Before going into specifics on some of the ships (and boats–there is a difference) we’ve been on, and the cruises we’ve loved, and specific notes and cautions, some general bullet points on the benefits and drawbacks of cruising. (Imagine the point sliding one by one onto PowerPoint slides with fireworks and dramatic music, if it makes you happy. Those of you who’ve ever seen me speak know just how likely that scenario is…)
- Check in once, unpack once, visit many different places, then pack once and check out once.
- Leave the driving to them–but you’re not stuck in your seat on a bus or plane.
- You know where you’ll be staying in each new destination.
- You know where you’ll be dining, at least when you don’t have other plans.
- You travel while you’re sleeping (at least in part), with no jet lag or travel fatigue in most cases.
- With rare exceptions, you have ready access to entertainment (live shows, TV, movies), a library, room service, exercise equipment, one or more pools, and places to walk with great views.
- You know most of your costs up front (but not all).
- You’ll probably get lots of advice about the places you’re going, and can generally sign up for guided tours and excursions, but you can also strike out on your own.
Cruising disadvantages, at least for some people:
- That up-front cost may shock you.
- If you want to stay a day longer at a location, you’re out of luck.
- If you don’t like your room, you may be out of luck (or maybe not).
- If you don’t like the food, you’re probably out of luck (except when you’re in port and willing to spend more).
- If you don’t like the gestalt of the ship or the people, you’re out of luck.
- If you’re prone to seasickness, some cruises may not be for you.
What does that cruise fare cover?
- Always: Your room; all meals in the main (and usually Lido/buffet) restaurants including at least some nonalcoholic beverages during meals, plus various snacks and the like; the ship or boat as transportation; access to all public areas; use of regular exercise equipment, pools, the library; most (usually all) onboard shows and other entertainment.
- Usually: Coffee and tea at all hours; 24-hour room service.
- Frequently: All nonalcoholic beverages (on a growing number of ships including almost all luxury-class ships); most or all alternative restaurants (with possible small suggested tips); some limited number of shore events (picnics, special excursions).
- Sometimes/rarely: Gratuities (mostly on a few luxury lines); wine and beer at dinner, sometimes also at lunch (ditto); standard shore excursions (on some riverboats and specialized small cruise ships); all alcoholic beverages (two small-ship luxury lines); air transportation (usually as part of special promotional fares).
- Never or almost never: Spa services; casino gambling (when there is a casino); dry cleaning and laundry (except in some suite categories on some ships); medical services (except, typically free aspirin and Bonamine or other seasickness pills).
Beyond that, and the fact that you’re typically sleeping and traveling above water, there’s so much variety among cruise lines that it’s difficult to make any sweeping statements. I will suggest that the cheapest cruises are also the least interesting after you’ve done one or two, unless you really love the Caribbean and get along great with two or three thousand other people in a floating village.
Some cruise lines and cruises are great for families with children. Some are terrible. Unfortunately, no cruise line bans smoking entirely–one tried and gave up (and went bankrupt for other reasons), one ship on another line did it for a while but then gave up. These days, you’ll almost never find smoking allowed in any dining area or in the main show lounge (assuming there is one); otherwise, you’re likely to encounter it.
We’ve found cruising a great way to see th world and to learn more about America’s heartland. We’ve also found that the mainline ships probably don’t agree with us, based on limited experiments. That’s our problem; you may find that you get along with them just fine.
In future episodes, I’ll get down to the ships (and boats) and cruises we’ve known and loved; most of them are still around.
By the way, if you’re thinking about cruising, a good book wouldn’t hurt. There are several, some of which you may find at (ta-da) Your Local Library. Currently, the one we buy is The Unofficial Guide to Cruises (John Wiley & Sons).