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How to Choose Your First Cruise


Congratulations on deciding to book your first-ever cruise! Like with any vacation, you will want to do enough research before placing a deposit. With over seven different mainstream cruise lines and 100 ships sailing worldwide, choosing your first cruise can seem overwhelming. 

The easiest place to start is determining when you're able to take your vacation. If, for instance, you can only cruise in March or October, you will have fewer itinerary options than if you are planning to go in June, July, or August, which is when most cruise lines deploy ships to seasonal destinations like Europe and Alaska. 

On the other hand, maybe you already know where you want to visit because you've been dreaming about sailing to the Caribbean and visiting popular islands like St. Maarten, St. Thomas, Grand Cayman, etc. 

Here are some other factors that will help you choose your first cruise. 

Read more: Top 20 tips for first time cruisers

Consider how long you want to be at sea

Disney Wish in Port Canaveral

Do you want a quick weekend getaway, or are you trying to plan a weeklong trip for spring break? You are sure to find a cruise that meets your desired vacation length, as cruises range from 3-nights to month-long, transoceanic voyages. 

You will find that most cruises tend to be around 7-nights; however, that doesn't mean you cannot find itineraries that are both shorter and longer. Of course, the longer the cruise, the more expensive it will be, but you'll have more time to explore the ship and get a greater sense of what cruising's all about. 

That being said, cruise veterans tend to agree that a 7-night cruise is a great place to start. You just cannot experience as much dining, entertainment, and fun ports of call on a weekend cruise. Plus, shorter cruises tend to be port-intensive, meaning that you'll spend even less time onboard the ship. 

Another thing you'll have to consider is travel time to get to your cruise. If your departure port is far away and requires you to fly, you will need to book your flights for the day before your cruise is scheduled to depart. You do not want to risk missing your ship because of a flight delay or cancellation the day of. This means that you'll need a pre-cruise hotel, too; however, one way to minimize the financial burden of one is to utilize credit card points. 

Read more: What’s a good amount of days for a first cruise?

Can you cruise from a port within driving distance?


Speaking of departure ports, there are many located across the United States for you to choose from! Even if you're seeking a tropical Caribbean getaway, that does not mean that you're limited to sailing from Florida. You'll find cruises sailing from places like New York City; Baltimore, Maryland; Charleston, South Carolina; and Norfolk, Virginia. 

Flying is expensive, so if you are able to choose a cruise that sails from a port within driving distance, you will have more money to spend on cruise add-ons, like drink and internet packages, shore excursions, spa treatments, and specialty dining. 

It is important to note, though, that if you have a specific cruise line that you're wanting to sail with, not every cruise line sails from every port. Norfolk, for instance, is home to Carnival Cruise Line, while you will find more sailings from Baltimore on Royal Caribbean. 

Moreover, larger ports -- like Port Canaveral, Miami, Seattle, and Rome (Civitavecchia) -- will house both more and larger ships, meaning that you will have more options. Did you know that Port Canaveral was the world's busiest cruise port in 2022? It saw a total of 4,072,396 multi-day cruise passengers throughout the year!

Read more: The costly cruising mistake newbies make planning their first cruise

Where do you want to sail to?

dcl alaska

When most people think about cruises, they think about warm Caribbean getaways; however, you can take a cruise just about anywhere around the world! Popular regions include The Bahamas and Caribbean, Alaska, Bermuda, Europe, Canada & New England, Australia and the South Pacific, and Asia. 

Inevitably, where you want to visit will impact where you'll sail from. You cannot, for instance, take a cruise to Alaska from Miami. In this case, you'll depart from either Vancouver, Seattle, Whittier, or Seward. Similarly, most Mediterranean cruises sail from Barcelona and Rome. If you want to sail from Southampton, you'll most likely be visiting Norway or other Northern European ports. 

You need to determine what you're hoping to get out of your cruise. Do you want to catch up on some R&R? Consider an itinerary that visits tropical islands, where you can spend your days lounging on the beach. Europe cruises, on the other hand, tend to be more port-intensive and require you to spend long days ashore sightseeing, visiting numerous culturally and historically significant places. Alaska is great for those who want to spend time in nature and admire glaciers, snow capped mountains, and magnificent wildlife. 

No matter where you want to go, you'll have plenty of awesome shore excursions to choose from that will help you make the most of your time in port. 

Let's talk about the different cruise lines 


Not all cruise lines are created equally. While that's not to say that no cruise line is inherently bad, but each caters to different demographics. Are you looking for family-friendly fun? Then you might like a sailing onboard Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, or Carnival, while those seeking a more upscale cruise will want to look at voyages offered by Celebrity, Princess, and Holland America. 

Moreover, some cruise lines tend to be more expensive than others, so you will have to consider your budget when determining which cruise line is best for you. MSC Cruises tends to offer some of the best values, meaning that your hard-earned dollars will go much further than if you were to sail on Norwegian. 

Those looking to experience the largest cruise ships in the world with the most onboard thrills should look into Royal Caribbean. Travelers seeking a fun adults-only voyage might enjoy sailing on one of the brand-new Virgin Voyages' ships. And solo travelers will appreciate the studio cabins and lounge available onboard select Norwegian Cruise Line ships. 

In short, the perfect cruise line for you won't be the perfect cruise line for someone else.

Read more: The best first-time cruises for anyone

Differences between big and small cruise ships 


Once you've picked the best cruise line for you, you will have to think about whether you want to sail on a big or small ship. Newer mega ships will have state-of-the-art technology and onboard thrills that you won't believe are on a floating vessel, while older, smaller ships won't have the same amenities. 

Smaller ships tend to be more budget-friendly since they offer less to do, see, and eat onboard; however, they're able to visit more unique ports that are unable to accommodate larger ships! If you are someone who values the ports of call over the ship, you will want to look at small ship offerings. 

Of course, the newer ships have more WOW factors onboard that will keep everyone in your family entertained! Do you want to race around a go-kart track? 

Thrill Island

What about ride a roller coaster or splash around at the largest water park at sea? These are amenities that you'll find onboard select Norwegian, Carnival, and Royal Caribbean ships. 

Moreover, the newer the ship you sail on, the more modern the staterooms will be. In general, the experience of standard cabins -- like interior, ocean view, and balcony rooms -- does not vary much. 

The suite experience, however, tends to be greater on larger ships that can offer more suite-only perks, like exclusive sun decks and restaurants. Plus, you will find more impressive suites, such as Royal Caribbean's Royal Loft Suite, Carnival's Excel Presidential Suite, or Disney Cruise Line's Concierge Wish Tower Suite. 

Read more: 12 Differences between big and small MSC cruise ships

Are cruise add-ons important to you?


Don't worry, the base fare of your cruise includes a lot, like your accommodations, transportation between ports of call, entertainment, unlimited food, and select beverages. Many cruisers, however, like to enhance their cruising experience with the purchase of add-ons, such as drink packages, specialty dining, and more. 

These can easily add up to be more than your fare. Let's take the cost of a Royal Caribbean Deluxe Beverage package. While they operate on a variable pricing model, meaning that the price depends on factors like the time of year you sail, ship, and itinerary, you can often find sales that make the package around $75 per person, per day. For a 7-night cruise, this adds up to be over $1,000 for two people! 

You'll need to factor these things into your overall budget. If, for instance, you book a cruise with a more expensive base fare, you might have to consider which add-ons are the most important, rather than splurging on a couple. In general, MSC Cruises and Carnival Cruise Line tend to have the cheapest add-ons, allowing you to stretch your vacation budget as far as possible. 

Read more: 16 tips to not waste money on your first cruise

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