World cruisers, I have discovered, fall into two groups: those who fill their days moaning about anything and everything -- and those who are fed up with the nitpickers. On my voyage on P&O's Aurora, one of my tablemates at dinner fell into the latter category. "People who haven't been on a world cruise before get bored at this point, so they start to moan," she told me on my first evening onboard. It was her 52nd night since the ship sailed from Southampton.
Like 1,100 others, she was following in the footsteps of that most famous of circumnavigators, Phileas Fogg, and cruising around the world in 80 days. I, on the other hand, was a world cruise virgin, doing a two-week sector between Hong Kong and Mumbai in India.
My tablemate was only half right. Even practiced circumnavigators were starting to long for home by the time I got onboard, due mainly, I suspect, to the many consecutive sea days, which are trying for all but the saltiest sea dogs. Aurora had just done six in a row when the ship got to Hong Kong, and another five were looming after Mumbai.
"They see the list of ports and don't realize how many sea days it takes to get between them," my world cruise expert advised knowingly. Lesson number one: Count the days in between those exotic-sounding ports.
Coming into the middle of a world cruise was a bit like meeting the neighbors for the first time. By the time I arrived, these old hands had a ready stash of stories to tell -- what they thought of the food, the service, who said what to whom and how "they" (being P&O) rip you off for "this or that." Naturally both "this and that" changed depending on who you talked to.
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In addition to established complaints and stories, the world cruisers had also established a daily routine -- breakfast, time to rest and read, a lecture, lunch, time for another rest and read, then back to the cabin to get ready for pre-dinner drinks and the evening meal. Wives, I noticed, also made time for the laundry room, which was the best place to pick up on the gossip.
Circumnavigators have a hard life. Here are some tips if you'd like to become one of them and take a world cruise.
Is a World Cruise for You?
If you have the time and money, cruising all the way around the globe is the ultimate travel experience. Most passengers who do this are regular cruisers, and because of the time element -- ranging from 90 to 120 days -- they tend to be retired. However, families with tots and teens do make an appearance; on the world cruise I sampled, seven family groups were going all the way around.
However, a surprising number dive straight in and book the full circumnavigation for their first vacation at sea. That's brave. A better idea might be to spend a week or two cruising in Europe or the Caribbean to see if you like traveling by ship.
But a few simple signs will help you decide if a world cruise is for you.
Do you like sea days?
If not, you might get claustrophobic, as some itineraries -- but not all -- have at least one long stretch of days at sea.
Do you love the simple pleasure of watching a ship sail out of port, or the lingering sunset on a day at sea?
If so, you'll probably not succumb to the "yet another port" syndrome and take pleasure from the simpler, but often most satisfying, aspects of shipboard life.
Do you like people?
World cruises can test people's patience, and after several months together, tempers occasionally flare. Having a naturally optimistic and happy demeanor, and liking the company of a variety of people, will help combat that.
Itinerary Options: Segments, Boomerangs and Off-Season Sailings
World cruises used to be simple concepts: you joined the ship in January in Port A, sailed east or west for a few months and arrived back at Port A. Now, would-be Phileas Foggs should pay close attention, as itineraries come in a variety of forms, and many world cruises don't quite go all the way around the world.
Beyond the standard around-the-world trip, here are some additional itinerary options:
You don't have to book an entire world cruise, but can opt, instead, for a segment, ranging from two weeks to a month or more. They're a great way to sample the world cruise experience if you are strapped for time and money. (They are also a good way to test out the experience before committing to the full circumnavigation if you are a bit uncertain.) You can embark in or depart from a nearby homeport -- such as Los Angeles, Fort Lauderdale or Southampton -- or you can fly to Europe or Asia to do a middle segment and then fly back home afterward.
The drawback for part-world cruisers comes when they have to fly, if only one way, because open-jaw travel can be pricey, and packing (see below) becomes more of a challenge due to the airline weight limitations. Some lines, such as P&O Cruises, allow passengers to disembark and leave luggage on the ship for a fee (plus shipping costs from the port to your hometown). It's worth asking about this service if you can manage without parts of your wardrobe until the ship returns to its homeport. Alternately, look into your cruise line's luggage valet program, and have your bags shipped directly between the ship and your home.
Many cruise lines offer lavish, lengthy voyages of 70 nights or more that may or may not be called world cruises. They may start in the U.S. and end in Europe or the U.K., or stay focused on a particular continent or hemisphere. Those not marketed as world cruises may lack some of the old-world grandeur, perks and excitement, but these epic voyages still carry the same advice.
One recent spin on world cruises is the "boomerang," which combines two ships in one trip. For instance, you might sail Queen Mary 2 from Southampton to Sydney and then board Queen Elizabeth to sail the rest of the way from Sydney back to Southampton. Sometimes the two ships are in port together, so you transfer on the same day; other times, the cruise line will, in many cases, put you up for a few days until your second ship arrives. (This can be a great way to see a city you've always wanted to visit in more depth.) Nearly everyone doing boomerang world cruises uses two ships from the same line, but if you're truly adventurous in travel planning, you could do segments on two different lines (though, you would then be responsible for making arrangements in port between the sailings).
Boomeranging helps offset the dreaded world cruise ennui by bringing in fresh new faces and scenery for the second half of your vacation. However, while cruise lines will help with the transfer of luggage from one ship to the other, having to pack and unpack again takes some of the convenience out of the trip.
If you just can't get away during the traditional world cruise start date in January, don't despair. A few lines have started to move world cruise dates to reach new clients. Princess is the prime example, as it's been offering a world cruise that starts in Australia in May.
How to Pick the Right World Cruise
Around-the-world cruising has become so popular that more and more cruise lines are adding a global jaunt to their schedules. That means hopeful circumnavigators can choose from a variety of itineraries, ships and prices.
Think carefully about how big of a ship you want. Until recently, there wasn't a wide variety in sizes of ships doing full world cruises. Today, you can chose anything from smaller, ultra-luxury ships from Silversea to giants like Cunard's Queen Mary 2.
The advantages of a smaller ship on normal cruises -- more personalized service, the ability to get into smaller ports -- hold true on world cruises. If you've been around the world a few times, a smaller ship with a more exotic itinerary might be for you.
On the other hand, smaller ships also are more prone to the whims of the ocean, so they may not be the best for travelers given to seasickness. With a smaller ship come fewer passengers -- and, hence, the more time you spend with the same group of people. (After three months, you may be desperate to meet someone new!) Also, due to the nature of their size, smaller ships offer less variety in facilities, restaurants and entertainment.
A bigger ship can offer more options, but it's more limited in its ports. Also, check where the ship will dock; while small vessels can pull up close to a city, larger ones often have to seek out industrial ports farther away. This makes independent exploration more difficult and expensive. If you find yourself taking tours in each port because the ship isn't able to dock in the center of town, you'll quickly end up spending a small fortune.
Finally, bigger ships have a greater number of passengers not doing the full trip. You'll have plenty of new people onboard, but the feeling that the ship is truly "yours" is somewhat diminished if 2,000 people come and go every few weeks.
Which Cruise Line?
If you have a favorite line, check out its itineraries and prices; if you don't, look for ones that offer your preferred style of cruising and the size of ship you want. From there, focus on itineraries. If you don't see an itinerary you like, expand your search again, but be careful. If you do a full world cruise, you will be at sea for three or four months -- it's maybe not the best time to start experimenting with new lines or styles. Generally, world cruise ships fall into a few categories:
Two of the most famous names in cruising are world cruise veterans, and they almost always deploy multiple ships on extended or world cruises. P&O Cruises is classic British cruising, and it offers modern ships in a wide variety of sizes. Your fellow passengers are likely to be almost exclusively British.
Cunard Line probably offers the grandest of the world cruise experiences, if only because of its name and reputation. Don't be surprised to find crowds and festivities welcoming you to some of the ports. Expect formality and black-tie galas in the best ballrooms at sea. Unlike with P&O, however, your fellow passengers will be an international mix.
Another historic name in shipping, Fred. Olsen, also caters almost exclusively to the British. The line's ships, however, are much more modestly sized and offer a sweet spot between the small, ultra-luxury ships and the larger, more modern vessels.
Saga Cruises also has a fleet of more classic vessels, but there is one important catch: you have to be at least 50 years of age to book passage. (Or, you must be older than 40 and sailing with someone older than 50.) These extended cruises are heavily marketed to British passengers and promote traditional afternoon tea and ballroom dancing.
Several small ships do full world cruises or lengthy Grand Voyages. Silversea combines exotic, off-the-beaten-track destinations and classic favorites with ultra-luxury pampering. Often, distinguished speakers or celebrities are part of the enrichment programs.
Regent Seven Seas and Crystal are good bets for those looking for slightly bigger ships, but who still want a luxury experience and all-inclusive pricing. Crystal's long voyages are usually heavily booked by its die-hard loyal repeaters, and the ship offers a refined, classic seagoing experience, with wraparound promenade decks, gentleman hosts for nightly dancing, fixed dining and a seemingly never-ending supply of enrichment activities. Regent and Seabourn don't sell world cruises, per se, but they do offer several lengthy voyages in similar luxury with a more contemporary twist.
For those on more of a budget, there are several options. Princess Cruises first sailed a world cruise in 2008 and generally uses the smaller ships in its fleet for a combination of contemporary, North American cruising in a mid-sized ship. Holland America, a true veteran of world cruises over its 135-plus-year history, offers a classic experience and usually sends one of its faster flagships, Amsterdam or Rotterdam, or its smaller Prinsendam, around the globe.
Costa Cruises has gotten back into the world cruise market after two decades away. Its ships have a European flair and cater to international passengers at reasonable prices.
Whatever style you prefer, it pays to decide early, as you get the best deals -- and cabins -- as soon as bookings open, which is usually 18 months in advance.
Read up on cruise lines and ships in our reviews section.
Here are a few tips for evaluating world cruise itineraries and picking the best for your interests:
Check for Sea Days
When choosing your cruise, look carefully at the dates on the schedule. Cruise lines don't always list sea days, so it might look as if you have a myriad of exotic ports, one after the other, when actually there's a week at sea in between them.
Think About Ports
Check the ports of call carefully; it would be a shame to head off around the world and visit places you already know. On the other hand, a few repeat visits are great for discovering some new little gems.
Make the Most of Longer Stays
Having a few overnights or extended port calls helps to break up the shipboard routine. You'll know the city better, won't feel as rushed and can actually do what you came on the ship to do: relax and travel. Be sure to see if there is a good number of longer calls on your intended world cruise schedule.
Another benefit of a world cruise is the ability to disembark the ship for in-depth, multinight shore excursions, either during an overnight call or by rejoining the ship in its next port. You might be able to visit the rarely visited Himalayan mountain country of Bhutan or reach Macchu Pichu. While these trips are expensive, they can add a lot to your experience and give a nice break from shipboard routine. Look closely when comparing cruises to see what overland excursions are available.
See How Long You're In Port
Also, make sure stays aren't too short. Cruise lines are looking for ways to save on fuel, and having the ship at sea longer -- thereby allowing a slower cruising speed -- adds up to big savings. As a consequence, an hour or two is frequently being nipped from several port calls. If your ship always leaves at 4 or 5 p.m., is that really enough time to see everything?
Look for Perks
Finally, check what perks you get for doing the full world cruise. Many lines will offer complimentary business-class airfare or private car services to pick you up from your home. Special events, like a grand evening ashore, including dinner with the company CEO, are common. Look for exclusive events, such as having access to the Sistine Chapel or a campside dinner in the Namibian desert.
Want to know which ships are sailing which on upcoming cruises? We've rounded up your options here.
How to Pick a Cabin
A lot depends on your budget for this one, but if you are going to be at sea for several months, it's worth splurging on the biggest and best room you can afford. If nothing else, you need plenty of space to store all your clothes.
A suite would be lovely but isn't necessary. However, if you can afford it, a balcony cabin (with an unobstructed view) is probably worth the splurge so you have somewhere to hide away from your fellow globetrotters for those moments of "me" time.
The usual rules apply if you are able to pick your specific cabin. The lower rooms in the center of the ship are the most stable if the sea turns nasty. If you can't bear being near the water line, choose a cabin higher up but still in the center of the ship. Conversely, cabins at the front and back take the brunt of the movement in a heavy swell, but those at the rear often have wonderful views over the ship's wake (and sometimes get bigger balconies -- check out the small print in the brochures if that appeals).
Cabins near elevators can be noisy as people return to bed late at night. Staterooms at the back are handy for the self-service buffet on the top deck and the restaurants on the lower decks, which are invariably at the aft end of the ship.
One other tip: Make sure you know the person you're traveling with well. Often, solo travelers might choose someone they're friendly with but not particularly familiar with. Jennifer Schaper, former social hostess on Queen Mary 2 and Queen Victoria, says, "I would advise against traveling with someone you don't know. I met a few people who only met up a few times before the world cruise and then shared a room for the whole thing -- some of those match-ups ended ugly. It was not worth saving the money!"
For general tips on how to choose a cabin, read our feature.
What to Pack
You know how hard it is to decide what to take for a two-week vacation? Then pity the world cruiser, who has to pack for several months away, making sure to have something for warm, cold and wet weather, not to mention all those formal nights.
This is where a little planning will pay dividends. Your cruise line can tell you how many formal, semiformal and smart-casual nights there will be, so start by selecting outfits for them, remembering that accessories are a wonderful way of giving clothes you have worn once a new lease on life.
Then match the itinerary against weather charts for the time of year you'll be visiting. For example, in January, Europe could be chilly, the Caribbean will likely be pleasantly warm but not hot, and tropical countries like Malaysia might be steaming but also in the midst of a rainy season -- so a light raincoat or umbrella might come in handy.
Of course, if you live near a world-cruise departure port, such as Los Angeles, Southampton or Fort Lauderdale, you can pack as much as you want because you won't have to fly. But tempting as it might be to take the kitchen sink, remember you can always replenish your wardrobe as you sail around the world, especially in Asia, where you can pick up some real bargains.
Remember also that all ships offer laundry service, and many have do-it-yourself washing facilities. Ask if your ship does or does not, as this can help you save a fortune in laundry fees. You'll also undoubtedly meet the most colorful characters and get the latest gossip while waiting for your clothes.
If you are on just a segment of a world cruise, with flights to or from the ship -- or both ways -- you will need to pack more carefully to stay inside your airline's weight limits. Plus, you may want to travel light so there's room to bring a few exotic souvenirs back home.
Navigating the Nitpickers: Social Life Onboard
World cruises take on a different rhythm and character with so many passengers onboard for an extended time. This is both a blessing and a curse, and tackling social life on a world cruise is entertainment all to itself.
Dedicated lounges, concierges or events for those making the full cruise make meeting fellow travelers particularly easy. Also, world cruisers are full of loyal repeaters, sometimes booking the same ship and same cabin year after year. Even before the ship sails, there are circles of friends reuniting after nine months apart.
Often, world cruises lead to some great friendships. Schaper says, "I saw some real lasting friendships develop between people who attended regular activities. On the Queen Victoria, the ladies who always attended my needlework corner were so sweet and kept in touch afterwards."
Beware, though, there can be too much of a good thing. Cliques invariably form. Full world cruisers often stick together and playfully, and sometimes not quite so playfully, look down upon those on for just a segment as "interlopers."
Or, newfound friends turn sour after a few months onboard. It isn't uncommon to see minor slights turn into disagreements or outright unpleasantness. And, while a world cruise seems exciting and stimulating, ennui inevitably settles in, passengers become a bit more disgruntled, and complaining becomes a well-practiced art form.
The irony is that, as the end of the world cruise starts approaching, rifts are healed and friendships reform. All the unhappiness and foibles are forgotten by the time the ship reaches the pier, and those who were complaining the most are often the first to book again.
Schaper also offers advice for full world cruisers. She says the longer people stay on, the more at-home and comfortable they feel, and sometimes they carry that a bit too far. "Walking around the buffet in robes and slippers is not appropriate, even after two months onboard."
Some Final World Cruise Tips
Below are some simple tips from crew that have served on multiple world cruises:
- "Of course the food is good, but on long voyages people start to want home cooking. Just ask for fried eggs and chips, or sausage and mash -- it isn't a problem!"
- "If you are on a ship with fixed seating, change tables during each segment. You'll want to see new faces."
- "Stay away from negative complaining people!"
- "Keep a diary that states what you are wearing each day so that when you go back through your pictures you know where you were. Ports tend to blur into each other otherwise."
- "At the first cocktail party find an officer and make friends. Do the same with the Maitre d'. They can always add some extras in such as hosted officer tables, etc. for nice passengers."
- "Remember, it is your holiday. So if you are not happy with something, say so straight away, and not at the end. Just do it in a nice way."