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Cruising newcomers usually have more excuses as to why they've never sailed than there are ships at sea. Often, these excuses are based on misconceptions of what a cruise vacation is really like. If your mind conjures up "Titanic" (snobby rich folks playing shuffleboard and dining each night in gowns and tuxedos) or "The Love Boat" (lots of shameless hooking up between guests and crewmembers), or if it involves the notion of a floating, nonstop smorgasbord, you clearly need to bring your preconceived notions in line with the reality of modern cruising.
To give you more insight into the contemporary cruise experience, we've answered 10 of the most asked cruise questions.
1. Is cruising expensive?
Cruise prices range from extremely cheap sale fares (sometimes as low as $50 per person, per night, before taxes) to super-pricey rates for fancy suites on luxury lines. Remember that your cruise fare includes your accommodations, meals in main dining venues, activities (including children's programs) and nighttime entertainment -- not to mention transportation from port to port. When you factor in all of the costs you'd incur on a land vacation, as well as the great deals you can find on cruise travel, you'll discover that you can often save money by booking a cruise, as opposed to a land-based vacation. To learn more about keeping your cruise costs down, read about how to save money on your next cruise and find tips for stretching your cruise dollars onboard.
2. Are cruises all-inclusive?
No. Your cruise fare includes a lot (see above), but you'll pay extra for a whole host of amenities. Among them? Alternative restaurants, some coffee and ice cream bars, soft drinks and alcoholic beverages, shore excursions, spa treatments and gratuities. The luxury lines include more, but even they are never completely all-inclusive. (Drinks and gratuities may be included in fares, but spa treatments won't be.) For more info, read our article on the hidden costs of cruising.
3. Are all cruise ships alike?
Cruise ships come in a variety of sizes and personalities. You'll find a myriad of variations: big ships, small ships, explorer-oriented ships, absolutely decadent luxury ships, river ships, family ships, sailing ships ... and on and on. To help you choose the ship that will best suit your travel style, follow our advice on how to pick a cruise ship.
4. Is cruising like going to Vegas or a resort?
Well, yes -- and no. These days, cruise ships do have all the comforts and luxuries that travelers associate with on-land resorts, as well as much of the glitz and glamour of destinations like Vegas (including bustling casinos and lavish production shows). However -- and this may seem obvious, but it needs to be mentioned -- you are on a ship. Rough seas can impact your itinerary, you must debark and reboard the ship at specified times and your cabin will typically be smaller than a hotel room (unless you book the highest level of suites). For more on all the Vegas-style attractions you'll find onboard, check out these crazy things you can do on a cruise ship.
5. Isn't cruising just for the "newly wed and nearly dead?"
It used to be, but no way is that true anymore. Cruise ships are increasingly targeting families, offering children's programs and facilities that rival those on land. You'll find onboard water parks, teen discos, video games and a variety of crafts projects and interactive play. Singles can enjoy the camaraderie of communal meals and organized shore tours, special singles' meet-and-greets, a host of onboard activities and, on some ships, solo cabins. Hip and urban travelers will be pleased to find gourmet dining, high-tech and modern entertainment and late-night action at onboard bars and clubs. Gay and lesbian cruisers are welcomed onboard with their own meet-ups in ships' lounges. Charter cruises -- catering to gay singles, couples and families -- are also offered.
Health-conscious and active travelers should note that midnight buffets have given way to expansive fitness centers, spa cuisine and an array of active onboard pursuits like rock climbing and Pilates classes. Cruise lines are even offering plenty of shorter-than-usual (three- to six-night) voyages that are marketed to working folks who simply can't give up two weeks or more for a vacation. For more on cruises to suit a variety of traveler types and interests, visit our Cruise Styles area.
6. Will I get sick or seasick?
You may have read news articles about outbreaks of norovirus on cruise ships. Norovirus is a stomach bug that spreads easily in contained environments, such as hospitals and schools, as well as ships. You can stay healthy by washing your hands often and using the hand sanitizer found in dining areas and by the ship's gangway.
As for seasickness, most ships are so big and well stabilized that you can hardly tell you're moving, especially in the calm waters of the Caribbean or Alaska's Inside Passage. Radar helps big ships outrun hurricanes and other bad-weather patches, but if you do happen to pass through some rough water, any queasiness can usually be relieved by an over-the-counter medication like Dramamine or Bonine. If you are very prone to seasickness, ask your doctor before you leave home for the Transderm patch, available by prescription. Alternative remedies include ginger capsules and acupressure wristbands, available at most pharmacies. Also, note that the purser's desk on most ships can provide rations. For more information, read our tips for avoiding seasickness.
7. Is cruising safe?
Ships must follow an extraordinary number of rules and regulations that protect passengers' (and crewmembers') safety while onboard. The Coast Guard conducts rigorous quarterly inspections of all ships that operate from U.S. ports, looking to make sure they comply with emergency response requirements. Ships also operate under international rules, known as Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS). The rules regulate everything from fire safety to navigation and maritime security. The rules also require that before the ship sails, all passengers must participate in a safety drill that includes instructions on locating and putting on life jackets and finding their assigned lifeboats.
The biggest safety concerns for cruise ships are fire and running aground/capsizing. The industry has seen some high-profile and tragic incidents, but these occurrences are actually quite rare, given the millions of people who cruise each year. You may be more at risk driving to the airport or boarding a plane to get to your homeport than you are once at sea.
In the aftermath of the Costa Concordia tragedy, the Cruise Lines International Association adopted a cruise industry passenger bill of rights. The bill guarantees passengers rights in 10 areas, including safety, comfort and care. Rights include "a full refund for a trip that is canceled due to mechanical failures or a partial refund for voyages that are terminated early due to these failures" and "timely information updates as to any adjustments in the itinerary of the ship in the event of a mechanical failure or emergency, as well as timely updates of the status of efforts to address mechanical failures."
Also note that cruise ships are like mini-cities, and you should take the same general travel precautions you would on land. Keep any valuables in your cabin's safe (or leave them at home), and don't open your cabin door without verifying who's there. Parents, give children strict rules about when they can and cannot roam the ship without adult supervision -- especially near the swimming pool. Not all ships have lifeguards, so make sure to review pool safety tips before your cruise.
8. Will I get bored?
No way! You might need a map to navigate around today's big ships, and there's something to do in nearly every corner. To get your heart pumping, shoot some hoops, or visit the ship's gym. For intellectual stimulation, you can listen to guest speakers, participate in Bridge tournaments or attend wine lectures. There are pools for soaking and swimming, boutiques for shopping and spas for pampering. You can participate in contests, do crafts, watch movies or simply grab a book and get a tan. Or amp it up with recreational options like water slides, rock climbing walls and ropes courses. Royal Caribbean takes the cake for unusual activities; its Quantum Class has bumper cars, roller skating and indoor skydiving onboard.
Even on small ships, there's plenty to do during times when the vessels are at sea; most notably, these cruises tend to offer strong enrichment-oriented activities. Plus, remember you're not on the ship all the time. Most itineraries include a variety of different ports of call. Check out our first timer's guide to onboard activities for more on sea-day options.
9. Won't I get fat?
We know the rumor that the average person gains about five pounds on a one-week cruise. But, for those watching calories, be assured there will be low-fat (and low-carb, dairy-free and gluten-free) options on the menus and some healthy choices at the buffets. Certain ships actually have onboard spa cafes. Most have simply done away with midnight buffets -- those longtime paeans of absolute indulgence. (After-dinner revelers can, instead, partake in hors d'oeuvres, served in late-night venues, or access 24-hour dining venues.) For more information, read up on cruise food trends.
Aside from eating healthy, you can also burn calories by working out in the ship's gym, speed walking or jogging around the various decks (or ditching elevators in favor of stairs), and mountain biking, hiking and kayaking in port. Some ships have basketball courts and rock climbing walls for more onboard athletics.
10. Can I stay in touch?
On most ships, you'll get CNN or some other cable news network on your in-room TV. A daily news sheet might also be available, combining wire reports with stories from major newspapers. You can make phone calls from the phone in your cabin, though it's prohibitively expensive. Your cell phone also can be used to make phone calls, send text messages, check email and post to social media. (Roaming charges apply unless you purchase an internet package that supports those functions.) Many ships have small Internet centers, so you can read email and surf the web, even if you haven't brought your own device. Most mainstream cruise lines are also finding ways to optimize bandwidth to make it easier for cruisers to Skype and stream videos.
Mobile apps have been making headway, too. These apps allow cruisers to stay in touch with family and friends onboard by exchanging messages with other app users. Depending on the cruise line app, users can check out daily activities, access social media sites, browse restaurant menus, submit reviews and view their onboard accounts. For more information, read our article on Internet and Phone Use Onboard.