Freedom of the Seas in Cozumel

(11:55 a.m. EST) -- Between trying to choose the right cabin, packing checklists and booking extras like specialty restaurants and shore excursions, planning for a cruise can tend to get a little stressful.

At a Seatrade cruise conference panel moderated by Cruise Critic's senior executive editor Colleen McDaniel and managing editor Chris Gray Faust, members of Cruise Critic's online community shared tips on how they ease the cruise planning process.

The panel consisted of Cruise Critic members Linda, who has 47 cruises under her belt; Carolyn, who's been on 31 cruises; Lee, who has sailed on 11 cruises; and John, who recently got off his fifth cruise. It was the second Seatrade panel moderated by Cruise Critic professionals; the first panel -- titled Getting Out of the Cruising Bubble and Attracting the Consumer of Tomorrow -- was moderated by Cruise Critic's chief content strategist Carolyn Spencer Brown. It focused on ways the cruise industry is working to attract non-cruisers, and the emphasis on millennials and the next generation of cruise travelers.

Here are some of the resources that Cruise Critic members use when planning their cruise:


Read up on Reviews

For members of the online community, reading Cruise Critic reviews are not only a past time, but also an integral part of cruise planning. Reviews are comprised of those submitted by members on the site's ship review pages, as well as on the forums; Cruise Critic's professional editorial staff also writes comprehensive reviews.

Reviews are particularly helpful to first-time cruisers; it's the top source of cruise-planning content for 31 percent of new cruisers, as opposed to 17 percent of experienced cruisers who consider reviews their top source.

Members also are encouraged to sign up for a specific cruise's roll call, where they can meet and make plans with other cruisers on their sailing, ahead of time.

"Cruise Critic's review platform allows you to [review everything]," said Linda. "They'll ask you about your cruise, they'll ask you about you cabin; then it has a dropdown and you pick the port you're reviewing."


Work with a Travel Agent

Another theme that came up among our panelists was working with a travel agent, versus planning everything on their own.

John said he was compelled to work with a travel agent, after experiencing frustration with the cruise line's customer service department. He noted how much time it saved him, and how much stress it alleviated from the planning process, since his travel agent took on all the work but he was still able to stay involved -- simply communicating via text any time he had a question.

Meanwhile, Linda said she still preferred to do her own legwork and choose a cruise line, before looking to a cruise line consultant or travel agent to finish the process. She added in her experience, she hasn't seen much of a price difference between booking with a travel agent and booking through the cruise line, and that it just comes down to what you want (a more hands-on approach, the different perks -- such as onboard credit incentives -- that come with either option, etc.).


Surf YouTube for Cruise Videos

Carolyn and Lee highlighted another resource they use when planning a cruise: videos. They'll often surf YouTube for videos of specific ship spaces and cabin tours, the latter of which helps cruisers get a visual of the cabin amenities and space -- something that's often hard to get a sense of just from looking at a ship's deck plans.

Cruise Critic has a YouTube channel dedicated to giving cruisers an inside look at different ships (including exclusive sneak peeks of brand-new ships), tours of some of the best cabins/suites at sea and other popular onboard features.


Here are some of the other quick-fire questions asked at Cruise Critic's "Customer Centricity - What Cruisers Want Now" panel:

--By Gina Kramer, Editor