Disney shore tour Cooking in Tuscany smCruisers face a lot of choices these days. The world’s waterways are populated by fleets of cruise ships, including those of the 26 cruise lines serving North America that are members of Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA). By the end of 2013, 167 new ships will have been built since 2000 – with 11 of them introduced this year and another 13 coming online for 2014. It can seem incredibly daunting to choose that first cruise.

To give newbies a (sea) leg up, several cruise experts weighed in on existing perks first-time cruisers may not be aware of – and shared their tip for taking full advantage of them.

Perk: Culturally rich/hands-on shore excursions

TIP: According to Colleen McDaniel, Cruise Critic’s managing editor, creating a more experiential shore tour is currently trending among cruise lines.

“One line we really think does this well is Disney Cruise Line,” said McDaniel. “While Disney certainly has great excursion offerings for kids – Hummer rides through rustic Alaska, making salsa, learning to dance in Cabo San Lucas – it has equally impressive adult-focused workshops like cooking sessions at a Tuscan villa.”

For this, guests tie on an apron and prepare “pasta all’uovo,” visit an onsite herb garden or an oil press for an olive oil tasting and – this being Italy and arguably the country’s most famous wine region – pop into the wine cellar for a tasting, crostini served on the side.

Perk: Cabin upgrades

TIP: Judith Kitzes, an American Express Travel luxury cruise and river cruise insider, noted cruise lines rarely give a complimentary upgrade, but sometimes – if you book a guarantee category on a ship that’s full – you may be moved to a higher one. (The guarantee means you will be in the category booked or above, never lower. Your agent will always leave you on a list for a paid upgrade.)

“In addition, cruise lines will sometimes have a promotion that is going to reflect an upgrade, so look for those or ask your agent,” said Kitzes. “Also, if you’re using an American Express platinum card, one of the Cruise Privilege Program Benefits with Princess Cruises is an upgrade of up to two categories: window to higher category window, balcony to higher category balcony, suite to suite.”

Perk: Specialty diningRCI Allure Giovannis sm

TIP: “Shipboard specialty restaurants tend to be a very lovely dining experience,” said Kitzes. “On Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas, they have a Brazilian churrascaria, a New York steakhouse, a sushi option, a tapas restaurant, a fantastic Italian restaurant and a wine bar that pairs wine beautifully. The additional cost ranges from $15 to $100 per person, but the choice is amazing.”

Kitzes said first-time cruisers will enhance an already fantastic experience by taking advantage of the choice.

“One of the choices offered by Princess is a New Orleans-themed restaurant,” she said. “Dining just one time at one of the specialty restaurants gives the first-time cruiser a broader introduction to the ship and a small taste of the world.”

Still, the complimentary meals aboard ships’ main dining rooms help keep extra costs in check for budget-conscious cruisers. And many ships offer “specialty” choices for fee-free alternative dining venues.

“Norwegian Cruise Line has a solid British pub-style restaurant – O’Sheehan’s – that’s fee-free and routinely draws rave reviews from cruisers,” noted Cruise Critic’s McDaniel.

Perk: Entertainment options

NCL Breakaway Fat Cats smTIP: For sheer variety of onboard entertainment, Pat Shouldice of Cruise Adventure 4 U, gives an enthusiastic nod to the new ships of Norwegian Cruise Line.

Norwegian Epic has Blue Man Group, Legends at Sea, Howl at the Moon, Cirque Dreams – yes, there’s a small fee, but it includes dinner and is well worth it. You also have great water slides and rock climbing and rappelling walls on the Epic.

Norwegian Breakaway has the shows, ‘Rock of Ages’ and ‘Burn the Floor,’ Slam Allen at Fat Cats Jazz and Blues Club (fabulous!), Howl at the Moon, Cirque Dreams and Dinner Jungle Fantasy and Nickelodeon at Sea,” she added. “On Breakaway (and Getaway to come in February 2014), you have the freefall slide, which is awesome, plus three other water slides, a rock wall, a ropes course and you can walk the plank right off the side of the ship – of course you are harnessed, but it’s a thrill nonetheless.”

Perk: Spa savingsSenses Spa & Salon – Spa Villa

TIP: Save money on spa treatments by booking your treatment for a shore day rather than a sea day.

“Most of the cruise lines will offer special spa rates for days the ship is in port,” advised Kitzes. “They have space in the spa for appointments because most people are ashore, enjoying the excursions offered or exploring on their own.

“You’ll be able to get an appointment and a great rate because they have spots to fill.”

Perk: Deals and discounts

TIP: If you book directly with the cruise line, you may miss amenities that your travel consultant has pre-arranged with the cruise lines. Kitzes said this could be anything – a shipboard credit, an exclusive shore event, a cocktail party, complimentary photos, dinner in a specialty restaurant – and advises cruisers to always book through a reputable travel consultant to receive those amenities.

Another tip: Book your next cruise while onboard.

“The booking will revert to your travel consultant who will add all appropriate amenities and you will receive a discount for booking onboard.”

IF YOU GO

First-time cruisers will find lots of information about specific cruise lines and cruise vacations in general on CLIA’s website at www.Cruising.org.