INTRODUCTION: Since we’ve been writing and posting these travelogues a number of our friends have asked advice about Cruise Ships and Cruise Lines. As with air travel, the price of taking a cruise has steadily declined over the last few years as the Cruise Lines have figured out how to “Make a Buck.”
I took my first ocean cruise in 1992. Patricia had been on several before that, and we’ve taken 14 cruises since then including 2 river cruises. We’ve been on the Crown Odyssey, the Veendam of the Holland America Line and several ships from the Princess, Crystal and Oceania Cruise Lines.
IS THIS YOUR FIRST TIME? The first thing you want to do is check out itineraries (more about that a bit later) and cruise lines. There are cruise lines that cater to families with children (Disney) and those that cater to singles looking for a mate (Carnival). Here’s how to help decide which cruise line is for you. First, remember, you are going to be confined with these people for a week or more. If you don’t want to be around screaming kids on your vacation, don’t take a cruise with Disney. If you hate being around old folks, don’t go on a cruise that features “Big Band” entertainment.
There are a number of good internet sites that will help you choose a cruise line. Expedia.com has a complete list of cruise lines and offers “reviews” of the ships. Check it out by clicking on “Cruises” then on “Cruise Line Reviews” on the left hand side of the cruise page.
I’m surprised at the number of people who are afraid they will get sea sick on an Ocean Liner. When I was a kid I would get car sick in the rumble seat of my Grandmother’s Model A on the way to my Aunt Ora’s farm. As an adult I once got gravely ill on a whale watching boat, so I was a bit nervous about a cruise, too. But, today’s large ships have stabilizers to prevent too much swaying and unless the sea gets really rough you hardly notice the motion. I did get sick once on a small Odyssey ship in the Adriatic, but, that was one day out of more than 100 at sea. And, that could have been prevented if I had just taken along some good old fashioned Dramamine. If you’re really paranoid about it, your doctor can give you a patch to wear. That should give you “peace of mind.”
WHERE SHOULD WE GO? Which itinerary is best is dependent on where you want to go, what you want to see and what time of year you want to travel.
If you are a real “worry wart” about cruising you might want to select one of the short Mexican Riviera Cruises if you’re on the West Coast or a short Caribbean cruise if you’re on the East Coast as a test to see if you like it.
I bet you will.
I usually tell people there are a few itineraries you simply can’t do any other way than on a cruise ship. If I were you I would try these first. Among them are the Panama Canal, the Greek Islands and Alaska’s Glaciers.
Your time of year is important because of weather at your destination. In Summer time it’s the time to take in Alaska, the Scandinavian Countries, and the British Isles. In spring and fall you want to go to warmer climes like the Mediterranean, the Greek Islands, Canada/New England and the Caribbean. In winter, it’s the best time to visit the Southern Hemisphere ports such as Australia and New Zealand, South America including Cape Horn and the South Sea Islands.
HOW MUCH WILL IT COST? You know the old adage, “you get what you pay for.”
While it’s entirely possible to get “two for one” bargains and cruises that include air fare, the best cruise lines aren’t cheap by any stretch of the imagination. There are a bunch of websites that will let you make price comparisons without making a commitment to sail.
Last week a friend said to me, “I’m considering a cruise but the price seems so high, almost $1,000 a day for my wife and me.” Remember, the fare quoted by the cruise line is inclusive of all transportation between sites you’re visiting, lodging and meals. Go into Travelocity or one of the other travel sites and check out the separate cost of transport between the destinations you’re considering; add in the price of a hotel room and then figure a couple hundred dollars a day per couple for meals and you’ll see that the cruise ship is a pretty good deal. The Cruise price also may include air fare to and from your home town, which makes it even more affordable.
CHOOSING THE CRUISE LINE: Patricia and I love to go on First Class Cruise Ships. Crystal Cruises and Oceania are our favorites primarily because the ships are beautiful, the staff/guest ratio is very high and the food is excellent. The biggest advantage to cruising, as far as I’m concerned, is that you unpack your bag only once. If you’ve been on those land tours of the “If this is Tuesday, it must be Belgium” variety, you’ll appreciate what I mean.
Get yourself a good travel agent; we use Sue Wilson of American Express Travel in Pasadena. Tell him or her you want to take a cruise and ask them to check out available discounts. On our most recent cruise we were able to get a “two for one” fare that literally cut the cost in half.
Check the layout of the ship before you select a cabin. Trust me; you want an outside cabin with a balcony. The rooms are small anyway, and having a little balcony on which you can get some “fresh air” will make all the difference to you. If you have to take a room without a balcony, but with a “view” window, make sure it isn’t on the “Promenade” deck so your view is of other passengers taking their “constitutionals.”
The higher your home deck, the better will be your view coming into ports. Most of the ships we’ve been on have all the eating places on the back of the ship (that way they can all be served by a single kitchen), so we usually choose a room close to the rear elevators to make it more convenient to go to meals. I also like to go to the buffet in the morning and pick up juice to bring back to the room and it’s easier if you don’t have to carry it over the whole ship.
FOOD: You will not go hungry whichever cruise line or ship you choose. Most ships have a formal dining room, a buffet for casual dining, a High Tea in the afternoon and 24 hour room service. Some have Pizza Parlors, Ice Cream Carts and Hamburger Grills in case you get hungry between lunch and High Tea. Also, the latest thing in Ocean dining is the “Theme Restaurant.” Oceania, for example, has both a Steak House and an Italian Restaurant as alternatives to the formal dining room.
In the old days, many had a “Midnight Buffet,” but that seems to have disappeared with our emphasis on watching our weight.
Back in the 1980s, I had a friend at work who went on a cruise for her Honeymoon. Her husband set the alarm for Midnight every night so he wouldn’t miss the “Midnight Buffet.” How romantic!
My advice is, just be careful; almost everyone gains weight on a cruise.
SOME OTHER ADVANTAGES OF CRUISING
- It’s a great way to meet people and make new friends. We’ve remained close to a number of couples we’ve met on cruises and our Christmas Card List is much larger as a result.
- Nearly all cruise ships have “laundry rooms” and all have laundry and cleaning services so that you can pack fewer clothes. If you’ve never had the experience of searching for a place to get your laundry done in a foreign country, you haven’t lived.
Several years ago while we were traveling with friends in France we were getting desperate to get our laundry done. When we went into one dry cleaning establishment our friend asked in her best High School French if they washed underclothes. The clerk broke into hysterical laughter, shaking her head “no.” When we got back to the car our friend realized she had mistakenly asked the clerk, “May I wash your underwear?”
Your cabin on board will be a very small space. Cruise Lines are ingenious about providing storage spaces for your clothes and other items, but “packing light” is always a good idea. Also, if your suitcases aren’t “super-size” you will be able to store them under your bed providing a place to keep all those “emergency” items you brought along, “Just in Case.”
We usually pack only enough clothes for 5 days and depend on the ship’s laundry to keep us presentable. Patricia often complains that men’s underclothing take up so much more room than women’s do. To give her plenty of room to pack treasures purchased on the trip, I’ll take my oldest, most ragged underwear and simply throw it away at the end of the cruise to provide more room in the luggage.
- Cruise lines provide plenty of information about places you are going to visit and professional tour guides on excursions (for which you’ll pay extra) to make sure you don’t miss anything during the short time you’re in port. I was asked once if we were ever in port long enough to see all we want to see. The answer to that is “No, never” but we are able to identify places we’d like to come back and explore at some future time.
- Be sure you choose an English Language cruise line. Trying to read and understand menus in places like Lisbon or Athens can provide you many humorous anecdotes when you get home, but you’re likely to go hungry as often as not. On the cruise ship you’ll want to eat familiar food.
The biggest foreign cruise line marketing in the United States is, I think, Costa. Since 80% of Costa’s passengers come from Europe, all announcements are made in 5 languages. You’re chances of having someone at your dinner table that you can converse with are five to one.
- There is no excuse to be bored on board ship. There will be hourly activities such as Bingo, trivia contests, and Karaoke in addition to the traditional shuffleboard and ping pong. There will probably be a Casino where you can play slot machines, poker machines, Black Jack, Roulette and often Craps. There will be nightly floor shows with quite good talent and music for dancing in at least one bar. Most of the larger cruise lines have movie theaters and “enrichment” lectures, too. There will be a “work out” room and a Spa where you can get a massage.
Then, there’s the shopping. There will be a gift shop of course and most will also have a jewelry store for your duty free shopping pleasure. There will be plenty of clothing to purchase in case your baggage doesn’t arrive.
Nowadays, there will also be a computer room (more on this later). Also, be sure to take along your ‘Itsy bitsy, teeny weeny, yellow polka dot bikini” so you can lay around the swimming pool.
- Don’t worry about money on board ship, except for your gambling, all you need is plastic. They will take an impression of your credit card when you get on board and from that moment on all you have to do is sign your name. They’ll give you an accounting at the end of the cruise and charge the whole shebang to your card.
Most all of your food and beverage, except liquor and soft drinks, will be included in your cruise fare. On most cruise ships there will be a selection of wines at dinner comparable to a good restaurant back home, meaning it won’t be cheap.
If you want to buy a bottle of wine in a shop in port and serve it on the ship you’ll be charged a “corkage fee” ($18 on our last cruise).
SOME THINGS TO LOOK OUT FOR WHEN CRUISING
- Cruise ships leave port on time with or without you – or – your luggage. We nearly always plan to stay a few days in the starting city of a cruise just in case there are flight delays or luggage problems.
One man on our most recent cruise never did get his luggage. Long after the ship left, his luggage arrived in Barcelona. It chased him from port to port, always arriving too late. He said he should have had it shipped ahead to Lisbon, our final port so it would be there when we got there. He spent the whole trip wearing clothes purchased in the ship’s gift shop.
He said, “Luckily, my wife’s luggage did arrive so we were able to continue on the cruise. If her things hadn’t arrived we would have had to go home on the next flight.”
Hmmm! A double standard, fellas?
- Be sure you take along plenty of small denomination bills for tips. At the end of your cruise you are expected to leave a pretty sizeable gratuity for your room steward and for your head waiter, in addition to tipping any other crew members who have provided exceptional service to you.
Your serving crew will probably be very young people from all over the world; most now seem to come from the former “Iron Curtain Countries.” They work 12 hour days, 7 days a week and don’t get a salary. So, your gratuity is all they are going to get for serving you.
The Cruise line should warn you in advance of what your shipboard gratuities will be expected to be. Some will charge it to your credit card, but some don’t, so be sure to find out in advance and carry enough cash with you to take care of it at the end of the cruise. There will be a wall safe in your cabin for your valuables.
You’ll probably take a liking to some of the kids on your ship, we always do. Be generous to them. One little suggestion, if you have extra Euros or other local currency at the end of the trip, you can always use it for tips.
When we go on excursions we usually tip tour guides $5 (for both of us) and tour bus drivers $2. They seem pleased with that.
- You can get so tied to the ship and the tours that you don’t get a chance to meet local people or sample local food. So, try to plan some port visits where you don’t take the organized tour. There is almost always a shuttle service or at least taxi service to the center of town or to the central shopping area. We like to research things to do in our various ports using some of the travel guide sites such as fodors.com and frommers.com. They will have sections for places to have lunch and attractions like museums, historic sites or shopping areas depending on your interest.
- If your cruise line caters to Americans they will have electrical outlets in the rooms that accommodate the plugs of your small appliances. But, be sure to bring along a spare in case your curling iron or electric razor quits working. If you are lucky enough to find a replacement to buy when you’re in port it will be useless on the ship or when you get home because the plug won’t work in the ship’s plugs or in American homes.
Also, be sure to take along a travel kit of electrical converters so you can use your appliances in local hotels during your pre-cruise or post-cruise stays. You can get these in travel stores like Gumps or from several travel catalogs such as Travelsmith. But, remember these will only help you plug your American appliances into foreign electrical outlets, not visa versa.
One final thing you simply must take with you if you plan to use small electrical appliances – an extension cord. Believe me; you’ll thank me for suggesting it.
- Nearly all Cruise lines now have computer rooms where you can send emails and download your photos onto CDs. If you bring your laptop, you’ll probably still have to pay the cruise line to use their satellite dish. If you have an internet provider like AOL, you’ll be able to retrieve emails from your home computer through AOL.com. But, not all internet providers have a service that let’s you retrieve emails from a distant site. You might want to check it out. Also, your cell phone won’t work outside North America unless you buy access from your provider. You can make phone calls from the ship, but, it won’t be cheap.
- When you use the Cruise Lines’ Airline you will be stuck in a coach or economy seat. Most will let you upgrade to business class for a really exorbitant fee. If you want to use your frequent flyer miles to upgrade, as we usually do, you’ll want tell them that you will fly independently and they will give you a further discount from your cruise fare – but it won’t be enough to cover the cost of your private ticket. To us, however, it’s usually worth the extra cost – you can get quotes through your travel agent and make a judgment for yourself if you’d like to fly with the crowd or go it alone.
One final tip for those who like to upgrade: more and more these days you won’t be able to upgrade your ticket to Business Class but will have to go on a “Wait List.” Sometimes this works out and sometimes it doesn’t. One trick we’ve learned is when booking coach tickets reserve Aisle and Window seats in a row toward the back of the “Economy” section of the plane leaving an empty seat between your two seats. Middle seats are only sold on really full flights, and then the middle seats in the front sections are filled first being thought more desirable. On this most recent trip we successfully upgraded on the outgoing flight but not on the return. However, there were a few empty seats in the plane including the middle seat between Patricia and I in Row 46 so we had the extra space and it was almost as comfortable as Business Class.
NOW FOR A FEW WORDS ABOUT OUR TWO FAVORITE CRUISE LINES:
CRYSTAL CRUISE LINES is owned by the Japanese and they are almost always rated number one in travelers’ polls. That’s because of a meticulous attention to every service detail. The cabins are immaculate, the food is fabulous and the talent in the shows is Broadway quality.
Crystal is justifiably known for their food. In the dining room, if you don’t see what you like on the menu, tell the waiter what you want and he will “jolly well” get it for you. We have a friend who was on our first Crystal Cruise who liked the Escargot so much the first night, that he asked them to serve it to him every night. And every night as soon as he was seated his Escargot arrived.
The two theme restaurants are Asian and Italian and are excellent and so are the Duty Free Shops.
You won’t be sorry if you pick a Crystal Ship, but of course, “you get what you pay for.”
OCEANIA CRUISE LINES was founded by two American executives previously with Crystal. Here are just a few reasons we like Oceania Cruise Lines:
1. On most cruise lines you are expected to dress up for dinner and one or two nights you will actually be required to wear “Formal” attire. (Yes, that means a tuxedo or a dark suit). On Oceania the dress is always “Country Club Casual,” meaning you can leave your Tux and even your neckties at home.
2. There is open seating in the dining room in the evening. You can have dinner any time between 6:30 and 9 PM, unlike other cruise lines that assign you to a regular table and give you a fixed time to show up.
- The ships are beautifully decorated with most rooms in dark wood. One of the biggest surprises is the Library which is huge and well stocked.
Because the ships are smaller many of the facilities such as the shops and casino are smaller, but, or course they aren’t as crowded either.
CONCLUSION: Patricia and I think you will like “Cruising.” If you have a question about anything I’ve said or anything you think I might have left out, drop me an email through my website – firstname.lastname@example.org – and I’ll do my best to answer you.