Think You Know Cruising? Better Think Again

By Paul Motter

Cruise travel may be the most generally misunderstood vacation experience – especially by those who have never taken a cruise.

But even if you have taken a cruise, if it wasn’t a recent voyage then things have probably changed more than you’d expect. If you haven’t tried a cruise yet, it may be time to ditch your misconceptions and hop aboard.

Here are four common cruise complaints and how they’ve changed:

1.) I don’t want to dress up on my vacation

There was once a time when people dressed up to travel–suits were even expected on airplanes. Before the airlines took over, most international travel was done on ocean liners such a Cunard’s Queen Mary and the British have a strong tradition of formal dress (proven by the recent nuptials of  the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge).

At one time, most cruises had two or three formal nights with a required dress code of  tuxedos for the men and gowns for the ladies. But times have changed, and the cruise lines have become far less strict with their wardrobe requirements. Some lines have completely abolished formal nights, while others have dubbed them as “optional for those who choose to indulge.” All ships now offer dining alternatives for people who do even want to see a gown or tuxedo. However, there are still cruise lines where most people wear formal finery, including Cunard and Crystal.

2.) I don’t want to be told when, where and with whom I dine

Before 2000, most cruise ships still had what is now called “traditional dining” under which cruisers were assigned a specific table at either the early (6:00) or late (8:30) seating and dined with the same tablemates and service staff for every meal. Many regular cruisers preferred this approach as the wait staff quickly learned their preferences and it was a great way to make new friends. Cruisers were allowed to request a new table if the table mates were not the right fit.

But for cruise novices, traditional dining was a common criticism and in response, every cruise line now offers open seating where one can arrive at the dining room anytime between 6:00 and 10:00 and ask for a private table or join others at a larger one. Today, when given a choice, about 75% of cruisers opt for open seating in the main dining room.

Additionally, most cruise ships now offer several alternative dining spots. Some newer ships have a dozen or more alternative restaurants available nightly, some charge an extra fee for finer quality and some offer a more casual experience at no extra cost.

3.) Cruise ship entertainment is second-rate

In the 1990s most cruise ships had a copycat entertainment mentality that frankly needed to change. Back then, a production show staff of maybe 10 singers and dancers performed three musical-style shows per cruise. Commonly, only the oldest cruisers attended these shows and half of them were asleep before it ended.

Thankfully, cruise ship entertainment has improved markedly in the last decade. Disney Cruise Line deserves the credit for putting professional-caliber performers and stagecraft on cruise ships starting in 1999.

NCL gets kudos for hiring proven entertainment companies like Second City Comedy from Chicago, Legends in Concert from Las Vegas and the great Blue Man Group from New York City. Royal Caribbean now features full Broadway versions of Hairspray, Saturday Night Fever and Chicago the Musical on its larger ships.

Disney “character experiences” with Micky, Donald and Goofy are emulated by NCL with Nickelodeon Channel characters like SpongeBob SquarePants making appearance. Royal Caribbean has an extensive agreement to feature Shrek, Kung Fu Panda and other DreamWorks Animation characters. Disney, Royal Caribbean, Costa, Cunard and Princess ships now have state-of-the-art 3D movie theaters offering first-run films.

4.) I don’t want to be stuck on a ship

In the 1990s being on a cruise meant you were truly isolated from the “real world”–there were no newspapers, regular telephone service averaged $12 a minute and cell phone and Internet access just didn’t exist. But times have changed and now every mainstream cruise ship has 24-hour service compatible with any cell phone and wireless Internet access is available shipwide. Most cruises also deliver passengers’ favorite newspapers to their room every morning. Of course, none of this is free; satellite communication is required, but the services are available for a reasonable price.

Cruise ships are now so big and feature-filled that in addition to the port adventures, you are now more likely to explore the enormity of the ship than you are to feel claustrophobic.

Cruising has truly changed in just the last few years, and some people naturally feel it has lost its unique appeal–which is partly true. But there will always be a cruise line for every taste from now on – including the people who never wanted cruising to change.

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