Is a cruise vacation on your bucket list?

magnolia cruises and travel logo


By Al Lunt, CTA, DS, Magnolia Cruises & Travel

When was the last time you took a vacation? Can you remember your last vacation? What is a vacation?

va·ca·tion (v-kshn, v-) n. 1. A period of time devoted to pleasure, rest or relaxation, especially one with pay granted to an employee. 2. a. A holiday.b. A fixed period of holidays, especially one during which a school, court, or business suspends activities.

The key words in the definition are pleasure, rest and relaxation. There aren’t many vacation experiences that can deliver all those things. If you have a cruise vacation on your  list of things to do before you die, chances are you put it there because you heard that cruises can deliver a true vacation experience.

The point of this blog is to help you move a cruise vacation up your bucket list. Helpful tips and links to answers to the most common questions are provided, so let’s get started.

Why Cruise?

So you have been thinking about a cruise vacation or you’ve had it on your “to-do” list for a long time but cannot commit.  What are you waiting for?

Cruising can be intimidating for first-timers because it seems so completely different than many other vacations.   Roughly only 20% of Americans have ever taken a cruise vacation, but over 40% of cruise passengers are repeat cruisers.  Here are the top ten reasons why many first time cruisers become cruise enthusiasts:

  1. VALUE. One price buys your cabin, dining, entertainment and more.
  2. ROMANCE. Secluded beaches, en suite dining on a balcony overlooking the ocean and spa services for two are just some of the romantic pursuits available.
  3. CUISINE. Tantalize your taste buds with gourmet fare that showcases exotic ingredients, old standbys like pizza and ice cream or spa cuisine for a healthy alternative. Depending on your mood, dine in a traditional ballroom setting, a small bistro or a casual eatery.
  4. VARIETY. With over 200 distinctive ships, 3000 ports-of-call and an unbelievable array of places to see and things to do, there is a perfect cruise for you. For even more choice, consider a pre- or post-land tour.
  5. ACTIVITIES. Fill your days with sightseeing, sports activities, cultural lectures, educational tours led by naturalists and historians or simply lounge by the pool and relax. At night, enjoy dance extravaganzas, musical revues, gaming or a quiet evening gazing at the stars.
  6. SIMPLICITY. Don’t come back from your vacation needing a vacation. Planning a cruise is simple; your CLIA-affiliated travel agency can handle all of the details. Once you’re on board, nearly all expenses are pre-paid… talk about hassle-free.
  7. NEW HORIZONS. Fall asleep in one destination and awake to a new horizon… and you only have to pack and unpack once!
  8. FAMILY. Families love cruising. Children’s programs, kid-friendly menus and tours of the ship will keep your children happy, while affording you some time alone.
  9. PAMPERING. Regardless of your budget, all cruise lines pamper their guests with first-class service around the clock.
  10. SATISFACTION. It’s a fact that cruises have a higher percentage of satisfied customers than any other vacation experience.

Source: Cruise Line International Association (CLIA)

Where to Cruise?

norwegian cruise line - pride of america

NCL Pride of America docked at Aloha Tower, Honolulu

Cruise destinations are one of the top motivating factors for most cruisers. Virtually anywhere there is navigable water, from oceans to rivers, you can find a cruise to fit your desires. According to Marc Mancini, author of Cruising: A Guide to the Cruise Line Industry, geography plays a major role in the decision to take a cruise vacation because:

  • Cruise passengers often decide which cruise to take according to the destination(s), not the ship or the line. This is especially true of first-time cruisers.
  • Certain places are best experienced by ship because of access. For instance, to drive or fly from town to town in Alaska is difficult, expensive, or, in some cases, impossible. Cruise ships, however, get around Alaska’s coastal waters easily.
  • Cruises allow you to visit multiple destinations in one trip. Whether clusters of islands in the Aegean Sea (Greece), Indonesia, and the Caribbean or several European, Middle Eastern or North African destinations in the Mediterranean. Air connections within island groups are often awkward and multiple destinations are prohibitively expensive.
  • Travelers often prefer to visit underdeveloped countries via a cruise for safety and security reasons. The ship is secure, the food familiar, the transportation dependable, and the lodging reliable.

Individual destinations go up and down in popularity from year to year, but the Caribbean as a whole remains the most popular destination, year after year.

Top 10 Popular Destinations – the order may change year to year but these are generally the most popular destinations.

1. Caribbean; 2. Alaska; 3. Mexico; 4. Panama Canal; 5. Australia/New Zealand; 6. South America; 7. Europe/Mediterranean; 8. Hawaii/South Pacific; 9. Asia; 10. Canada/New England  

Common Cruise Travel Questions and Tips

As a first-timer it’s okay to have questions; after all, vacations are all about relaxation, not the stress caused by uncertainty.  That’s what we are here to do – answer some of your questions.  These are just a sample of some great videos that provide answers to some of the most common cruise and travel questions. These are rotated on a regular basis.  We also have a Frequently Asked Question (FAQ) section.   If the FAQ section and these videos doesn’t answer your question, don’t hesitate to drop us an email or call (910) 222-8230.

What to Pack for a Cruise (2:51)

How to Budget for a Cruise (1:39)

Cruise Line Dining (1:16)

Activities on a Cruise Ship (1:34)

Boarding and Leaving a Cruise Ship (0:58)

Cruise Lines

Like favorite car manufacturers, clothing lines and restaurants, there tends to be a great deal of brand loyalty in the cruise industry. First-time cruisers generally pick their first cruise line based on the destination they are going to and recommendations from friends or travel agents.

costa atlantica

Costa Atlantica docked in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands

More experienced cruisers develop their brand loyalty based on the experience they had on a particular cruise line or lines early on. Just as there are cars that fit every personality, the same can be said of cruise lines. Cruise lines can be divided into several broad categories such as small, medium and large ships or mainstream, premium and luxury classes. Within each class of ship there are several categories or grades of stateroom so it is possible to have a luxury vacation even on a mainstream ship. Information abounds on cruise review and cruise line websites to help the first-time cruise decide which cruise line to book after deciding on the destination.


  •  Carnival Cruise Lines – Carnival’s “Fun Ships” appeal to a wide cross section of passengers of various ages and backgrounds. Carnival’s many itineraries, numerous dining choices and extensive kid’s programs make it a popular family cruise.
  •  Norwegian Cruise Line – Introduced Freestyle Cruising – a more relaxed resort-style experience that has been a very popular draw for NCL; no assigned meal times or tables and choices of 10 or more restaurants on most ships. Launched the Norwegian Epic in 2010 which includes live entertainment by the Blue Man Group, innovative stateroom design and gourmet cuisine.
  •  Royal Caribbean Cruise Line – State-of-the-art ships, exciting itineraries, great youth programs and unique on-board activities such as rock climbing wall, Flow Rider surfing and even ice skating. The Oasis of the Seas is one of the world’s largest cruise ships, a destination in and of itself.
  •  Costa Cruises – Europe’s number one cruise line; if you want a European experience, Costa’s Italian crew and theme can deliver; Italian inspired ships.
  •  MSC Cruises – Gracious Italian staff, personalized service, cuisine and unique itineraries make MSC another favorite European-style experience for cruisers.


  •  Celebrity Cruises – Owned by Royal Caribbean, Celebrity provides a luxurious experience on its consistently high ranked ships. Gourmet cuisine on Celebrity wins frequent awards.
  •  Holland America Line – A leader in worldwide premium cruising, HAL is known for its long (10+ days) cruises and its attention to detail onboard. Gracious attentive service, gourmet cuisine, wide range of itineraries, and great value for price paid make HAL a frequent winner of awards.
  •  Oceania Cruises – One of the highest staff-to-guest ratios in the industry, smaller-sized luxury ships (684 guests) and destination focused itineraries make this an excellent value in high end cruising. Very comprehensive lecture and enrichment program at sea.
  •  Princess Cruises – Worldwide itineraries on the largest and newest ships. Princess’ Personal Choice Cruising provides passengers with a wide variety of options to customize their vacations.
  •  Windstar Cruises– Its motto “180° from Ordinary” says it all. Windstar’s small luxury sailing ships accommodate 148 t0 312 pampered guests.   These are highly advanced “sailing ships” that are fully stabilized to offer a comfortable experience.


  •  Crystal Cruises – Crystal ships consistently earn top awards. Crystal’s European hotel and dining staff provide a level of service that brings a loyal following of cruisers back year after year. From private verandas to elegantly appointed staterooms, Crystal is frequently recognized for its excellent value and competitive rates.
  •  Cunard Line – Cunard Line has the distinction of its traditional British elegance, superb White Star Service, gourmet cuisine, and regular trans-Atlantic service that sets it apart from all other cruise lines. The name recognition and luxury of its Queen Elizabeth, Queen Victoria and Queen Mary 2 put Cunard in a class all its own.
  •  Regent Seven Seas Cruises – Exclusive line with among the highest space-to-guest and crew-to-guest ratios; smaller ships (180 to 700 guests); includes the Paul Gauguin which provides an exclusive cruise experience throughout Tahiti and French Polynesia. A great value in luxury cruising that includes all gratuities, wine with dinner, in-stateroom bar, and soft drinks.
  •  Silversea Cruises – With ships built to appeal to the ultra-luxury market, Silversea’s smaller, intimate vessels slip into more off the beaten path, exotic ports. Its ships are designed with an all-suite layout, no steerage class here.

Niche (Specialty) Cruise Lines

  •  Disney Cruise Line – Disney has transferred their family vacation expertise from the Magic Kingdom to the High Seas. Their rotation dining, seamless land and sea vacations and age-specific programs for children, teens and adults deliver a whole Disney-style vacation package.
  • Viking River Cruises – Viking is the world’s largest river cruise line touring Europe, including Russia, and China. Fares included guided shore excursions in each port of call. Its passengers are generally older (55+), well traveled and physically active.
  • Uniworld River Cruises – Uniworld provides a unique river cruise experience with 500 departures, sailing on 9 rivers in 16 countries throughout Europe, Egypt, and China. Its elegant, boutique hotel-style cruise ships accommodate an average capacity of 134 guests and provide an intimate experience that is frequently recognized by Zagat in the category of Top Cabins and Top Dining.
  • AmaWaterways River Cruises – AmaWaterways uses the tag line “The Luxury of More” and delivers by developing unique itineraries with high levels of service.  Carrying fewer guests (164 average) they are able to expand their cabin sizes ranging from 155 to 350 sq. ft.  As a premium river cruise line you get what you pay for so there are more included shore excursions, premium dining experiences, and other perks.

Cruise Reviews

By far, the most challenging aspect of choosing to move a cruise vacation up your bucket list is deciding which cruise to take for the first time. It can be a daunting experience with all the choices. Fortunately first-time cruisers have many tools to help them. The internet is a wonderful thing when it comes to research, especially when others do the research for you. There are numerous websites that review or provide previous cruiser reviews of cruise lines, destinations, and shore excursions. Beyond cruising in particular, these sites also provide valuable travel tips in general. Some of the popular ones are:

cruise critic website

Cruise Critic – As the oldest online cruise review site launched in 1995, Cruise Critic has over 5 million visitors and is ranked the #1 cruise information website by Hitwise.  Its site visitors outnumber the visitors on all its competitor sites combined.  It rates 275 ships and 60 cruise lines.  In addition to its own ratings, cruisers who join the site can provide ratings as well, not only for ships but also ports of call, shopping, tours and many more areas.  Their website has message boards with threaded discussions by its members.  Truly a collaborative site, Cruise Critic brings the power of customer experience to its cruise reviews.

cruisemates website

Cruise Mates – Launched in 1999 by noted cruise authority Anne Campbell, co-founder and former editor-in-chief of Cruise Critic on America Online, Cruise Mates offers extensive professional reviews by its staff in addition to those by cruisers.  Its focus is more on formal reviews by travel professionals with fewer customer reviews than Cruise Critic.  Customer reviews stand alone as separate entries unlike the threaded reviews on Cruise Critic.

cruise reviews website

Cruise Reviews – Owned by Internet Brands, the same owner of Cruise Mates, Cruise Reviews is much more traveler-review focused than Cruise Mates, so it complements that site nicely.  Another nice touch to the site is its easy navigation and links to useful sites such as Cruise Links, an affiliated site that is a single page of categorized hyperlinks to useful cruise information.

fodors cruise websiteFodor’s Cruise Reviews – Long recognized for its printed travel guides, Fodor’s Cruise Reviews provide the same quality of entertaining travel editorials on cruise lines and their ships.  Broken into linked sections, each review is easy to navigate and locate the exact information you are looking for.

Making Your Cruise Dream a Reality

Making your cruise dream a reality is less difficult than you may think.  With the many choices and destinations available, it is natural to have some anxiety about the planning decisions involved in deciding which cruise to take.  A good travel counselor can reduce the anxiety that comes with making decisions about a first cruise. They have a variety of resources, including literature and videos from the cruise lines that can help educate you about the cruise experience. Most importantly, a travel counselor can make cruise recommendations based on knowing your likes, desires and personality saving you frustration and money in the long run.

Passport and Travel Requirements

Unless you are planning to cruise only U.S. ports, you will need a passport. Passport requirements vary by destination. In our post-9/11 world a passport provides indisputable identity verification and is acceptable for all types travel. Showing up for a cruise without your passport will be a show-stopper because you will not be allowed on board. The easiest way to apply for a passport is to follow the guidelines found on the U.S. State Department website. Some countries require visas as well and these requirements sometimes change. Your cruise counselor or the cruise line can provide current information. The Cruise Critic website also has a very helpful travel page with information on the latest passport requirements. They also have a handy page with other travel rules and regulations, as well as tips that can answer many of your cruise travel questions.


Magnolia Cruises and Travel is a home-based travel agency in Fayetteville, NC.  We offer our customers personalized Destination Agent service built on a foundation of extensive personal travel and life abroad.  Our travel destinations are too numerous to mention so suffice it to say we’re experienced travelers.  No matter what your destination is, whether we’ve been there or not, we will treat your trip as if we were planning our own vacation.  Please contact us at (910) 222-8230 or email and allow us the privilege of becoming your Personal Destination Agents.

Al Lunt of Magnolia Cruises & Travel is a Certified Travel Associate (CTA) and Caribbean Destination Specialist.  The Certified Travel Associate and Destination Specialist designations are conferred by The Travel Institute upon travel professionals who complete a rigorous certification program, demonstrate essential industry knowledge and experience, and maintain high standards of professionalism.  As a cruise vacation specialist Al also holds product certifications as a Princess Cruises Commodore, Celebrity Five Star Agent, Norwegian Cruise Line Freestyle Certified Agent, Royal Caribbean University of ‘WOW’ Cruise Expert, Crystal Cruises Academy Graduate, Oceania Cruises Expert, and Regent Seven Seas Cruises University Graduate.

Planning your Bucket List trip to Alaska!

Glacier Bay, May 2014

Glacier Bay, May 2014

Alaska is often very high on people’s Bucket List of places they want to travel to at least once.  From experience I can tell you that if you travel there once, you will want to go back!  Alaska is so big that you will be overwhelmed by the scenery.  Suffice it to say it is a sensory overload experience.

One of the best ways to see Alaska is with a combined cruise and land tour package.  A seven day cruise and a multiple day land tour can really give you a great experience.  One of Magnolia Cruises & Travel’s favorite Alaska cruise and land tour package providers is Princess Cruises.  Princess Cruises cruisetour packages can be tailored to the interests and activity level of just about anybody.  Check out their website!

Another great resource is Travel Alaska, the official state travel and information website.

Please contact Magnolia Cruises & Travel at and let us help you plan your Alaska vacation experience!


How to Pick a Cruise Line for Safety

The tragic grounding and capsize of the Costa Concordia in 2012 and other cruise line mishaps in recent years are anomalies.  These type of events should not discourage first time cruisers from pursuing their dream of taking a cruise.  The safety record of cruise lines is exceptional.  Like the airlines, cruise lines take safety very seriously.

A good article was posted on Fox News Travel that provides good info about picking a cruise line for safety.  It makes good points about doing your homework beforehand which is exactly what we recommend for all our travelers.

Happy Cruising!

10 Most-Visited Caribbean Islands

Dreaming about Caribbean sun yet?  The Caribbean continues to be one of the top destinations for cruising and land-based vacations alike.  Fox News Travel has a great article about the 10 Most Visited Caribbean Islands:

  1. St. Martin/St. Maarten
  2. Aruba
  3. Bahamas
  4. U.S. Virgin Islands
  5. Puerto Rico
  6. Bermuda
  7. Cayman Islands
  8. Dominican Republic
  9. Jamaica
  10. Trinidad & Tobago

Picking Shore Excursions

magnolia cruises and travel logoBy Al Lunt, CTA, DS, Magnolia Cruises & Travel

So you’ve made the decision to take a cruise and now you can’t decide what to do when you get to your destinations? Just like your decision to take a cruise, doing the research ahead of time will help ease your anxiety and inform your decision. You basically have three choices:


1. Book a shore excursion through the cruise line


  • Reduces decision-making for first time cruisers.
  • Generally very well organized and they stick to a schedule that is synchronized with the ship’s itinerary; no danger of ship sailing without you.
  • Excursions are included in your cruise fare or final bill so they are easier to budget for in advance.
  • Reviews of cruise line shore excursions are plentiful on cruise review websites.  See my previous post.
  • Best option for exotic or higher risk areas where traveling alone is risky.
  • Some premium or luxury cruise lines include shore excursions in their fares.


  • Usually more expensive than independently booked excursions or solo exploring.
  • Groups tend to be larger.
  • Popular excursions can fill up quickly and may not be available unless you book well in advance.
  • If you don’t like your shipmates you may not want to tour with them ashore.

2. Book a shore excursion through an independent operator


  • Prices are generally cheaper than cruise line shore excursions.
  • Groups tend to be smaller.
  • When you want more personal attention or in-depth local information reputable independent tour operators are hard to beat.
  • They may go to areas that cruise line excursions don’t.


  • Caveat emptor (buyer beware); always do your research when selecting independent tour operators.  Cruise review sites offer many suggestions for local tour operators – use them.
  • Book ahead of time because popular local tour operators book up just as quickly as popular cruise line shore excursions.
  • No guarantee that the ship won’t sail if you are late returning.

3. Explore on your own


  • Depending on your transportation mode (rental car, scooter, buses or on foot), solo exploring is generally the cheapest way to see a destination.
  • Great option when the port is close to the downtown or scenic areas.
  • Tremendous flexibility.
  • More time to shop on your own; group tours generally offer limited time in shopping areas.


  • There is safety in numbers when touring with a group so touring on your own requires that you have your wits about it at all times.
  • Watch the clock because no one else is watching it for you; you can miss your ship if you are late returning.

Bottom Line – Do Your Homework

Regardless of what method you decide to use for exploring ashore – do your homework.  There really is no excuse for poor decisionmaking based on lack of information.  The internet, in general, and cruise review web sites, in particular, have lots of information to help you make an informed decision about shore excursions.  A good travel counselor is also a great asset because they can make suggestions based on your personal desires which adds the personal touch to your decision making process.  Good luck and happy cruising!


Magnolia Cruises and Travel is a home-based travel agency in Fayetteville, NC. We offer our customers personalized Destination Agent service built on a foundation of extensive personal travel and life abroad. Our travel destinations are too numerous to mention so suffice it to say we’re experienced travelers. No matter what your destination is, whether we’ve been there or not, we will treat your trip as if we were planning our own vacation. Please contact us at (910) 222-8230 or email and allow us the privilege of becoming your Personal Destination Agent.

Al Lunt of Magnolia Cruises & Travel is a Certified Travel Associate (CTA) and Caribbean Destination Specialist. The Certified Travel Associate and Destination Specialist designations are conferred by The Travel Institute upon travel professionals who complete a rigorous certification program, demonstrate essential industry knowledge and experience, and maintain high standards of professionalism.  As a cruise vacation specialist Al also holds product certifications with numerous cruise lines:

  • Celebrity Five Star Agent
  • Crystal Cruises Academy
  • Norwegian Cruise Line Freestyle Certified Agent
  • Oceania Cruises Expert
  • Princess Commodore
  • Regent Seven Seas Cruises University
  • Royal Caribbean University of ‘WOW’ Cruise Expert Plus