With over 300 (and growing) cruise ships sailing the oceans and rivers around the world, it’s no wonder many of us face a huge dilemma in our travel planning?  Which ship?  Where will it take us?  When should we go?

This decision doesn’t need to be overwhelming, though.  With a handful of simple guidelines, you can narrow down the list of options to a manageable few.  Don’t forget to talk with a travel agent too, since they are great resources of information (and deals) you won’t find elsewhere.

Here are the five filters you can use to find that excellent adventure!

Royal Princess – the largest Princess class, but still half the size of mega-ships

1) It’s the deal.

There’s no getting around it – we all love a deal.  Last minute specials or far in advance planning can help you score some of the best ones, as can travel agents with packages that include freebies like gratuities and beverage packages.  Waiting until the date is near means you take the space that’s left; planning too far out gives you accommodation choices but maybe not the deepest discounts.

It’s a fact, though, that cruise lines are constantly running specials.  Are they as special as you want?  Cruise ships book up from the bottom and top, the most expensive cabins (there are only a few in this category on any ship) and the interiors or least expensive (best deals).  If you’re willing to settle for what’s left, wait until the last minute, but don’t count on having exactly what you want.

2) It’s the destinations (and dates).

If you want to see Alaska, you have a window of opportunity, roughly May to October.  That’s the ‘season’, just like Caribbean is more packed with choices in the Northern Hemisphere winter months and South America (Cape Horn) is our North American winter months too.  If you’re picking for the place, use that as your first filter.

Know too that if you’re traveling with only adults in your party, you might like the shoulder periods when kids are in school.  That doesn’t mean there won’t be any kids on board, but it will feel less like a family vacation camp.  For example, May in Alaska or September in the Mediterranean are prime adult times.

Finally, consider the weather where you’re going.  If you hate heat, plan a shoulder season trip to climes near the Equator or the local summer season.  If you’re worried about rough seas on oceanic crossings, calmer waters of summers are often the best – though not guaranteed with the changes wrought by global climate change. Some places, like capes to the south or icy straits to the north, are always a challenge.

A pair of AmaWaterways river ships on the Danube – all lines serving this area being about the same size

3) It’s the duration.

If you have a week and you can’t stretch that, you’re looking for a 7-day.  Remember to figure in travel times.  We West Coast folks spend a day heading to Florida.  East Coasters need a day to fly home.  Europe, Australia, Japan – all of those become even more complicated with overnights and time/date changes.

Don’t overlook options for add-ons too.  Often the priciest part of a cruise is the overseas flights to get to a port.  Leave early, so you know you’ll be able to meet your ship (and any lost luggage catches up to you).  Hang around for a day or too and see the sights of that disembarkation locale.  You’ve spent the money to get there, and when, if ever, will you return?

4) It’s the diversions.

Diversions come in numerous forms – activities at sea, shore excursions, traveling personalities, etc.  If you like a particular kind of fun, like amusement park-styled rides and big shows, you might prefer a mega-ship.  They function like a freestanding all-inclusive resort.  If that kind of noise and busyness makes you nuts, pick a small ship with a more elbow room.

(More on this in another post on cruise line personalities, coming soon.)

Shore excursions from cruise line to cruise line are typically the same in large ports of call.  In some places, you might find multiple ships in port from different lines, all at the same time, and people all doing largely the same thing.  If you want a unique shore trip like visiting petroglyphs outside of Mazatlán (yes, they are there), you probably need to go outside what the cruise line offers you (and major tour companies too).

(More on how to select shore excursions in another post, coming soon.)

5) It’s the description.

This might seem vague, so let me give you an example.  Panama Canal – you can see it via the old locks or the new ones.  You can go through from north (Caribbean) to south (Pacific) or vice versa.  You can do it on a regular itinerary (the same ship goes back and forth on a two week cycle) or a segment of a world cruise (one way).

The same can apply to sections of the Danube River in Europe, trips around New Zealand, and other places too.  Check the ports the ship will call in, if there are any overnights anywhere (fun to see a city at night), and the size of the ship, allowing it to get into places others cannot.

As a final caution, don’t rely solely on the tales told to you by others about a trip.  If they liked it, how do their travel preferences and expectations align with yours?  If they didn’t like it, they could have hit a bad patch of water, or crabby shipmates, or (like us) a longshoremen’s strike in Chile!  Do your homework and ask industry insiders (like travel consultants/agents) for advice – you’ll create the trip that’s special for you, one you’ll be sharing stories about for years to come!

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