I’m making my way back into posting for 2018, but before I do, I’m going to talk about one of my favorite methods of travel: Cruising. As far as I’m concerned, a cruise is about the best value that you can find for your vacation. We just got off a 7-day trip and have a couple more booked. Still, there are a few things that you may want to know ahead of time, so here are some hints to maximize your vacation.*
Use A Travel Agent
The internet has, for the most part, disintermediated travel agents, but they’re extremely powerful when it comes to a more complicated itinerary, such as a cruise. Not only can they make recommendations and handle the booking but they often have access to unadvertised specials and may be able to get you some freebies such as a shipboard credit or prepaid gratuities. If you don’t have a travel agent that you know and trust, let me know and I’ll send you the info for mine.
Be Prepared to Spend Onboard
You may hear that cruises are “all-inclusive” but, like many trips that are advertised as such, they really aren’t. In fact, cruise lines make about 25% of their revenue from something other than the ticket price itself, and “ancillary” revenues are growing healthily. A generation ago, a ship might have had a few shops, casino and spa onboard. Nothing too exciting. These days, they have those options, as well as art auctions, specialty restaurants, cooking classes, bingo and just about anything else that you can think of as an opportunity for you to spend more money. Think of a cruise ship as a floating shopping mall.
Having said that, it is still easy enough to have a great trip without shelling out another penny after paying for your ticket (and gratuities, which are technically optional but built into the price). Your meals are all paid for. There are tons of free activities on the ship. And it doesn’t cost anything to relax in a beach chair on the Lido deck or tour destinations on your own.
One final recommendation: Stay away from the casinos, where the odds are even worse than they would be at a land-based casino.
Meals Are Gourmet (for 3,000 People)
One area where The Love Boat set unachievable expectations was the dining room. The rooms are beautiful, the service is outstanding and the food is never-ending. With several dining rooms, room service, buffets and on-deck grills available, nobody has ever complained that there aren’t enough opportunities on the ship. The question, of course, is one of consistent quality. I’ve had some meals that were excellent. I’ve had some that were mediocre. And, on this past cruise, I had a veal scallopini that rivaled some dishes that I’ve been served on domestic flights. The menus, though, are glorious to look at:
As food quality has slipped over the years, the cruise lines have introduced specialty restaurants. For a small surcharge, you’ll get upgraded food and even better service. On our ship, we had a steakhouse (good, but wouldn’t rival The Capital Grille), a Curtis Stone restaurant and a “Gastropub.” We would pay $29 per person if we wanted to eat in the specialty restaurants (a free meal or two at one of these restaurants is an example of a perk that your travel agent may be able to throw in).
Book Shore Excursions on Your Own
One of the best parts of a cruise is visiting the various ports on your itinerary. These days, you can go just about anywhere in the world on a ship, with land trips to inland destinations (e.g., sailing into Le Havre to get to Paris). Naturally, the cruise lines will be happy to sell you one of many “exclusive” shore excursions**, which will pair you with local companies who run a tour.
The only thing exclusive about these ship-sold tours, though, will be the price. Expect a shore excursion booked through the ship to be about twice what it would cost you to book on your own.
Instead, book these excursions on your own. At many ports, there will be tour companies right at the port, willing to sell you the same tour that you could buy on board. Or, if you’re like me and want to know exactly what you’ll be doing ahead of time, check out Cruise Critic, the main message board for frequent cruisers. You’ll find all kinds of tips for reputable local tour agencies.***
Membership Has Its Privileges
In the world of loyalty programs, cruises are pretty new to the game. For the most part, you don’t accrue points toward a future vacation, although I have no doubt that that will happen down the line. Rather, you earn status based on the number of cruises you’ve taken or nights that you’ve spent on a brand.****
Elite perks, though, are generally less about saving money and more about saving time. For example, with Princess, Platinum status (6 or more cruises) may get you minor benefits like a cruise atlas, but the strongest perks are those that make your life more efficient. For example, you’ll get priority embarkation and debarkation, which means that you won’t be sitting around waiting for your group to be called to board. Instead, you can board right when you get to the port and have a special waiting area when it’s time to go. Got top-tier status with 16 or more cruises? They’ll give you complimentary laundry, so you’ll only have to pack half as much.
Note that you can also get many of these perks if you stay in a suite. If you are booking two cabins, see if a suite would serve the same purpose for you and pick up the added benefits.
And Finally, It Won’t Go Wrong…
When I talk to people about why they don’t take cruises, I get three main objections:
- I’ll be bored
- I’ll get Norovirus
- I’ll get claustrophobic
First, you won’t be bored. Okay, most people won’t be bored. There are about ten activities going on at any given time on a ship. It’s not all about lying by the pool or playing bingo (The bingo gets particularly competitive.). If you like to be moving, take a cruise that hits eight cities in 12 days. You’ll come back more tired than when you left. If you have kids, they’ll have all-day programming, meaning that the grown-ups can get some alone time.
Second, you’ve no doubt heard about people contracting Norovirus on cruise ships. Do you know why you only hear about it on cruise ships? It’s not because nobody else gets it; Anytime you have a lot of people in a small space, germs spread rapidly. Rather, it’s because cruise lines are unique in that they have to report incidents of the disease. Nowhere else is it mandatory, and nobody is going to self-report if they don’t have to. The plus side is that cruise lines have gone to extraordinary lengths to address the virus. You’ll wash your hands a lot. For that matter, you probably won’t get seasick, either. The ships have stabilizers and they can do wonders with Scopolamine patches these days.
And finally, while cabins are small, the rest of the ship isn’t. The Ruby Princess, which I just got off of, is four-tenths of a mile around on the promenade deck. You may be stuck on a ship, but there’s a lot of ship to explore.
Don’t worry, things will go wrong, just not what you expected. For example, my wife’s baggage didn’t show up until the second night of the cruise (They found it in somebody else’s cabin.). The lines at the dining rooms can get long (You may want to consider having a fixed dining time instead of anytime dining, for instance.). You might eat the veal scallopini. Etc.
But regardless of what does and doesn’t happen, I highly recommend cruising. It’s the best way to see several cities on the same vacation, even if you don’t win at Jackpot Bingo.
*For the purposes of this post, assume that I am talking about mass market cruise lines, such as Carnival, Princess, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, etc. There are, of course, ships for every demographic, from country music fans to ultra-luxury.
**”Shore excursion” is simply a fancy name for a guided tour.
***Cruise lines will tell you that if you book a tour through them, they’ll hold the ship for you if the tour runs late. If you book a tour on your own and you don’t make it back in time, you are theoretically responsible for finding your own way back to the ship. Thus, unless you’re doing a quickie excursion, research your companies ahead of time to know who is reputable. Personally, I’ve never had a problem.
****As of now, status is determined by brand, rather than parent company. For example, Carnival Corporation owns both Princess and Holland America, but nights on one won’t carry over to the other.
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