide if it's really worth it. Beyond that look at the services that are offered — some cruise line butlers really do provide extra value. For instance, on Crystal, ours was able to bring us room service from hard-to-get-in alternative restaurants, refill our mini-bar to personal specifications and serve in-cabin meals course by course.

Three questions that generally come up in this arena are:

  • What's a guarantee?
  • How do I get upgraded?
  • Should I pay early or late for the best savings?

Selecting your cruise and paying for it early guarantees that you will be on the cruise you want and in the cabin or cabin type that you want. There are instances in which part of your paid fare can be reimbursed if the prices for cabins in your category go down, but it requires some research and contact with either the travel agent you used to book your cruise or the cruise line itself. The best rule of thumb is that if you find an itinerary you like on a ship you like at a time that you can travel, get the cabin you desire and go for it. If the price goes down and you get a rebate, consider it a huge bonus.

Guarantee: A "guarantee" cabin selection is one in which you pay for the cabin category you are willing to take but you allow the cruise line to select the cabin for you. You are guaranteed to get accommodated in at least he category you have selected; you will never get a lower category. But, by choosing a guarantee you have an excellent chance of being upgraded to a slightly higher category, usually within the same cabin type (inside to inside, outside to outside, verandah to verandah etc.). Beyond that, while it does happen, it's rare to be upgraded to a higher cabin type. Trust me: Taking the lowest category inside on a guarantee will not result in your being given a deluxe verandah suite. It just won't happen. But ... you might get very lucky and end up with an outside cabin and a lovely big window.

On the other hand, you might not only end up in the category you paid for, you might get a cabin in a location that you just never would have chosen for yourself; at that point, you can't complain about it, either.

Look at it this way: A guarantee category cabin is for gamblers. If you're feeling lucky and you know what the downside might be, and you can accept that, a guarantee can be a really good deal. If, on the other hand, you'd be miserable getting that cabin all the way at the very front of the ship at the lowest level, or that inside that just happens to be next to the crew quarters or the engine room, you'd be better off just choosing your cabin at the outset.

Upgrades: From time to time, a cruise line has a ship in which a certain category of cabin has sold out or is in an "oversell" situation, meaning that more cabins have been sold in that category than actually exist. The cruise line can hardly downgrade someone who has paid for their cruise, so they select certain passengers — at random, we have been assured — and upgrade them to whatever has more availability. That's where a guarantee category can be a good deal; as for the random selection, it's just the luck of the draw, or a visit from "the upgrade fairy," that can make certain people very happy indeed.

Now, what about the backward-facing furniture that makes me (and a few others) crazy? On most cruise line's Web sites or in brochure deck plans, you can't tell which way your furniture faces. And that brings us to the best way to learn about specific cabins or categories: Cruise Critic's community boards, where you can get information just by reading the posts about the ship you are considering and where you can even ask questions about a specific cabin number. If you can't find your answer anywhere else, you'll be sure to find it here.

Jana Jones is based in San Diego, and is the creator and editor of lodging Web site , as well as one of Cruise Critic's stalwart ship reviewers.