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Tips for a first-time cruiser

Though cruising might seem like a "dummy-proof" activity, there are ways to make your vacation at sea more fulfilling and more affordable
The Queen Mary II Concludes Trans-Atlantic Cruise In Florida
Test the waters: Experts advise first-timers to book shorter cruisesTom Ervin / Getty Images / Getty Images North America
/ Source: Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel

It's been a record year for the cruise industry. According to the Cruise Line International Association (CLIA), the number of passengers will exceed the 10 million mark for the first time, with 10.5 million expected to take a vacation at sea.

Interestingly enough, a full 50 percent of those will be first-time cruisers. Which means many of the folks on board may be making those first-timer mistakes (like booking the early dinner seating, and having to rush back on board after excursions). If you're thinking of taking your first cruise this year, there are some key strategies to follow when planning a cruise vacation that can save you big bucks. While your major expense is the cruise fare, which covers accommodations, meals and entertainment, keep in mind that there are other “hidden” costs, such as shore excursions, drinks, shopping, “specialty meals” and tipping that can add substantially to the overall price of a vacation at sea. Being aware in advance of these additional charges allows you to budget accordingly and minimize these onboard expenses.

Book Early or Late

You generally get the best deals by booking either well in advance of your sailing date or at the last minute. Reserving space three to six months prior to departure provides “early-bird” savings of 15 to 50 percent and also locks in the cabin category of your choice (inside, outside, outside with veranda, suite, etc.) Those who would rather not commit until the last minute will find that “good things often come to those who wait,” as even better discounts are often available within a week or two of sailing date on a ship’s unsold cabins. However, there can be complications with last-minute bookings; if you need to fly to the port, it may be difficult to get an inexpensive flight because many reduced airfares require a 21-day advance purchase; also you will probably not get the cabin category of your choice and have to settle for whatever is available.

Seek Out a Cruise Specialist

Whether reserving space sooner or later, it's highly advisable to work with a travel agent that specializes in cruises rather than making reservations over the internet or dealing with a general travel agency. While many websites provide information on individual cruise lines and ships and also offer bargain rates, booking a cruise online is not a simple procedure—there are many factors concerning a specific cruise ship that require expert advice; for example, distinguishing between cabin categories, determining which cabins are adjacent to noisy areas of the ship, reserving dining room seating, requesting a special diet, etc.

With thousands of cabins to fill week after week, there are deals and discounts available on a variety of sailings throughout the year and a savvy, successful agent is the best source of information on the hottest available deals. An experienced cruise specialist who sells a large volume of cruises will often be rewarded by the cruise lines with access to special discounts on ships of major lines such as Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Princess.

Drive Rather Than Fly

The trend toward “homeland cruising” has dramatically increased since 9/11  as many travelers have done their darndest to avoid airports at all costs. Driving to the port is also a real money-saver as it eliminates the $200 to $700 airfares that are otherwise required to get to the port. Major cruise lines have responded by repositioning many ships in their fleets within driving distance of most regions of the U.S. Nowadays there are more cruises than ever before departing from “close-to home” ports such as Boston, New York, Bayonne (New Jersey), Philadelphia, Baltimore, Charleston, Jacksonville, Tampa, New Orleans, Mobile, Galveston, Los Angeles, Long Beach, San Francisco and Seattle.

Try a quickie cruise first

When it comes to choosing an itinerary, first-time cruisers should consider booking a short cruise of three, four or five days to “test the waters” and get the feel of the cruise experience. While many love the cruise experience, others find it a bit too confining and pre-fab. So take a weekend quickie to see whether this is the type of vacation for you. There is a good selection of ships sailing on short cruises to various destinations in the Caribbean, as well as along the Mexican Riviera and to New England/Canada.

"Cruise together, save together"

Contrary to popular belief, the typical cruiser is no longer “newly wed or almost dead” as baby boomers now make up the heart of the market with 34 percent of annual cruisers in the 35 to 54 age bracket. Family cruising is also on the rise. Last year, 16 percent of cruisers brought along children under age 18, and more than a 1.2 million children are expected to cruise this year.

This has led to a large increase in family cruising that encompasses not only parents with children but multi-generational and extended families with grandparents, parents, children, aunts, uncles and cousins, as well as groups of families and friends cruising together. Most cruise lines offer a discounted rate for families and other groups made up of a minimum of 16 people; besides the group discount, the 16th cruise ticket is complimentary. Groups may also qualify for other special freebies such as a cocktail party and other additional onboard amenities.

Families with up to three kids are eligible for a discount if they share the same cabin. Cruise lines including Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Disney, and Norwegian Cruise Line have “family friendly” rates with the third, fourth and fifth passengers getting 50 percent or more off the standard adult fare. While it may be a bit crowded at times, the savings more than compensates for the lack of elbow room (another tip: toddlers under the age of three generally cruise free).

The best equipped vessels for accommodating families are the large mega-ships built during the 1990's that come with elaborate children’s facilities from playrooms and video arcades to computer rooms and teen discos keep kids of all ages entertained while the adults get to spend some quality R & R together. Disney Cruise Line has the most extensive children’s facilities aboard its two ships, Disney Magic and Disney Wonder, with almost an entire deck (15,000 square feet) devoted to kids, with a combination of playrooms and a computer area plus a children’s pool area, teen club and a special family lounge.

Beware of added charges

While cruise lines tout their “all-inclusive pricing,” experienced cruisers are aware that there are many opportunities to spend money while at sea that are not covered by the cruise fare. Known as “onboard revenue,” these additional expenses encompass everything from casinos(slot machines beg to be fed) to alcoholic beverages to photos snapped by the ship’s ubiquitous photographers. Other temptations that tug at your wallet include onboard shopping(many ships resemble floating shopping malls) along with surcharges of up to $20 per person for dining at a specialty restaurants. So be sure to “travel smart” by budgeting in advance approximately how much you want to spend once the cruise gets underway as incidental expenses can accumulate quickly and add up to a hefty bill slipped under your door at the end of the cruise. If you must buy something, wait until the final day of the cruise—most of the stores will throw a sale then. 

From ship to shore—saving on excursions

Perhaps the largest additional cost are escorted shore excursions offered in every port of call ranging in price from $25 per person for a tour by motor coach to as much as $300 for helicopter flight-seeing. Tours run the gamut from traditional sightseeing tours to more active pursuits such as hiking, biking, kayaking, and snorkeling. While some tours are truly exceptional and enhance the overall cruise experience, others are impersonal, time-consuming and not worth the price. Passengers seeking to conserve funds can explore on their own and/or arrange their own excursion; those who prefer this approach should find out what sites are within walking distance of the ship as well as the cost of hiring a cab, taking a local bus or renting a car. For two couples or a family of four it is typically less expensive to hire a cab or rent a car for a day than for each person to join an organized excursion.

Also there is no requirement to leave the ship when in port. Some passengers prefer to relax on board and lounge by the pool as the ship is much less crowded after most people have gone ashore. Shore excursions make the most sense when few attractions are within walking distance and local means of transportation are scarce.

To find a reputable travel agent specializing in cruises contact CLIA at which lists agencies staffed with Master Cruise Counselors (MCC) and Elite Cruise Counselors (ECC). Another good source for cruise expertise is the Institute of Certified Travel Agents at and the American Society of Travel Agents ensures that the agency is monitored for ethical practices.