With so many American cruise lines out there, from mega-ships to homegrown expedition lines, why would someone want to venture onto an international cruise line, one where the intended passenger base is not from the United States?
We're here to tell you that there are great reasons for seeking out a cruise line that's primarily geared toward non-Americans. For one thing, the itineraries may be more exotic, focusing on destinations that traditionally receive more passengers from overseas. Think the Arabian Gulf, for example, which is a popular itinerary for European sun-seekers. Closer to home, international cruise lines may be more likely to choose Martinique (French) or Barbados (English) as beach stops instead of the more traditional American favorites such as St. Thomas or the Bahamas.
Second, international cruise lines have unique cultural quirks that can make being on the ship an adventure in itself. While some may seem an annoying distraction from your regular routine -- cabins might have a teakettle or Nespresso instead of a regular coffee maker, for example -- others are downright delightful (hello, gelato!)
Here are some things to consider when looking at an international line. For this article, we define international lines as the following, which have all been reaching out to American passengers over the past several years: MSC (Italian), Costa (Italian), Hapag-Lloyd (German), Celestyal (Greek), Hurtigruten (Norwegian), Ponant (French), Star Clippers (Belgian) and Fred. Olsen (Norwegian).
- Tip 1: Expect other languages
- Tip 2: Expect other foods
- Tip 3: Expect unusual entertainment
- Tip 4: Expect unusual exclusions (and inclusions)
- Tip 5: Expect unusual clothing (or lack thereof)
- Tip 6: Service may feel unfriendly
- Tip 7: Speaking of smoking, it's everywhere
- Tip 8: Service staff may love your kids
- Tip 9: Speaking of children, they are everywhere
- Tip 10: Prepare to stay up late
- Tip 11: Prepare to sleep in
This might be obvious, but just in case: On a German-owned cruise line such as luxurious Hapag-Lloyd, the loudspeaker announcements might be in German first, and English second. In the main dining room on Italian line Costa, you'll probably hear more Italian -- and even French and Spanish -- than English. Plan ahead by making sure you get a table for two with your companion -- or by making sure that you're seated with other English speakers. You'll also want to go to the shore excursion desk and make sure that the activities you want to do will be held in English. (On Costa, our handful of English speakers was lumped in with French and Spanish cruisers on a day trip to Bahrain; other tours were canceled because not enough English-speakers signed up). The crew does speak English so you won't need to worry about getting your point across.
Why is the bacon soggy, you might wonder as you weave your way through the buffet on an international ship. That's because only "American bacon" is the crispy slab of deliciousness we know; in the U.K. and Australia, it's decidedly flabbier. Likewise, you'll find breakfast pizza on MSC, gelato instead of ice cream on Costa and Greek salads on Celestyal. The varying diet may play havoc with dietary restrictions -- German ships definitely have a bias toward meat and Norwegian ships such as Hurtigruten eschew chicken for fish -- but vegetarians will love the Mediterranean diet (although vegetables in other cultures are often cooked rather than fresh and salad might mean a single variety of vegetable instead of the array of options we have in the States). The condiment table -- filled with brown sauces, Vegemite and weird looking dressings, but no ketchup -- will come with more questions than answers. Go in with an adventurous palate and you'll be fine.
Devising a show that appeals to the world is really tough (just ask the organizers of the Olympics). With so many languages onboard, most international cruise lines stick to entertainment that's visual, not verbal. Think dancing instead of comedians, or opera and standards instead of trendy pop songs. Sometimes this can be amazing; a Cuban dance troupe on Celestyal comes to mind. Or sometimes it can be awful, as a "clothing around the world" show -- also on Celestyal -- proved (the performer representing the U.S. came out in a cowboy hat). On smaller ships, you might see a crew talent show, where the staff sings, dances or performs musical instruments.
Paying for a glass of ice water? Sounds downright inhumane to American ears, but it's fairly common on European lines, where water at meals is not necessarily given (conversely, prices for beer and wine are almost always half of what you'd pay on a U.S. ship). Room service is far less common around the world as well, and it's rarely offered for free. Check to see what's not included before you go. Saunas, on the other hand, are considered an essential for some European cultures and if the ship has one, it will be free instead of tucked away in a pricy thermal suite. Just don't be surprised if the Germans plop down sans bathing suit!
Speaking of nakedness, most international cultures don't have the same hang-ups that their American (and British and Australian) counterparts do. It's a fact: On Costa and MSC, you will witness the dreaded Speedo at the pool. Likewise, wearing a bikini is considered acceptable for a wide range of ages and body types in Europe, and Hapag-Lloyd has a topless sunbathing deck. On Diamond Princess -- not an international ship, per se, but a vessel that Princess Cruises has geared toward Japanese clientele -- bathing suits are expressly forbidden in the onsen baths, as they are considered unclean. Our advice here is while it's rather freeing to let body issues fall by the wayside, do what feels comfortable to you -- and if you have kids, these ships might not work.
"Service with a smile" is an American mantra. The rest of the world, however, doesn't live by the motto. Europeans pride themselves on professionalism, not perkiness. They feel like they are doing a good job when they are coolly efficient bringing your meal or servicing your cabin, not effusive over how your day was. Likewise, the concept of time can differ, depending on the culture. Europeans linger over meals or smoke a cigarette as they order drinks; they don't like to be rushed. In contrast, Americans visibly squirm if plates aren't immediately cleared and dinner lasts longer than 90 minutes. Adjust your expectations, and you'll feel fine.
While many European cities have imposed smoking bans, the reality is that other cultures do still light up. Cruise lines have cracked down on cigarettes, in most cases banning them from restaurants, cabins and indoor lounges and theaters. Still, if you're not used to smoke (as many Americans aren't), the amount of real estate on the ship where smokers are allowed -- and the resulting smell -- can be a shock to the system; we remember distinctly the pool area on a Costa ship where the smokers have much better loungers than the nonsmokers. If you are allergic, proceed with caution.
Europeans seem to have a different approach to the presence of children than Americans do (with the exception of Germans who do prefer children to be seen and not heard). On lines such as Costa, MSC and Celestyal, we've seen staff dote on the kids, bringing them special playthings to stay occupied at dinner and making sure families get off the ship before anyone else for shore excursions. Kids clubs are often weak, as the lines expect that families want to spend time together, not apart. Even on MSC Divina -- a ship that's geared for Americans -- children take the spotlight in a special presentation before the main show.
On a cruise, most American families choose the early dinner seating and then shift their young children into bedtime mode. Not so on European lines, where many families head to the Lido to hang out after dinner and chat with their families in large groups (and, as mentioned earlier, smoke). It's not unusual to see children awake and eating gelato at 11 p.m. -- or grooving on the dance floor with their parents in the disco. If you're not a kid person, take your trip during the school year and avoid the holidays -- or look for a ship within the line that is specifically for adults (like Costa's neo class).
Did you feel tired as soon as we mentioned gelato at 11? Get ready. Many international lines, especially those who draw Italian, Spanish and South American passengers, keep the party going long into the night. Activities may start later than you are used to -- after dinner trivia, anyone? -- and the Lido deck might stay noisy until midnight, or later. Our advice if you turn in early? Make sure your cabin is far away from any discos and try not to stay in the deck right under the pool area.
Early risers may find themselves confused if they venture from their cabins at sunrise. On international cruise lines, the late nights mean that the ship feels like a ghost town in the early morning, especially on sea days. Since the ship's schedule follows the masses, this might mean you have a tough time getting breakfast before 8 a.m. even in the buffets. Our advice if you're an early riser? Bring some granola bars onboard to snack on and go up to the deck to catch the sun coming up over the ocean -- you're likely to be the only one there.