I disembarked from a five-day cruise two days ago. And I have one thing to say.
Said cruise was my fifth in three years, and I have a sixth lined up in six weeks. As you might imagine, I have developed a thing for cruise vacations.
And now it’s my turn to indoctrinate you.
Before I went on my first cruise in November 2013, the whole concept was quite amorphous. Something about the word “cruise” connoted opulence to me, and so I did not seriously entertain the notion of going on one.
I am reminded of when my family first started going to Red Lobster as a kid. My mother, although very smart, was not a sophisticated diner and wondered aloud whether we even belonged in a restaurant of that imagined caliber. Over the years I’ve chuckled at her perception, but there I was, 40 years old and under the impression I could not afford to go on a cruise. Just like my mom.
That first cruise was an eye-opener. It was a pre-planned wedding cruise and I was simply tagging along. When I saw the price tag, my jaw dropped. It was reverse sticker shock. It was cheaper than the price of a lowball hotel room for the same length of time. And it included food… really?
My innate frugality was further egged along by the cruise experience itself; it was fun, it was relatively self-directed, and it was chill. I love chill. So I was hooked.
So that’s my addiction story in brief. Now to tell you in detail why cruises are the best vacations in existence. (Somehow, I think the cruise lines have missed a lot of opportunities to sell themselves, because their marketing materials never pointed out all these wonderful things in a way they resonated with me.)
- They’re cheap–but only as cheap as you want them to be. Of course, I cruise discount. Discount cruise line, cheapest cabins, and don’t spend a lot on the ship. That’s great for me, because I enjoy the motion of the ship, the comfy beds, the included food, the shows, and looking over the deck at the water. When in port, I enjoy the views and walking the streets casually. I actively prefer the free stuff, and not just because it’s free. If your tastes run more expensive, you can certainly be accommodated. Cabin suites with balconies, $15 drinks and $20 steak add-ons, $100-per-person shore excursions, onboard shopping and gambling, art auctions, and so on. This creates opportunities for back-end sticker shock, but any vacation can turn expensive while you’re not paying attention.
- Your choices are pleasantly limited. The most exhausting part of any vacation is planning. If you love to plan an itinerary in advance, you have to arrange to hit all your marks once you arrive. If you don’t, you wake up each day in a hotel room and face the dreaded question: what are we going to do today? Then there’s the laggard on every vacation who wants to sleep until 1pm, which results in splintered vacation parties or frustrated sightseers. While you can’t eliminate these stressors completely, being confined to a 1000-foot vessel for half of your vacation certainly reduces them. While on the ship, there’s usually about one interesting thing happening at any given time. You can do that interesting thing, or you can eat, or lay out, or take a dip, or take a nap, or get a drink, or shop. It’s just enough to keep you from feeling trapped, but not enough to overwhelm you. And that late riser can just get up and join you when he’s ready–you’re never more than a three-minute walk from anywhere on the ship.
- You can only get dragged around so much at your destination. File this under spinning a negative into a positive. The most common complaint I hear about cruises is that you don’t have time to really get out and explore the ports of call. The customary time to be back on the ship is 4:30pm, although there are cruises (usually the longer and more expensive ones) where you can spend the night in port and explore the nightlife. For me, though, this limitation is a pro instead of a con. My sightseeing attention span is somewhere very close to the eight hours allotted off the ship. If you have travel companions who have no concept of time, this helps immensely. It’s not nagging on my part if the ship can literally leave you high and dry if you miss the re-boarding time.
- Your vacation is curated, with a beginning, middle, and an end. The cruise director plays a large role in successfully curating your cruise. He or she needs to hit the right notes at the right time: excitement at embarkation, wonderment at the ports of call, and a touch of melancholy and even reflection on the last night. Even if he or she fails (and our last cruise director was pretty ineffective), the itinerary is always right there, and even the most out-of-touch passenger has a general sense of the anticipation on the way to the ports and of closure on the return/destination stretch. It’s downright poetic compared to the let’s-plop-down-in-a-hotel-room-and fly-back-after-five-days stagnancy of a standard vacation.
- Dining is an integrated part of the vacation experience. Left to our own devices, we harried travelers revert to our home dining routines. How many times have you stopped at a convenient McDonald’s after an exhausting day of sightseeing just because you couldn’t imagine dragging the family into so much as an Applebee’s to put forth the time and effort (not to mention the extra cash) it would take to actually dine as opposed to stuffing your face? The cruise lines place a premium on dining, providing a free and formal-esque dinner experience each evening. In addition, although it’s often a tenuous connection, there is at least a cursory effort to echo the cuisine of the last or next port of call, or the vacation region in general. And for those passengers that just don’t give a damn, they can get a sandwich or a pizza or room service whenever they want it.
- The service staff is accommodating and attentive. I cruise Carnival, so all of my observations here are to some degree generalizations from my experience with that one cruise line. I have a couple of friends who have informally verified these generalizations, but service is different; it’s an intangible and subjective quality, one that leans heavily on the culture of the cruise line. That’s why I specifically qualify this point. Carnival, on the whole, does an excellent job hiring and training the service staff. They do such a good job, it’s jarring to step off the ship into the ports of call or to return home from vacation and adjust to the low bar of customer service at most other establishments.
- The ship is a floating cocoon of vacation fun. This last point follows directly from the preceding one. The cruise ship exists in a different dimension from the rest of the world. If you go on vacation to Orlando, you’re going to run into regular Orlando folks on their grumpy daily journeys. Same in Jamaica, Amsterdam, Australia, or Hawaii. On a cruise ship, the only people working on the cruise ship are the staff, and that barely counts because (1) their business is to make you happy; and (2) they themselves are on a finite stint on the vessel; they work several months onboard and then take time off, after which they may be assigned to another ship. It’s far from a vacation, but it’s dynamic enough to avoid the sort of rut most of experience in our employment. No one on staff is going to say, “I’ve been working on this ship for 15 years, and I’m sick of it.” If you inquire, the worst you’ll hear is something like, “I have five months left, and then I get to go home to my family.” I am not making the case that their working conditions are easy or even altogether fair. I am only saying that while you are on the ship, you are insulated from the stagnation and the drudgery of what has become known as “the real world.” Everyone is on a temporary journey and enjoying it while it lasts. It’s sort of a joyful microcosm of life.
Cruising is one of the single most fulfilling experiences I have had in life. If you haven’t done it, I highly recommend it. If you have and you didn’t enjoy it, what’s wrong with you? No, actually, it isn’t for everyone. If you’re an unfettered free spirit or an extreme claustrophobe, it can seem like prison (or so I’ve heard). If you are inordinately prone to motion sickness, it isn’t feasible. But other than that, I can’t find any good reason not to try it.
Counting the days until the next one (43!).
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