The Big Read

Cruising for absolute beginners: 10 FAQs answered

From how to choose the right cruise to what to expect on board, John Wilmott and Teresa Machan share everything you need to know to enjoy your first holiday on the water

05 May 2019 - 00:00 By John Wilmott and Teresa Machan

If you've never booked an ocean cruise holiday before, it can be a pretty daunting prospect. With more than 300 ships to choose from and hundreds of itineraries that cover the world, choosing a particular voyage is just the start.
You might also want to consider the type of room you select and work out just how much your holiday will really cost. An attractive headline price is not such good value if you end up forking out for most of the extras that make cruising such a pleasure.
Below are some of the essential questions you need to ask - of yourself and of the cruise lines or a travel agent.
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WHAT IS A CRUISE HOLIDAY?It's essentially a hotel on water that moves from place to place. Once on board, all of your meals and, depending on the size of your ship, most entertainment is taken care of. This doesn't mean that you have to dine on board — when the ship is in port you can spend as much time off the ship as you wish. Just be sure to re-embark well before the ship is due to depart.WHAT DO I DO ON BOARD?Again, it depends on the size of the ship and your personal preferences. On larger ships, daily newsletters (you'll receive it in your room and/or you can access the daily programme via the ship's app) come loaded with suggestions for things to do both on board and ashore.On smaller ships the day is more likely to be governed by the itinerary and/or destinations. But the itinerary is merely a guide with suggestions for those who don't want to miss out on anything. There's always the option to do ... nothing.
Once the ship has docked, you're a free agent and there are few restrictions these days regarding dress (most use the same codes as resort restaurants ashore) and dining, with food often available around the clock.
If you want breakfast in bed, order it to your room - just like you would in a hotel. If you want to remain there for the rest of the day, no one - assuming you've used your do-not-disturb sign - will come knocking.
Look at videos and photo galleries online - many ships offer 360-degree virtual tours - to find a style that suits you. I
f you prefer boutique hotels, select a smaller ship with pared-back decor. Smaller ships offer a more personal, intimate experience (plus it's quicker to get on and off) but there may not be enough going on for those who enjoy 24-hour entertainment.
The bigger the ship, the more choice of entertainment, facilities and places to eat. If a ship has water slides and go-kart tracks, reckon on sharing your holiday with families. There are plenty of adults-only or adult-orientated alternatives.Don't assume that a bigger ship will allow more space per person. If you can do the maths, working out the ratio of the ship's tonnage to the number of passengers is a fair guide to how crowded, or otherwise, it may feel.
Although you can expect all mod cons and an en-suite, your room may be smaller than you expect (that said, cruise lines are pretty good at incorporating clever storage). Remember that a "suite" usually means a sofa or "living" area as part of the room (not two rooms).
Do you really need a balcony? It's always nice to have, but few guests actually spend much time here and often pay a hefty premium for the privilege. Check out the price differential.
Those with limited mobility will prefer to be near a lift - corridors on bigger ships can be very long. If you suffer from motion sickness, book a cabin on a lower deck near the middle of the ship. Deck plans for most ships can be found online to help you decide - and remember, "stateroom" is just a fancy word for cabin.
Much thought needs to be given to exactly what is included in the fare and how much extra you may need to spend to have the best experience. Not all prices include flights (and surprisingly, cruise websites don't always make this clear). Agency bookings will normally include air travel.
All-inclusive cruises (around seven luxury lines are truly all-inclusive) include drinks, flights and at least one daily excursion. The majority of cruise lines add a service charge (12 to 18%) per drink. Remember to factor in the exchange rate for ships using dollars or euros.
Gratuities are a major consideration. A few cruise lines include them; most add a daily amount of between £5/R95 and £11/R208 per person, per day, to your account - even for teenagers. You can ask for them to be taken off but, as you'll see, crew on board ships work incredibly hard.
Your biggest expense is likely to be shore excursions - a few of these can easily run into the hundreds of rands. Choose well from a ship's own options and you can considerably enhance a voyage, but ask yourself if you really need a guided bus drive or walk around a small city. A bit of homework and an app or map could save you lots of money (it's worth checking out local guiding services and independent excursion operators, of which there are now many).
Ship wifi can be very pricey, and not as speedy as you'd like. If this is important, choose one that includes it or at least offers a good package.
To guarantee a particular cabin, or at least one in a preferred part of the ship, book early. Popular grades of accommodation can and do sell out, especially on the smaller ships.
Flexible on dates and destinations? It is possible to pick up good deals between one and three months before travel, but don't count on a huge saving. There's little difference in price between booking direct with a cruise line or through an agent, though the latter will sometimes negotiate a cabin upgrade or on-board credit.
This period (January to March) is a good time to secure incentives such as free drinks packages. - © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2019)
Every cruise company offers some kind of ocean passage, ranging from transatlantic crossings to epic round-the-world voyages lasting many months. The most famous and romantic run of all is the transatlantic crossing where, in the glory days of ocean liners, ships competed to have the fastest crossing, the most luxurious fittings and the classiest passengers. These days, the name most associated with this service is Cunard, whose three "Queens" are three of the world's most glamorous ships. See
Some lines offer cruises especially for families, with something for everyone. One of the best such trips is offered by MSC Cruises during the local cruising season from November to May. The four-day voyage from Durban to Pomene in Mozambique is a treat, involving two days at sea and a day each at Portuguese Island and at MSC's dedicated beach resort at Pomene. It's also incredible value for us rand-strapped South Africans. See
Pleasure steamers have plied the world's navigable rivers and lakes since the start of the Age of Steam. Today, modern ships sail the great rivers of Europe such as the Danube, the Rhine and the Volga, offering passengers the chance to explore the heart of many fine capital cities and cultures. Today, cruise lines also operate on many of the world's far-flung, romantic rivers such as the Amazon, the Mekong, the Irrawaddy and the Yangtze. For inspiration, see
There is nothing quite like setting sail in a working ship that does more than take people on holiday. Air travel has meant the end for many working ships but a few still remain, such as the MV Claymore II, which serves the utterly remote Pitcairn Islands; and the Aranui 5, a ship with passenger accommodation that serves the Marquesas islands in French Polynesia.
Perhaps the nicest and most accessible working ships are those operated by Hurtigruten, which connects the ports and villages of Norway's rugged coast in a fast and comfortable service. Winter voyages offer passengers the chance of seeing the magical Northern Lights; summer voyages offer the chance of seeing the Midnight Sun. See for offers.

Small, tough ships sail year-round to places like the Arctic and Antarctica on boutique cruises to show some of the far-flung beauty of the planet's less-explored regions. The size of the ships and the nature of the voyages mean that these cruises are usually eye-wateringly expensive. It's bucket-list stuff, but then that's what bucket lists are for. See for inspiration...

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