Choosing Cruises, Cabins and Best Cruise Ships 2016

A Curacao cruise ship, Caribbean

A massive cruise ship dominates Curaço island, Caribbean. Photo  by Robert Pittman.

Cruises

cruise ship off jamaica, ocho rios.

A cruise ship in Jamaica’s Ocho Rios. Photo by reinhard.

Cruising is a terrific way to stay in a mobile ‘hotel’ with all the comfort, amenities and security yet visit varied dream destinations without lining up at airports. Also cruising avoids stressing out on planes and public transport, eating crude food, or experiencing foreign language issues and endlessly negotiating the next tourist move.

Of course the downside is frequently being surrounded by hundreds – if not thousands – of other ‘cruisers’ with all their noise and mayhem, visiting your dream destinations alongside these same massed cruisers. And there’s often a limited number of dining and drinking options onboard, cabins may be smaller than an equivalent hotel would offer and, of course, sea-sickness.

The Bugcrew travel on cruise ships irregularly due to our desire to visit major attractions at our own pace and with as few fellow travelers as possible. Also some of us get seasick in the bath.

Our favourite cruise was down the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea and out into the Bismarck Sea to visit the Trobriand Islands on a small Expedition-style catamaran. Loved the experience but not the inevitable 24/7 nausea once we reached open sea.
Here are a few cruise tips. To be clear we get no benefit – financial or otherwise – from any cruise lines mentioned here.

Choosing a cruise

A spa-verandah cabin on Koningsdam, a holland-america cruise ship

A spa-verandah cabin on Koningsdam, a Holland America cruise ship.

• First you will need to choose a destination, bearing in mind your prime motivation. Is it a good value vacation in the sun to escape a dreary winter? (That’s why Caribbean cruises are so popular!) Can you visit exotic places in complete comfort and safety with every niggling detail taken care of, including onshore costs?

• Second choose a cruise style. There may be limited alternatives in some areas but popular options are:

Family cruises – usually large ships with plenty of entertainment possibilities).

Destination cruises (which maximise time visiting onshore sights and thus need less onboard attractions).

Expedition cruises (for adventure and education, usually smaller ships going to places like the Antarctic, Amazon River, Galapagos Islands).

Spa/Fitness cruises (large or mid-size in sunny seas).

Gourmet cruises.

Singles cruises.

LGBT cruises.

• Third choose the size of vessel you wish to travel on.

Smaller ships will be more intimate, focused and making friends should be easier but they roll more in high seas and have few alternatives if the food or company doesn’t suit.

Larger ships are more stable, offer a huge number of dining and entertainment options but can be impersonal and visiting magical land-based sights along with hundreds of other cruisers may be easy but will compromise the magic. Wandering lonely as a cloud? Not.

Choosing a cabin

• Seasickness. If you are sensitive to motion sickness then choose a cabin that sways/rolls the least. These are situated near to the centre of any ship (side-to-side as well as bow{front}-to-stern{back} and low down. You might imagine these are the cheaper cabins because they will have less views but you can still find staterooms (large and luxurious cabins) with balconies that are much better located to survive the occasional rock ‘n’ roll incident.

• Cabin styles. There are basically four types of cabin, whatever the cruise line chooses to call them.

1] Inside, meaning it’s a small room with no window onto the sea.

2] Outside (aka Oceanview), also small but with a view through some kind of glass porthole or window.

3] Balcony is a larger room with direct access to a private balcony, which is actually more like a verandah. Pricing rises quite steeply for this benefit.

4]Finally, for a bit of extravagance you could splash out on a Suite/Stateroom which will offer more space, separate living and sleeping areas and other luxury extras such as a jacuzzi, kitchenette and so on. However, Disney’s four cruise ships offer a different take on staterooms in that they are not luxury per se, they are designed for families.

• Cabin noise. Regular cruisers usually have ex-cabin priorities such as being near to the pool deck or to the night entertainment facilities or to their favourite dining area so it’s easier to commute. But the downside of this proximity may be noise at a time when you want peace and quiet so if you don’t mind a bit more of a walk in exchange for the sound of silence pick a cabin further away. Experts say the best scenario for tranquility is a cabin above and below other cabins.
Other sources of noise can be service areas or laundrettes nearby; bars and entertainment facilities near, above or below; and engine vibration or noise affecting cabins low down in the stern (rear) of the ship.

Best Cruise Ships in 2016

Best cruise ships overall award as voted by thousands of members of Cruise Critic. All rankings are based on review ratings for cruises taken in 2015

Large Ships (over 2,000 passengers) Best Overall

An overview of St Thomas cruise ships, USVI, the Caribbean

A panorama of cruise ships in St Thomas, USVI, Caribbean. Photo by Robert Pittman.

1: Disney Dream, part of The Walt Disney Company, entered service in 2011. It is based in Port Canaveral, Florida, and carries between 2,500 and 4,000 passengers on three and four-day cruises to the Bahamas.
Disney Dream’s speciality is family cruises which it does superbly with brilliant use of high technology, humour and modern, entertaining trickery. That being said the environment is not only suited to kids, with high quality dining, bar district, dancing, spa, pools, sun deck and shore excursions that are only for adults, tho’ it would be a bit odd to travel on this ship without your own children.
Most passengers are from USA or Canada. Dream also won best entertainment and best cruises to the Bahamas.
The main downside is the brevity of the cruises.

2: Disney Fantasy, another family-driven Disney cruise ship that entered service in 2012. Fantasy is also based in Port Canaveral, Florida, and carries up to 4,000 passengers but cruises are longer at 7 nights and the routes are East or West Caribbean islands, including a stop at Disney’s private island, Castaway Cay.
Fantasy is said by some to be superior to Dream in the areas of adult facilities such as interesting bars and sun decks as well as more activities on offer and a better length of cruise at a week.
Fantasy also won top ranking for best cabins, best service and best for families.

3: Celebrity Reflection, a 3,000 passenger ship operated by Celebrity Cruises and popular with mainly middle-class, middle-age couples, with elegance, sophisticated art, terrific service and first-class dining. Her maiden voyage was 2012.

From April to October Celebrity Reflection tours the Mediterranean/Adriatic from Civitavecchia port near Rome, Italy, while November to March the ship cruises the Western or Eastern Caribbean from Miami, Florida, US. The ships gets more families with children on the winter Caribbean runs.

Small Ships (under 1,000 passengers) Best Overall

A Galapagos cruise in the Celebrity Xpedition small cruise ship, Ecuador

A Galapagos cruise in the Celebrity Xpedition small cruise ship, Ecuador.

1: MS Xpedition is a small cruise ship at just 296 ft (90 m) long. Launched in 2001 it holds no more than 96 passengers – generally Americans – and currently specialises in cruising to and around the Galapagos Islands for Celebrity Cruises. The ship’s shallow draft allows it to enter ports and anchor close to shore for excursions, impossible for larger cruise ships.

In their words: “Designed not just for travel, but for exploration, this 100-guest mega-yacht sails to the Galapagos Islands, one of the world’s last pristine environments, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Our knowledgeable crew, environmentally sound ship design, and Galapagos National Park-certified onboard naturalists all help to preserve this delicate archipelago, while enlightening you to its natural and evolutionary significance. It’s a journey like no other”.

Viking Star small cruise ship infinity pool

The Viking Star small cruise ship’s infinity pool.

2: Viking Star. This 930-passenger ship launched in 2015 specialises in spending more time in port so passengers can explore destinations rather than enjoy (endure?) long voyages. The state-of-the-art vessel offers less in the way of shipboard entertainments than its larger competitors, though the large and luxurious Nordic Spa is very popular and the Scandi design is striking but comfortable. Viking Star is not child friendly.

Viking Ocean Cruises in their own words: “In her debut season Viking Star was awarded the cruise industry’s highest honors including being named Best New Ocean Ship and receiving a 5-star rating by the editors of Cruise Critic, receiving the highest rating in the mid-size ship category in Berlitz Cruising and Cruise Ships 2016, being heralded by CNN as the world’s best new cruise ship.”

Paul Gaugin cruise ship in Bora-Bora, South Pacific

Paul Gaugin small cruise ship in Bora-Bora, the South Pacific.

3: Paul Gaugin. With just 330 passengers and 214 crew there is no shortage of great service and gourmet cuisine on this French Polynesia/South Pacific cruise ship that sails out of Papeete, Tahiti. Passengers spend a fair amount of time ashore visiting islands and snorkeling or doing scuba off the ship and not much on shipboard entertainment which is a little limited. Passengers tend to be middle-aged couples from America and France with a handful of other nationalities, especially English-speaking.

Paul Gaugin in their own words: “Designed to glide through the shallow seas of the South Pacific, The Gauguin is a small-ship cruiser’s dream. She delivers travelers to intimate ports inaccessible to larger cruise ships, all the while providing an onboard experience that is nothing short of luxurious. Guests aboard our luxury cruises enjoy spacious suites and staterooms (more than 70% with private balconies), an onboard watersports marina, three dining venues, an extensive spa, and five-star service.”

A Caribbean Cruise ship sun deck in action.

A typical cruise ship sun deck in the Caribbean. Photo by Robert Pittman.

How to get Best Value Cruises

Buy when the time is right!

Like airline tickets cruise prices rise and fall over time. When departure is approaching (three to six weeks before) prices could be absurdly low depending on demand tho’ it’s possible only the worst cabins will be available.
You could also do the reverse, booking a cruise and paying the deposit well in advance; in exchange you should be looking for lower charges, cabin upgrades, reduced airfares and/or free amenities such as shore excursions.
Alternatively choose a low season for your travels, but don’t pick a month when storms are likely! Better a sunny, calm month when schools are in session.
And don’t forget to look out for promotions via local agents and cruise line newsletters.

Do your research

The web is packed with cruise information and offers so shop around not only for best offers but also to ensure you book a voyage that precisely suits your needs. Cruise Critic’s online cruise-finder tool is useful to decide which cruise lines and itineraries might be best, along with their Fare Compare widget to look for the lowest prices. In this way, you’ll get a feel for average charges for your preferred cruise, so when a promotion or price drop appears, you’ll know it’s a good deal and can act fast.

Buy when the time is right

Like airline tickets cruise prices rise and fall over time. When departure is approaching (three to six weeks before) prices could be absurdly low depending on demand tho’ it’s possible only the worst cabins will be available.
You could also do the reverse, booking a cruise and paying the deposit well in advance; in exchange you should be looking for lower charges, cabin upgrades, reduced airfares and/or free amenities such as shore excursions.
Alternatively choose a low season for your travels, but don’t pick a month when storms are likely! Better a sunny, calm month when schools are in session.
And don’t forget to look out for promotions via local agents and cruise line newsletters.

Do your research

The web is packed with cruise information and offers so shop around not only for best offers but also to ensure you book a voyage that precisely suits your needs. Cruise Critic’s online cruise-finder tool is useful to decide which cruise lines and itineraries might be best, along with their Fare Compare widget to look for the lowest prices. In this way, you’ll get a feel for average charges for your preferred cruise, so when a promotion or price drop appears, you’ll know it’s a good deal and can act fast.

Alaska cruises

An Alaska cruise ship

An Alaskan cruise ship. Photo by unh edu.

The Best Months are June-August though the season runs from May to September. Remember that glaciers have their own micro-climate so there are no sunshine guarantees, even if port area weather is fine.

An Alaska cruise takes travelers into an untamed wilderness and allows up-close experiences with the natural wonders of this ecological hotspot.
Wildlife sightings seem limitless and the landscape is as wild as the animals that roam the region. Discover isolated inlets only accessible by sea on zodiacs and kayaks traveling through a labyrinth of glaciers, icebergs, fjords and rivers.
A cruise of Alaska frequently includes trips to the famous Prince William Sound, Glacier Bay, Point Adolphus and Denali Park where travelers enjoy activities such as river rafting, horseback riding and hiking in the shadow of Mount McKinley.

Cruises generally run for either 7 days or 14 days and leave mainly from Vancouver in Canada or Seattle in USA, though San Fransisco and Los Angeles are used from time to time.

Shore activities include guided glacier walking, dog sledding, train rides (especially the White Pass and Yukon Railroad, see photo above) and kayaking. Pricey flights by helicopter and float planes are also usually offered but beware changeable weather conditions near glaciers.

Antarctic cruises: beware

An Antarctic cruise ship off the Kiev peninsula

An Antarctic cruise ship off the Kiev peninsula. Photo by Cascoly.

“Cruising in Antarctica is inherently dangerous. ” Denise Landau, Director, International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators.
In 2007 58 ships took 37, 550 passengers sightseeing in Antarctica, mostly on small, specialist, ice-strengthened craft designed for the job and with experienced crew.
The MS Explorer – with 100 passengers on board – went down without loss of life November 2007, while one ship – MS Fram – hit an iceberg, and MS Nordkapp slit her side open on rocks. And these were smaller, ice-ready vessels!
However, with demand increasing some large cruise ships – more like floating hotels – are now making tours in polar waters without ice protection. Recently only two (Marco Polo and Deutschland) of the biggest ten ships were rated for ice.
While all ships carry enough boats/rafts for all passengers, in the event of a Titanic accident many passengers of super-capacity ships would be obliged to jump into ice waters and swim to rubber rafts. Fancy your chances in freezing Atlantic waters?
If not, when searching for your Antarctic Cruise, ask detailed questions about the crew’s polar experience and the ship’s ice protection rating. If in doubt, choose a small, dedicated ice vessel.
Experts forecast a ‘huge accident’ in the near future. . .

Cruises may include trips to the Falkland Islands and South Georgia.

How safe are luxury cruise ships? from the Telegraph newspaper.

Steve’s Antarctic Trip from Buenos Aires, Argentina

A simply awesome expedition to this area of the world and the ”White Continent”. Highlights included thousands of King penguins and their chicks crowding the beaches with elephant seals and fur seals on South Georgia Island. Opportunities to hike the mountain snowy slopes were many and we were rewarded with stunning snow-capped landscapes and breath-taking views. We visited the relics of 1800’s abandoned whaling stations that once thrived on nearly wiping out the whale population in that area of the world.

On the Antarctica peninsula we were treated to a pod of Orcas hunting a seal on a small ice flow. Unable to dump the seal into the water, the Orcas gave up after 12 minutes, but the viewing was unbelievable. Of course, we participated in the ”Polar Plunge”. . . how could one not go to Antarctica and not go for swim? More spectacular landscapes, unique and massive iceberg sculptures, and thousands of Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins. Unpredictable weather and snow blowing sideways made you feel you were on a real expedition to this southern frontier.

Don Webb’s Antarctica holiday

Antarctica is a separate world. One can feel its presence as it approaches, sailing south from more temperate climes, Standing on the deck, one may follow the reeling albatross, feel the drop in temperature, the bite of the wind, and the pounding of the waves. Yet it is the presence of ice, from the first occasional fragments, escalating in shape, form and frequency, then finally dominating all else that brings assurance of arrival in Antarctica.

It was a hard crossing; though the captain said that it was not his roughest crossing, it was near the top and he also said that he could not sleep during the hurricane. After 2 days of getting beat around we finally made it to the calmer waters of the passage.
As we were leaving the Drake Passage I received the bad news that we might not be able to make a continental landing on Antarctica. Even knowing the risks and that there were no guarantees, I started to get upset because I made it this close only to be denied. However, I learned that nothing is written in stone and that the itinerary can change within the hour.

Much to my relief the itinerary did change and a window of opportunity opened up for us to make a continental landing. As a beautifully crisp sunny day unveiled itself and the seas lay down for the first time since my departure, I woke up to the full splendor of the Great White South I made it to the end of the earth and in a few moments I would be on a zodiac heading for land.