Cruise your way to a perfect vacation
By Allison St. Claire
Since reporters are supposed to be disinterested, dispassionate observers of the human scene, I first want to fully disclose my bias toward the topic of this article - ocean cruising. In a word or three, I love it! I don't even have enough positive adjectives to do it justice. But alas, it was not always so.
You see, I once had long-held inaccurate beliefs about cruising. To wit: cruising is expensive; it requires a dressy new wardrobe; it costs a lot; it involves constant socializing with empty-headed party types (who else would I find on a cruise?); and it is beyond my paltry budget. Worst of all, like summer camp, cruising requires trudging from planned activity to hearty games and back to regimented activity, no doubt starting with aerobics at 6 a.m. Uuughghh! And besides, did I mention that it cost too much?
As much as I love to eat, crow and my own words are not among my most favored menu items. So, first, my apologies to the cruise industry for all the years I kaboshed its potential, and second, my invitation to all of you to dump any similar negative baggage you might be lugging around about the possibilities of a cruise vacation for yourself. Instead, pack your bag (you'll never have to repack!) for many blissful days while your floating hotel moves you to exotic tropical ports, or the nurseries and playgrounds of whales and dolphins, or the grandiose crashing of calving glaciers tumbling from majestic fjords - while you simply relax.
Where to Begin
Start thinking water. If the natural grandeur of the Grand Canyon or the awesome display of one man's interpretive art on Mount Rushmore, or the cool, green wildness of the Appalachian Trail are highest on your list of vacation destinations, a cruise might not be for you. On the other hand, cruising can tickle even the landlubber's fancy. How about a small-ship experience through the fjords of Scandinavia? (See a canyon from the bottom up.) How about a cruise down the Nile to Egyptian pyramids, the Sphinx and uncounted archeological digs? (The legacy of an entire empire in the handiwork of man.) Or how about a hike on any one of dozens of lush Caribbean islands that can be reached by ship? (And a gourmet dinner, professional entertainment, and a clean bed and bath for the night?)
Rather stay closer to home? Alaskan cruises offer everything from breathtaking views of Glacier Bay to opportunities to explore Gold Rush towns, fishing villages and historical Russian settlements. If the bounding main is a bit too much for now, the Delta Steamship Co. traces the history of the American heartland along the Mississippi, and other ships ply the St. Lawrence Seaway and cross the Great Lakes.
No two ships or cruises will be exactly the same, given all the variables of, for example, who else is on board, weather, destinations, or the fresh food available at far-flung ports. However, some cruise lines emphasize a casual approach while others offer opportunities for more formal wear and events. Others emphasize ecotravel opportunities or educational seminars. But the features of the cruise you choose depend precisely on your special dream for a great vacation.
If You're Single
Never, ever let the fact that you're traveling solo stand in the way of doing whatever your heart desires. Granted, there can be some extra surcharges ("single supplements") for rooms which are always priced on a double-occupancy basis, but many cruise lines will do their best to match you with a compatible roommate to help defray that cost. Supplements can range from as low as 15% to a high of 200%, depending on the ship you choose. Some cruise lines feature gentleman "hosts" who dine and dance with single females. Some offer singles cabins, parties and other events especially for you.
If You Want to Honeymoon
Sorry, the captain cannot marry you at sea, but many lines will arrange your ceremony or wedding party onboard before sailing and/or offer a number of special romantic amenities such as a complimentary champagne and/or wedding cake reception, flowers, a table for two, a double bed, photographs, etc.
Children love cruise ships, especially those that cater to them with special activities. Tops in this category has to be the Disney Cruise Lines, where fantasy and learning are primary. Personal pagers keep kids in touch with parents or grandparents, but the kids are usually way too involved to even remember you are on board too. Other featured activities on many lines include arts and crafts classes, babysitting, sports and games, beach parties, tours of the bridge, cartoons and cribs. The cost to bring children along is almost negligible on most lines; and a cruise certainly beats those long whiny "Are we there yet?" pleas from the back of the minivan. On a cruise line, you're always there.
Finally, if you want to help plan the "Perfect Family Reunion," consider a cruise. There are activities for all ages, places to escape if you can't stand one more weird joke from Uncle Homer, and - best of all - no dishes to wash! Perfection!
The Big Question
OK, I hear your interest rising. "I'm convinced," you say, "but those dollar signs keep looming in front of my eyes. What have you got to say about that?"
First, cruising is considered an "inclusive" vacation, meaning that everything is included. So you saw "Titanic" and think there's still steerage, or at least second class accommodations. NOT! Everything is one class (read: first class) on modern cruise lines. True, you can save money by booking an interior stateroom, but then if you want a view of the ocean, it's probably no more than about 20 feet to the nearest deck. With the exception of a porthole and sometimes a balcony in your room, all beds are the same, all service is the same, and all food and entertainment opportunities are the same no matter what you paid.
Many discounts are available, including early booking, airfare and special rates for lodging pre- and post-cruise in the port city. To get the best deal, keep checking around. The ship will sail whether every room is filled or not, so they'll do whatever they can to fill that room, even at deep discounts.
With the exception of tips at the end of your cruise (specific guidelines are offered by each company and generally total about $10 a day for all your service providers), shore excursions, shopping, and alcoholic beverages (all of which are charged to your room/credit card), you never need carry money with you on board, unless you partake of a wager or two on the ships which offer gambling.
Thus, while it may appear to cost more, cruising allows you know up front exactly what your vacation is going to cost. And finally, here's an interesting comparison. The American Automobile Association has a suggested budget for a family road trip of $175 per day for lodging and meals, plus nine dollars per 100 miles for gas, oil, tires and maintenance for a car averaging 21 miles per gallon. That doesn't even count stopping for souvenirs, snacks, and all the other incidentals for a road trip.
If you participate in any shore trips or excursions from a cruise ship, you'll probably spend about as much as you would for a comparable activity that you drove to. On the other hand, that all-inclusive price for a cruise is about $100-$125 per day, plus tips. And that includes all your food, entertainment, swimming, shipboard sports, games, classes, activities, ambience, and 24-hour ocean view. What a bargain!
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