Saturday, June 5, 2010

Tips for The First Time Cruisers

With summer just around the corner many people are thinking about vacations and possibly taking their first cruise.

My husband and I have been very fortunate in that we have been able to take a cruise at least once a year for the 21 years we have been married so I have picked up some tips along the way that I thought I would share.

The cruising industry has changed considerably over the years and I am finding that most regular cruisers have chosen a particular line such as Norweigian Cruise Lines (NCL), Royal Caribbean, Carnival, etc. because the more you cruise with one line the more benefits you receive.  Everything from discounts on future trips, upgrades on cabins and special parties on board can be had for those loyal customers, but not all ships are alike and neither are the amenities so maybe I can help you wade through some of this with my experience with the various lines.

One tip that I find helps those first time cruisers is to decide what is most important to you on your vacation.  Entertainment is a given and all ships provide that in one form or another, however, choice of dining experience, shopping, on board activities, and service are all different depending on the ship.
 When I first started cruising in the late '80's you were assigned seats and times for dinner and everyone ate in the main dining room no matter what cruise line you were on.   There was an "early seating" and a "late seating" and you were  placed with the same group of people for the entire week.  If you didn't hit it off with them you were basically stuck with the situation.  Most of the time we were in good company, but occasionally we found ourselves with people who didn't speak English and so there was a lot of nodding going on.

NCL started a new program several years ago called "freestyle cruising".  Instead of having just the main dining rooms for people to have their evening meal they added several upscale International restaurants with cuisines from France, Japan, Italy and Spain as well as a 5 star steak house.  For an additional fee you could have dinner at any one of these restaurants and choose your own time table.  Originally this was relatively inexpensive but the charges now are anywhere from $10.00-$30.00 per person extra.  This is my favorite kind of dining experience as I feel the service is better and the food is more authentic then you might find in the main dining rooms. You also have a change of scenery as each one is decorated according to the cuisine served.

Now many of the other cruise lines have added an "anytime dining" alternative to their standard fare, but generally offer only one or two additional restaurants.  I think this has a lot to do with the fact that cruising is becoming more popular and the need to compete comes into play.

The "Anytime dining" works well for the days you are in port until the late evening as you can relax and enjoy yourself without the worry of rushing back to the ship so that you can have enough time to change and still make it to your scheduled dinner hour.   Many times we had to race back to grab a shower and a quick change because we opted for the early seating which was 6:30.  There is always a full buffet served on the upper decks until at least 10pm so you never go hungry, but the food is not the same and it's self serve.
Unfortunately you sacrifice one thing for another among the different cruise ships.  The specialty restaurants on NCL are exceptional in service and flavor but the ships themselves leave a lot to be desired as far as decor.  This is just my opinion, but this is not a ship I would choose for ambiance. 

If you want really great food without worrying about a time table then I would suggest you opt for a ship that has the "anytime dining" and at least try one of the restaurants other than the main dining room during your trip.  This is not to say that the food in the main dining rooms is bad. Far from it.  They offer a variety of main courses as well as specialty dishes and a host of desserts, but the experience can become mundane day after day.

Another area that has changed considerably over the years is the type of service you receive on board. There isn't a whole lot you can do about it, but I do have some tips to make it a little better and I will be posting about that next time.

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