Now that I’m done with posts on our last cruise, I figured I’d walk through our selection process for choosing one. This is something that has evolved over the past few years as we’ve visited more ports, had more sea days, and really taken a look at what it is we like about cruising. Note that these are all subjective and obviously won’t be the same for everyone. We want to get the best bang for our buck and visit places we’ve never been, so we’re not really loyal to one line. We certainly don’t choose a cruise based on loyalty programs, as we like to get a taste of all lines and experience the different things they have to offer while enjoying our time together. So how do we choose? Going in order of importance:
This always comes first when we start looking. We weed out the vast majority of cruises in the first couple of days based on itinerary alone, and usually end up with 6-8 cruises that we spend the next few days applying other criteria to. While a cruise we select might go to one or two ports we’ve already been to, we’ve never repeated an entire itinerary. That’s not to say we won’t, and we certainly have a couple in mind we’d like to repeat, it’s just that we like to visit new ports whenever possible.
When reviewing itineraries, we also look at the number of sea days. All three of us enjoy those days at sea, as they provide plenty of time to unwind. The best itineraries in our eyes provide a good balance of sea days and ports, as we find having several ports back to back can make things run together and be tiring. Our favorite cruise to date provided an outstanding mix of ports and sea days, and that was our 2011 Thanksgiving cruise on the Carnival Freedom. That itinerary consisted of:
- Leave Ft Lauderdale
- Sea day
- Cozumel, Mexico
- Sea day
- Limon, Costa Rica
- Colon, Panama
- Sea day
- Sea day
- Arrive Ft Lauderdale
Only having two back to back stops was great, and we loved having two sea days on the end to decompress. Having stops in Costa Rica and Panama was outstanding as well, we loved both stops as I hope I properly expressed in my reviews of both ports.
As another part of our itinerary hunt, we generally hit the “ports of call” forums on Cruise Critic to get an idea of what types of activities people do at a given stop, and to get an idea of what the port area is like.
Once we have a few cruises on the list based on itinerary, we start to narrow that down by price. The list usually includes at least 2 or 3 cruise lines, as we don’t cruise for loyalty benefits, so we can usually knock it down further pretty quickly based on price. Now that’s not to say we’re always going with the cheapest cruise, it’s more about combining this with the next item, cabin selection. It just so happens that three of the four previous cruises we’ve done have been on Carnival, and it’s due in large part to what we could get in an itinerary and cabin selection within our budget.
This and price go hand in hand for us. I spend hours pouring over cabin options to try and get us in to the perfect cabin within our budget. I’m definitely not one who’s happy just booking and seeing where we our room is after we board, I do as much research as possible on a cabin before I book. I’ll go into more detail on cabin selection in a different post, but when we’re booking, I’ll be looking to get the best cabin I can within our price range, so if we decide we want to be in a particular section of the ship, like the upper few decks forward, for example, I narrow our list down further based on available cabins and pricing in that section of the ship. Honestly, this part has been a major factor in two of our past three Thanksgiving cruises not being on Royal Caribbean, as we’re not as fond of the layout of their upper decks. I’ll be sure to cover that in my cabin selection post as well.
On Board Activities
As part of our enjoyment of sea days, we like to make sure that the ships we’re looking at are active ones. We’ll spend a bunch of time reading through past reviews, as well as different forums for each line, to see what people have to say about the activities on board. I’ll admit that we did give this one less importance in booking the Summit to Bermuda, as our cruise line choices based on the dates we had available were slim, and there was no way I could have talked my wife and daughter in to sailing NCL again (a topic for another post :)). This last one aside, we’ve learned that the energy on a ship during the sea days is an important factor for us. Now, I do take my sources of information with a grain of salt, especially posts in cruise forums. It seems boards like those on Cruise Critic have turned in to a place where people either spend their time complaining about their chosen line’s loyalty program, or playing “fanboy” and bashing anybody who says anything bad about their line. The most time consuming part about going through reviews and forum posts is sifting through the noise to get to the truly objective reviews.
Past Reviews of the Itinerary and ship
This happens in conjunction with the previous item, as we spend a bunch of time reading those reviews and forum posts to see what people thought of the stops and the ship. I will say that this isn’t an exact science, and we do learn from our mistakes here. Our 2012 Thanksgiving cruise on the Carnival Legend was a perfect example, as the majority of the reviewers seemed to love the ship, and many had cruised multiple times specifically because of how much they liked it. I have to say, none of us agreed. It never seemed crowded, which was a plus, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to sail on it again unless it was a really solid itinerary.
I think that about covers it for us. People choose cruises for varying reasons, but my biggest tip here is to know what you want out of your time on board, and book the appropriate itinerary and cruise line accordingly. While I get the desire to be spontaneous, these things aren’t cheap, so I like to know what I’m getting myself in to before I drop the money on it. In cases like this last cruise where we really wanted to see Bermuda, we’ll adjust some of the other priorities accordingly, but for the most part I’ll stick to the criteria set forth above. Do you have additional things you look at? Feel free to add it in the comments to share with others!
As I’ve alluded to a couple of times, I’m fairly methodical when it comes to cabin selection, so my next post will give some insight into what I look for when choosing one.