With cruising the fastest-growing sector of the travel industry in the UK, thousands of Brits are trying cruising for the first time. But beware, cruising is addictive!

According to the industry body, the Passenger Shipping Association, the number of cruisers managed to expand last year, even during the depths of the recession, when 1.53 million Brits took a cruise. This year, that figure is expected to increase to 1.65 million.

So why is cruising suddenly so popular? The answer, which a lot of non-cruisers don’t realise, is the huge amount of choice on offer for the broadest possible spectrum of budgets. A lot of first timers still worry that cruising is for the elderly, that it’s regimented, expensive, confining – but none of this is true. Cruising is a fantastic holiday for singles, couples, families, groups of friends, special occasions, wedding parties, special interest groups, culture lovers, 40-somethings, 50-somethings and way beyond. So when it comes to planning your first time cruise, here are some key things to think about.

1. Choosing your cruise

The biggest dilemma is how to choose your cruise. Do consult an expert; there are many travel agencies that specialise in cruising, as well as some excellent online resources, and booking through an agent won’t cost you any more than going direct.

Choosing the right ship is key; if you were going on a land-based holiday, you’d differentiate between a luxury villa, an all-inclusive family hotel or an exclusive resort, and cruising is no different.

2. Choosing a destination

When it comes to destination, you can sail pretty well anywhere. The biggest choice of ships is in the Mediterranean in summer and the Caribbean in winter, but summer also means the Baltic, the Norwegian fjords, the Black Sea, Western Europe, Alaska, or the east coast of the USA and Canada.If you don’t fancy the Caribbean in winter, there are ships chasing the sunshine in Central America, South America, Asia, the Red Sea, the Gulf, Australia and New Zealand and closest to home, the Canary Islands.

You can cruise to Antarctica – or in summer, to the Arctic. If you’ve got three months to spare, you can cruise round the world. Or if you like the idea of six days without land in sight, you can take one of Queen Mary 2’s regular transatlantic crossings to New York. There’s a growing trend in 2010 for culturally-orientated cruises with unusual itineraries that might skim the north coast of Africa – Egypt, Lebanon and Syria, for example – or explore the Gulf. Small ships on cultural voyages also visit Greenland, southern India, the Chilean fjords and Micronesia. Lines to look out for include Swan Hellenic, Spirit of Adventure, Voyages to Antiquity, Orion Expeditions, Silversea Cruises and Yachts of Seabourn.

3. Plan accordingly

If you’re worried about things like seasickness (which for the vast majority is often more of a worry than a reality), choose a cruise with plenty of stops and no sea passages, or test the waters with a mini-cruise. Around Cape Horn, an Atlantic crossing, the Bay of Biscay in winter, hurricane season in the Caribbean (September- November) or very early or late season in the Med all run the risk of being a bit choppy.

For those who don’t like flying, there’s a huge choice of cruises from British ports now – and you can go anywhere, far beyond the usual Mediterranean and Baltic itineraries. P&O Cruises is operating a 72-night voyage from Southampton to Alaska in 2011, while Cruise & Maritime Voyages’ Marco Polo sails all the way to the Amazon from London Tilbury.

4. Who to travel with

Think about who you’re going to be travelling with. Children, for example, are a large factor. Big, modern ships have fantastic facilities for children and teens, from special family cabins to superb children’s clubs (at no additional cost) and everything from karaoke and Nintendo Wii to computer rooms, climbing walls, ice rinks and kids-only excursions. Carnival, Royal Caribbean, P&O Cruises, Princess, NCL and Disney Cruise Line are among the most popular.

If you want a child-free environment, on the other hand, travel outside school holiday times (and this means American and European holidays, too), or pick an adults-only ship. Two of P&O Cruises’ ships, Arcadia and, for 2011, the more traditional 710-passenger Adonia, are adults-only. Meanwhile, culturally-orientated lines like Swan Hellenic, Voyages of Discovery and the new Voyages to Antiquity will be child-free zones, and Saga Cruises only takes over-50s (its sister brand, Spirit of Adventure, takes over-21s).

5. Choosing style

A family playing in the sea
A family playing in the sea

Next, look at the style of the different ships. A lot of people assume ‘big’ equals mass market or overcrowded but this simply isn’t true – the Queen Mary 2 is one of the biggest ships afloat but is extremely elegant, for example. Celebrity Cruises’ three newest ships carry 2,850 passengers each but are like beautiful, contemporary boutique hotels. Princess Cruises designs its ships so that there are plenty of smaller, more intimate spaces to hide away, drink and dine (including a gorgeous adults-only area on deck, The Sanctuary). The onboard lifestyle is more important than the physical size of the ship.

6. Choosing size

If a huge ship is really intimidating (bearing in mind that getting around something with 18 decks can take ages), then choose something more manageable. Oceania Cruises has three ships carrying 684 each, with an emphasis on simple elegance; no formal nights, spacious teak decks, four excellent restaurants, low-key entertainment and interesting itineraries. Azamara Club Cruises’ ships are the same size, while any line with an older fleet – Saga, Swan Hellenic, Cruise & Maritime Voyages, Fred. Olsen Cruises – caters for the passenger wanting something smaller.

If you want really small (and remember, tiny ships can squeeze into the more interesting ports), Windstar Cruises has three casual-butelegant motor-sailing yachts, the smallest two of which carry 148. Star Clippers cruises the Mediterranean, Caribbean and Central America with three magnificent square riggers, carrying from 170, under sail most of the time. Sea Cloud Cruises, too, has three beautifully traditional square riggers. SeaDream Yacht Club’s two ships take 110 each and are essentially like holidaying on a private yacht.

7. How formal?

What about that eternal bugbear of packing a dinner suit for a cruise? It’s true that some lines are very traditional and still have ‘black tie’ nights. Fred. Olsen, Cunard, Crystal Cruises, Silversea Cruises, P&O Cruises and Holland America Line all offer this kind of timeless elegance and passengers enjoy it. Others, like Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises, MSC and Princess Cruises, ‘recommend’ black tie but nobody really bats an eyelid, provided you don’t turn up for dinner in shorts. NCL, Ocean Village, Island Escape (part of Thomson Cruises) some of the very small lines – SeaDream Yacht Club, Windstar Cruises and Star Clippers – are smart casual only, no tie required.

8. On board activities

What’s on board is obviously an important consideration. The vast majority of cruises spend most days in port – and most will disembark to make the most of the shore excursions – but there’s usually one day at sea in a seven-night itinerary for you to enjoy the ship.

Pretty well all ships nowadays have a gym and spa, where you can get anything from Botox to teeth-whitening and acupuncture, as well as personal diet regimes, fitness training and some impressively challenging exercise classes, from spinning to boxing lessons.

A Couple relaxing in a Gondola
A Couple relaxing in a Gondola

Many cruise lines also offer ‘enrichment’ sessions, so you can study anything from drama to photography to web design. And some have themed cruises – music, film, golf, gardens, health and fitness – there’s a lot out there. Swan Hellenic, Voyages of Discovery and Voyages to Antiquity all carry expert lecturers who escort guests ashore on tours.

9. Value for money

Price is probably the biggest factor in choosing a cruise and here, you have to read the small print, as all cruise lines include different things in their pricing. Needless to say, the price reflects the level of luxury and the quality of dining on board.

Silversea, Regent Seven Seas, Yachts of Seabourn, Hebridean and SeaDream Yacht Club, five of the six most luxurious cruise lines, are all-inclusive, which means each ship has an open bar and decent wine included with dinner. Crystal Cruises, the sixth ‘ultra luxury’ line, gives generous onboard spending credit, so you can choose whether to pay off your bar bill or, for example, use it on shore excursions or in the spa.

Azamara Club Cruises, one notch down the luxury ladder from these, also includes wine with dinner, as does Voyages to Antiquity. Swan Hellenic, Regent Seven Seas, Voyages to Antiquity again and Hebridean include shore excursions in the price, which can make a big difference.

10. Planning your next trip

If you do get hooked, and you probably will, don’t be afraid to experiment and try something different the next time round – a short break cruise, a river cruise, a spontaneous, last-minute bargain on a less expensive ship, a learning cruise with a theme, or an expedition voyage. There’s a world of choice out there.

Questions every first-time cruiser should ask

  • Where do I want to cruise?
  • What’s my budget?
  • Inside cabin, outside, balcony or suite?
  • Cruising from the UK or flying to the embarkation port?
  • What kind of people do I want as travelling companions?
  • Do I want to dress up in the evenings or do I want a more casual style?
  • Do I prefer dinner in the same restaurant every night or do I want a much wider choice?
  • Do I want lots of facilities or is a good book by the pool enough?
  • Does it matter if there are lots of children running around?
  • Is it important to have things like drinks and/or excursions included?
  • Something cultural or simply fun in the sun?
  • Hopping nightlife or early to bed?

Happy cruising!

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