Choosing an itinerary can be a daunting task, particularly for first-time cruisers. "I don't know what cruise line to pick, where to go or for how long," Cruise Critic member CaledonHockley posts on our First Time Cruisers forum. "Has anyone else felt this way?" The answer is: of course. After all, cruise ships visit more than 1,800 ports around the world -- but that doesn't mean every itinerary is right for you!
The cruise you choose should fit your vacation expectations. Are you looking for fun in the sun or are you interested in history -- or both? Do you want wildlife and scenic views or windsurfing and parasailing? Would you rather stop at a different port each day or kick back during several days at sea?
Some other key things to consider are:
Length. Cruises range from three-night weekend cruises to 100-plus-day trips around the world. If you are uneasy about spending a full week or more aboard a ship, ease into cruising by trying out a shorter cruise; the Caribbean, the Mexican Riviera and the Bahamas are regions in which you'll commonly find three-, four- and five-night trips.
Embarkation point. Do you want to fly or drive to your ship? After September 11, 2001, travelers' reluctance to fly spurred the cruise industry to deploy ships from drive-to port cities, particularly along the East Coast. Now, with all the hassles of air travel, the homeporting concept is here to stay. From the East and Gulf Coast, you'll find itineraries to the Caribbean, Bahamas, Bermuda and Canada/New England; from the West Coast, there are cruises to Hawaii, Alaska and the Mexican Riviera.
Vacation style. For some travelers, reading a book a day on the beach or by the pool is paradise while others are rejuvenated by sightseeing, shopping and interacting with locals. Research potential cruise regions carefully to make sure that the ports of call you'll visit jive with your personal preferences.
Ready to get started? We'll show you the way.
First Things First
Deciding what kind of ship you want to sail on is an important factor in assuring an enjoyable cruise vacation -- and may actually dictate where you decide to go. Mega-ships generally visit the standard ports (bars, beaches) while smaller to mid-sized vessels are likely to offer unique itineraries to places the big guys simply can't go. Check out What's Your Ship Size? to find your best fit.
Many first-time cruisers choose the Caribbean or Mexican Riviera, where itineraries tend to be one week or less. These cruises operate from Florida and California ports respectively; Caribbean cruises are also available from places like New Orleans, Galveston, Baltimore and New York. The ships take you to island paradises where you can soak up sun on the beach, try water sports, sample the local cuisine and shop for discounted jewelry. Cruises leaving Florida may include a beach party at a pretty tropical island owned by the cruise line (you can't even visit these unless you're on a cruise ship). Most weeklong cruises include at least one day at sea.
Standard itineraries are either Eastern Caribbean (visiting places like San Juan, St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. Maarten) or Western Caribbean (visiting ports such as Grand Cayman, Ocho Rios, Cozumel and sometimes Key West) -- though the least-known of the three regions, the Southern Caribbean, is growing in popularity. Mexican Riviera voyages call at Cabo San Lucas and Puerto Vallarta, among other ports.
The Bahamas, again because the cruises are generally shorter than one week, is also a popular region among cruise newbies.
More First-Timer-Friendly Choices
Other itineraries that are appropriate for first-time cruisers include:
Alaska. More than 700,000 cruise visitors flock to the state from May through September for the history, the frontier ambiance, the wildlife and -- above all -- the scenery. Most cruises depart from the Northwest or within Canada, last about seven days, and follow either an Inside Passage of Gulf of Alaska route, with glacial views being a highlight. Cornerstone stops include Juneau, Skagway, Sitka and Ketchikan.
Bermuda. These cruises are plentiful in spring, summer and fall, with weeklong departures offered from the East Coast. In the past -- and cruisers have been sailing here for more than half a century -- mega-ships were not allowed to call and those ships that could were required to stay for three days. Over the last few years, however, the rules have been slowly bent, meaning there are now options for those who want to experience the traditional extended stay as well as folks just dropping by for a day on a more varied itinerary. The major ports are King's Wharf and Hamilton.
Canada/New England. The season runs from May through September, from the East Coast or within Canada. Sailings from 4 to 14 days visit cities including Halifax, Saint John (New Brunswick), St. John's (Newfoundland), and even Newport and Bar Harbor. With a new crop of adventurous excursions for cruisers young and old, it's fair to say that the region is not just for leaf-peepers.
Europe. A cruise is a great way to see this vast region -- hop from country to country without unpacking and repacking your bags! It's now a year-round market (particularly in the Eastern and Western Mediterranean), with itineraries generally ranging from 7 to 14 nights. Eastern Mediterranean cruises generally visit Greece and Turkey while Western Mediterranean voyages skirt the French Riviera, Spain and the Italian coastline. Many lines also sail Baltic cruises that include Stockholm, Copenhagen, Helsinki and several days in historic St. Petersburg, as well as British Isles voyages calling at cities in England, Scotland, Ireland and the Netherlands.
Hawaii. Popular with honeymooners, Hawaii dishes up the exotic landscapes from TV and the movies -- with the advantage of being resolutely American (no need to exchange currency!). Norwegian Cruise Line is the only cruise line offering weeklong all-Hawaiian-island itineraries roundtrip from Honolulu; other lines generally offer lengthier cruises that depart from the mainland U.S. and visit at least one international port, such as Fanning Island or Ensenada. Popular ports of call include Maui, Kauai, Oahu and the Big Island.
Ready, Set, Go!
Now that you've got the basics, it's time to choose that itinerary and plan that cruise! Still perplexed? Here are some additional resources you may find helpful:
Cruise Critic's Cruise Reviews: See how professional writers and fellow cruisers rate the various cruise ships on cabins, dining options, public areas and more.
Ports: Get advice on the best attractions, restaurants and activities in ports of call around the world.
Features: Looking for the best cruises for families, seniors or couples? Want the lowdown on cruise line policies, new cruise ships and industry trends? You'll find it all in our Features section.
Cruise Styles: If you're looking for more information on your cruising lifestyle (family, gay and lesbian, travelers with disabilities) or specialty cruising (world cruises, theme cruises and river cruises), you'll find your own niche here.
Cruise Critic's Message Boards: Correspond with other cruisers about all things cruise-related.
--updated by Erica Silverstein, Features Editor