I often hear people say “It’s not for us”. “I don’t see the point”. “It’s too expensive”. ” I don’t like the formality”.
I’m talking about cruising. And I have to admit from the start, I’m hooked.
And while many see cruise holidays as elite vacations for the better off or retired traveller, the statistics say otherwise.
in 2015, Cruise lines all over the world were projected to carry 23 million passengers to over 1,000 ports of call in exotic and historic locations all over the world. Over 4 BILLION dollars where invested in 22 new river or sea going dedicated excursion vessels, confirming the ever expanding industry which is growing year on year.
In recent years cruise ships have competed to be the BIGGEST, and the largest currently carries something in the region of 5,400 passengers! The obvious question is whether any vessel can actually deliver high quality service at those sort of levels.
However, the style of cruising has changed over the years. For many years, cruise ships were much like cars – the biggest line would commission a new ship, and then after one or maybe two major refits, they would be sold off to a slightly lesser prestigious brand. Bearing in mind many of the brands are owned by the same parent company, so they aren’t really selling them anywhere.
I’ll be reviewing one of the mega-ships later, but to put this in perspective, some of the larger Vegas hotels have 6,500 – 7,500 suites. That’s a potential 15,000 guests at any one time!
Another concern at these levels is that you will be falling over other passengers in the sardine like confines of the ship’s interior. Again, you have to remember that they don’t just cram an extra 3,000 guests into a space only designed for 2,000. These mega-ships are HUGE and can easily accommodate the guests most of the time. In effect, some of these ships have so many decks it’s like stacking two or three smaller ships on top of each other, while having them two abreast!
You will see in my forthcoming review that on the odd occasion the number of people on board becomes apparent.
After nine cruises on ships from only 1,200 passengers up to over 4,000 passengers, we have experienced cruising at both ends of the scale.
So let’s consider some of the commonly held views of cruising:
I might as well dispel this one from the offset. Yes, cruises are NOT cheap. But what are you comparing them too? A 3 star all-inclusive in Ibiza? The truth is, if you actually check out the prices, cruising is often cheaper than a decent all-inclusive holiday.
You have to remember, and this holds for all the levels of cruising from the smaller ships like Thompson’s up to the huge Royal Caribbean mega-cruisers, you will experience 5 star service at it’s best. The attention you get from staff, whether its your personal housekeeper or the bar / dining staff, or the entertainment team, is second to none, and equal if not superior to most all inclusive package deal resorts – I have to be a little careful when I say this as I know a couple of excellent 5 star resorts which have similar quality standards to the best cruise ships!
The food quality is ALWAYS vastly superior to what you find in all-inclusive land based holidays, and is generally more plentiful. Have you ever had your waiter in a normal resort ask you if you wanted another steak, or try all the desserts?
Regarding cost, I have a rule which has held true up to our 2017 cruise recently booked – I NEVER pay more than £100 / person / night for a cruise. And often I get this a LOT cheaper. (The latest cruise was more expensive but that’s a different story – See my review “Independence Of The Seas 2017” next year for more on that!)
For instance, we have had a seven day cruise inside stateroom with P & O around the Fjords for £499 each. That’s £70/night all inclusive.
We have had a 14 night cruise in a balcony stateroom, again with P & O, around the Caribbean for £1299 each – £92 / night and that includes your flights.
OK – I’ve been rumbled. ‘All inclusive’ on cruises up until last year didn’t include drinks, but this is only a real issue if you are a big drinker. Our drinks bill for a week only came to about £100. And more recently the bigger lines, who are forever trying to attract new customers to the market, have introduced TRUE all inclusive packages – I’m sure this will be the future for cruising.
Compare this to a 14 night, 4 star All Inclusive deal I’ve just googled through Thomas Cook in the Caribbean – £1,300 per person. That’s £92 / night. So cruising isn’t that expensive…
The issue of tips is a contentious one and isn’t going to be sorted anytime soon. In the old days, you would leave a tip for your housekeeper and dining room staff. As ships grew, it became increasingly more difficult to ensure you had the same staff every night, and the cruise lines took it on themselves to introduce tipping on to the cruise cost, citing that this way the tips could be more fairly divided among all staff, including some of those who you probably never saw. Now, there are many views on tipping which I’m not about to debate – but this is mine for the record.
Cruise lines should pay a fair wage for the hard work and loyalty given by their staff. If this means increasing the fare, then so be it. But compulsory tipping isn’t on in my mind. Tipping is suppose to reward good service. If I am having the £42 / day deducted for my family, and then we get bad service, I can ask for the daily tip amount to be reduced. But then, the person not giving bad service still gets an equal tip, and those who gave excellent service see their tips diminish through no fault of their own. But then, you have the opportunity to give individuals a little more if you want, on top of the automatic tip. Seems a bit counter productive to me, and hence I choose to take that philosophy to the extreme, and remove automatic tipping and then tip people who I believe deserve it. If that reduces the income to those staff not on the front line, then the cruise line needs to be responsible and pay a decent wage. Refer back to my original point.
On Royal Caribbean for instance, there is an automatic 18% service charge on bar bills – which incidentally is at the high end of tipping in my opinion – you can dispute this charge if you have received poor service, but who wants to do that every time you have a drink? We certainly found on the last cruise that bar service was notably poor compared to other areas of the ship, which is hardly surprising when they get their tips regardless of service, or, if you are on the all inclusive package, they aren’t going to see a tip so it doesn’t really matter if the service is good or bad, does it?
Too formal / Too rich for me…
At one time this may have been true, with compulsory dress codes and black tie on many cruises, and almost exclusively formal dining in the evenings. But in the early noughties, a couple of “budget” style lines came out (including Ocean Village and island Cruises) with a more informal approach including no formal dress code. While attractive to some, these brands weren’t overly successful and were discontinued after a relatively short time. My own opinion is, the formality and the excuse to dress up in your black tie and best frock is a major attraction to many people from all walks of life, who rarely get the opportunity in their day to day lives.
But the sentiment wasn’t lost on the big companies, and more recently, the formal code is much more relaxed, on many occasions total optional, and there are often many alternative venues on board where there are no dress codes in force.
Equally, the idea that the food is too rich, or “there isn’t anything for me” is a fallacy. The buffet restaurants on the larger liners offer more or less every type of cuisine, every night of the week. Many of the buffets carry the same menu as the main restaurants, so you can still have the same food but in a less formal setting.
Personally I find the dining room experience more relaxed, and where else could you fancy trying something on the menu, but if you don’t like it they take it away and bring you another choice? On a cruise with my mother, who suffers with her diet and needs gluten free, she had the undivided attention of the restaurant manager each evening to review the following day’s lunch and dinner menu and allowed her to order a gluten free option in advance. She felt very special with the attention given to make sure she enjoyed her meals every day.
In truth, I’ve taken some fussy eaters away with me in our years of cruising, and you can eat as bland, basic simple, or as exotic and complicated as you like.
We regularly cruise from Southampton, for two good reasons. Firstly, we don’t have all that hassle of getting on a plane. Cruise check-in is very smooth, very quick and you are soon stood on deck, champagne in hand waiting for the ship to sail, rather than cramped up in a small seat eating a digusting meal from a foil container. Secondly, from Southampton, you have NO luggage limitations. We once tried to emulate a hollywood film star and turned up with ELEVEN cases of various sizes, needing one of those huge gilt trolleys and two porters to take it on board, directly to your room.
One of the attractions for my family is the opportunity to wear a different party dress or ballgown every night, and you don’t do that with a 15Kg luggage allowance. We have managed it on our Adriatic and Caribbean cruises, but you are very limited as to what you can take.
And while a fourteen day holiday in the Caribbean sounds nice, wouldn’t it be that much better if you woke up every morning to find your hotel had relocated overnight? Cruising is the perfect touring opportunity to cram in multiple destinations to cross off of your bucket list. And if you find yourself in a destination not to your liking, you can rest easy knowing that you are only there for the one day!
Picking the right cruise
How do you pick the right cruise? Well, for me, the first step is decide WHERE you want to see. Mediterranean? Caribbean? Asia? There’s a cruise to most destinations if you look closely at the online brochures.
Next, just like picking your hotel resort, decide what you want from your ship. Adult only or child friendly? Large range of activities or quiet and unassuming? Small and intimate or huge and modern? There is a cruise to suit every taste.
The only limitation is date. Unlike package holidays, cruises don’t depart every day – this may be a bit of an issue if your holiday dates lack flexibility. Cruises don’t adjust their schedules for anyone unfortunately.
I could bang on about cruising for hours. For me, the key attraction is being miles out at sea, and stepping out on deck at 6 a.m. to watch the sun rise in total silence, knowing that (unless you want it) there is no phone signal, no one to disturb your well deserved relaxation. It’s about doing your own thing. Be as active or as lazy as you want. Visit loads of places or stay on board and have the ship to yourself while everyone else takes to the tour coaches. It’s having the choice to see a top class show, play in the casino, swim in the pool, play games, relax in the spa or just doze on a sunbed.
With no land on the horizon, you soon leave your troubles behind.
(Statistics courtesy of Cruise Lines International Association)