Today, everybody has a website, and the difference between so-called Web-based cruise sellers and more traditional travel agencies is that the former rely on their sites for most of their actual bookings, while the latter use theirs as advertising space to promote their offerings and do most of their actual business in person or over the phone. As far as cruise prices go, there's no absolutely quantifiable difference between the live travel agents and Internet-based cruise sellers. Sometimes one or the other, due to them buying or reserving cabins in bulk, can offer you perks like free onboard credits, a bottle of champagne or cabin upgrades. Though there are some loopholes, these days the major cruise lines tout a level playing field, where everybody gets the same price and agents aren't allowed to advertise discounted rates.
In deciding how to book your cruise, consider the value of your time, and your level of experience as a cruiser and as an Internet user. Most websites give you a menu of ships and itineraries to select from, plus a basic search capability that takes into account destination, price, length of trip, and date; some sites aid your search with sophisticated options such as interactive deck plans and ship reviews. If you've cruised before and know what you want, no problem. If, on the other hand, you have limited experience with cruising or with booking on the Web, or your time could be better used elsewhere, it may be better to go through a traditional agent (such as Just Cruisin Plus, who supplied the rates for this guide), who can help you wade through the choices and answer your questions, from which cabins have their views obstructed by lifeboats to information on dining, tuxedo rentals, onboard kids programs, and cuisine.
A travel agent can also help you book airfare to and from the ship, and hotels and sightseeing trips before or after your cruise. No matter which way you wind up booking your cruise, you may want to first check out the cruise-line websites and browse the Internet for ship reviews, virtual tours, chats, and industry news.
To find an agent, rely on referrals from trusted friends and colleagues. Some agents (such as Just Cruisin Plus), really know the business -- they travel themselves to sample what they sell and can reel off the differences between cabins on Deck 7 and Deck 8 down to where the towel racks are placed -- while others are not much more than order-takers. Start looking as soon as you can, which can result in early booking rates and the best cabin choices.
Choosing a Cabin
One of your biggest decisions is what type of cabin you need. Will you be happy with a slightly cramped space without a window (the most budget-minded choice); a cabin with a private balcony; or a suite with a dining room, hot tub, and a personal butler?
Obviously, price will determine your choice. If you don't plan to spend time in your cabin except to sleep, shower, and change clothes, an inside cabin (one without a porthole or window) might do just fine. If you get claustrophobic; or if you insist on sunshine first thing in the morning; or if you intend to hole up in your cabin for extended periods, pay a bit more and take an outside cabin, which have windows -- or pay a bit more and take one with a private balcony, where you can open the door and feel the sea breezes. On smaller or older ships, your choice might be limited to inside and outside cabins, some with the old-style porthole windows. Newer ships will have balconies on the majority of cabins, making them more affordable than ever.
One concern if you do go the window route is obstructed views. This isn't an issue with newer ships because the lifeboats are housed on the decks containing the public spaces like restaurants and lounges; the passenger cabins are either above or below those decks. But check to make sure none of the cabins in the category you've selected have windows that directly face lifeboats or other objects that may block your view of the clear blue sea. You can determine this by looking at a diagram of the ship (included in the cruise brochure or found online) or by consulting with your travel agent.
Most ships offer cabins for two with private bathroom and shower. (Bathtubs are considered a luxury on most ships and are usually offered only in the most expensive cabins.) These days, most ships have a double bed, or twin beds that may be convertible to a queen. Other variations are cabins with bunk beds (referred to as "upper and lower berths"), cabins designed for three or four people, and connecting cabins for families. Many lines -- including Oceania, Holland America, and Regent -- feature fluffy mattresses and soft down duvets.
Cabin amenities vary by line, and often include TVs (with a closed system of programmed movies and features and the occasional news channel), DVD players, hair dryers, safes, and minirefrigerators. If any of these are must-haves, let your agent know. Cruise lines tend to one-up their amenities pretty often, so it's possible your cabin may have a flat-panel LCD TV, a powerful hair dryer, brand-name toiletries, and fresh flowers or fruit awaiting you on arrival.
Usually the higher on the ship the cabin is located, the more expensive it is. But upper decks also tend to be rockier in rough seas than the middle or lower parts of the ship, a factor to consider if you're prone to seasickness.
The size of a cabin is determined by square feet. Keep in mind that ship cabins are generally smaller than the equivalent hotel rooms you'd find on land. As a rough guide, 11 sq. m (120 sq. ft.) is low end and cramped, 17 sq. m (180 sq. ft.) is midrange and fairly roomy, and 23 sq. m (250 sq. ft.) and larger is suite size and very comfortable.
If noise bothers you, pick a cabin far from the engine room and nowhere near the disco.
Mealtimes: Early, Late, or Anytime
Dining on cruise ships has undergone a revolution in the past decade or so. Traditionally, guests ate in the large dining room, at the same time and at the same table every night. Today, you can still dine the traditional way -- many ships offer that as the default preference (if not the only preference). But there are several variations on the mealtime theme now, from complete open seating to separate restaurants specializing in seafood or steaks to proper en suite dining.
For traditional dining, because most ship dining rooms are not large enough to accommodate all passengers at one dinner seating, dining times and tables are assigned. When you book your trip, you will also indicate your preferred mealtime. Early, or "main," seating is usually at 6 or 6:30pm, late seating at 8 or 8:30pm. Lines catering to a majority of European clientele may offer seatings an hour or so later than these. Some of the bigger lines offer four staggered seatings, which gives you more choice and eliminates some of the crowding at the dining room door.
There are advantages to both times. Early seating is usually less crowded, and it's the preferred time for families and older passengers who want to get to bed early. Since the waiters know that the second wave is coming, they may be rushed. On the other hand, early diners get first dibs on nighttime entertainment venues, and might be hungry enough in a few hours to take advantage of a midnight buffet. Late seating allows time for a nap or late spa appointment before dinner, especially if you're returning to the ship from a full day in port. Service is slower paced, and you can linger with after-dinner drinks, then catch the late show at 10pm.
When choosing a mealtime, you also need to consider table size (on most ships, you can request to be at a table for 2, 4, 8, 10, or 12), though sometimes it's tough to snag a table for two since they're usually in great demand. On the other hand, many cruisers appreciate the fun that comes from sitting around a big table and talking up your adventures of the day. Most dining rooms are nonsmoking, so there's generally no need to request a smoking or nonsmoking table. You can request a different table when you get onboard, too.
If your ship has open-seating arrangements, you can dine at any hour the restaurant is open. You also choose your dinner partners, or you can ask the maitre d' to sit you with other guests. Open seating can feel more casual and less regimented. Open seating arrangements are typically offered on the smaller and/or most upscale lines, although now some of the majors offer this option as well. The pioneer in the big-ship category is Norwegian Cruise Line, which now builds its ships with up to 10 different restaurants. Princess Cruises, Celebrity Cruises, and Holland America Line, for example, have a hybrid dining policy: Passengers choose whether they want the traditional seating or the open plan, and then show up at the restaurants accordingly.
Most ships now also have at least one or two restaurants separate -- in location, cuisine, and atmosphere -- from the main dining room. These so-called specialty restaurants or alternative restaurants are open seating, so you can choose your dinnertime and dining companions. If you'd like to try an evening or two at these restaurants, make reservations in advance. A per-person cover charge, typically in the $20 to $30 range, often applies, so you should check in advance.
On most ships, breakfast and lunch are open seating. Most vessels also have buffet restaurants, where you can choose to have both meals at any time during open hours.
Inform the cruise line at the time you make your reservations if you have any special dietary requests. Kosher menus, vegetarian, low fat, low salt, low carb, "spa," and sugar-free are some of the options available.
Deposits, Cancellations & Extras
After you've made your decision about what ship you will vacation on, you will be required to put down a deposit if you're booking 2 or more months in advance (with the remaining fare usually paid no later than 2 months in advance of your departure date); or you must pay the entire fare if you're booking within 60 or 70 days of your sailing date.
Note: Cruise lines have varying policies regarding cancellations, and it's important to look at the fine print in the brochure or agency website to make sure you understand the policy. Most lines allow you to cancel for a full refund on your deposit and payment any time up to about 70 days before the sailing, after which you have to pay a penalty (a few lines charge an administrative fee if you cancel your cruise less than 120 days before departure, and some levy a cancellation fee once the deposit is made regardless of the sailing date). If you cancel at the last minute, you likely will lose the entire fare you paid, unless you bought trip-cancellation or -interruption insurance.
An agent will discuss with you optional airline arrangements offered by the lines, transfers from the airport to the pier, and any pre- or postcruise hotel or tour programs. Some lines also let you purchase shore excursions in advance. And you may also be able to prebook certain onboard spa services.
If you are not booking airfare through the cruise line, make sure to allow several hours between the plane's arrival and the time you must board the ship. To reduce anxiety, it may be best to fly in the day before and spend the night in a hotel.
Booking Your Private Yacht Charter
Do you imagine yourself cruising the Greek isles on a boat built for two? Or six? Maybe you fancy taking a more active role in itinerary planning? Do you love the idea of requesting that you cruise for a few hours and stop in a secluded cove for swimming? Or do you relish the thought of stepping off your 24m (80-ft.) sailing vessel in the marina and heading off to a nearby beachfront restaurant for dinner?
Greece is a great place for a private yacht charter. Altogether, there are about 6,000 isles and islands in Greek territory. You're as free as a bird; you can cruise to an island and stay as long as you like (as long as the captain says it's okay). And although yacht cruising can be expensive, it doesn't have to be. But there are a few things to keep in mind.
You could go through a travel agent who's familiar with yacht chartering, or you could find a yacht charter broker. Yacht charter brokers are a link between yacht owners and you -- they're the ones who know the boats and the crew, the ones who will guide you through the process and take your booking. Charter brokers go to boat shows around the world to check up on yachts and companies and crew; they might have personally sailed within the area you want to go to (or know someone who has).
For more information about charter brokers, visit the Charter Yacht Brokers Association at www.cyba.net. The site has a page for prospective clients to request more information by describing their plans for a charter. Other associations for charter brokers include the Mediterranean Yacht Brokers Association and the American Yacht Brokers Association. The Greek Tourism Organization (www.gnto.gr) can also be a resource.
The yacht broker should ask questions and listen as you describe what you're looking for in a vacation. How many people are you traveling with? What are their ages -- are there kids involved? Where are you interested in cruising, and when? Do you care more about visiting Greek towns and historic sites, or do you want to kick back on the boat and relax? Do you want to go ultraluxe, or are you on a tight budget? Do you want a power yacht, which is faster, or a sailing yacht, which burns less fuel? All these questions will help them plan the best route for you.
Here are a few tips:
- Be reasonable in your itinerary planning. A yacht probably won't be able to get you comfortably from Athens to Mykonos to Rhodes and back in a week. Generally speaking, you'll want to stick to nearby groups of islands, such as the Ionian, Dodecanese, Cyclades, and Sporades. If you're sailing from Athens, the Saronic Gulf and the Cyclades are close cruising areas. Many yachts are based in Athens, but sometimes you can have a yacht sent up to an island group, as long as you're willing to pay a relocation fee, plus fuel, in order to get it there.
- Who's driving? There are two basic types of charters. Crewed means there's a crew onboard. How many crew depends on the size of the boat, as well as your own personal needs. You'll need a captain and maybe a cook, a hostess, and/or a guide. A bareboat charter means there's no crew, and you'll do the sailing or provide your own crew.
- Champagne and caviar? Well, that's all part of the provisioning and the charter's costs. Different charters work differently. Some vessels work on a half-board basis; in other words, breakfast and lunch are included in the cost, under the assumption that passengers will want to venture off the boat for dinner and nightlife. Another way of determining costs is an advance provisioning amount, or APA. The APA is an amount of money paid upfront for costs associated with the charter, and it's on average about 30% of the base rate for the charter. The APA could include fuel, crew costs, food and beverages, marina fees, Corinth Canal fees, and other extras. At the end of the cruise, the costs are tallied and the passenger either gets money back or has to pay a little more. In either case, crew gratuity is not included. Be sure to work out with your charter broker exactly what's included and what's not.
- Party of eight (or more)! You can rent a yacht for a cozy party of two, or bring a group of friends onboard -- typically, the more people onboard the cheaper the cruise price works out per person. However, you're more limited in the choice of vessel once you go beyond 12 people. One solution for a big party: Charter two yachts and split up the party (or if you have lots of friends, think about chartering one of the cruise ships listed here).
- What vessel style? You can get a 12m (40-ft.) yacht or a 30m (100-ft.) yacht, in as modest or luxurious style as you can imagine (and afford). Another consideration is whether you want a sleek, graceful sailing vessel or a modern, upscale power boat. Whatever you decide, there's probably a yacht out there that suits your style.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.