I love cruising. It is one of the best bargain vacations available. It isn't for everybody, but it suits me perfectly!
Cruising works best for people who are on a budget, and who want a great vacation experience with minimum planning and risk. If you want an in-depth cultural experience, getting to know the native lifestyle, cruising probably isn't for you.
There are a number of big cruise ship companies that do a great job. They cater to different market segments. Carnival is the largest, and cheapest. Mid-priced ship lines aren't much more, but have better quality food, and a different passenger spectrum. Young people generally like Royal Caribbean, Norwegian (more casual), Celebrity, and Princess. If you are American/Canadian, I think you will be happiest on a ship with others so you don't have to deal with multiple languages.
There are four kinds of cabins. All will have twin, convertible to queen sized beds, bathroom with marine toilet, sink and shower (tight fit!), TV, closet with hangers, drawers, mini-fridge, and in room safe for passports and jewelry. The water is safe to drink.
1. Inside cabin: cheap and clean little area for sleeping. No windows. Central air keeps it cool.
2. Ocean view cabin: usually has a small picture window to let in light. Cheaper cabins have a lifeboat obstructing part of the view.
3. Balcony cabin: you have a sliding glass door where you can walk outside and watch the water roll by. It will have a small table and chairs, but isn't very private. It is separated from the balcony space next door by a partition. Sunbathing might be possible, or not, but there are security cameras out there, so don't go topless unless you want to be entertainment for the crew. The best advantage is that you can open the door and smell the fresh air. Smoking is forbidden on most balconies, and even in some cabins. (Big fines!)
4. Mini-suites: balcony cabin with more space, larger balconies, and sometimes bathtubs instead of the tiny showers.
ALL CABINS GET THE SAME FOOD, SAME ENTERTAINMENT, SAME CRUISE!
Cruise fare are incredibly cheap. In order to stay in business, the cruise ships need to persuade you to spend more money. This is your choice. You can have a great cruise without spending extra money, but you need to know what to expect. You don't need cash while on board ship. They give you a plastic ID card, and swipe it to charge to your account. Bring cash when on land.
1. Port charges are paid by the cruise ship line to the port in which the ship is docked. The ship passes this on to you. You have to pay it when you pay for your cruise. They don't profit on this.
2. Hotel charge (tips): The crew works unbelievably long hours to make your cruise the best vacation possible. They are not paid much at all. At the end of the cruise, they will split up the hotel charge among the crew so it is fair for everybody. Normal charge is about $24 per day, per couple. It adds up. Technically, you don't have to pay this at all, but that is considered to be one of the rudest, cheapest things you can do. These people are depending on those tips. Pay them! We usually give a little extra to our cabin steward. Since the tips are now handled automatically by the ship, you don't need to worry about passing out tips on the last night personally, as was customary in the old days.
3. Alcohol is extra. Watch your bar bill. SOME cruise lines allow you to bring on a bottle of wine or champaigne to drink, but not hard liquor.
4. Soft drinks are extra. There are packages you can buy if you have to have your Cola every day, but that is up to you.
5. Coffee and tea are free in the buffet and the dining room, but there are coffee shops where you can get better specialty coffee for extra.
6. There are small shops selling clothing, souvenirs, travel necessities, and their prices are outrageous! Don't buy anything on the ship. Bring your own meds!
7. Stay out of the casino. 'Nuff said.
8. There is a lot of free entertainment on board, including musical reviews, magic shows, movies, dance classes, trivia contests. music and dancing. Shipboard wi-fi is slow, frustrating and limited, and it is not free. There is a computer center for important communication, but don't try to do your normal load of work. They'll help you print your airline boarding passes, though.
9. There are specialty restaurants with extra charge if you want a romantic dinner for two. The food in the dining room is very good, and it is paid for, but you will probably sit at a table with other passengers. It is fun to meet different people. The Lido deck has the buffet. Quality varies there. Burgers and pizza is usually served poolside. Bars are everywhere ($).
10. Many cruise lines will try to sell you art at "champagne art auctions". Stay far, far away! Not worth your time!
11. Do spend money on at least one shore excursion. The ship knows what you want to see, and they will make sure that you do - if you pay. If you book through the ship, they will guarantee to wait for your group to return before sailing away. If you book independently and the tour bus breaks down, they won't wait for you. I think it is worth it to have peace of mind. You can book your excursion on line, several month before you cruise.
12. Many cruises feature a day at a private beach. Lovely, and cheap! Enjoy, but watch your sun exposure.
13. The ship's spa costs about twice as much as you would expect to pay on land, and they will try to sell you beauty treatments.
14. The ship's photographers will be asking you to pose for pictures. Their prices are sky high! Bring your own camera, and ask other passengers to take shots of you two together. Those are your best souvenirs!
15. The use of the ship's gym equipment is free.
16. If you have a medical emergency, there is a doctor on board. His services are not included in your fare. ALWAYS buy trip insurance! I was on a ship where a young girl was helicoptered off the ship for an emergency appendectomy! If her parents hadn't bought the insurance, the bill would have been ten times the cruise fare! It happens!
17. Most electronic gaming systems are in the children's area, and this is out of bounds for adults, just as the bars are forbidden to the kids. They are very strict about this.
18. There will be "shopping presentations" on board where a crew member will tell you all the best places to shop. Bull! They tell you about all the stores that pay them a percentage to be recommended. Especially in the Caribbean, you will be told about stores with names like "Diamonds, International" and "Columbian Emeralds". These stores are affiliated with the cruise line. They are not local. There are no diamond mines in the Caribbean. Except for a souvenir pair of earrings or a silver bracelet, spend your money with your trusted jeweler back home.
19. Smoking - rules vary. The trend is to ban smoking in most places, including cabins and private balconies. Fines are big! There are some designated smoking areas around the ship. The Casino is one of them, but the cruise industry has discovered that there are a lot of people who won't go there if it is smoky, so they designate non-smoking nights in the casino to try and lure passengers in to their most profitable activity! There is a least one bar where smoking is permitted, and a designated pool area on the Lido deck. Don't even THINK about smoking marijuana! The captain can have you arrested, confined to a locked cabin, and delivered to the authorities at the next port!
20. No-no items. Hard liquor, illegal drugs (duh!), electric irons, coffee makers, candles.
21. Good stuff to bring - extension cord, collapsible laundry basket, your own laundry detergent, US quarters (laundry machines), water bottle, a lanyard to hold your plastic cruise card, camera, meds.
Dress codes: This varies with the cruise ship. Usually, shorts and tees are frowned on for dinner in the formal dining room, but are OK in the buffet. Most lines (except Norwegian) have a formal night. Cocktail garb is usual. (Little black dress.) Tuxedos are rarely seen these days, thanks to airline luggage limits.
I think cruising is one of the most fantastic, stress free vacations ever! I have been all over the world on cruise ships in perfect comfort without overspending. Prices vary by season. When kids are out of school, prices zoom upwards. This is hard on teachers - I used to be one. Holiday prices are highest, but if you can wait a week, they will plummet. Cheap cruising times are before (USA) Thanksgiving, before Christmas break, and early January for the Caribbean; late spring and early fall for Europe and Alaska.
I always use a travel agent. If something goes wrong, I call my agent, and he calls the cruise line to fix it. Without a travel agent to represent me, I am just one of a long line of complaining passengers, without much power. All on line booking services are travel agents. They are paid a commission by the cruise line, just like a local travel agent. Sometimes they can get you perks, like a free bottle of wine, or credit to pay your shipboard bills. Most prices are comparable.
I hope I have answered some of your cruise questions. My daughter took an Alaska cruise for her honeymoon, and she loved it! Happy honeymoon!