Cruising with MJ – The Series

Cruising with MJ – Setting Sail on Your Own the MJ Way

Cruising with MJ – A Word on Picking the Right Cruise Line for You

Cruising with MJ – You’ve Booked Your Cruise So Now What?

Cruising with MJ – Let’s Get Packed

Cruising with MJ – It’s Almost Time to Cruise! What Do I Do Now?

Cruising with MJ – Three Days Until Sail Away

Cruising with MJ – Embarkation Day (It’s Time to Play)

It’s probably no surprise that I get a lot of emails about cruise vacations. In fact, cruising, and information about it is one of the top 2 drivers of visits to this blog. As you know, I am a proponent of using an experienced, professional travel agent for booking some vacations, including cruises. Travel agents can help you build experiences that are hard to replicate on your own. On the other hand, if you are just booking a quick 3 to 7 night “get away” cruise to the Bahamas or Caribbean, you might not be in the market for any kind of special experiences or private shore excursions. I sometimes book cruises on my own, and I thought a post on researching, planning, and booking your own cruise might be useful.

Researching Your Options

There are 2 sites that I recommend prospective cruisers visit before they book a cruise. Cruise Critic, and The Avid Cruiser. Regarding Cruise Critic, there’s the main site with professional and personal reviews, cruise news, etc. Then there are the message boards, which you might think of as the FlyerTalk or Milepoint of cruising. The message boards are quite entertaining, and can contain some good information. You can also visit a Roll Call thread for each cruise. For example, there’s a thread for the February 16, 2013, sailing of Oasis of the Seas. Those threads can be great connection points for either meeting your fellow cruisers (It’s not unusual for there to be a Cruise Critic reception on cruises of 7 nights or longer). Many times, cruisers use these threads to put together private tours and split the cost. It’s up to you whether you actively participate in the boards or specific cruise threads, but they can both be good sources of information to help you decide what you want to do during your cruise. I’ve been a longtime reader of The Avid Cruiser, and find his writing and professional reviews to be very useful when planning a cruise. You can also email me. I’m always happy to answer questions about cruising (or anything else). If I don’t know an answer to your question, I will try and point in the right direction to find what you are looking for.

Also, you should consult the website of the particular cruise company you are thinking of booking. You can explore deck plans of the ship you are considering, and research any number of things about your particular cruise itinerary from the number and types of restaurants on board, to pictures of staterooms to the typical weather in your ports of call. There’s also a section on ship sponsored shore excursions that you can peruse as well.

Booking Your Cruise

Since this post is about booking a cruise “on your own,” I’m not going to talk about traditional travel agents. I have personal experience booking cruises 3 ways, my travel agent, an airline portal, and with the cruise line. I’ll speak to all of those, but focus on booking direct with the cruise line. Booking with the cruise line is not all that much unlike booking a typical airline ticket. You go to the site, search for a cruise by date, destination, port of embarkation, or ship, pick a stateroom, and confirm your cruise. If you are booking outside the final payment window (typically around 60 days prior to your cruise), you have the option of just making a downpayment. You can come back to the website later, and make your final payment, or make partial payments along the way towards your cruise.

Once you are booked you can consult the cruise line website for information on ports of call, and research other options to enhance your trip. I am very agnostic when it comes to shore excursions. I will say that if you happen to miss your port of call for any reason, getting your money back for a shore excursion is easy if it’s booked through the cruise line. They simply credit your onboard account for the value of the excursion. If you book on your own, you are “on your own” in getting your money back. Just depends on the terms with your tour operator, so know before you go. You can also use your cruise line’s website for booking enhancements to your cruise vacation like inclusive beverage packages, spa appointments, specialty restaurant reservations, and in some cases onboard shows.

There are multiple ways to book cruises. I’ve successfully used airline booking portals as well, and they work. These sites are typically managed by an online travel agency specializing in cruises. Book through them, get bonus miles. Nothing wrong with them, but you will not have as much control over your cruise reservation as you do when booking direct with the cruise line. To make changes to your plans, or make payments on your cruise, you will need to go through the airline cruise agency. It’s not a problem, just something to be aware of. The same is true for any travel agent. You deal with the travel agent for most details of your cruise booking, but can go to the cruise line’s website to book shore excursions, and other enhancements.

Now What?

OK, you’ve researched cruises, picked one, and booked it on your own. What next? Start thinking about getting to the port and things you will do on your cruise. Next week, I will post on preparing to sail.

Guess what? Chris Elliott wrote an article that didn’t totally hack me the heck off. Yesterday’s piece entitled “Maybe It’s Time to Lower Your Expectations at High Sea struck a nerve…but not an angry one…well, not much of an angry one. I consider myself an experienced cruiser. I’m not the most experienced, I’m just experienced (30 cruises), have some confidence in the lines I choose to frequent, and enjoy being at sea. All the other mostly self-inflicted drama that some unfortunate souls seem to complain to folks like Mr. Elliott about….well…. I’ll leave that to others.

To be honest, I have booked a few cruises during hurricane season, mostly towards the end of the season. The results, so far, have been positive. The worst thing that has happened to me is an extra day at sea, and a trip to Nassau instead of Cozumel. Then there was the time I had to skip Grand Cayman and head to Cozumel so I guess I’m even….or maybe just lucky. I’m not unsympathetic to those who have been disappointed closed pools, rocking ships, and cancelled ports due to storms, I’ve been disappointed by the same. I just never inflicted my disappointment on others, and I’ve never let one-off things like this detract from my ultimate cruising goal…..getting away in a manner that really isn’t possible by spending a week at the local Motel 6 pool.

Now…a few nits to pick. Let me be clear. I am a licensed pilot (as in airplanes), not a licensed mariner. I am informed when it comes to transportation modes, including sea transport. I’ve always been entertained by the assumption that because a ship is not flagged in the USA, said ship must be operated with “zero standards.” Maybe, maybe not. I am pretty darn confident that the cruise lines aren’t out to hurt me. As for paying their “third-world” crew substandard wages….. well, you’ve got me there, but my strong suspicion is that the definition of substandard depends on where you are from and the cost of goods there. I don’t judge, and I don’t hide on the last night of the cruise to avoid tipping either. And then those pesky “gotcha fees and extras” that everyone loves to talk about. It’s only a “gotcha” if you thought you were getting something for free (or more correctly, included in your fare), and didn’t hand over your onboard charge card to pay for it. It is possible to take a cruise and not spend one red cent above the fare, taxes, and gratuities. Really, it is, even if I don’t recommend it! I’ll also let the marketplace determine whether or not the current business model for cruise lines is sustainable. Most importantly, I will continue to cruise with the same expectations I’ve always had – a good time, a good value, and a level of peace I only find at sea. YMMV.

Hello from the 2012 Chicago Seminars! Rick, Howie, and company have put together an amazing event, and I’ve already met so many interesting people with like minds about all things travel. This is mainly an airline and hotel points-centric crowd, but tonight at 6PM, there’s something a little different on the agenda, The Cruising Crowd with Marshall Jackson. I’ll be sharing my thoughts on cruise vacations and the cruise lifestyle with a focus on the following topics:

  • Why Cruise?
  • Researching Your Options
  • Booking Your Cruise
  • Preparing to Sail
  • Life on Board
  • The Value of Loyalty

Can’t wait to meet more of you during today’s sessions and tonight at The Cruising Crowd. Looking forward to another great and informative day at the Chicago Seminars!

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