Cruise Basics: Questions and Answers
Written by: Paul Motter
I will be a guest on a travel radio show tomorrow morning, the Travel Queen Radio Show with Jane DeGrow. Jane sent me an email she received from a listener and said to me, “I guess it is time we covered the basics.” I agree, and so to prepare I printed pieces of the letter below and my answers to the questions at hand.
I would like to hear you present more about what cruises are, why one would choose one over another, who should and should not go on cruises. Part of it sounds like fun and part sounds darn boring. What does one do on these cruises?
In my mind, the point of an Alaska cruise would be to stand on deck and watch pretty mountains go by, while a Caribbean cruise looks at a lot of plain open ocean. So whether scenery is your thing would seem to be a factor.
First, let’s start out with a basic cruise ship. A cruise ship is a floating hotel, with food and entertainment activities included in the price of the cruise. There is a cruise for everyone, somewhere, but the trick is to match personal style to cruise style.
What does one do on cruise ships? Like many things, cruise ships evolved into what they are today. They began as travel conveyances, ocean liners, to get people across the pond. Europe still has extensive ferry systems between major cities – to this day this is part of the reason why most modern cruise ships have European officers and cruise ships are built in Italy, France, Germany and Finland.
Purists, like well-known travel writer Arthur Frommer, will tell you the joy of a cruise is merely being at sea – sitting on deck with fresh sea air, the gentle rocking and a good book. But modern cruisers want far more, like beautiful décor, great food, uplifting entertainment, fun activities and a relaxing, commodious stateroom.
So, getting to the basics, a cruise ship is a floating hotel, but with tons of onboard activities, most all of which are included in the cruise fare. Even better, this “hotel” takes you to exotic places and lets you off for organized or self-guided tours. People who do not live in port cities have a hard time picturing this because they normally arrive at an airport and take a car. But in cities like New York, San Francisco and many places in Europe (Barcelona, Venice, Monte Carlo, Athens, Istanbul, etc.) arriving by ship is very plausible travel idea.
Cruise ships are like floating hotels, but picture a highly active hotel such as in Las Vegas, and then picture most of the activities being includedin the cruise fare at no extra charge, like meals, entertainment and sports activities.
Daytime activities include enrichment lectures, games (trivia, bingo), movies, all meals including 4:00 tea time, artistic activities (art lessons, computer classes, bridge), culinary classes including wine tasting and casino games.
Some of the newer ships also include the following sports activites, which kids especially enjoy: ice skating, bowling, miniature golf, tennis, basketball and extensive video game options. All ships these days have swimming pools and hot tubs, most have extensive spas with steam rooms and massage available. The kids get water slides and water parks, and some ships even have a surf machine called a “Flo-rider.”
Nighttime entertainment is a completely different animal. Keep in mind most cruise ships stop in ports during the days, but most nights are spent onboard. The main activity is always dinner, which is generally a lavish gourmet experience lasting two to three hours.
Cruise ship dining –you need to understand that cruise ship dining is not just eating. Even Carnival has service that surpasses many fine restaurants in most cities. Dining is elegant on all ships with tablecloths, fine china, four or five course meals and sommeliers on board for wine advice. And that is the regular dining room. For a fee of anywhere from $5 to $30 per person (depending on the ship) you can have an even better dining with very excellent food.
The stateroom service on a cruise ship far exceeds that of most hotels. Room stewards come twice per day. Room service is free (with a few exceptions). You can pre-set a time for your coffee and a hot breakfast to be delivered every morning and it will arrive as your wakeup call. There is no additional charge for this. Your room steward will clean every morning, and change your towels, tidy up and perform a turndown service every night.
One expense you will have on most ships is gratuities to your waiters and room stewards. Expect to pay about $10 per day per passenger.
Cruises: vacations or destinations?
Some cruises are meant to be mostly onboard ship for relaxation and enjoying the sunshine. Seven day Caribbean cruises typically spend the first day at sea. People sit by the pool to get started on their suntans. The next two days they will visit ports of call and offer an array of shore excursions. Another day at sea will follow, and the last day will be a visit to the cruise line’s private island.
The first and the last day at sea will be designated as formal nights, where the men are requested to wear tuxedos or suits and the women wear gowns, jewelry and heels. These are the nights when the restaurants feature their best dinners, such as lobster, beef Wellington and baked Alaska for dessert. Baked Alaska is a passenger ship tradition dating back to the days of ocean liners. It is usually served with lots of fanfare, featuring a parade of all the chef’s, sous chefs and dining room workers.
The types of shore excursions offered in Caribbean islands include mere sightseeing by coach with duty-free shopping, zip lining, horseback riding, snorkel and scuba diving, and even submarine voyages.
Typical seven-day Alaska cruises are obviously different from Caribbean cruises. More time is spent watching the scenery go by, as most cruise ships sail through the inside passage, an inland waterway, to get to the lower reaches of Alaska. In the inside passage one sees beautiful scenery with majestic mountains and wildlife such as bald eagles, wild bears and even whales and dolphins. The highlight of every Alaska cruise is a visit to a glacier in the process of actively calving large sheets of ice into the ocean. Typically, you will watch a glacier for up to two hours and during that period of time you may see two or more significant calving events.
Ports of call are also important on Alaska cruises. There are many experiences in Alaska where you should leave the ship and take a smaller vessel, such as small boats for whale watching or deep-sea fishing for salmon and halibut or hiring a helicopter to land on top of a glacier to dogsled along an ice trail.
Large ship cruises in Europe generally stop in port every day from dawn to dusk, or later. The goal here is to give passengers a thorough visit to significant sites in Europe with all the comfort of a hotel and none of the travel logistics usually associated with travel in Europe. Non-cruise vacations in Europe require trains or buses for transportation. You must lug your baggage every place you go and check in and out of hotels on a nightly basis. All of your meals will be taken in local restaurants, which in Europe can be extremely unpredictable and expensive.
The beauty of cruising in Europe is that it allows you to enjoy a new destination every day and relocate effortlessly at night while you sleep. You skip the exhausting tribulations and logistics of coordinating transportation across an entire continent. You can enjoy Athens with the Parthenon and the Plaka shopping area one day, come back to the ship for a gourmet meal and get a good night’s sleep, and awaken the next morning in Istanbul, ready to explore the Grand Bazaar and Blue Mosque.
Then again inside the ship, I am not sure it matters where you sail to – restaurants, entertainment, shopping, etc. But maybe it does matter, I surely don’t know.
To a large extent, it is true the inside of the ship remains the same no matter where it is sailing. The same cruise ship could be navigating the waters of Alaska, the Caribbean, Europe or South America. But there are certain cruising regions, such as the Caribbean, where you will want to spend more time on the ship and other regions, such as Europe, where you will want to spend more time on shore. So the type of ship you choose might vary.
For the Caribbean, you want to choose a ship with plenty of onboard options. For a European cruise, the most important thing is a comfortable state room, and good food for dinner. The difference is that Europe offers more ports of call than the Caribbean does. This is especially true for more experienced cruisers who have been to the Caribbean a number of times. For them, the ship is by far the most important element of the vacation.
And do cruises have purposes? I am not in the market, but I hear of “singles” cruises. And I hear of lecture cruises, where a series of speakers make presentations. But otherwise are they generic, or does one have to know about the offerings? Are there old folk’s cruises to contrast with young folks cruises?
This is a “what is the meaning of life” question. Or perhaps “which came first, the chicken or the egg?”
All cruises are similar to a certain extent; they offer a stateroom on a floating vessel with meals and a variety of destinations. The similarity stops there. Now, there are as many cruise lines as there are individual styles.
Thurston Howell might be seen upon Crystal or Silversea Cruises, while Gilligan would take Carnival, Royal Caribbean or NCL.
In between the two extremes, Ginger Grant might have taken Celebrity, Holland America or Princess Cruises. There are premium cruise lines, a notch above mainstream but not the most expensive available. What signifies a luxury cruise line? Larger state rooms, tastier cuisine and a higher level of service, which it generally comes from having fewer passengers and more crewmembers aboard the vessel.
There are also River cruises along the Nile, the Danube, the Rhine or the Yangtze. These cruises offer a lot of scenery and plenty of port stops with tours into the countryside.
Then there are expedition cruises to the Galápagos Islands, up the Amazon River or to Antarctica. These cruises specialize in interacting with wildlife and can be very demanding in a physical sense.
Any one of these ships may offer what is called a theme cruise, which covers a variety of topics. A wine tasting cruise may visit a certain region of the world (Bordeaux, for example) and specialize in wine oriented meals with lectures, demonstrations and port stops to highlight the theme.
On a completely different type of theme cruise, smooth jazz music may be the unifying theme with onboard shows by well-known jazz artists throughout the cruise. On a music theme cruise the destinations are generally not a concern, but I have been on Dixieland Music cruises on the Mississippi, so the cruising region can be a factor.
I hope you are beginning to see the word “cruise” has a variety of meanings and options. That is one reason why we find it such a fascinating vacation option.
I have no idea what to expect. Standing there for hours on end staring at scenery is to me a boring prospect. I can appreciate a mountain or Niagara falls as much as anyone, but I don’t want to gawk at it all day. On the other hand, I don’t want Julie, our perky cruise director, constantly herding us around to play volleyball, shuffleboard and karaoke.
Radio hostess Jane DeGrow, the Travel Queen, and I have had fun with this topic before. A cruise director will be on board, but he or she will not be issuing uniforms, assigning you to a bunk or using a bullhorn to march you into the bingo hall.
A cruise director’s primary job is to coordinate all of the optional passenger activities onboard. Every guest receives a daily schedule of such activities with listings for the time and place where they occur. Some ships actually will make announcements for a few of the activities, but no one will be herding you anywhere, ever.
Every passenger is responsible for reading the schedule and making his or her own activity choices. The trend in even the most mainstream cruise lines these days is to offer as many non-regimented activities as possible. Even meals, which used to be regimented on most cruise ships with preset dining times and table assignments, have now been largely replaced by “anytime, open seating dining.”
Imagine one day we went to the arctic and found an Eskimo harpooning seals. And then we brought him here and told him to go car shopping. He wouldn’t know where to start. I feel the same way about cruising.
As odd as this statement sounds to an experienced cruiser, I understand it completely, because I remember when I was in the same boat. For my first cruise I was joining as a crew member and I didn’t have any idea where to start. I had gone shopping for nautical style shirts with epaulets and deck shoes. It turned out that what I needed was regular slacks, polo shirts and a dark suit for formal nights.
As far as knowing where to start on a cruise, the best answer is to just book one. Read the cruise line recommendations for dress onboard, get your passport, pack your bags, show up at the dock on time and check into your state room. The rest will come naturally, I promise.
By the way, my wife and I just love taking the train when we visit the east coast. Very leisurely relaxed travel when compared to driving or flying.
In the long run, other than scenery a cruise is not significantly different from a tourist train vacation. With the train, the most important thing is keeping up with the daily schedule for destination arrival and departure times. The same is true of a cruise ship. Most people choose a cruise based upon the destination ports they care to see. While you are onboard you will enjoy the facilities provided to you by the vessel. Each has the same basic concept, except one is by land and the other by sea.
Those are the very basic basics of cruising, and I hope I have answered most of your questions, if not please post your follow-up questions below. No one understands the challenge of overcoming cruise misconceptions more than CruiseMates. We all remember our first cruise, and more importantly our anticipation of that first cruise. We enjoy answering these questions because we remember the moment when we realized how much a real cruise exceeded our preconceived notions. We hope you join us on a cruise some day, the vast majority of people who try one come back again and again.
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