Want some top tips for cruise planning and creating an unforgettable, flexible holiday that you can help design from start to finish? Welcome to the wonderful world of cruise

Amalfi Coast, Italy
Amalfi Coast, Italy

Cruise planning is incredibly exciting, because a cruise holiday is whatever you want it to be. It’s a floating luxury hotel that makes the world your oyster. It can be an adventure or the chance to laze on a sun-soaked deck. It can take you on a leisurely journey to the prettiest ports around the Med or it can transport you to exotic destinations around the globe. It can be a traditional ship, with good food, entertainment and a chance to get away from it all. Or it can be a complete resort that you don’t want to leave: restaurants, attractions such as dodgems, sky-diving simulators and go-karting, and top shows that have made their name on Broadway.

“A cruise is the opportunity to explore several destinations, enjoy fine dining and world-class entertainment, all for excellent value, while staying at a very comfortable hotel, which just happens to be at sea,” says Lynn Narraway, MD UK and Ireland of Holland America Line and Seabourn. “There is a cruise experience out there for everyone – it’s just a matter of finding the right one.”

Even on the biggest ships you can find quiet places to chill out – and most days you’ll find yourself in a new port of call. You can see some of the most amazing destinations in the world, from the Norwegian fjords to the Caribbean to Asia, Alaska, South America and Africa; or even discover more of the British Isles, including the stunning Scottish Highlands and the Antrim coast.

It’s no wonder almost two million people from the UK and Ireland regularly choose to cruise…

Aquavit Terrace on Viking Sea
Aquavit Terrace on Viking Sea

Choosing a cruise

Before you can get stuck into cruise planning you’ll need to choose and book your cruise. There are two ways to book a cruise. Cruise companies all sell direct, but there’s also a growing band of specialist cruise agents such as Bolsover Cruise Club and Barrhead that run offers from a huge array of companies on one website (with experts at the end of the phone). Increasingly, the agencies put together their own top-value packages, such
as pairing cruises with pre- and post-voyage stays.

Cruises come in all shapes and sizes starting with samplers: one-night twirls around the Channel, short breaks to Zeebrugge (for Bruges), Le Havre or Guernsey, several-night jaunts (many for Christmas markets). Most of these go from Southampton, although others depart from alternative UK ports. Around a dozen UK ports are used for departures, including Liverpool, Newcastle, Harwich and Tilbury on the Thames. This means most people are within a couple of hours’ drive; you avoid airports and have no luggage restrictions. For some people, destinations are the big thing (not just the Caribbean and the Med; many of us are interested in further flung cruises too). For others it is all about life on board.

Companies such as Norwegian (with onboard go-karting and laser tag on new ship Norwegian Bliss) and Royal Caribbean (climbing walls, surf and skydive simulators) offer an amusement park atmosphere. Others such as Saga Cruises offer leisurely holidays on elegantly-presented ships.

Andy Harmer, Senior Vice President Membership and Director of CLIA (Cruise Lines International Association) UK and Ireland director, says: “There is an incredible choice of cruise line, ship, itinerary, room types and excursions.

“With $60billion invested globally in ships to be delivered in the next eight years, there has never been a better time to take a cruise – innovation in itineraries, ship design and the mind-boggling onboard experiences, is drawing first-time cruisers in.”

Wendy Atkin-Smith, UK managing director of Viking, which has both ocean and river ships, says: “The beauty is that you get to explore a new destination most days and you can enjoy sailing into the heart of a city. We cater to the curious traveller, with a programme that brings history to life through lectures, that has menus inspired by local cuisine with regional wines as well as enriching performances. That’s at no extra cost – make sure to book with a cruise line that doesn’t charge extra for things that make a holiday complete like wifi, excursions and drinks with meals or you could find yourself receiving a hefty bill at the end.”

Nick Wilkinson, vice president and MD of Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) for UK & Ireland, Middle East and Africa, says: “I’d recommend some of our fantastic European cruises for new to cruise guests. These offer numerous ports at exciting, culturally rich destinations. It’s great having breakfast against a daily changing picturesque backdrop, and looking inland to breathtaking views.

“These cruises offer a wide range of excursions, ideal for those who want to explore new cities by day and be entertained on board with amazing shows at night. Most of these cruises are seven days.” And Norwegian’s cruises are Premium All Inclusive, giving you your drinks, too.

Seabourn Encore – Wintergarden Suite

Ocean or river?

Ocean cruises sail off into the sunset and offer mind-blowing scenery and the excitement of sailing on medium to big-sized ships; while some of the luxury brands such as Silversea, Seabourn and Regent are all-inclusive, some lines such as Royal Caribbean and P&O Cruises offer drinks packages. River cruises have always been seen as more leisurely. Today, the feel is mostly like a boutique hotel. The ships of companies such as Viking, Scenic, Emerald Waterways and Uniworld are discreet and stylish with exquisite rooms (almost all with a balcony and often with glass walls that fold back to open up the whole place), as well as wonderful restaurants and panoramic bars. Another difference is that many are all-inclusive, or at least feature wine with dinner – and they usually include excursions, from walking tours to classical recitals in ornate palaces.

The classic cruises – perfect for starters – are on the Rhine and Danube, gliding through the heart of a timeless Europe. “Those wanting to weigh up the differences between the ocean and river cruise experience might consider what they want from a holiday,” says Rob Stapley, cruise product manager at Titan Travel, which has its own river ships and sells many ocean and river cruises, adding extras such as its VIP door-to-door travel service. “If you are looking for a vessel as a means to an end, river cruises would certainly help you to see large areas of one country, or several countries, in style. Ocean cruise customers often see the ship as their ‘resort’ with the bonus of ports along the way.

“Ocean cruises are also, on the whole, more relaxing than river. River cruises make more regular stops and attract people who are interested in local culture. On rivers, there’s rarely the need for getting glammed up for dinner and the smaller size of the ships encourages a more intimate atmosphere. There are exceptions, of course, with Uniworld and Scenic customers probably having more in common with upper-end ocean cruisers because of the five-star plus nature of the vessels.”

Observation Pod on Royal Caribbean, Quantum of the Seas

Who’ll be on board?

There are ships for everyone, to suit all tastes. On big resort ships such as those of Norwegian and Royal Caribbean you’ll find a younger crowd – Caribbean cruises have the feel of a beach club with busy outdoor bars and on-deck dances.

NCL’s Nick Wilkinson says: “All of our ships are geared to younger guests. However,
our Breakaway-Plus class ships have taken innovation to new heights. Norwegian Escape
and Norwegian Bliss incorporate The Waterfront, a quarter-mile promenade which allows guests to enjoy the sea while sipping a cocktail in numerous al fresco bars and eateries.” The ships also feature shows such as the transatlantic hit Jersey Boys, and a Beatles tribute band in the Cavern Club, making it perfect for music-lovers.

Jamie's Italian restaurants are on board Royal Caribbean ships
Jamie’s Italian restaurants are on board Royal Caribbean ships

Getting a deal

Do you book early or late? There are great deals when a new season’s ocean cruises go on sale, possibly more than a year earlier. Early bookings often combine a good price with perks such as a cabin upgrade (possibly a balcony instead of an interior cabin), onboard spending money or a drinks package.

Fantastic savings can be made with last-minute bookings, but savings only tend to apply to companies with bigger ships (some carry 6,000 people and they need to be filled), and rarely in school holidays. Smaller ships from luxury brands such as Oceania, Viking and Silversea sell out and late discounts are rare. In between, prices ebb and flow, and often include those tempting perks. Keep a watch on cruise company websites, particularly in ‘wave season’, January to March, traditionally peak booking season, when everyone wants your business.

“The right cruise for the right price is everything,” says Helen Moore, sales manager at Bolsover Cruise Club, who has more than 20 years’ experience. “We start from a position of finding the right cruise. There are so many options, from where your cabin is located to the food and beverage options, and only a cruise expert will be able to advise you on this. You can’t get that kind of support from a website, you need someone doing the hunting for you.”

Bring the family

Ocean cruises are popular with families, and with many sailing from Southampton and other UK ports, they can be especially convenient. Almost all ships have free children’s clubs with attractions from computer games to basketball. The bigger ships are playgrounds for children, with the likes of waterslides zipping over the edge and back. And destinations are attractive, too – whether getting off and heading to the beach or exploring exciting cities. Prices can be good if you have a youngster sharing your room. River cruising is usually an adult affair with most companies.

Uniworld's SS Maria Theresa Baroque Restaurant
Uniworld’s SS Maria Theresa Baroque Restaurant

Planning checklist

EXCURSIONS There’s a myth that when you arrive somewhere you head off on a (paid-for) excursion. Excursions can be fantastic, but add considerably to the holiday cost. Many cruise terminals (for example, Naples, Genoa and Barcelona) are close to the sights. Don’t feel you have to do a place to the full; it’s often more fun to potter around the waterfront even in a modest town rather than get on a tour bus. Excursions can be booked on board, but can be full and cost more than if you book before you go.

DINING Yes, there’s more food on a cruise than you can eat in a lifetime, for free. Fabulous breakfast buffets that only get put away so they can bring on lunch. Afternoon tea, pizza and burgers by the pool, and big dinners. But the new thing is speciality dining – restaurants that you pay for, either through a cover charge or by the dish but below high-street prices. It can involve eclectic cuisine or, increasingly, oh-go-on-then offerings such as Margaritaville burgers or Jamie’s Italian. Some companies offer a deal when you book, giving you a discount across several restaurants.

IMBIBING Unless you’re sailing with a luxury line, drinks, mostly, aren’t included on ocean cruises. An exception among the big boys is Norwegian’s Premium All Inclusive. Most companies offer packages, some including all drinks, some simply wine with dinner. Drinks and/or wine with dinner can be found on upmarket cruises on smaller ships. River cruises are more attuned to including drinks or wine with dinner, but check to see exactly what’s on offer before you book.

CHOOSING A ROOM Inside or out? Window or balcony? A lot depends on what you want to spend, although many modern ships are geared towards balcony cabins (or ‘staterooms’). A balcony gives you your own outside space with table and chairs (those on Marella’s new Marella Explorer even have a hammock), but if you like being out and about the added cost may not seem worth it. Some companies, such as Royal Caribbean, have ‘virtual balconies’, floor-to-ceiling TV screens with a live feed of the outside view for inside rooms. Also, while seasickness shouldn’t really happen on a big modern ship, if you’re at all worried about it, then choose the lowest and most midship cabin.

INSURANCE A frequently overlooked but vital part of cruise planning. Regular travel insurance covers cruises, but specialist insurance offers things like refunds if the cruise is cancelled or delayed due to weather, payouts if you’re confined to your cabin through illness and if you’re too ill to take your excursions. Regular insurance is often restricted to short trips, so wouldn’t cover a world cruise. Most cruise companies and agencies offer specialist policies or your regular insurer will be able to add to your cover.

VISAS Again an essential element of cruise planning. The cruise company will tell you what you need, but often short visits to a country bypass the visa system – in Russia, for example, if you’re on the cruise line’s excursions, you don’t need a visa, but if you want to explore on your own, you will need one.

INOCULATIONS Mostly only needed for far-flung destinations and you’ll find out when booking.