Destination/Itinerary? Where to sail, length of cruise, ports of call, sailing dates, etc.?
Which cruise line and ship? There are many choices ranging from small to large ships with different amenities, themes, cruising styles, etc., catering to different groups.
Shore Excursions? Shore excursions can be very costly and difficult to plan because it's hard to find detailed information on cruise ports. When I discovered this problem, I wrote a few guides for my personal use. I shared the guides with a few friends. They liked my guides and encouraged me to write more guides and make them broadly available. The rest is history.
The internet is filled with excellent, easy to find, descriptive information on cruise destinations, itineraries, length of cruise, sailing dates, etc. Check websites for cruise lines and travel agencies that cover cruises. Read descriptive text on line, watch videos, and request brochures.
The difficulty in judging a cruise line or ship is that many of the important issues are subjective. Cruise lines do a good job of describing the size of the ship, features, amenities, and style of cruising such as formal, informal, casual, focused on families with small children, adults, singles, seniors, etc.
But that doesn't answer the question, "Will I like that ship?"
Ask friends who have sailed on that ship for their opinion/recommendation.
An excellent source of information is Cruise Critic at www.CruiseCritic.com It's my favorite cruise website!
Cruise Critic has thousands of reviews with highly detailed information on cruise ships.
Cruise Critic is free to join. Here is my list of compelling reasons to become a member of Cruise Critic:
- Extensive, high quality reviews of cruise lines/ships: This makes it easy to select a cruise line/ship.
- Ask a question in the blogs about any aspect of cruising, ports of call, shore excursions, etc. You'll get prompt, accurate answers from people with extensive cruising experience and knowledge of the details.
- Join the Roll Call for your ship/itinerary to meet, and get to know, people who will be sailing with you. Plan shore excursions together. Passengers who have organized a private shore excursion tour will invite you to join their tour if they have room. My wife and I often join these private tours.
The primary language spoken on the ship is important.
We sailed on Costa from Venice to the Greek Islands. We loved the ship, food, entertainment and the ports, but there were seven languages spoken on the ship. I'm not multilingual and only 50 of 2500 passengers on the ship spoke English as their native tongue. I could not talk to other passengers and felt isolated at open seating breakfast and lunch.
A major Italian cruise line (Costa) has mostly European passengers when sailing in Europe. The same Costa ship had 96% English speaking passengers when I sailed on it in the Caribbean.
When sailing in Europe, I choose a cruise ship on which English is the primary language.
Demographics are important.
Who will be on the ship? Do I have similar interests? For example, I avoid Caribbean cruises during Spring Break when college students drink and party on ships.
Maiden voyage on a new cruise ship?
New ships offer exciting designs, amenities, activities and entertainment venues. However, the maiden voyage may attract passenger critics determined to find fault with the new ship. I've seen passenger critics complain too much about personal/petty issues detracting from an otherwise great cruise on a new ship. Hence, I usually avoid "maiden" voyages.
Meeting other passengers: My wife and I prefer open seating restaurants to share meals with other passengers and make new friends. It's easy and enjoyable having conversations with other passengers when everyone is having a good time.
NOTE: These are my opinions based on my priorities
The staff of waiters, cabin stewards, entertainers, officers, etc. has a profound effect on the mood of passengers. When judging a ship, my first question is "How skillful are the staff in acknowledging passengers as individuals, greeting them in a personal way, understanding individual customer priorities, and providing service to exceed passenger expectations?”
There will be occasional problems. The issue is whether the staff is trained and resourceful enough to correct a problem quickly reducing it to a mere speed bump on a long road.
The officers' training, experience, standards, skill, and decision making process:
- Quality of customer service:
It's a report card on the hotel manager's effectiveness in selecting, training, and motivating staff.
- Any cruise ship can deliver an outstanding cruise once,
but do they have a track record of consistent, outstanding customer service?
My friends tell me about a great cruise followed by a poor cruise on the same ship! The excuse is, “it was a new crew”.
- I gain valuable insight by attending presentations by the officers.
I also note how safety drills are performed, the safety and health ratings on unannounced Coast Guard inspections, and how the captain makes decisions when issues arise that could affect safety.
- Management is the key to safe passage on a ship.
I've observed how Princess captains make the right decisions quickly with a man overboard issue in the Atlantic, a passenger evacuated at sea for heart surgery, need to change course and speed to avoid storms, etc.
- Management is the key to consistently deliver stellar customer service.
Delivering stellar customer service must be an herculean task considering the fact that 1200 people from 40 countries work on a ship under short term contracts
I wondered, "How do they do it?" I took the opportunity to interview Guenther Kopf, the hotel manager on Ruby Princess. He explained that customer service depends on selecting the right people, defining their jobs clearly, training them well, evaluating performance, providing meaningful feedback, and incentivising them to consistently provide stellar customer service. He cited specific examples. He wasn't quoting ideas he read in a book; he could write the book. Guenther has a vision and a plan! It works for me. Outstanding hotel managers create the environment for an outstanding cruise.
My cruise experience depends on how the cruise line and ship are managed. If I can find the best managed company for my cruising style, I'll sail on their ships because they'll consistently deliver the best cruise experience for me.
My choice is Princess Cruises. Our cruises have been very good to excellent sailing over 600 days on Princess ships.