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Cabin Clues: How To Choose the Right Room at Sea

Finding the best room on a cruise ship starts with money, but it doesn't always end there. Find out how to pick the best beds on all the major cruise lines.

When it comes right down to it, choosing a cabin is really a question of money. From a windowless lower-deck cabin with upper and lower bunks to a 1,400-square-foot suite with a butler and mile-long private veranda, cruise ships can present a dozen or more stateroom categories that differ by size, location in the ship, amenities, and, of course, price. To see what we mean, go to the Cruises Only website (www.cruisesonly.com); it presents 360-degree tours and photos of most ships in "About Your Ship" pages throughout the site.

Traditionally, the rule of thumb is that the higher up your cabin sits in a ship and the more daylight it has, the more you pay; the lower you go into the bowels of the ship, the cheaper the fare. On some of the more modern ships, however, that old rule doesn't always ring true. On ships launched recently by Carnival, for instance, designers have scattered their most desirable suites on mid-level decks as well as top decks, thereby diminishing the prestige of an upper-deck cabin. For the most part, though, and especially on small ships, where cabins are virtually identical, cabins on higher decks are still more expensive, and outside cabins (with windows or balconies) are more expensive than inside cabins (those without). Outside cabins whose windows are obstructed by lifeboats will be cheaper than ones with good views.

Evaluating Cabin Size

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Inch for inch, cruise ship cabins are smaller than hotel rooms. Of course, having a private balcony attached to your cabin, as many do, makes your living space that much bigger.

A roomy standard cabin is about 170 to 190 square feet, although some of the smallest are about 85 to 100 square feet. Disney has some of the more spacious standard cabins at sea, at 226 square feet. Celebrity's standards are spacious enough at around 170 to 175 square feet, with those on its Millennium-class ships sometimes as big as 190 square feet. Carnival's and Holland America's are about 185 square feet or more. By way of comparison, equivalent standard cabins on a good number of ships in the Norwegian and Royal Caribbean lines are quite a bit smaller -- try 120 to 160 square feet -- and can be cramped. Cabins on the small-ship lines such as ACCL can be very snug -- on the order of 70 to 100 square feet.

All the standard cabins on the high-end lines are roomy -- in fact, many of the high-end ships are "suite only." For example, on Silversea's Silver Shadow and Silver Whisper, cabins are 287 square feet, plus a 58-square-foot balcony. Across the board, from mainstream to luxe, suites and penthouses are obviously the most spacious, measuring from about 250 square feet to more than 1,400 square feet, plus private verandas.

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Most cruise lines publish schematic drawings in their brochures, with square footage and, in some cases, measurements of length and width, which should give you some idea of what to expect. (We also include square footage ranges for inside cabins, outside cabins, and suites in the cruise ship descriptions in chapters 6 to 8.) Consider measuring off the dimensions on your bedroom floor and imagine your temporary oceangoing home, being sure to block out part of that space for the bathroom and closet. As a rough guideline, within a cabin of around 100 square feet, about a third of the floor space is gobbled up by those functional necessities.

Now, while you may be thinking, "Gee, that's really not a lot of space," remember that, like a bedroom in a large house, your cabin will likely be a place you use only for sleeping, showering, and changing clothes.

The Scoop on Inside Cabins vs. Outside Cabins

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Whether you really plan to spend time in your cabin is a question that should be taken into account when deciding whether to book an inside cabin or an outside cabin (that is, one without windows or one with windows or a balcony). If you plan to get up bright and early, hit the buffet breakfast, and not stop till the cows come home, you can probably get away with booking an inside cabin and save yourself a bundle. Inside cabins are generally neither as bad nor as claustrophobic as they sound. Many, in fact -- such as those aboard most of the Carnival and Celebrity fleets -- are the same size as the outside cabins, and most cruise lines design and decorate them to provide an illusion of light and space.

If, on the other hand, you want to lounge around and take it easy in your cabin, maybe ordering breakfast from room service and eating while the sun streams in -- or, better yet, eating out in the sun, on your private veranda -- then an outside cabin is definitely a worthwhile investment. They're also vital for smokers (though some lines prohibit smoking on cabin balconies). Remember, though, that if it's a view of the sea you want, be sure when booking that your window or balcony doesn't just give you a good view of a lifeboat or some other obstruction (and remember, there are likely to be balconies on the deck right above your balcony, so they're more like porches than actual verandas). Some cruise line brochures tell you which cabins are obstructed, and a good travel agent or a cruise line's reservation agent can tell you which cabins on a particular ship might have this problem.

Other Cabin Matters to Consider

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Unless you're booking at the last minute (a few weeks or less before sailing), as part of a group, or in a cabin-share or cabin-guarantee program (which means you agree to a price, and find out your exact cabin at the last minute), you can work with your agent to choose a particular cabin. If possible, try to have some idea of what cabin category you'd like, or at least have a list of must-haves or must-avoids. Need a bathtub rather than just a shower? That narrows your choices on most ships. Want connecting cabins so you and your kids, friends, or relatives can share space? Most ships have 'em, but they sometimes book up early, as do cabins with third or fourth berths (usually pull-down bunks or a sofa bed). Almost all ships have cabin TVs these days, but a few don't. Want an elevator close by to make it easy to get between decks? Is the view out the cabin's windows obstructed by lifeboats or other ship equipment? Most important, keep cabin position in mind if you suffer from seasickness. A midships location on a middle deck is best because it's a kind of fulcrum point, the area least affected by the vessel's rocking and rolling in rough seas.

Talk with fellow Frommer's cruisers on our Cruise Forum.

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