When cruise lines introduce new onboard experiences (or even talk about their existing ones), it's always done with a ton of hype and fanfare. This new restaurant will be amazing! This high-tech, top-deck attraction will change your life! This cabin category will revolutionize cruise travel!
The truth is we love some of these experiences (high-speed Internet, Broadway musicals at sea), are too poor to experience others (loft suites, helicopter tours) and find the rest somewhere between "nice to have" and "not interested." But a few stand out as being particularly overrated. So we're going to stop nodding and smiling and say what we really think.
We find the following nine cruise experiences to be totally overrated.
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Let's start with the most controversial one. We don't understand all the hype about the sailaway party. In the late afternoon on our first sea day, what we want to be doing is unpacking, showering or exploring the ship. Instead, we must rush from the muster to ditch our life jacket, then fight the crowds at the pool deck bar for an overpriced drink in a souvenir glass, which we spill while elbowing aside the 10 guys with the huge DSLR cameras to find a spot along the railing, as we listen to the band play some pop song (or "Hot, Hot, Hot") that we know we will soon despise from overplaying…just to watch the view turn into endless ocean? No thanks. Now if there's something cool to see -- cruising the canals of Venice or under the Golden Gate Bridge -- that's worth the trouble. Otherwise, we'll skip the crowds and noise, thank you very much.
If we had a dollar for every time a Cruise Critic member asked what to do with a butler, we'd be rich -- and could hire our own butler (if we knew what to do with one). Serving somewhere between a room steward and a personal assistant, butlers are supposed to attend to such tasks as unpacking your bags (don't touch my underthings, strange man!), helping you host cocktail parties (gosh, we better try harder to make friends at the Meet and Mingle) and bring you afternoon canapes (because we need more food on a cruise). Sure, we would love someone to deal with making reservations and asking questions at Guest Services, but we're not going to pay a lot more for the privilege.
Cruise line photographers are just more trouble than they're worth. They take over stairways and highly trafficked hallways, impeding dinner rush-hour traffic flow. They always seem to pop up at the worst time, when your mouth is full of food at dinner or you're mid-conversation with your spouse as you leave the ship. And while some of their shots turn out OK, usually you've got some unnatural, overly posed look or you look great, but there's a plate of half-eaten food in front of you and the waiter's backside behind your shoulder. We'll keep the $20 and trash the 8x10 instead.
4. Afternoon Tea
We love a good afternoon tea, the kind with three-tiered trays piled with finger sandwiches and real scones with jam and clotted cream. Admittedly, a few cruise lines (mostly the luxury and British lines) know how to put on an authentic and delicious afternoon tea. But all those mass-market lines that think that plying you with Lipton tea, American scones, dry sandwiches and overly calorific baked goods -- and on the buffet, no less! -- have just plain got it wrong. Even on lines that do put in some effort, we find that whatever is on the menu isn't worth filling you up mere hours before dinner. Worth a pass.
5. Candy Stores
This one has always stumped us. On a cruise ship with endless supplies of food, including round-the-clock self-serve ice cream machines and cookies on order via room service, why do you need a store that sells candy? Are that many people paying for jelly beans and gummy worms instead of going for free treats elsewhere? Our hearts also go out to all the parents who now have one more fight on their hands. (No, little Jimmy, I'm not paying for M&Ms when you just had three slices of pizza, French fries and four desserts at the buffet.)
6. Gimmicky Bars
A robot, a cruise ship executive and a bottle of rum walk into a bar -- oh, wait, you've heard that one? Gimmicky bars are all the rage on cruise lines, perhaps because they make great photos and amped-up press releases. Royal Caribbean is employing robots to mix uber-sweet fruity drinks, as well as offering a bar that goes up and down like an elevator between three decks. Celebrity has a wine bar without servers, where you just pour yourself drinks via a machine, while Norwegian has an Ice Bar where you must wear winter coats and sit on chairs made of ice. The gimmick is usually fun to check out once…but we never return, opting instead for bars with more atmosphere (or in closer proximity to our deck chair).
7. Spa Seminars
You probably get one flyer a day in your cabin touting workshops on "Secrets to a Flatter Stomach" or "Eat More to Weigh Less." Lately, we've been seeing the oh-so-enticing "Free Footprint Analysis." You might think you're going to unlock the fountain of youth, but more likely, you're going to get pitched on buying shoe inserts, booking an expensive spa treatment or purchasing pricy products. Don't waste your vacation time. Get back to the pool party, and worry about your body image once you're back home.
8. Art Auctions
Another flyer-heavy favorite, art auctions sound like a fun, high-end or even lucrative activity to try on a cruise ship. You could own a real Picasso or Chagall! Better yet, you could buy one cheap and re-sell it, making thousands! Um, no. Unless you're well-versed in the intricacies of giclees and lithographs, at best you will come away with a nice print for your home; at worst, you will be taken for a ride and pay more than you needed for art you can't sell and might not even like once you bring it home. By all means, take advantage of the free Champagne -- then leave before you accidentally buy something.
9. Paying for Coffee
Ooh, look, this cruise ship has Starbucks onboard. And this one has a cute coffee shop in the lobby. And yet…on a vacation that will serve you as many steaks and creme brulees as you can stand, having to pay for decent coffee is criminal. The coffee and tea is usually better than the free stuff -- though not always -- but the fact that the cruise lines pretend these cafes are such a nice attraction, when really they're just another way to nickel and dime you, is totally overrated.