Planning for your Caribbean Cruise
By Lisa Mullins Bishop, Caribbean Edge Staff Writer
One of the most popular ways to visit the Caribbean is aboard a cruise ship. A Caribbean cruise offers passengers plenty to do and see: there are a variety of onboard activities and most ships stop at a number of Caribbean islands along the way. The proximity of the islands and the gorgeous weather have made the Caribbean the most popular cruise destination. "Cruising is great. The entertainment is fantastic, the food is superb, and there is so much to do," says Michelle Brown of Mr. Goodbye Travel in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania. But before booking that trip there are a number of factors to consider and questions to ask.
When do you want to go on a Caribbean cruise?
Most travelers take into account the time of year, cruise prices, and their personal preference as to when they want to take a vacation. Fares are most expensive during the Caribbean high season (late December through Easter) and lowest in fall and spring. Travel during hurricane season should be carefully considered. For some people, however, this is not a concern. "The old school of thinking is that May through October is hurricane season, but that covers a long period of time," says Julie Steinberg, a manager for Rosenbluth Vacations in Philadelphia. "For all intents, September and October is hurricane season. Prices are lower then. Some people don"t care that it is hurricane season. They are there for the Caribbean cruise experience and are not worried about the weather on the islands."
When deciding when to go, keep in mind this rule of thumb: "Prices are usually highest when children are out of school," says Iris Liszt, travel agent for Cruise.com, an online cruise travel agency. "The most expensive time to travel is New Year"s Eve, followed by Christmas, then Thanksgiving, and Easter. The least expensive time is the first two weeks of December then the first two weeks of November," notes Liszt.
Where do you want to go in the Caribbean?
"The key question is where do you want to be in the Caribbean," says Steinberg.
The most popular cruise destinations are the eastern and western Caribbean. Cruises to the western Caribbean typically embark from Tampa, Galveston, Ft. Lauderdale, Miami, or New Orleans and then travel to such spots as Key West, Belize, Cozumel, Playa del Carmen in Mexico, Cayman Islands or Jamaica. At these port of calls, passengers can snorkel, scuba dive, even visit Mayan ruins.
Eastern Caribbean cruises embark from the same ports but visit ports such as St. Thomas or St. Croix, San Juan or St. Martin/St. Maarten, sometimes Dominica, Barbados, St. Kitts, or Martinique. Some cruise lines visit the southern Caribbean, but you board the ship from a port off the U.S. mainland. A tour of the southern Caribbean may include visits to the Grenadines, Grenada, Curacao, Antigua, St. Lucia, Martinique, or Venezuela.
If you have a particular interest, inquire whether there are any theme cruises related to that interest. Some lines offer theme devoted to music of a particular era such as big band, 50s, Broadway (Cunard and Crystal), murder mystery (Cunard, Regal, Windjammer Barefoot Cruises), or food and wine (Crystal).
Decide how many islands stops you want to make. Some cruise ships may stop at only three islands during a seven-day cruise, while others stop at a different island every day. Ships may spend only the day at a particular island or may arrive in the afternoon and leave late at night. So if you have your heart set on enjoying a particular island"s nightlife, find out when the ship will be in port.
What type of Caribbean cruise ship do you want?
The islands you want to visit may determine the type of ship you"ll want. "Smaller ships can visit islands that larger ships can not," says Steinberg. "The megaships visit the basics like San Juan, Mexico, and the Bahamas, but these ships can not visit some of the other islands." A megaship can carry up to 3,000 passengers while a small ship has about 300 or less. Size may affect the quality of the experience. Smaller ships may not offer all the onboard activities, but they are able to stop at ports of call that can not accommodate larger ships. Smaller ships can also pull directly into port to disembark while some larger ships must use tenders (small boats) to ferry passengers to shore.
Travelers will also find that there are a variety of cruise vessels available, from traditional ocean liners to replicas of 19th-century clipper ships to full-rigged sailboats.
How long should you go?
When deciding on the length of a Caribbean cruise, you"ll want to take into account your destination, vacation time, and personal preference. A southern Caribbean cruise is typically longer than a cruise to the Bahamas. First-time cruisers will find varying theories about the ideal length of time for a first cruise. "For first time travelers, I would recommend a short three- or four-day cruise to make sure they like it," says Brown. "Shorter cruises visit the Bahamas or the western Caribbean, where you may stop at Cozumel, Grand Cayman, or Belize, which is a newer destination for cruise ships." Steinberg believes that a longer cruise is better. "A couple of days is barely enough to experience the cruise. The first day you"re traveling to get there so you are exhausted. Then you have the next day and the next and then it is time to return. I highly recommend a 5 to 7 day cruise to get the full experience."
What is your Caribbean cruise budget?
There are Caribbean cruises available for every budget. According to the Cruise Lines International Association, a resort-style cruise typically ranges in price from $150 to $350 per person, per day. These will vary by season, cruise line, and itinerary however. This type of cruise offers passengers a resort vacation complete with extensive onboard diversions including pools, health clubs and spas as well as various dining options including elegant dining rooms, casual deck restaurants, pizzerias and specialty theme restaurants. Most resort cruises also offer age specific children's programs with trained youth counselors, Broadway- or Vegas-style productions, comedy acts, casino, dance club, and lounges.
A premium cruise offers all the amenities of a resort cruise as well as upscale features such as additional guest space, gourmet meals, art collections, and a higher level of personal service. Rates for a premium cruise can range from $175 to $400 per person, per day. However, rates will vary by season, cruise lines and itinerary.
Luxury cruises offer refined personalized service and the highest level or quality and taste. Gourmet cuisine, open-seating policy, butler service, exclusive onshore excursions, spacious accommodations, luxury products, and a high-level of service are the norm on these ships. These cruises vary by season, itinerary, and cruise line but range from less than $400 to $1,000 per person, per day.
What"s included in a Caribbean cruise?
"Everything is included in the price of your ticket," says Brown, "except alcoholic drinks, soft drinks, onshore excursions, and tipping. However some cruise lines such as Carnival automatically add the tip to your bill, but you can change it if you need to." Fares include all meals, in-between snacks onboard, stateroom, activities, and entertainment.
Tips for the cruise staff vary and are typically given at the end of the trip. According to the Automobile Association of America, a general rule is to tip the cabin steward and waiter $3 per person per day and the busboy $1.50 per day. Tip bartenders, cleaners, and barber when service is rendered. To ensure satisfactory seating, tip the maitre d" half at the start of the trip and half at the end. Expect to spend about $100 in tips for a seven-day cruise.
"The standard gratuity is $10 per day, " says Liszt. "Three dollars and fifty cents per day for the room steward, $3.50 per day for the waiter, $2 per person for the assistant waiter."
Find out what is included in your rate and what is not. Airfares are not always included, but cruise lines can often offer good rates on air connections. Cabin rates are quoted at the double-occupancy rate, so singles will pay more for their rooms unless they have a roommate.
Ask about the accommodations. Most cabins have showers only, if you require a tub, ask if one is available. Not all cabins have televisions, so make sure yours does if it is something you want.
Consider the location of the cabin. Outside cabins offer a view of the ocean but may be more expensive. "I prefer a cabin in the middle of the ship because there is less motion," says Brown. Midship can be more expensive however.
What's the cruise atmosphere like?
Find out what the environment is like onboard. Is it casual? Formal? Some cruise ships may require passengers to dress for dinner: jacket and tie for men, dressy clothes for women. Others have adopted dress-casual policy. Does it appeal to an older crowd or the younger set? "Royal Caribbean appeals to an older crowd in their forties and up, while Carnival has a younger crowd," says Brown. Is it popular with families? "Disney is great for families but both Royal Caribbean and Carnival have a great kids program," says Brown.
Flexibility is another factor. Some ships have set dinner assignments: the early seating (about 6:00 PM) or late seating (about 8:00-8:30 PM). Other ships offer an open-seating policy seating: anytime between a specified time frame such as 6:30-9:30. Passengers typically dine at tables that seat four, six, or eight, allowing them to get to know their other passengers. However, some tables for two are available.
What do you want to do on your Caribbean cruise?
Most cruise ships provide plenty to do onboard with a host of amenities such as a pool, casino, lounges, entertainment, health club, sometimes even miniature golf. With so much to do onboard, sometimes the cruise itself becomes the main attraction. Some cruise ships may spend only a few hours in a port, so if you want to spend more time in port or wish to go ashore in the evening, ask how long the ship will remain in a port.
Some ships concentrate on visiting as many ports as possible. Other cruise lines offer soft adventure or enrichment experiences such as plenty of cultural destination, enrichment seminars by distinguished guest experts, guided tours lead by naturalists, geologists or other licensed guides, and exposure to the cuisine of the region.
Caribbean cruise ships offer numerous offshore excursions when in port. These organized tours are usually run by offshore vendors and are an extra charge per person. Tours may include walking and bus tours, horseback riding, snorkeling, golfing, and other adventure. You can also go it alone; so make sure the tour is worth the price. These tours can sell out fast, especially on the megaships, so be sure to sign up early for those you are interested in. "Your cruise documents will list the excursions, then you can book them online or wait until you are onboard," say Brown. "These excursions range from $30 to $100 depending on the activity."
For many a cruise is the ultimate getaway. "Cruising is great. The entertainment is fantastic, the food is superb, and there is so much to do," says Brown. "I"d recommend it to anyone."
By Lisa Mullins Bishop, Caribbean Edge Staff Writer
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