We travel to see distant lands and new things, except some of us don’t. Some of us like the idea of going places but don’t want to actually stay there, and lots of people don’t take a vacation to strain themselves by doing too much traveling. And thus the cruise ship comes in.
I live in the USA, where 60% of all cruises originate. The cruising industry has been growing by around 7% annually for ages now. Except for the ones going up to Alaska, pretty much all of them are heading south, to the Caribbean or Mexico or Central America. Just under one-fifth of Americans have taken a cruise, with an average length of 7.2 days.
I well understand why some people love cruises, but I don’t. I don’t buy into the exotic destinations (the Caribbean is not exotic) or the should-be-outdated image of luxury and pampering. Cruise ships are anything but all-inclusive; their purpose is to get you into a sealed and contrived environment and convince you to spend more and more money.
And yet I have found myself on a cruise, twice. The first was in my early twenties, when during my first job, my company rewarded about a dozen of us who had worked massive overtime on a special project. It was a three-day cruise to the Bahamas, just to Nassau, and my group was all young and single. We spent most of our time drinking.
The second was much different. My mother, getting a bit older, had always wanted to go through the Panama Canal. She has done several other cruises, but had just lost her main travel partner, and I knew she wouldn’t do a Panama trip solo. Accompanying my mom to Panama was my wife’s idea, based on a recent missed-trip experience she had with her own mother. Once a travel opportunity is passed over, it’s gone forever. You may do something later, but it’s a different trip.
I put the suggestion to my very surprised mother, and thus we went through the Panama Canal together, on a two-week trip with Celebrity Cruise Lines, in which she, the veteran cruiser, took care of most details. I’m awfully glad I have the memories of a voyage with me mum now, but back to our subject: I maintain that cruising is not my thing. I had a quite decent time, but whether you like cruising or not, there are some strategies on board that you need.
And thus I present: How to survive a cruise ship when you don’t like cruising.
First: Get in touch with reality by getting rid of the ideas of luxury and pampering and romance that the cruise line promotes. According to them, you’ll be dancing under the stars while sipping champagne after your five-star gourmet meal and seeing the on-board Broadway-style show before living it up in their Vegas-like casino. A cruise to many people still represents the ultimate in traveling. People unconsciously lengthen the vowel. “I’m going on a cruuuise.”
In reality, your cabin will be smaller than even a downscale motel back in your hometown. Your bathroom will be tiny. The cabins are not equipped with even the lowliest luxury items such as bathrobes and shoehorns, unless you’re in a certain class. Your home is almost certainly more luxurious than your cabin. The buffet at the Western Sizzler steakhouse back home may be better than what they serve you for lunch onboard. Dinners are usually good, and you’ll be happy enough with the other food, but a kitchen can’t serve 2,000 people high-end food three times a day. Gourmet doesn’t work like that. The nightlife on a ship, even on lines geared towards younger people, is weird, unnatural, and all the nightclubs and bars on board are underused.
As for romance, cruise ships aren’t full of lonely hearts yearning to find romance. The average passenger is over 50 and 75% are married and traveling with their spouse. I’m guessing that on my ship, the average age was closer to 65 and people moved rather slowly.
Our room, in a “Concierge Class” cabin. Balcony behind me. Still looks small, no?
—Cruise ships still maintain the illusion of being all-inclusive, that you pay one price and everything’s included. It’s more accurate to say there’s a basic package included, but with tons of extras offered, pushed. Their business model depends on getting you on board with a reasonable fee and then selling you more things. Photos, cappuccinos, soda, specialty restaurants, on-board stores, casinos, spa treatments, art auctions, internet, and yoga classes. This is constant and relentless.
The ship will have many activities that seem like lectures, information sessions, or demonstrations that are in reality an advertisement for further services. They’ll do a cooking demo with the ship’s chef which pushes the dishes available in their premium restaurant, for which they charge $30 more. They’ll do a health seminar in the spa which is really an ad for some product they are selling there.
One expects to pay for things like spa treatments or champagne. You may be surprised by the other things that cost extra, such as that exercise or yoga sessions, the wifi, and even a soda.
That’s our ship, parked in Huatulco, Mexico, on a port day. Today’s ships are massive, with 2,000 passengers.
—Get used to tipping. The staff on board are paid very little. The cruise industry gets them from developing countries so it can pay them around $700 a month and work them 10-14 hours a day. You the passenger are all but required to cough up massive amounts of tips daily. Our ship added $14 to our bill every day for tips, automatically, without asking, though of course we could have adjusted that if we bothered to go through a lengthy procedure. Damn near any service you buy onboard, including drinks, special food, and those yoga classes, has an automatic 18% tip added, with of course a space on the receipt to add more tip if you like.
—Don’t gamble. The casinos on board are only possible because the ships go into international waters, where no rules apply. At least in places like Las Vegas, gambling is regulated by state commissions who ensure that the games are run as they are stated. If you are familiar with casino games, take a look at the odds and payouts numbers posted onboard and you’ll notice that although some types are progressive, they’ll be the worst you’ve ever seen.
Blackjack, for instance, usually pays 3-for2 on land casinos (so a $10 bet wins you $15), but on board, it pays 6-for-5 (so $10 gets you $12). Also, the dealer usually stands on 17 on land, but cruise ships dealers will hit on a “soft 17” (an ace and a six), which increases the house odds. That’s a random example, but there are much more, and they change your odds.
I could go on. There are lower payouts on video poker (6/5) and on craps (Big 6|Big 8), and the slot machines are tighter. If you’re a gambler (I’m not, at all), there’s lots written about this on the internet, so do your research. If you’re just playing for fun, you may not notice, except you’ll just lose your money quicker.
Passing through the Panama Canal
—Pay for a decent room. On our ship, if your cabin was on levels 2 or 3, you were considered a loser. The rooms are small enough; if you had an interior cabin without even a window it would be claustrophobic after two weeks. Many articles I’ve read say that paying extra for a balcony is overrated, that you won’t ever be in your room anyway, but yes you will, and keeping the door to the balcony open makes the room seem much bigger. On land, I’m generally a flophouse accommodation type of guy, but at sea, I’d want a decent crash space.
You don’t need things like a higher service class (called Concierge Class on our ship) or priority boarding or departure. People generally get what they need (or don’t) on a ship no matter what, and everyone gets on and off together.
If you need something for your room, call housekeeping directly, no one else. Go straight to the bottom. As for your room, nothing says that you have to accept their setup. Move the table and chairs around. Ask the staff to take them out if you want extra room. Get rid of the space-hogging coffee table. If you don’t need the three extra pillows they give you, get rid of them instead of having them always floating around the room.
—Pay for a flexible meal plan. Your cruise fare buys you a basic package, but there are levels. Your breakfast is buffet every day, perhaps your lunch as well. But for dinner, the ship’s main restaurant can’t have all 2,000 people showing up at the same time, so they will give you a time slot. Being forced to eat at 6:15 every day for two weeks, and perhaps have the same dinner companions at your table for eight every night, can get old. Another option is flexible dinning, for an additional cost, where you show up whenever you want. This was worth it.
—Find your safe space on board. Every cruise ship has some remarkably underused parts to it, from a back sitting area where no one sits to the martini bar that no one frequents. On my ship, the topmost deck had a small room holding a piano. Its purpose was unclear, as the room wasn’t big enough to hold much more. No one was ever in there, so when I needed a break from people I would hole myself up there and practice playing the tiny part of Pachelbel’s Canon that I know. Another area was the “library”, a small central room holding yes some books that was always, always, empty.
The special brunch buffet, on the day we passed through the Panama Canal
—Get to know the wines and the booze. You’ll have the same selection for the entire cruise, at every bar and restaurant. A team of people on board were designated sommeliers, complete with the tastevin badge around their neck. They would help you with your choice of wine the carefully selected award-winning wines available. The wines never varied throughout the cruise. The by-the-glass selections were about a half-dozen whites and other half-dozen reds; the full bottle wine list wasn’t much longer. The same wine list for two weeks. The list didn’t need a sommelier.
You can get any beverage nearly anywhere on the ship. There will be a wine bar, a martini bar, a coffee bar, a poolside bar, and more scattered throughout the ship, but they all sell everything. Several times I sat at the coffee bar and had a glass of wine, just because I could, and because the two Indonesian guys working there were cool. You can also take your beverage anywhere on the ship. Being American, I’m used to the idea that you can’t take your drink out of the bar. But there are no rules on a ship.
Forget the unlimited beverage packages the ship wants to sell you, unless you truly can’t live without lots of soda every day. They have several levels of booze packages as well, but unless you’re drinking eight beers a day every day for two weeks, including days when you’re in port, it’s not worth coughing up about $55 a day that cruise lines charge. It’s not a good idea to encourage passengers to have all you can drink, every day. Perhaps it’s a good deal for the cruise line because after five days of that, you never want to touch alcohol again.
—Use the gym. Often. It’s not just that you’re packing on the weight from those buffets; it’s that you’re not walking or doing much anything else. Pack a gym outfit and hit the machines and the sauna. Every day. You can sign up for that $20 yoga class, sure, but regular gym machines are free. Our ship had a jogging track around the top deck. I needed many laps to hit my regular five-mile workout, dodging deck chairs and people, but it’s better than the treadmills.
The gym is never crowded on a cruise ship. Everyone’s by the pool. Don’t ever expect to get the poolside deck chairs, as they’re always full, but you can get a weight machine easy.
One small coffee bar on the ship had a selection of small bites out every day. This probably should have been my dinner a few nights.
—Don’t default to the same buffet or food choices. Vary your eating as much as you can, especially for longer cruises. You’ll get sick of the same thing after three days. Despite the seemingly many choices, there are only two real restaurants on your ship—the first will be the buffet, where your breakfast and perhaps lunch is every day, and the second is the main, large dining room for your dinners. The buffet may never really close. Any other eating places are small, specialty restaurants that may just do pizza, “spa food”, junk food, or premium food for an extra charge.
Ask for special food. I enjoyed the sushi buffet much more when I realized I could ask the chef to make me a fresh maki roll with my own custom ingredients. Get a custom omelet instead of the frittata sitting out. People at dinner, with waiter service, realized they could ask for anything, or get multiple dishes. If you don’t like your dinner choice, they’ll take it away and bring you another entrée; they don’t care. No one is keeping track. If you can’t decide between two appetizers, ask for both.
–For photos of yourself, get someone else to take a photo of you with your camera. There’s a ship photographer running around, selling prints in the main galley, but each print is $10 or $20. Larger ones are big bucks.
—Ships will conduct art auctions, which seems a strange activity for a cruise, but they’re grand fun. They’ll make you register for them, and give you a number for bidding, but you don’t have to buy anything. Trays of sparkling wine are being passed around, and you can count on two or three glasses. In a two-week cruise, there were five auctions, and I went to them all. If you really want to buy any art, get to know the system. The auction itself is a bit fake; for the staff there, they just want sales. The art works will be on display throughout the cruise; if you want something, just ask them the pre-auction price (which would be unethical on land).
As for the art, en guard. The art companies running these auctions are notorious for inflating prices. I’ve read several accounts of people paying big bucks for prints, prints mind you, of works from Picasso, Dalí, and others, only to find that they are really worth far, far less. One couple bought a set of three Dalí prints for $19,468 and discovered off ship they are worth $850 to $1,000. Most other stuff are NOT originals. You and I have no idea what art is really worth, so jump on the internet and investigate a particular work before you buy it.
Walking around Cartenhanga, Columbia. By ourselves.
—Your time in a port ranges from six to twelve hours. The ship will want to sell you a shore excursion, which could be anything. Lots of your shore excursions will be a simple bus ride around the area, with a token lunch thrown in. This isn’t bad if there’s nothing else to do and if it’s not too expensive.
We have five stops, and for two of them, we just walked off the boat and grabbed a local taxi into town for a few dollars. Easy. Taxi back when we were ready to leave. Just do a bit of research beforehand on what to do there.
If you do a shore excursion, check the time when you return to the ship. Do you have another hour or two before the ship sails? Then hang out in the area. Pretty much any port will have some local civilization around it. On three shore excursions (Puntarenas, Costa Rica and in Huatulco and Cabo San Lucas, Mexico), the excursion buses dropped us off right at the boat, but I noticed that there’s plenty to see right next door. I simply walked back up the dock and there was the local culture I wanted all along. Puntarenas has a wonderful beach full of eateries dishing up food. The place was packed, and the people looked happy. Huatulco has shops and restaurants. Cabo has everything, including the fish tacos I settled upon.
On land, it’s easy to buy some cheaper booze and sneak it back onboard. Just buy a small bottle of something like rum (like a hip flask size) and stick it in your non-obvious pocket. The ship is only concerned with checking your bags and parcels, not so much with your person. If you’re already ready for happy hour, stop at a local bar and get your drink on just before getting back on board. Much cheaper ashore.
The beach at Puntarenas, Costa Rica, right next to the ship. It couldn’t be easier to stroll over there and enjoy a native environment.
—Finally, don’t schedule your flight home too early. Getting off the boat takes time. The entire ship has to clear customs, and the announcements don’t come easily. You have to check out of the boat with your cruise card one last time. If you’re docking in the morning, don’t have your flight scheduled any earlier than about 1:00 pm. We had a horrible departure, with massive delays. The people at the next table, a couple with three kids and grandparents, missed their 11:30 flight, and the husband dashed out to rebook for the next day, meaning they had to drop $150 on a hotel for the night.
For all the complaining I’ve done here, I had a decent time on the cruise. I just wouldn’t choose it for my own vacation. Millions of people do, and lots of your onboard conversation will be about the cruise itself and about cruising in general. Our conversations over dinner almost always followed a pattern. After the normal “Where are you from?” it moves to “First cruise?” and then “First time with Celebrity?” Everyone details the previous cruises they have taken and compares different destinations and cruise lines and even particular ships and the features therein. Then the conversation moves to your own ship, what people like and don’t like. Here’s the point where it helps if you have some new insider tip for making the cruise better. Nothing earns you more respect than that from your fellow passengers.