22 key cruise holiday questions answered – from seasickness to saving money

cruise holidays - Getty
cruise holidays - Getty

There’s no holiday quite like a cruise, which lets you explore the world at a relaxed pace while delivering every destination directly to you, and the novelty of life at sea – on ships that can resemble floating all-inclusive resorts or intimate boutique hotels – has turned the staid, traditional image of cruising on its head.

Swanky high-tech thrills that were never even dreamt of a decade ago and chic sophisticated surroundings have not only transformed the industry, but helped to attract an entirely new generation of avid cruise aficionados.

Cruising is no longer the preserve of the famously coined “newly-wed, nearly dead and over-fed”, but young couples and groups of friends, families, solo travellers and fitness fans – of all ages.

The range and style of ships has never been greater and neither has the breadth of places they sail to, but such a choice can be bewildering, particularly for those who’ve never set foot on a cruise ship and have no idea where to start.

So here’s our ultimate guide to everything you need to know, whether you’ve hundreds of cruises under your belt or none at all.

Before you book

Where should I go?

Destinations reign supreme when it comes to choosing a cruise, with the Caribbean leading the way as the world’s most popular cruising region thanks to its enticing blend of tropical seas and castaway isles.

Nearly every cruise line sails here, offering itineraries that include popular spots such as Barbados, St Lucia, Jamaica and Mexico, along with hideaways in the Grenadines and British Virgin Islands.

Most Caribbean cruises depart from Florida or the Caribbean’s main islands, including Barbados, Antigua and Puerto Rico, though some sailings also leave from the UK.

The Mediterranean is the second most popular destination, though its proximity means it is the top choice for British cruisers thanks to the plethora of sailings from UK ports, led by Southampton, or fly-cruises to the likes of Barcelona, Palma or Civitavecchia (for Rome).

cruise holiday - Getty
cruise holiday - Getty

The region’s main season runs from spring to autumn, and its strength lies in the range of countries, history and cultures surrounding this 2,200-mile stretch of sea. The most popular ports include Naples, Athens and Dubrovnik.

Northern Europe, encompassing Scandinavian cities, Norwegian fjords and Baltic states, has become increasingly popular over the last decade, as has sailings around the UK.

North America brims with natural attractions, notably in Alaska where several lines send ships each summer. New England’s quaint seascapes and rich maritime history is the focus of numerous fall foliage voyages while West Coast journeys promise the laid-back vibes of California and Hawaii.

South and Central American sailings deliver vibrant cities including Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro, Asian cruises usually star Singapore, Hong Kong, Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City.

In winter, the Middle East, including Dubai, Abu Dhabi and the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheikh, as well as the Canary Islands, come into their own.

Cruise or fly?

Sail from a UK port and your holiday starts as soon as you step aboard, with no airport stress or luggage restrictions.

While the majority of cruises start from Southampton, there are departures from Tilbury, Liverpool, Edinburgh and even from London’s Tower Bridge, among others.

However, the range of destinations within easy reach is more limited as you can only travel so far in a week or two. For a decent Mediterranean cruise, you really need to allow two weeks as it takes two days to sail down the Iberian Peninsula. The voyage also involves crossing the Bay of Biscay, which has a reputation for rocky conditions – if you suffer from sea sickness, be prepared.

Fly-cruises open up more of the world, and make it easy to do a one-week Mediterranean cruise (starting from Barcelona, Genoa or Rome/Civitavecchia). Flights are short and, in the case of Barcelona, the cruise port is only a 25-minute drive from the airport on clear roads.

A ship off the coast of Santorini - Getty
A ship off the coast of Santorini - Getty

Fly-cruises can be booked as a package, arranged through the cruise line or a travel agent. Alternatively, passengers can organise their own flight and transfer to the ship – but allow extra time for any delays as the ship will not wait.

Adding pre- or post-cruise hotel stays can also be easily arranged at the time of booking, either through the company handling your reservation or as part of your own arrangements.

See our guide to cruising from the UK.

Which cruise line should I choose?

Cruise ships, like hotels or resorts, come in varying styles and sizes, with the largest ships belonging to the likes of Royal Caribbean International (RCI), MSC Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) and Carnival Cruise Line. Their vessels take up to 7,000 passengers and feature fun facilities such as waterparks, stacks of entertainment, and numerous bars and dining spots. If you like holidaying in big glitzy resort-style hotels, and especially if you have a family in tow with young children or teens, this option is ideal.

At the other end of the scale are smaller ships, generally holding just a few hundred guests, with a more intimate and refined ambience where entertainment revolves around atmospheric bars, live music and cabaret shows.

These appeal to anyone who likes staying in cosy boutique hotels, and include the likes of Oceania Cruises, Viking, Azamara, Windstar Cruises and so-called “six-star” luxury lines such as Silversea, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Seabourn and soon-to-launch Explora Journeys.

viking cruise ship
viking cruise ship

Celebrity Cruises, Princess Cruises and Cunard share a similar sophisticated upscale air, but with larger ships.

Onboard ambience is also key as cruise companies reflect their roots, with the likes of P&O Cruises, Fred Olsen Cruise Lines, Ambassador Cruise Line, Marella Cruises and Cunard offering a British flavour, while American lines have a more Stateside feel. There’s a noticeably European twist to MSC, while upscale French line Ponant is undeniably Gallic, Athens-based Celestyal Cruises brims with Hellenic flair and Hapag-Lloyd Cruises possesses an air of quiet Germanic efficiency.

For something distinctly different, there are tall ship lines Star Clippers and Sea Cloud Cruises, along with a new generation of mega-yacht style ships from the likes of Scenic, Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection and Emerald Cruises.

A room on board Virgin Voyages
A room on board Virgin Voyages

Meanwhile, relative newcomer Virgin Voyages brings more of a funky adult-only party buzz and Disney Cruise Line is, unsurprisingly, aimed at families.

For more advice, see our guide to choosing the right cruise line.

What about a river cruise?

River cruises offer a totally different flavour of life on the water. Riverboats (they’re often called ships, but they’re not) are tiny in comparison to ocean ships, generally taking between 100 and 200 passengers, and have a congenial atmosphere that lends itself to striking up conversation and forging friendships.

Due to size constraints, facilities are restricted to a main lounge, two or three dining venues and a compact gym, with some vessels also having small swimming pools and spas.

Life aboard is comfortably refined and, thanks to a wave of new vessels in recent years, facilities are upscale with cabins all possessing either windows, French balconies or small verandas.

The pace of river cruises tends to be relaxed, as you cruise from one place to another, while entertainment is low key. By their nature, river cruises tend to be more immersive, enabling guests to get under the skin of a destination on walking tours, private concerts and cocktail soirees at historic buildings.

There are a growing number of active cruises too with many river craft now carrying their own fleets of bikes for shoreside cycling trips, in addition to hiking tours and kayaking excursions. Onboard yoga and fitness classes are also regularly held on deck.

Uniworld River Cruises - Uniworld River Cruises
Uniworld River Cruises - Uniworld River Cruises

The most popular rivers are the Rhine and the Danube and cruises along these resemble floating city breaks as vessels generally dock in the centre (or within walking distance) of cities such as Amsterdam, Budapest and Cologne. But there’s a growing range of sailings on Europe’s other waterways, including the Moselle and the Elbe, plus France’s Seine and Rhone rivers and the Douro in Portugal.

Further afield, cruises along the Nile and the Mekong are popular, as are those on China’s Yangtze and Indian waterways including the Ganges.

Should I book with a cruise line or an agent?

The vast majority of cruises are booked through travel agents who play a crucial role in matching clients to the right ships. There are a string of dedicated cruise agencies which have in-depth knowledge of the different lines and ships, with many staff having first-hand experience of them too. Not only do such agencies keep abreast of the newest trends and cruise products, but many have close relationships with cruise lines, which gives them access to special discounts and offers not on the open market.

For first-time cruisers, this knowledge and guidance from a travel professional is invaluable.

More experienced cruisers who are familiar with different cruise lines and have their own favourites will feel more confident about booking direct. However, it’s worth noting that many cruise agencies also put together their own special packages combining a cruise with hotel accommodation and other add-ons such as festivals, special events or rail journeys.

Some clients may also find it more reassuring to book through an agent who they have a personal rapport with and who they can trust to sort out any problems.

Which cabin should I choose?

Cruise ships might feature as many as 40 types of cabin, but don’t let this confuse you – there are only four main categories.

If you want the cheapest cabin, then opt for an inside or interior category. These come with all the facilities you would expect, but no window or porthole, so are ideal if you don’t plan to spend much time in them.

The next category up are outside or oceanview cabins, which do have a large window, followed by balcony cabins, with their own private outdoor space – a particularly popular option when cruising scenic regions like Alaska and the Norwegian fjords.

Regent Seven Seas cruise ship - Regent Seven Seas
Regent Seven Seas cruise ship - Regent Seven Seas

The ultimate cabin choice is a suite, ranging from mini-suites which have a sitting area to vast enclaves with several bedrooms, butler service and private plunge pools on the outdoor terrace.

Cabin location is another area to bear in mind as you don’t want to be underneath a noisy pool deck or close to the nightclub. Anyone worried about seasickness should choose a cabin in the middle of the ship on a lower deck as there will be less movement.

For more tips, see our guide to choosing a cruise cabin.

How can I cut the cost of my cruise?

The cruise industry is fiercely competitive, so there are always deals to be had, especially in what’s known as the Wave Season, from mid-December to March. These might be discounts or added-value packages where gratuities, Wi-Fi, drinks and excursions are included in the price.

Aside from this, booking early – sometimes up to two years in advance – usually brings savings. However, booking at the last minute can also serve up bargains, though you need to be flexible on dates and may not get your first choice of cabin type or location.

Prices outside of school holidays are generally lower, especially during the “shoulder season” months of May and June when Mediterranean cruises, in particular, can be more difficult to fill.

Repositioning cruises, when ships relocate from one part of the world to another, are another route to lower prices and can be up to 50 per cent cheaper than regular voyages.

Booking your next cruise while still on your current one can also qualify for special discounts. Sailing from the UK is another way to cut costs as there are no flight prices to add on and opting to holiday on older ships is also cheaper.

For more advice, see our guide to saving money on a cruise.

What’s included and what costs extra?

Cruises are known for being good value and the basic premise is that all meals are included at a variety of venues along with daytime activities, deck facilities (such as waterslides and high ropes courses), plus entertainment including theatre shows, cabaret and live bands.

Gyms and sports facilities are free to use as are swimming pools and hot tubs, while families also benefit from complementary kids’ clubs.


The more expensive – and upmarket – the cruise line, the more they include in the price, such as drinks, speciality dining, gratuities and even some shore excursions.

However, on the mainstream lines, passengers would generally need to fork out for drinks (unless they’re on a special drinks deal), speciality dining, shore excursions, Wi-Fi, spa treatments and gratuities – though more cruise lines are now including gratuities in the overall price.

Other extra charges might be expected for enclosed VIP-style deck areas and some special one-off attractions.

See our complete guide to cruise charges.

Are there still Covid restrictions or other issues to consider in 2023?

Since the Covid pandemic, all cruise companies have had strict protocols and testing procedures in place to halt the spread of any infections, but these are now being relaxed (albeit slowly). Most cruise lines no longer require guests to take a Covid test before boarding, though in some cases it is still recommended. However, most cruise lines still ask passengers to prove they are vaccinated (including a booster), with P&O Cruises among the few to drop this requirement.

Another significant and ongoing change for 2023 concerns Baltic cruises which, since the invasion of Ukraine, have stopped featuring the Russian city of St Petersburg. Cruise lines have worked hard to fill the gap with, for example, lesser-visited Scandinavian islands

Life on board

How does embarkation work?

This is a busy day when departing passengers disembark (normally everyone is off by around 9.30am) and new guests arrive. Embarking passengers are usually given a time slot to arrive at the port and when they do, their luggage is taken by porters and loaded onto the ship separately, and delivered to their stateroom door a few hours later.

So make sure you carry anything you need in your hand luggage, such as medication and swimwear. If you have a baby with you, this means nappies too. Once aboard, this is a good opportunity to familiarise yourself with the ship, book excursions, reserve spa treatments and make speciality dining reservations.

How do sea days and port days differ?

Sea days are when there are no port calls and you get a proper sense of ocean cruising. Ships will be busy and decks can be crowded. There will be a full programme of activities, including live music and classes.

Port days, when the ship arrives at its port of call, are when passengers can disembark to go on shore excursions or explore independently. If going ashore doesn’t appeal, it’s also a good time to find a prime poolside seat or special offers in the spa.

What is there to do aboard?

The bigger the ship, the better the choice of attractions, from water parks and climbing walls to miniature golf courses and vast gyms.

You can expect yoga classes on Virgin Voyages
You can expect yoga classes on Virgin Voyages

The ship’s daily cruise planner – delivered to your cabin or on the cruise line’s app – gives a rundown of events taking place.

On port days, activities are mainly in the evening. This is when ships come alive with West End-style stage shows, live music, comedy performances and silent discos.

How do excursions work?

Cruise lines have a wide range of full and half-day shore excursions that can be booked online before the cruise or during the sailing. Prices can be high, but they offer peace of mind as ships will wait if the tours are late back. They won’t wait for passengers who have made their own independent arrangements.

Alternative options include tours with independent shore excursion companies such as Venture Ashore, picking up a tour from a local company or taxi driver at the port, or doing your own thing and taking public transport.

See our guide to booking your own shore excursions.

Will I need to dress up?

Not if you don’t want to. The days of rigid formality have all but disappeared and life aboard is more casual now. However, check with your cruise line to see what its dress codes are as these can vary between Casual, Smart Casual/Semi-Formal (smart trousers, dresses), and Formal (dinner or lounge suits and smart dresses/evening wear) or the more flexible Dress to Impress. Generally guests enjoy dressing up on formal/black tie evenings, but if this isn’t for you, choose a company that has a more relaxed policy.

black tie cruises - Getty
black tie cruises - Getty

Do I need to share tables at dinner?

Passengers can opt for shared tables if they want to, but the emphasis is now much more on guests dining with who they like and when they like. However, some ships still offer fixed dining sittings as well.

Will everyone be old?

The days of cruises appealing solely to pensioners are long gone, and while some sailings do still attract an older demographic (scenic sailings from the UK during term time, for instance), and particular cruise companies which cater for the more mature market, other cruises are filled with young families, groups of friends and younger couples.

Should I worry about seasickness?

It is rare to suffer from the dreaded mal de mer on larger modern ships that are equipped with stabilisers – fins that pop out on each side of the ship to lessen rocking movements. However, anyone concerned about this should choose a midship cabin that is least affected by the ship’s movement.

There is also medication to help with symptoms including Stugeron; acupressure bands worn on the wrist; or a scopolamine patch stuck behind the ear which contains medication absorbed through the skin to prevent seasickness. Alternatively, the ship’s doctor can prescribe various medications (though these come at a price, so best to get your own before departing). For those who can’t even step on a ship without feeling queasy, it would be better to try a river cruise.

What happens if I’m taken ill?

All ships have healthcare facilities and a medical team led by qualified doctors who can dispense medication and deal with more serious issues, though in some cases guests may need to be disembarked or evacuated by helicopter. Travel insurance is compulsory, arranged through the cruise line or independently, with details submitted before departure.

Are there safety drills?

The muster drill is an important first task on the day of embarkation that familiarises passengers with procedures in the event of an emergency. Some lines organise compulsory face-to-face drills while others require guests to watch the safety video on their in-cabin TV before signing in at their designated muster point.

Will there be internet access?

All ships offer internet access, though download speeds can vary. However, major lines are in the process of installing Elon Musk’s broadband satellite SpaceX Starlink system which promises high-speed connections. On-board Wi-Fi can be expensive, though price packages offer the most cost-effective solution. Some cruise companies feature it in special deals or included in the overall cruise fare.

How do I pay for things on board?

Each cruise company has its own payment system where you buy drinks and other items with, for example, your room card, and the charges go on to your stateroom account that is settled at the end of the cruise. On board currencies vary between cruise lines, but the main three tenders are US dollar, sterling and euro.

What’s the gratuity policy?

This varies greatly between cruise lines with US companies tending to charge more. Gratuities are usually added to each guest’s account as a daily per person charge, normally around $16pppd. However, an increasing number of lines now include these in the cruise fare or offer value-added packages that include tips. Some cruise lines, mainly American ones, automatically add a service charge of 18-20 per cent to bar bills and spa treatments as well.

Are you tempted to embark on a cruise holiday? Tell us in the comments section below