Instead of shoveling snow on Christmas, entertaining the in-laws at Hanukkah or unsuccessfully looking for a party on New Year's, you could be drinking eggnog poolside; singing carols on deck, while overlooking the sea; eating multicourse holiday meals, prepared by professional chefs; and enjoying New Year's Eve with enthusiasm (and with no worries about driving home). That's right. You could be celebrating on a relaxing, warm-weather cruise.
Cruising during the holidays is anything but the typical week-at-sea experience you might find during less festive times of the year. Many cruise lines -- and officers, staff and crew -- embrace the holiday season with a cheery vigor that goes beyond the symbolic Christmas tree, occasional Santa appearances, elaborate turkey dinners and New Year's Eve midnight countdowns.
But while celebrating a holiday at sea means you can avoid the associated cooking and cleaning -- not to mention escaping from crazy relatives or bonding with the family members you actually do like -- you'll have the best experience if you put a little effort into planning the best cruise for your brood and setting the right expectations. From choosing the right cruise to packing advice and tips on what to expect onboard and off, here's everything you need to know about spending a holiday at sea.
Booking a Holiday Cruise
In general, Christmas and New Year's holiday cruises are often the most expensive of the year. Cabins at this time are usually in high demand by passengers because schools are on break, and many families want to take vacations during these weeks. Several large cruise lines confirm ships in their fleet are at their highest occupancy at this time. However, some lines do offer flash sales or loyalty club promotions, so check cruise line Web sites, sign up for e-mail newsletters, and reach out to a cruise travel agent to find out about specials. You might be surprised at how affordable a warm-weather holiday can be, even when booking a few months in advance. But before you book that last-minute, rock-bottom rate, make sure you can afford the airfare to your departure port.
Here are a few more tips for booking holiday cruises:
When to Book
In general, if you want to lock in your preferred itinerary, ship, cabin and dining group and have as much time as possible to look for affordable airfare, book early (nine to 12 months in advance). The downside? You might end up paying a premium for this level of security. These days, however, most lines announce their best deals early and will adjust your rate if public fares go down after you book. If price is your foremost concern, you can wait for deals to come out, often within three months of sailing. But you might get stuck in an inside cabin or with your family spread throughout the ship, rather than in adjoining cabins.
When booking airfare, remember that flights at this time of the year can be outrageously pricey and often are oversold. Try to reserve your flights early (but not too early, as flight times can change after you book), and you might want to consider all your options, such as using frequent flyer miles or buying the cruise line's air package. If booking on your own, consider a low-cost airline or an airport a little farther from home. You might even want to choose a cruise departing from a nearby homeport so you can avoid flying altogether. Another tip: At this time of year, it's a very good idea to fly into your departure city a day early. With flights so crowded, a delay or cancellation due to weather or overbooking might cause you to miss your cruise. There's no guarantee you'll get on the next flight out if there's a problem with yours.
Find out if an air/sea package is right for you.
The holidays are a perfect time to splurge on a balcony, so you can make the most of your warm-weather escape and have more room in your cabin for presents and decorations. Families should consider family suites that sleep multiple people comfortably or book adjoining cabins. Large groups might want to book the head of the clan in a large suite that can be a central gathering point and location for private holiday parties. But book early; the best cabins -- particularly family suites and anything with a balcony, as well as interconnecting cabins -- may be booked way in advance by true holiday cruise aficionados who celebrate this way every year. Some ships offer cabins with third and fourth berths that pull down from the ceiling or pullout sofas. While they're a good choice for some families, small cabins can get quite crowded with four people living inside, so this kind of arrangement is not for every family.
Read more tips on how to choose a cabin.
Think about whether you'd like to spend holidays in port or at sea. Ships on a regular weekly schedule are likely to maintain their normal itineraries, so you may end up in a port on Christmas Day when everything's closed but the cathedral and the beach. (For example, on a recent cruise, we docked in Curacao on Christmas Day, and just a handful of stores were open.) On the other hand, cruise lines with vessels that sail varying itineraries will often try to arrange for ships to spend big holidays at sea. If you want to be at sea on Christmas and/or New Year's, take that into consideration when choosing a trip. Also, think about your preferred balance of sea days and ports days. Cruises that last longer than seven days incorporate a lot of at-sea time into their itineraries, while certain lines (Windstar and Oceania, to name two) focus on port-intensive itineraries.
Here's more to think about when choosing an itinerary.
Entertain the big-ship-versus-mid (or small) -ship debate. Larger ships -- with space for huge playrooms, swimming pools with slides and video arcades -- are a great choice for families with school-age kids. However, these ships can sometimes seem overrun with youngsters during holiday sailings and are not always ideal for quiet, adults-only getaways. Mid-size ships are more conducive to parents with young children who want to socialize with other adults or multigenerational groups looking to make everyone happy. Small luxury ships tend to have fewer kids and a more mature clientele. If you're taking kids of any age, be sure to look into the youth program before you sign up. While most mainstream and premium ships have youth facilities, some offer more creative and large-scale programming than others. Baby-sitting options vary by line, and options for very young, still-in-diapers tots may be limited.
What's your ship size? We list the pros and cons.
Packing for a holiday cruise can be a little different from packing for a regular cruise. You'll want to bring special holiday outfits for Christmas and New Year's Eve. In addition to your tuxes and party dresses, you might consider accessories like Santa hats, reindeer antler headbands, party hats, colorful beads or other festive items you might want to wear.
For Christmas or Hanukkah, consider decorating your cabin to get in the holiday spirit. Creative cruisers have been known to decorate cabin doors with wreaths, holiday cards and photos. To spruce up your cabin's interior, pack a small artificial tree (disassemble it for easy packing), electric menorah (you can't light candles in your cabin), strings of lights, inflatable decorations and stockings. If you're bringing Christmas or Hanukkah presents, leave them unwrapped if you're flying to the homeport, and pack some scissors (in checked luggage, please), tape and wrapping paper to doll them up once onboard.
For New Year's, you might want to bring your favorite bottle of Champagne or sparkling wine onboard. Just check your cruise line's alcohol policy to make sure ship's security won't take your beverage from you when you try to board.
Families and large groups might want to get into the spirit by printing up matching T-shirts or hats to wear onboard.
Taking a cruise during the holidays by no means requires you to forgo the celebration. In fact, cruise lines go all out for the holidays. The ships' restaurants will offer holiday menus with seasonal favorites: turkey with cranberry sauce for Thanksgiving, potato pancakes and jelly donuts for Hanukkah, roast turkey or ham on Christmas (with eggnog to drink) and midnight buffets for New Year's Eve. The ships are decked out with seasonal decorations -- autumn leaves, pumpkins, trees, menorahs and wreaths.
For adults, there are holiday parties in the ships' lounges, special holiday drinks and religious services led by priests, rabbis or ministers. For the kids, count on visits from Santa, holiday snacks, craft-making and storytelling. Passengers of all ages can enjoy special performances by the ships' entertainment staff and special guests, caroling, tree- and menorah-lighting ceremonies and seasonal movies shown on in-room TV's and onboard movie screens. (And don't forget the holiday football games shown in your ship's sports bar or big screen.) Another special feature for the holidays is culinary classes highlighting such traditional seasonal treats as latkes with rosemary and brown butter sauce; Alsatian potato and bacon tarts; and sausage cakes with red wine prunes. The ship's daily newsletter will provide an overview of where and when these events are taking place. Some events, like wine-tasting or craft-making, may have a fee.
What's also fun is shopping onboard the ship. Take a look at the special onboard sales, whether you're looking for a cruise-themed gift, a cute handbag or special pair of glittery earrings to give your holiday outfit a boost. Your ship's professional photographers will offer the opportunity to take the perfect family photo -- great for holiday cards or simply reliving the memories in years to come.
In some regions, particularly the Caribbean, the holiday week is a time of islandwide celebrations that can make a trip memorable and give you a hint of real island life (as opposed to the limited views one normally gets from one day in port). Take a look, for instance, at St. Kitts, where the island's national carnival runs from mid-December through New Year's; activities vary, but expect parades, revelry and folkloric performances.
However, other destinations pretty much shut down on Christmas, with stores and attractions closed to visitors. Grand Cayman is so dead on Christmas that no ships call on the port that day. Also, beware of Boxing Day (December 26). Many Caribbean islands with British roots, such as Antigua, Barbados, Grand Cayman and St. Kitts, celebrate this December 26 holiday, and generally shops and sites are as closed up as on Christmas. One exception: On Nevis, Boxing Day is a huge horse-racing day at its Newcastle Racetrack.
In general, island retailers have gotten savvy to the fact that cruise ship visitors mean big business, and cruise lines know which islands to avoid on holidays. Carnival, for one, tells us that all the islands it visits during the holiday season keep stores open and excursions running so as not to lose out on those tourist dollars. But, before you set your heart on eating at a specific local restaurant or taking a particular tour, check to make sure they're operating on the day you're in port.
--Updated by Erica Lamberg, Cruise Critic contributor