The world of cruises is like no other: from ships the size of floating cities to elegant, sleek creatures that glide through quiet riverways. Yet there are a lot of preconceptions about what a cruise experience is like. Whether you're a first-timer or on your 50th sailing, we take a look at the most common myths to bust them wide open, and offer our best tips and hacks to find the right cruise for you along the way.
Whether you're after a quiet time or all night partying and cocktails, when it comes to cruises there is a ship to suit all ages and tastes. The differences between the cruise lines, and even the individual ships they operate, can be massive. For example, P&O offer vessels such as Britannia which is built with families in mind, as well as Arcadia, designed for adults only. If you're thinking about booking a cruise, it pays to research not just the cruise company's overall offering, but the ship itself, to check it meets your needs.
There are myriad ways to save on the advertised fare. Flexible on dates? Last-minute cruise deals can be unbelievably cheap with a five-night trip to Europe working out at under $123 (£100) per night with meals – cheaper than the cost of living in some cities. Sign up to alerts as some lines, like Royal Caribbean, run weekly deals often with incentives like spending money (known as onboard credit) thrown in. Look for “repositioning cruises”, one-off, one-way voyages where ships move between regions at the end of a season, resulting in cut-price sailings that aren’t part of the regular schedule.
Seasickness affects some more than others – particularly women and children. However, most ships are well-equipped to deal with it. If you find yourself suffering, ask at reception who often have free tablets. Booking an outside cabin in the middle of the ship is said to help as they're located on a natural balance point. But if this is a big concern for you, book a ship that has stabilizers. Most are equipped with two, but those ships that have four have an even smoother ride.
If you know seasickness is a worry then choose your cruise wisely: a voyage to Antarctica crossing from the tip of South America can be merciless. If you're heading to the Mediterranean then avoid the Bay of Biscay, which is choppy at almost any time of year, and embark at Barcelona (pictured) or Venice. Don't be put off a transatlantic cruise either, during the summer 'The Pond' can be very calm indeed.
From removing formal dress codes and introducing brand new, state-of-the-art ships that appeal to families and young couples, cruises have definitely thrown off their stuffy image. Modern ships now feel like the equivalent of staying at a luxury resort but with the USP of waking up somewhere new every day. Rather just being something for those who are retired, the average age of those cruising is now 47, according to a report by CLIA, (Cruise Lines International Association).
Forget trying to entertain kids with iPads, cruise ships have many ways of keeping them occupied, usually via kids' clubs manned by qualified and vetted staff. Some have mocktail bars for teenagers while soft play and adventure areas are like mini theme parks. There are scavenger hunts and science labs, swimming pools and dance parties – hopefully at the end of which they’ll be utterly exhausted.
If you’re imagining a sad beige buffet, think again: cruise ships take dining seriously with some offering over 20 restaurants with menus created by internationally-known celebrity chefs such as Thomas Keller, Jamie Oliver and Guy Fieri. Dishes often reflect the port of call too. Windstar Cruises' chefs do market tours with passengers, and as they shop for the ship, may hand you things to try. And all ships now cater for those with dietary requirements, offering gluten-free menus too.
The prospect of a sea day – when the ship doesn’t stop at port – used to be associated with genteel activities such as napkin folding. But that was in the days before the bottomless imagination of cruise ship activity directors. Aside from painting classes, cinemas and cookery courses, Celebrity Cruises’ Edge Class ship has a 75-foot outdoor pool, standard outdoor pool, an indoor pool and several hot tubs. Or if you want to kick back with a glass of wine (or six) Norwegian Getaway hosts a ‘Wine Lovers The Musical’ event – a long lunch that involves tasting tipples and comedy.
The busiest cruise port in the world is Miami, which sees nearly five million cruise passengers a year. If the thought of that makes you feel stressed, a savvy move is booking with a line that owns their own private islands such as Disney, Holland America, Norwegian Cruise Line, Princess Cruises and Royal Caribbean. Then there are cruises which specifically go to quieter spots, such as Star Clippers who travel the lesser known parts of the Greek islands, while Viking Ocean Cruises sail to smaller Norwegian ports.
Over the years outbreaks of nasty tummy bug norovirus on cruise ships have hit the headlines. In reality the risk of being unwell isn't any greater than at other everyday public places such as offices and schools. The best way to avoid getting ill is to take care of your personal hygiene by washing your hands before eating, using the hand sanitizer that's provided free of charge and by always using the tongs at the buffet.
Like hotels, cabins – usually known as staterooms – vary in size according to how much you’re spending. The cheapest is the inside cabin, which doesn’t have a window and space is minimal, so this option is best if the majority of your time will be spent outdoors. An outside cabin will come with a view, but opting for a balcony can give the perception of more space. Some ships also have unique layouts. For example, Disney's four cruise ships are designed for families, so standard cabins are larger than usual. Take a peek at how the other half with our pictures of the most expensive suites afloat.
You don’t. And also, ships take about a 50% cut of the excursions you do book, so when you’re being told about a ‘must see’ experience, it’s not necessarily coming from an unbiased place. A smart move is to cross reference what you’d like to see in the local area rather than relying on your cruise excursion desk to tell you. You also don’t have to book a shore tour – if the town is not far from the port, just grabbing a map and wandering on your own can be a much cheaper way of doing it.
The more luxurious and adventurous an excursion – such as going on a helicopter ride or sky-diving – the more pricey it will be, but a way of cutting costs can be to book privately. Simply because a tour is being offered by the ship doesn’t mean it’s safer or better quality. Sometimes cruise lines also offer free tours (such as the food buying tours to markets with onboard chefs mentioned before) so enquire about those too. Be sure to ask crew members for their top tips as they often have excellent local recommendations to share.
The classic ‘you might miss the boat’ is a time-honored incentive for you to book your excursion with the ship (and pay possibly more) as they guarantee to get you back on time. However independent companies operating tours in cruise ports won't want you to miss the ship either, so be reassured you won't have to swim back to your cabin...
It's true that if you want to stuff yourself silly there are belly-busting meals available 24-hours a day onboard. But it is possible to eat healthily and cruise lines have cottoned on to providing alternative options. The spa menus of most cruises have lighter dishes, while Royal Caribbean have several ships with a dedicated healthy-eating restaurant and Crystal Cruises offers low-carb menus at their restaurants. And don't forget the buffet restaurants always have impressive salads for anyone watching their waistline too.
Most cruise ships have state-of-the-art fitness facilities which nearly always have incredible views out to sea. You can even book personal trainers on some ships, and classes such as yoga, TRX suspension and boxing – but do watch out for extra costs. One great free option are the jogging tracks (with a lane for walkers too) around the decks of nearly all medium-to- large-sized ships.
Moving away from some of the formality associated with cruises – although Cunard still has a formal dress policy – cruise liners such as Disney, MSC and Norwegian don’t insist on it. Royal Caribbean gives you the option of three: casual, smart casual and formal. P&O has venues which have different dress code rules after 6pm to give you the option of dressing up or down.
This is mostly true, unless you’re on Cunard’s Queen Mary 2, which has kennels and crew members that will walk, feed and play with your pet. One of the stranger seafaring experiences you're likely to have is the Meow Meow cruise which sails from Florida to the Bahamas, and, while you can’t take your own cat, aims to unite people who really love their feline friends.
Spas may seem like a lavish expense but some cruise ships offer raffles where you can get free treatments if you join a tour of the facilities, usually on your first day onboard. If you aren’t content to rely on luck, look out for incentives with spa deals announced in the daily newsletter. One top tip is to book a treatment on a port day. Not only are you likely to get a hefty discount, facilities such as the sauna and pool will be quieter if you want to continue your pampering session in peace.
Couples treatments are a big deal on cruise ships (with good deals to entice you) but increasingly men-specific treatments are on offer. The spas on Silversea cruise ships have dedicated grooming services with a half-day of pampering specially designed for men. The LivNordic Spa on Viking ships (renowned for its snow grotto) also has a barber shop for gents.
As the number of solo travelers increases, cruise ships are adapting. Fred Olsen has more than 200 single cabins across its fleet and offers solo promotions and events onboard. Saga also provides 25% off solo cabins for over anyone aged 50 or over, while P&O Cruises' Britannia saw the first purpose-built single cabins with balconies. Norwegian Cruise Line – across its Epic, Breakaway and Getaway ships – launched an area just for solo travelers, with single cabins grouped together and a lounge and bar for socializing.
It’s actually more dangerous to drive a car than go on a cruise, as the odds of falling off are one in 6.25 million. If you do find yourself in the water, sea survival expert Mike Tipton, a University of Portsmouth professor and co-author of Essentials of Sea Survival offers this top tip: “The best thing you can do in the first few minutes of immersion is try to rest, relax, float.” However once in the sea your chances of survival are around 15%, so always be sensible when on deck (ie don't recreate that scene from Titanic after one too many cocktails...).
Modern ships have an excellent safety record and accidents are rare. Between 2009 and 2016, the number of people going on cruises went up 41% according to CLIA, while the number of operational incidents went down by 23%. Per billion passenger-miles, fatality rates on cruises were 00.05, compared to 08.78 on US rail and 212.79 on motorcycles, making it one of the safest modes of transport there is.
Many ports of call are a short walk or (usually free) bus ride to the main attractions. For example at Norwegian ports it's common to stroll down the gangway and straight into the heart of the city. In New York, Cunard's Queen Mary 2 leaves from Brooklyn, while Buenos Aires is half a mile from the cruise terminal and its main sights are in a compact, small area.
It's likely you will receive exceptional service onboard and will want to offer crew members a thank you at the end of your trip. A good rule of thumb is to tip $12 (£9.30) per person per day for your cabin steward. You can also tip individual members of staff such as waiters and all cash tips will go directly to them. That's said, some lines like Azamara, Crystal and Silversea have a no-tipping policy and include gratuities in the cost of the fare, so it's worth keeping in mind that the upfront outlay will be greater.
Even if you’re on an all-inclusive package, add-ons such as spa treatments may carry a service charge of around 15%. Upgrade to a speciality-dining restaurant and you may also face an additional charge for an à la carte menu too. Always check before you buy or sign up to a service how much will be added to your final bill.
As with flying, the pollution, rubbish and human waste created onboard will have an impact on the environment around a ship. But there are ways to mitigate the effects by choosing a cruise company that's mindful of marine ecology. A 2016 Friends of the Earth report cited Disney, Cunard, Holland America and Norwegian as the top four lines to travel with for a greener cruise.
Some places such as Russia’s pristine and unearthly Kamchatka Peninsula are only accessible by sea and air, and Silversea’s newest ship, the Silver Discoverer offers an 18-day trip there. You might see arctic foxes, reindeer, brown bears, and wolverines across a landscape of ice and volcanoes. Repositioning cruises are also a great way to see destinations as diverse as Oman and Recife in Brazil that aren't always on the itinerary.
Cruise ships seem to understand teenagers better than we do, which is why MSC allows them the veneer of adult responsibility with none of the consequences. They can have ‘teen cards’ which allow them to go back to their Staterooms by themselves and pre-pay cards for shopping and extras, but which they can’t use to buy alcohol (no matter how hard they try). Princess Cruises’ Royal Princess also has a teen-only pool. And don't forget that they'll often make friends with other kids from around the world, which will expand their horizons too.
Traditionally cruise ships had set meal times, commonly two sittings at 6.30pm and 8.30pm. But with the number of restaurants onboard now greater than just one large dining room, many ships offer the flexibility to choose both when and where you dine. On some ships you might need to make a reservation for the most popular restaurants, but often you can simply turn up and be seated. However, even if your ship has a more traditional approach, there will be an informal dining option, such as a 24-hour buffet, where you won't be tied to the clock.
As cruise ships become more family friendly, the prospect of traveling with newborns isn't so out of the ordinary. Several cruise ships offer special family deals that help with this, for instance, infants under two travel for free with MSC, and Disney offer a babysitting service for parents who want a night off.
This largely depends on your destination and the length of your cruise. Most Baltic cruises will stop at St Petersburg for two nights, enough time to take in the Hermitage Museum and a ballet. On an around the world cruise, where there's more time, there will be overnight stops in places such as Bangkok, Thailand, Myanmar and Beijing.
Again, this does depend on the ship, but increasingly cruise lines are moving away from a bingo, boules and ballroom dancing. MSC Cruises has a partnership with Cirque du Soleil (pictured) with two performances held six nights each week. Royal Caribbean has a rolling program of quality West End shows such as We Will Rock You and Cats, while on Cunard and Viking ships you'll find lots of cultural talks and lectures from big names.
This is one of life's rare occasions when sticking with a brand can offer big perks. From Seabourn cruises to Royal Caribbean, all the top names offer excellent loyalty programs for returning customers. Accrue a certain number of nights or voyages and you'll move up the tiers, which gives you access to everything from cabin upgrades to free drinks, extra onboard spending money and priority boarding.
It's certainly true that larger ships will have a greater range of entertainment, dining options and wellness facilities, but they can sometimes come with a bigger price tag too. Other than cheaper costs there are perks to a dinkier vessel. They can get into the smaller ports – essential if you want to see the best of the Norwegian fjords or some parts of Scotland for example, while queues to get off the boat will be minimal too. Looking for more cruise tips? Check out these 27 things you need to know before you go.
Source - www.msn.com
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