1. Go for it. Go for the whole deal - formal dress as appropriate, and enjoy the full range of entertainment and activities. Enjoy the food, but don't overdo it. Enjoy the ports of call but do your research before you book any excursions, you might do better going independently.
2. Don’t expect the ticket price to be all you pay.
First of all there will be gratuities. The domestic staff, you will be told (that’s waiters, cleaners, bar staff and others), rely on gratuities to bring their pay up to a reasonable level. The least we have been asked for is £2.00 per day. For two of us on a 10-day cruise that’s only £40 which was not going to break the bank – and it was entirely voluntary. Guests were given envelopes to hand to the cabin steward or waiter. With another line the figure was £10 each per day and this was automatically added to your cabin bill and felt very far from voluntary. Most cruise lines operate in this way, and the extra expense can come as an unwelcome surprise to some first-time cruisers. I wish they would just add it all into the ticket price so you can see up-front what the cost of the cruise is. But they don’t. You need to find out what is expected before you book.
Second of all, as a captive audience you have no option but to pay on-board prices for extras. Meals are included of course, and with the better lines you can get a snack or a cup of tea or coffee at any time. Drinks at the bar are not free and it is easy to run-up a significant bill (ships are cash-free these days – everything goes on your cabin card.) One cruise line we tried had a low ticket price and moderate gratuities, but charged top prices for everything on-board. Not only this, there was significant periods of the day and night when snacks and tea and coffee were only available to purchase, and at €2.50 every time you want a coffee it soon adds up. A bottle of wine with your meal started at €40. In retrospect the business model of this cruise line becomes very clear.
What I’m saying is: ask what level of gratuities is expected and get a list of typical on-board prices before you book. What looks like a cheap deal might not be.
Third of all: excursions. There is little point in calling in at interesting places if you don’t see the sights, but booking excursions can run away with a lot of money and it can be infuriating to find that you have paid through the nose to be taken to and dumped in a remote tourist shop where you are expected to spend even more, whilst fellow passengers have made their own ways and had a much better deal. In most cruise ports local operators will provide excursions. What you need to find out about – and get in writing – is how far it will be from the ship to where you want to be and what the arrangements are for getting there. Sometimes it is a coach ride and the fare can be pricy if it is provided by the cruise line. There will nearly always be local taxis waiting for the liner to arrive. You need to get as much information as you can and plan accordingly. Do bear in mind, though, that those on booked excursions are often given priority when disembarking. The wait can be agonising for others.
You will notice that I haven’t mentioned any names yet. All I will say is that we found Fred.Olsen and Cunard very satisfactory. Significantly not named are the ones who dealt least well with our special needs – mobility and special diets – as well as leaving the impression that they were trying to rip us off.
'Short Stories to Read on the Bus' (See below) is now available in print on http://www.lulu.com