In the old days of cruising, you didn't ask much of your cabin. A bed, a head and a porthole would do. After all, you didn't expect to spend much time in it -- not unless you were seasick.
But cruising has changed.
Today's cruise ships are floating resorts, and the cabins aspire to be holiday havens. Some succeed and some don't, so it pays to give a little thought to your cabin selection. Here are some tips from lessons learned the hard way.
Just the facts. There are four basic types of cruise cabins: inside cabins, outside cabins, balcony cabins and suites. Inside cabins are located on inside corridors and so have no window. Outside cabins are located on the outside wall of the ship and have a window. Balcony cabins, also called veranda cabins, are outside cabins with a private deck. Suites are larger outside cabins with bigger private decks, separate bedroom(s) and a sitting area. Some suites have two or more bathrooms and perhaps some exclusive services, like your own personal butler.
Inside cabins are less expensive than outside cabins, yet passengers in these cabins are afforded the same ship's amenities as passengers in outside cabins and suites. Still, there are some things to think about before choosing an inside cabin. The few times I have cruised in an inside cabin, I have found myself feeling very confined and confused because I couldn't tell what time of day it was or what the weather was like outside.
Outside cabins offer a window to the world, and having a view of tropical islands or Alaskan glaciers is a special treat. But what qualifies as a "window"? Some are just portholes; others are full-length picture windows. Moreover, not all outside cabins offer an unobstructed view; some are partially blocked by lifeboats. You need to ask your booking agent.
Balcony cabins allow you to enjoy the outdoors and listen to the sounds of the sea. But is your private balcony really private? Some newer ships have recessed decks that may give passengers above a full view of you on your balcony. Also watch out for balcony cabins near outside elevators, like the ones on Holland America's Zuiderdam; these do not offer complete privacy.
Insider tip. When in doubt, book a higher category. One of the biggest mistakes people make is underestimating the value of their cruise category. For example, people who book an outside cabin can upgrade to a balcony cabin for not much more money and it makes a big difference in the quality of a vacation.
Just the facts. The average hotel room in the United States measures 300 square feet; in contrast, the average cruise cabin measures about 175 square feet. It's what you get for that space that's important. For the most part, standard cruise cabins are sensibly decorated and offer comfortable beds, reading lamps, ample storage space, bathrooms that have either a shower (but no tub) or a small tub with shower and individual climate control. In addition, most cruise cabins come with a television, telephone, hair dryer, personal safe and a writing area with a desk and chair.
On premium and luxury cruise lines, standard cabins may offer more impressive amenities like high thread-count sheets, pillow-top mattresses, down duvets, larger bathrooms (with tubs), mini-refrigerators, flat-panel TVs, VCRs, DVD players, Internet access and a sitting area with loveseat and chairs.
* Insider tip. Having trouble picturing how your cabin will look? Check out the cruise line websites, which offer photos. Some even have panoramic 360-degree video views of all cabin categories.
Just the facts. Most cabins accommodate two passengers, but you can also get triples and quads. Even larger cabins are available on some ships catering to families and small groups. Disney Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean Cruise Line, MSC Cruises and Princess Cruises all offer cabins and suites that can accommodate six to eight people.
Not all cruise beds are the same. In fact, the size and arrangement of beds (also called "berths") varies widely. Most cabins on newer ships have two twin beds that can be "converted" (i.e., moved together) to make a king. But not all. You might get a queen, or two twins that can't be moved or one twin on the floor and one fold-down Pullman. Third and fourth beds in a cabin are usually convertible-sofa beds or upper Pullmans, which you reach by ladder (a restraining bar keeps you from falling out). During the day, Pullman beds can be folded up against the wall or into the ceiling to provide more space.
* Insider tip. Your cabin arrangement can come as an unpleasant surprise. Many years ago, when I was sailing aboard Princess Cruises's Sun Princess, I ended up with a quad balcony cabin with four Pullman beds. This configuration shocked me -- and my travel agent -- since we had researched Cabin A640 before booking and understood from the deck plan that the room had two Pullmans (for the kids) and two convertible twins (for the grown-ups). I hated this cabin. The beds were uncomfortable and it wasn't fun sleeping without the hubby. I was supposed to be on the Love Boat, but I felt trapped in a 1950s sitcom.
Location, location, location
Just the facts. On most cruise ships, passenger cabins are interspersed among the ship's restaurants, theaters, casinos, lounges, pools, spa and other public facilities. Only Silverseas Cruises, a luxury cruise line, offers a separate cabin section. Each of its six ships is designed with the cabins in the forward part of the ship; the lounges, bars and restaurants range from midship and aft.
Many cabins get noise and vibration from the ship's engines throughout the voyage, and some get noise when the anchors are lowered. Some people like these "nautical noises," but if you don't, you might find it quieter in the middle of the ship.
You have more control over human noise, and if everyday hustle and bustle bothers you, you should stay away from the children's playroom, high-traffic elevators, self-service laundries and crew work stations. Try especially hard to avoid cabins above the disco and below the pool area. New York City resident Cindi Ludaken remembers a long, sleepless night on a Caribbean cruise listening to dozens of passengers on the Lido Deck above her cabin singing karaoke. "There's nothing worse at two in the morning than a universally bad version of 'I Will Survive,'" she says.
Some cruise lines discount cabins that have noise problems. For example, Carnival Cruise Line offers eleven "Night Owl" cabins aboard the Carnival Destiny. These inside cabins cost $200 less per person than identical cabins down the hall because they get a lot of thump and noise from the disco overhead.
One way to avoid cabin trouble is to study your ship's deck plan. See exactly where your proposed cabin is located in relation to noisy common areas. Check, too, for any unmarked white or gray spaces nearby; these often represent a housekeeping or room-service station that may house noisy carts and ice machines.
* Insider tip. Even the best-laid plans can go astray. Remember Cabin A640? Not only did it come with the dreaded Pullman beds, it was located directly under the Spa Deck door (door banged constantly) and near the maid's closets (loud talking and banging ice at 6 a.m.). The only thing you can do in a situation like this is buy some earplugs at the next port.
Assigned cabins and "guaranteed" cabins
Just the facts. If you book early, you can often reserve the exact cabin you want to occupy; for example, Cabin A640. That's an "assigned cabin."
A "guaranteed booking" is different. A guaranteed booking gets you an unassigned cabin within a specified cabin category, along with a chance of being assigned to a higher cabin category at no additional cost. How does this work? Like airlines, cruise lines overbook. When demand for one cabin category exceeds the supply, cruise lines use their guaranteed bookings to help control cabin inventory.
Which of the guaranteed bookings actually gets upgraded? That depends on the cruise line. Some will upgrade passengers who booked early on. Others upgrade passengers who book through top-selling travel agencies -- yet another reason to put your cruise business with a good travel agent.
Your chances of being upgraded on a guaranteed booking are unpredictable. It depends on too many demand factors. In the past, lots of guaranteed bookings were upgraded. But now cruise lines are able to move a lot of last-minute inventory over the Internet, so your chances are somewhat lower.
* Insider tip. Guaranteed bookings almost never get you a suite, but you may be placed a few decks higher than the deck you were expecting. On the other hand, you could end up with a less desirable cabin in your category than you'd hoped for. Just remember: An upgrade is not a sure thing, and when you book a guarantee you are giving up the opportunity to pick a particular cabin.
Choose your cabin carefully and you'll sleep much better -- from the moment you put down your deposit. Bon voyage and sweet dreams!