How To Choose a Cruise Ship Cabin: What You Need to Know

Choosing a cruise ship cabin can be fun and challenging at the same time, and not just a little bit frustrating on occasion. Before booking your cabin, ask yourselves these questions:

Do you tend to get seasick? Do you prefer to nest peaceably on your balcony rather than hangin' with the crowd around the pool area? Conversely, is your idea of a stateroom simply a place to flop into bed at 1 a.m. -- no fancy notions necessary? And do you, like me, tend to go just a little bit crazy if your bed faces aft when you know you're moving forward?

Despite the fact that some cruise lines present as many as 20 or more "categories" per ship, it's helpful to remember that there are essentially only four types of cabins on any cruise vessel:

>> Inside: no window, in an inside corridor

>>Outside: window or porthole with a view to the outside

>>Balcony: includes a verandah that allows you to step outside without going up to a public deck

>>Suite: a larger cabin, often with separate living and sleeping areas, and a wide variety of extra amenities and perks

It's the permutations (size, location, amenities and price, for example) of the four basic cabin types that can make choosing difficult, so we are providing a guide to help you make the selection that is best for you. Note: Staterooms designed for physically challenged guests can fall into any of the above categories and will not be separated out.

Location, Location, Location

The "real estate" that your stateroom occupies, no matter the type, can either make you seasick or keep you up all night with noise -- or it can lull you like a baby and provide exquisite views of your surroundings. That's why doing your homework is important.

Stability: If you tend to get seasick, cabin location is really important. It's a question of engineering, really. The lower and more central you are in a ship, the less roll and sway you will feel. Even if you choose a balconied stateroom, choose the lowest level and the most midship one you can find.

Distance: Some cruise travelers prefer their cabins to be near to (or far away from) specific areas of the ship. Sun-worshippers might prefer an upper-deck location close to the pools and sun decks, while partiers might want easy access to midship entertainment hubs. Travelers with mobility concerns may choose a stateroom close to a bank of elevators.

Noise: For some reason, most cruise lines assign their highest level of cabins to the highest decks, usually just below the Lido Deck (most likely because if you have a window or balcony, you have a more sweeping vista). Still, it's the Lido Deck that often causes the most noise problems, so if you don't want to hear scraping chairs at the crack of dawn or yee-hawing pool parties until the wee hours, go down a level. In fact, when it comes to noise, the best bet is to select a cabin that is both above and below other cabins. Other pitfalls include service areas adjacent to or above your stateroom; show lounges or bars adjacent to, above or below your stateroom; and self-service launderettes across from your cabin. Other cabins that can be problematic are those that are low and aft (because of their proximity to engine noise, vibration and anchor) or low and forward (bow thrusters).

For Your Viewing Pleasure: When aft balconied staterooms first became available in the late 1990's, they were disdained by most for at least a year. And then, with the help of Cruise Critic's member boards and other communications outlets, cruisers discussed their experiences, and the aft balconied cabins became the most prized standard balconied cabins afloat. Why? Because they can make you feel as though you are at the end of the world, offering 180-degree views over the stern's wake. And, the balconies are almost always at least 50 percent bigger than standard balconies located along the sides of the ship. There are a few drawbacks to this location, none of which serve to deter those who love these cabins. They are at the very back and therefore are far away from a lot of activities. In addition, they are almost always "stepped out," allowing not only those in cabins above yours to see down into your balcony, but those looking over the rail from the Lido and other public decks at the aft as well.

Some standard rooms and many suites are located at the aft "corners" of a ship, with balconies that curve up the sides. Take one of those, and you can see where you're going and where you've been at the same time!

Front-facing balconied cabins are almost always suites.

There are some passengers who love, and swear by, cabins located on the promenade deck, but you'll mostly find these on older ships. Holland America's Statendam-class ships have outside cabins that face the promenade deck and offer the advantage of easy access to fresh air without paying for a balcony. The line has been transforming many of these originally outside cabins into "lanai" cabins -- with back doors that lead directly from the cabin onto the promenade. The two biggest drawbacks of promenade-deck staterooms are that they tend to be dark because of the wide overhang above the deck, and anyone can see into them when the lights are on. Close those drapes!

Other viewing pitfalls include balconied cabins under the Lido overhang, which limits visibility; cabins above or adjacent to the lifeboats; and forward balconied cabins located close to the bridge wing.

If the amount of view you get relative to the amount of money you spend is important to you, look for "secret porthole" insides, or "obstructed view" outsides. The secret porthole cabins are those sold as inside cabins that actually have windows with obstructed views and the obstructed (or fully obstructed) cabins are sold as outsides but often at the price of an inside. And look into the interior-view cabins, like the atrium views that look out onto the interior promenades and parks on many Royal Caribbean ships (including the Voyager, Freedom and Oasis classes). These are typically sold at a price that falls somewhere between the insides and outsides.

Finally, take a good look at your cruise itinerary before selecting your cabin, specifically if you are choosing an outside or balcony. On a roundtrip Caribbean cruise or a transatlantic crossing, for example, the side of the ship you are on doesn't really matter. If, on the other hand, you are doing a southbound Alaska cruise, or a trip from Barcelona to Rome, you might want to consider choosing a cabin on the side of the ship that faces the land. Sometimes the views can be breathtaking and you won't get those views from the cabins that face out to the open sea.

Size Does Matter

In this age of mega-ships, cabins now come in all shapes and sizes. In addition to the typical boxy inside and outside cabins, you can find expansive suites, duplexes and lofts. Balconies also range in size from small affairs barely able to squeeze in two chairs and a drinks table to huge wraparound decks with outdoor dining tables and hot tubs.

On many ships, standard inside and outside cabins are usually the same size -- the difference being that one has a porthole or picture window to let in natural light. Balcony cabins can also be the same size as standard insides and outsides, with the addition of the outdoor space on the verandah; sometimes the interior space is larger. With mini-suites on up, you get bigger and bigger indoor and outdoor spaces.

For many travelers, the decision on what size cabin to get is directly related to price. Who wouldn't go for the huge suite if price were no obstacle? Yet it can be tricky to decide whether a balcony is worth the upgrade from a standard outside or just which suite to choose. Here are a few size-related considerations to take into account.

Outdoor Space: Do you need a balcony? Cruise travelers who spend all their time in the public areas -- sun decks, lounges, restaurants -- or on shore may be perfectly happy with standard-size cabins and no private outdoor space. Those who love to avoid the crowds and lounge quietly on their own verandahs or have private room-service meals outdoors will surely want balconies. Don't forget to take your itinerary into account; on a chilly-weather cruise, you may not be spending too much time outside, so depending on how much space and light you need, a balcony may not be worth the splurge.

Unique Layouts: Pay attention to the unique cabin setups on your ship, as they're not all created equal. Disney's four cruise ships, for example, have large standard staterooms designed to accommodate families. Even inside cabins may have a sleeping section that can be curtained off from the living area and a split bath system (one bathroom has the shower/tub and sink, another a toilet and sink). Carnival is also known for having larger-than-average standard cabins, while Silversea, Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Seabourn ships feature all-suite accommodations. Norwegian Epic cabins sport the "new wave" design, with curvy walls and bathrooms with the showers and toilets; sink are located in the main cabins. As mentioned earlier, cabins at the very fore and aft and corners of a ship often have different layouts than the cookie-cutter cabins that run the length of the ship.

Family: Since cruising has become a popular family vacation, more and more new ships have built "family accommodations" into the actual design. These are often suites, each with a separate room for the kids -- sometimes a small alcove with bunk beds, sometimes an entire adjoining cabin. Families and groups can also take advantage of regular staterooms with third or fourth berths found in pullout sofas or pull-down bunkbeds. If you're going to squeeze your whole troupe into one cabin, make sure the space is big enough to accommodate the lot of you ... and all your belongings.

Solo Cabins: Very few ships actually have cabins dedicated to solo travelers. These will have sleeping space for one and can be quite small. The studio cabins on Norwegian Epic are the most famous example of this: the 100-square-foot staterooms each contain a full-size bed, nifty lighting effects and a large round window that looks out into the corridor. If you're a solo traveler, you'll want to price out the cost of a solo cabin (usually somewhat higher than the double-occupancy rate of a similarly sized stateroom) compared to the cost of paying the single supplement (as much as double the regular rate) for a standard cabin. And book early, as solo cabins sell out quickly.

Suites: When it comes to choosing suite accommodations, it's best to figure out how much space you really need, what amenities are important to you and what you can afford to spend. Suites on most ships are often the first category to sell out, partly because there are fewer of them, and partly because they often offer extremely good value. For this reason, it's important to decide early what kind of suite you'd like.

If you absolutely need the most expansive space available, for about $30,000 per week you can take advantage of Norwegian Cruise Line's 5,000-square-foot, three-bedroom Garden Villa suites. These each feature a private sauna and hot tub, a kitchen and butlers, and a private elevator entrance.

Don't need to go that far? A mini-suite is often just a bigger version of a standard balcony cabin, sometimes with more delineation between the living and sleeping areas. Other suites may come with dining areas, wet bars, deluxe bathrooms, walk-in closets, multiple levels and even pianos.

Love Those Amenities

It used to be that the bigger the cabin, the more amenities you received. While that is true to some extent, with the advent of spa cabins, concierge-level cabins and even special single cabins, you don't always have to book the most expensive suite to get some extra perks. How do you want to be pampered on your vacation? Here are some extras you may want to sign up for.

Concierge Service: A concierge can take care of all those annoying practical matters you need to tend to on a cruise: making dinner and spa reservations, booking shore excursions, making requests of the purser's office. Their services come with many suites, and on some ships they're part of an exclusive concierge lounge where suite guests and high-level past passengers can snack, drink and relax in private. Concierge-level cabins may also come with in-cabins amenities like welcome drinks, fruit baskets or afternoon canapes.

Butlers: Having a personal butler can be a wonderfully pampering experience, and some cruise lines include the butler service as part of your fare when you select a suite or "concierge level" cabin. But, look carefully at the difference in the cruise fare, and decide if it's really worth it. Beyond that, look at the services that are offered -- some cruise line butlers really do provide extra value. For instance, on Crystal, ours was able to bring us room service from hard-to-get-into alternative restaurants, refill our mini-bar to personal specifications and serve in-cabin meals course-by-course. Butlers can also unpack and repack your bags, draw rose petal baths and assist you in preparing in-suite cocktail parties.

Spa Cabins: Costa started the spa cabin trend, but many mainstream lines quickly followed suit. The concept is simple: spa aficionados pay more for cabins decked out in Asian-inspired Zen decor that come with extra amenities, ranging from fancy showerheads and bath products to fluffy bathrobes, yoga mats and healthier room service menus. Spa cabin residents are granted free access to spa restaurants (like Celebrity's Blu or Costa's Ristorante Samsara), thalassotherapy pools and thermal suites, and may get free, discounted or priority spa treatments and fitness classes. And you don't have to book a huge suite necessarily -- on Holland America, several inside cabins were designated as spa cabins with all the associated perks.

Ship Within a Ship: MSC Cruises' Yacht Club and Norwegian's Haven are examples of ship-within-a-ship complexes. Book one of the affiliated cabins, and you'll get access to exclusive areas, including private pools, whirlpools, fitness centers, sun decks, restaurants and lounges. Norwegian Epic's studio cabins, tiny inside affairs, also gain you access to a special lounge reserved just for solo travelers.

Other Amenities: Do you have to have a whirlpool bathtub or a walk-in closet? Will you be entertaining and, thus, in need of a dining table that can seat six or eight? Do you want benefits like priority embarkation and disembarkation, priority tender embarkation and priority dinner reservations? Do you want to be pampered with extra-plush linens and bathrobes, fancy bath products and in-suite coffee and booze? You can find those amenities and more in most of the upper-level suites.

The Price Is Right

Only you know your vacation budget, but figuring out the best way to spend it can be tricky. Here's our primer on the most important things to know about cruise pricing.

When to Book: Selecting your cruise and putting down a deposit early guarantees that you will be on the cruise you want and in the cabin or cabin type that you want. The best rule of thumb is that if you find an itinerary you like on a ship you like at a time that you can travel and at an acceptable price, get the cabin you desire and go for it. In some instances, if the prices for cabins in your category go down, you can access the savings, but it requires some research and contact with either the travel agent you used to book your cruise or the cruise line itself. Book the cruise as if you don't expect a rebate, and if you do manage to get one, consider it a huge bonus.

You can get good deals by waiting until the last minute to book. However, this approach is best for those who can be flexible with their travel plans, meaning you don't care which cabin you're in, you're not picky about ship or departure date, and you're only traveling two to a cabin.

Upgrades: From time to time, a cruise line has a ship in which a certain category of cabin has sold out or is in an "oversell" situation, meaning that more cabins have been sold in that category than actually exist. The cruise line can hardly downgrade someone who has paid for their cruise, so they select certain passengers -- at random, we have been assured -- and upgrade them to whatever has more availability. That's where a guarantee category can be a good deal; as for the random selection, it's just the luck of the draw, or a visit from "the upgrade fairy," that can make certain people very happy indeed. Note that these upgrades aren't always free; sometimes you're offered the upgrade for an extra fee, but one that's less than the normal difference in fares between the two cabin categories.

Guarantee: A "guarantee " cabin selection is one in which you pay for the cabin category you are willing to take, but you allow the cruise line to select the cabin for you. You are guaranteed to get accommodated in at least the category you have selected; you will never get a lower category. But, by choosing a guarantee, you have an excellent chance of being upgraded to a slightly higher category, usually within the same cabin type (inside to inside, outside to outside, verandah to verandah, etc.). Beyond that, while it does happen, it's rare to be upgraded to a higher cabin type. Trust me: taking the lowest category inside on a guarantee will not result in your being given a deluxe verandah suite. It just won't happen. But ... you might get very lucky and end up with an outside cabin and a lovely big window.

On the other hand, you might not only end up in the category you paid for, you might get a cabin in a location that you just never would have chosen for yourself; at that point, you can't complain about it, either.

Look at it this way: a guarantee category cabin is for gamblers. If you're feeling lucky and you know what the downside might be, and you can accept that, a guarantee can be a really good deal. If, on the other hand, you'd be miserable getting that cabin all the way at the very front of the ship at the lowest level, or that inside that just happens to be next to the crew quarters or the engine room, you'd be better off just choosing your cabin at the outset.

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