J.R. Tolkien

"Not all those who wander are lost." - J.R. Tolkien

Thursday, January 5, 2017

The Case for Cruising


Call me crazy, but I like my vacation a little stressful and hectic.  I love to get lost in the sights of a foreign city, to race against time and borders.  I don't get too many vacation days, so when I do go on vacation, I want to see and do as much as I can.   My husband is the opposite.  He likes to relax on vacation, to know exactly where he's going and when he'll get there.  After a crazy race across 11 cities in 17 days last year, I promised to slow down a bit and to replenish our funds.  Our usual compromise for vacation in that situation: cruising.

If you've never been on a cruise before, here's my case for cruising:

It's affordable.   Depending on the cruise line, you can easily find cruises to the Caribbean and Europe for $500 - $800 for 7 days or to the Bahamas for $200-$300 for 3 to 4 days.  Cruises are all inclusive.  This means you get to travel to exotic places for less than $100/day which includes lodging, all you can eat breakfast, lunch and dinner, entertainment, activities and room service.
Sample rates from Royal Caribbean

All you can eat.  Order as many appetizers, entrees and desserts as you like from a changing menu at one of the sit down restaurants. Or choose from endless options at the buffets.  Ice cream and pizza are usually available 24/7.  Free room service means you can even eat in your room.
Can't decide between the lobster or the prime rib? You can get both.

Lots of things to do on the ship.  Cruising is not just about mini golf and gambling anymore.  The ships are bigger and better, which mean a lot of fun activities on board to keep you busy.
Lots of fun water sports.
Rock climbing on the Oasis.
It's stress free.  Cruises take away the stress out of arranging hotel, transportation and where to eat.  The cruise ship drops you off at prearranged destinations, you get off to explore and return to the ship to relax and wake up in a new location.  Besides figuring out what to do on your excursion at each destination, there's not much planning involved.
You'll have time for this.

Of course the downside to all that is you don’t have as much time to explore each destination and you’re restricted by the ship’s schedule.

If you're new to cruising and are interested, here are a few pointers:

How to choose a cruise.   A big part of cruising is the ship itself since you’ll spend a large part of your trip on the ship, so choose a ship with high ratings.  I use cruisecritic.com to read about the ship's amenities and reviews from experts and previous guests.  Also, each cruise line is different, so pick one that's right for you.  Princess is for older adults (60+), Carnival for the partying crowd, Disney for children and families, Royal Caribbean is a good mix of everyone. Click here for a list of cruise lines comparison.
Choosing the right ships will mean better entertainment and food.
After going the Oasis of the Seas, the largest ship in the world at the time, it's hard to go back to the smaller ships.  For the largest cruise ships, check out the Oasis Line from Royal Caribbean (Oasis, Allure and Harmony).  Harmony is currently the world's largest.  Check out our video of the Oasis of the Seas here: https://goo.gl/photos/aXqJq83FcyMzaGDd8

Where to book your cruise.  I use aggregate sites like Expedia, Travelocity, and Cruisesheet to look for the best rate then go directly to the cruise line to book my tickets.  Or go directly to the cruise line to book, the two that works best for our budget and style (cheap and casual) is Carnival and Royal Caribbean.  If you have a Costco membership, look here first.  It can be cheaper and more than likely you’ll get on-board credits to spend.

When to book.  For cruises, the earlier you book, the better the deal. My in-laws booked theirs a year in advance on the same ship we went on, they got a better room (ocean view balcony) and a bigger on board credit, at a cheaper rate.  There are also last minute deals, but these are not as good or as frequently offered.  Consider travel off season for better prices such as: hurricane season (September – November), during the pre-holiday (first week or two of December) and the post-holiday (first two weeks of January).  If you have time to spare, look into repositioning cruises, when ships travel across the ocean to change ports as the seasons change.  The rate is great but the trade-off is you’ll spend a lot of consecutive days at sea.

Choosing a departure port.  Leaving from the right ports can mean big savings on airfare, which is not included in the cost of your cruise.  From Louisville, you can find reasonable flights ($200 - $300) year round to Orlando (cruises depart from Cape Canaveral, an hour drive from Orlando), Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, and even Puerto Rico.  Consider flying from Cincinnati to get even cheaper rates on Frontier and Allegiant (details here).  Plan for weather and other incidentals by scheduling arrival to your port a day before your cruise departure date, the cruise ship will not wait for you if your flight is delayed/cancelled.
Explore tropical fruit gardens in Miami if you arrive a day early.
Choosing cruise destinations. The Caribbean is a great choice for first time cruisers, prices are cheaper and there are a lot of cruise ships to choose from.  The water is amazingly blue and warm, activities revolve around the outdoors and the water.  European and Asian cruises tend to be more expensive when you take into consideration the flight there and back but you’re treated to amazing cultural sites and glamorous cities.  Cruises to Alaska are on smaller ships and limited to the summer months.  You'll find destinations do not vary too much from one cruise line to another.
Beautiful Labadee, Haiti
Booking excursions.  There’s plenty to do and see once the ship drops you off at your destinations, the easiest and cheapest is to head to the local beach or town and spend the day exploring.  For other activities like scuba diving, guided tours, etc., you’ll have book them through the cruise ship or find your own tour operators.  There’s pros and cons for both.
Shore excursion in Italy.
  • Cruise ship tours: You pay an exorbitant amount of money but you’re conveniently picked up at the ship and you’re guaranteed to leave with the ship in case anything happens during your tour.  These tour companies has a special contract with the ship so they’re more reputable.
  • Other tour operators:  Prices are almost always cheaper and tour options are more extensive.  But if there’s transportation issue or other delays during the tour, you risk missing the ship.  Do extensive research by reading reviews on Tripadvisoror Cruisecritic to make sure the company is reputable.  These tours are designed specific for cruise ship passengers so you’ll be okay. But it’s a small risk you’ll have to take.  

How to save money on the ship.  Asides from the basics, everything on the ship costs extra.  Beware of what they are and you will save.  If possible, skip the soft drinks and alcoholic beverages or opt to buy a beverage package; set a budget for the casino (on my last trip, one passenger can't pay his huge gambling debt and was not allowed to get off the ship);  avoid buying professional photos, they will take a lot of these;  and eat only at free restaurants.  Tipping is also not included and many ships now require a mandatory percentage added to your account for each day of your trip.  But the staff are always excellent, so don’t forget to set out extra to tip them.

Whenever I get a chance to travel, I take it.  Between every few hectic and crazy travel adventures, I slow down with a cruise and have enjoyed them all (5 of them now).  Whatever your style, happy traveling!