Cruising is recovering from the pandemic, and it may take some time for the cruise lines to ensure safety for passengers. Before you plan your cruise vacation, we suggest that you explore the below tips from a cruising expert.

We’ve interviewed Gary Bembridge, an expert cruiser and vlogger who has been cruising across the globe for years. In his TipsForTravellers blog and YouTube channel, Gary shares dozens of tips and videos from cruise ships that help first-time cruisers understand what it's like to travel on a cruise ship.

In our video interview, Gary talks about cruising during the pandemic and what you should expect when booking with cruise lines this year:

Tips you’ll find in this expert video about cruising:

Introduction

Gary: You may say my name is Gary Bembridge. My background is marketing so it wasn't really on the travel side and I used to have a global marketing job which is why I really got into travel because I was traveling all the time and I got into cruising about…

This cruise I went on was about 2005-2006 was the first cruise I ever went on... It was like so many people with the view that cruising is not for me but I was actually invited to go on a cruise to do a talk. It was actually a marketing conference talk and once I got on a ship I realized I really, really liked it.

I understood cruising, I understood ships were amazing, being out at sea and stuff so that's when I got into cruising. So I started cruising a lot so now, as of today, I've done 79 cruises now.

Top Tips for the First-Time Cruiser

Michael: What are the top tips you would like to give to all our viewers?

Gary: I think the three things…

Focus on where you want to go

Gary: ...I would probably say, first of all, focus on where you want to go. So don't focus on the cruise as such, focus on where you want to go.

Do you want to go to the Caribbean? Do you want to go to Alaska? Do you want to go to see the Norwegian Fjords? Do you want to do something like go to the Panama Canal? What is this you actually want to do? So for your vacation where is it you want to go?

Once you decide where you want to go, it's then you start thinking about the cruise itself. So most of the key destinations in the world that I've mentioned these multiple cruise lines go there. Almost every single cruise line that exists, every major cruise line goes to all of those places at some point in time. 

So that's the first thing, where do you want to go and think about why do you want to go there. So if you're going to go into the Caribbean is it because you want to go to the big islands? Do you want to go to out of the way island?

Think about how do you want to do it

Gary: So define where you want to go first then once you've done that think about how do you want to do it. 

Do you go on vacation? Do you like to dress up a lot? Do you like the idea of getting all dressed up in gold gowns and suits and tuxedos or do you want to be able to just kick around in shorts and flip flops…Do you like going to a resort or is food really important to you? Do you want to be with families? Not with family?

So think through those things because that will help you choose the cruise line because the cruise industry says, the travel agencies say there is a cruise line for everybody and they're very, very different…

...if you get on the wrong cruise line you will have a miserable time potentially. 

So for example, if you hate getting dressed up and you hate formality and you book yourself on a Cunard cruise, you will hate it because they're really strict about dress codes. But if you do like getting dressed up and you go and say Norwegian which has no dress code, you wear shorts to dinner.

You also won't be happy, if you want great kids clubs for your kids and you go on a line that doesn't really focus on kids, all that kind of stuff. So that's kind of probably the second important thing.

Check what is included in fares

Gary: So you... Where do you want to go? What's the best way to go? And the third thing which is really important is every cruise line differs with what they have included and not included in their fares.

So on average most cruise lines, and if you go on a cruise, you're going to probably pay between 50% to 100% more than you paid for your fare once you get on the ship because you'll find... Not and only differs by cruise lines because most cruise lines won't include say gratuities, they won't include Wi-Fi, they won't include drinks, they won't include excursions. All sorts of exclusions...

But it differs by line. So some lines might include drinks, some won't include drinks. Some might include gratuity, some might not.

You need to be really, really clear around when you look at the fare what does it include.

So if you're doing a comparison, say you've decided you want to go to Alaska on a certain type of ship, then you look at the fares. Don't just go for the cheap one because you might find actually that you end up spending more. Because if you've got another cruise line, which included stuff, it would end up being cheaper so it's really, really, really important in that sense.

What’s the Difference Between Cruise Lines?

Michael: You've traveled with different cruise lines and you just explained to us they are different in nature, different cruise lines offer different experiences.

Can you summarize and give us an example of top-level cruise lines. What is required there as far as dress-ups, formal dinners, medium-range cruises where the slacks are fine instead of formal dress, and leisure cruises where you do whatever you want. Can you group them for us somehow and give us some more information?

Gary: Basically when you look at cruise lines and they're in a lump number sort of categories effectively, so if we start at the top if you like you have a group of cruise lines which are... They would call themselves ultra-luxury cruise lines.

Ultra-luxury cruise lines

Gary: So you've got lines like Seabourn, Silversea, Regent Seven Sea, those kinds of lines and they tend to have slightly smaller ships. You're probably talking about ships of 600 or less passengers. 

They're kind of smaller ships and they would tend to be pretty much more all-inclusive so their fares are pretty high. You're getting cabins that always have a balcony. Although they're at the top end, they tend to be more relaxed with the dress code. So they're going to be more I guess they call that country casual.

So it's still quite smart but it's not very dressy as such and you're going to have very high levels of service and quality and food and that sort of stuff but you are going to pay a premium for that. 

There's that kind of group which caters to that sort of consumer.

Premium cruise lines

Gary: The next group which is probably the biggest group of cruise lines is sort of the more premium side. Although you can actually sail... Rent will be inexpensive on them because they will already have inside cabins right through to big suites… You've got lines like Holland America, Princess Cruises, Celebrity, I guess Cunard is probably in there, and with those cruise lines as I mentioned you can go... Most of these will have inside cabins, so really, really inexpensive way of cruising.

And you can be spending up to many, many thousands of dollars a night in big cabins. Now they tend to be sort of again, more in the middle when it comes to the whole dress code. They would tend to have a relatively informal dress code for most nights where you could wear slacks if you like, I'll use generally.

But you can't wear jeans at night, you can't wear shorts at dinner. Now you could dress very informally if you want to and go to the buffet restaurant but they expect you to also wear a college shirt, I guess they couldn't for ladies and stuff.

But they would also have sort of gala nights. They'd call it where they encourage people to dress up more so... But again, you could just wear let's say a long sleeve shirt or something. So there is an element of a kind of dress code and a bit of formality in there.

More valued cruise lines

Gary: Then you have another group which is some of the biggest in terms of size and number of passages is the more valued line. So that's where you've got things like Royal Caribbean, MSC cruises, Carnival Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line. And these take a very much, probably a little bit younger, more like families or younger.

So you might be more people in their thirties, forties, whatever, and they will tend to be more resort-like. So the ships will have water slides, rock climbing walls, some of the bigger ships might have ice skating rinks. So very much more of like if I go into a Vegas kind of thing about them. They have that whole ambiance as well so you've got massive big casinos, big production shows but not strict on the dress.

Now of course always you can dress up but they would tend to be... They wouldn't mind if you wear jeans to go to the dining room in the evenings. They still kind of discouraged shorts in the main dining room but more region you're covered. You can dress more or you could wear these... a more casual shirt and stuff. It's a much more relaxed environment. That's why they're very big and growing because lots of families are drawn to them. Because you have all the resort stuff.

Favorite Cruising Destinations

Michael: Where is your favorite cruising destination?

Gary: My favorite destinations with cruising... People realize that that question tends to be ones that are best done by cruisers, so I'm going to give you more than one. 

Antarctic and Arctic are amazing because you can pretty much only see them by cruising. Alaska is incredible, I would say probably Alaska is the next one, the Norwegian Fjords because again, both of those being on a cruise ship is one of the best ways of seeing those places and getting to things like Panama Canal, you know crossing through the Panama Canal.

I mean, the most popular cruising destinations in the world are the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, and Alaska, not surprisingly, I guess because those are the biggest vacation spots and those are great to do and I love doing those but my favorite would be Antarctica, Alaska Norwegian Fjords, Panama Canal.

Big Cruise Ships vs. Small Ships

Michael: I assume you've been to all the different types of ships, smaller ones, bigger ones. For someone who is a beginner cruiser, someone who wants to try cruising, would you recommend them a smaller ship or a bigger ship?

Gary: I would tend to recommend people and again, it depends what their interests are but, generally speaking, I would still steer people towards what the industry calls kind of a mid-sized ship as their first one.

It kind of gives you a flavor of what it could be like on a smaller ship and a taste of what it could be on a bigger ship. So mid-large ships are ships around 2000 kind of amount of passengers. And the reason I would push people towards that is you get to get a wide enough range of choices. To get a sense of the sort of choice you can get on cruise ships in terms of dining venues, the type of shows you're going to get, the size of the gym or the casino or things that you're kind of interested in but you're not going to get completely swamped in.

And it’s if we go on one of the big mega-ships, the big Royal Caribbean ships or the Norwegian ships with 5,000-6,000, or MSC ships, it could be just completely daunting. Although, it's going to be crazy in terms of you're going to have all those other big features, the ice skating stuff. It may just be a little bit too big and you get the wrong perception of cruising if you like so...

And if you go on a small ship you might think there's actually not enough choice for things you need to do also. Because in regular life, people find that more concerning because they want to know these things that they can do as in a smaller ship you need to entertain yourself a little bit more I guess…

The mid-sized ships still go to great destinations, interesting ports so that's where I tend to steer people towards and then if there's actually... I liked the idea of a smaller ship because I want to go to more of these destinations, together we'll know I want more, I want bigger shows, bigger casinos, whatever then head that way. So that's where I would steer people as their first cruise.

How to Complain Onboard a Cruise?

Michael: Stuff could happen on the ship... After the ship has sailed, you came back home, what can you expect to get from the cruise lines if things went wrong?

Gary: I think the key is always in my choice. If anything goes wrong, you need to kind of do it on the ship. You need to raise it on the ship, particularly, even if you don't get it resolved, it's really important to kind of raise it on the ship.

Now I haven't had any problems like that but if I have any issues with the cabin or noise or whatever I would always work through the ship and try and get it resolved on the ship or at least registered, like documented. If you acknowledge it in some way on the ship, you then have kind of a recourse afterward.

One of the things I've also found with complaints or issues is most people go to the front office, guest services desk and that's actually in my experience one of the least efficient ways of getting a result because actually the people in the front office are there... If you go on a cruise and you sit by the front office, they just have people complaining about things all day about stuff.

I don't like this or I don't like that or I want this or this or this so actually they become in my view anyway, a little bit immune to that so they weigh more and the biggest job is deflecting if you like. So whenever I have a problem I try to get it through like the management if you like. 

If I have a problem with my cabin, for example, I would talk to my cabin steward, get them to acknowledge the problem, get them to elevate it to their deck supervisor. If they can't resolve it, they elevate it to the hotel directors or hotel manager or head of the housekeeping, whatever the chain of command is.

The same is if I've had a problem excursion. I would raise it actually normally on cruise lines as someone from the cruise on every excursion anyway but people don't even know that.

I would raise that with them. Then to acknowledge there's a problem, get them to elevate because actually if you've got someone elevating it, who's involved, you're more likely to get it resolved either on the ship or even when you go back to land. Because you have a direct line of contact.

But the other thing it depends on the cruise line. On some cruise lines what they do, for example, I just got back from Viking, what happened a couple of days into the cruise and a lot of cruise lines do this now is they send out an open-ended questionnaire or document asking how it's going? Do you have any issues?

And I've found that also to be a very efficient way. The second way is if you still got something unresolved at the end of a cruise, you get a cruise questionnaire either digital or handwritten. That's the place to also document any issues if you still have unresolved complaints because all of those are actually read. Now depending on the size of the cruise line, it depends who reads those.

Because of those... Are all the cruise... Well, the ships, those ratings are quite important in terms of their incentives, promotions, and stuff, and also the commentary that you can leave there is very important.

For example, if it's a very powerful place if you have people who've had good service, naming them for example, because that actually helps people get promoted. The same if you've got an unresolved issue that's a place to document it because somebody within management will also be reading that.

So, if you haven't been able to solve it the other way, I found that quite an important way. Again, you can take a copy of it, a picture on your phone, or whatever and use that as a way of elevating if you're not getting any good outcome.

Can You Be Refunded for a Missed Port of Call?

Michael: Sometimes it happens that the cruise skips a port. Is there any possibility for a consumer actually complaining and getting compensated for it and the port that's skipped?

Gary: No, the reason is what's very important I think consumers have to realize or passengers realize is when you book your cruise, when you pay your initial deposit and when you pay, you are accepting the cruise contract.

And a lot of people don't bother, like many things, they don't bother reading. But in the cruise contract, the lines have the right to cancel and skip... You accept the right that lines can skip ports if they need to for whatever reason, because of weather, trouble on land.

I mean, I guess with COVID if the rate of COVID rates is too high or some issue of COVID or that there's some unrest or whatever. 

Within the contract, you're accepting that the itinerary can be changed. It's extremely unlikely that if you complain you will get any form of compensation.

Now, there have been incidences where you haven't had, perhaps, call it loads of ports, for example, and they haven't been able to find an alternative, they may make a gesture. But you've accepted that as part of boarding the cruise. So it's extremely unlikely that you're going to get something.

How to Complain About a Cruise Cabin?

Michael: So what happens if a passenger comes on board and the room does not meet the expectations, can the passenger leave the ship and say there is no replacement and just ignore the contract that they signed because the room does not meet the expectations from the pictures that they saw?

Gary: I think the answer is no. I think they can but they wouldn't be reimbursed so no. I've never heard of a case of that happening. I mean, you would have to... You'd obviously have to try it if it wasn't... I guess it depends on what it is and what it was but no would be the case because they've booked cabins.

Also, it depends a lot on how they booked cabins. So there are two ways you could book a cabin which probably links into this one. You could book a cabin where you specifically choose a cabin. So you decide, I want cabin 512 on deck A, for example. You've chosen that very specific cabin or what a lot of people do because it's slightly cheaper as they book what's known as a guaranteed cabin. 

So you pay a slightly lower amount and you say if I want an inside cabin or an ocean view cabin or a balcony cabin or a suite and the cruise line allocates it to you. I would say definitely if you booked a guaranteed cabin you have no chance of saying it's not up to scratch because you basically said I want an inside cabin and they'll go, I've given you an inside cabin. 

You might not like it but that's what you've got. If you've chosen your own cabin I guess then it's up to you to make sure that you've chosen the right cabin and the ones you've got now are particularly with things like YouTube and stuff. You find that you can normally get pretty close to what your cabin is going to be, you can actually look for videos, there are so many videos of cabins on board.

When Is the Best Time to Book a Cruise?

Michael: How far in advance do you book your cruises usually?

Gary: Unless I want to cover, we don't want to go because I'm cruising along... So I'm probably not completely typical but I would say there are two really critical times that people should think about when it comes to booking cruises.

Booking cruise a year in advance

Gary: First of all, if there's a cruise that they really want to do and a specific ship at a specific time of the year is the best time often because the cheapest time is to book when that comes on sale.

So that's a year, 18 months in advance because when cruise lines launch new itineraries, you'll normally find sharper pricing and always more incentive. You might find this onboard credit or there are upgrades or whatever different deals, airfares included, or free night hotel or drinks package so if you come back to it…

If you decided you wanted to go to Alaska and you want to go next in 2023, book when it comes on sale which is a year taking months in advance for me because you can make sure you go exactly when you want to go, on the ship you want to go, in the cabin you want to go, and you're probably going to get a really good price.

Booking cruise 90 days ahead

Gary: The second best time if you want to get really good price-wise and you're very, very flexible is 90 days or less before the cruise goes. Because what happens is most cruise lines people have to pay their final balance 90 days before. Now, some cruise lines at 60 days but most are 90 now because of COVID that's all over the place at the moment because cruise lines have changed it.

Booking cruise two weeks before cruising

Gary: Some you pay as little as two weeks before it's on its 30 days. It's a little bit whatever the case at the moment. But let's do that ahead because what happens is, cruise lines than say okay, on that sailing, I now have 100 cabins, 200 cabins, 300. Whatever it is which I now need to fill and that's when they will do other promotions and discounts. 

If you're very flexible and you say, probably, you want to go to Alaska and I don't really mind which cruise line I go to and I'm whatever, that's the next best time to do it. But if you... So if you're very, very flexible, leave it to the last minute. 90 days if you really care about what you want to do like, I like to know where I'm going to go with the ship like it is a cabin, I do it very far in advance.

Cruising During the Pandemic: New Rules

Michael: You just went on the cruise, is there anything different in this cruise today compared to a year and a half ago? What are the new things that you have experienced? What to expect going forward? Can you share it with our viewers?

Gary: Yeah. I mean, it's quite different, and also what's important for viewers to understand is and it also differs based on the country, the cruise line, and the ports you're calling on and it's very fluid. 

If you are looking at going on a cruise anytime soon, anytime this year, maybe next year you have to accept it will be different.

...and it will change and it could change even while you're on the cruise but I'll run you through what we had as an experience and I'll maybe touch on some things that are slightly different.

Covid-19 vaccination requirement on a cruise

Gary: So many, many cruise lines I would say probably the majority of cruise lines now require people to be vaccinated before they can go on the cruise.

Okay, that wasn't the case a while ago. Now there are some exceptions to that, for example, say the UK at the moment, MSC cruises are not requiring vaccinations. You've got a situation in saying the US in Florida where because of the law that's an important part of it presents kind of system vaccinations but they're basically doing a two-tier system where if you don't have a vaccination that's going to cost you more and it can be limited to what you can do onboard.

So there are differences but basically most cruise lines wherever they possibly can, you have to be vaccinated. If you're in a country where kids over 16, 12, whatever can be vaccinated they have to be vaccinated.

Which is the current situation in the UK. What I'll be telling that only over eighteen can be vaccinated so some lines are saying they won't take anyone under 18. Some lines are saying, if you're under 18, you can come but you have to have a negative PCR test so there is that element. 

PCR and antigen tests for cruising

Gary: The second element is all the cruise lines no matter where you're selling in the world will either require you to arrive at a PCR test or not but also they will... Every cruise line will test you before you board. So you will have to be tested and that what's being used varies a little bit. 

Some of them are antigen tests or whatever so different types of tests or in the case of Viking saliva test. So you have to be tested before you get on board, if you test positive then you obviously won't be able to board. They will give you future cruise credits and then depending on the regulations where you are, you'll have to do whatever the quarantining rules are.

Quarantining for 14 days on a cruise ship

Gary: So, for example, in Bermuda where there was an incident where some people tested positive, they actually have to go into hotel quarantining for 14 days, that's a Bermuda rule. In the UK, the rule was you could get private transport and isolate at home so that varies, you need to understand really, really care where you're boarding.

If you're planning to go and join a cruise in Bermuda out of the US or whatever, you need to be really clear about what those rules are if you fail a COVID test. Then once you're on board again, depending on the region, you may or may not have to wear masks.

Wearing masks on a cruise ship

Gary: All the sailings, for example, in Europe at the moment, or the sailings in the UK, you have to wear masks indoors except when you're in your own cabin. When you're sitting by the swimming pool or swimming, when you're in the gym, or when you're sitting down eating or drinking.

Now, some of the cruises sitting in the US are because of the CDC rules that's slightly different. It depends again, you have to understand what the rules are and it's likely that in three weeks' time the mask rule will be dropped in the UK but not in Europe.

Again, that was my point about what you may want... So you need to understand I'm not going to go on a cruise where I'm going to have to wear a mask or not wear a mask. The other is on board and there is reduced capacity so it varies. 

For example, the cruise I was on was less than 50% capacity because that's the current rule. In some countries it's 70%, in some countries it's 80%. There is reduced capacity partly so they can introduce social distancing but also all cruise ships wherever they sail around the world now have to have allocated cabins for isolation and quarantining so they have to be set aside.

That means that they'll have to reduce capacity. What's also a really important link to that is if there is an outbreak onboard unlike pre-COVID when it first broke out, it's much less dramatic than it used to be because everybody wears some form of contact tracing.

Contact tracing on a cruise ship

So some cruise lines are like a little bracelet, what we had on Viking was a little disc you wore so there is now contact tracing. So if someone tests positive during the course of the cruise they are able to tell to contact tracing who the close contacts are so they put those into immediate quarantining.

They test everybody again and then only those people who test positive are then sent to the port or to the ship at the next port to go quarantining. Unlike before, it was not a total lockdown. 

For example, I mean, and I guess because the case in the US but certainly is the case across Europe and the UK. On our mobile phone in the UK, we have an app that does that as well. So, I have an app which everybody has on their phone which is testing.

If I test positive of COVID then the test goes into that app and notifies everybody that I was in close contact with who and I have to then go to isolate. It's a similar principle. But you're right, so every cruise line has a contact tracing device process now and that's really important.

In pre-COVID there when we first started this the whole ship would have to get locked down, everybody had to go under quarantining. Now they can identify who is in close contact. They test those people who are in close contact and then they only have to isolate and disembark the people who were in close contact or who test positive. 

For example, there was a case in a Celebrity Millennium I guess you might've seen where two passengers tested positive partly during the cruise. They were isolated, they took to their close contacts but because of social distancing which is in place on board the ship, people weren’t infected. So only those two people will be disembarked and put into quarantine.

I think I was just touching on that which is the social distancing. So you'll find with reduced capacity aboard on the ships but then you're going to find, for example, in the bars the seats are blocked off. You're not sitting next to people in the theater. They might not ship, they might run more frequent shows because they're only taking say half capacity and depends again on the capacity limits so this is also social distancing.

You have to book certain things now which you shouldn't have to before. For example, if you want to go to the gym you have to book to go to that. Some cruise lines you have to book to go to the theater, you might have to book your dining even the buffet dining.

It depends a little bit on the ship by ship, so in terms of convenience, we already had to book the gym, we had to book especially dining, all the rest we didn't have to. When it comes to excursions, which is now a thing people are worried about, again, it depends very much on the region. So we had to, for example, on the cruise, I was on, we cannot leave the ship unless you're on a cruise line public excursion.

Rules on excursions while cruising

And when you're on the excursion you cannot leave that excursion to come to a shop or buy a coffee. Now that differs a little bit if you take, for example, Celebrity Millennium which is currently cruising over St. Martin, they in most ports could get off the ship and explore by themselves. But they couldn't in Barbados because Barbados had the rule that you have to stay in a cruise line bubble.

So again, it varies a little bit but in most cases at the moment you can't leave the ship to explore on your own in most places.

If you got sick before cruising

Michael: What are the rules today about passengers getting sick before cruising? Like will the cruise lines compensate? Give you cruise credits? How does it look to that?

Gary: There's two answers to that. If it's still COVID it's one issue if it's not for COVID it's another so let's talk about it…

If at the moment all the cruise line rules say is obviously anybody who either has COVID or has been exposed to somebody who's got COVID cannot come on the cruise. If you've been total isolated because you've come in close contact with somebody then the cruise line will all be pretty flexible, so they will allow... 

They will issue a future cruise credit and they will let you move your cruise even if it's like days before because they clearly don't want people to come with COVID so that's incredibly flexible. 

If you fall ill for any other reason, if you don't have travel insurance, you will lose your money so the cruise lines will not let you cancel because you've fallen ill or you're not well.

So if you break your leg or you suddenly come down with something and you have whatever that's a travel insurance issue, the cruise line will say tough. So that's why it's really important to have travel insurance which allows you to cancel.

Cruise Tips from Expert Cruiser

So one thing as I always say to people very importantly is…

...when you book your cruise also take a travel insurance at the same time because it depends on the country in a cruise line but some cruise lines have non-refundable deposits.

Even if you then say fall ill or you decide you don't want to go you could lose your deposit. Now it sounds the deposit is not very much money but really, really important is travel insurance covers that COVID different. The danger of going cruising is once you go once, you'll want to go again and again and again.

So just makes sure that you choose those things we spoke about at the beginning. Those three things are really... If you're going to go on a cruise just think through those three things. I also recommend quite strongly, it's obviously research, research, research so like my... 

For example, my channel, other channels, I like to try to channel huge amounts of information there. Spend time researching on it and also the great thing with something on my channel is once you've booked if you have booked in advance there's loads of stuff there that could get you excited about cruising.

I also do recommend that particularly for people who are new to cruising is use a travel agent 

 ...a travel agent who's really focused on cruising because they can help you with all those kinds of questions. And so you've got someone that you can really rely on.

You'll pay exactly the same as if you go to the cruise line. Sometimes you might get a better deal so it'll never be more expensive to go to an agent but actually, certainly the worst cruise agent would be any other kind of general tip.

To sum up

Cruising is an exciting way to travel and see places. As Gary recommends in this interview, before you choose a cruise with a cruise line, do your research, check information with a travel agent, and then make sure to read the contract.

Don’t forget to check online reviews on cruising. If you’ve been on a cruise before, please share your experience by writing a review on PissedConsumer.com. For more expert tips, visit our YouTube channel.

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