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)
Going on a Cruise Part 2: Getting the Best Deal
Going on a Cruise Part 3: Save on Board and on Transportation
Going on a Cruise Part 4: The Food!
Cruising the Caribbean Aboard the MSC Divina
Ever been on a cruise? How did you like it? If you’ve never been, what kind of preconceptions do you have about cruising?
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Great post and very timely for our family! We’re big travelers and love experiencing new cultures with our kids. But we’ve never been on a cruise. We have family and friends who swear that cruises are the best way to travel. And our response is always that we like to experience more at a destination than what you can see in a day. And, we usually don’t spend much on our vacations because we use airline miles and hotel points. So, cruises seem pretty expensive by comparison to what we’re used to. However, our extended family is planning a cruise for everyone in 2016 or 2017 and we’re likely going to join them. Don’t knock it until you try it, right? I believe that kids pay the same price as adults on most cruises, correct? Do you have any advice on cruise lines that are particularly good for kids? Looking forward to your future posts on cruises!
I like visiting places longer than a day, too. Sometimes we wish we had a longer stay in a port of call, then again sometimes we’re ready to leave after a few hours.
The cruise in itself is the destination for us – a nice place to relax, dine, and be entertained. Everything is within walking distance so it’s all convenient and doesn’t require any planning or thought once you’re on board. And since your hotel travels with you, you get to visit multiple islands or countries without packing and unpacking each day.
We usually travel cheaply on points and miles too, and so far I haven’t found a great redemption value for cruises using points. Miles can still be used to pay for the hotel the night before the cruise. We’ve done this in Jacksonville a few times at a SPG Category 2 Aloft while cruising out of Jax or Ft Lauderdale/Miami. Flights can also be bought using miles but sometimes the cruise schedule doesn’t align with free flight schedules using pts.
Cruises are definitely worth a try. As for your questions, yes, kids typically pay the full price or close to it. However sometimes the 3rd and 4th passenger in a cabin pays less (like $199/person instead of $250-300+ for the 1st and 2nd passenger). I’ll cover the pricing structure in my next cruise article because sometimes kids sail free (but you still pay the $100+ in cruise taxes/fees).
Cruise lines that are good for kids? I’d say all of the non-luxury ones. The kids clubs on all of them we have been on with kids (Norwegian, Costa, Carnival) were all fantastic. We sailed on Celebrity and I’m not sure how their kids programs are. Also look at activities and amenities like water slides, rock climbing walls, and mini golf since kids like these too. Food might be another dimension to look at. I liked Costa because I thought the food was a step up from Carnival/Norwegian but the downside is more limited hours for the restaurants and they didn’t have the burger and fries availability like the US cruise lines offer (if your kids are picky).
We haven’t been on a cruise since having kids (4 and 2) but we loved it. I agree that it can’t be a little “pre-packaged” but I really enjoy not having to make many decisions when I’m on vacation. I mean if my toughest choice is 5-star Italian or 5-star Sushi, I’m in a pretty good place.
I will say that the different cruise lines do cater to different folks. Some are better for families, some are better for younger professionals, some have better food, etc.
Even a bad day on a cruise beats the best day at work, right? 🙂
My problem is not being hungry enough for 5 star Italian or sushi because I filled up on merely four star burgers at lunch. First world problems…
There aren’t bad days on a cruise! 🙂
But wow, I’ve heard people complaining on board. I always smile and think how lucky and fortunate all of us passengers are to experience the awesomeness even if there’s an occasional inconvenience.
It reminds me of that Louis CK bit about being on a plane and the internet not working. 🙂
One of my favorite clips of all time.
There are always moaners! I try to be sympathetic, because sometimes peope are unwell or have other problems that colour their experience, but sometimes I read reviews of cruises I’ve been on and I honestly can’t believe it’s the same cruise!
I know – it’s like they set out to have a bad time.
I’ve been on four cruises (3 on Carnival and 1 on RC). I love them. Flights from NYC down to the ports of Miami and Orlando are usually pretty cheap, especially if you book well in advance. Also I have a travel hacking, great negotiator of a friend that gets us pretty good deals on the cruises and monitors the prices after we book to ensure we get comped if the prices drop. I love that you don’t have to plan anything while on the cruise, as it’s all taken care of. You can really relax, and “sign-off” as we all know I’m not paying for the internet. I’ve found most of the good really good, and the ports are a blast. I usually don’t do excursions, but have travel hacked Atlantis water park twice now which is a BLAST. I don’t have any more planned right now, but wouldn’t doubt it if I went on another in 2016.
I love the simplicity too. You never have to worry about finding a good restaurant or navigating the city streets. Everything is convenient.
We usually explore the ports of call on foot or hop on a local bus. It’s a great way to visit the different Caribbean islands and countries on the cheap without paying for flights to all these places.
I might have to look into finally going on what I always thought to be the pinnacle of travel commercialism for all the obedient consumers out there. I’m joking (sort of). My preferred method of travel is as 180 from cruising as you can get – a plane ticket to a destination, an airbnb reservation and off we go figuring out what we want to do as we move around. Amazon’s frustration-free cardboard packaging instead of a plastic nightmare that needs to be cut with a pair of tin snips, if you will.
I do see how taking a cruise could be fun with the kids and now that we have a toddler it might be worth finally testing the waters… Or maybe you just sold me on those “kid clubs” and “serenity” areas.
The truth is that cruising and the independent travel you describe are two totally different things with different purposes. I like both styles of travel for different reasons. On a cruise it’s luxury and first class service and mainly relaxing. Independent travel can be relaxing (like our Mexico trip where we spent 2 weeks in a city before moving on) but you still have those moments where you have to do something (negotiate bus tickets in a foreign language, buy medicine, find a restaurant that’s open late at night or early in the morning so you kids won’t starve, etc).
Cruises are great if you mostly want to relax and lounge around. Less great if you want to live like the locals for a couple weeks and see the non-tourist part of local life.
The cool thing is that there are plenty of folks that reject the plastic wrapped consumerist part of the cruise. Instead of dancing in the congo line and drinking $9 fruity alcoholic beverages, they recline in a deck chair looking out over the ocean reading a book while sipping (free) coffee. The ship is just an oceanfront resort that happens to float and dock in a different port each day.
Nice but I’ll need something stronger than a coffee to drown out the commercial realities of a cruise. Any insight on smuggling adult beverages? Maybe in your next installment?
I’ll share some info on how to get your goods aboard in the next cruise installment. It’s definitely possible. Not that we’ve done it lately. 🙂
Only done one cruise on Norwegian (West Mediterranean) but thought it was a reasonable value for all that we got to see and do. Having 2 young children that we could leave on board was just what we needed at the time (although most of the time we dragged them along with us, but they preferred to stay in the daycare). We might do one more ‘luxury’ cruise before the kids get too old, and then indulge in cheap cruises out of Houston…
Ours kids seemed to prefer the kids club more than going out on excursions too. I’m like “hey, we’re in a new exciting country today!” and they just want to play in the kids club.
In the case of Alaska, a cruise is definitely the cheapest way to see the most of Alaska because it cruises up the inside passage and stops at places that aren’t on any road system. We intend to take our family on an Alaskan cruise in a few years when they’re all old enough to enjoy it. Does having 3 kids make booking more difficult for a cruise?
3 kids makes it a little more complicated as the commodity you’re buying (a cruise cabin) is typically available in mass quantities for 2 people. The last two cruises we booked, we had 3 kids in one room and the 2 adults in another room. Finding a 3-4 person room is more challenging than a 2 person room, but not impossible. Just requires more searching, and sometimes finding out the best deal isn’t the cruise with the cheapest 2 person room because the 3 person room is way more expensive or simply not available (if booking last minute).
The online search engines also don’t have a way to specify “I want 2 cabins, 1 with 2 people, 1 with 3 people; find me the cheapest rates in the next 6 months for my specs”. Travel agents might be able to do this more easily but it’s pretty manual from my experience calling travelocity/expedia type places.
Right. That’s sort of what I’ve discovered. But since I haven’t actually booked anything yet, it just looks difficult! Maybe your next post on the subject will enlighten me further on the process I should take. 🙂
We took an Alaskan cruise a couple of years ago and it was wonderful, we really enjoyed it:
Thanks for sharing your cruise info.
That’s probably the way I would do Alaska too. I saw some really cheap deals on Alaska cruises at the end of the summer.
We have cruised about 7 times now. The latest trip was in February out of Houston – hitting many of the same ports you mentioned.
Cruises are great for relaxing and getting away from the connected world. I turn my phone off and put it in the room safe for the entire trip. We don’t bring a laptop, tablet, or even think about surfing the web in the internet café while vacationing! When we depart on the last day, I turn on the phone and receive the multi-hundred work and personal emails that had to wait while I was away.
BTW – Our bucket list has a spot for a round the world cruise that is 110 days!
The lack of connectivity is nice overall. Though I do miss the google and instant access to any bit of knowledge. 🙂 Otherwise I have no problem unplugging for a week.
That round the world cruise is on my bucket list too. It’s pricey ($30-40k per person I recall?) but would be an amazing trip and a good way to visit a few dozen countries in one go.
The round the world cruise is our way of seeing all the continents and a unique experience. I have seen inside cabins advertised @ $20k per person. I would hope that as we build status with a one of the lines, we could get that price for a balcony room. By the time tax, tips, and some excursions are added, it may be another $5k – $10k in total expense.
I have a 4-plex that will be bought by the state in 3 – 5 years due to the expansion of the highway. The very next time the world cruise option comes up after that sale, we are doing it!
That would be a very sweet cruise with a balcony room. We’ve only done a balcony once when it was actually cheaper than inside rooms (some kids sail free promotion).
Sounds like your world cruise plans are a lot further along than ours!
This post is a great motivator for us. We have never been on a cruise, but are definitely considering it. For me, I think it is the inexpensive nature of the travel and my ability to go to different countries. I am looking forward to post #2 and some info on port-of-calls. Excellent post.
It’s certainly worth a try. I’m pretty frugal and I can’t figure out a way to replicate the cruise experience on land for less money.
I love cruising! Our family has been on several cruises now, mostly to the East & West Caribbean. Living in Florida, sometimes you just wake up and notice you’re not at your house anymore – you’re in your cabin on a cruise ship!
We have ports all around us so just hopping on one isn’t too far of a drive. You’re definitely right about thinking of them as a luxury resort! I’m always happy to have my hotel room with me no matter what country we’re in. 😀
I’m totally jealous (totes jelly as my kids would say). I love/hated overhearing the Miami residents chatting on the shuttle bus to the port about deciding to hop on a cruise a few days prior and then just showing up to the port parking lot.
I’ve thought about buying a little place in FL to establish residency, eliminate state taxes, and be closer to the cruise ports during the fall/winter cheap season. Crazy idea probably. Not sure how that would work out with kids and school. 🙂
I’m sure it’s not that crazy of an idea. For a while, my wife was thinking maybe we could live on a cruise ship for a month out of the year. That will definitely be something to factor into retirement if we ended up going that way since it’s not the cheapest vacation in the world, but not bad!
To me, I think cruising is a good introduction to traveling the world. As long as you take excursions and actually go into the countries you’re visiting, I think you get a better feel for the culture rather than just at the port.
Not having a state income tax has definitely been a plus! Florida’s not a bad place to be.
I’ve always wanted to go on a cruise, but my wife said she doesn’t want to be trapped on a boat. Those incidents of norovirus breakouts on cruise boats or the ones where they lost power…didn’t help sway her. I think we might try one in the future though…we’ll start off with a short one I guess. I’ll have to see the tips from Part II to find some good deals…my wife loves a good deal.
I’d really recommend a 5-7 night cruise as your first experience. You’re also in luck because they occasionally have decent deals from NYC/NJ (port at Bayonne NJ??) on some cruises to Canada or to Caribbean. And right now might be a cheap time to find one if you’re in the market for a vacation! I’ll have some more insights in Part 2 for sure.
As for the mechanical problems, it’s kind of like the airlines. With probably hundreds of cruises running at a given time and 52 weeks of cruising per year, you’re gonna have the occasional mechanical problem that causes inconvenience. Carnival recently had an engine fire on one ship but all the essential services were still operational, they just couldn’t sail the ship. So everyone got comped for their cruise, got a free cruise later, an airfare voucher for flights I think, and a free flight back home, plus they put up some folks in hotels and fed them for the couple of days of uncertainty before flying them back home. Yeah, it kind of sucks to have your vacation ruined but you have the makings of a second vacation for free. And the other 99.9% of the cruises sailed perfectly without any problems.
Norovirus outbreaks are mostly contained these days with better emphasis on cleaning everything (they clean the public areas 24/7 like they’re OCD!) and hand sanitizer stations all over. We use that stuff liberally when entering any restaurant on board and haven’t had any problems with norovirus in our five cruises. I did get sick once on board, but it was something closer to the common cold and no one else in the family ever caught it. I also got on board that same cruise with a different illness (and spread it everywhere unfortunately) so I probably got what was karmicly due to me. 🙂
Also, the reason norovirus is linked with cruises in many people’s minds is that under international regulations (ie, the Vessel Sanitation Program), cruise lines are required to notify the relevant authorities (eg, the CDC in the USA) when cases of gastrointestinal illness exceed 2% of the total carriage (passengers + crew). Hotels and resorts have no such requirement, so norovirus could be rife in them, but the next lot of guests wouldn’t have a clue.
Good point. Cruises have strict reporting requirements so you hear about any kind of major illness on board. On all the cruises we’ve been on in the past decade, they have focused a ton of effort on sanitation of public spaces. They’re cleaning all the time and there are hand sanitizer stations all over the ship.
Never been on a cruise, but will one day. The thing I dislike is that kids pay just as much as the adults pay to cruise, and that’s not right. The resorts I’ve been too kids fees are always less than adults.
That does suck. We went on one cruise on Costa and kids sailed free. We had to pay a little more for a balcony room to snag the deal, but it worked out to be our cheapest cruise ever with the kids ($1100 for a week for all 4 of us at the time). I think they price kids almost the same as adults because kids don’t buy alcohol which is a big profit center for the cruise industry.
We went on a 7 day Alaska cruise before Baby T was born and had a great time. The cost per day turned out to be around $85 per person (we got a killer deal). Considering that you get meal, entertainment, and a room included for that price, I thought it was pretty awesome. The port excursions can be pricey and that’s how the cruise companies make the big bucks. We just did our own excursions and that was just fine.
My parents really like going on cruises. For them it means they can just check in, leave their luggage, and check out the different cities. For older folks I can definitely see the attraction.
I hope to take an Alaska cruise one day. Seems like an easy way to see that part of the country.
I have been on several cruises. I look forward to more, some of the most relaxing vacations I have ever had. The one thing I am wondering is this. With T-Mobil wifi calling, can I make a phone call for free, only paying for internet/wifi access?
On the ship, I bet the internet speeds and lag time would make wifi calling unusable. If you hop off the boat at one of the ports, I bet you could call for free on the wifi at a coffee shop or bar (for the price of a coffee/beer). I’ve heard Carnival is working on getting much faster internet on their ships, but I’m sure the per minute rates will be crazy expensive.
I’ve been on several cruises and agree with most of your review. However, to claim that the cruise fare includes “5 star dining eveRyan night” is just hyperbole in my opinion. The restaurants included in the fare on most low to moderate priced cruise lines (i.e. NCL, Carnival, Princess, etc.) can only be described as adequate, not 5 star. Based on your photo of the daily activity sheet it looks like you were on a Carnival ship that trip. For myself and nearly everyone I’ve talked to, the food in the restaurants without a surcharge is on the part for most modest priced restaurants at home, not 5 star restaurants. I’m not nitpicking, I just wanted those cruising their first time to have realistic expectations.
We’ve been on Celebrity once and found it to be on par with Carnival and Norwegian. I personally liked the food on Costa better than the American-oriented cruise lines but Mrs. RoG disagrees on that. It used to be Carnival had a bad reputation for being a crappy cruise line and I think they’ve overcome that from our experience with the food and service (though we were concerned about that before our $199 week long cruise!).
Some restaurants on the cruise ships are just adequate like you say. I’d agree with that for the buffet restaurants – they are adequate to good, but only occasionally mind-blowingly good. The buffets are still way way better than Golden Corral (my metric of food that’s just barely decent to eat but not really horrible).
The real gem in my experience is the formal dining room. That’s where we have received five star food, five star service, and a five star ambiance consistently. Rarely did we get food or service that was sub-par and it was usually great. Which is surprising considering they are cooking up a couple thousand lobsters, filet mignon, escargot, frog legs, crab cakes, rabbit skewers or whatever and bringing it out in a constant stream all night. I definitely wouldn’t compare the formal dining room food or experience to “modest priced restaurants” back home (unless you and I go to drastically different modest priced restaurants!). Comparing my average dining room experience on the cruise to the local $80/plate fancy steakhouse, hands down cruise wins. More variety, better service, better food every time. The buffets easily beat Chilis/Applebees/IHOP/Olive Garden (modest priced restaurants, no?) and the formal dining rooms beat those restaurants by a landslide.
Then there are all of the themed restaurants that serve just one kind of food (Mexican, Italian, seafood, burgers, pizza, sushi, etc). In my experience, these places usually execute very well probably because it’s a rather limited menu (you might have 3-5 items on the menu instead of 20-30 at a typical sit down restaurant at home).
I will say there are some people that aren’t pleased by the food on board. I’ve read plenty of people at the Cruise Critic forums that think the food on board is generally low quality and very basic, sometimes inedible. I’m fortunate that we haven’t experienced that on any of our five cruises.
Very infrequently, the food isn’t great in a particular restaurant, and we might decide to go to one of the other 10-20 restaurants on board. Problem solved and we’re happy.
Maybe I’m weird though. I checked a few of the top rated restaurants in Raleigh according to yelp and realize that some aren’t that great in my opinion (or those I’ve talked to). Tastes are fickle, so what I find amazing you might find just adequate, so maybe folks shouldn’t set their expectations too high?
Many people, call us food snobs or gourmets or just interested in health, find Chili’s/IHOP/Applebees/Olive Garden inedible. It’s hard for me to gauge the food on cruises when the point of reference is something I have found to be bland, highly processed, and simply a chore to eat. I would love to try cruising but the idea of being trapped on a boat with low quality food has kept me landlocked. Any foodies care to chime in?
Ha ha, we’re like the anti-foodies in many ways, so maybe take everything I say regarding food with a big grain of natural organic sea salt. 🙂
I was throwing Chili’s/IHOP/Applebees/Olive Garden out there as a class of restaurants that are moderately priced in response to the previous poster’s comparison to cruise food. I don’t actually eat at any of those places. (Other than once at a Chili’s a year ago, and the food was pretty decent. I loved the chicken enchilada soup so much that I’ve started replicating it at home with some tweaks like chipotles). We make much better food at home for way less, and we control how much salt and butter/grease goes into our food!
The formal dining room really offers a lot of foodie gems though. I took a look at our pics and found a copy of the menu from a random night on board. Here’s what you get to choose from:
– seared tuna
– broccoli salad
– veggie spring rolls
– navy bean soup
– gazpacho andalouse
– tortilla soup with braised chicken
– shrimp cocktail
– flatbread w/ apple, bacon, and parmesan cheese
– a variety of salads
– braised rabbit
– Veal Parmesan
– seared Tilapia
– Rosemary Lamb Shank
– Baked Ziti
– Chick pea biscuits with roasted squash and peppers
– vegetarian Indian medley with ~5 different veggies, papadum, yogurt sauce, etc (I loved this one!)
– steak tacos
– Salmon fillet
– flat iron steak
– chicken breast
– pork chop
– corn and veggie succotash
– loaded baked potato
– sauteed beans with bacon
– mashed potatoes
– basmati pilaf
– steamed broccoli
– chilled rhubarb almond strawberry soup
– chocolate melting cake (unimpressed with this one!)
– passion fruit flan with a coconut/tapioca/basil syrup
– coconut lime cake
– fresh tropical fruit plate
– cheese plate
– ice cream assortment
– pie a la mode
That’s all free. Extra charge on this night for lobster, surf and turf, filet mignon, NY strip steak (though that stuff was free at other times on the cruise). This was their “American Table” menu focused on traditional American cuisine with some twists thrown in, plus a couple things to recognize the port of call for the day (tortilla soup and steak tacos for Cozumel, MX).
That sounds like a foodie-approved menu to me. But I’m not a foodie so I can’t promise it. I know almost all the food we received was well executed in terms of seasoning, texture, temperature, flavor, and presentation (how I usually evaluate a plate). The buffet restaurants of course are much closer to average, and you can definitely find the cafeteria grade eggs for breakfast for example (just skip those and go to the egg/omelet station for a fresh omelet, sunny side up, over easy, scrambled, etc). YMMV of course.
I’m motivated to make a whole post on cruise ship cuisine, so stay tuned for that in the next couple of weeks! 🙂
I had to come back and edit this comment and suggest everyone to watch the video Jim Wang posted above. Think about the food you’ll get on board in that context. 🙂
I think it’s great that you (and a certain portion of the public) find the complimentary cruise food very good, but as you mentioned, the cruise critic boards are full of people who are less impressed. Don’t get me wrong, cruising can still be an amazing value. And considering the challenge of a floating multi-restaurant system with variable/inconsistent supply sources, they do an amazing job. And several lines (like Carnival) are working hard (and succeeding) at improving their food. I was on a 7 night Caribbean cruise on the Carnival Glory last year, and found the food better than on the cruise the year before. And considering that 7 night cruise was less than $100/night for a balcony cabin by myself, I certainly was happy with the overall value. I just got off of a NCL 12 night Mediterranean cruise at an even better bargain ($71/night by myself in an ocean view cabin, including taxes & gratuity!!), and found the food of the non-surcharge restaurants (including both main dining rooms and an Asian themed restaurant) acceptable and around the taste/quality on par with Applebees (the Asian restaurant was not as good as the Pickup Stix take-out chain). As for variety, it’s always better on cruises when compared to a single land-based restaurant.
My major point of contention is the use of the adjective 5-star. If you Google that term you’ll almost always see it considered the very highest rating for any restaurant, and usually reserved not just for “foodie” places, but for places that have the highest standards (and often prices) and exceptionally good taste and culinary results. So by calling the non-surcharge cruise restaurants 5-star, in my opinion, is misleading. Of course, as a blogger, you certainly are not only entitled to your own opinion, but also are granted a certain amount of literary license 😉
Yeah, I guess we’re arguing the definition of 5-star.
I wouldn’t reserve it for the fanciest, most expensive places, as plenty of places could be modest yet have unbeatable food and hence earn 5 stars. I’d say the formal dining room experience aboard a cruise ship is certainly 4 or 5 star in terms of the food variety and quality, presentation, and service. The fancy restaurants around here have decent waitstaff but you can often tell they aren’t trained professional waitstaff.
As for 5 star food, I bet the most delicious barbeque or fried chicken restaurant in the world is a dumpy hole in the wall. Still 5 star food. Maybe 5 yelp stars, not 5 Michelin-type stars.
The average non-formal dining room restaurant on a cruise ship I might give 4 stars to. Good, sometimes great, but not always perfect. We try to hit the formal dining room for dinner each night for the increased quality and variety of food.
As for your experiences on cruises, it’s probably variable. We sailed on the Carnival Glory for 7 nights last year too, and found the food to be really good (best ever for Mrs. RoG, tied for 1st place for me). Great service too. Then we sailed on the Carnival Fascination (an older ship) and felt it was a slight step down. However on the Fascination we had the Anytime dining (or whatever they call it) so had a different waiter every night and felt the service wasn’t as good and sometimes the food took a while to come out. YMMV of course.
The cruise critic boards are full of unsatisfied cruisers that whine about the food yet keep on cruising. 🙂 I think some of the posters are trying to earn cachet by acting as pro food critics and picking a nit when there are few nits to be picked (see Louie CK clip posted by Jim Wang above). Like most experiences, everything isn’t always perfect. But overall I’d give the main dining rooms I’ve experienced 5 stars, and at least some of the other on board restaurants 5 stars (did you try Guy Fieri’s burgers on the Glory? – 5 stars if a burger joint can earn 5 stars in your rating system!). Our trick is to try every restaurant and avoid the duds.
Edited to add: Here’s the Cruise critic review page for the Carnival Glory: http://www.cruisecritic.com/reviews/review.cfm?ShipID=280&pgtype=dining
Dining gets 4/5 stars by the editor, average of 3.9/5 stars by reviewers. The first random individual review I clicked on gave it a 5 star for dining. I’m one of those 5 stars. Obviously plenty of others felt dining was 3 or 4 stars hence the 3.9 or 4 star average. Cruise critic is a great place to read up on people’s actual experiences with the dining, as I see the random review I read mentioned excellent main dining room, Guy’s Burgers and the Blue Cantina Mexican restaurant (which I would concur with). Those were the 5 star gems, with the other places on board mostly getting 3-4 stars depending on the meal. So we would typically hit the places we felt were 5 stars and skip the lesser places.
Thanks for the clarification, and the link to the Cruise Critic page for dining on the Glory. To quote professional reviewer on that page you linked to… “We found the food to be yummy, but nothing that would have you raving to friends and family.”
I would say that’s a very accurate description of my experience, and qualitatively different than claiming you’ll get 5-star dining every night from the free restaurants. And I have to say that the food (and the entertainment) on the Carnival Glory was a step above what I had on the NCL Spirit on my recent cruise, even though they are considered comparable cruise lines.
Cruises are a great time. For all the reasons you discuss, you can get an amazing relaxing vacation with a great bang for your buck. I’m excited for part 2 so you can convince me to go on a cruise now!
Bert, One of the Dividend Diplomats
Hey, thanks for all the info on the cuisine! I didn’t realize I would get so much fabulous info. I think it’s convinced me…not to take a cruise, at least for now. Thanks again all and happy cruising!
Do you recall the average price of internet?
Have you ever used the internet on the cruise ships? If yes, is the speed decent?
I only ask because I work from home and decent internet means my family could very realistically do an extended cruise. Thanks!
Internet is ridiculously expensive on the cruise ship. I’ve never actually paid for it due to the price and because I’ve heard it’s really slow (they have a satellite connection). I want to say $0.75 per minute if you pay by the minute and maybe 50-75% less if you buy a huge bulk package of minutes. I doubt it would be acceptable for a remote access connection, but might be okay if you just need to connect once an hour to ping your email server and check in with clients and the home office.
While in port, it’s pretty easy to find a restaurant or cafe with decent internet that’s free (or the price of a coffee/beer). I’ve jumped on wifi while in port before.
Just follow the staff when you get off in port – they know where all the free wifi places are!
That’s good advice! Thanks!
I feel compelled to say that I think there is nothing sadder than parents who want to “ditch their own kids.” In fact, I find it despicable.
Despicable? Strong words their, partner.
It’s all about options – if you want to spend 100% of the cruise with your kids that’s perfectly fine – the cruise line allows that, too. 🙂
Lately our kids haven’t gone to the kids club much and that is okay. But if they start talking about being bored, I kindly suggest there might be a place where they can interact with kids their age and toys/games/entertainment that doesn’t involve one of their parents entertaining them. I mean I’m funny, but not 24/7. 🙂