BRAD CROUCH – ESCAPE
TAKE it to the river or enjoy the motion in the ocean with our quick 25-point guide to researching, choosing and embracing the cruising life.
1. Pick your line and your time. Different cruise lines are geared towards different demographics, school holidays means families, some lines cater to an older clientele — make sure you are on a ship that suits you.
2. There are three very different styles of cruising — blue water on a large cruise ship with loads of facilities such as swimming pools and nightclubs; river cruising on smaller craft on calmer waters with daily stops; and expedition cruising where each day is an adventure, from the jungles of PNG to the icebergs of Antarctica.
3. Ocean cruising has a variety of sized ships, from boutique liners with guests numbered in the hundreds to the world’s biggest ships capable of taking 6000 passengers on what are essentially floating towns. But consider each a floating resort where the fun, food, relaxation, entertainment and pampering never stops, nor do the water views.
4. Australian based ships such as those in the P & O and Princess fleet tend to be mid-sized taking around 2000 guests, while Royal Caribbean’s ships based here in summer such as the 2500-guest Radiance of the Seas are at the larger end — the 3100-guest Voyager of the Seas was the largest ship ever built when it entered service in 1999 while the new Ovation of the Seas will take almost 5000 guests when she homeports in Sydney for the 2016-17 summer.
5. Timing is everything. A two night cruise to nowhere tends to be a party cruise with a lot of carousing, while long trips attract a quieter crowd — usually retirees — who can afford the time and money away. A week in the South Pacific usually will have a mixed bag enjoying sun and fun.
6. When season changes ships reposition, eg when the European and Alaskan summer season is over ships head to places like Australia and Asia, and vice versa. These long voyages, for instance across the Pacific from Vancouver to Sydney, are often available at heavily discounted prices.
7. Pack enough. You only unpack once so can afford to squeeze in a little more depending on the length of the cruise. Your cruise line will give information on what to wear, but apart from swimmers and casual gear think what you might wear to a nice restaurant or at a land based resort at night.
8. Pack no booze. Cruises are not BYO, and trying to smuggle on booze is frowned upon.
9. Take the family. Multigenerational cruising is a huge growth market where three or so generations can get together and enjoy each other’s company without getting on each other’s nerves.
10. Save, save, save. With on-board meals, entertainment and activities included you can pretty much cruise for the price of your ticket if you are frugal and stick to coffee, tea and water.
11. Spend, spend, spend. But, hey, who wants to be frugal on holidays? Cruise lines bank on you spending plenty more while at sea and here are a few things on offer which may give you a slight shock when your final account arrives: booze, sodas, spa treatments, laundry service (no irons allowed in cabins), boutiques, the casino, specialty restaurants with surcharges, internet, bingo, shore excursions, cookery classes, gratuities. Some packages include booze and gratuities, while loyalty programs may cover laundry.
12. Shore excursions on river and expedition cruises usually are built into the ticket price. On large ships, in ports such as Venice you can simply walk into the action and roam around — but in places like Rome it is a 90 minute bus trip and a booked excursion is a must. In Alaska the thrill of seeing black bears scooping 1m salmon from a stream will remain burnt in the memory long after the pain of the credit card bill has passed.
13. Be shrewd. Cosmetics in boutiques generally are much cheaper than in Australia; the surcharge in a specialty restaurants is still much cheaper than a similar land-based restaurant; gratuities are built into drink purchases despite there being an extra gratuity line on drink tabs; some cruise lines have drinks packages which are economical in the long run, especially soft drink packages for kids; spa attendants will usually hit you up to buy expensive creams while you are half naked and relaxed; internet packages are available but run out surprisingly fast, bear in mind free Wi-Fi in ports is increasingly common.
14. Inside, oceanview or balcony — or suite? Cruise ships offer the lot, obviously at varying prices. A quad share inside room is cheap and also fine if you only plan to sleep there. An oceanview with natural light is nice, while a balcony with fresh air and privacy is a treat, and demand is such new cruise ships focus heavily on balcony cabins. Suites give a lot more room and can offer luxury touches such a baby grand piano should you need one.
15. Main dining rooms still usually have two sittings, so everyone can see the main evening show which usually runs twice. If stuck at a table with people you don’t get on with you can request a change of time or table; or dine at the buffet or various specialty restaurants. Many ships are introducing ‘anytime dining’ options where you just turn up and request a table, but if it is a busy time you may face a long wait.
16. A cruise is great for young honeymooners, groups of young friends and extended families. Just check the drinking age if you are hoping for a cocktail. On American lines the drinking age is 21. Australians aged 18 to 21 travelling with parents may be allowed to have a drink if they have written permission from their parents and are accompanied by their parents.
17. Most big cruise lines will have at least one formal night among their evening dress codes of ‘casual’ and ‘smart casual.’ If you are not keen you can dine at the buffet or have room service but at least look respectable. If you do dress up, go the whole hog. This is a rare opportunity to really frock up and have some great couple or family photos. Some lines hire tuxedos. The result on lines like Cunard is one of elegance as the women look beautiful and the men dashing.
18. The first night is a great time for a party. The sail away from Sydney Harbour on lines such as P & O, Princess and Royal Caribbean is an extraordinary experience — upbeat music blaring, cocktails and champagne being served on deck, adrenalin rising as you pass the Harbour Bridge and head past millionaires’ mansions to the Heads and beyond. Just don’t party so hard on the first night you end up dancing with a lampshade on your head, wake with a hangover then are too embarrassed to look at fellow passengers for the next day or so.
19. Give key staff such as your room steward, table waiter and favourite barman a cue to easily remember your name, which often can improve already excellent service. I usually say: “My name is Brad — like Brad Pitt.” That gives them a laugh and they remember me. On the Queen Mary 2 staff instantly remembered my wife Mary when I introduced her as my own Queen Mary. It gives everyone a giggle — and they remember you.
20. Early bird V night owl. Cruise lines offer lucrative discounts, extra incentives and even free airfares to Europe and Asia for people who book very early, so they can fill their ships and hold the money. However, if you have the flexibility, cruise companies also offer hefty last minute discounts to fill empty cabins just prior to sailing. But if the ship is full you’ll be waving from the dock.
21. Ships generally have a daily program delivered to your room outlining the next day’s activities, from arrival time and facts about the port of call through to the evening dress code and hours of opening of bars, lounges and restaurants. Importantly, it lists times of all activities and entertainment so you can plan your day, especially during sea days.
22. The range of activities is quite wide on such ships, from arts and crafts to games in the pool. Dancing lessons are usually popular, as are lectures from guest experts. On a Silversea cruise, a series of lectures by hostage negotiator Terry Waite who himself ended up being held hostage kept guests spellbound. Our own Alexander Downer was a fascinating guest speaker on Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth.
23. One of the great things about a cruise is you leave your cabin a bit of a mess and return to find it immaculate. On lines such as Carnival you are likely to find another welcome surprise — a towel animal. Clever stewards fashion monkeys, elephants and plenty more using the possibly ancient art of towel folding. It can be hilarious to find a critter on your bed. On La Marguerite on a Mekong cruise staff gave guests lessons.
24. Queasiness, the natural enemy of cruise companies. Some people swear by ginger, others by Quells, or by wristbands. Choose a midship cabin for reduced rocking motion, and a large ship with stabilisers. Also pick your passage — the Mexican Riviera on Carnival Pride was like a millpond, while crossing the Great Australian Bight on Aurora had such powerful swells I swear I was about the only one on board one night not curled up in my cabin.
25. Beware the temptation to leave your curtains open when drifting off to sleep on a river cruise while the ship is still sailing. In busy towns with small docks river ships will tie up side by side, sometimes several abreast. I leapt out of bed one morning to find bemused early risers in a neighbouring ship’s dining room gazing directly into my room.
26. On your last day on board you may want to hang by the pool before packing then having a farewell dinner — pack large ziplock bags for wet bathers.