Part 1: Correcting some long-term misunderstandings about seagoing vacations.
Although cruise ships are increasing in numbers and popularity, cruising is still a mystery to those who have never sailed one on. I recently spoke on a radio show (NPR in Seattle) as a "cruise expert," and one statement from a call-in guest and echoed by the host still haunts me: "There seems to be very little in-between feeling about cruising -- either you love it or you hate it."
Honestly, I have met a few people who say they hate cruising, but most of them don't really know anything about it. Usually they have it confused with some kind of bad experience on something other than a modern cruise ship -- a sailing vessel, a Catalina ferry, a floating casino, even a deep-sea fishing boat. It appears the word "hate" is just another way to say, "I'm not familiar with this, but I don't think I would like it based on my limited experience."
On the other hand, I have met hundreds of people who love a real cruise vacation -- but then, cruising is my business and I am surrounded by my own kind. Therefore, when I was faced with negative and uninformed comments from listeners to the radio show, I found myself practically speechless.
Link to radio show: Link to Radio Show - comments accepted.
Some comments were the same misperceptions I have heard my whole life. But some are relatively new misperceptions and concerns, which generally started in 2005 after the honeymooning George Smith disappeared from a Mediterranean cruise, an NCL ship was hit by a rogue wave, and the Star Princess caught fire and suffered one death -- all of which received intense media coverage.
I will address all these misperceptions, but first let's talk about cruising in general for the uninitiated. (Everything I cite in this article is based on research done by cruise lines and independent sources; this is not just my opinion.)
Rating Cruises as a Vacation Option
According to a consumer study by Cruise Lines International Association, cruising has the highest satisfaction quotient of any vacation type. Asked to rate various vacation options as "not satisfying, satisfying, or very satisfying," respondents answered "very satisfying" more often for cruises than for anything else.
One phrase commonly uttered by people on their first cruise is, "I had no idea it would be like this." Like what? The most surprising thing is probably the level of service. Your stateroom may be small, but it has a super soft mattress, high-density sheets, plush towels, balmy notions, engaging TV programming and a modest bathroom with shower or tub. You might even get fresh flowers and a bowl of fruit. With this room comes a steward who cleans it twice a day.
Dinner, and all other food, is generally better than you'd expect on a vessel that produces thousands of meals daily. On most cruise lines it is arguably gourmet quality -- a four or five-course meal for which you might pay $50 per couple or more in a restaurant. And all meals are included in the cruise price.
The onboard service is excellent. On ships with assigned tables, waiters make it a point to learn your preferences and have them ready for you every night - like your favorite condiments, wine, dessert, or the way you like your coffee.
In the old days of cruising, food and service were considered the embodiment of the experience. They are both still great, far beyond what you get in many fine hotels. As we speak of the old days of cruising, I will address...
The Old Cruise Misperceptions
For decades, the same concerns about cruise ships always came up, and some of them are still valid.
1. I'm afraid I will get seasick. It's the motion of the ocean, not the size of the vessel, as they say. Even the biggest ships can rock, but not as much as small boats do. Most large cruise ships are extremely stable, and have built in stabilizers which are fins that reduce the motion. However, any ship can move in rough enough waters.
When rough seas happen, it can be a little frightening, and a bit thrilling. Many real cruisers love the motion of the ocean, since it reminds us we are on a ship. But bad weather during cruises is rare, since the vast majority are in seas that have little or no motion and generally good climates. I can remember weeklong cruises where the seas were so calm I forgot we were sailing.
And seasickness is very easy to avoid these days. I've been on more than 100 cruises but I have gotten truly seasick only a handful of times, and for a simple reason: The ship hit bad weather and I did not take the appropriate medication in time. If you start to feel sick, take a dose of Meclizine (brand name Bonine) at the very first signs -- a vague tiredness, a slight headache and a queasy feeling in the stomach. These pills are sold over the counter, and side effects are minimal. For most people they may cause mild drowsiness, so just take a nap.
Just be sure to take the medicine before you get sick! If you don't take it in time and you become nauseated, it is too late. After that, you cannot absorb the medicine, although an injection at the ship's infirmary remains an option. Don't take chances and say, "I'll see if I get sick before I take it." Once you are sick it is too late.
2. "I don't want to be stuck on a boat." This one often comes up in other forms, such as "Bingo and shuffleboard, get ready for the old folk's home;" or "all there is to do is eat."
Years ago, most ship travel was across the Atlantic, where typically you spent six or seven days at sea without a break. But on a typical seven-day Caribbean cruise, you will be in port three to five days and only spend one to three days at sea. The ship will usually dock before breakfast and stay in port until dinnertime. In some ports, the ship might stay until midnight or even more than one day. In Europe, it is common to be in port almost every day on a 12-day cruise, and to stay overnight in at least two ports. A European cruise is a sightseeing vacation, not a sea-going adventure. The ship is your hotel and your transportation, not a destination unto itself.
And while you are onboard, you'll find much more to do than in the old days. You can relax with your umbrella drink (I think that is boring, but some people go to island resorts and do little more than that for seven days). You can get spa treatments, work out in the gym, read in the library, gamble in the casino, play video games, write and exchange email, play cards, watch a movie, or go to a cooking demonstration. Many large new ships offer sports and recreational activities like bowling, rock-climbing, roller-blading, ice skating, basketball, tennis, aerobics, yoga, simulated golf, hot tubs, swimming pools and tennis. Or you can always have quiet time in your cabin with your spouse.
So, those are the old cruise misconceptions, though I still hear them often enough. And here is the funny part: While most people book a cruise based on the ports of call, in the end passengers invariably say their favorite part was the days at sea! This is based on end-of-the-cruise "passenger comment cards," which are distributed on every cruise.
Go to Part 2: Addressing Modern Concerns with real expertise.