• Have you ever thought about going on a cruise but been put off because this is something you’re not familiar with, or because you’ve heard or read things about cruises that put you off?
  • We asked Tom Burke of Toms Cruise Blog to provide a practical guide to today’s cruise holidays and perhaps also to puncture a few myths
  • Tom and his wife have been cruising together since 2005 and are paying customers for all of their cruises – so you know that their reviews are honest and unbiased! They most recently returned from a cruise around the Western Mediterranean.

If you decide that you want to try a cruise, then there is a whole world of choice available to you. From the location of the cruise – you can cruise anywhere in the world now; its length - anything from two nights to four months; the style - from extremely formal and posh to as laid back as you like; and to the quality - from real luxury with 5* service to something considerably more basic, there’s so much choice it can be baffling. So let’s quickly go through this.

Location

The cruise location brings with it a key question for British passengers: to fly or not to fly? The advantage of a fly-cruise is the time saved, which can be considerable: you fly to a port where you join the ship and have your cruise, and then fly home at the end of it. Many lines do 7-night fly cruises to the Mediterranean, for example.  In contrast, a Mediterranean cruise from a UK port will probably be at least 14 nights because of the time required for the ship to get to and from the Mediterranean and you’ll still only get 7 or 8 nights in the Mediterranean. However, you avoid the hassle of flying. Other fly-cruise destinations include the Caribbean (usually in winter) and more exotic locations, while UK—based destinations include the Baltic and the Norwegian fjords.

The Ship

Next is the ship itself, and its on-board facilities. The good news is that there’s a ship to suit everybody, ranging from older, smaller ships often with a very traditional approach to very large new ships with a wide range of up-to-the minute facilities. These larger ships tend to be run by the mass-market lines, e.g. Royal Caribbean, Princess Cruises, P&O, Celebrity Cruises, NCL, and the two Italian companies, Costa and MSC. There are also the more up-market & luxury lines - they generally have recently-built middling or smaller-sized ships, as they don’t believe that a truly 5* experience can be had alongside thousands of other passengers.

On Board Experience

When it comes to the on-board experience, you may have heard stories about ‘dressing for dinner’, and being stuck, night after night, with the same dinner companions. It’s fair to say that’s what UK-based cruising has traditionally done. However, things have changed. On most lines passengers can now eat dinner at a time to suit themselves and not be stuck with the same companions for the whole cruise. Many of the newer ships have ‘extra’ restaurants. These can involve an extra cost, but the food is cooked to order and is better than in the main dining rooms.

Some lines (e.g. Cunard and P&O) do still feature formal nights, generally two per week, on which men are asked to wear either a suit (dinner or dark business suit) and ladies are invited to wear anything from a cocktail dress to a full gown. (There are places on the ship where the dress code is not required.) However, other lines providing cruises from the UK have less formal policies which may be expressed as a suggestion rather than a requirement. (Interestingly, many of the luxury lines don’t bother - they simply assume that passengers will dress appropriately.)

Going ashore

You may have heard that the only way of getting ashore is to go on organised excursions, but that’s not so. In almost all ports passengers are perfectly free to go ashore on their own, and to do what they want; the issue comes with what there is to do actually at the port. Many of the Spanish ports are good in this regard as the ship docks either right in the heart of town or nearby. The Italian ports are rather different - e.g. Civitavecchia, the port for Rome, is actually about 60 kilometres from the Eternal City - and in these it’s generally easier to do an organised excursion. Finally there are a very few ports (e.g. St Petersburg) where there are restrictions on going ashore and you can only do trips with approved excursion providers, you’re not allowed to wander around on your own. Finally, there is one big advantage in doing an excursion organised by the cruise line- the ship will not sail until all the excursions have got back!

There’s much more advice that can be offered - the best time to book; paying for things while on board; entertainment. There are many independent websites that offer that advice so I suggest a quick Google search. (Try to make sure you’re looking at a UK-focused site, as there are differences between UK and American practices.) If you decide you want to do a cruise, I would strongly suggest booking the first one through a travel agent. Try to find one that specialises in cruises; there are a number of these on-line, or there are some ‘bricks and mortar’ places as well. Once you’ve done one you’ll more than likely want to do more!

Don’t forget to check that your insurance provider covers your cruise when you take out your policy.