Cruising: Elderly shuffleboard players on one hand. Puking, partying Spring Breakers on the other. And package tourism at its absolute worst. These stereotypes kept me from considering cruising until my mid-30’s; something I regret, absolutely. Take it from a former Independent Travel Elitist who thought cruising was only for the proverbial half-dead or newly wed: cruising has much to recommend to the independent traveler. As such, it’s well worth your thoughtful reconsideration. If you ever doubted…
The independent traveler
My adult travel life was born from the pages of Rick Steves’ classic How-To: Europe Through the Back Door; something I cherish and am forever grateful for. Rick’s principles still inform my journeys–if not always in action, then in spirit. His philosophy? Do-It-Yourself (arrange everything, from flights to flophouses). And in so doing, spend less, experience more, and interact with the locals.
As a recent college grad in the mid-90’s, with more time and energy than money, this was music to my ears–and wallet. Staying in youth hostels or B&Bs, sleeping in airports or on trains, having picnic lunches to save cash, steering clear of expensive cities when possible, and rarely paying for arranged tours. These are mainstays of the Back Door Way. And all served me well into my 30’s. Although I upgraded my lodging to exclude hostels along the way. And discovered frequent flyer miles on a return trip from Japan in the late 90’s.
Living the stereotype: newly wed and wanting to honeymoon in Hawaii
So, my better half and I decided, like so many couples before us, we wanted to honeymoon in Hawaii. Great! I had sufficient United MileagePlus miles to get us there and back, so flights weren’t an issue. The puzzle was how to see several islands in the span of a week or so. Having Real Jobs now, this was all the time we’d allotted for the overseas portion of our honeymoon. Living in North Carolina, we married On Property at Walt Disney World in Orlando (when small marriage packages were affordable; around USD $2,500) and stayed there several days prior to our Pacific adventure.
So many islands, so little time
Having never been, we wanted to get a taste of multiple Hawaiian islands–each possessing its own unique charms. To do it the traditional Overland Way, much of our time would be consumed merely getting to and from each airport. The flights themselves weren’t long. But imagine the typical time-sink of modern air travel. Then multiply for each isle. For just a week in Hawaii, most couples pick a single, favorite island and stick with it. With no prior experience of Hawaii, we didn’t have a “favorite island.” Or an inkling of which it might be. And so the Hawaii Option almost went poof.
The cruise option
My in-laws were cruisers, so they suggested taking a look. I was shocked–delightfully so–with what I discovered. Norwegian Cruise Lines had a Hawaiian Isles itinerary that:
- Began and ended in Honolulu
- Made two port calls to the Big Island of Hawaii (including one near the only active volcano in Hawaii): Hilo and Kina
- Had an overnight port stop in Maui (allowing for a 2 day car rental to explore)
- Had an overnight port stop in Kauai (also allowing, time-wise, for a 2 day car rental)
Four islands in one trip with minimal fuss. I was sold on the mere efficiency of it. As it turns out I was spoiled, as overnight port stops are a fairly rare occurrence. I presumed falsely that all cruises had this feature. Though I consider myself fortunate to have this as a first experience; or that first cruising experience may have never materialized, “snob” that I was; snob in a slovenly sense, I suppose.
I was ecstatic about the concept of adventuring during the day while being effortlessly transported to our next destination while we slept. There was something magic about it–probably the Next Best Thing to a teleporter. All the while, being gently rocked to sleep like a babe by the waves. Most large modern ships have stabilizers, so you feel very little movement unless you’re passing through a storm. But enough sway to be pleasing.
Unpack once, travel everywhere
Hotels. We never made it as far as hotels during our initial planning process. In addition to the trauma of repeated airport check-ins, we’d have also suffered the time-sink of switching hotels about every other night, depending on how many islands visited; not to mention the actual cost of hotels in Hawaii: couldn’t have been cheap. This was back in the days before I wasn’t fully on-board with points; that is, while I collected United MileagePlus miles for flights, I had no idea there was a vast terra incognita of hotel points to be discovered and utilized.
What I did realize that, wow; I literally only had to unpack once. And could then travel far distances without another check-in, check-out process. It was One and Done. And that was a revelation to me. During my Independent Traveler days, entire days could be devoted to checking out of one location, then traveling to the next. Those were stressful and wasteful times. And I never seemed able to erase them from my itineraries.
A cruise ship at its core is a floating hotel; one that gets you from points A to B to C without ever having to switch rooms. It was an efficiency that elated, me being a efficiency aficionado. So if you think of a cruise ship as nothing more than a floating hotel, you can release and let your independent traveler reservations sink into the depths. Deeper. Deeper. Fully relaxed. I mean, wake up now!
Meals on… waves
While cruise ships strive to keep cabin fares low (possibly close to at-cost), they expect to profit increasingly from up-charge restaurants, alcohol sales, gambling, internet access, and costly cruise excursions. Steer clear of those and you’ll be more in-line with the independent traveler ethos (and budget). The reality is:
- There’s an abundance of “free” food at sea, from buffets to Main Dining Rooms (MDRs). You’ve already paid for it with your cabin fare. So take advantage of all complimentary options.
- You can sneak food off the ship for a free picnic lunch (there may be restrictions in some countries; do so at your own risk).
Adventurer, ship-dweller, or both
The beauty of cruising is that it accommodates a variety of travel styles. Mandy and I almost exclusively cruise for do-it-yourself adventures at ports of call: from ascending the Acropolis in Athens to exploring ancient ruins in Ephesus, Turkey. Or in the case of Hawaii, driving out to Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island or to the 10,000 foot summit of Haleakala Crater on Maui.
Others ideal of cruising–the very antithesis of what I’m wired for–would be a relaxing Cruise to Nowhere; boarding the ship at the beginning of the journey and never disembarking until the end. That’s fine as far as it goes…
One can also Meet in the Middle, mixing it up on any given day; having a blend of on land port adventures and days when you’d like to chill. Port days are great times to take advantage of your ship’s amenities: swimming, sunbathing, entertainment, etc, while others are out seeing the sights.
Revisiting cruising stereotypes
In our experience, with years of cruising now under our respective money belts, Mandy and I have seen neither hoards of elderly shuffleboard players nor out-of-control Party People. We suppose they exist. But the majority of travelers seemed to be couples and families of all ages. Nothing out of the ordinary. On the other hand, we always book cruises of 7 nights or longer; it’s alleged the shorter cruises draw out the Party People. So be warned. Obviously, avoid Spring Break if your idea of fun doesn’t include drinking yourself into oblivion and listening to others attempt the same.
Furthermore, we’ve cruised on Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, and Carnival–three of the largest mass market cruise lines. The Product and clientele seem about the same; with Royal Caribbean attracting a slightly more upscale crowd (better art in the stairwells, more Formal Nights, etc)–not for us. We use the buffets on Formal Nights. Carnival seemed the most casual–largest bellies and the most tats. Again, neither here nor there for us. We don’t judge to the extent most good people try not to.
There’s always give and take with different travel modes and methods. We’ve discussed the advantages of cruise travel for independent travelers. Now, here are some of its disadvantages (trade offs, really):
- Port stops can be as short as 3 hours to as long as 10 hours; overnight port calls are rare (we got lucky with Hawaii). This can make adventure days hectic and superficial given the “effective” time you have in port; because it could take 30 minutes to disembark–and you typically want to arrive back at the ship no later than one hour before Set Sail time. They will leave without you; and it’s something of a sport to watch desperate late travelers, running like hell trying to catch the ship.
- Cabin pricing for the more interesting European 7 night+ cruises is based on double-occupancy; and even the least expensive cabins may cost $600+ per person. For two people, that’s $1,200 + taxes and increasingly mandatory tips (starting at $10 per cabin per day). But when you look at what you’re receiving for that money per night, it can represent good value. Caribbean cruises offer lower cost options–worthwhile if you’re port-centric like Mandy and I are; and if the ports offer the adventure you’re looking for. We’ve done both Eastern and Western Caribbean cruises and prefer European ones.
- The least expensive cabins–what Mandy and I typically book unless we get a good offer on an upgrade–are called Inside Staterooms and have no windows. My mother-in-law calls these Crypt Cabins. I call them “nice and dark for sleeping” and “far better than a shared dorm room, all with your own private bathroom.” It’s a matter of perspective. But if you’re claustrophobic, you’ll want at least an Oceanview cabin (port hole) or a Balcony. Ah, the Balcony… Pace yourself.
- Crowds–when you’re departing a cruise ship to explore a given port, you’re doing so when thousands of others are scrambling to get to the same overland destinations. So unlike Independent Travel, you’re at the mercy of the cruise ship schedules.
To mitigate the crowds issue, some ideas are:
- At the beginning or ending of your cruise, schedule in a few hotel nights. I call this a “two fer” (two-“fer”-one trips). Rome’s a great choice for many Mediterranean cruises. Venice is another clear winner. So, when planning a cruise note closely what port city your cruise begins and ends at.
- Consider taking it easy on a port day that isn’t a high priority; take advantage of the ships amenities while most others are out and about
CruiseCritic.com is the premier discussion forum for cruising. If no one knows your answer there, it is quite likely unknowable. This is the FlyerTalk of cruising. Take full advantage of it. Like FT, it’s an education unto itself.
Even Rick Steves, the father of independent budget travel to Europe, has gotten into the cruising game. He has two volumes that teach how to cruise like an independent traveler: one for Northern European cruise ports and another for Mediterranean cruise ports. I own the two books; both are excellent.
Using miles and points to pay for cruises?
Can you use miles and points to pay for, or defer some of the costs of, a cruise? Absolutely. But that’s a topic for another post. Brush up on your miles and points skills in general first. Happy cruising!