Going on a Cruise Part 1 – Overview
In the past year, the Root of Good family went on two cruises in the Caribbean. I wrote about the first cruise in my September 2014 financial update, and a few people wanted to learn more about cruises.
I think cruising gets unfairly painted with a broad brush. My advice is to discard any preconceived notions you have about cruising such as “it’s for old people”, “it’s boring”, “I don’t want to be stuck on a ship with 3,000 other people”, or “no thanks, not interested in plastic wrapped vacations”.
Just think of a cruise as a floating resort hotel with free food and free transportation to a few sunny and sandy destinations. With free entertainment for kids and adults, 360 degree oceanfront views, and maybe some sea spray if it’s windy.
We probably don’t fit the stereotype of the typical cruise customer. We’re big on slow travel. We spent seven and a half weeks bumming around Mexico this past summer and set out on a five week road trip to Canada last year (though we returned home half way through the five weeks). Travel is so important to us that we devote about a sixth of our overall early retirement budget to it. Now that I’ve established my independent traveler street credibility, let’s talk cruises.
Cruises come in many shapes and sizes. Big boats, small boats. Except don’t call it a boat, it’s a ship. The smallest ships carry as few as a couple hundred passengers while the largest ships carry 5,000 or more passengers. Most of the ships from the big brands like Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian Cruise Line carry around 2,000 to 4,000 passengers. Add that to another 1,000 crew members, and you have a lot of people on a big hunk of floating metal.
How long is a typical cruise? Seven nights is the standard cruise length (if there is a standard) and what I would recommend for a first time cruiser. There are plenty of three and four night cruises, and also many cruises of two weeks or longer. The three or four night cruises are very affordable but won’t permit a lot of time to relax and enjoy the time on board since three nights aboard equates to only two full days aboard. Cruises of two weeks or more can be nice, but if it’s your first cruise I wouldn’t commit to more than a week in case you really don’t like it.
If you’re in the US, most cruises visit the Caribbean or Mexico and depart from ports on the east coast (mostly in Florida) or from the west coast (Los Angeles). There are other ports of departure with limited sailing dates up and down the east coast, the gulf coast, and the west coast. You can also visit Europe, Central America, South America, Asia or really almost anywhere in the world. Sometimes these more distant destinations are part of a multi-week cruise departing from the US, but just as often you will depart from a port near the continent you will be cruising around. Cruise ships only cover about 500-600 miles per day so it can take a week or two to cross the Atlantic or Pacific ocean or skirt the shores of a continent.
Are cruises cheap? They can be very inexpensive. The cruise we booked last September was $650 per two person cabin including taxes for a seven night cruise. I can’t find a land based all-inclusive resort for that amount, and certainly not one within driving distance of North Carolina. A three night cruise from Florida to the Bahamas can be under $300 per cabin. Cruises can also be expensive. A 32 night cruise from Florida to Chile (by way of Cape Horn at the tip of South America) can set you back $8,000 per cabin. Some luxury cruises last a month or two and approach $100,000 for the cheapest cabin (which I bet isn’t too shabby).
The advertised cruise fare can be misleading. The cruise we booked in September was advertised as $199. That’s per person and doesn’t include taxes. A cabin is what you are actually booking, which means two or more people. On our cruise, taxes of $125 per person increase the advertised price by more than 50%. That’s usually the case for the least expensive cruises. The advertised price is often for the cheapest cabin on board, and if you want to upgrade to something luxurious, you’ll pay more.
What the cruise fare covers (and doesn’t)
What do you get for the $650 cruise fare (or whatever you pay)?
- Food. Five star dining every night. Or all you can eat buffets, burgers, pizzas and ice cream. We enjoyed fifteen different restaurants on our last cruise including a fish and chips counter, a fresh burrito joint, and the formal dining room with favorites like lobster, filet mignon, and crab cakes.
- Some drinks. Juices, coffee, hot chocolate, tea, and tap water are pretty standard.
- Entertainment. Broadway stage shows, dance clubs, live music, DJ’s, comedy clubs, magicians, game shows, and outdoor movies
- Port visits. What you do while visiting the port is up to you. We visited Mexico, Honduras, and Belize on our last cruise.
- Kids club. Free childcare for kids. Our kids love it. Those still in diapers may not qualify for the kids club, and some cruises charge extra for childcare on port days.
- Fitness and recreation. Gym with treadmills, weight sets, and stepping machines are standard. Table tennis, basketball courts, volleyball courts, mini golf, rock climbing, zip lines, water slides, swimming pools.
What the fare doesn’t cover:
- Excursions while in port
- Alcohol and sodas
- Premium restaurants on board
In our experience, cruises are pretty good value propositions. You pay a lump sum price for the entire vacation and as long as you don’t overindulge on extras, cruises can be a rather inexpensive way to vacation and experience a taste of luxury.
Life on board
While you’re on a cruise your day can be jammed packed with activities or laid back and filled with nothing more than seaside lounging with a good book with occasional breaks to dine at the seemingly endless assortment of restaurants and dining spots on board.
Each evening you receive a newsletter outlining the next day’s schedule of activities on board as well as the restaurant schedules and food themes. Glancing back at the daily newsletter from the first day of our cruise, I see the programmed activities started at 7:00 am with a free morning stretching and fitness class at the spa and the day ended with a midnight comedy show in the cabaret lounge at the rear of the ship. Throughout the day there are dozens of planned activities like:
- a cooking demo in the ship’s steakhouse
- sports trivia, music trivia, and entertainment trivia in the lounges
- karaoke awesome party (they seriously put “awesome” in the name of the party on the schedule)
- family friendly comedy shows
- cornhole competition
- mini golf tournament (did I mention the ship had a full mini golf course?)
- two different broadway style musicals in the evening.
- acoustic guitar performance
- live jazz music
- hairy chest contest (can’t say I’m sad I missed this one!)
- ping pong tournament
Those are all covered in your basic cruise fare. There’s also a huge array of organized activities to essentially separate you from your money like the art auction, designer watch seminar, bingo, slots tournament, Texas Hold Em tournament, “free” diamond gemstone consultation, spa tours, and jewelry by the inch sales.
Between eating and lounging, we usually didn’t make it to more than the main broadway stage show each night and a little ping pong, mini golf, and swimming sprinkled throughout the day.
On sea days, you’ll have the chance to get off the boat for most of the day until around 4 or 5 pm and explore the day’s destination. On our cruise, the ship stopped at Cozumel and Costa Maya in Mexico, Roatan Bay in Honduras and Belize City in Belize.
While on board, dress is pretty casual most of the time, but this varies by cruise line. The only time there is a dress code is in the formal dining room. During our cruise, the dressiest night in the dining room required “Cruise Elegant” attire (“shorts, t-shirts, jeans, flip flops, bathing suits, sleeveless shirts for men, sportswear, and baseball hats are not allowed in the dining room”). I translated that to mean khakis and a polo shirt or button up shirt with no tie should be fine if you don’t mind being surrounded by some folks in tuxes and cocktail dresses. So far we’ve never been tossed from the dining room for dressing inappropriately.
While on the subject of the dining room, it’s worth mentioning the social opportunities aboard ship. You can choose to dine with your own family or group at a perfectly sized table, or you can choose to sit at a larger table with random strangers (that soon become friends). We’ve never opted for the “dining with strangers” program, but for the extroverts it should work well.
With the advent of the internet, you can also meet strangers online (sounds like fun!) before your cruise departure date and then meet up in person once on board the ship. If you’re interested, check out the “roll call” forums at cruisecritic.com (a great resource in general) or search facebook for the ship name and sail date for the facebook group for your sailing.
For those traveling with kids, you are in luck. Most cruise lines operate some form of kids club which is basically all day babysitting for ages 2 or 3 up to 17. These kids clubs are generally free though some cruise lines charge for late night service or on days that you are in port. Our kids love love love the kids clubs because it’s like summer camp with a bunch of other kids. The adult staff get paid to entertain kids all day. What do the kids do? Arts and crafts, music, video and board games, sports, and sometimes on stage performances in front of the whole ship. On our Costa cruise a few years ago, the kids club ended each evening with a kids’ disco party in the night club complete with a real DJ, flashing lights, and awkward dancing.
And not only can you ditch your own kids in the kids club, you can also get away from all other kids on board in one of the adults only areas of the ship. On the Carnival cruise line ships, the adults only area is called “Serenity”. The adults only swimming pool and hot tubs were serene other than the occasional drunk 22 year old stumbling around.
Check out all the posts in the Going on a Cruise series:
Going on a Cruise Part 1: Overview (this post)
Ever been on a cruise? How did you like it? If you’ve never been, what kind of preconceptions do you have about cruising?