Planning a Group Cruise
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planning-a-group-cruise Traveling in a group can be the death knell of vacation fun. It sounds like a great idea at first -- reunite with far-flung family and friends on neutral ground where no one has to host -- but the reality doesn't always live up to expectations. Differing budgets, activity levels and interests, as well as travel style clashes, can lead to more headaches than memories.

Take frequent traveler Donald Smith, as an example. He often vacationed with friends and family at resort destinations like Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and Montego Bay, Jamaica, but says he didn't enjoy himself as much as he hoped. "You always felt like you were tied together to do absolutely everything together," says Smith, an information technology administrator in Columbus, Ohio. He also tired of the large amount of daily group decision-making about everything from what to do and who's going to drive to where to eat. Sound familiar?

His disappointment in group travel reversed itself when he discovered cruising, a way to travel with an assemblage of family and friends but without the obligation to spend every waking moment together. Smith planned his first group cruise for 13 pals in 2007, and the same group, more or less, has cruised together annually since.

Cruises offer the best of all worlds for groups: They appeal to travelers of all ages, offer various levels and types of activity, and allow people with different budgets to still vacation together. Your group is contained in one place, everyone can set their own onboard agenda, and there's no need for National Security Council-level strategic planning just to choose the restaurant for dinner.

But, as Smith has learned, advanced planning is the key to a successful group cruise. Based on his experience and that of other experienced group cruise planners, we culled the 10 golden rules of planning a group cruise.

1. Appoint a group leader.

Every group needs a leader -- the person who will do the majority of the preplanning research, send the invitations to the group, communicate pricing and determine how to book your cruise. In general, the leader takes the lead in organizing the trip and looks out for the good of the group, both before and during the cruise. In this way, the travelers making up the rest of the group don't have to repeat work, such as looking for cruise fares or remembering when payments are due, and there's no chaos surrounding several different people trying to organize group shore tours at the same time.

Sometimes this leader is self-appointed, perhaps the person who came up with the idea of going on the cruise in the first place. Other times, the group appoints a highly organized and willing volunteer to make executive decisions, communicate with the group and enforce deadlines. Either way, "one person needs to own it," advises Robyn Porter, a real estate agent in Rockville, Maryland, who was the self-elected organizer of a 2010 cruise for 19 family members.

"The leader cannot be a pushover," she says. "If you get too many cooks in the kitchen, there will be too much arguing. The leader has to be a strong personality who is still flexible enough to take other people's ideas into consideration."

The reward for your hard work as a leader? You could get a free cabin or shipboard credit if you have a requisite number of others booked in your traveling group.

2. Diplomatically choose your cruise.

It's tricky finding the perfect cruise for a group of 10 or 20 people of different ages, abilities and interests. The first task of the group leader is to figure out how to choose the best cruise for the people involved, without making everyone unhappy.

There are several approaches to consider. You can choose a cruise you want to do and then invite friends and family to join you if they're interested. In Porter's case, she and husband and son had cruised the Caribbean and Mediterranean already, so Alaska was next on their list. "Once we decided on Alaska, I got 'buy in' from some other close family members, then we expanded out and invited more people," she explains.

Alternately, group members may agree to let the leader choose the cruise in exchange for not having to do their own research. Darlene Sigwart says she was perfectly content having someone else plan her November 2011 cruise -- in this case, her father -- for a group of 13 family members between the ages of 9 and 70. He was the group leader in this case, and he decided on the destination.

"I just knew I was getting on the ship and going," says Sigwart, a human resources professional in Arnold, Maryland. "And I was fine with that."

A third option is to come up with a few destination choices and let the group vote -- as long as everyone agrees to be O.K. with the majority choice.

The destination narrows down your choice of ships, and from the options available, you can select the ship that best suits the ages, interests and budgets of the passengers. For assistance on picking the right trip, see our primer on How to Choose a Cruise.

3. Book ahead -- and we really, really mean it this time.

planning-a-group-cruiseNabbing a cabin on the ship of your choice to a popular destination during high-season dates can be tough for a mere couple seeking out one bed, let alone for a large group needing multiple staterooms. Early bookings are a must for those who:

Plan to travel during the summer or school holidays.

Have a need for triples or quads or connecting or neighboring cabins, which are all limited in number.

Want the choicest cabins on the newest ships.

Have a very specific itinerary in mind.

Booking ahead also gives you plenty of time to organize travel arrangements, shore excursions, even group T-shirts, without needing to quit your day job.

4. Put a travel agent to work for you.

You certainly can book your group (typically eight cabins or more) directly through a cruise line, but many group organizers recommend using a cruise agent who specializes in groups. Agents often have established relationships with cruise lines and access to discounts and perks that individuals don't. Plus, they can make recommendations on appropriate cruises for your group, as well as travel destinations and shore excursions, leaving you with less work to do. Three more great reasons for working with an agent include:

You can work with one dedicated person and establish a relationship with him or her. If you book online, you can always call the cruise seller, but you might talk to different representatives each time.

Agents have access to cruise line-approved discounts that come as a result of high-volume bookings and also know what amenities are available to groups. These could include free berths, onboard credits, upgraded cabins, discounts for group leaders or other perks. Depending on the number of people in your party, you also could get free photos, cocktail parties or private meeting spaces.

The agent can send individual invoices to the folks in the group and remind them of key deadlines so the group leader doesn't have to.

5. Communicate via e-mail.

If you merely rely on phone calls and informal chats, it's inevitable that some piece of info about the cruise arrangements will get misinterpreted, a deadline will be forgotten, or some other frustrating communication lapse will leave a member of your group pouting. Because of that, it's best to send out trip details and discuss plans via e-mail.

The same goes for corresponding with your travel agent. Smith said he prefers communicating via e-mail because it's more convenient than placing frequent phone calls and also gives him a written record of their communications.

Some groups -- especially those that are very large, like extended family reunions or school groups -- go so far as to set up special Web sites with logistical details, calendars of deadlines, links to the cruise ship shore excursion sites, etc. If you have the time and technical knowhow allows it, we say go for it. (It's also a good place to share photos when you get home.)

6. Establish a calendar of important dates.

Knowing how busy most folks are, your fellow travelers will appreciate receiving a calendar noting payment due dates, the "opening day" for booking shore excursions through the cruise line and deadlines for filling out passenger information forms online. It's also useful to send out e-mail reminders about upcoming due dates.

7. Decide in advance how to handle shore excursions.

planning-a-group-cruiseJust as you want to set expectations for your group for the cruise itself, you want to set expectations for ports of call. Would your group be amenable to doing all excursions together? Or are there so many different ages, abilities and interests that people prefer to do their own thing, teaming up only when interests coincide?

In Smith's case, his group never does the same excursion¬. He prefers to chill at an all-inclusive beach resort. His wife and father-in-law go shopping. His parents tend to stay onboard.

Again, here's a place for the group leader to step up. "I usually try to figure out what I'm doing early on and tell everyone my plan," Smith said. "If someone wants to do the same thing, I will arrange it. Otherwise, I will help them plan something else."

If a bunch of those in your group are planning to do the same excursion, book the activity in advance. Sigwart's father did just that, arranging for an airboat ride in Port Canaveral for his sons and grandsons. (The women went shopping and to the beach on their own.)

The same rule applies if you want to plan a special shore excursion just for your group. Carnival, for example, allows you to custom-design an excursion if your group has booked eight or more staterooms, and it absolutely has to be planned in advance. Also, if you have a large enough group, you might be able to save money by booking a private independent tour, versus booking many spaces on a cruise line-sponsored excursion. If you plan to go this route, you will want to make arrangements prior to the trip.

8. Fly to the homeport city a day early.

It's best to arrive the day before embarkation, not the day of -- "especially in the winter," Smith advises, when weather delays could risk your on-time arrival. The trip would start on a sour note if a few from your group missed the boat -- literally. Reserve a few hotel rooms for the night. If four people share one room, you can divvy up the cost, making it reasonably priced for that extra day.

Porter had all of her group tour participants book their own flights -- she merely told them where to go and when to be there, and she later collected all the itineraries so she could track arrivals. In Smith's case, his travel companions depart from the same airport, so he booked everyone on the same flight.

And, if you are arriving early, plan something special like a festive group dinner or cocktail hour, so the overnight stay feels less like a burden and more like the true start of your vacation. Bonus feature: The group leader can use this time to communicate the meet-up plan for the next day.

9. Do your own thing.

planning-a-group-cruiseCountless groups advise the same concept: When on the cruise, do what it is you enjoy doing, when you want to do it. You're on vacation, after all; you should be able to sleep late if you want, laze by the pool all day, or dance in the nightclub until the wee hours.

"Make people comfortable with the idea that they don't have to do everything with everybody," Porter advises. "Create an environment in which people can speak up that they don't want to do something, and other people can't get offended by that."

10. Come up with a plan to periodically regroup.

Even if your group is committed to splitting up during the cruise, it's a good idea to regroup at least once a day. Because communication can be tough -- using cell phones during a cruise can accrue eye-popping roaming charges -- setting a specific time to meet up is helpful.

Sigwart says she was envious of those who used walkie-talkies on the ship; the devices would have been helpful for trying to locate family members during their days at sea. "We should have had a better plan, like, 'Let's all meet on the pool deck at two o'clock,'" she says.

Groups often use dinner as the regrouping time, sitting together at a big table in the dining room. Others even get together for happy hour in one of the cabins or a lounge first. There might be one special event that everyone could attend as one group -- a particular show onboard, for example, or a group-friendly shore excursion. And don't forget about arranging to meet for the requisite group photo ... just to prove you were all traveling together!

--by Elissa Leibowitz Poma, Cruise Critic Contributor

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