Choose your cruise line carefully. Your cruise experience will generally be influenced by the cruise line you select. Cruise lines tend to attract customers wanting a certain experience, whether it be partying, relaxing, family oriented, or upscale pampering. Being on the wrong cruise line will spoil your vacation. You don't want to be on a party boat if you wanted a laid-back relaxing vacation.
Some cruise lines let you bring wine, champagne, or soft drinks on board while others do not allow anything. Holland America for instance has no restrictions on bringing drinks on board, but you cannot bring beer or alcohol spirits with you - you are limited to wind, champagne, soft drinks, and bottled water. Celebrity allows you to bring on two bottles of wine or champagne on board, while Royal Caribbean will not allow anything. Even then, Holland America and Celebrity restricts your consumption of what you bring on board to your stateroom, unless you pay a corkage fee. If this is important to you, check with the cruise lines you are interested in.
Smoking policies have changed. As of Jan 2010, nearly all of the major cruise lines prohibit smoking in your stateroom. Some allow smoking on the balcony, while others do not. Most cruise ships do allow smoking in certain areas though - the Casino, and in select parts of the ship's interior and exterior. If you are a smoker, again you will want to check with the potential cruise lines for their policies.
Discounts. There is no one best time to book. It used to be that as you near the cruise date, the rates go down, but not necessarily any more. However, there are a few things you can do that might provide some discount:
Parking. If you are driving to the cruise port, there may be several parking alternatives. You can usually park near the terminal. Prices range from $12 to $20 per day, so it can get expensive to park on-site. Depending on the city, you may be able to take advantage of Park-and-Cruise packages from area hotels. Many hotels offer free parking for a week on their grounds with just a single night's stay the night prior to your cruise. And most of them provide transportation for a small fee (perhaps $20 each person). Perhaps the best port in this regard is Port Canaveral, where almost all hotels provide a Park-and-Cruise package. At the port of Tampa, this option is about non-existant.
Night Prior. Whether you are flying in or driving a long distance, consider arriving the night before. You will be more relaxed on boarding day if you arrive rested. When you fly in, you can be awfully tired from the stress of just getting to the ship, especially if you had to get up at 4AM to catch the flight. And your flight can always be delayed due to weather, and you don't want to miss the ship. If you are flying, cruise lines sometimes have night-before packages, and they will even arrange transportation from the airport to the hotel, and from the hotel to the cruise ship the next day.
Insurance. We always purchase cruise insurance. Its not all that expensive, usually less than 10% of the cost of the cruise. You can buy insurance from either the cruise line or an independant 3rd party. Regardless of the source, travel insurance typically covers cruise cancellation for certain reasons (usually medical), lost luggage coverage, medical evacuation, or if you are late arriving at the cruise port and the ship has already left. Without insurance, a medical evacuation by helicopter off the ship can cost $20K. Travel agents tend to push 3rd party insurance (profit?), but I have found insurance from the cruise line to be cheaper. And, while it might not be true, I tend to feel you have a representive on-board should you have an issue, whereas if you have 3rd party insurance, you may spend a lot of money on the ship-to-shore telephone trying to establish coverage.
Time of Year. Cruise lines tend to charge different prices depending on the time of year. Holidays are the most expensive. Rates start to increase in March, and tend to be the most expensive in the summer when families tend to take vacation. Rates begin to drop off in the fall, and are the lowest in the late fall and winter season. While the average temperature only varies about 10 Deg F between seasons in the Caribbean, we have found the ocean water temperature, especially in the northern areas such as the Bahamas, can actually be too cold to enjoy in the winter months. Once you get into the Caribbean proper, it is not usually much of an issue. Also in the winter and early spring, the humidity is often lower, which can be more comfortable.
Hurricanes. Yea, they happen, and some folks don't cruise in late summer/early fall because of this. Five of our cruises have been in this season, and we have yet to miss a port or have a change in itinerary. There is always a risk of that, and we have come close. I recall on one cruise, we had one hurricane 3 days in front of us, and one hurricane 3 days behind. Another time, the ship we were on had a route change the week after we departed due to a hurricane. But so far, we have not had any change in itinerary. The benefit to cruising this time of year is (in the absense of a hurricane) that it's often pleasant weather, and usually less expensive.
Sailing between Hurricanes - Sep 2002.
Cabin Selection. We often select an interior cabin. While we have been in both interiors and balconies, interiors are significantly cheaper. If we are going with our son, we may book a balcony as we can get a slightly larger room. Some of the cabins of the ships we have been on have a pullman sleaper or sofa-bed to accomidate a thrid guest, including interior cabins, but the balcony cabins can sometimes be a bit larger. But if its just two of us, we'll usually book an interior cabin. We figure we use the cabin only for sleeping anyway, so why pay more if your waking hours are away from the cabin? And for those that are prone to sea-sickness, an interior cabin, especially one that is low and in the center of the ship, will not tend to rock-and-roll as much.
Internet Access. There is nothing better than sending an email or Facebook message to your children with photos of you basking in the sun with the caption "Wish you were here". Most ships have internet access, but it is super expensive; typically $50 to $75 per hour! Even worse is that the speed on-board is usually not very fast, and just logging on and sending a quick email can take up to 10 minutes. The better way... ask your cabin attendant where the on-shore free WiFi access is while in port. Most ports in the Caribbean have free WiFi access near the cruise port (perhaps at the corner coffee shop), and you'll often find crew members with their laptops congregating around those areas.
Reserve Activities Early. Some ships, especially the large mega-ships such as Royal Caribbean's Oasis and Allure have up to 6,000 passengers. This means the popular shore excursions sell out quickly. And even on-board events, such as the Ice Shows, Mystery Theater, and speciality resturants might quickly fill up. You can now go on-line and pre-book these events a month or two prior to sailing. I am not sure if this feature is offered by the other cruise lines or not, but at least for Royal Caribbean, its something you should consider.
Protect Yourself from the Elements. In the Caribbean, a hat and sunscreen are a must. Find a hat that is not too loose, or one with a drawstring so that it will not easily blow off your head. When you are at sea and the ship is going 20kts, depending on the wind direction, you may experience a constant 20~30mph wind. You don't want your hat to fly off.
You can buy sunscreen at the ship's store, but its far cheaper to plan ahead and buy it before leaving. If you plan on taking an excursion in the Jungle, especially during the wet season (Apr~Oct) take some bug repellant with you as well.
A hat with a drawstring keeps it on your head.
Medication. If you carry prescription medication, make sure you keep it in the original container with the prescription number. It is illegal in some locales to carry prescriptions without the identification that it was prescribed to you. Not doing so is a headache you don't need.
Weight Gain. One fear many cruisers have is gaining weight, especially if you are already on a diet. You can indeed gain weight on a cruise if you are not careful, but many ships have a low-calorie alternative diet that is available. Also, one trick is to take the stairs as much as possible rather than the elevators. I carry an inexpensive Timex pedometer on occasion, and between getting around the ship and excursions, I have found that we can walk up to 5 miles a day, which can burn as much as 800~900 calories. So if you walk enough, especially if you carry a pedometer, you should not feel guilty about eating that decadent cupcake.
Timex T5E011 Pedometer
Register your expensive items. To avoid confusion, US Customs recommends that you register certain items before you leave the United States -that way you can prove that you owned an item before you left. This is particularly important for foreign-made items like camera, computer, and electronic gear.
If you are taking a single camera, it's not a big deal, but if you take a boatload of camera gear with you; seveal camera bodies, etc., registering your items will prevent having to possibly pay duty on them.
You can register the items at the nearest Customs and Border Protection (CBP) office or prior to leaving the US by declaring your items on a Certificate of Registration (CBP Form 4457). You can use this form on multiple trips as long as the equipment you carry is the same.
CBP locations in the US where you can have the form signed (bring your camera gear with you and their serial numbers).