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First-Time Cruising

Plenty of people know lots of friends and family who have cruised or are considering a cruise and think it might suit them too. But they then do some homework and are bewildered by the choice available. In this article, Andy Church and Olivia Chapman will help you decide if a cruise is for you, which cruise line you should consider, where you could go and how to start the process of making the leap into the exciting world of holidaying on water. 

There are many cruise lines, all specialising in different areas of the market, with hundreds of cruise ships and a myriad of destinations. You might be a family looking for multiple activities for the kids, or a couple looking for small luxury ships. You might be looking to sail the oceans or take in the sights during a cruise down a river. Whatever you are thinking of, your starting point should be the same – the budget.

Once the budget is set, decide where you want to go and whether you want to fly to get to the port. Many cruises leave from and return to the UK, particularly during the summer months, meaning that you don’t have the hassle of flying if you don’t want it. Although your choices may be more limited, many would argue that the lower stress levels make it worthwhile. The list of cruise lines that do go from the UK include some of the largest and most popular – P&O, Cunard, Royal Caribbean, Fred Olsen, Cruise and Maritime, Silversea and Oceania amongst others. This list covers a multitude of styles and suitability, from family friendly to super luxury. With Celebrity and MSC starting cruises from the UK again in 2018, the choices available are becoming even wider.

As one might expect there are some limitations as to where most cruises sail from the UK ports. The majority cruise down to the Mediterranean, the Canaries or up into Scandinavia. However, there are those that cross the Atlantic to the US or the Caribbean. Some return but for others you would need to take a one-way flight. There are many longer trips starting in the UK – going as far as Australia, the Far East, Africa, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Islands.

Should you choose to fly, the options become almost endless. Most river cruises start with a flight, or maybe a train ride, and can take in the most popular of rivers such as the Danube, Seine, Rhine and Douro. Going further afield there are now many operators cruising in the Mekong, the Yangtze in China, and others in Burma and India. In the US, steamboat tours are becoming increasingly popular down the Mississippi.

Taking an ocean cruise you can go almost anywhere. The Arctic and Antarctic are increasingly popular, and are not just for the adventurous traveller. Some luxury ships are now sailing these routes, taking you to places where there are no other means of transport. The Galapagos Islands are a must-see and South America in general is on many people’s bucket lists. Cuba is the hottest destination in 2017 and can be combined with cruises to the Caribbean or through the Panama Canal. Asia is increasingly popular both for ocean and river cruises – with the ability to take in many different locations and experiences on one holiday.

And there lies one of the beauties of cruising, an advantage over a hotel or villa holiday, and that is the ability to wake up somewhere different every day without packing and unpacking. One morning Singapore, the next Ho Chi Minh, and onto Hong Kong – you get the idea. The other great advantage of a cruise is that you won’t just see these places from the water, you get to explore them as well. From organised tours to culinary excursions, to just disembarking and having a wander around, you get a chance to see, smell and taste so many different countries and cultures.

That is of course if you want to disembark. For some, the whole point of a cruise is the ship itself, and these days many ships have become a destination in their own right. Some of the new resort ships have so many attractions that you could spend your entire holiday just experiencing those and never be bored. Some of the smaller luxury ships offer such amazing service that it can be difficult to drag yourself away. But most people decide on a combination of onboard and land-based activities to make the most of both the ship and the destinations.

For some the opportunity to experience these destinations is vital and often the cruise lines will have experts on hand to either give talks about the places you visit, or to actually lead the tours themselves. For instance, if you go to the Arctic to photograph polar bears on the Norwegian cruise line Hurtigruten, there will be professional expedition photographers on board to help you get the best pictures.

So once the budget is set and the destination decided, the next decision is the cruise line and the ship itself. Each cruise line is different, offering different levels of experience and service. Your budget and preferred itinerary will partly determine which cruise line you choose but even then there will still be choices to make. Much will come down to whether you are a family, a couple or a solo traveller. These days the availability of options for the latter is very wide and the cruise companies have woken up to the fact that it is a growing market and are incorporating more single rooms on the newer ships, or are offering good deals for the solo traveller occupying a twin/double cabin.

Each cruise line has its own identity, and that is often the defining selling point between two similar cruises. For the first-time cruiser this is something that you won’t really know, which is why an independent cruise specialist is your first port of call. Someone who knows the cruise lines and the ships is in a great position to help you with finding the best cruise to meet your needs at the most competitive price.

What other decisions do you need to make? River versus ocean cruising. For many this will be the easiest decision as they are very different holidays. River cruising is in general much more intimate, with the ships taking between 100 and 200 guests, whereas the newest ocean-going resort ships can carry over 5000 guests. Few of the river vessels cater for children, although some clients who have taken (usually older) children have said that they have loved seeing the world pass slowly by and the opportunity to learn about so many interesting ports of call.

If you want things to do, then a larger ship is for you. To add to the confusion, there are the ever more popular large sailing ships or clippers. These take anywhere between 150 and 250 guests and, whilst there is little to do apart from soak up the sun and scenery and eat, you can get involved in the actual sailing if you want to. The beauty of such small ships is their ability to go where the larger ships can’t. This means they can drop anchor in some stunning, and often deserted, bays.

You might think that once you’ve decided on your destination and ship that’s everything taken care of, but you’d be wrong. Picking your cabin can be just as daunting, particularly on the largest ships, where the choices can be staggering. Inside cabins are the cheapest and can represent tremendous value whilst still being spacious. On some newer ships these cabins offer a ‘virtual’ window or balcony and many will show the view from the front of the ship on the cabin TV. There are outside cabins with portholes or windows, balcony cabins and sometimes family cabins or suites. Once you get into the suite market, then both the size and price can rise exponentially. Families might want one cabin offering a double or twin beds with additional beds that come down from the ceiling or even a sofa bed. On the other hand, two connecting cabins might make more sense.

There are also choices to be made with food and drink. Food is included in all cruises and there’s lots of it. You won’t starve and you don’t have to spend any more money. If you’ve got teenagers, the endless supply of ‘free’ food will be irresistible. There is usually a main restaurant and a buffet restaurant, and generally the quality is excellent. Many ships offer other options, such as speciality restaurants, and whilst these can carry an extra charge, in some cases everything is included. This applies to soft drinks and alcohol. Currently there are many offers whereby drinks are included in the price, and this can offer amazing value. On an increasing number of cruise lines you are able to choose daily when you eat in the evening, but some still have set dining times.

And then there’s the entertainment, from West End shows to magicians to the circus, and from rock bands to jazz to solo performers. On many ships, you know before you travel which shows are going to be performed, whether the Strictly Come Dancing stars will be performing, or if a celebrity chef will be taking cooking classes.

There is so much choice and so many options, but hopefully this has helped with your decision making. The most important thing is not to be put off by the amount of choice. If you haven’t cruised before then there is a whole incredible world waiting for you and some once-in-a-lifetime experiences to be had. Call your local cruise specialist if you need help because that’s what we do. Take the plunge and start planning you first cruise today.

Andy and Olivia run GoCruise, your local cruise specialists. T: 01483 808787 E: achurch@gocruise.co.uk W: www.gocruise.co.uk

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