Getting the Most from a Cruise Ship Spa

| Friday, 06 Dec. 2013

A guide to the many treatments and workouts available in cruise ship spas

The spa and fitness center has something for everyone.

A key component to any vacation is relaxation. How many times have you and your loved ones returned from a vacation more exhausted than when you started? With a cruise vacation, and a little pre-planning, you can have it all; excitement, activity, adventure and that precious "relaxation" which makes your vacation the replenishing respite it is meant to be.

I am fortunate enough to be married to a professional massage therapist. No jokes please, she has a resume that includes the Phoenix Suns and John McEnroe (kept her waiting for three hours and still didn't tip). Because of her I now have many things in my life I never knew were so important - and among them is the benefit of a truly great massage. I am going to share some of her knowledge with you, but first here is something I learned from her...

Most cruise ship massage is in the technique of "Swedish Massage." The techniques used include sliding and gliding, kneading, tapping, friction and shaking. The idea is to relax the client, but it is not the best technique if (like me) your main complaint is stiffness in your neck or back, with knots in your muscles from long periods of sitting and typing or other repetitive activity.

People like me get "nodes" in their necks and below their shoulder blades. To alleviate this pain you really need a deep tissue massage. So, it helps to be specific about what you want when asking for a therapist recommendation and booking a massage.

I have had very good cruise ship massages and other ones that I thought were a waste of time not to mention the money, but my wife is the best massage therapist I know. She uses her elbow and the full weight of her body to apply really deep pressure on certain muscles in my neck and shoulders and she is so skilled she actually finds knots in muscles I didn't even realize were knotted up. A session with her will leave me pain-free for a couple of weeks. Now, here is some professional advice from her on how to get the most out of a cruise ship spa appointment...

Advice from a Health and Wellness Professional (Lou Ann Kane)

I have spent the last 30 years as a professional massage therapist and body-worker. My advice comes from within the profession, so allow me to offer a few tips to enhance your spa experience.

First of all, book early. When contacting the front desk, tell them what you are looking for in a massage. There are usually several therapists available of varying skills and techniques. Ask the spa manager who he or she would recommend for the style of massage you prefer. It lets them know you are particular and have some knowledge of massage techniques. Keep in mind that you are more likely to get an honest answer to that question early in the cruise, before most time slots are booked, so once again - book early.

To get the best out of the recommended therapist it is best to book a massage as the first or second appointment of the therapist's day when they are most rested and fresh. Even though it may be best for your schedule, try to avoid the last appointment of the day. Remember massage is hard work and cruise ship therapists work long days. The therapist may not be able to offer you the very best at the end of their shift.

Before your scheduled massage, take advantage of the steam room to clean your pores and relax your muscles. Follow the steam with a cool shower and an exfoliating body scrub. This will prepare your skin for best absorption of the massage oil. If you didn't bring a loofa sponge and exfoliating cleanser along on your cruise, the spa certainly has a quality product to buy. You can also look for something memorable at a specialty store in a port you may be visiting.

During the massage, it is OK to communicate with your therapist about what you need. For instance if something feels uncomfortable or you feel you need an increase or decrease in pressure. It is a natural tendency to remain quiet during the massage and to feel a little uncomfortable about questioning or directing the therapist. Usually a therapist will ask how things are going for you, but if they don't, remember this is your time with them and they really do want you to have the best massage possible. So speak up. Experience and skill requires feedback and gently providing this for a professional therapist should be accepted graciously. Also, every person is different and you need to be pro-active in ensuring that your treatment is what you want. Don't wait until the end of the session to say something was not right, that doesn't serve you or the therapist, and it's too late for them to accommodate you. If you do try and direct the therapist and they do not respond, then I suggest that you talk with the spa director after your treatment.

After your massage, it is critical to drink lots of water. Massage stimulates circulation and the release of toxins from knotted muscles. If metabolic toxins are released from the muscles and not flushed with plenty of water, they will remain in the tissue and cause soreness. That next day soreness or flu-like feeling can taint a great massage, but it can be all but eliminated by making sure you hydrate! This can't be stressed enough.

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Spa Attendant   Acupuncture Demonstration   Fresh Fruit in Waiting Area
Adults Only Swim against the current pool   dual massage beds in Sanctuary cabana   Entrance to Lotus Spa - Emerald Princess

What's Included in Your Fare?

In the fitness center you will find state-of-the-art workout equipment and free weights. There is always a highly qualified staff there to answer your questions and help you get started. This equipment is yours to use during the cruise, but some devices like treadmills often fill up fast and there might be a waiting list to use them.

One nice thing about fitness centers on most ships is their location. Most are located at the front of the ship overlooking the ocean. It's easy to get your mind off your workout when you face a memorable ocean view through large picture windows, 16 decks high.

Also included in your fare are the swimming pools and hot tubs. Don't forget the jogging track open early morning hours and the 24-hour walking track. Many of the mega-ships have other fitness fun available and included in your fare such as rock climbing, boxing rings, tennis, basketball and even and simulated surfing.

Every cruise ship of size now features a spa treatment center that offers all kinds of body work from massage to ionatherapy and even acupuncture. Some people use these features on ships regularly, while other people never use them. My message for you today is that if you don't know what you are missing you need to give these services a try, but you also need our tips on how to get the most out of your cruise ship massage.

Most spas are built in combination with the fitness center. This allows them to share a locker room and shower. Working out may not be the choice for many cruisers, but it will help you maintain your energy level and give you a guilt free excuse to thoroughly enjoy the delightful cuisine onboard. If you are lucky, the fitness center has a steam room and maybe a dry sauna. But recently those amenities have become part of the spa and you have to pay to use them.

Fitness and Spa Services for a Nominal Fee Fitness Center:

While most standard aerobic classes are free, some of the more specialized classes such as yoga, Pilate's, and kick boxing are offered for fees starting around $10.00. You can also hire a personal trainer for an hour or for the entire cruise that will design a custom workout program for you. Prices and services vary.

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Fitness Center Aerobic Class   Jogging Track   Hair Salon

Saunas, Steam Baths and Thelassotherapy

As stated, most ships now keep the steam rooms amd saunas within the confines of the spa so you must pay a fee to use them. Typically referred to as "thermal suites" they contain an aromatic steam room, a mild steam room (where you could spend a half hour or more without being uncomfortable), a refreshing mint fog/rain shower, and my personal favorite, heated ceramic zero gravity loungers. After spending 5-10 minutes on these loungers, it is very difficult not to fall asleep. Prices for thermal suites vary among cruise lines. On Princess, if you buy the cruise package at a reasonable $109.00 per person or $160.00 per couple, this gives you access to the thermal suite anytime the spa is open for as long as you like, as often as you like, for the entire cruise. They also offer a family week pass for $220.00 (maximum of four people), and an Ultimate Couples Pass which includes an hour Rasul Mud Ritual for the same $220.00. If you want to purchase this package after the first day the remaining days will be pro-rated.

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Alpha Capsule   Massage Waiting Room

Regular Spa and Salon Services

No matter what name is given to the spa onboard, with few exceptions, Steiner Leisure and their product line, Elemis, is exclusive on cruise ships. Therefore the pricing is pretty consistent from one ship to the next. When we did a price comparison with a few of the land-based resort salons and spas in our area, we found the ship spa and salon pricing to be very similar and in some cases a little less. Your menu of services on the ship will be smaller than what you find on land. Here are some treatment options: "Aromastone Therapy" (75 minutes) and "La Therapie Oxygen Lifting Facial" (55 minutes). You certainly can't beat the convenience of a ship spa. Consider the short walk down the hall back to your cabin in a robe after that euphoric full body massage.

You will find full hair salon services including shampoo and set or blow-dry, cuts and color, manicures, and pedicures pretty much comparable to land spa pricing. Full barber services for men are also available.

There are two other relatively new services that you may see onboard. One is "Gentle Touch Teeth Whitening" (40 minutes). This procedure claims to be clinically proven and FDA approved. It definitely is less expensive than dental office teeth whitening treatments on land, but I have not witnessed the results.

Acupuncture is the other new service that is gaining in popularity. "Acupuncture @ Sea," the first company to offer acupuncture aboard cruise ships, was exclusive to Celebrity line and separate from the spa service menu. Steiner Leisure found it so popular they started offering acupuncture as part of the spa menu and it is now available on almost every cruise ship. Onboard acupuncture generally costs about 30% higher than land based clinics. Pain is the commom complaint serviced by acupuncturists on cruise ships while seasickness is the second most common complaint.

I personally recommend "hands on" therapeutic treatments, but if spa treatments are outside your budget, try "The Alpha Capsule." It is a high-tech body enclosure you lay in, covered up to your neck. Your eyes are covered with an aromatic mask. The machine offers relaxing heat, vibration, soothing sounds, and in the newer models, colored light. The cost is about $45.00 for ½ hour. I have seen some advertising for this machine that claims it "balances your chakras." I tried, unsuccessfully, to get several sources to share the scientific research for this claim. However, if this machine can create an alpha state brain wave pattern, as its name implies, the alpha state and relaxation is well documented

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Thermal Spa heated Ceramic beds   Heated Steam Room   Massage Room

The other thing that bears mentioning here is the unfortunate policy of "offering product" after the massage is over. In your dreamy state after the massage experience is the worst time to listen to a therapist talk about the products available for sale. This "hard sell" of the products after a treatment is a complaint of many passengers. It can destroy your massage "buzz."

A good therapist will offer a brief evaluation of the session and what the therapist found after working on your body, but just ask for the product suggestions to be sent to your cabin for later consideraton.


Tips are always appreciated and unspokenly expected for any professional "hands on" treatment. Keep in mind that almost all cruise ship spa personnel are on salary and do not get a percentage of the service charge you see on your final bill -- as is the case in most land based spas. There is often a space to write in an "additional tip" on your final bill, eliminating the need to carry cash in your robe.

The problem with signing for that additional tip is that it may or may not go directly to your service provider, since the policy varies by cruise line. The spa staff work long hours (but of course room, board and health coverage are included with their job.) The suggested tip is 10% to 20% of the service cost. Ask the front desk when you book your appointment how tips are handled in their spa. Based on the response, you may want to give cash directly to your service provider instead of signing for the tip. If you do this, be discreet about it, or they may be forced to share it with the rest of the staff anyway.

Summing Up

We have interviewed several massage therapists onboard ships who have had land-based practices. They have the unique experience of being able to compare bodywork done on land with that on the sea. The fact is cruise ship therapists work very long hours, do a lot of work in a week, and for extended contracts (6 months or longer). I have had more than one therapist tell me that they don't get as tired when they work on the water. This leads my wife to wonder if there is something special about bodywork done at sea. It's a different life being surrounded by water. Our bodies are made up of 70% seawater. Something to think about.

If you plan a cruise vacation, remember that an important part of every vacation is relaxation and there is something for everyone in the spa/fitness center. Remember to book early; some ships even allow you to book online before your cruise. Read your daily program and watch for spa specials. They are often offered on days in port. Make the spa a major stop on your next cruise.

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