If you love researching and planning your cruise vacation yourself, here are some essential criteria to consider when planning your own cruise.

How to pick a cruise

Start by doing searches on cruise line and travel agent websites by:

  • Date (by month)
  • Location – could be a region like Europe or Caribbean or transatlantic/transpacific/repositioning
  • Length in number of days
  • Cruise line
  • Name of ship
  • Port of departure

Cruise Time Tables is an excellent tool for discovering and narrowing options.

You can select a region, like the Caribbean, from the drop down menu to see all options. Or type the name of a port you want to visit, like Cozumel, and see all the ships with itineraries going to that port. If you want to narrow it down more, enter a month of sailing or type in a cruise line or ship name.

Pool aboard Harmony of the Seas.

Who’s going on the cruise?

It’s important to pick the right cruise for the right audience. If the ship doesn’t match the needs of the guests, they might not want to cruise again.

First, consider who will embark the cruise. Activities and amenities can vary greatly between cruise lines and ships.

Is it just you and a spouse? Any kids coming? A group of friends or extended family members? A family reunion?

If it’s important to have kids activities and a kids club, stick to Royal Caribbean, Carnival or Norwegian. They are more focused on family entertainment.

If you’re more interested in relaxation, pampering and dining, Princess, Holland America and Celebrity might be a better fit.

How far is everyone from the port? This could also affect choices, since travel to and from the port can vary depending how far people are coming from.

The truth is, there are so many options out there, the hardest part is to narrow it down. Start with the people cruising and what they’re interested in doing on board.

Atrium of Empress of the Seas (c) 2016 Alyce Meserve

Why choose to cruise?

Cruising offers a unique opportunity to visit several different places while only unpacking once. Ships are not just transportation, they are also dining and entertainment.

What do you want from your cruise? Transportation or to enjoy the ship itself? The answer to this question can really help you narrow down which line and ship you choose.

People who are primarily interested in the itinerary will choose the cruise line and ship that offer that itinerary on a date that works with their schedule.  Destination seekers can enjoy any size ship or cruise line, and often can find really good deals on the older, smaller ships in the fleet.

People who cruise to enjoy everything the ship has to offer will be more focused on the amenities and activities the ship has to offer, and not so much where the ship goes.

Families and active people will find more to do on a large, newer ship by Carnival, Disney, Norwegian Breakaway class, Royal Caribbean Oasis, Anthem or Freedom class, primarily due to the vast number of choices on board for all ages.

There are heaps of physical challenges like on board surfing, escape rooms, laser tag, zip line, coasters, rock climbing, etc that are all included in the cruise fare.

For more relaxed entertainment, there are plenty of crew-sponsored relaxing activities like trivia, quiz game shows, belly flop contests, cooking demonstrations, bingo, lectures and demonstrations, and meet-the-cast gatherings.

If you prefer a more mature crowd, fine dining, live music, small venues, and a more sophisticated experience, Celebrity, Princess, Holland America, Cunard and the luxury lines may suit you best.

Sting Ray City, Grand Cayman

Where do you want to go?

Is there a particular place you’ve been dreaming of?

Narrow down your choices by selecting a region. Maybe there’s a very specific type of cruise, like Alaska, on your radar.

Some cruise lines offer more destinations than others.

  • New England/Canada – late summer/early fall
  • North America – East coast North-south, West coast – north/south, Gulf of Mexico/Caribbean, Panama canal
  • South America – both coasts and Antarctica
  • Europe – Mediterranean, Baltic/Russia/Scandinavia/UK, Arctic circle (only during summer solstice)
  • Asia – China, Japan, Thailand, Singapore, etc.
  • South Pacific & ANZ – Australia and New Zealand and nearby islands like Bali and Bora Bora
  • Africa – few lines go here due to safety issues, but a few stop in Cape Town, South Africa
  • Transatlantic – Europe to Caribbean, Boston/NY or South America
  • Transpacific – Seattle/Vancouver to Japan or Sydney/Auckland via Hawaii
  • World Voyages – Only a few lines offer this
Man cooking at a lunch stand in Puerto Costa Maya, Mexico.

What do you want to do in port?

History & Culture

All ports have coach bus tours, trolley tours, guided tours, walking tours, segway tours, or private tours. If you want to get a sense of the local culture and history, a guided tour will inform you in about 2-3 hours of the area.

Adventure

If you want to be active outdoors, you have many options for activities. SCUBA, snorkel, hike, kayak, zip line, horseback riding, ATV riding, Jeep offroad and boat trips are easy to find in most ports.

Nature

For animal lovers wanting to see wildlife, such as in Alaska, focus on ports with great whale watching, hiking or submarine trips. Juneau, Hoonah and Ketchican offer lots of wild life. Sitka is known best for its Russian heritage.

In the Caribbean, every port has water sports, catamarans, water tours, booze cruises and beaches.

Beach Break

The Caribbean has amazing beaches. Some visitors like to get day passes in regular ports to all inclusive resorts.  Most cruise lines have their own private island, so you walk off the ship and you’re at the beach.

Wake of Harmony of the Seas (c) 2017 Alyce Meserve

For how long do you want to cruise?

The length of your cruise can dramatically narrow down your options for lines and ships.

If you only have 3-4 days available to cruise due to work or schedule constraints, your choice of ships is limited, because the larger ships like Royal Caribbean Oasis class and Norwegian Breakaway class tend to revolve around 7-day itineraries.

Maybe you’d like to take a longer 10-15 day trip. You can book a single itinerary that takes a longer voyage, or you could book back to back cruises of 5-7 days long each.

Transatlantic and repositioning cruises frequently are 8-14 day journeys where you disembark in an entirely different port (perhaps different country) than from which you left.

When do you want to cruise?

Most people have some sense of where they want to go, like Alaska, the beach or Europe.

Alaska and Europe, for example, are seasonal, so you have to plan these for the late spring/summer/early fall months. The Caribbean and Mexico have warm water and plenty of sunshine year-round.

Maybe it doesn’t matter when or where you want to go–you just want to go. You can search by price or number of days.

Certain months have higher prices than others.

Generally speaking, anytime kids are out of school or college for breaks (summer, holidays, spring), then the cruise fare will be higher because the demand is greater.

If your schedule is flexible, try the off-season months like January through March or October through early December.

Airplane wing on taxiway

How will you get to the port?

Be prepared for your journey of getting to and from the port. You have many options.

  • Drive 🚙 – If you have a family or a group, driving together might make the most sense, unless it’s a great distance.
  • Fly ✈ – Usually most efficient but can be costly depending on time of year and “nickel and dime” policies by airlines.
  • Bus 🚌 – Coach/City – Catch a Greyhound and save on travel costs. Trying to save a few bucks? Be brave and take city transit to the port.
  • Train 🚅 – Relaxing and you can get a cabin with beds if you purchase first class. May have very limited departure times.
  • Rideshare 🚗 – If you live near a port, maybe taking a Lyft or Uber is most effective.

Be sure you know exactly where the port is.

Orlando is not actually a port

While it is listed as a departure port, Orlando, FL is not a port city! It’s landlocked smack in the middle of Florida, but some cruise lines advertise it as an embarkation port.

Cape Canaveral is the location of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on the Atlantic coast, and so is Port Canaveral. It’s about a 45-50 min drive each way if you use the Orlando airport.

Harmony of the Seas, Carnival Victory and Norwegian Escape in Puerto Costa Maya, Mexico (c) 2017 Alyce Meserve

Pick the cruise line that best fits your needs

Carnival and Royal Caribbean are the largest and most popular cruise lines. Norwegian competes in the same market, but they’re not as well known or have as big a fleet. However, they all have very competitive fares and feature some high tech, bold, fun ships.

People will give you their opinions, but don’t take that as fact. While one person is down on a line, others are fanatics for it. Try the cruise line once and see for yourself.

Disney is very popular for families and even some older adults, but it comes with a higher price tag.

Celebrity, Princess, Holland America and Cunard are more sophisticated lines focused on upscale dining and entertainment. All have programs/clubs for kids, but they’re not as good as Carnival or Royal Caribbean for kids activities.

Virgin Voyages will enter the market in a few years with it’s first ship, and will probably compete for the same market segment as the 4 lines named above, but Virgin will be age 18+, no kids.

If you desire something more specialized, the smaller luxury lines like Azamara, Viking Ocean, Oceana, Crystal have more to offer in terms of immersive port visits. They also feature more personalized service because the ratio of passengers to crew is much smaller.

With these examples you can see why choice of cruise line is more than just itinerary or price. They all feature different things, so that’s why it’s important  to research which specifics you want to focus on.

How not to pick a cruise

Don’t just pick the cheapest cruise and book it.

You may be disappointed with the age, amenities and demographics if the ship or doesn’t suit your style. The port may not be appealing if you arrive without any idea what to do in town.

Maybe you picked a ship with too little to do, or picked one that’s so busy and crazy that you can’t relax and enjoy reading that book you’ve been trying to get to for 3 years.

Another problem with being a price shopper is that you may be stuck with a cabin you don’t like. You might think inside cabins are a bargain, but if you have trouble waking up without natural light each morning, you will feel like you’re sleeping in a closet.

This might turn you off to cruising, which is a disappointment because it’s so enjoyable.