By a Goldilocks-like process of elimination—this one's too small, this one's too loud—you can find a stateroom that's just right.
On paper, choosing a cruise cabin seems pretty simple. There are four basic styles: insides (no window), outsides (with window), balcony, and suite.
But booking a stateroom is not a snap. Even though there are just four room styles, cruise lines divvy them into as many as 20 price categories. A cabin's location, size, and amenities determine the price, which generally increases the higher, bigger, and more deluxe you go. The trick is figuring out what's worth paying extra for, and that depends on your priorities. If you don't plan to spend much time in your cabin, feel free to book the cheapest price you can find. But if you think of your stateroom as a retreat, proceed carefully and avoid these not-so-ideal scenarios.
A CABIN THAT'S TOO SMALL
Cruise cabins are designed for maximum efficiency, so they're generally more than adequate as long as you're neat and you haven't overpacked. Some cabins, however, are just plain miniscule. Rooms on older vessels can be as little as 100 square feet, particularly for inside cabins. If this is your home for a week, you might feel like an inmate in a cell. When looking at cabin measurements, note that cruise lines often include the veranda in the overall square footage. A balcony cabin on Celebrity Summit, for example, may look about average size at 208 square feet, but that factors in 38 square feet of veranda. The cabin itself measures just 170 square feet. So the advice is: Think hard before booking a cabin that's extraordinarily small—say, one that's less than 150 square feet, not including the veranda.
What to ask a travel agent: What's the square footage of the cabin? Does that figure include a veranda?
A CABIN THAT'S TOO LOUD
A ship's deck plans, available at each cruise line's website, are easily readable, like this one for the Carnival Ecstasy. It's important to check what's below, above, and around the corner from the cabin you're considering. Avoid anything right under the lido buffet, as meals are served nearly around-the-clock. Unless you plan to close the ship's late-night disco, don't book a stateroom nearby. If your cabin is just below the pool deck, your morning wakeup call could be the scraping sound of chaise lounges being dragged into position. Cabins on lower decks are cheaper largely because guests have to put up with the hum of propellers. The best bet is to choose a cabin that has staterooms above and below it—and then cross your fingers that the neighbors in every direction aren't rowdy night owls.
What to ask a travel agent: How noisy will the cabin be? Are there restaurants, discos, pools, or public areas nearby that'll keep me up at night?
A CABIN WITH A LESS-THAN-STELLAR VIEW
Every outside cabin pretty much looks out on a similar sea-and-sky vista, but there are some notable differences. Most are located either port or starboard, so you're always looking sideways. A front-facing stateroom lets you see where you're heading, but also takes the brunt of wind and rough seas—the big reason why these cabins rarely come with balconies. Backward-facing cabins boast the best views. There's something incredibly Zen-like about gazing at the wake and the panorama behind the ship. Backward-facing cabins are hard to come by because most cruise lines devote that part of the ship to public spaces. Holland America Line, Royal Caribbean, and Celebrity Cruises are among the lines that regularly have backward-facing cabins.
What to ask a travel agent: What's the view like? Can I get a better view for the same money?
A CABIN THAT FEELS LIKE GRAND CENTRAL STATION
Many passengers prefer centrally-located cabins because they're close to stairways, elevators, pools, and buffets. Still, there's such a thing as too central a location. Stateroom doors are absurdly flimsy, so you'll hear pretty much everything going on outside. There is no truly quiet corner of a cruise ship. But it's smart to avoid lower deck cabins that are close to the ship's atriums—the extravagantly designed openings, often several stories high, attract a lot of foot traffic. In a cabin around the corner from an atrium, you'll hear the hordes milling or power walking past your door from dawn to dusk.
What to ask a travel agent: How close is the cabin to the ship's atriums? Is the cabin on the main walking path for people disembarking or reboarding the ship?
A CABIN THAT'LL MAKE YOU SICK
Newer ships have all sorts of nifty stabilizers that try to tame the sea and give passengers a smoother ride. Most people feel fine, even during mildly rough seas. But if you are unusually sensitive to movement, you may want to forego the higher decks. The higher you go, the more likely you'll get not only back and forth (or side to side) rocking, but will also feel an unsettling swaying effect. Stick to the center, the most stable part of the ship, and by all means avoid any stateroom within a dozen cabins of the front.
What to ask a travel agent: I'm worried about getting sick if the seas get rocky. Can you book me in a cabin in the most stable location?
Carolyn Spencer Brown is the editor in chief of CruiseCritic.com.