Updated August 21, 2018
For those who distinguish between tourists and travelers -- wherein one is there simply to have a vacation, while the latter seeks cultural enrichment through local experiences -- cruises may seem like the epitome of crass tourism. But a cruiser can be both tourist and traveler. Back in the '90s, essayist David Foster Wallace called out the cruise industry for its "nearly lethal comforts" in his treatise "Shipping Out," but modern cruising has changed a lot since then. Sure, cruising is still widely known for round-the-clock nourishment, silly pool games and tropical libations christened with paper umbrellas and fruit slices, but cruising in the 21st century is about more than buffets, beaches and binge drinking. Whether you're gliding from country to country on a mega-ship, sailing yacht or riverboat, you'll find plenty of opportunities to immerse yourself in unique cultures. Shore excursions can bring you into the home of a local family in Bratislava, to the fields of the Dominican Republic with a farming tool in hand or onto the beaches of the Galapagos while clutching your camera as your nature guide explains the courtship rituals of waved albatrosses.
Still don't believe cruising can be considered authentic travel? The following reasons might convince you to trade in your planes, trains and automobiles and take your next trip on a cruise ship.
1. "Off-the-beaten-path" Itineraries
Cruising allows you to see a variety of places that would be hard to get to by land, especially on small-ship sailings that are able to maneuver through narrower waterways and dock at smaller ports. Island Windjammers is a "barefoot cruising" (think: no shirt, no shoes, no problem) style of ship that sails Leeward and Windward Island itineraries that include Anguilla, Nevis, St. Barths and Grenada -- difficult (and more expensive) to hop by plane. The same goes for nearly any island chain, Hawaii included. Sail entirely around Iceland on Windstar Cruises, or snake through the rivers of the Amazon with International Expeditions, which also offers sailings around Cuba. If it's anywhere near water, there's probably a cruise that goes there.
A common complaint regarding cruise itineraries is that passengers don't get enough time to spend in each new place. This might have once been the case, but it's not always so anymore. While luxury lines like Seabourn Cruise Line and Regent Seven Seas have long offered overnights in port, mainstream lines are following suit. Celebrity Cruises will offer overnights in the Caribbean in 2016, extending time in Curacao, Cartagena and other popular ports of call. Additionally, most lines offer overnights in a handful of Europe's, Australia's and Asia's grandest cities. For instance, Norwegian Cruise Line offers an overnight in St. Petersburg on its Baltic cruises, while Royal Caribbean offers an overnight in Bangkok and Sydney. Perhaps best known for their extensive number of overnights, "luxury lite" cruise line Azamara hosts AzAmazing evenings -- nighttime activities based on the local culture. Another Azamara initiative made possible by spending more time in port is "Cruise Global, Eat Local," a program providing curated restaurant recommendations from knowledgeable onboard staff in places like Croatia and the Canary Islands.
3. Destination Immersion
Becoming immersed in a new culture is not just about time in port; it's about authentic experiences. Try a culinary walking tour of Nassau, or meet a personal greeter you've prearranged a visit with in major cities like Antwerp and Xi'an. Many river lines host onboard cultural performances that range from the song and dance of the Austrian countryside to demonstrations on how to prepare a regional specialty. Additionally, each night before your riverboat is set to dock in a new location, the cruise director will typically host briefings on the history and highlights of your next port. Onboard enrichment is not just on the rivers, though. Cunard hosts a Cunard Insights lecture series that's free to all passengers and focuses on topics ranging from politics to stargazing; there's always new insight to gain. Get to know your destinations through their cuisine with Oceania's Gourmet Explorer Series, offering courses that focus on the regional foods of the ports you visit, like Morocco or Peru.
Patagonia, the Arctic Circle, the Galapagos -- nearly every bucket-list destination is available to you on an expedition cruise. On lines that include Lindblad-National Geographic, Un-Cruise and more, you can take advantage of expert guides and top-notch equipment as you explore the farthest reaches of the globe. Naturalists, photographers, scientists and other experts in their fields typically travel with you and your relatively small group for the length of the expedition, offering insight, a broad knowledge base and context for your explorations. The accommodations on an expedition ship are more bare-bones than your typical mega-ship sailing to the Caribbean, but expect use of kayaks, Zodiac boats and unparalleled access to remote ports.
5. Land and Sea
Not keen on spending your entire trip on water? Pre- and post-cruise land tour options pair your cruise with hotel stays and sightseeing in the port of embarkation or debarkation. Never been to New Orleans? What better way to begin or end a new journey than exploring a new city? Alaska cruisetours are a unique blend of land and sea excursions, offered by lines like Princess Cruises and Holland America Line, with a few days spent in lodges in locations like Denali National Park, followed by a scenic glacier cruise or vice versa. Some lines also have cruisetour options in Europe, South America and Asia. For example, you can spend additional time with Norwegian in Buenos Aires learning the tango. Oftentimes, if your cruise line does not directly offer this option as a package, a travel agent can organize all the details so you get the best experience during your time on terra firma and at sea.
6. Volunteer Opportunities
A cruise vacation can be all about indulging yourself, but more and more lines are making it easier to give back to local communities while in port. Whether it's working at a food bank in Nova Scotia with a cruise line-sponsored program like Crystal Cruises' You Care, We Care or with an outside agency like Hope Floats, which sponsors volunteer activities in six Caribbean islands, you can do more on your sailing than eat, drink, sleep and repeat. Cruise for a cause with Carnival Corporation's newly announced fathom travel company, which will sail voluntourism-only cruises to the Dominican Republic starting April 2016. Working with local agencies that are already established in the region, passengers will receive training onboard prior to docking, and then they'll spend multiple days participating in land-based programs aimed at reforestation, education and economic development.
7. Oceanography Lessons
Believe it or not, cruising can incorporate education about the ocean below. Live the life aquatic on a Paul Gauguin ship (a line primarily operating in the South Pacific and carrying the namesake of the Impressionist artist best known for his depictions of Tahiti and its inhabitants). The descendants of famous marine biologist Jacques Cousteau have carried on his legacy, and his eldest son, Jean-Michel, is an environmentalist, filmmaker and educator who frequently hosts ocean conservation and education programs onboard the small-ship cruise line. Through the Ocean Futures Society, hear in-depth lectures on the ecosystems all around you before experiencing them firsthand with guided snorkeling, hikes in port and more. Other cruise lines, such as Carnival, weave marine trivia into life onboard through youth programming like Carnival's Camp Ocean. Princess Cruises' partnership with the Discovery channel, called Discovery at Sea, provides educational onboard activities for the whole family and even themed shore excursions related to Animal Planet, Shark Week, Deadliest Catch and more.
8. Seeing the World
A trip around the world is a lofty enough goal without factoring in the logistics of transportation, accommodations, dining arrangements and even laundry. World cruises are no thrifty feat, but they ply international waters with speed and efficiency and provide an onboard atmosphere you'll come to call home. Get to know your crewmembers, where they come from and a bit about their nationality while you circumnavigate continents, stepping foot in a new place every few days -- all while sleeping in the same bed each night. Overland tours, typically only available on long cruises, allow you to see inland places and rejoin your cruise at a later port. During longer stretches at sea, catch a show, try a wine tasting, get a spa treatment, or soak in the sun on deck with your favorite read; no time is "wasted" enduring a flight or long drive. Typical world cruise itineraries span three to four months and cover roughly 40 ports. Luckily, almost all world cruises offer segments with equally exotic ports. This option cuts sailing time to a manageable number of vacation days for anyone not enjoying the luxe retired life.