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FIRST THINGS FIRST
Before you pick up a brochure, study a port of call, or ring up Aunt Min to tell her you’re going on a cruise, decide what you expect from the experience. It sounds basic and a bit like psychoanalysis, but cruising has changed in the past fifty years and no longer resembles pre-World War II sea travel. What you expect from the vacation and what you get may be worlds apart.
RESORT OR SEA EXPERIENCE?
Do you want to visit a resort or be one with the sea? On some ships—the ones most people choose—cruisers notice that there’s an ocean outside the window on their walk from dinner to the 8:00 P.M. show; but otherwise, the ocean is unimportant. On other cruises, however, vacationers can steer the ship or swab the deck. Still other ships offer a combination of both worlds.
Many first-time cruisers expect traditional nautical decor such as wooden decks, brass handrails, and a spot where you feel ocean breezes, smell salt air, and watch the sun dip below the far horizon. While tradition can still be found, don’t expect it on the mammoth newer ships. Atriums now extend from bottom to top decks; color schemes run from rich greens and browns to electric magentas and pinks. Casinos speak in neon, spas massage flesh, cigar bars fill up, and shops push Rolexes. The ocean is still out there. Somewhere. The cruise experience, however, is a palate of colors, social activities, and ports of call.
“I’M NOT A CRUISE-TYPE PERSON”
Most of today’s cruise ships are, in reality, those resorts that just happen to float, and that’s what most people want. For some, it’s a camp for big kids, and they fill their days with scheduled activities. It bears a striking resemblance to other family vacations, but without the stress of planning and paying as you go.
Compare a cruise vacation to a self-guided road trip where travelers pick a destination, map out a route, decide when to arrive, and guess how long it will take to get there. They pencil in time for breaks and, when finished, tell their spouse to be ready to leave by 6:30 A.M. The couple must constantly reach agreement on when to eat, what to do, and how to handle the car’s ping-ping sound as they endure hours of monotonous drive time.
On a cruise, someone else worries about the details. Passengers scan a smorgasbord of activities, pick those they like and ignore those they don’t. If they wish, they do nothing. At dinner, they show up and pick an entrée, an appetizer, a dessert, and two or more other courses. If still hungry, they order a second entrée. They get off in St. Thomas—if they want. Or not. If they forgot to pack an iron, they turn to the room steward and ask for one. It’s now his problem. Servants constantly ask if everything is okay, turn the bed down at night, place a chocolate on the pillow, and make sure you’re happy on an emotional, do-you-feel-good level. Passengers feel as if they’ve moved up in the social order, tasting a lifestyle shared only by a select few, the Donald Trumps or the Leona Helmsleys.
A cruise disappoints few people. But—and there’s always a “but” in life—cruising might not be the best vacation choice under the following conditions:
“I want to understand a country’s culture.” While a number of cruises have educational themes and most offer pre-port destination lectures conducted by area experts, a cruise is usually not the best way to experience a country’s culture. In the Mediterranean, for example, ships stop in different ports for less than a day, and may hit six different countries in one week. Passengers barely have time to see the tourist attractions, much less get a feel for how the people live. For that, travelers must stay inside a country, talk to cabdrivers, and eat in small, family-owned restaurants. Lost is the conversation with the hotel clerk, the one-day car rental into the countryside, and the sights, sounds, and smells of the open-air market. On a ship, the countries are an optional activity, the cruise the actual vacation.
“I don’t like crowds.” Even full cruises don’t feel crowded most of the time thanks to staggered mealtimes and diverse activities. Cruise passengers are, however, traveling with many other people, and cruising, by definition, is a social vacation. Any activity open to all passengers can create elbow-to-elbow conditions. Those who would kill for a little privacy should not be deterred, but remember that few places on a ship, outside a private cabin, offer complete seclusion. Expect some human contact.
“I’m afraid I’ll get seasick.” Sometimes a valid reason, sometimes not—see The Truth About Seasickness.
While the previous reasons may cause you to choose a different type of vacation, almost everyone would enjoy a cruise at least once or twice. But some people use the following nonlegit reasons as an excuse to avoid cruising:
“I’d get antsy on a ship. I’d feel enclosed.” That’s a bit like standing in the middle of a football field and complaining that the stadiums are closing in. When viewing the ocean from the comfort of the main deck, humans feel almost powerless against the vastness of the earth and her oceans. From within the ship, guests not only enjoy massive theaters, dining rooms, and decks, but they can easily move from one to the other. On the largest ships, you’ll barely see everything in seven days.
“It’s too expensive.” Almost never. You pay for a cruise, in full, at least six weeks before departure, meaning the vacation budget is tapped long before eating that first gourmet meal. Consequently, it feels more expensive to people writing a $3,000 check and seeing no immediate return for their outlay. But compare the costs.
Assume a driving trip costs $100 per night for a hotel room (a bargain rate most places). Further assume that it costs $100 a day for food (again, a bargain rate for two people), $75 per day for gas, admissions, cover charges, and tolls. That comes to $275 per day for a couple, $1925 for one week. To cruise for the same price, the trip would have to cost $962.50 per person.
Can a cruise cost that little? Easily for a middle-of-the-road line, especially for adults flexible on travel times and itineraries. It could net you a great cabin on an economy cruise line, or a moderate cabin on a luxury cruise line, and it comes without the stress and frustration of planning your days. If traveling with grandchildren, it comes with an additional priceless perk—free baby-sitting.
“I hate dressing for dinner.” Most mainstream lines ask passengers to dress for dinner once or twice, but even then, the rules are lax. Very few people wear a tux for formal cruise dinners; most wear a dark suit, a few wear a light suit, and a sprinkling of individualists wear only a jacket and button-down shirt. Women, of course, have greater leeway in fashion. Outside those formal dinners, almost anything goes, though most people go “resort casual,” meaning something a notch above T-shirts and jeans. Only a handful of luxury liners would make you feel out of place, and even some luxury liners shun coats and ties, touting a “casual elegance” theme.
“I’ll be bored.” On the one hand, ships schedule so many activities that cruisers can rise at dawn and not stop moving until they drop a tired patootie into bed somewhere around 3:00 A.M. On the other hand, if someone chooses not to participate in any of the activities and does indeed get bored, is it a vacation? Many times, the I’ll-be-bored people are Type-A executives who don’t know how to relax. They read market reports, not novels. They walk fast because they’re late, not because it’s good for their health. They see ocean waves and wonder how their company’s stock is doing. Mature travelers, by definition, enjoy the sights, sounds, and smells of a cruise.
Immature travelers may, however, be bored.
“I’m afraid I’ll get seasick.” This can be a legitimate reason to avoid cruising, though it’s usually a sorry excuse. See the next section.
THE TRUTH ABOUT SEASICKNESS
Fear of seasickness keeps many people from cruising. Why, they reason, should I spend thousands of dollars on a vacation I might not enjoy? It’s a rare sea that affects a modern ship, however, and even if it does, medical solutions are effective and readily available.
On today’s large ships, the ship doesn’t even seem to move most of the time. Compare that to fishing boats, the number one reason most people fear an ocean voyage. The typical story: A couple, while at the seashore, book a day trip on a fishing boat, the first time they’ve actually gone out to sea. They board at 8:00 A.M. Five hours later, they arrive at the dock, swearing never to return, their faces green, their stomachs empty. But that fishing trip has nothing to do with cruising.
Cruise ships built since the 1950s have stabilizers—massive fins below the waterline that, using computers, sense the roll of the waves and compensate to minimize rocking. While the sea does the jitterbug, the ship dances a waltz. While no stabilizer is perfect—i.e., the ship still moves in the worst storms—a rocky voyage is rare.
If worried about seasickness, be honest with yourself. How susceptible are you to motion sickness? Carsickness? One passenger I met gave up a career in ballet because she could not turn her head rapidly without feeling nauseous. Still, she willingly cruised the Caribbean. If you do not ordinarily get carsick, don’t worry about a cruise. If you cannot look left without your brain gurgling, consider a river cruise—or a train.
Generally, the fear of seasickness is worse than the actual malady. Consider the following seasickness remedies:
Either Dramamine or Bonine are over the-counter medications that fight seasickness, though they might make you sleepy. (Avoid alcohol.) Older adults may be affected more than young adults and kids thanks to slower metabolisms, so you may want to start with a half dose to see how it goes. Both medications can be purchased before departure at a local drugstore or on board the ship. On some cruises, one or both are handed out freely.
A Transderm Scp patch works in a similar way to Dramamine and Bonine, but the patch’s medicine, absorbed through the skin, gives a more consistent dosage and lasts longer. Because it can cause side effects, it is available by prescription only. Talk to your doctor.
The Sea-Band, a bracelet, supposedly eases nausea by putting pressure on strategic nerves (pressure points). Many drugstores carry them, as do travel stores, mail order catalogs, and ship’s stores. Some people swear by them. Since they don’t introduce medicine into the body, they’re a good choice for people worried about drug interactions.
Seasickness can be virtually wiped out by choosing the proper itinerary and ship. The Caribbean, for example, is usually smooth, while the North Atlantic can get rocky. In general, cruises on smaller bodies of water (Caribbean, Mediterranean, or Gulf of Mexico) rock and roll less than those on large bodies of water (Pacific, Atlantic, Indian Ocean, or South China Sea). In addition, big ships move less than their smaller counterparts. Putting the two together, a megaship sailing in the Caribbean rarely moves enough to cause anyone to get seasick, even during a storm. (For a guaranteed seasickness-free cruise, however, choose a river trip, such as one with the Delta Queen Steamboat Company.)
The location of the cabin also affects the amount of rocking. On any size ship, the best cabins for avoiding seasickness are not necessarily the most expensive. Ships rock in two directions. The front of the ship cuts waves, moving up and down as the ship plows forward. As the front goes up, the back goes down and vice versa, rocking like a child’s teeter-totter with the ship’s center remaining relatively still—the reason cabins in the center fill faster.
The same principle works if the boat rocks side to side, called “roll.” Picture a metronome rocking back and forth. The bottom of the metronome moves an inch or so; the top rocks five or six inches. On a ship, it works the same way. Cabins toward the bottom move a slight amount; cabins near the top roll more. Adding the two ship movements together, it follows that a central cabin on a lower deck will move much less than any other cabins on the ship.
The traditional method of fighting seasickness is, to many, still the best. If you feel nauseous, head to an outer deck and concentrate on the far horizon. Eat some dry crackers to settle the stomach. Above all, avoid tasks that cause you to look down, such as writing postcards or reading.
BIG VERSUS SMALL CRUISE LINES
Very little can be determined by the size of a cruise line, though certain economies of scale result from owning many ships. The large cruise lines—Royal Caribbean, Carnival, Holland America, NCL, Princess, Star, Celebrity, and Costa—can negotiate lower prices from suppliers, meaning passengers get more for their money or the cruise line earns a higher profit. Carnival alone will have twenty ships in the water soon. Just as a mom-and-pop motel can be better than the nearby national chain, however, some small lines offer specialized service that the big guys cannot match. Because the most luxurious cruises are also the most expensive, for example, and unaffordable to most people, true gourmet cruising usually takes place on smaller lines.
In many cases, the big cruise lines actually own each other. Carnival Corp., for example, owns or has an ownership interest in Carnival, Holland America, Windstar, Costa, NCL, Cunard, and Seabourn. As ownership changes and vessels bounce from one company to another, score cards become somewhat meaningless. In other words, read their individual descriptions in Chapter 8 and don’t be deterred by a David and Goliath analogy.
SHIPS: IS BIGGER BETTER?
Cruise line brochures, travel agents, and passengers operate on the “bigger is better” principle when selecting a ship, and most of the time, they’re right. For limited ship motion, bigger is better. For sheer number of onboard activities, it is, too. And for newness and technical glitz, big beats small almost every time.
Consider a smaller ship, however, for:
Avoiding children. Families want plenty of activities, meaning a big ship, to keep everyone happy.
Romance. If hoping to meet that special someone, a small ship lowers the pool of potential partners, but may also offer a higher quality selection. Big ships, based simply on the number of people, still offer plenty of shopping opportunities though.
Intimate cruises. With a limited number of small lounges on a small ship, it’s easier to socialize and make friends.
Out-of-the-way ports of call. Smaller ships can navigate into shallower ports and visit cities unmarred by thousands of previous tourists; many adults book passage on a small ship just to avoid the standard tourist traps. In fact, many smaller ships offer interesting ports of call to make up for their lack of onboard entertainment.
Traditional cruising. Just as some folks take a train for the experience as much as the transportation, a smaller ship looks, smells, and feels like a classic ocean vessel. The motion of the sea is part of the adventure.
Five-star luxury. Luxury costs money, and product demand from financially secure people cannot fill a megaship week after week. Plus, personal service and Intimacy—the hallmark of a luxury cruise—can’t be found in a crowd.
Unfortunately, like all aging things, some older ships are well kept and others are not. “Old” should not be confused with “small,” but it is many times true—and that distinction feeds travel agent recommendations for bigger ships. While a well-kept older ship is a joy to behold, a not-so-well-kept older ship is no joy to be on. Imagine a Caribbean cruise without working air-conditioning in July. Scary. Plumbing can be dicey, carpets worn, and decor reminiscent of the 1960s. Booking passage on a new ship is the easy way to avoid poor maintenance problems.
DESTINATIONS: TROPICAL, ARCTIC, OR SOMETHING IN BETWEEN?
On a cruise ship, only tropical itineraries are truly warm. Ocean breezes can be blustery during the day and downright chilly at night. But other geographic differences are subtle.
In the Caribbean, the most popular warm weather destination, cruise ship amenities are paramount. Ports of call, while distinctly different culturally, look suspiciously alike geographically. If planning to tour interesting areas, consider a western Caribbean route (Mexico, Caymans, and Jamaica) or a southern Caribbean route (islands between Puerto Rico and Aruba). Late spring and the fall are usually less expensive. Avoid any time of the year when kids are out of school.
Many ships cruising the Caribbean in winter head to Alaska in the summer where the season generally lasts from early May until late September. High season runs from June to August. For warmth, consider full summer, but for thinner crowds, go in May or September. Shoppers may want to consider the early fail—the end of the tourist season—when retailers discount prices to move merchandise. May and September cruises usually cost less, too.
Besides Alaska, a handful of smaller ships visit small and large towns along the northeastern seaboard in late spring, summer, and fall. In middle and northwest American rivers, the Delta Queen Steamboat Company operates four ships that sail year-round, with theme cruises that reflect the seasons of the year. In Hawaii, American Hawaii offers an overview of the bigger islands year round.
Europe and Asia
Europe and Asia follow the same weather rules as North America. Summer is the time to go—unless you want to save money and don’t mind cooler weather. For Mediterranean countries, expect an April to October sailing season, with value prices in spring and fall. For northerly destinations, such as Great Britain, look for a shorter window of opportunity between May and September.
Repositioning, Panama Canal, Transatlantic, Maiden Voyages, and Others
A repositioning cruise, by definition, repositions the ship from one place to another. Many lines move ships to Alaska during the summer, for example, and to the Caribbean in the winter. A cruise that starts in Alaska and ends in Miami, or vice versa, “repositions” the ship for another season. With sailing dates in the heart of a slow season, repositioning cruises generally come at a bargain rate but with additional perks—such as a visit to the Caribbean, Alaska, and even a trip through the Panama Canal.
Some Panama Canal sailings are scheduled year-round. The Canal, quite simply, transports a ship from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, or vice versa, by going through the canal. To cross Panama, ships move forward into a lock that is either filled or emptied of water, depending on whether the ship needs to go up or down to reach the next ocean’s level. Quite simply, it’s a series of steps made of water. It’s amazing, technologically intriguing, and Panama itself may soon be a major tourist draw. The U.S. reverted canal ownership back to Panama in 2000, and the country plans to develop its tourism industry further to entice visitors to spend a bit more time, and money, in their country.
A transatlantic cruise crosses … well, the Atlantic. Only one ship, the QE 2 (Queen Elizabeth 2) currently offers transatlantic cruises on a semi-regular basis; other ships cross the Atlantic sporadically or as part of a round-the-world cruise. The QE 2, owned by Cunard Lines, also offers an option to fly in one direction. Generally, a transatlantic cruise has a different shipboard ambience compared to other cruises, mainly because it has a goal to achieve and no ports of call along the way. Many passengers are either experienced cruisers or people who absolutely refuse to fly anywhere.
Some cruise lines operate ships in Europe for the summer months, but reposition to the Caribbean for winter, scheduling at least two transatlantic crossings per year. These transatlantic repositioning cruises sometimes offer bargain rates to boot.
An inaugural cruise, sometimes called a maiden voyage, is not really a distinct type of cruise; rather, it’s the first voyage for a new ship. Cruise lovers and fans of a particular cruise line can get down-and-dirty excited when a new ship first enters the market, and demand for a virgin ship runs high, akin to driving home a new car. Besides, celebrities and cruise line executives usually travel along. On the downside, a cruise is a complicated interaction between different elements—a full-fledged hotel, restaurant, spa, tour company, and more. Something can go wrong and usually does. Problems with plumbing or electrical wiring or computer systems inevitably arise. Mature travelers expect delays, inconsistencies, and a service staff slightly uneasy with their role and product. Immature travelers may have problems, however.
Yet another warning: More than one person has booked a cruise scheduled for two to three months after an inaugural cruise, figuring that the ship will still be new, but the staff will, by then, have its act together. Due to construction delays, however, they suddenly discover themselves on an inaugural cruise. If you wish to avoid an inaugural cruise, consider a different ship or delay travel for at least six months.
STYLE: FORMAL OR RELAXED?
Mature travelers considering a first cruise may imagine evening gowns, tuxedos, sunsets, and champagne. However, this elegance actually scares some potential cruisers who don’t think of themselves as “formal people.” The husband doesn’t own a tux, they rarely drink alcohol, and they haven’t danced since Cousin Sid’s wedding in ’89. They watch television reruns of The Love Boat and worry that they’ll feel out of place.
If anything, the average cruise is more relaxed than noncruises realize. There are exceptions, and select ships appeal to those who routinely dress for dinner, but most lines now cater to the nonformal crowd. Even on scheduled formal dinners, few men show up in a tuxedo; most wear a dark suit, though some don’t even go that far. While a woman may wear an evening gown and feel perfectly at home, expect no small number to wear a cocktail dress or pantsuit. Don’t buy a new wardrobe. Almost everyone has the basics in their closet.
Many times—but not always—formality follows class lines and vacation costs. Budget cruises may plan one or two formal dinners, but otherwise demand little of guests who wear T-shirts most of the time. On a middle-of-the-road line, a few men wear a tux to-formal dinners and the standard daily wear—described as “resort casual”—is a notch higher than on a budget cruise. Expensive cruises, on average, demand more formality in exchange for greater luxury. On a few, men wear a coat and tie to dinner every night. Still, even with a top cruise, someone somewhere wears ratty attire a few times and gets away with it.
INEXPENSIVE CRUISES: DO YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR?
There’s no free lunch. It’s a cliché, but true. There are, however, bargains. If looking for champagne accommodations on a beer budget, consider a less desirable cabin on a better ship, an off-season departure, a suite on a budget cruise line, and read Chapter 4.
In general, however—even if snaring a bargain—there are differences between budget and luxury cruise lines. Ships that, on average, charge less must cut costs somewhere. Wal-Mart and Saks Fifth Avenue both sell a wide range of products, many of them similar, a few of them identical. But Wal-Mart, to keep prices low, does not have ornate woodwork, and fluorescent lights bathe the entire store in a warehouse like white glow. A decision to shop at Wal-Mart rather than Saks depends on (1) a shopper’s needs, (2) the amount of money they can afford to spend, and (3) their personal sense of place. Shopping for a cruise line depends on the same three variables.
To make it more confusing, cruise lines don’t fit easily into budget/moderate/luxury categories. A single ship is a hotel, restaurant, lounge, exercise room, spa, store, and casino. A moderately priced ship may have a mediocre spa, excellent food, and average accommodations, so a simple “moderate” rating does not adequately explain the package. Still, as a cruise line lowers prices overall, quality must go. As lines grow less expensive, expect one of the following items to be limited:
Accommodations. Budget lines don’t build new ships—they buy them used from other lines. Large lines, striving to create a consistent product to attract repeat cruisers, don’t want to put old ships in their brochures next to their new megaships—so they sell them to the budget lines.
If booking on an older ship, there are pluses. Cabins tend to be bigger and ship decor more traditional. With prices for a deluxe outside cabin comparable to inside cabins on other lines, a limited vacation budget goes further. Also, a number of ships undergo multimillion-dollar refurbishments when ownership changes, making them at least look new. On the other hand, “traditional” should not mean “water stains in the sink” or “plumbing that doesn’t work.” Besides mechanical glitches that need fixing, ships must periodically replace furniture, carpeting, drapes, and bedspreads. A ship charging top-dollar can redecorate often; a budget ship cannot. “Traditional” should also not mean the same thing as “we’ve used the same bedspreads since 1976.”
Personnel. Budget cruises employ fewer people, represented under the individual descriptions as the passenger/crew ratio. Almost one crew member per paying passenger—a ratio of 1:1—can be found when booking top-notch accommodations. On a budget sailing, expect passenger/crew ratios closer to 3:1 (three passengers per crew member). On a few ships, the rate approaches 5:1. The ratio doesn’t explain whether a room steward serves three cabins or thirty-three cabins, but a high ratio implies that service suffers somewhere. For people who expect little more than a quick room cleaning, fresh linen, and standard food service in the dining room, a high ratio is not a problem. But if a guest needs special attention during the voyage—advice on a shore excursion or help removing stains from a favorite blouse—they can expect to wait longer on a budget cruise. Personnel could also be newer or less experienced than workers found on more expensive vessels.
Food. A good chef costs more money than a mediocre chef does, but with food a major cruise draw on all lines, even budget cruises usually hire competent chefs, and food quality is at least fair across the board. Food selection, however, will be more circumscribed on a budget cruise with gourmet choices scarce. Lobster and prime rib may be served one night because, thanks to a picture in the brochure, passengers expect it; on other nights, though, look for modest selections with a lot of chicken served under French-sounding sauces. Lavish buffets may stock limited amounts of peel-your-own shrimp while generously offering turkey, hot dogs, and hamburgers.
For true gourmets, budget lines don’t satisfy, but neither do many mainstream carriers. The fact is, a cruise dinner is nothing more than a banquet on big ships. Hundreds of people choose from perhaps six entrées at one time. Given that reality, the food is surprisingly good. As anyone in the catering business knows, serving 400 identical meals is not difficult, but making them appear fresh and individually prepared is. If happy with gourmet food and only gourmet food, sail on one of the smaller luxury lines.
Note that many things are not different between expensive and budget cruises. If in the Caribbean, all ships cross the same aquamarine water. Barbados is the same island no matter how you get there, as is St. Thomas and Bermuda. All weather is warm and the same balmy tropical breezes fan each deck.
On a budget cruise, you still escape the real world—you just don’t escape as far.
THREE DAYS, SEVEN DAYS, OR ROUND THE WORLD IN EIGHTY DAYS?
First, “round the world” usually takes more than eighty days. Plan for a hundred, more or less. Second, people who can afford a round-the-world vacation have probably cruised before. It not, they should.
Short cruises. For many people, their first cruise is a three- or four-day trip—just long enough to get their feet wet, no pun intended. For the rest, a seven-day cruise is standard. Retired travelers have the blessing of flexibility and can consider a ten-day or fourteen-day trip, though most don’t opt for a longer cruise their first time out.
A three- or four-day cruise specifically appeals to people who (1) live near a port, are flexible, and want a quick get away; (2) want to start out small their first time out; (3) cannot leave work for an entire week (and need to take it easy); or (4) cannot afford seven days at sea. The downside to short cruising is the price of airfare, a hidden cost included in the cruise package. The per diem rate (cost per day—total cost divided by number of days) of a short cruise with air is higher than that of a long cruise. Assume that a cruise line charges $100 per day to feed and carry a passenger, and a one time fee of $200 to fly them to the port of departure. On a seven-day trip, the cost is actually about $129.00 per day ($100 times seven plus the $200 airfare divided by the seven days). On a three-day cruise, the cost is $167.00 per day ($100 times three plus the $200 airfare divided by the three days). Note that the example does not apply to passengers who can drive to the port.
Another disadvantage: Travelers who enjoy different ports of call cannot take many short cruises because most ships visit the same places. In Florida, almost all short cruises go to Nassau and/or Freeport in the Bahamas; a select few stop in Key West. In California, ships visit Mexico and Catalina Island. Even at top speed, ships just don’t go very far in three or four days.
If considering a short cruise and wishing to avoid children, plan for a four-day trip that travels over weekdays. Most lines schedule their three-day cruises to coincide with a weekend, attracting younger adults who need to take only one day off work, as well as their offspring who won’t miss much school. A four-day cruise generally runs from Sunday to Thursday or Monday to Friday.
Seven-day cruises. The seven-day cruise is standard. For those not yet retired, it’s a one-week vacation, easily scheduled, easily enjoyed. Travelers can pick from many different ships and itineraries, making it an attractive repeat vacation. Because it fits well with most nonretired work schedules, it also tends to draw a younger crowd overall, and more kids who go when their parents can get off work.
Longer cruises. To avoid children, shoot for anything longer than a week. It has obvious advantages such as more ports and less pressure to fill days with activities. Working parents also find it less convenient. Ten-day, two-week, and longer cruises tend to be offered by upscale lines, due mainly to their cost, though most mainstream lines have at least a limited number of longer cruises.
A round-the-world cruise. A round-the-world cruise is the vacation of a lifetime. Passengers see the world without jet lag, without rushing, and without stress. With few exceptions, those enjoying the world by sea are older, well-to-do, and adventurous.
While a number of European and Asian cruise lines schedule round-the-world trips, lines familiar to North Americans and with at least occasional world-circling excursions include top-of-the-line Seabourn and Cunard. Under mainstream lines, Holland America and Princess also offer an occasional round-the-world vacation. Because most passengers cannot afford the $29,000 to $300,000 price tag of a complete round-the-world cruise, many companies also sell segments. If you want to visit Australia, for example, you can pick up the ship in Los Angeles, enjoy island ports of call as you cross the Pacific, then disembark in Sydney. For more information, talk to your travel agent.
More than one potential cruiser with a health condition has decided not to cruise because: “What happens if I get sick at sea—1000 miles from the nearest hospital?”
Unless a ship is primarily used for other functions, such as a barge, and as long as it has at least fifty passengers on board, it will probably have some kind of medical facilities and staff. Most have at least one doctor with an emergency room capable of minor medical procedures; some have more. There is no accepted standard for medical facilities on a ship, however, and it’s best not to make assumptions. Think of shipboard facilities as a good medical clinic in a small country town. They’re more than adequate and can treat most problems, but if a malady requires a specialist, you’ll be referred to a hospital in the big city. Here, that “big city” is the next port of call. Onboard doctors either correct simple problems or stabilize patients until the ship arrives at a larger facility.
For some mature travelers, the prospect of surgery or medical procedures in small foreign countries strikes fear in their hearts; some even forgo travel because of it. But good hospitals exist almost everywhere, and cruise passengers generally get referred to “the best hospital in (fill in city name).” In addition, cruise lines usually have a system in place to help passengers stuck in a port of call due to a medical emergency. An English-speaking liaison, for example, may visit you in the hospital, help with paperwork and, if necessary, translation. Other resources—a cruise line representative, insurance contact, or even personal credit card company—can arrange for a return home.
Most cruise ship medical emergencies involve new problems, such as heart attacks, but some passengers have existing illnesses that flare up. If you have a known medical condition that could require emergency service, tell your travel agent and ask extensive questions to make sure the ship can handle any recurring problems. In my opinion, health should rarely keep a person from traveling because traveling is one of the reasons for living. Still, be realistic. A cruise ship simply cannot do everything.
Most cruise lines require that a health form be filled out if someone has an existing medical problem; they also reserve the right to deny passage if, in the line’s opinion, the medical condition could cause a problem while at sea. Generally Princess and Holland America have good reputations concerning their health-care facilities, as does the QE 2. Note that even with these large lines, actual staffing and facilities can vary from ship to ship.
Other health issues:
Ship doctors do not specialize. That means they know a lot of things about the body, but may not be experts on your specific problem. If worried, ask your family doctor to make a copy of pertinent medical information and, should something occur on board, give it to the ship’s doctor.
Doctors do not work for the cruise line. Most cruise lines hire an outside firm to staff and work the infirmary, though exceptions exist. For all practical matters, you’re going to an independent doctor, just as you do on land. There is also no guarantee that the doctor was trained in the U.S. Most large cruise lines report that their doctors are licensed in either the U.S., Canada, United Kingdom, or Scandinavian countries. If you have a special concern, have your travel agent check and get the answer in writing before finalizing vacation plans.
Insurance rules vary. Call your own insurance plan before leaving home to find out if they cover cruise ship medical fees or procedures performed in foreign countries. Many policies, including Medicare, pay nothing. Zip. Nada. Since an evacuation from the ship can cost as much as $20,000, this is the best argument for buying travel health insurance (see Chapter 5).
A few insurance policies do cover onboard or foreign country medical treatments, but the rules vary from insurer to insurer. For example, passengers usually pay for medical service even if they’re insured—on a ship, that means as they leave the infirmary—and then seek reimbursement after their return home. If this happens to you, keep the receipt and write down all information including doctors’ and nurses’ names. Keep copies for your records.
Prescription drugs. Most ships stock prescription drugs, but if they’re out, it’s tough to order more when 300 miles from the shoreline. Stock up before leaving home, and make sure your supply will last as long as the trip. If taking a long cruise, talk to your doctor about refills and ask for guidance on taking medication when passing through time zones, You may have to adjust the timing of doses to keep your body on its natural rhythm.
Sanitation. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (http://www.cdc.gov) inspects ships every six months if they depart from a U.S. port and issues a public report on the findings. A perfect score, rarely achieved, is one hundred; anything eighty-five or lower is considered unacceptable. The CDC maintains a Web site—http:llwww2.cdc.gov/nceh/vsp/vspmain.asp—which posts each ship’s most recent inspection report. For those without Internet access, the most recent report is also available by mail at:
Vessel Sanitation Program
National Center for Environmental Health
1015 North America Way, Room 107
Miami, FL 33132
First aid. Consider putting together a small first aid kit and taking it along. Band-Aids, sunburn lotion, and other supplies are usually available on the ship, but shops may be closed when you need them. Should you wish a simple medical procedure—blood pressure check or even just a thermometer to see if you’re feverish—a visit to the doctor can be expensive. Be prepared.
Assistance. If any medical condition requires something extra, such as oxygen, confirm in writing before departure that the ship can—and will—supply it or accommodate your supply. Rather than accept a simple “yes” answer, push for specifics on how they typically handle the problem.
Disease. Sickness occurs worldwide, but few countries visited by cruise ships have notable problems. If traveling to an exotic destination, however, the Centers for Disease Control posts prevalent diseases, by country, at http://www.cdc.gov/travel/blusheet.htm.
Death at sea. It happens, of course. Generally, a body can be refrigerated until the ship returns to the port of disembarkation. Arrangements can also be made to disembark at the next port of call and have the body flown home. Expect paperwork and hassles, but the ship’s crew will do everything they can to help.
Healthy Cruising Checklist
1. Be realistic. Check with your doctor to make sure you can safely cruise. Ask for a copy of pertinent medical records.
2. Be smart. Explain any health problems to the cruise line and confirm, in writing, that they can handle problems. Take a phone list of doctors that have treated you recently.
3. Bring extra medicine including first aid supplies. Be prepared to treat yourself for minor medical problems.
4. When booking, ask the cruise line about onboard facilities, the medical staff, and what equipment they use.
5. Check the ship’s sanitation rating at http:llwww2.cdc.govlncehlvsp/vspmain.asp.
A cruise ship is, by definition, a closed environment. Petty thieves who find tourists easy prey do not frequent the dining room. It costs too much to get on board and there’s no place to run. Big crimes, such as a ship hijacking, are also almost unheard of. After the infamous Achille Lauro episode in 1985, the industry bolstered its security, and now, boarding a ship requires a checkpoint similar to those passed through to board an airplane. In general, no one should avoid a cruise ship vacation based on a fear of crime. With that said, intelligent precautions should still be taken.
Oversight. Ships spend most of their time in international waters. That means U.S. laws do not apply in the same way they do in Las Vegas, Orlando, or New York. The rules are different. If a cruise line case is even heard in a U.S. court, for example, it’s generally a federal case rather than a state case. In addition, the cruise lines do not have the same obligation to report crimes to authorities if they occur outside U.S. waters.
Read the “cruise contract” carefully, including details and small print in the back of brochures. By paying money and signing the contract, you may obligate yourself to play by rules the cruise line has established, though it’s generally a take-it-or-leave-it arrangement. If not acceptable, consider a ship that travels in the U.S. only. That way, at least, grievances work through the U.S. court system.
Sexual assault. Any kind of sexual assault, including rape, is shocking. But it happens. When it happens on a cruise vacation, however, it seems somehow worse, perhaps because the very idea of a cruise is to escape the realities of life and rise to a level slightly above the mundane.
In July of 1999, at the request of a U.S. court, Carnival Cruise Lines revealed the number of sexual assaults that had occurred on their ships over the previous five-year period. (A crew member claimed that she’d been sexually assaulted by another crew member while still in U.S. waters.) Carnival’s count: 108, according to The Miami Herald. The report created bad press for Carnival and also some other lines, such as Royal Caribbean, who unwillingly joined the scuffle.
In truth, the figure is misleading but not inaccurate. Carnival correctly claims that a reported sexual assault could be, and in some cases was, as mild as an unwelcome kiss—most of the 108 incidents did not involve rape. Also, the cruise line—the world’s largest—carried 1.8 million people in just the previous twelve months, meaning there was a problem with about one in every 60,000 passengers. Further watering down the danger, many of the allegations, including the case already cited, came from a crew member and were directed at another crew member. In the overall scheme of things, it’s a benign figure, perhaps one sexual assault per 100,000 passengers. Still, it happens on rare occasion.
Common sense is the best weapon. It’s always wise to keep cabin doors closed when alone inside your room, and open when entertaining new friends. When visiting a port, err on the side of caution. Don’t travel alone or in “shady” parts of town. Understand any problem areas of town before disembarking. Single women should remember that the crew is trained to be polite and outgoing when serving the public, but that does not mean they’re nice all the time. Some are good actors, and that polite, good-looking guy in the dining room may not be so nice behind closed doors.
Theft. Again, wear the badge of common sense. The newer cruise ships offer limited access to rooms, and on some of the absolute newest, a computer keeps a record of who has entered each room. Still, anything of value, especially jewelry, should not be taken along on any vacation, cruise or otherwise. A traveler I know takes great pride in her cubic zirconium collection of jewelry. She’s replaced virtually every real piece she owns with a fake piece that looks almost like the original. If she loses one or all of her fake pieces, she’s prepared to absorb the loss.
Fire. The International Maritime Organization has a Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) program that, over time, mandates new fire protection and lifesaving standards for all cruise ships. The conversion of older ships costs a lot of money; as a result, many new ships are now coming on line and older ships retiring. To the cruise passenger, however, it means less danger from fires. While a fire can still occur on board, the new rules make it easier to contain the problem. A fire in the kitchen would, for example, create culinary problems but it shouldn’t threaten lives. As always, passengers should take precautions. Throwing a cigarette or match over the side of the ship, for example, is dangerous since it could blow backward and enter decks below.
Sandbars, other ships, and icebergs. The Titanic not withstanding, people don’t die from cruise ship disasters. Even in the worst case imaginable, a ship sinking, current requirements for lifeboat accessibility minimize risk. In the past ten years, a handful of ships have lodged on a sandbar or faced some other type of problem. No one has died; no one has been injured. It’s just not something to worry about. In the unlikely event your cruise is so affected, go with the flow, ask for your money back, and demand at least a 50 percent discount on your next cruise. Then look forward to it.
PASSPORTS AND VISAS
When traveling to a foreign country, U.S. travelers must prove they are U.S. citizens (with a passport or other approved documentation), and if visiting a handful of countries, ask permission to enter before arrival (a visa). Your travel agent should explain details specific to your trip before departure, but if she doesn’t, ask.
No documentation is required for a cruise that starts and stops within the U.S. Currently, however, that includes the Delta Queen Steamboat Company that plies the waters of the Mississippi and other rivers, American Hawaii that visits islands in the fiftieth state, and a handful of other summer cruises that explore the East Coast. For Caribbean itineraries or passage into Canada—along with selected other world sites—U.S. and Canadian citizens need at least an original birth certificate and an official picture ID such as a driver’s license. A passport is acceptable, of course, and for other world destinations, it is mandatory.
One word of warning: When most mature travelers were born, the hospital issued an attractive, flowery, official-looking birth certificate with signatures and baby footprints and little angels in the corner. Frame it and hang it. It won’t do any good on a cruise. “Original” birth certificate means one issued by the state (with a raised seal), though not necessarily at the time of birth.
TO GET A BIRTH CERTIFICATE: Either (a) dig it out of the folder Mom gave you when you turned forty, or (b) contact the state in which you were born and request another one. Every state in the U.S. has a department that keeps track of births. It might be called the “Department of Records,” or perhaps the “Department of Vital Statistics,” but all can issue a new certificate for a nominal fee, perhaps $10. If a birth certificate cannot be found and a new one must be ordered, however, start the process long before sailing. It can take six weeks or more—a pain in the neck for people now living in a different state. For last-minute people, it may be possible to get a birth certificate in just a few days, though it generally costs more money.
TO GET A PASSPORT: U.S. citizens who want to travel to foreign countries need a passport. Cruise itineraries to Europe and other parts of the world require one. To get a passport, travelers still need the aforementioned birth certificate, as well as two pictures (two inches by two inches, available at many travel agencies or camera centers), an application form, and $60 to pay the application fee. The passport is good for ten years. If buying a passport for a child fifteen or younger, the cost is only $40, but these passports expire in five years. Add $35 if you need quick service. For more information, check with your travel agent—many keep applications on file—or contact the U.S. Passport Office at 202-955-0232. The U.S. State Department also has extensive information on passports and the process on its Web site—http://travel.state.gov/passport_services.html—including a printable application. Any travel agent worth their salt can give you directions to the nearest government office or post office that accepts passport applications, as will the State Department’s Web site.
TO GET A PASSPORT WITHOUT A BIRTH CERTIFICATE: A handful of births never made it into the legal record books, and some government records have been lost to fires or floods. As a result, a few adults may have difficulty finding their birth certificates. If that sounds like you, the State Department has a complicated—but not impossible—set of guidelines to overcome the problem. For answers, visit the Web site listed above or call the local office of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and request a Certificate of Citizenship. Their telephone number should be in the Government section of the local phone book.
TO GET A VISA: U.S. citizens do not need a visa to travel to foreign countries served by most cruise ships. For some exotic destinations, however, they do. A visa, quite simply, starts as a traveler’s request to enter a foreign country. When (if) the foreign country decides to grant permission through a local office or embassy, it issues a visa, a stamp inside the passport itself, that essentially says, “He’s okay. He can come onto our soil.” Requirements vary from country to country and from time to time. Besides the visa, a handful of countries may also have additional entrance requirements such as a vaccination.
The easiest way to get a visa is through a visa service. Travel agents usually recommend someone they work with, but the Internet has also spawned a cottage industry of on-line companies. Should there be a problem, the visa service can do the laborious work and guarantee that the visa arrives on time. Cost for the service varies depending on the number of visas needed and the amount of time the service has to secure them.
Two booklets—Foreign Entry Requirements and Passports—Applying for Them the EASY WAY—give detailed information on how and where to apply for U.S. passports and visas. Both are available from the Consumer Information Center, Pueblo, CO 81009. They may also be accessed through the Internet at: http:llwww.pueblo.gsa.govltravel.htm. Cost: $0.50 each by mail, free at the Web site.
TO TRAVEL WITH A GRANDCHILD: In addition to the same documentation required of everyone else—birth certificate/passport and/or visa—a child may need a notarized letter, signed by both parents (if not traveling with you), stating that the child has permission to travel outside the country. Mexico requires this, for example, even if a cruise ship spends only a few hours in Cancún.
AND NOW A WARNING: Securing the necessary documentation to travel is your responsibility. While a travel agent should outline trip requirements and offer instructions on how to obtain the necessary papers, travelers are on their own. If you show up inadequately prepared, ships will sail without you, money will not be refunded, and the travel agent will say, “I told you so.” For any questions on passports, contact the U.S. Passport Office at 202-955-0232; for visa questions, call the State Department at 202-663-1225.
CRUISE VACATIONS FOR MATURE TRAVELERS. COPYRIGHT © 2001 BY KERRY SMITH. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. NO PART OF THIS BOOK MAY BE USED OR REPRODUCED IN ANY MANNER WHATSOEVER WITHOUT WRITTEN PERMISSION EXCEPT IN THE CASE OF BRIEF QUOTATIONS EMBODIED IN CRITICAL ARTICLES OR REVIEWS. FOR INFORMATION. ADDRESS ST. MARTIN’S PRESS. 175 FIFTH AVENUE. NEW YORK. N.Y. 10010.