Part 1: Planning Your Cruise

Are you a first-time cruiser who is overwhelmed about the thought of planning a cruise? You might ask yourself, “What do I pack, what do I not pack, what are the ‘must do’s’ and what are the ‘don’t waste your time on’s’?Which ships have beverage packages and are they worth the money? Should I purchase the internet package?” I hope I can help answer some of your questions for planning a cruise in this blog post.

Start Thinking…

While planning a cruise how do you decide which cruise line to sail on? How about deciding on which ship to embark on, or which type of room to book? How do you choose the number of days you want to cruise? Booking a cruise can seem overwhelming. That’s where using a trusted vacation planner, such as myself, can home in very handy! Let’s start with the planning phase. I can help you with planning a cruise for all major cruise lines.

My first cruise hesitation:

Disney Cruise Ship at Sea

“I don’t think I want to go,” was my response when my husband asked me if I wanted to take a cruise with his family. Not knowing what to expect made me timid and reserved, and honestly, I really didn’t want to go. I love the ocean and the beach, but I couldn’t imagine being “trapped” on a ship in the middle of the ocean. Deciding to go was a decision I don’t regret! It has literally changed my life and the way I look at vacationing.

My first cruise was on Disney Cruise Line for my in-laws 40th wedding anniversary. It was a quick 3-night cruise to the beautiful Bahamas on Disney Wonder. Luckily for us, we didn’t need to know anything about planning a cruise because my sister-in-law did it all for us. She chose the ship and itinerary, otherwise, I wouldn’t have known where to start. Sure, there were things I didn’t know about such as formal night and Pirate night. But, even though we didn’t have semi-formal-wear or pirate attire, we still had an amazingly, magical voyage.

Tip: In my opinion, a 3-night cruise goes by way too fast. There is not enough time to see and do most things. I’d plan for at least 5-nights if you can. However, I’d take a 3-night cruise over no-cruise any day!

When I help people with planning a cruise, there are questions on the quote form that you might not know the answers to. Hopefully this article will help you answer those questions. You can find my quote request forms on the Contact Me page of this website.

Facebook poll showing 57% of people pick the ship over 43% who pick the itinerary when considering a cruise.
I created a poll on Facebook and asked people when planning a cruise, what matters the most to them. With over 1500 votes so far, it is almost split down the middle, with a little more than half believing the ship is more important because you spend more time on it than at the ports. The ship itself can be a destination and I really agree with that! 

Which Cruise Line Should I Sail On?

This can be a daunting question, especially when there are so many great cruise lines to choose from. When it comes to deciding on a cruise line, consider doing the following.

  • Get advice from others who have cruised
  • Get multiple opinions
  • Join cruise line Facebook fan pages
  • Visit MVP Cruising on Facebook
  • Ask questions on those pages
  • Do a little research of your own so that you don’t just choose based on what others think
  • Ask your travel advisor for guidance. That’s what we are here for!

Difference in Cruise Lines

While Celebrity is a great cruise line, it might not be the first cruise line a family with small children might think about. Celebrity Kids at Sea engages kids and teens with activities to keep them busy throughout your voyage. They also have Camp at Sea. “Camp at Sea engages aspiring film directors, artists, chefs, and scientists with customizable programming developed with Xbox, Fat Brain Toys, Lonely Planet, and others. More than 500 cruise activities for kids and teens keep everyone entertained and hungry for more” (https://www.celebritycruises.com/things-to-do-onboard/family-fun).

https://youtu.be/AmvYFOtVdko

Princess Cruises

Another cruise line that might not stand out to families with small children or teenagers is Princess Cruises. Fortunately, this notion is changing. Princess Cruises has teamed up with the Discover Family of Networks to bring you Discovery at SEA and Stargazing at SEA. Camp Discovery has The Treehouse (ages 3-7), The Lodge (ages 8-12), and The Beach House (ages 13-17). From pajama movie nights and arts and crafts for the little ones to dodgeball tournaments and hip hop classes for teens, everyone will have incredible adventures and make amazing memories. When planning a cruise on Princess, have the peace of mind knowing everyone in your family will have an enjoyable and memorable voyage.

https://youtu.be/s7YWaoWyCNw
https://youtu.be/WRcwLa5Pno4

MSC Cruises

MSC Cruises has come to the United States. Her newest ship, MSC Seaside is now sailing out of Miami, FL. MSC Cruises is known worldwide with 18 ships in 12 countries. Is MSC Cruises a cruise line for families? Yes! Best of all, Kids Sail Free on MSC. Check out this link to get all the 4-1-1 on activities for your kids.

My Choice(s)

Disney Cruise Line is my first choice for cruise line. It might not be for everyone, as Disney Cruise Line tends to be a little more pricey than other cruise lines. But, so much is included on a Disney cruise that you might pay more for on another cruise line. So, when you are planning a cruise, consider watching this video from Disney Cruise Line.

https://youtu.be/FJx2sb8BiKY

In my opinion, Royal Caribbean is a very close second to Disney Cruise Line for families with children. On certain Royal Caribbean ships, there are amenities that you might not find on a Disney Cruise ship. Some of them include: rock climbing walls, Flow Riders, Ice Skating/Bumper Cars, carousels, Aqua shows, and Zip Lines, just to name a few. Not all amenities are available on all Royal Caribbean ships. They all have Ocean Adventures, which is their kids club.

https://youtu.be/Z6H1mmRcu04

When I sailed on Oasis of the Seas, I wanted to learn as much as I could about the ship. I did this by trying to fit as much as I could into my day. A great way to plan your day is to view the Cruise Compass (daily newsletter) and the Royal Caribbean app.

TIP: Make sure you look at your newsletter or app to plan the next day. Bring a highlighter (maybe one color for each person in your family) and highlight the activities for each person.

Tip: If you search online many of the times you can get the daily newsletter for your itinerary. This is important so you can check out theme nights, types of shows and contests, and more. Because it’s not your exact sailing, some of the activities, showtimes, and more will differ.

I actually got up early and stayed up late. The nightlife was energetic while the mornings were a little more laid back. I will be sailing on Harmony of the Seas next October. I’m just as excited about this one as I get for Disney cruises.

https://youtu.be/_ThTbOGh254

I sailed on Brilliance of the Seas (a smaller Royal Caribbean ship) this October. Based on the opinions of five kids (ages 4-12) this ship is best left to families without small children. Even though there was a rock climbing wall, a small pool with a slide, mini-golf and Ocean Adventures, the younger kids complained they were bored. There were also teen areas, but they were small and my daughter (age 12) felt they were unwelcoming. While there were amenities, it was not enough to keep our kids entertained on our 4-night sailing.

Size Matters

As you can see, I’m a big-ship kind of girl. How do you know which ship to sail on? Some people like the smaller ships that are more quaint, while others enjoy the loads of amenities on the mega ships. The smaller ships have amenities as well, but maybe not as many as the larger ships which have more space.

Photo showing the size difference between Norwegian Spirit and Norwegian Escape in Tortola.
Notice the size difference between the quaint Norwegian Spirit and Norwegian Escape

I just sailed on Brilliance of the Seas in October 2018. She is about 1/4 the size of Oasis of the Seas, so why did I choose that ship? Well, my friends wanted to sail and asked us to go. My friend is a teacher and had specific dates her family could travel. I found a great deal for us on Brilliance of the Seas and had never embarked from Tampa, FL before. This would be another great experience I could share with my blog followers.

Read my 5-part review of Brilliance of the Seas.

What do I like so much about the bigger ships? I love all they have to offer. I am one of those who would rather not have a Casino on the ship I’m sailing on (I know…gasp!). This is why I love Disney Cruise Line so much. I’m a non-smoker and extremely allergic to cigarette smoke. Even though the casino’s have rooms for smoking, the smoke lingers and bothers me. Smoke in the main spaces was an issue on Norwegian Escape and Brilliance of the Seas. It was not an issue on Oasis of the Seas, probably because of the size of the ship. I was not able to enjoy activities the atrium on Brilliance of the Seas and Norwegian Escape as much as I would have like to have.

Norwegian Escape pool deck showing  the slides and St. Thomas in the background.
Norwegian Escape had large water slides and even a high-ropes course.

When the ships are larger, the crowds seem to be more dispersed throughout the ship on sea days. This makes lounging at the pools a little easier. Unfortunately, at the end of my 7-night voyage on Norwegian Escape, I still did not know my way around. The layout of the ship was confusing. Oasis of the Seas was much easier to navigate around. I figured out where things were by the end of the first night.

Another great feature on the newer ships I like are the interactive boards that are around the ship. Most ships are getting this feature.

Wayfinder on Oasis of the Seas

If you get lost, just click on the board and it will show you an interactive map. You can also check showtimes for live shows and movies as well as other activities around the ship. You can also see the dining times for each restaurant and in some instances, even check out the menus. Most cruise lines have an app you can install from iTunes or Google Play which have navigation.

So far my favorite mega ship was Oasis of the Seas. I’m putting together a full review of my sailing so check back for that review. The Royal Promenade on Oasis of the Seas makes you feel like you are walking into a very upscale mall. There are restaurants, bars, coffee houses, and shops the full-length of the Promenade. You will find plenty of places to sit and relax. I loved going down to the Promenade late at night. It was a great place to post and edit photos and start on my blogs. Most of the parades and street parties (deck parties on other ships) take place in the Promenade. My favorite parade was the DreamWorks Parade, but the 70’s party was fun as well!

Royal Promenade on Oasis of the Seas
Royal Promenade on Oasis of the Seas

As for the smaller ships, I have sailed on Disney Wonder (before it got re-imagined), then Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy, which are larger than Disney Wonder, but considerably smaller than the mega-ships out there. With the smaller ships you don’t have as many people. Also, sometimes the cruise staff to guest ratio is a little better. If you like quiet, more quaint vacations, then I’d choose a smaller ship. I’ve heard guests say they like the smaller ships because the ships have a more “classic” feel.

TIP: You can ask your travel planner (hopefully that’s me) for information about the smaller ships that are cruising to your desired destination. We have fact sheets about most ships so you can compare them with your liking.

Which Destination Should I Sail To?

The way I answer this question for myself is I consider if I plan on driving or flying? Most of the time we drive so that limits us to our destination. If we wanted to go to Alaska, we would have to fly out West, but all of our cruises have been Bahamas or Caribbean because we live just 7 hours from Port Canaveral, FL, 11 hours from Miami, and about 7.5 hours from Tampa. Not all cruise ships go to all destinations, so part of your travel planner’s job is to find out where you plan on sailing from and work from there.

A few things to consider:

Another question you can consider is if you want to see more wildlife in Alaska or bask on the sandy beaches of the Caribbean. If you like nature, an Alaskan cruise might be perfect for you. Further consideration is if you prefer warmer or cooler weather. If you are like me and have a phobia of being cold, then Alaska is probably not a good choice. I love to sit on the beach in ports or sunbathe on the pool decks (or on my balcony) in warm sun. That’s why we opt for the Caribbean and Bahamas cruises.

Another consideration is how many days you want to sail. Most Bahamas cruise itineraries consist of shorter cruises, whereas the Caribbean cruises are usually 4-nights and up, depending on where you want to cruise from. So, how long do you want to be on vacation?

Which ship should I choose?

This is another question that might give you limited options based on where you want to sail from. I wanted to sail on Symphony of the Seas for her inaugural sailing, but she was not in the United States. Harmony of the Seas (Oasis of the Seas’ sister ship) will be our home away from home for 7-nights this October out of Port Canaveral, FL! We cruised on Brilliance of the Seas out of Tampa, FL. It was not our first port of choice, but it was the only port that had 4-night sailings within our budget for that week.

If you want to sail on a specific Disney ship, it will depend on if it is in the port you want to sail from since they only have four ships. Some ships take turns with destinations between winter sailings and summer sailings. If getting on a specific ship is a priority, this is something your travel advisor can help you with…you might need to have flexible travel dates.

What is the best time of year to sail?

Best time based on weather

This can be a loaded question, but if you are asking about weather, anytime is a great time to sail to the Caribbean or Bahamas, but you are taking a risk for rough seas during Hurricane season! If you are looking to cruise to the Caribbean, the temperature stays pretty regular year round. But, if you want to cruise to Alaska, there are only certain months where the ships sail there, which are during the late spring, summer, and early fall in the United States.

Best time based on expense

The cheapest time to travel is typically late August, September, October, January, February, and the beginning of March. Schools usually start back the end of August and the beginning of September, so that’s when you will first see the cruise fares drop. Rates stay reasonable until November and December (holiday months). Summer months, as well as Christmas and New Years, are the most expensive times to travel.

Tip: If you travel during hurricane season, please purchase travel protection! Not only will travel protection protect you in case of a medical emergency, but also trip cancellation or delay due to weather.

What type of cabin should I choose?

If you are anything like me, you enjoy getting up at your leisure, and taking your time getting ready (unless you wake up at the last available second in order to not be late for work, so here I’m speaking of vacation time only). We normally get a stateroom with a verandah. I love sitting on my balcony watching the ship pull into port and getting some early fresh air while I’m still in my PJ’s. When you stay in an inside cabin, you do not have this luxury. Some people enjoy having room service sent to their cabin so they can enjoy coffee and breakfast on their balconies. Me, I prefer to hit the buffet.

My experience with different cabins.

Boardwalk Balcony View Room on Oasis of the Seas photo taken from the entry area.
Boardwalk Balcony room on Oasis of the Seas

I’ve never stayed in an inside cabin because I tend to get motion sick. Walking out on my balcony and getting fresh air when my stomach didn’t feel so well was so nice. I have stayed in a porthole (oceanview) room, but there were times I wished during that cruise that I could walk out to the balcony.

Sitting on my balcony at night and feeling the cool sea breeze as we sail is so peaceful. Sometimes I take my laptop with me and upload and edit photos. Other times I take a book out there and read (with a book light because the balcony lights are bright and might disturb other cabin guests around you).

Just be mindful that if you desire to sleep to the sounds of the waves, you will not have air conditioning in your cabin. The door must be closed to run the AC. Also, if you have a problem with sleep walking or children in your cabin, you definitely do not want to have the door ajar while you sleep.

My opinion about cabins and why.

Inner cabins are fine, balcony rooms offer a lot more and cost more, but in my opinion are worth the money. Much of the time, the cost difference between a balcony room and an inside room is not very much depending on the types of promotions for the cruise line. But, if you are on a tight budget and don’t plan on using your balcony much, an inside room might be a better option for you. Some cruise lines have inside rooms with virtual balconies (live feed where it looks like you have a balcony, such as on some of the Royal Caribbean ships) or virtual porthole rooms (such as on some of the Disney Cruise Line ships). Ask your travel advisor for the ships with this feature. You might not feel as claustrophobic with an inside room with virtual balconies or portholes.

What do I pack?

I wrote a blog on what to pack when planning a cruise. It’s a pretty complete list but you might want to take things out that don’t apply to you. If there are things you think I should add, please feel free to comment and let me know! I based this list on my cruising experience. I’ve been on 12 cruises and have number 13 planned for June and 14 planned for next October.

Should we book excursions?

Excursions are activities you participate in at your port of call. Some are active while others are not so active. Most excursions will let you know the restrictions for the activity, such as age, weight, height, and handicap. When planning a cruise, you want to consider the type of activities you want to participate in at ports and make sure you won’t have trouble with the restrictions. Read my blog about booking excursions here.

Do I need to purchase an Internet package?

Connect at Sea logo from Twitter

This is an important thing to consider when planning a cruise. The answer to this is if you feel the need to connect to life on land while you are at sea, I recommend purchasing the Internet Package before you embark. The pre-cruise packages are typically cheaper before embarkation day. Some people just can’t disconnect for a long period of time due to work requirements, family needs, etc. Prices differ between cruise lines. The speed and quality also differ among cruise lines. Check with your travel agent or cruise line for current pricing.

My experience with Internet at Sea

I’ve had experience using the Internet at Sea only on Royal Caribbean. Their internet package is called VOOM and it’s super fast and super-reliable. I was cruising alone for a training cruise and needed to check-in with my family back home and was only disconnected twice. Being able to post photos, video chat on Facebook, and write in my blog on my downtime was nice.

How much is the drink package?

Some people find this extremely important when planning a cruise. I did a recent blog post comparing drink packages among most major cruise lines. Click here to read all about it!

What about photo packages?

In my opinion, photo packages are worth it if you make it worth it. When we cruise on Disney Cruise Line, we always get the photo package, because, quite frankly, I love all the photos with characters in all their different costumes. Also, we always participate in formal/semi-formal night, which make great Christmas card photos. When planning a cruise, I purchase the All-photos Package ahead of time to save money. You can pre-order your cruise photo package at a discounted rate here.

We normally leave a 4-night cruise with around 200 photos, printed and the digital copies. On a 7-night, we are sitting around 350-400 photos. When you consider most photos are around $20 each, I think it makes it worth it!

I hope you found this article helpful for when you are thinking about planning a cruise! Contact me if you are ready to book your voyage! My services are always 100% free! I take the stress out of planning a cruise so you can just enjoy your voyage with no worries!

Contact Me

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OnceUponaCruise

I am an avid Disney fan, especially of the Disney cruises. Since learning of my love of travel, something I wasn't able to do as a child, I have decided I wanted to help others make magical memories. I became a personal vacation planner with Magical Vacation Planner in 2017. Since getting this job, I have traveled even more. I love sharing my travel tips with people, especially novice travelers. I hope you find my blog interesting and helpful. Be sure to subscribe if you like it. I post blogs on a regular basis.
First-time Cruiser Tips