How to choose a cabin

The pro­cess of choos­ing and book­ing ship­board ac­com­mo­da­tions can be tricky and con­fus­ing. Gone are the days of yore, when you faced the pos­si­bil­ity of bang­ing your head just by turn­ing around in your cab­in. But at least back in the old days if you booked a cheap (or even ex­pen­sive) state­room you knew what you were in for.
To­day you're of­ten faced with up to 20 dif­fer­ent cab­in cat­egories. And cruise line brochures are ripe with all kinds of ad­jec­tives and con­fus­ing de­scrip­tions, as well as pret­ty pho­tos that gen­er­al­ly make spaces look larg­er than they re­al­ly are. In most cas­es when you book a cruise you can pick (or have your trav­el agent pick) the spe­cif­ic cab­in you want. But be­fore you make a se­lec­tion, study the schemat­ics in the cruise line brochures to make sure you're ac­tu­al­ly get­ting what you want.
PHOTO TOUR: The 10 best ship suites at sea
De­spite all the hype, there are re­al­ly on­ly four ba­sic cabin types you need to know:
  • In­side: No view
  • Out­side: Ocean views through a closed win­dow or port­hole
  • Bal­cony/Ve­ran­da: Cab­in has a door open­ing on­to an out­door space where you can take in the sea breezes
  • Suite: Larg­er cab­in, some­times with a sep­arate room, and of­ten with a bath­tub or Jacuzzi

In­side cab­ins are the cheap­est, suites the most ex­pen­sive. You gen­er­al­ly pay less if you are in the bow­els of the ship and more if your cab­in is lo­cat­ed on the sun­nier up­per decks (up­per deck cab­ins may be larg­er and have nicer fur­nish­ings and ameni­ties, too). Do note that the cheap­est and most ex­pen­sive state­rooms tend to sell out first; if you want one of those cat­egories, book ear­ly.
CRUISE 101: What to reserve in advance
Be­yond type and price, how­ev­er, there are many fac­tors to take in­to con­sid­er­ation when pick­ing the right cab­in.
Size Mat­ters:
Cruise ships are of­ten called float­ing re­sorts, but un­less you get in­to the elab­orate suites cat­ego­ry, ship cab­ins are less spa­cious than ho­tel rooms. Bal­conies make the space feel big­ger, which is one rea­son that state­rooms that have them are so pop­ular.
The size of cab­ins is mea­sured in square feet. For point of ref­er­ence:
  • 120-square-feet and un­der is low-end and cramped
  • 170-square-feet is midrange and the min­imum for any­one with claus­tro­pho­bia
  • 225-square-feet is spa­cious
  • 250-square-feet and up is suite sized

Who are you Cruis­ing With?
Who you cruise with will al­so de­ter­mine what type of cab­in you need.
  • Spouse/significant other: Most cab­ins have twin low­er beds. In most cas­es these can be com­bined to make a queen-size bed (re­quest what­ev­er con­fig­ura­tion you want).
  • Friends: Beyond the two twins, if there are ad­di­tion­al friends check if a cab­in comes with 3rd and 4th berths, and if these are on a so­fa bed or in up­per bunks (which pull-down from the wall or ceil­ing, and re­quire use of a lad­der). As an al­ter­na­tive, some ships of­fer con­nect­ing cab­ins with a com­mon door be­tween them.
  • Kids: Same as for "Friends," above (ex­cept kids will love us­ing the lad­der). Do check if your ship of­fers a more spa­cious fam­ily cab­in (it sleeps five); Roy­al Caribbean, Celebri­ty, and Car­ni­val are just some of the lines that have them. Dis­ney's fam­ily-friend­ly cab­ins are es­pe­cial­ly note­wor­thy be­cause they sport an ex­tra half-bath. If you have lit­tle kids, it's al­so con­ve­nient to choose a cab­in near the kids' fa­cil­ities.
  • So­lo: See if your ship has any cab­ins de­signed and priced for sin­gles; they are rare, mak­ing the Nor­we­gian Epic note­wor­thy be­cause it has 128 of them.

Lo­ca­tion, Lo­ca­tion, Lo­ca­tion:
Just as im­por­tant as get­ting the right size of cab­in, is mak­ing sure it's in the right lo­ca­tion.
Cab­ins in the very back of the ship tend to have the largest bal­conies — not to men­tion cool views of the ship's wake. If you book a for­ward-fac­ing cab­in or suite you can en­joy the same views as the cap­tain.
If you suf­fer from sea­sick­ness, how­ev­er, be aware of one cruise ship odd­ity: Fan­cy cab­ins tend to be on the up­per decks, where the most mo­tion is felt — the more sta­ble cab­ins are in the very mid­dle of the ship.
If you're noise-sen­si­tive, avoid cab­ins un­der the dis­co floor, the bas­ket­ball court, the fit­ness cen­ter, the run­ning track, the chil­dren's play­rooms, and the Li­do Deck (the sound of peo­ple mov­ing around their lounge chairs is par­tic­ular­ly an­noy­ing). Cab­ins near stair­wells/el­eva­tors add con­ve­nience, but can al­so be noisy. Try to avoid get­ting stuck near a main­te­nance al­cove as well; get a cab­in next to the vac­uum toi­let con­trol sys­tem, for ex­am­ple, and you might hear ev­ery darn flush in your area! And avoid be­ing too close to the ship's en­gine room, which you'll hear, smell, and feel (vi­bra­tion!).
Fi­nal­ly, if you opt for an out­side or bal­cony cab­in, watch out for lo­ca­tions that have ob­struct­ed views — you don't want the nat­ural light in your cab­in blocked by, say, a lifeboat.
Tip: If you're flex­ible about lo­ca­tion, you can pick a "guar­an­tee" cab­in, which means you choose a state­room cat­ego­ry rather than a spe­cif­ic cab­in on the cruise ship. Giv­ing up the pow­er to se­lect your cab­in's ex­act lo­ca­tion means you might (but not al­ways) snag your­self a good deal. If your cho­sen cat­ego­ry gets sold out, you au­to­mat­ical­ly get up­grad­ed. And some lines sell their guar­an­tee cab­ins at a low­er rate than oth­ers in the same cat­ego­ry, so you could the­oret­ical­ly save some mon­ey. The down­side is you might end up with the worst cab­in and lo­ca­tion in your cho­sen cat­ego­ry, and you might not know what cab­in you'll be in un­til just be­fore de­par­ture.
Oth­er Con­sid­er­ations:
Be­fore you book, think about how much time you're go­ing to spend in your cab­in: If you're just go­ing to be there to sleep, show­er, and change your clothes, you can save a bun­dle by go­ing small and cheap. If you plan to hang out in your cab­in a lot, book the largest space you can af­ford.
A bal­cony/ve­ran­da brings the ad­van­tage of be­ing able to some­what pri­vate­ly (your neigh­bors can see you!) be able to take in the ocean views. But ve­ran­das vary in size. If you plan to do more than stand, make sure the space is big enough to ac­com­mo­date deck chairs, a ta­ble, or what­ev­er else you re­quire.
If you're book­ing a suite, look to see if you are ac­tu­al­ly get­ting a sep­arate bed­room and liv­ing room. In some cas­es the sep­ara­tion will be no more than a cur­tain. The fan­ci­est suites are the size of apart­ments, hous­es, or even man­sions (on sev­er­al Nor­we­gian Cruise Line ships, the top vil­la has three bed­rooms and is about 5,000 square feet!).
If you're plan­ning to spend a lot of time in the fit­ness cen­ter and spa, you may want to book a spa cab­in. Spa cab­ins (found on new­er ships, such as those in Celebri­ty's Sol­stice class, the Car­ni­val Breeze and Car­ni­val Dream, and Nor­we­gian's Epic and Breakaway in­clude com­ple­men­tary ac­cess to the steam room and oth­er fa­cil­ities and are close enough that you can walk there in your bathrobe. Both Cos­ta and Celebri­ty al­so have the des­ti­na­tion spa-like ben­efit of healthy din­ing op­tions at spe­cial restau­rants for spa cab­in guests.
Cab­ins come with pri­vate bath­rooms equipped with show­ers (some­times tiny ones). Bath­tubs are a cruise ship rar­ity, so if you need a tub make sure your state­room comes with one. Note al­so that not all cab­ins will have the same ameni­ties. If the fol­low­ing are im­por­tant to you, make sure the state­room you are choos­ing has them:
  • TV (with or with­out DVD play­er)
  • Safe
  • Mi­ni-fridge
  • Alarm clock
  • Hairdry­er
  • Bathrobes
  • Cof­fee/tea mak­er
  • Bar of soap (there may just be liq­uid dis­pensers)

Smok­er's Alert:
If you're plan­ning to light up on your cruise, con­sid­er: Some lines in­clud­ing Celebri­ty, Ocea­nia, Princess, and Re­gent Sev­en Seas an smok­ing in cab­ins and on cab­in bal­conies. Roy­al Caribbean, Car­ni­val, Hol­land Amer­ica, Norwegian, and Dis­ney Cruise Line don't al­low smok­ing in cab­ins, but do al­low it on cab­in bal­conies. As of 2013, Sil­versea bans smok­ing in cab­ins and lim­it smok­ing else­where to specif­ical­ly des­ig­nat­ed pub­lic ar­eas, as of this year. Likewise, beginning in 2014 Crystal Cruises will eliminate smoking in nearly all indoor spaces -- with the exception of a smoking lounge.
--Fran Golden is the Experience Cruise expert blogger and a contributing editor of Porthole Magazine. She is the co-author of Frommer's Alaska Cruises and Ports of Call.