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Travel expert Mike Pickup has sailed many an ocean. Here, he shares his tips for first-time cruisers to help you avoid the pitfalls and enjoy life on deck

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According to industry body CLIA, last year cruising accounted for just over 4% of foreign holidays. So, in other words, 96% of the population simply cannot understand why otherwise sane people would want to be cooped up on a ship with thousands of others for a couple of weeks!

Of course it isn’t really like that. Cruise ships range from floating hotels to amazing holiday resorts. The huge advantage ships have over hotels is that they move, usually at night, so you wake up somewhere new each morning. You can visit key destinations in the Caribbean, the Baltic, the Med or elsewhere and only unpack once. And back on board after a day exploring ashore, the food, service and entertainment are top class.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle for potential first-time cruisers is the unknown – the myths and misconceptions that surround cruising. So here are some points to consider.

Should I fly or not?

Airports are becoming increasingly stressful, which isn’t an ideal way to start your holiday. With more UK cruise departure points available, a no-fly cruise is an option for many. It’s easy to drive to the cruise terminal, hand over your suitcases and be on board for lunch. You don’t have to worry about liquids in your hand luggage or its dimensions, nor what your suitcase weighs – not even how many you take.
However, unless you have plenty of time and money there is only so far you can go without flying. A week will take you to the Norwegian Fjords and back or along the Atlantic coast of France and northern Spain. Two weeks will get you to places such as New York, the Canaries and Cape Verde or the Baltic and St Petersburg, where as a cruise passenger, you can enjoy 72 hours visa-free access.

Are they a floating old people’s home?

Far from it. The average age of cruise passengers is 55, but this masks the fact that while some cruise lines stick to the traditional formula, others, such as Norwegian Cruise Lines and Royal Caribbean, set out to attract a younger family market. Here, facilities may include a rock climbing wall, surf simulator, a sky-diving simulator, ice rink and dodgem cars. A range of kids clubs will probably include a teens-only section, open until midnight or later, where parents aren’t allowed. And these family-oriented ships are also ideal for multi-generation holidays. Kids, parents and grand-parents can holiday together yet follow their own separate interests, perhaps just meeting up for dinner to swap stories.

What about the dining options?
Traditionally, cruise passengers were allocated first or second sitting and a set table for dinner. This arrangement still prevails on many ships. However, some have replaced set dining with a range of places to eat, perhaps as many as 18, and you can eat when and where you want.

…and the dress code?

On many ships the second night at sea is the captain’s welcome party where formal dress is requested, and this dress code is repeated every third night. However, on the newer family-focused ships, such as Norwegian and Royal Caribbean, formal nights are no more. If you like being dressy, try Cunard.

What are the cabin options?

Ignoring the few expensive suites on board, most ships offer a choice of an inside cabin, that is, one with no window, an outside cabin (ocean view) with a window that doesn’t open, and a balcony cabin that has a patio door and balcony with chairs and a table. Some people choose an inside cabin to save money, on the basis that there are only in it to sleep, but you need to consider whether, if available, you would book a hotel room with no windows for the same reason.

Will gratuities cost an arm and a leg?

Most ships add a daily amount to your on-board account to cover tips for the cabin steward, waiters and crew you don’t see. This varies from around £5 to £9 per passenger per day. However, many ships will allow you to waive this so you can tip personally, but you will have to sign a form to this effect. Those that are not primarily focussed on UK passengers will also add a service charge for drinks purchases, usually 15% or 18%. If you enjoy wines, cocktails and so on, it’s worth considering a drinks package. There are usually also soda packages for kids that enable them to get drinks, useful when they are not with their parents.

What if I’m on my own?

If a single passenger occupies a double cabin they’re going to pay around twice the ‘per person’ fare. Most cruise ships do have a small number of single cabins that are priced appropriately but Norwegian Cruise Lines has addressed both the financial and social issues of single travellers. Their most recent ships have exclusive areas dedicated to single passengers with over one hundred single studios and a lounge and bar area, so when you pop in for a drink you can be assured all your fellow guests are also travelling alone.

What’s included in the fare?

A cruise fare normally includes accommodation, meals and a range of entertainment and on-board activities. Many ships have large theatres and some will put on shows that would do credit to any west-end theatre. Extras will usually be items like excursions, spa treatments and internet access which, on many ships, can be slow and expensive.

What’s the deal with river cruises?

I once read that the difference between ocean and river cruising is that with ocean cruising the ship is the destination, but with river cruising the destination is the destination. River cruises may appear more expensive than ocean cruises but most include drinks with lunch and dinner, shore excursions and good internet access, so there is very little in the way of extras. The ships are much smaller, usually no more than 200 passengers, so are more sociable. The focus is often on the cultural elements of destinations so river cruising tends to appeal to active, mature people.
Still not sure? Then look for one of the many affordable two- or three-night taster cruises and give cruising a try…


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