Can an independent traveler find vacation bliss on a cruise ship?
I approached my first-ever cruise with conflicting feelings. On the one hand, my vision of what big-ship cruising was all about -- endless amounts of copious food, group activities every minute of the day and theme bars galore -- was sort of enticing. You must understand how hard that is for me to admit. I am a self-proclaimed independent traveler and, in my mind, the antithesis of the stereotypical cruiser.
But here's the conundrum: What intrigued me about cruising was exactly what scared me a little too. What would I have in common with my fellow cruisers? I have never played bingo in my life and to tell you the truth, buffets seem overwhelming. I worried that my stateroom would be so tiny it would feel claustrophobic. I felt a little angst about being trapped in a theater forced to watch cheesy Broadway renditions. I imagined lines, lines everywhere. And of course, that concerned me too. Add to that the fact that I would be sailing on a Carnival ship -- the cruise line that has dubbed its fleet the "Fun Ships."
"We'll just see about that," I thought.
But I'd promised my husband I'd take a chance on cruising -- and go with an open mind.
The day finally came to board the ship, Carnival Triumph, which was sailing a four-night cruise to Canada from New York. I was first struck by the size of the ship -- when my taxi pulled up to the ship's terminal, all I could see was what looked like miles of white steel dotted with circular windows (it actually measures over 100,000 tons, has 13 decks and carries nearly 3,000 passengers plus over 1,000 crew members). I would soon find out why the ship needed to be so big -- it boasts four swimming pools, seven whirlpools, nine bars, a giant casino, a theater and two dining rooms.
Off to a good start. But in the elevator on the way to my stateroom, an obviously intoxicated woman looking for the buffet (we had not even left the port yet -- how did she have time to get so drunk?) was a bit ... startling. And she wasn't the only one. A quick lap around the main pool revealed several already sun-burnt cruisers in the same predicament.
Lesson #1: Turns out though passengers must be on the ship 30 minutes before the scheduled departure, it is possible to board the ship hours prior to setting sail and take advantage of all the ship's amenities while still in port. Call your cruise line to see just how early you can get on board and start your vacation.
I found my stateroom and things began to look up. It was quite large -- there was a king-sized bed plus a sofa that in my cabin was transformed into a single bed. The balcony (my favorite spot on the ship) was large enough for two chairs with room to spare. Inside the cabin, there was no coffee table, but a desk, long and narrow, running most of the length of one wall. There was ample closet space, but few drawers, though each closet did feature a shelf.
The decor inside the cabin was very plain and mostly muted peach in color. While the king bed had a lovely, fluffy duvet and plenty of pillows, the single bed had only a thin wool blanket and one pillow -- it resembled a Navy cot though much more comfortable. The bathroom had no bathtub, only a standup shower that, nevertheless, was plenty roomy. It offered plenty of counter and mirror space for product storage and applying makeup, etc. All in all expect to find a bathroom smaller than that in hotel room, though.
As anticipated, there was a lot of food on the ship, at all hours of the day and night. What I had not expected, and was pleasantly surprised by, was the variety and quality of the choices. Besides the buffet, which featured standard carving stations, pasta and salad, there were several themed eateries -- a New York-style deli with sandwiches made to order and an Asian noodle shop among them -- that were actually worth the lines that came along with them.
Lesson #2: If the endless food lines begin to make you feel a bit like a pig at the trough, taking your meals in the dining room (there are two on the Carnival Triumph, London and Paris) is a lovely and civilized alternative. The menu is small (usually four or five choices plus a similar menu for the health conscious) but of good quality, and features everything from seafood pasta to prime rib to lobster.
Another plus for the dining room: I was surprised not only by the length of the wine list, but also by how reasonable the prices are -- well below the typical mark up found in on-shore restaurants. The wine steward is available to help you pair wine, whatever your price range, with your meal. For the kids, there is a children's menu at every meal.
To combat seemingly inevitable weight gain is the ship's gym -- the biggest surprise of all. The state-of-the-art facility housed every imaginable piece of equipment, all arranged around a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows to allow you to gaze at the sea while running, rowing or lifting. In addition, there is a range of classes offered daily.
Lesson #3: The most popular classes -- yoga, spinning and Pilates -- have a surcharge attached to them and often fill up early. If you miss out or don't want to pay the surcharge, a great way to stay in shape at sea is by taking advantage of the track that runs along the top level of the ship. Whether you take a leisurely walk or a rapid-paced run, I can hardly think of a lovelier way to start your day than by soaking in the sea air.
But even though the ship had thus far exceeded my expectations, it occurred to me that I wasn't having much fun. Everywhere I looked, other passengers were smiling, laughing and making friends. Though I had been to the spa, taken a yoga class and even ordered the day's special cocktail -- and drank it out of a ridiculous pink cup -- I knew I was missing something. And then I realized why. Everything I had done so far, from reading on my deck to having a massage, was an individual activity and on this type of ship participating really hones your experience. It was time to take the plunge and join in on one of the several activities going on at any given moment on the ship.
Lesson #4: Though a lot of activities (spa treatments, for instance) and facilities (private balconies, etc.) offered onboard cater to people's individual interests, the notion of organized, group fun remains at the heart of big cruising.
When you decide to jump into the ship's social scene, the first thing you must do is consult the newsletter delivered to your room each morning. I had tossed mine aside for two days in a row and found myself aimlessly wandering around the ship in search of things to do. Once I consulted the calendar though, I realized there were several activities going on throughout the day that I was interested in. Would I attend a wine tasting or an art auction? Or enjoy some oldies but goodies at an old-fashioned piano sing-along? I could even practice my drive at the golf simulator. I did these and more, and enjoyed each one.
But what I really enjoyed, most unexpectedly, was the cheesy group games that took place in the Rome Theater. The silly "Not-so-Newlywed" game where couples who had been married from 2 to 50 years were asked personal questions about each other had me doubled over with laughter -- when an 80-year-old couple is talking about their sex lives it is hard not to giggle. A family-friendly game called "In the Bag" had kids and adults alike scrambling through the audience in a type of scavenger hunt looking for lipstick, socks and other G-rated items. And "Battle of the Sexes" pitted the women against the men in a trivia contest -- a great way to get our of your comfort zone and form some friendships on the ship. I found myself screaming answers from the seats and running up to the stage to whisper strategy in the women's team rep's ear. By the way -- the women won.
If you're a night owl, you'll find no shortage of things to do post-dinner. The majority of the big-ticket events on the Triumph takes place in the three-deck-high Rome lounge. There are two main shows, Wonderful World and Century Cafe, both high quality and energetic productions. The casino comes alive with the noise of slot machines giving payouts and groans of gamblers losing money at the tables; the World's Way Promenade (basically a row of bars and nightclubs of differing themes), though deserted by day, is packed with people when the sun comes down. There were two dance clubs: one playing top 40 and oldies that had a packed dance floor but a more sedate crowd, and another playing hip hop that had a more boisterous bunch on its dance floor. Among the other bars were a California wine bar, a New Orleans-themed piano bar and a sports bar.
I wandered from a wine bar to a dance club to a piano bar all in one night -- something that would have cost me $50 in taxis and cover charges in Manhattan (or required a designated driver in other locales), but was simple and free on the ship.
All in all, my first cruise was a great experience. Yes, there were lines -- particularly during meal time and disembarkation -- and they were frustrating. Sure, some of the group activities were a little hokey, but if you're worried about your cool quotient, this kind of cruising probably isn't for you. And while the food was good, it will likely not impress the discerning gourmand (there was no specialty restaurant -- an upscale eatery where meals are served with a surcharge -- on the Triumph, but some of Carnival's newer vessels do have them and the cuisine is the best quality on the ship).
Ultimately there is so much to gain from a cruise vacation. Because everything is planned for you, the stress factor is nearly zero. The possibility for fun is nearly limitless. If your disposition toward independent travel is what's keeping you from cruising, don't forget your ship is actually going somewhere -- you can research and explore each port as much or as little as you desire. After all, independent travel is hard work, and what could be better after a day of self-guided touring then getting back on your ship where your next activity is as easy as reaching for your daily newsletter?
Tips for First-Time Cruisers
Juice stations and soft serve ice cream are self-serve and easily accessible in the dining areas of the ship. All other beverages, including soft drinks, are an additional charge.
Check your daily bulletin for the day's drink special. If you order it without the souvenir cup it is usually a great deal.
The most popular exercise classes (yoga, Pilates and spinning) are an additional charge and often very crowded. If you have your heart set on attending one or more of these classes, sign up early. Keep in mind these classes are aimed at beginners so if you are particularly skilled, you may want to skip it.
Room service is available 24 hours a day for no additional charge, though you should tip your server as you would a person delivering food to your home.
You can usually board the ship several hours before it leaves the port. Though you may not be able to go straight to your cabin, you can at least take advantage of the buffet, pools and public areas.
If you are going to visit the spa, keep in mind the prices are often substantially higher than what you would pay back home, even if back home is in a major city. You can save some money by having your spa treatments done on a port day when there is usually a discount.
Most ships have more than one pool. If the one you find yourself at is too crowded or not lively enough, often the other major pool will be the opposite.
It is very expensive to make a phone call from the ship. Use the internet cafe (substantially less expensive), but keep in mind the service is much slower than you are used to at home. Better yet, wait until you arrive in port to access your email -- most destinations have Internet cafes at or near the cruise terminal.
The ease of booking your shore excursion on the ship might cost you. You'll often get a better price for the same type of excursion when you book it yourself. This is where your independent traveler skills come in handy!
Tipping policies vary from cruise line to cruise line. Be sure to check out what the policy is on yours.
--by Genevieve S. Brown, Cruise Critic contributor