Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Cruising 101

Originally published in the Post Register, March, 2004
By the time we woke up docked in Puerto Vallarta, we’d done our homework.

We knew where the best shopping was, we’d purchased a shore excursion to a nearby exotic island for a romantic torchlight dinner, and we knew precisely how much it should cost to take a cab from the dock to downtown.

We weren’t prepared, however, for the view from our cabin when we threw open the curtains – Wal-mart and Sam’s Club, perhaps 1,000 yards from where we were docked. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not what we envisioned when we booked our cruise to the Mexican Riviera.

So cruising doesn’t guarantee 24-hour romance or an otherwise perfect travel experience. But it does offer a way to see a number of places without packing your bags every morning, at a surprisingly reasonable cost.

For roughly $100 per day (per person), less than the cost of a lot of hotel rooms, you can cruise to exotic locations, eat gourmet food, enjoy live music and production shows and generally get the pampering you know you deserve.

Cruising ranges from simple four-night excursions along the California and Mexico coast to half-year round-the-world explorations. For first-timers, start small – four, five or six days – to make sure cruising is for you. Once you’ve discovered whether you have sea legs, get more adventurous.

A winter trip to the Mexican Riviera, for example, can be just what the doctor ordered for the winter blahs. We spent a perfect afternoon wandering a deserted white-sand beach near Mazatlan, framed as far as the eye could see by coconut palms. The next day we awoke in Puerto Vallarta, spent the day wandering the busy streets and capped off the evening at Las Caletas (film director John Huston’s former hideaway), accompanied by the lapping of the ocean against the beach and views of the lights of Puerto Vallarta in the distance.

The beauty of a cruise is that much of the cruising is done at night. You nod off as you leave one port and wake up at the next.

There are some potential downsides:

• If you tend to get motion sickness, you’ll want to think twice about an extended cruise. There are drugs that can help, but there’s no guarantee you won’t get woozy. (Kathleen once got the dreaded Norwalk virus toward the end of a cruise to Alaska.)

• The cabins are small, from 115 to 200 square feet generally. Of course, the good news is that you’ll spend precious little time there.

• If you choose a cruise line that doesn’t fit your personality, there could be trouble brewing. Some cruise lines attract partiers, others cater to families, and others are favored by older folks. Our Mexican Riveria cruise was a case in point. We chose Holland America’s Ryndam ship, which had spacious (relatively speaking) cabins, good food and first-class service. But the line is most popular with senior citizens, which meant that all the live music was pretty much circa 1944. That’s the sort of thing you’ll want to know ahead of time.

• The cruise fare doesn’t include transportation to and from the embarkation port, alcohol or soft drinks on the boat, and gratuities for the crew, which can range up to $15 a day (gratuities are voluntary, but most cruise lines provide “guidelines” for tipping).

Those issues aside, the upsides to cruising are numerous:

• Most cruise lines are expert at pampering, with one crew member for every two passengers.

• You’ll meet interesting people on the boat and on shore. Cruise lines usually have non-American crews, which creates an international flavor on board. And your fellow passengers will be from virtually everywhere.

• The food. On most lines, not only is there an obscene amount of food, but it’s actually delicious. Take care – it’s not unusual to put on a good eight or 10 pounds on an extended cruise.
• Even on full days at sea, there’s plenty to do. Nearly all larger cruise ships have indoor and outdoor pools, a movie theater, a casino, wireless Internet access, duty-free shopping, live shows, even basketball or other sports. Or, you can settle in one of the many lounges or decks and read a book.

• The cruise line will offer on-shore excursions at each port of call. They’ll cost anywhere from $25 to $100 per person, but they’re generally worth it (unless you’re committed to a day of shopping or you know your way around the port of call).

You can increase your chances of having a pleasant cruise by doing some pre-trip research. If you’re using a travel agent, be sure to explain what kind of cruising experience you want – active or leisurely, lots of nightlife or early turn-in, etc. Travel agents will know which cruise line is best suited for you.

If you’re booking on your own, start with a web site that has done the research for you, such as cruisecritic.com, cruiseopinion.com or cruisereviews.com. These resources describe in detail everything from the pros and cons of each boat to which cruise line has the best food.

Some other tips:

• If you can leave for a cruise at a moment’s notice, most cruise lines offer last-minute bargains – discounted as much as 75 percent – to make sure each boat is full. Check each cruise line’s web site for details.

• Pack light. Even on the best ships, cabins are small.

• Read the pre-cruise material from your cruise line carefully. It’s full of important information.

• If you have any inclination toward claustrophobia, do not book an inside cabin.

• Consider carrying on some bottled water. Drinking water on board is of uneven quality (some ships desalinate seawater), and the bottled water for sale on board is expensive.

• Board early. Most ships leave the originating port in late afternoon or early evening the first day. If you board in early afternoon, the ship’s restaurants are open and the cruise director makes sure there are other activities. This helps avoid the last-minute rush and allows you to acclimate to your new surroundings.

• Finally, here’s a tip we picked up from a cab driver on our way to board a ship bound for the Caribbean: Instead of taking elevators on board, use the stairs. It’ll help offset the extra calories you’ll inevitably be consuming.

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