For some, the idea of a cruise vacation is a no-brainer — what better way to relax than stretched out by a pool while soaking in the sun and ocean breezes, cocktail in one hand, book in the other?
But for others, it is not so obvious. Particularly for those of us who have never experienced one before, and whose idea of cruising is littered with disturbing news reports about norovirus breakouts, fears of endless seasickness and the sense of being trapped on a floating cruise ship with nowhere to escape.
Until recently, I was of the latter camp: an introvert with a distaste for crowds, too much sun, and confined spaces who had absolutely no desire to go on a cruise — until I actually did. And? It was one of the most truly relaxing and enjoyable vacations I’ve ever had, opening my eyes to the true pleasures of setting sail on the open seas on a cruise ship filled with thousands — yes, thousands, of other passengers.
Here are my top ten myths, deconstructed:
Before I boarded Norwegian Breakaway, one of my biggest fears about being on a seven-day cruise was not being able to get off when I felt like I needed space. However, as the eighth largest cruise ship in the world, Norwegian Breakaway is nearly a quarter-mile long and 17 floors high. It took me days to cover all the restaurants, bars, sunbathing areas, library, spa, water sports, nooks, crannies and then some (and I was being proactive about discovering). It took me three days before I discovered the shuffleboard deck, and on the fourth day, we had arrived in Bermuda for a three-day stopover. It was perfect timing. The return trip was just another two days, and though I felt pretty familiar with the ship by then, it was nice to have the extra time to really appreciate the R&R before I jumped back into my everyday life.
Before I left, I made sure to pick up over-the-counter motion sickness pills and diligently packed them into my toiletry bag because I’m the kind of person that gets sick at the first sign of turbulence, roughs seas or stop-and-go New York City traffic. I’ve thrown up in seaplanes, in the back of cabs, on fishing boats, ferries, even swimming in open water... And even though I did indeed detect the motion of the ocean at certain points throughout my mid-summer week on Norwegian Breakaway, it was not as bad as I feared and I disembarked with my pills still sealed in their unopened box. Most cruise ships have motion stabilizers so you barely feel movement and may instead end up enjoying the gentle swaying as you are rocked soundly to sleep each night.
My very first cruise vacation photo was a snapshot of the public health questionnaire at registration, to monitor for any symptoms of illness before allowing passengers to board. It was a reminder of what health issues can arise when so many people eat and live in a confined space. Contagious noroviruses have been getting a lot of headlines lately as the number one cause of gastroenteritis that can unfortunately spread quite easily on cruise ships.
But as soon as I went looking for my first meal on board, I noticed how seriously Norwegian Cruise Line (and I’m sure the other cruise lines, as well) takes prevention — hand sanitizers are placed everywhere and there are copious amounts of sink stations near the main dining areas complete with signs telling passengers to wash their hands before eating.
Another factor that helped calm my nerves was the continual maintenance of the public areas and the staterooms. There are crew members constantly polishing and mopping and cleaning up around the ship, while housekeeping makes sure your room is fastidiously neat and clean at least a couple times a day. And truth be told, according to the CDC, of the roughly 20 million people who fall ill from noroviruses each year, cruise ship passengers account for only one percent of them, meaning I may have a greater chance of catching the virus on the New York City Subway or at a restaurant back home.
The beauty of a cruise vacation is that as soon as you step foot on the ship, you won’t have to pay for another restaurant tab, cab fare, airline ticket or tip a single service employee until you disembark, unless you want to treat yourself to specialty dining, cocktails or a few hours in the casino.
Most meals and entertainment are included in the base fare as well as gratuities. Even if you decide to order room service (before midnight) on Norwegian Breakaway, for example, the costs are already included, so you needn’t worry about those simple luxuries.
If you choose an all-inclusive luxury cruise line like Crystal Cruises or Seabourn Cruise Line, then you truly could leave your wallet at home as the fare even covers most shore excursions and a variety of drink options including most cocktails and wine. In port, regardless of who you cruise with, there are so many options for shore excursions from comprehensive all day island tours complete with meals and drinks to simple bare bones ride to the center of town or to a local beach that there is something available for every budget. So considering that your hotel, transportation, food, entertainment, and gratuities are all already covered, cruising can be a downright bargain.
There are certainly some cruises that cater to a slower pace; that’s because there are some people who think that is the perfect way to vacation. But the vast majority of ships offer a nonstop diet of pretty much whatever you might like to do. Enjoy relaxing at the pool? A spinning or yoga class? A mid-afternoon trivia game? A special jewelry trunk show where you get to see unique gems? A movie under the stars? Seriously, you could be active from the moment you wake up until you lay your weary head on your pillow as you are gently rocked to sleep on your way to your next destination.
For years, cruises were portrayed as the ideal vacation of the retired. Older adults remain an important consumer of cruises, but the market has changed dramatically. There is truly something for everyone - from cradle to grave (literally, as many people choose to have their ashes scattered on a cruise). According to CLIA, only 28% of cruisers are over the age of 60 - with more than a quarter under the age of 40. Because of the dramatic improvement in things to do on a ship, cruising has become an ideal vacation for families, couples and virtually everyone else.
There are some ships that feel like a jam-packed Vegas hotel on the water, but even on those you can find places for a little peace and quiet. There is almost always a (nearly empty) library, adults-only sanctuaries and cleverly placed chairs with a view of the ocean. If you are someone who enjoys solo time, we strongly suggest a balcony cabin. It’s a great way to build in some quiet space for yourself, no matter what is happening on the ship.
If that’s how you choose to travel, you can absolutely leave your experience up to the (very capable) hands of the Shore Excursions team. The cruise lines have teams dedicated to finding great experiences in every port. They can be expensive, but they are usually great experiences. You will be with fellow cruise guests and it can feel a bit like a tour.
On the other hand, if you are more of a “do it on your own” person, you can absolutely have a unique, authentic experience in every port. There are lots of local tours you can do, or you can follow our guides to various ports and hit the highlights on your own. You can also look for walking tours or running routes or go camp out at a little beach or bistro - it's really up to you.
On most cruises you are only in port for 8 - 10 hours, so you certainly need to make the most of your time. But depending on what you are looking for, you can really make your port experience worthwhile . If you opt to swim with the dolphins or do a zipline adventure, you might not get the local flavor, but you will have fun. If an authentic local look is what you want, then you can often map out a great day of discovery by eating local dishes, meeting residents and exploring cultural artifacts. In larger ports, especially European cities, there are great hop on/hop off buses that allow you to get a proper bird’s eye view of a location. You can then pick and choose what to spend a little more time doing.
Many cruise lines, including Azamara, Crystal and Celebrity, are doing more overnight stays in ports. So you get a couple of days and a night to experience a city. One of our favorite things to do is to depart out of a new location - be it San Juan or Montreal or another non-homeport. We can then spend a day or two on the front or back-end really getting to know a new city.
Just like any travel, there are risks to cruising. There can be accidents with ships, instability in ports of call or freak weather occurrences. In 2013, there were just 21 deaths aboard cruise ships that were attributable to accidents, mishaps, human error or other preventable causes (this excludes overboards and death by natural causes). With nearly 21 million cruisers in 2013, that puts your risk of accidental cruise ship death at .0001%. Basically, you have a higher likelihood of dying while walking, drinking or just freezing to death. We vote for cruising.