My family recently went on a cruise to Alaska, and if you're a traveler who likes to experience the most you can out of where you're traveling, you'll understand why "cruising Alaska" might sound like a sellout. Alaska is about wilderness, nature, and unfathomable expanses of mountains and ice fields and forests—man versus wild. I would think it's best experienced from on the ground, rather than by sailing past its shores. So it felt ironic to be confined to a boat—or more accurately, a resort-turned-water-vessel—when I probably should have been trekking a lung-busting trail or avoiding bears in the mountains somewhere. Instead, I ate myself silly, watched movies, and bowled on a boat (cue joke souvenir T-shirt reading, "I went to Alaska and all I got was five extra pounds").
But I don't want to make cruises sound horrible. Even though I don't think I'll be signing up for another cruise for a while, there are many great things about cruising. Millions of people do it every year, and many are repeat customers. Whether or not it's a good method of travel for you depends on where you're going, who you're going with, what type of traveler you are, and what you want to get out of your vacation. Below are some things to consider about cruising before you book your first trip.
- Economical and great value
Especially in tough economic times such as these, cruises are a great-value vacation. The cruise price covers transportation to and from several destinations, all meals and snacks (drinks beyond water, iced tea, and coffee typically cost more), all lodging (your stateroom/cabin), and all the entertainment onboard the ship. Cruise lines have also been offering very affordable sale prices beginning at just a few hundred dollars per person for certain cruises; it's likely that you would spend more if you arranged and booked an overland trip yourself.
- Minimal planning/relatively hassle-free
Because the cruise price is effectively all-inclusive, it takes away the need to reserve hotels, find places to eat and activities to pass the time, and arrange transportation to and from different places. This is often a big draw for travelers who are older or less mobile, families with younger children, or those who just don't want to deal with a lot of planning for their trip.
- Convenience of shore excursions
Cruises offer shore excursions, which are pre-packaged tours and activities for when you are in each port of call. These offer a convenience over arranging your own activities when arriving in an unfamiliar destination (albeit the cruise line's commission does bump the price up from what you might pay if you were to deal with the operators directly). Shore excursions take care of transportation from the boat to the attraction/activity, and are with credible tour operators so there's no fear of being scammed, especially as cruise ports are often packed with hawkers.
- Unpacking/packing once
Because your hotel room travels with you the whole way, you don't have to pack and unpack bags, or carry them around with you when traveling from place to place.
- Lots of onboard entertainment
Most cruise ships have a movie theater (or at least a place where movies are screened), an art gallery from which you can purchase art, several bars and clubs, a swimming pool with plenty of deck chairs, several shops that sell jewelry and souvenirs, a gym and spa, a library and/or game room, and a casino. Cruises also invest lots of money into their live entertainment, such as Broadway-type shows with big song and dance numbers, comedy shows, juggling acts, and talent shows. There are also daily scheduled activities such as auctions, bingo, kids activities, shopping and port lectures, various contests, and parties at night.
- Less time to explore
Being able to cover so many destinations within a short time period means that each stop in each port will be quite short, sometimes only a matter of a few hours, and sometimes at odd times of day (early in the morning or late at night, when not many attractions are open). This unfortunately limits the amount of exploring you can do in the port, especially if you have booked a shore excursion, which often can take up most of the time you have ashore. There are some cruises that stay in ports overnight, allowing guests to spend a night in a hotel on shore, though these are very rare.
- Less time to experience destinations
Living on the ship and having less time to explore each port also means that you don't get a chance to fully experience the places you visit. Some of the best parts about traveling for me are meeting and interacting with locals, enjoying the nightlife, eating out at local restaurants, and wandering through the destination at my leisure—things that give you a true sense of place. Cruising forces you to trade these for some of the convenience of living on the ship.
- Limited destinations
Because ships have rigid itineraries, which only include coastal towns and cities, traveling to inland destinations is basically impossible. This also means that not every stop will be a very exciting, worthwhile destination. Some of the ports on our Alaskan cruise, for example, consisted of small towns whose main streets were lined with shops catering to cruise passengers, feeling a bit like we'd been dropped off at a mall. I'm sure Alaska has very many wonderful destinations—unfortunately they weren't all along our cruise route.
- Demographics of your fellow cruise passengers matter
Since you spend a good 75 percent of your trip with the other couple thousand people aboard your ship, the demographics of your ship can make or break your cruise experience. The demographics will also be largely determined by where you go. Our cruise to Alaska attracted an older set, so once 10 p.m. rolled around, there wasn't much to do onboard. On cruises to the Caribbean or Mexico, or even in the Mediterranean, however, there will be many more young people, especially in spring when students are on spring break. On warm weather cruises, many more people will spend time by the pool and on deck, creating a much more social environment than on cruises to Alaska or Scandinavia, where it is generally colder.
- Difficult to stay connected while at sea
In an age where everyone is constantly connected through computers, cell phones, and other mobile devices, cruise ships are still surprisingly laggards in providing fast, affordable Internet service. The cruise line we went on, Norwegian Cruise Lines, charged $0.75 per minute, offering a slight discount if you purchased a bulk package of 100 or 250 minutes. The Internet was also quite slow. Having to pay $22.50 for a mere half hour of Internet access (which allows you to check your email or the news a couple times) was ludicrous.
- Small, cramped cabins
Unless you are willing to pay a big premium for a large suite, even the more expensive rooms (that have small balconies, or outward facing windows) are still quite small compared to normal hotel rooms. The bathroom facilities in each room are also small.
- LOTS of food
This, admittedly, can be a blessing or a curse. Food is a large part of cruising, as it's available almost 24 hours a day on most ships, and is supplied in abundance. The food at the buffet areas isn't great, but the food in the sit-down restaurants is generally very good, and is typically better than what the average traveler would eat if they were traveling on their own and paying for it per meal. On Norwegian Cruise Lines, they've adopted a "freestyle cruising" policy so that you can choose to dine in any dining room, at at time, and wear casual clothing (though no shorts allowed). Most cruise lines assign passengers a certain table and certain meal time to accommodate the thousands of passengers that must dine at the various restaurants during mealtimes—so you better get cozy with your tablemates.
I've tried to provide an unbiased overview of the good and the bad when it comes to cruising. But the fact is, I'm not a fan; it just doesn't do traveling justice. When you're confined to a boat and have a very rigid itinerary, you lose the magic of roaming around in a new place and the excitement of experiencing a new culture. You can't fully appreciate the food or the people (and God forbid you ever go on a cruise to Italy and never taste real Italian food or dine at a restaurant filled with boisterous, gregarious Italians!). You can certainly see the highlights, and do some very fun things on a cruise, but I still prefer going it the traditional way, planning and hassles and all. But Alaska wasn't half bad—I'll tell you about my helicopter tour and glacier exploration another time.
Tell me what you think about cruising—I want to know! Have you been and will you go again? If so, why? Or if you don't think you'll go again, why not?
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