How to Choose the Perfect Cruise

By Fran Golden
October 3, 2012
(Courtesy of Carnival Cruise Lines

When it comes to cruising, Aunt Mavis has been bragging about how many Caribbean cruises she's taken and what great deals she gets. Charlie down the street just got back from cruising in Alaska and says it was his best family vacation ever. The ads on TV sure make cruising sound like a blissfully carefree travel experience.

Whatever your reason for thinking about a cruise vacation, picking the right ship and the right destination are both key to your having a good experience.

There are a lot of ships to choose from – the smallest with under 100 passengers, the largest with more than 6,000 passengers. And these ships cruise to destinations literally around the world.

But before you even start your planning, there are questions to be asked:

Are you looking for a ship where adults and kids – including grumpy teens – will be entertained?

Are you seeking a low-key, romantic cruise experience?

Do you need a ship that can accommodate wheelchairs or limited mobility?

Are you looking for a shipboard singles scene?

Are there ships better suited for multi-generational family reunions than others?

Are you looking to relax in the sun or are you looking to see the world?

The good news is there really is a cruise ship and itinerary to suit nearly every taste – the possible exception being one for people who shun anything to do with group travel.

If you've never cruised before – and even if you have – you will no doubt have tons of questions in the areas of finding bargains and making a booking, cabin choice, ports of call, shipboard activities and food, among others.

In an upcoming issue, we will look at all things cruise. But first we want to hear your cruising questions, tips and experiences.

You comments may appear in an upcoming Trip Coach column.

(In addition to being Budget Travel's Trip Coach, Fran Golden is author of the upcoming eBook, Frommer's How to Plan the Perfect Cruise.)

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10 Common Cruise Myths Debunked

6 Best River Cruise Lines

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How'd You Like to Board a Cruise with a Homicidal Maniac?

As far as ideas go, there have probably been better ones than a cruise with a slasher-movie theme. Especially in light of real-life cruise horrors like the Costa Concordia fiasco that occurred in January off the coast of Italy, it might seem odd for a cruise operator to actively try to freak out its passengers. But that's the premise behind "SAW at Sea," a special cruise itinerary traveling round trip from New York to Canada on the Carnival Glory. The "SAW" refers to the franchise of twisted horror flicks featuring the "Jigsaw Killer," a maniac who physically and psychologically tortures victims before killing them. If this sort of thing sounds fun, then "SAW at Sea" may be for you. The sailing takes place this summer from August 11 to 16, with prices from $779 per person (taxes and fees additional). The package includes lodging and meals like any cruise, as well as special dances and pool parties with a handful of actors and actresses who have starred in one or more of the films. There is also a "SAW" trivia contest, as well as a competition to see who has the best "SAW"-themed tattoo. Another horror movie star, Dan Yeager, who plays "Leatherface" in the forthcoming 3D remake of "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" will also be on board and available for autographs and pictures at various events. Perhaps he'll grab his chainsaw and man a carving station at one of the ship's restaurants. At least this isn't a "Titanic" themed cruise, right? Speaking of which, just such a cruise is in the works. Actually, it's an entire ship rather than a single trip: It's recently been reported that Australian billionaire Clive Palmer is having a replica of the original "Titanic" built at a Chinese shipyard. The first sailing is expected to repeat the original (and only) voyage from England to New York in 2016. MORE FROM BUDGET TRAVEL: Have the Titanic Celebrations Gone Too Far? Chernobyl Officially Opens for Tours 12 Top Tips from the World's Best Cruisers


How is Disney Cruise Line Catering to Budget Travelers?

Onboard the brand new Disney Fantasy right before the ship headed off on its inaugural Caribbean cruise from Port Canaveral (near Orlando) last week, Budget Travel sat down with Tom Staggs, chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. Among the topics: How is Disney Cruise Line catering to budget travelers? "We keep a very close eye on the value equation for our guests and we want to make sure we're always delivering value. That will be what we're focusing on most," Staggs said. "That said, with a great variety of itineraries and cruise lengths and ports, etc., we make ourselves more approachable for people with respect to the demographic curve and economic curve and we like to provide better accessibility." Disney Fantasy, with new features including a high tech adventure game themed on The Muppets, is commanding premium prices. But that doesn't mean there aren't savings on other vessels in the four-ship fleet. Take the new sailings launching on the Disney Magic out of New York in June and Galveston in September. "If you cruise out of New York, there's a group of people who suddenly don't have to worry about air travel. Cruising out of Galveston beginning in September, that means it's accessible for a big chunk of the Texas market," Staggs said. The New York cruises alternate Canada/New England and Bahamas itineraries. The best deal: 8-night Bahamas, from $4,924 for a family of four, including One-day Park Hopper Tickets (valued at $105 each) for Walt Disney World Resort. In addition to Port Canaveral, the itinerary includes Nassau and Castaway Cay, Disney's highly rated private island. Weeklong western Caribbean cruises from Galveston are from $3,004 for a family of four, the cruises visiting Grand Cayman and Costa Maya and Cozumel, Mexico. On another topic, Staggs said plans are progressing for an Avatar attraction at Walt Disney World Resort. "Avatar will happen at Animal Kingdom. It will be some time after 2015," Staggs said. "It's actually going well. The development is going well." He said the company is also on target to begin construction of the new Disney theme park in Shanghai this summer. MORE IN BUDGET TRAVEL: How to Get a Free Upgrade Disney Cruise Line Expands into NYC Viator's New Website Offers Cheaper Shore Excursions Than Cruise Lines Offer


A Sailable Feast: What's New in Cruise Food

Come on, be honest: The all-you-can-eat buffets and huge selection of on-board restaurants and cafes are among the top reasons to head to sea. A survey published last summer revealed a nugget of info that probably comes as no surprise to seasoned travelers: Cruise passengers like to eat. Nearly three-quarters of travel agents said that their clients look for added choices of unusual and special restaurants when selecting a cruise. It seems as if cruisers' appetite for more and more on-board food options is endless. Here are three new developments that they may find tempting: On the "Waterfront" One of the most exciting features on Norwegian's new ship, the Breakaway, is simply called the Waterfront. It's an open-air boardwalk similar to what one might expect at a seaside resort town, lined with shops, restaurants, and bars that are perfect for al fresco dining, as well as just browsing and strolling. The options at the Waterfront will include a steakhouse, cocktail bar, spots for seafood and Italian cuisine, a gelato station, and a Brazilian-style churrascaria. Speaking of which... More Meat, Please! When Norwegian introduced the Epic in 2010, it was the first ship to offer an authentic churrascaria, a Brazilian-style restaurant in which passadors walk from table to table serving generous slices of beef, lamb, pork, chicken and sausage. The Moderno Churrascaria restaurant concept has since been added to a few other Norwegian ships, and last month the cruise line announced that it would be rolled out fleetwide this year. The experience is a "specialty restaurant," and an added cover charge of $20 per person is required. Southern Cruise, Southern Cuisine When revamped steamboats start cruising the Mississippi this spring, they'll take to the river with an appropriately local take on food. The Great American Steamboat Company has tapped Regina Charboneau, a Southern chef and cookbook author who runs Twin Oaks Plantation B&B; in Natchez, Mississippi, to be in charge of the food on board. CruiseCritic reports: As much as possible, the line will be sourcing local ingredients -- like farm-raised poultry, sustainable seafood, pecans and produce -- from the ports on American Queen's route. A jazz brunch, offered once per cruise, will showcase baked goods, salads, roasted meats (Andouille-stuffed pork loin? Yes, please) and savory dishes like grits in a smoked tomato cream sauce, one of the decadent entrees we sampled. You also won't want to miss Charboneau's special captain's dinner. The Mark Twain-themed meal features a menu of delicacies believed to be the Missouri-raised author and food lover's favorites, including a "mock" turtle soup (don't worry, it's beef). MORE FROM BUDGET TRAVEL: River Cruises Return to the Mississippi 6 Best River Cruise Lines 12 Top Tips from the World's Best Cruisers


River Cruises Return to the Mississippi

This year, river cruising returns to the Mississippi River in a big way. Since 2008, river cruises on the Miss have been nearly non-existent. But recently three companies have brought the concept back to life, launching new and refurbished ships on a broad array of Southern and Midwest routes. In April, an American Queen paddleboat will resume service, carrying up to 436 passengers. In more good news, its owner The Great American Steamboat Company, announced this week that construction has started on a 150-passenger paddlewheel ship. One sample deal is a 6-night voyage May roundtrip from New Orleans, plus 1 hotel night, from $1,695 per guest. In August, American Cruise Lines' new 150-passenger Queen of the Mississippi will introduce a range of cruises, with a few lasting up to 14 days and sailing up to St. Paul, Minn., or Pittsburgh (via the Ohio River), and typically starting in Memphis. It’s been 15 years since the last new ship came into service on the Mississippi. Give credit where credit is due: This trend in Mississippi cruising was kickstarted last year by Blount Small Ship Adventures, which ran three departures on the 96-passenger Grand Caribe. This year, the company is back, offering double the number of cruises over last year. One current offer is for a twelve-day cruise from New Orleans to Nashville, from $3,699 per couple. SEE MORE FROM BUDGET TRAVEL 6 Best River Cruise Lines Secrets to the 10 Most Popular Cruise Ports Ask Trip Coach: River Cruises