By Chuck Hawks
Fortunately, for most of us, planning a cruise is enjoyable. Deciding on a destination, choosing a cruise line, and learning about "your" ship is part of the fun of cruising. However, for those who do not have enough information to intelligently choose the right cruise for them, it may seem more like work. Notice that I said "for them" in the previous sentence. That is because the right cruise for me may not be the right cruise for you.
There are entire magazines and books devoted to cruising, and I commend them to anyone interested in the subject. One source I particularly recommend for solid information is the World Ocean & Cruise Liner Society. They publish the monthly magazine Ocean & Cruise News. I belong to the WOCLS and, if you are interested in passenger ships and cruising, so should you. You can follow the link on my Travel Page to the WOCLS web site.
If you rely strictly on the information in the cruise lines' brochures, of course, each cruise sounds like the best one possible--the most fun, the most romantic, the best food, the greatest service, etc. Yet common sense should tell you that every cruise line offers a different product. In extreme cases even the individual ships within the same fleet may present a different product, although typically the major cruise lines endeavor to provide a consistent level of cruise experience in all of their ships.
One way to simplify the problem is to group the various cruise lines into general categories based on the approximate level of cruise product they offer. This is done in much the same way hotels or restaurants are grouped into categories in guidebooks from AAA or Michelin. Once you understand what the categories represent, it becomes possible to choose the category of cruise that will best satisfy your individual needs. So the first key to selecting the right cruise for you is to first identify the right category of cruise for you. Once you know what category to look at, you can select a particular cruise line from that category.
Probably the most common way to identify the different categories of cruise product is the familiar "star" rating system. In this system, the cruise lines in the most deluxe group are awarded the most stars (usually five), the cruise lines in the next most deluxe group are awarded four stars, and so on, down to the least deluxe cruise lines, which are awarded one star. Sometimes cruise lines that are performing at the top of their category are awarded a "plus," as in "five-star-plus." That is the system I use when writing about the categories of cruise lines.
Remember that everyone has different needs, desires, and expectations from a cruise. There are many different lifestyles. A five-star cruise is not necessarily "better" than a three-star cruise, except in the abstract. A cruise on a five-star ship might be an exercise in boredom and frustration for an active single person looking for "fun" at sea. For example, a cruise on Carnival's Sensation (three-star-plus) would likely prove more satisfying for that person than a cruise on Cunard's five-star Caronia. On the other hand, the person who seeks a traditional ship, is accustomed to "white glove" service, and would rather attend a classical recital than an all night disco, would doubtless prefer Caronia. (More information about these ships is available in my Cruise Line Guide.) You could say it's analogous to the difference between the Rio Suite Hotel in Las Vegas and the Atlantic Hotel in Hamburg. The important thing is to determine what level of cruise best fits your personal needs, experience, and expectations.
It is generally true that a passenger accustomed to a particular category of cruise can move up or down one level and still feel quite satisfied. More change than that, however, may take you "out of your element." At least I find that to be true for me. For example, I have found that I am most comfortable on a four or five-star ship, less satisfied on ships from other categories.
A word about cruise pricing. The total price of a cruise varies widely due to many factors, some of which (like the cost of fuel, port charges, and the cost of government regulation) are beyond the control of the ship line. Obviously, more extensive food choices and more expensive food items cost more to serve. More expensive interior furnishings cost more. More onboard space per passenger costs more. Labor costs are higher when the crew to passenger ratio is higher. (The better ships average around one crew person for every two passengers!) As in any service industry, really good service costs more than merely adequate service. Very generally, the higher the category you select, the higher the price you should expect to pay, since you will be receiving a more expensive product.
The good news is that there are often discounts available on selected cruises. Cruises are seldom sold for the full brochure fare. And this is true of cruises in all categories. In addition, you will sometimes get a price break for booking early, or for booking very late if a cruise is not selling as well as expected. Just like the airlines, cruise lines like to fill their ships. Prices also vary seasonally. They are generally lower before school lets out for the summer, and after school starts again in the fall, a natural result of supply and demand. There are Internet specials, and travel agency specials. Repeat passengers often get a price break. Sometimes you can get a great deal on the particular cruise you want, and other times you can't. But it is almost always better to pay the going rate for a cruise you really want than to save some money on a lessor cruise.
After you have finished reading this article, you should click on the link to my Cruise Line Star Ratings list (below). This list will quickly show you which cruise lines compete in what category.
Then you should click on the link to my Cruise Line Guide (also below). There, you will find brief descriptions of each of the cruise ship categories (five-star, four-star, etc.), followed by capsule reports on each of the cruise lines in that category. This information can help you to determine the category that provides the type of cruise you will enjoy most.
Once you have determined the category that best fits you, planning a cruise becomes much easier. For instance, if you are interested in a particular area (Alaska, Hawaii, the Caribbean, etc.), you can use the Internet, or your travel agent, to ascertain which of the cruise lines in your category are operating there at the time you wish to travel. Then it is merely a matter of selecting between those few individual cruises, all of which should be in the same category and general price class.
Once you have determined the category of cruise you prefer, the summaries of the individual cruise lines may prove useful. They can help you determine which lines to research further.
I suggest starting that research with a visit to the web sites of the cruise lines in which you are most interested. You will find links to most of the cruise lines on my Travel Page. In addition, free brochures from the various cruise lines are available at almost any travel agency.