By Paul Motter
About 20 percent of adults in the U.S. have taken a cruise vacation, according to the Cruise Lines International Association. The other 80 percent, like anyone who has yet to experience something, have misconceptions and apprehensions about taking a trip. Call them cruise virgins.
Recently, a couple of cruise virgins asked me for advice. After convincing them that the cruise director of the “Love Boat” wouldn’t be summoning them to a game of volleyball, I addressed some of their other concerns:
1. Cruises Don’t Let You Experience Destinations
My friends asked, “So, when we reach a port, they’ll have tour buses ready to take us out until the ship is ready to leave again, right?” That is a possibility, though ships generally spend the entire day in each port and you are welcome to come and go as you please. Some travel prigs say the cruise lines unload thousands of passengers onto small Caribbean islands, beyond the capacity of the cheap tourist traps on shore.
There is some truth to that, but there are other options: hiring a guide or a small boat, snorkeling a remote coral reef, zip lining through a rainforest. Also, cruises go worldwide, from the Baltic Sea to Bora Bora – not just the Caribbean – and in places like Ephesus, Santorini, Pompeii, Crete, Rhodes and even Athens, a full day is more than enough. In more elaborate ports like St. Petersburg (Russia) or Venice, most ships spend two or three days. Plus, you can always stay in a hotel before or after your cruise. Many cruisers do that.
2. Cruise ships are regimented
“The time is six bells. Please report to Deck 10 for team shuffleboard” was how the couple envisioned a cruise’s schedules. I asked them: Can you imagine the Plaza Hotel doing that? Time on a ship is your own. A cruise ship is just a floating hotel, with one difference: On regular vacations you spend half your time in planes, trains and taxis just to reach your hotels in different destinations. A cruise is a hotel where all the destinations come to you.
3. Ships are very claustrophobic
“I don’t want to be stuck on a ship” is a common worry, especially if there are rough seas. The couple I spoke with envisioned sweaty and muscular workmen working ropes, capstans and pulleys, just waiting for a chance to knock them over the railings. They asked what shoes they’d need for sure footing. But you barely feel the ocean aboard today’s megaships.
In fact, many experienced cruisers feel the public rooms – with designer furniture, crystal chandeliers and $1 million art collections – aren’t nautical enough, so they actually pay for tours of the engine room and bridge. Cruise ships have suites, dining rooms, theaters, nightclubs, pools, spas, gyms, wine bars and shops that make the ship feel spacious.
4. All there is to do is eat
The days of assigned seating with the same tablemates and waiter are over. How much time you spend eating and how much you eat are up to you.
The main dining room menu has three or four courses: salads and soups, appetizers, entrees and dessert, each with several options. The waiters wear tuxedos and the tables are covered in crystal and silver. String quartets play while sommeliers pour the wine. Even better, it’s all included in the fare, with no tips required. You come and go as you please and eat as much as you want. Then there are the fine dining restaurants that feature the creations of some of the nation’s top chefs, including Geoffrey Zacharian (Norwegian Cruise Line), Nobu (Crystal) and Jacques Pepin (Oceania Cruises). Specialty restaurants that serve up French, Italian, Brazilian and Asian fusion food are also common, with a surcharge of $5 to $50, depending on the cruise line. For quick meals the Lido Restaurant has multiple serving stations for freshly prepared varieties of hot and fresh food – and it does not resemble a cafeteria.
After dinner you can attend a Broadway show, listen to live music or stroll from a piano bar to a comedy club to a karaoke bar. Or you can just go to your stateroom and watch a movie on your large screen TV.
5. The staterooms are tiny
My friends asked if the beds are like hammocks and the toilets are in the showers. No, they’re not. Staterooms are usually occupied by couples, and the beds are queen or king-size – though they can be separated into two smaller beds. Some rooms include pull-down beds for extra guests (look for half-price or even free deals for third and fourth guests). They are generally smaller than hotel rooms, though suites are available, and they are laid out very efficiently with all the amenities, including a refrigerator, balcony, a full private bathroom and even large screen TVs and Wi-Fi.
6. Cruise lines nickel-and-dime you
Cruises are “semi-inclusive,” which means some things are included and others aren’t. Typically, cruises include lodging, food, transportation to destinations, entertainment, swimming pools, fitness centers and basic room service. Most cruises also offer extensive children’s programs for all ages – a huge convenience and savings for parents. Onboard TV is free, with optional pay-per-view movies. Drinks, spa treatments, specialty restaurants and Internet access usually cost extra. Also, cruise ships are “cashless” systems: You open an onboard account and settle it with your credit card. Gratuities are added to that account at about $11 per passenger per day.
Knowing what to expect helps cruise virgins budget accordingly. And no one twists your arm to buy anything. You pay extra for alcohol, soda and special coffees, but iced tea and regular coffee are on the house. Shore tours cost extra, but they are optional, as are spa services and specialty restaurants. Most cruise lines have started offering optional inclusive packages – for beverages, for example. At about $50 per day, I think you pay more than you would if you paid a la carte, but some people find value in the convenience.
7. I won’t fit in
Most cruisers are couples or families. When you go to a hotel, do you worry about fitting in? Not really. Yes, shorter cruises (three- and four-day) may have some singles looking to party, but they find each other in their own secluded hangouts. The bottom line is that a cruise is just a hotel – with excellent accommodations, destinations, food, service and entertainment included. What you make out of all that is purely up to you.
Paul Motter is the editor of CruiseMates.com, an online cruise guide. Follow him on Twitter @cruisemates.