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Musings on cruising: The many nuances and joys of traveling by ship

The Norwegian Spirit docks in April at the small port town of Katakolon, Greece, which is about 25 miles from Ancient Olympia. The ship accommodates just over 2,000 passengers. Its 920-member crew, representing more than 58 nationalities, works for three departments – Deck (officers, administrative functions and medical), Engine (all mechanical and electrical systems) and Hotel (stewards, cruise director and galley and bar staff.).

Nearly 26 million people took a cruise in 2017, and passenger numbers are expected to top 27 million this year.

Some of those folks, though, are counted more than once.

On a recent 11-day cruise on the Mediterranean and Adriatic seas aboard the 2,000-passenger Norwegian Spirit, for example, I was asked a couple of times if I’d be on the next cruise – or if I’d been on the previous cruise. (Ah, no. Just worrying about paying for this one.) It’s called back-to-back cruising, and some in the cruise-booking industry say it’s increasing. If you do that, you’re counted twice – once for each sailing. Or even three or four times, depending on how long you stay aboard.

Ships usually arrive early in the morning on the day if disembarkation, and passengers must be off by mid-morning. The new cruisers come aboard in the afternoon, and the ship sails again in the evening on the next cruise. (It’s a long day and tough turnaround for the crew.)

So on the Spirit, if you planned the dates right, you could do back-to-back-to-back (three) 11-day cruises and see the eastern and western Mediterranean and the Adriatic. Only Malta was included on each of the itineraries, and you could go there three times and easily see different things on each roughly eight-hour visit.

And then there are the cruisers who sail several times a year in different seasons and different parts of the world.

Cruise numbers have risen steadily in the last decade, fed in part by those who can’t get enough of it. But it’s also constantly evolving to attract new aficionados and to cater to younger generations.

The cruise culture would be an interesting sociological study, and there’s plenty of fodder in statistics gathered by the industry and trends it projects annually. Or you can take your own cruise or two and make your own observations.

I’m not even an “average cruiser” – someone who has taken five cruises – and certainly no expert. But I’ve taken two ocean and two river sailings in the past four years, and I’m a “trained observer” so I’m offering my musings on cruising.

The cruising conversation

Inevitably, whether you’re in a hot tub, at a bar or seated with strangers in the dining room (which is no longer a given on most cruises) the conversation turns to previous cruises. Often there’s a hint of one-upsmanship as people compare cruise lines, exotic cruise locations and the like.

On my first cruise (a Royal Caribbean sailing from England to Norway and on to the Faroe Islands and Iceland in the North Atlantic aboard the 2,500-passenger Brilliance of the Seas), I bored of the conversations quickly. I was more interested in ports and what adventures on land they might recommend than which ship might have slightly larger staterooms or better dining options. You can find all that information online at such sites as cruisecritic.com.

This happened less on the river cruises, in part because there are fewer passengers, and as you get to know each other, the conversations evolve and tend to be livelier. That’s one of the reasons I prefer river cruises.

Kinds of cruises

Ocean cruises account for more of those passengers than river cruises, in part because ocean liners accommodate thousands for each cruise compared with a couple hundred for a river cruise. Interest in river cruising is increasing, however, and is preferred by millennials, according to industry sites.

River boats offer a place to eat and sleep and transportation to the next stop, where you might take a tour provided by the ship or you can explore on your own. They might have lectures or evening entertainment, but they’re more likely to be related to the cultures of the ports in contrast to the glitzy shows on ocean liners.

The Geirangerfjord is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of Scandinavia’s top natural attractions. In the summer months it is often crowded with ships. The fjord cuts 10 miles inland, offering cruisers fantastic views of waterfalls and snow-capped mountains.

Ocean cruising truly is like being on a giant, floating all-inclusive resort with plenty of amenities – pools, hot tubs, kids’ activities, entertainment, workout rooms, dining rooms, snack bars, bars and lounges. No reason to go anywhere else.

And some passengers don’t.

When I questioned why movies, classes and other activities were offered while the ship was in port, I learned that some people stay on board during stops, or at least at some ports.

Maybe they’re the ones who’ve been on so many cruises that they’ve already “been there, done that.” But there’s never enough time in port to see everything – the stops truly are just a quick sample of a city or region – so I can’t imagine staying on board even if I’d already been there. And I didn’t, so I didn’t have the opportunity to ask anyone why they preferred sitting by the pool, playing bingo or taking a class on towel folding over walking the narrow, winding streets of Venice and the ancient wall in Dubrovnik or visiting an olive grove in Greece.

Of course, today there are many choices other than the basic river or ocean cruise – yachts and sail boats; adventure cruises to locations where you can dive, kayak, hike or climb; sailings to private islands (often owned by the cruise line); and trips that include volunteering or culture immersion.

The trip I took along the Lena River to the arctic was primarily a cultural/natural world cruise, with daily lectures and films about life in Siberia, language and other cultural classes and nightly entertainment that included folk music and dance that enhanced the travel experience.

Benefits and drawbacks

Perhaps the biggest benefit of cruising is that you can unpack and sleep in the same bed each night while seeing different cities and countries. It’s a way to cover more ground, see more places and leave the details of travel to someone else. (The “get away from it all” aspect of cruising is an attraction for those who don’t have the time or inclination for detailed travel planning.)

A cruise stop in Dubrovnik, Croatia, in April gave passengers the opportunity to visit the ancient walled city. Various tours were offered by Norwegian Cruise Line, including some that visited Game of Thrones filming sites.

But time in each port is limited, usually eight hours or less. Tours offered by the ship – at an extra and often hefty cost on ocean liners, sometimes included on river cruises – can be the best bet. Other times, it seems like you and 40 to 50 other people spend more time getting on and off a bus for “photo stops” than you do sightseeing. The success of those also is highly dependent on the guide, and whether you can hear him or her throughout the tour. I was surprised that many don’t use the audio tour headphones, which to me are essential in crowded tourists areas where a half dozen other groups are talking in various languages.

You can explore on your own or arrange your own tour, but that can be risky if you haven’t done your homework on how to get from the port to where you want to go. One group on the recent Adriatic cruise paid cash to one of dozens of hawkers on shore (and they’re in every port), and the man simply walked off with their money. Many are legitimate though, and there’s usually a tourist office where you can seek maps and assistance.

Pre-planning is important though, as the ships tend to provide little useful information on the ports and their surroundings, and you don’t want to spend one of your precious hours in the tourist office figuring out what you want to see.

The per day price of a cruise can be quite reasonable for the room and all the food you could possible eat (average weight gain per cruise is 10 pounds, according to information provided by the Norwegian Spirit). My daily cost on the recent cruise was about $170, including an upgrade to a balcony room, an unlimited drinks package, two hours of free phone calls from the ship, 250 minutes of free Wi-Fi and a $25 discount on each shore tour booked.

Usually a cruise ship arrives in port early in the morning at the end of a cruise and heads out again that evening on a new cruise. The logistics of making that turn around are carefully orchestrated. Here, Royal Caribbean crew members in July 2014 load passenger luggage aboard the Brilliance of the Seas at Harwich, England, for a 12-day North Atlantic Ocean cruise. The ship accommodates about 2,500 passengers, and their luggage is delivered from check-in at the dock to their stateroom.

But, there’s that little ship card they issue when you embark that can be troublesome – anything extra you purchase on board is tallied and billed to you at the end of the cruise. Alcohol? Not included unless you buy a drink package. Soft drinks? Not often included. Water in your stateroom? If you drink the bottled water or anything else in the mini fridge, you pay for it. I always travel with a reusable water bottle, and even though the cafeteria sign forbids you filling a water bottle at the water and ice station, you can fill a glass and dump it in your bottle (good for the stateroom and to take ashore at ports). Gambling? Of course, you’d expect to wager your own money, but those losses also are tallied on the card, so they might not seem so bad until you get the bill. Specialty restaurants? Not included, so if you opt for the steakhouse instead of the “included” dining options, you pay.

Again, on river cruises there are fewer options, so you’re less likely to spend more money unless you want a cocktail or a bottle of wine with dinner.

Then there’s the issue of ports. If you’re off the ship all day, chances are you’ll buy food on land. And why would you forgo that delectable raspberry/dark chocolate gelato in Dubrovnik to have bland chocolate/vanilla soft serve at the ship’s cafeteria? To save $4? Nope, not this traveler.

Cruise or not?

Sure, go for it at least once. Pick somewhere you want to explore, shop around and check out cruisecritic.com, tripadvisor.com and other travel sites before you book. They’ve got articles for first-time cruisers, ship guides and ratings, port information and more.

Sunsets and sunrises often draw cruise ship passengers to the open decks to take photographs. Often, ships sail on to the next stop around sunset, offering beautiful final memories of a port. Here, the sun sets in April over Valletta, Malta.

Go in with your eyes open about how much it’s actually going to cost. Those “beginning at” prices don’t include much, and on ocean liners are for an inside stateroom – no windows at all. That’s out for this claustrophobic traveler – I need at least a porthole but preferably a window that opens or a balcony (and there are cheap ways to get those – check those sites!) The main thing on cost is to be aware of all the nonobvious fees, such as the daily service charge on ocean liners (about $150 for an 11-day cruise) that is tacked onto your bill.

If you can travel in an off-season (i.e. not summer or during the winter holidays), prices are lower. And there are fewer children aboard. I love kids, but on my summertime cruise, they kind of ran wild after the first couple of days. Interestingly, trends show that the number of grandparents taking their grandchildren (without the parents) on cruises is increasing.

Be realistic about how much you’re going to see at each port. Consider it a preview trip to find out where you might want to return to do more sightseeing.

Think about whether you want to be on a huge ship or a smaller one. A river or an ocean. The sunsets and sunrises are spectacular on both, and it’s wonderful to watch the sun set on one city as you depart and watch it rise on another as you arrive.

Bon voyage!

Sue McMillin, a longtime journalist and former city editor at The Durango Herald, is a freelance writer and editor living in Victor, Colorado.

On the Net

www.cruisecritic.com

– professional articles and reviews from passengers on virtually every cruise-related subject.

allthingscruise.com

– billed as the ultimate resource for cruise lovers.

www.tripadvisor.com

– reviews of cruises and ports, including specific attractions at ports.

www.cruising.org/cruise

– Cruise Lines International Association, information for travelers as well as industry data and trends.

https://www.f-cca.com

– Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association, an industry association site.