Cruises are a great option for folks who haven’t done a lot of traveling or want to get a sampling of a particular region of the world. You can hit up a few Caribbean islands, see the coast of Norway, travel along the Rhine River, or weave through the Inside Passage in Alaska, all at a reasonable price.
I’m not an expert cruiser by any means, but I’ve been on a couple, and I can offer you two bits of advice based on my experiences.
1. Book excursions with local companies, not the cruise ship. The ship’s excursions will cost you two or three times as much as the same trip with a local guide, and you’ll likely end up in a huge group of other cruisers. Instead, use cruisecritic.com’s forums or do some independent research to hook up with a local tour company at each port.
In Belize, we found Nacho and Cynthia, a local couple who took six of us in their van to a cave tubing and zip line adventure, with lunch. (Cave tubing is pretty fun—you float down a river that runs through dark caves in the rainforest.) We paid about half what the ship was charging for the same excursion. We also beat the huge cruise-ship crowd by at least an hour and had the place largely to ourselves. Because our group was so small and therefore quick, we were able to do more and see more.
2. Before you choose a cruise, look at the dining options. Most cruise ships assign you a time and a table for dinner. So you have to show up at, say, 7:30pm, and you have to sit at a large table with other passengers. You’ll spend all week with your tablemates. If you like to meet new people, this is a great way to do it. But if you get a loud talker or a close talker or a nonstop talker, then you’re stuck.
Some cruise lines, like Norwegian, offer “freestyle dining.” You can eat whenever you want, sit wherever you want, and visit any of the many restaurants on the ship. This route offers more flexibility and more privacy.
Cruises aren’t for everyone. While they do make traveling easy, they are also pretty limiting. You usually get only a day at each port, and between ports you’re stuck with whatever (usually cheesy) activities the ship offers. But if you can avoid some of the bigger pitfalls—overpriced and overcrowded excursions and annoying dining room experiences—you’ll have a memorable trip.