I love travel.
I’ve walked, hiked, hitched, trained, flown, floated, paddled, and shipped.
I traveled on shoestrings and shank’s mare, and gone coach, economy, business, and first class.
I’ve pedaled, driven and been driven, bussed, jeepneyed, rickshawed, and pedi-cabbed.
I’m addicted to travel. And, while I’m no snob – at least I don’t think I am – I’m also addicted to cruise ships.
Let’s face it – no matter how you go, travel is expensive in terms of time and treasure. You need to budget for both, and owe it to yourself (trust me) to consider bookending your slog with affordable luxury.
Adding a cruise to your big trip
Kick off your trip with a cruise: Including a cruise as the first leg of your “expedition” allows you to cut the ties with the workaday world, while retaining full connectivity. You can still tie up any loose ends, muffle any pains of separation, or correct major packing errors while en route to your “real journey.”
Make re-entry to society easier: Pre-booked (and pre-paid) cruising as the final leg of your adventure – when your personal energy and/or financial resources may be running low, allows you to recuperate, recalibrate, and reconnect. It also gets you home in style.
Don’t sneer. I already know what many of you are thinking. You may not think of cruising as real travel. I get it. But there are plenty of real travel experiences to be had by cruising.
If you desperately need an real tang to your adventures, there’s plenty of room for real travel getting to and from the cruise terminal. Dingy and dreary (and potentially crooked) cabs; shuttle buses and/or filled-to-overflowing parking garages; malfunctioning automatic check-in machines; ever-changing restrictions on what can go into carry-on, surly security officers, vaguely intimidating customs personnel; and last-minute gate/terminal changes (with the new gate on the other end of the airport or train station).
The benefits of cruising
But make it to your ship, and you’ve got it made. And no matter what type of traveler you are, and no matter how much you’re okay with roughing it, who doesn’t like the occasional pampering?
Luggage is whisked to your cabin, you are ushered up the gangway with smiles, issued your cruise card, and welcomed onboard with a complimentary cocktail (which probably turns out not to be exactly complimentary – but is nonetheless welcome), and while you’re waiting for your luggage to be delivered – an incredible buffet awaits.
The boat whistle sounds, lines are cast off – passengers line the rails, and – the adventure starts. Folks complain that it’s expensive. Well, most travel is expensive – but when you really break it down and look at per capita room, board, transportation, and entertainment, it can be comparable to the price of an average hotel room in a western country – and that’s for an upgraded cabin with a balcony. You can pay a lot more and get a suite and even a butler, or pay a lot less for an indoor cabin below decks (and why not? You’ll only be in your cabin to change clothes and sleep).
If you have health concerns or health issues – don’t worry. Cruise ships have well equipped infirmaries and top-notch medical staff available (for a fee). Be meticulous about your shipboard hygiene, wash your hands frequently and use plenty of hand sanitizer to avoid contracting one of the many illnesses associated with crowds.
If you need to be in contact with business/home for emergencies – the cruise ship has internet/phone/fax and radio capabilities (for a fee).
If you failed to study up on your next port of call, don’t worry – there’s a well-stocked library on board and most ships publish daily newsletters on where you’ve been and where you’re going.
If, heaven forbid, your luggage got lost in the airport – the dedicated ship’s staff will doggedly pursue it by all means possible – even if you didn’t book the travel through them, and while your lost gear is being traced to be sent to the next port of call, most cruise ships provide courtesy toiletries, clothing (even a courtesy tux rental) to tide you over, and the dispensary staff may be able to replace emergency prescription medicine. Try getting that type of service at your hostel in Vietnam!
“But there’s nothing to do”
People might sneer that there’s nothing to do but eat, drink and lay in the sun (as though those are negative aspects of traveling).
Personally – I love the sun, don’t mind the occasional cocktail, the buffets are wonderful, the dining rooms are four star, and the specialty restaurants are exquisite. There’s no rule saying you have to pig out, and if you do, there are gyms, spas, pools, and walking/running tracks.
Besides, there’s plenty else to do – art auctions, casinos, dancing lessons, internet cafés, movies, and decent variety shows. Yes, there’s a ship’s photographer around every corner, and if the pictures cost a bit much – you don’t have to buy them.
People complain about the type of people who go on cruises, and though there may be a high proliferation of travelers you wouldn’t normally associate with, you are also making massive assumptions about thousands of people. The reality is the self-contained world that is cruising provides total immersion in a multicultural community of fellow travelers and crew to chat with, bond with, learn from, educate and be educated by, hang with or… avoid.
I’ve met professors, airline pilots, gangsters (seriously), writers, entertainers, radio and television personalities, students, and con artists.
I’ve met professors, airline pilots, gangsters (seriously), writers, entertainers, radio and television personalities, students, and con artists. I met the woman featured in the iconic Woodstock “naked girl in the pool” photo, shared a table with a Canadian diplomat who was almost hacked to death by a crazed Haitian as he fled to his embassy’s safe room, and a deposed Latin American Dictator trying to keep a low profile (with varying degrees of success).
Long before your stay onboard begins to pale, you reach your first port. Beware of ship-sponsored shopping tours (the ship gets a cut, the selection is often limited, and you could probably do better on your own, online or at home).
Again, people make assumptions when it comes to activities at port. The truth is there is a wide variety of things to do.
- Take a cruise-endorsed tour
- Rent a car, take a cab, hop on a “hop on and off bus” (my personal favorite)
- Meet friends, make friends, or just walk about.
- In Venice, you’ll find working class osterias with affordable wine and simple fare, a short mile in from the Grand Canal.
- On many Caribbean islands, a short tramp inland reveals street carts selling “provisions”
- In Saint Petersburg, there’s a Teremok kiosk selling blinis stuffed the way you want them, and cold beer.
Bear in mind that the further you get from the port, the more affordable the experience, and the less “cruisers” you’ll see. Again, there are no rules saying you have to go on a cruise sponsored tour or do what they suggest. You can do whatever you want!
If your funds are really running low, ask a crew member where the nearest sailor’s store is – they are always within a five to ten minute walk from the ship’s berth and offer inexpensive sundries, clothing, and the like.
You don’t sacrifice your independence while on board – be choosy and do only what you want to do.
Port follows port, interspersed with time at sea. A battalion of ship’s activity staff keep those passengers who want to be kept busy – busy. Cocktail/mixology demonstrations, ice carving, wine tastings, water polo, galley tours, crew talent shows, lectures, and even classes in social media are there for those who want them. You don’t sacrifice your independence while on board – be choosy and do only what you want to do.
Just about the time – in spite of your discipline and full use of the gym/running tracks, you feel you just might have put on an extra pound or two? The ship is homeward (or at least final port) bound.
Yes, it’s true, that once the final evening meal has been served, tip envelopes delivered or automatic gratuities levied – the wait staff and crew may seem to be a tad bit disinterested. And, while yes it’s true that on the morning of departure, the whole system is designed to get you off the ship just as quickly and efficiently as possible, you are probably just as ready to pick up your life again (or start your real trip, or slip back into normal life after a long journey).
And about the time you get your wish, and re-enter the “real world” to fight for cabs, wrestle with luggage, despair at airport inefficiency, and arrive at home only to have to cook your own dinner, wash your own dishes, and mentally prepare yourself for work the next morning, you may start looking forward to your next cruise.
To paraphrase The New York Sun’s Francis P. Church, “No, Virginia… cruises don’t suck.”
What are your thoughts on cruises as a part of indie travel? Have you been on a cruise? What did you like about it? What didn’t you like about it? Comment below and let us know!
Photo credits: fRandi-Shooters, all other photos courtesy of the author and may not be used without permission.