Cruising with MJ – The Series
Cruising with MJ – Setting Sail on Your Own the MJ Way
It’s probably no surprise that I get a lot of emails about cruise vacations. In fact, cruising, and information about it is one of the top 2 drivers of visits to this blog. As you know, I am a proponent of using an experienced, professional travel agent for booking some vacations, including cruises. Travel agents can help you build experiences that are hard to replicate on your own. On the other hand, if you are just booking a quick 3 to 7 night “get away” cruise to the Bahamas or Caribbean, you might not be in the market for any kind of special experiences or private shore excursions. I sometimes book cruises on my own, and I thought a post on researching, planning, and booking your own cruise might be useful.
Researching Your Options
There are 2 sites that I recommend prospective cruisers visit before they book a cruise. Cruise Critic, and The Avid Cruiser. Regarding Cruise Critic, there’s the main site with professional and personal reviews, cruise news, etc. Then there are the message boards, which you might think of as the FlyerTalk or Milepoint of cruising. The message boards are quite entertaining, and can contain some good information. You can also visit a Roll Call thread for each cruise. For example, there’s a thread for the February 16, 2013, sailing of Oasis of the Seas. Those threads can be great connection points for either meeting your fellow cruisers (It’s not unusual for there to be a Cruise Critic reception on cruises of 7 nights or longer). Many times, cruisers use these threads to put together private tours and split the cost. It’s up to you whether you actively participate in the boards or specific cruise threads, but they can both be good sources of information to help you decide what you want to do during your cruise. I’ve been a longtime reader of The Avid Cruiser, and find his writing and professional reviews to be very useful when planning a cruise. You can also email me. I’m always happy to answer questions about cruising (or anything else). If I don’t know an answer to your question, I will try and point in the right direction to find what you are looking for.
Also, you should consult the website of the particular cruise company you are thinking of booking. You can explore deck plans of the ship you are considering, and research any number of things about your particular cruise itinerary from the number and types of restaurants on board, to pictures of staterooms to the typical weather in your ports of call. There’s also a section on ship sponsored shore excursions that you can peruse as well.
Booking Your Cruise
Since this post is about booking a cruise “on your own,” I’m not going to talk about traditional travel agents. I have personal experience booking cruises 3 ways, my travel agent, an airline portal, and with the cruise line. I’ll speak to all of those, but focus on booking direct with the cruise line. Booking with the cruise line is not all that much unlike booking a typical airline ticket. You go to the site, search for a cruise by date, destination, port of embarkation, or ship, pick a stateroom, and confirm your cruise. If you are booking outside the final payment window (typically around 60 days prior to your cruise), you have the option of just making a downpayment. You can come back to the website later, and make your final payment, or make partial payments along the way towards your cruise.
Once you are booked you can consult the cruise line website for information on ports of call, and research other options to enhance your trip. I am very agnostic when it comes to shore excursions. I will say that if you happen to miss your port of call for any reason, getting your money back for a shore excursion is easy if it’s booked through the cruise line. They simply credit your onboard account for the value of the excursion. If you book on your own, you are “on your own” in getting your money back. Just depends on the terms with your tour operator, so know before you go. You can also use your cruise line’s website for booking enhancements to your cruise vacation like inclusive beverage packages, spa appointments, specialty restaurant reservations, and in some cases onboard shows.
There are multiple ways to book cruises. I’ve successfully used airline booking portals as well, and they work. These sites are typically managed by an online travel agency specializing in cruises. Book through them, get bonus miles. Nothing wrong with them, but you will not have as much control over your cruise reservation as you do when booking direct with the cruise line. To make changes to your plans, or make payments on your cruise, you will need to go through the airline cruise agency. It’s not a problem, just something to be aware of. The same is true for any travel agent. You deal with the travel agent for most details of your cruise booking, but can go to the cruise line’s website to book shore excursions, and other enhancements.
OK, you’ve researched cruises, picked one, and booked it on your own. What next? Start thinking about getting to the port and things you will do on your cruise. Next week, I will post on preparing to sail.