13 December 2013

Booking a Caribbean Cruise

Last month I took a cruise with my husband to celebrate my upcoming 30th birthday (yes, we still look like we're 16).

The cruise came after several months of dreaming, researching, and planning. While I thoroughly enjoyed our relaxing vacation, I have learned a few things about planning a Caribbean cruise that I want to remember.

1) Keep in mind when booking a cruise departing from Port Canaveral, FL that there may be additional costs compared to cruising from a port closer to the airport. In order to cruise from Port Canaveral, Scott and I flew into Orlando and had the option of finding unreliable shuttles, reserving a rental car and worrying about on-time flights, or booking a $70 round-trip cruiseline shuttle. I ended up finding two one-way car rentals for less than $70 and luckily our cross-country, winter flight arrived on time.

2) If you book early, most cruiselines or travel agents can match to a lower price if your room rate drops before your cruise. Since we booked the cruise this last spring, we were lucky to get an additional discount on the room before our final payment was due 90 days before the cruise. I love saving money!

3) Speaking of saving money, remember that you will have on-board charges during your cruise including gratuities. Each cruise line will have different suggested gratuities for your housekeeping and dining room staff. Royal Caribbean has a set gratuity amount charged to your room per person, per day ($12). When we booked our cruise, the travel agent gave us $100 shipboard credit as part of our deal. Because I did not pay my gratuities in advance (My Time Dining requires prepayment), the shipboard credit was applied to my gratuities. Don't forget to factor in your on-board charges and excursions when budgeting for your cruise.

4) Book a balcony. The extra space is worth it and qualifies breakfast in bed as an excursion.

5) I would absolutely recommend Royal Caribbean as a cruise line, no matter the location. Our housekeeping and dining room staff were extremely friendly and went out of their way to help us have a great time. I was also impressed with the integrity of staff members. We forgot our iPad in one of the restaurants and they were preparing to return it to us when we finally remembered where we forgot it.

Our ship was very family friendly as well. There were many family activities, including games and shows. Many of the movies shown on the ship were family films. Kids activities included DreamWorks  character visits and parades. The cruise directors did a fantastic job scheduling a variety of activities all throughout the day, especially on sailing days.

6)When choosing our cruise, I looked at what ammenities the ship had and specifically chose a ship that had the FlowRider. I thought my husband would want to try it out. While on board he was too intimidated to try, and there were plenty of other activities on board to keep us busy. We did use the miniature golf course, basketball court, and rock climbing wall. We enjoyed the jacuzzis around the pool deck, but didn't use the swimming pools. The kids play zone on the pool deck looked like a great splash pad for kids on sunny sailing days.

7) We absolutely loved our Eastern Caribbean cruise. We stopped in St. Maartin and St. Thomas, in addition to stopping at Royal Caribbean's private island CoCo Cay. However, if I were to schedule another cruise today I wouldn't schedule based on the ports. Both of the ports we visited required additional transportation once on land in order to see historic landmarks or find a low-key beach. Some shopping was available port-side, but it included mostly vendors that you see at every port (jewelry, t-shirts, Del Sol, etc.). The most memorable parts of our cruise were the excursions or the on-board activities. If you're looking to go somewhere specific, it may be a better use of time to fly directly to that port and stay at a resort.

8) The cruise was extremely comfortable. The weather was warm (70-80 degrees F) each day and the water was surprisingly comfortable, even though it was winter. I forgot when packing for this warmer weather that the cruise ship is kept to cooler temperatures. Next time I'll bring a cardigan to wear around the cabin and dining room.

9) The food onboard was sublime! Correction - dinner was sublime. All of the other meals and buffets were mass quantities of average quality food. In order to take advantage of the best meal of the day, I recommend having a light breakfast and making healthy choices at lunch. Don't feel like you need to finish a dish if you don't enjoy it.

I went onboard with a variety of food intolerances. While I'm sure that wait staff would have been more than happy to accommodate those, I was delighted to find that taking digestive enzymes before every meal allowed me to eat menu items worry and pain free!

Though I'm writing this mostly for my future benefit (very selfish of me), maybe you will get some use from this information as well. Bon Voyage!