In 2019, over 400 cruise ships from 50 cruise lines carried nearly 30 million passengers to destinations all over the world and generated about $27 billion in revenue for the cruise industry. This industry is big business and one of the top vacation choices worldwide. However, the pandemic severely restricted travel and the industry has only recently started to recover.
My wife and I are unabashed fans of cruising, but we recognize not everyone feels that way. Most recalcitrant, but potential, cruise vacationers with whom I’ve spoken are either uncomfortable about being on the open water or are concerned about potentially becoming seasick. These are legitimate concerns.
The last cruise ship to sink was in 2012, when the Captain of the Costa Concordia deviated from the planned course and struck a rock near the shore, which eventually capsized the ship. However, this type of human error is not common and there have been only four ship sinkings in the last 50 years, so the likelihood of a disaster at sea is extremely remote. All ships practice lifeboat drills in which all passengers participate before it even leaves the dock.
One way to improve one’s comfort level about seasickness is to check the weather in the area in which travel is planned. For example, hurricane season in the Caribbean tends to occur from about the beginning of June to the end of November. Therefore, it would not be wise to book a Caribbean cruise during that time frame if seasickness is a concern, although cruise lines ensure their ships cruise around a hurricane rather than into it.
We have cruised over a dozen times in places such as the Mediterranean, Australia, South America, the Baltic, Japan, and, of course, the Caribbean for winter vacations. During all those cruises, we have seldom encountered rough seas, even going around Cape Horn, the most southerly point of South America, which is notorious for having bad weather and choppy seas.
Part of the reason for the smooth sailing is the size of the ships these days. While cruise lines may have ships as small as 900 passengers, many ships can now accommodate 2,000 or 3,000 passengers. Some, like the Royal Caribbean “Wonder of the Seas”, can handle nearly 7,000 passengers, not including about 2,500 to 3,000 crew. All modern passenger ships have stabilizers that work so well it’s sometimes difficult to tell the ship is even moving.
While there are last minute cruise deals available at relatively inexpensive prices, it’s a good idea to plan well ahead to ensure the best time of year, cruise line/ship and travel itinerary to take a cruise.
From our experience, the three primary decisions when choosing a cruise vacation are:
- Where do we want to go?
- When do we want to go?
- How much are we willing to spend?
There are many cruise lines and lots of destinations, so “where to go” can be a challenging decision if all destinations are attractive. With winter vacations to the Caribbean or warmer climates, for example, we have mostly chosen January to March, which are typically the coldest months at home.
When choosing vacation spots other than the Caribbean, we’ve usually looked at early or late off-season times (April to June; September to November). The reason for focusing on these dates is that summers are prime travel time for families and the prices increase accordingly. Off-season cruises typically will have better rates, sufficient cruise selections, and more mature tourists than in primetime.
How much one is willing to spend on a cruise is an individual matter. If cruising is something that occurs regulaly it’s helpful to think about how much one is willing to spend on flights, hotels, ship accommodation, souvenirs and excursions. If it’s a “once-in-a-lifetime” event, it might be worth spending more money to create a life-long memory.
Depending on how exotic the planned cruise ship destinations are, it’s worth checking with one’s home community health authority or a doctor to determine if any additional inoculations are required. Not having the proper inoculations or vaccinations could prevent passengers from boarding a ship in some parts of the world.
It’s possible to contact and to deal with cruise lines directly when booking a cruise. However, we have tended to use a website called Vacations to Go, which advertises itself as the world’s largest cruise seller. Some decent cruise discounts are available depending on when and where a traveller would like to go.
Typically, we’ve done a lot of our own research on cruise itineraries, where we’d like to go, and what’s available to see during a trip. At one point, we also booked our own flights to the initial destination, but now use a travel agent because the airfare we were able to arrange was not much better than what could be arranged through a travel agent and there was a lot less hassle.
Depending on destination, airfare can be costly, so we have typically flown economy to our destination rather than business or first class. Economy isn’t so bad when the destination is 4 – 5 hours, but it can be challenging on longer flights, such as Australia or Japan, particularly if the flights are overnight. Choosing economy or higher will depend on one’s ability to tolerate discomfort and/or the depth of one’s pocketbook.
The “economy” equivalent on a cruise ship is an inside cabin, which tends to be less costly than other options such as:
- window, porthole: obstructed view , usually by a lifeboat
- window, unobstructed view
- balcony or verandah
The latter can be quite costly as a suite is the equivalent of the penthouse in an apartment complex.
We have utilized inside cabins previously for shorter cruises (7 to 12 days) but tend to use a higher grade of cabin for longer cruises (over 14 days). Inside cabins, while slightly smaller, are fine except there is no outside view. The cost difference between an inside cabin and the next higher level can be hundreds of dollars more per person. Further, when identifying a cruise ship cabin it’s important to discuss with an agent to ascertain where it will be located on the ship.
Passengers located on a lower deck at the rear (stern) of the ship are above the engines. Light sleepers might find this challenging. Passengers located below or near one of the ship’s discos or night clubs might find it difficult to sleep as the noise will permeate the cabin. The best location we’ve found is to be near midship, as there is less ship movement up and down or side to side, and away from late night entertainment or elevators constantly opening and closing.
Trying to take a flight from home to the cruise port the same day the selected cruise ship is leaving is not a wise idea. If there’s any flight delay it can affect one’s ability to reach the cruise ship on time, which typically departs the cruise port anywhere between 4 and 7 p.m. We have usually arrived a day earlier and stayed in a hotel the night prior to the ship’s departure to ensure we don’t miss the ship departure time. There is a bit of extra cost for the hotel, but it’s more than offset by the “peace of mind” it offers.
The caveat to the “arrive the day before” advice is if flight bookings, airport-to-port transfers, and cruise tickets are handled by the cruise line, they will either wait for all passengers to be on board if a flight booked by them is late or arrange for passengers to catch up with the ship at the next port.
Most embarkation processes at the cruise port departure terminal are handled reasonably quickly as the ship and shore officials have been doing this for a long time. Passengers will need a passport, boarding passes, at least one credit card, cruise documents, possibly inoculation or vaccination documents and luggage tags on their suitcases, as luggage is usually dropped off at a loading station near the entrance to the terminal.
Some cruise lines may establish a passenger “processing” time so everyone does not pile into the port terminal at the same time expecting to be accommodated. Some cruise lines may take photos before issuing cabin key cards.
Once on board the ship, the usual approach is to drop off carryon luggage in the assigned cabin and either explore the ship layout or head to the “cafeteria” – which is often on the 9th or 10th deck – for a bite as most passengers have had nothing to eat since that morning.
Dining protocol varies with cruises lines. Norwegian Cruise lines, for example, went with an “open dining” concept years ago. With “open dining”, passengers may go to any designated open dining area during a specific time frame (typically 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.) to eat. Some cruise lines still have a standard seating arrangement where passengers commit to a seating time (e.g. 6 p.m. or 8 p.m.) and will sit with the same group at the same table at the same time each day throughout the cruise.
The advantage of “open dining” is that it allows passengers some flexibility in deciding when to dine (as when arriving late back to the ship after a full-day excursion) and will usually result in being seated with different people for each evening meal. Scheduled dining usually means getting to know the assigned table guests reasonably well during the cruise. Open dining usually results in getting to know a lot of different dinner guests a little bit over the duration of the cruise.
Some passengers choose to eat most of their meals on the “cafeteria” deck or a snack bar near the pool(s) because it is more casual. Meals may also be delivered to one’s cabin if the occupant does not feel like more formal dining in the main dining room(s) or informal dining on the cafeteria deck.
Snacks are also usually available until relatively late at informal snack bars for those who like to grab a cookie and coffee before bed.
When booking the cruise, one should pay attention to the cruise destinations and ship-offered excursions available. Leaving excursion bookings too late, for example until physically on the ship, can result in not having access to an anticipated tour because they’ve been sold out.
There are generally three approaches to ship excursions:
- taking a ship-offered excursion that has usually been vetted by the cruise line to likely meet passenger expectations
- taking a non-ship excursion that relies on locals to provide a tour somewhat comparable to the ship’s tours (which can sometimes be just as good as, or even better than, ship-offered excursions, often at lower cost)
- touring on one’s own, which can be somewhat of an adventure.
With the latter two opportunities, passengers are informed if they miss the departure time because the excursion they’ve taken arrives back to the port too late (e.g. the private tour vehicle breaks down), it is their own responsibility to make their way to the ship’s next port to rejoin the ship at their own expense.
However, if a vehicle breakdown occurs with a ship-offered excursion, and the excursion returns late, the ship will wait. The decision about which excursion approach to use depends on one’s willingness to take risks.
There are numerous opportunities for entertainment on cruise ships that cater to a wide variety of interests so it’s unlikely to be boring. The larger the ship, the more opportunities there are.
Most cruise ships, regardless of size, will have two shows or productions of the same evening entertainment—one at about 7:30 p.m. and one at 9:30 p.m. Often these shows are full-scale dance productions, which may include singers. Other entertainment occasions may feature just singers, musicians, magicians, or comedians. There are usually several lounges playing contemporary or period music to encourage dancing and many ships now have specialty restaurants which passengers may book for special occasions such as birthdays, anniversaries, or just for something different from the main dining areas.
During the day while at sea, the ship may offer opportunities such as card games like bridge, cribbage or rummy, or classes on how to make something (crafts) often specific to the region in which the ship is travelling. Some larger cruises offer lectures on the history of countries being visited during the cruise which facilitates understanding of the culture. Some offer dance lessons or tours of the ship. There are usually fitness facilities and spas on the more modern ships as well. If physical activities aren’t enticing, most ships have a reasonable reading library from which passengers may borrow books for the duration of the cruise. WiFi is available, but usually at a cost.
If none of these are of interest, there will be several shops on board the ship for clothing, souvenir purchases or other items, including watches and jewelry. Some ships will feature artwork and have one or more art auctions throughout the voyage. All ships will have photographers to take photos of passengers initially embarking, and subsequently disembarking at port destinations, or while seated at dinner tables. Of course, there is a cost to purchase these photos which are usually developed and displayed subsequently for passengers to peruse.
Some passengers prefer to sit by the pool and the hot tubs each day to tan, relax or perhaps read a book. There are usually informal snack bars near the pool that allow them to eat without having to get dressed to go to the cafeteria or main dining areas if they’d prefer not to. Alcohol bars are readily available in most parts of the ships as well.
One of the requirements for cruise passengers is to register a credit card with the ship well prior to embarkation as cash is not used on the ship. Everything is charged to the cabin card while on the ship. This is important information which will become apparent momentarily. It’s also not a bad idea to acquire some local currency prior to the cruise for the countries to be visited, although it’s possible to acquire that currency on the ship at a slightly increased cost.
The previous paragraph leads to a key concern: How much does all this cost? That is a good question. There are numerous potential costs to consider:
- Taxis: Travellers may require transportation from and to home from the local airport and to and from the community where the cruise will start if a transfer hasn’t been included with the cruise tickets.
- Parking: If travellers are some distance from the airport, such as a rural community, parking a vehicle for a few weeks at or near the airport can be costly.
- Flights: A travel agent will be able to identify the best flight at the most reasonable cost. Obviously, the greater the distance travelled, the more costly the flight.
- Meals: Not all airlines are completely reliable in departing or arriving on time or connecting flights could require layovers which might require purchasing one or more meals.
- Cruise : There are some excellent cruises available for a reduced cost. The cost will depend on what type of cabin is chosen for the cruise. The more spacious the cabin, including balconies or verandahs, the higher the cost.
- Excursions: There’s always an option to strike out on one’s own. Ship-offered excursions are usually quite good, although often more costly than what is offered ashore. For the most part, highly desired excursions should be booked early, even from home before departing for the cruise.
- Shopping: Generally, there is shopping available on the ship, but the merchandise tends to be limited and somewhat costly. Passengers are more likely to find better deals ashore.
- Beverages: Most ships offer beverage packages for purchase. Some cruise lines will offer a beverage package, or free WIFI, or a shipboard credit, or free gratuities or a combination of these as enticement to attract passengers. Repeat passengers may build up travel credits based on the number of days travelled each trip. The more cruise days travelled, the better the perks.
- Gratuities: Gratuities for room stewards, dining room serving staff, dining room managers and culinary staff used to be optional. These days they appear to be mandatory. This can be costlier than one might think. Our most recent cruise on Holland America cost us $16 (US) per day per person. For a 14-day cruise that worked out to $224 (US) per person or about $300 (CAN) each for two of us.
It’s nice to be able to just hand a serving person, wine steward or bartender one’s cabin card for wine, drinks or snacks without having to fumble around for cash. However, using one’s cabin card becomes an easy habit, until the bill arrives at the end of the cruise and sticker shock sets in. If there’s no concern about how much is being spent during a cruise there’s no problem. However, for those trying to keep track of expenditures because they’ve created a budget, it’s something to be aware of.
My wife and I took a 21-day trip to Japan, Okinawa and Taiwan recently, including a 14-day cruise. We spent a total of six days in Tokyo, but our overall cost was about $6,700 each, including about $5,000 each pertaining to the cruise.
All good things must come to an end and most passengers spend the last evening of the cruise following dinner packing suitcases, although some diehards will be the last ones to leave one of the lounges before it closes.
Most cruise lines have a departure coding system, usually coloured tags, depending on when one has to leave the ship to get to the airport to catch a flight. The ship will likely dock as early as 6 a.m. Passengers who have an earlier flight at the airport are given priority to disembark. Those who aren’t in a rush may take their time, but usually everyone is off the ship by about 9:45 a.m.
All the large luggage passengers set outside their cabins the evening before will be found in the port terminal under colour-coded signs. While it can be a bit of a challenge sometimes finding luggage among the hundreds of other suitcases of the same style and colour, the suitcases will eventually be located.
Our experience is it can be challenging to make an early flight sometimes, so our practice is to stay an extra day before heading home. On our most recent cruise we stayed for three additional days.
A cruise vacation isn’t for everyone, but passengers are treated very well on most cruise lines which is partly why cruise passengers continue to return. There is a reason for the “royal” treatment. Most ships will employ individuals from a multitude of countries. For some employees, a job on a cruise ship is a godsend. It allows them to work for about nine months a year and to send some or all their earnings home. It’s one of the reasons gratuities are so important.
However, their continuing employment is dependent upon good reports from passengers, so most employees are very careful about how they treat passengers. If the cruise line receives a couple of bad reports from passengers about how they were treated by a ship employee that employee may be fired. If the employee is the sole source of income for the family, a lost job can be significant. Most passengers will try to give ship employees the best rating they can, but some passengers have unrealistic expectations and aren’t reluctant to be overly critical.
Many cruise ships, particularly newer ones, are like living on a five-star floating hotel. The meals, prepared by internationally qualified chefs, are superb, the entertainment varied, and the day excursions generally interesting and sometimes awe-inspiring. While there is a cost to cruising, it offers passengers a taste of some exotic places, certainly enough to entice some back for a land-based vacation to a specific place later.
For some passengers, cruising is a way of life and it’s not uncommon for them to take three or four cruises a year, some of them quite lengthy. We’ve encountered cruise passengers on our travels who’ve taken 80 or 100 cruises. The latest trend is for passengers to rent a cruise ship cabin as a retirement venue as the costs aren’t too dissimilar from some retirement homes.
It’s relatively easy to arrange a four-to-five-night cruise from Florida to parts of the Caribbean. A short trip might help hesitant ship travellers determine if they’d like to take a longer, and possibly more exotic, trip. Cruising is a fun thing to do and possibly an opportunity to bring family members together.
The bottom line is…life’s short. If cruising’s on your bucket list, it’s worth a try – even if just for a one week or less vacation!
A great follow-up to follow-up to your May piece, The Exotic Far East, Dale! We welcome any uplifting, funny, inspiring, or otherwise simply interesting story, profile, or bit of whimsy. To share with our other retirees, simply email your 300- to 2,400-word piece to HG-Editor@RRC.CA.