08 February 2010

What should I look for and how to get the best deal?

 Now that I know I want to go on a cruise what do I do? Where should I go?
In my opinion, if you don't know that you won't like it start small!  There are tons of small trips that you can combine with a day or two at Disney, Universal, or another attraction.   Most of these small cruises are 3,4 , or 5 days in length.  My tips are from the Eastern part of the country because I live within driving distance to these ports.   These ports include:  Mobile, AL; Miami, FL; Ft Lauderdale, FL; Tampa, FL; and Port Canaveral, FL; New Orleans, LA; and Charleston, SC

There are many things here that have to happen-you have to choose a port that you want to leave from, you have to choose a length of duration, you have to choose a cruise line, and you have to choose a price range.  Don't worry it is NOT that hard.  Take your time, and tell yourself, "hey Michelle does this all the time, how hard can it be?"   

Where do I look?--- You can go with a travel agent, but I have found that I get better deals on my own.  I have not used an agent since 1999.  I use www.travelocity.com  www.expedia.com for the most part.  I am signed up on many sites "specials" emails www.cheapcruises.com  www.VacationsToGo.com   www.cruisecheap.com  www.cruises.orbitz.com  And if you can leave at the drop of a hat the best deals are at www.lastminutecruises.com
I can tell you that I look at the sites almost everyday.  You never know when you are going to find a great deal on something and you need to go for it.  Look for a while before you book, then you will see that the prices fluctuate a lot.  If you can get it for $59 per night, take it!  $99 per night is average.  I would consider NOT getting it above that unless it is something great or you have money to burn.  Now, I am talking Western Caribbean and 3,4, and 5 days Eastern Caribbean locations here, my opinions differ when you go Eastern 7 days, Southern Caribbean, and Alaska.  I have not done West Coast or Mexican Rivera cruises so I can't give any details on them.

I was looking this morning and the same cruise that I took in December for $200 pp is currently $599 pp.  See the differences?  Do research! 

PRICE---If price is an issue start there. My Dec 09 cruise was solely booked on this because of the price of the trip.  We had not planned on taking a cruise in 09, but since we are constantly looking for cruises, we ran over this price and booked it.  Prices are going to vary depending on what type of cabin you book.  There are usually 3 choices, inside, outside, and suite.  They are pretty self explanatory, inside is on the inside of the ship with no window.  I have always had a faux window.  Outside means you will have a window or a porthole (on older ships) so you can see outside.  There are many types of outside cabins and the price varies with what type you get.  There is the obstructed view which means that you have a railing or lifeboat out your window and possibly you can't see great, these are the cheapest.  There is the regular outside cabin that is the medium priced, and you can see out the whole window.  And there is the balcony cabin.  Balconies are wonderful, it is nice to have your own opening to the world, but they are expensive, if you are on a budget this is NOT the place to blow that budget UNLESS you are going to Alaska!  I have never had a suite so I cannot give you any tips on them.

Some lines offer guaranteed staterooms.  This means that you will book the cabin but you will not know where it is until the day of sailing.  There are two types a guaranteed interior cabin and and guaranteed exterior cabin.  It is simply the luck of the draw as to what you get.  Once we booked a guaranteed inside and got a balcony.  So we paid for the cheapest room on the ship and got a tremendous upgrade.  I do recommend this type of room if you are on a big budget.  Folks the stateroom is not a place that you spend a lot of time and again I state, this is NOT the place to blow your budget.  All you really do here is sleep and change clothes.  The cabins are small (Carnival has the largest rooms afloat) and the bathroom is smaller, so you are NOT going to want to spend tons of time here. 

The lines occasionally offer good prices, but don't count on it and NEVER pay brochure price...NEVER NEVER!  Many of the sites offer onboard credit, free photos, free excursion...these deals are worth looking in to. 

AAA offers some deals on cruises, and I am a member, but I have found better prices on the internet. 

Cruise line---I never book strictly on cruise line alone, I shop by value and destination.  Royal Caribbean has the largest ships, but that doesn't mean they are better.  Carnival has a more "fun" "party" type atmosphere, it is very laid back and I enjoy them very much.  Celebrity, Norwegian and Princess have a more upscale atmosphere, but that is not a bad thing either.  Norwegian offers a freestyle life where you don't have assigned dining times.  It is a wonderful idea, but if you don't make reservations, it is difficult to eat when you want, so make reservations.  I will always recommend Carnival over the others, they have been very good to me over the years.

Ship--- Generally, this won't be something that will be an issue when booking.  I just want to give you a warning or two.  New ships are going to cost more, that is just a fact!  Before you book check out the details on your ship.  If the ship is just out of refurb (been refurbished) that is great because things are working.  If a ship is scheduled to go into refurb right after your selected dates...DO NOT TAKE IT no matter what the cost is.  Since they are about to do a major re haul on the vessel, they will NOT be looking to fix things that are wrong. This is also true if the ship is about to be sold.  All of this info is available on the internet and I promise you it is worth it.  I would NOT listen to rankings that people have given to the ship, because you and I have differently opinions on what we like and do not like.  I am an easy to please sailor as long as it is clean, so I us an issue with things other than once when we were one of the last sailings on a ship that the line was selling...yep, we had a backup in our shower and NO ONE cared.  Why should they?  The ship was sold, they just needed to finish their commitments. 

Embarkation port--Meaning, the port that you will leave from when you embark on this grand voyage.  If this is an issue with traveling, I would first choose the port that you want to leave from.  If you are very open to whatever, choose by destination, that way your prices may be better and you can assure that you see the things you want to see.

Length of Voyage---I would like to state again, if you are unsure whether or not you will like this vacation take a shorter trip.  If you love to be on the water, then take a long one!  I will recommend great ports for longer destinations in another posting. 

Here are the most popular ports on the shorter cruise circuit:

BAHAMAS  -----The Bahamas are a short sweet little trip.  These cruises usually leave from Cape Canaveral or Miami/Ft Lauderdale.  While excursions offered on the ships vary somewhat, you can always book something or explore on your own.  The Bahamas are known for great beaches, Paradise Island, birds, and shopping.
http://www.bahamas.com/bahamas/cruise-passengers  I would visit this link to plan your Bahamas trip.  I am not a fan of the Bahamas and don't plan on going back unless it is looped in with a 7 day trip that I love.  But now, I am NOT a swimmer, so I do not snorkel.  I am a shopper!  A painter! and an artist! 
I can tell you that there are hundreds of islands in the Bahamas, some that are even owned by the cruise lines.  Give it a shot, it is pretty...I am just not a huge fan.

KEY WEST---one of my all time favorite ports.  You get off the ship in Mallory Square and Front Street.  We did not take the pink flamingo pink cabs, we walked the streets all the way to the Southernmost monument on Duval Street.  Must dos include the "Little White House" that Harry S Truman called refuge during his Presidency.  It is a little bit of wonderful.  Go to Kermits for "real" key lime pie.  Go to Sloppy Joe's and eat where Hemingway liked to park himself for extended periods of times.  If you want directions ask and I shall give them.  Key West is a very calm place with roosters roaming the streets, and a wealth of shops if that is what you like; and I do.  I bought lots of shells and shell jewelry, cause that is what I do.  

Cozumel---Another wonderful spot!  I go here as often as I can!  ONE word....VANILLA!  YEP, that is all you need here.  Now there are plenty of beaches, snorkeling, dolphins, sightseeing things, but I go for the VANILLA.  There is NOTHING like a cookie made with vanilla from Mexico.  Trust me!  There is safe vanilla and not safe vanilla.  I buy from the same places that I know is safe.  Los Cinco Soles and Viva Mexico carry Courmarin free vanilla.  You want to make sure that it says that it is courmarin free...if it does not do not buy it, this chemical causes cancer!  Los Cinco Soles has the best tasting at about $15 per liter (that is a good price).  As for the port itself, it is wonderful.  As you get off the ship, you will either get off in town, San Miguel or at the pier, Puerto Maya.  The pier has grown up so much over the years.  I have been coming here since 1998 and it does not even look like the same place.  Now since then it has been hit by a couple of hurricanes too, but the improvements are fantastic. There are so many shops, and a public beach right off the pier that you do not even have to go into town unless you want to.  It is a $6 taxi ride (one way) into San Miguel.  I recommend you try it, there is a Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville, a Mega Market (if you like grocery stores like we do), and TONS of shopping and many places to barter.  BARTER!!! They expect it and you will get a great deal!  If you are looking for silver look here, but make sure it is real silver look all over for the .925 markings, if there is not one  it will not be silver and do not buy it!  You can buy marble chess sets and wind chimes very cheap and little Mexican handicrafts (throws, hammocks, jackets, purses, guitars, etc...).  If you drink there are cheap places to buy beer, can't tell you the names, but they are all up and down the mail street which is right off the ocean.  If you collect shells, you can sometimes gather a few on the public beach that runs all along the downtown area. I do not recommend that you eat the food here unless the cruise line has told you it is safe...getting the runs in Mexico is NOT fun!  You can buy an omega necklace from touch of gold for $199 which is a wonderful buy!  T shirts can be found for 5 for $10 but usually are not great shirts, be wary of that.  Del Sol has a great product and this store always seems to offer great deals.  There is a bamboo sheet store go feel them, they feel wonderful.  This is a MUST do in my book.  I have tons of more tips about Cozumel if you want them ask.

Grand Cayman---You anchor off George Town and there are literally TONS of stores to shop in right off the pier. Most folks will take an excursion to 7 mile beach or to the very famous Stingray City.  But in your planning don't forget the world's only turtle farm.  The snorkeling here is supposed to be good.

 Progresso, Mexico---Just went here for the first time in December 2009.  I really was impressed!  It is a newish sort of port so they are only going to get better.  Right off the pier is a Los Cinco Soles, but it seems different than the one in Cozumel.  You exit the store and there are many little stores and tour guides that are selling excursions.  We booked our excursion here and save $74 dollars.  We took a tour to the flea market in town with EXCELLENT prices.  You can get a hammock for $10 and purses for $5, $10, or $15!  Get your hammock here, when we got to Cozumel they were $55 for the same thing.  This is a very poor port and everyone wants a tip for everything that they do for you, including handing you toilet paper in a bathroom.  Our tour was to the ruins at Dzilbilchaltun....I loved this place, the Cenote and the Temple of the Seven Dolls were extraordinary. WE also trekked to the capital of the Yucatan, Merida.  An old city with a modern flair.  I do recommend Progresso.  The vanilla was cheap here, but I would not be 100% sure of the safety.