As in love and marriage and other aspects of life, when it comes to planning a cruise, you’re likely to encounter both good and bad advice. Yes, Aunt Mabel who’s sailed 10 cruises is just trying to help, but her well-meaning suggestions may not hit the mark. With that in mind, here’s some advice you may encounter when planning your cruise, and why these are terrible ideas:
1. "Book way in advance for the cheapest fare."
Why It's a Bad Idea: Cruise lines would love to have everyone's reservations on the books well before each sailing. The lines encourage this with "early bird" pricing at a discount: Book six months to a year in advance and save 25 to 50 percent. These fares work for people who like to plan their vacations that far out and for those who want a specific cabin type. But these aren't necessarily the best deals.
What You Should Do Instead: Wait until a month or two before a sailing, and you may be able to save 75 percent or more — as cruise lines start to panic about unsold cabins and offer 11th-hour deals. Of course, by waiting, you’re taking a chance that your target sailing date or most desired cabin category will be sold out. But flexible bargain hunters, especially those who can drive to a port and avoid last-minute airfare, can land the cheapest prices this way.
2. "Book a small cabin since you won't be spending much time there."
Skip the lines at the buffet and have a private breakfast on your balcony instead. - Photo by Norwegian Cruise Line
Why It's a Bad Idea: How much time you spend in your cabin really depends on you. Some people enjoy lingering there, watching movies on the in-cabin TV, sleeping in, catnapping, and ordering room service. A fancier cabin may offer sea views and breezes from your own balcony, and maybe even opportunity to luxuriate in your bathtub — all reasons to dawdle.
What You Should Do Instead: If you're taking a short cruise and plan to party all night and save as much money as possible, go ahead and cram four people into the cheapest inside stateroom you can find. Otherwise, book the best cabin you can afford.
3. "Don't book airfare through the cruise line."
Why It's a Bad Idea: Experienced travelers know how to navigate reservation systems and work with travel agents, prefer specific airlines, and may seek frequent flier perks. But inexperienced fliers may find the cruise lines’ air/sea packages appealing, especially since they assure flights that arrive in time for ship departure — and handle special arrangements in the case of a flight delay or cancellation.
What You Should Do Instead: The cruise lines negotiate bulk contracts with air carriers, and the fares are generally competitive. In fact, Royal Caribbean International and Celebrity Cruises guarantee the lowest fare through their ChoiceAir program —with a promise that if you find a lower fare within 24 hours of booking, you'll get a refund of 110 percent of the difference in the form of shipboard credit.
A downside of booking air through the cruise line is you may not be able to choose the flights you want, get advance seat assignments, or earn frequent flier points on the discounted fares. But don't dismiss the airfare offers without comparing prices.
4. "Everything is included."
Ordering the smoked eggs from Wonderland aboard Quantum of the Seas will cost extra. - Photo by Royal Caribbean International
Why It's a Bad Idea: It's true your cruise fare covers your accommodations, meals, and entertainment. But unless you're on a fancy, all-inclusive ship, your fare does not include alcohol — or even a can of soda — gratuities for the crew at suggested minimums of $10 to $12 per passenger per day, or a host of fee-based temptations.
If you have a cocktail each day, a glass of wine with dinner and an after-dinner drink, do a shore excursion to the beach and another to try a zip line, purchase a small Internet package (so you can brag about your cruise to your friends back home), eat at one of the ship's specialty restaurants, order lattes at the coffee shop, take a couple Pilates classes, and partake in a wine seminar, you've just spent $500 or more — and you haven't even added in souvenirs or gratuities.
What You Should Do Instead: Start by checking to see what amenities are included with your cruise fare, then estimate how much you plan to spend on extras. If you plan on using the internet regularly, look into your line's internet packages. Likewise, if you plan on drinking alcohol every day, a drink package will get you the best bang for your buck.
5. "Check in early so you get a free lunch."
Why It's a Bad Idea: The embarkation process typically starts around noon. People may tell you to get to the ship early so you can eat lunch onboard and enjoy activities. If you do that, you’ll likely encounter crowds because cabins are unavailable until after 1 pm (remember, the crew has to clean from the previous cruise). Ship-organized activities won’t get underway until evening, and although the buffet will be open, you may not find much in the way of other dining choices. Basically, you stand in line to board, visit a crowded buffet, and then sit with your carry-on luggage, waiting.
What You Should Do Instead: Depending on when your ship leaves (you need to be there at least two hours before that), a better plan is to skip the mob scene and get to the pier later in the afternoon.
6. "Skip the buffet."
The Windjammer Cafe. - Photo by Royal Caribbean International
Why It's a Bad Idea: This is so wrong. The cruise lines have made vast improvements in buffets in recent years. They've added extensive salad bars, creative vegetarian options, and international choices — such as Asian and Indian cuisine.
What You Should Do Instead: Truth is, some of the most flavorful dishes you'll find on the ship are at the buffet — and we're not just talking carvings of big slabs of meat (though those are certainly options). Chefs also man action stations that might include pasta prepared with your choice of sauces, and stir-fry where you pick your own ingredients. The dress code at the buffet is always casual — even on formal nights — and you can choose to dine alone or to meet new people.