Let’s talk cruising. Do you think you’d hate cruising? For all you travel lovers out there, who pride yourself on restless feet and meaningful experiences, a cruise probably sounds like hell on water.
Thousands of package-holiday types, families with unruly children, and retirees finally making good on that promise to see the world – all packed together on one ship.
No escape from Bingo nights, Celine Dion karaoke sessions, or binge drinking youth – unless you head off to the 24 hour buffet or your tiny room with no windows.
Furthermore, every port you stop at is a rushed affair. Six to eight hours being herded like cattle, from one photo stop to the next – pretending that your day
spent at XYZ was an immersive, life-changing visit that you’ll never forget.
Am I on the right track? 🙂
When The Dutchman wanted to take an easy family holiday (easy= beer on demand, lounging on beaches, not being dragged around to every museum and historical site within a 50 mile radius by yours truly.) I couldn’t really argue with the guy. After all, in just the last couple years I’ve jetted off to around twenty countries – most of which he stayed at home with The Kid. (Read more about why I travel and leave my family at home.) This year we were dead-set on a family holiday that wasn’t spent… well, visiting family. I’m sure all you expats out there know where I’m coming from. When you move abroad, a large chunk of that valuable vacation time seems to be spent on trips around major holidays and life events back home. As much as I love going back to America for Christmas and new babies, it was time for a memory-filled family adventure – just the three of us.
So, a Caribbean cruise was proposed. The perfect holiday for a beer on demand, beach lounging, zero jam-packed itineraries kind of guy. I spent months leading up to the embarkation date dreading the possible scenarios. Crowds of people annoying me to the point of ruining my vacation, visits to new countries over-shadowed by the sad reality that I never had time to actually see them, and the worst scenario of all – boredom. (If you are rolling your eyes at me right now, I completely get it.)
We decided to spend a week in beautiful, sunny, mofongo heaven – Puerto Rico, before setting off on the high seas. The days flew by and it was time to face the massive ship in front of me. After seven days island hopping with Royal Caribbean – these are the six things I think every non-cruiser should know before taking a cruise holiday.
1. You can still have adventures.
Some people are fully content to visit a new place and never leave their resort – I am not one of those people. I *need* to explore my surroundings, eat local food, talk to people who live there and get a real feel for whatever destination I find myself in. But how is it possible to delve deep into a new culture when the clock is ticking and you only have seven hours before your cruise ship leaves you behind?
My solution: be selective.
I did a lot of research on TripAdvisor before our cruise. I looked for local guides or drivers who offered personal, and where possible – private, tours of their respective islands. Private driver doesn’t exactly scream budget-friendly, but if you are two or more people – a day/hourly price is often much lower than the package tours offered by the cruise company.
Once you have found a guide, decide on which places are the most important for you to see. Every guide and driver we hired was extremely flexible and happy to arrange a day around the activities most important to us. Upon my request, we ate at their favorite non-touristy local restaurants and stopped at a few places they recommended that I would’ve never found on my own.
Another advantage of hiring your own driver is that you don’t need to wait on anyone else. Once you are finished, you can move on to whatever is next on your agenda – and the day’s schedule runs at your own pace. In St. Lucia we visited a beautiful walking trail (that you won’t find in the guidebooks) built by the surrounding local community, and we had a great time enjoying the fresh mountain air and panoramic views of The Pitons. It was so nice to not have a flag-yielding guide rushing us back to bus. I could take as many photos as I wanted, and not feel like I was holding up the group. Also, our driver had helped to build the walking trail where we visited – if we had taken a pre-arranged tour, it is unlikely we would’ve had the chance to visit such a gem and heard the fascinating background of how it came to be.
That being said, there are times when a group tour makes sense. We joined one pre-arranged tour with the cruise line for a snorkeling trip in Antigua. As we were technically leaving the main island to get to the snorkeling location, in this instance I felt safer knowing that if something happened, the cruise ship wouldn’t leave without us. It was also a more expensive activity, and one that we could never have afforded if we hadn’t joined a group.
Can you have authentic adventures on a cruise? Absolutely. The important thing is to go into it knowing that you can’t ‘do it all’ and focus on the most important activities or locations that you’d kick yourself later for missing out on. Turns out that adventure is definitely not a reason to hate cruising.
TIP: If you book an excursion through the cruise line, you become their responsibility. The ship will not disembark until you are safely aboard.
2. The ship won’t feel crowded.
If you are wary of sharing your temporary home for a week or longer with over 3,000 strangers, don’t be. This was by far the most stressful idea for me leading up to the vacation and one of the reasons I thought I’d hate cruising. Even though I love people-watching and live in one of the busiest cities in the world, I still don’t particularly enjoy amusement park style crowds.
I think most people know going into a cruise that the ships are big, but until you sail on one, I don’t think you can really grasp just how big they are. It was very rare that we had to wait in line for a coffee or beer, and I never felt that any area of the ship was particularly over-crowded. Weirdly, sometimes it even felt empty.
The only exception to this was meal time. The buffet restaurant was often packed during breakfast, and if you wanted any specialty fare such as made-to-order omelettes or waffles, you’d need to wait in line. On formal nights in particular, dinner service was busy – and even with reservations made ahead of time we had to wait on a few occasions for our table.
If crowds make you uneasy, I’d recommend opting for room service in the mornings for breakfast (included in the price) or getting up early and hitting up the early-bird breakfast hours to beat the crowds. We also had dinner as early as possible most evenings (6pm) – which was more convenient with The Kid and allowed us to beat the 7:30-8pm dinner rush. Still, the crowds are no reason to hate cruising – they’ll hardly affect you.
Tip: If you typically require a cup of tea or coffee in the morning before you can face the day (me!) , you can request room service to bring your caffeine super early as a wake up call/incentive to get dressed.
3. You can eat healthy.
My mother told me that nobody goes on a cruise to be healthy, but with my recent change of lifestyle – it was important to me that I maintain some form of fitness and clean eating while on the ship.
As far as food goes, there are endless options for cruisers who love their food deep fried, smothered in sugars and creamy sauces, and relish the opportunity to pile their plates sky-high. For cruisers aiming to keep a healthy diet, the choices are fewer – but do exist. In the buffet restaurants, avoid the main hot food buffet – and instead head to the ‘cold food’ section where fruit, yogurt, and granola were always in abundance. If you eat breakfast in one of the dining rooms you can request changes to the dishes. While the food is largely the same as you’ll find in the buffet, you can order items such as eggs benedict and substitute sauce for spinach or ask for poached eggs instead of fried.
The 24 hour cafe always had fresh fruit on-hand such as apples and oranges, and snacks such as yogurt with granola.
Life is all about balance, but I felt much happier sampling everything on land knowing that I had made healthy decisions while on the ship.
4. You can exercise.
Maybe hitting the gym isn’t a priority to everyone on a cruise, but I found it really convenient to keep up with my exercise routine while on the ship. Not only do most cruise ships have a standard gym like you’d find back home, but they also offer classes such as pilates, yoga, and spinning. Some of the classes were complimentary, and others had a small fee.
I decided to participate in the week long boot camp my ship was offering as a personal challenge, but I also knew that if I paid money for it I wouldn’t skip any sessions. (Accountability and all that.) I paid around $150 for one of their personal trainers to push my body to its limits over four sessions throughout the week. Out of all the thousands of passengers, I was the only one who attended every session paid for – so maybe nobody else is crazy enough to sign up for a boot camp on their holiday. If it sounds like your kind of thing, Royal Caribbean offers the boot camp on most of their ships, and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for that extra push.
Gym not your thing?
There were 12 decks/floors on my ship. Instead of taking the elevator, use the stairs.
Most cruise lines these days have a track running around the top deck of the ship. I’m not big on running, but I did enjoy a few walks around the track – the beautiful views are a definite bonus.
5. The room doesn’t matter.
If you are cruising on a budget, you may be wondering whether or not to book the cheapest inside cabin on offer. While I’m sure many people out there will argue that a balcony room or suite is worth the extra money, I’d suggest spending your cash elsewhere.
You will spend very little time in your room, and most of the time that you do – you’ll be sleeping. While I think a balcony would be advantageous in certain destinations (cruising through icebergs in Alaska for instance), in most cases the windowless inside cabins are perfectly sufficient.
Even though we had three people in our room, space was never an issue. There was plenty of storage for clothing and luggage and the second bed came down from the ceiling – so it didn’t get in our way during the day if we stopped by.
6. You won’t get bored.
Call me crazy, but the *idea* of sipping umbrella fruity drinks by the pool all day is not typically a pleasant one for me and is one of the biggest reasons I thought I’d hate cruising. I was not prepared for the variety of activities and events on offer – and it was definitely a pleasant surprise. We went rock climbing, swimming, ice skating, saw a rock concert, an ice skating show, danced at 50’s night, played briefly at the casino – topped off with amazing excursions at some of the Caribbean’s most beautiful islands. By the day ‘at sea’ I was more than ready to have an entire day to explore the ship and have some fun because we just couldn’t fit very much in after an entire day sightseeing. Boredom is not something you need to worry about. Take it from someone who is easily bored – you will be just fine.
This former cruise hater has booked her next cruise to the Mediterranean this summer. Officially reformed.
Do you think you’ll hate cruising? Are you a former cruise hater? I’d love to hear from you!