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A Veteran's Guide to Cruising on the High Seas

Mark Mitchell, a former Special Forces colonel, on how to optimize your cruise experience

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It’s hard to imagine two worlds farther apart than the battlefields of Afghanistan and the entertainment decks of a luxury cruise ship. ​

But Mark Mitchell, who spent 28 years in the U.S. Army as an infantry and Special Forces officer, has lived in both.​

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Mitchell, who retired as a colonel, served combat tours in the Gulf War, Afghanistan War and Iraq War. After 9/11, he became the first American to be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second-highest decoration for valor, since the Vietnam War.​

Following senior roles at the Pentagon and White House, Mitchell and his wife Mary Ann, who have two grown-up daughters, decided to do something completely different. Three years ago, they purchased an Expedia Cruises franchise.​

“Although we love to travel, in 30 years of marriage we’d never been on a cruise,” Mitchell said. “So we had a lot to learn — not only about the cruise and travel industry, but also about running a small business.” ​

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AARP Experience Counts asked Mitchell, 58, to share his intel on what to look for when it comes to booking the ultimate cruise.​

AEC: What are the common mistakes you see people make when booking cruises?

Mitchell: I have customers walk in and ask, “What’s the best cruise?” to which I typically reply, “What’s the best car?” The answer to the either question is going to vary based on what’s most important to the buyer, and maximizing value for their investment. But focusing only on price is likely to leave you disappointed — potentially very disappointed. The itinerary, accommodations, dining, entertainment, amenities and likely clientele are also important considerations.

AEC: The cruise industry was in rough shape during COVID, and offering big discounts. Has that changed?

Mitchell: Demand for cruising is at an all-time high and ships are filling up quickly now. There are few, if any, last-minute deals anymore. You’re far better off planning and making reservations 18-24 months out. You’ll get the best prices and choices of rooms, particularly for families that want rooms close together. Just make sure that you get a rate with a refundable deposit. And I also highly recommend buying travel insurance.

AEC: What are some of the unexpected expenses to watch out for on a cruise?

Mitchell: There are many things that could quickly bust your budget if you didn’t anticipate them, especially alcoholic beverages, gratuities, onboard wifi and shore excursions. Make sure to consider those costs in your initial budget, and buy things like drink packages in advance.

AEC: Many cruise lines offer military discounts. Where should veterans look to find the best prices and information?

Mitchell: First, find a great travel agent — preferably a veteran or spouse. It doesn’t cost you anything to use their services — they can save you money and help make your vacation more enjoyable. Second, don’t assume that the military/veteran rate is the lowest price. In some cases, there are lower rates available, and sometimes they even come with better amenities.

These rates are often lower than the military rates and come with at least $50 of onboard credit. Some cruise lines don’t offer military rates for cruises but do offer additional onboard credits and amenities for active-duty personnel and veterans.

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AEC: Are there cruises specifically geared towards veterans?

Mitchell: Yes. For example, the Special Forces Association is chartering a cruise to the Bahamas in October 2024. They’re anticipating 2,000+ Special Forces Alumni, Gold Star Families, Medal of Honor recipients, family and friends on a 5-day cruise from Tampa, Florida.

AEC: What’s a reasonable budget for a quality cruise experience? And what kind of discount can veterans expect?

Mitchell: If you’re just starting out, I suggest beginning with a short cruise of three to five days, and a budget of $1,000 -$1,500 per person for total expenses (cruise fare, taxes, port fees, gratuities, insurance, Wi-Fi, drinks, excursions, and travel to/from the port). Your travel agent should be able to find an excellent cruise and onboard experience that will meet your needs and make sure that you’ve maximized the veterans benefits available to you.

AEC: What would you say to someone who’s never been on a cruise before to sell them on the idea?

Mitchell: Where else can you find a resort or hotel that moves to a new destination each day? Cruising offers something for everyone: dining, entertainment, shopping, fitness and wellness, and relaxation? Whether you’re cruising as a couple, a single family, or a larger group of family and friends, there’s a cruise ship and itinerary that can fit your budget and vacation needs.

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