On Cruising

I’ve been on two cruises in the last few years — first for my honeymoon, more recently for a friend’s wedding — which is funny, because I used to think of them as really expensive things only done by old people. These days, I know that I really enjoy them . . . though they do provoke some thorny thoughts, which I’ll get to in a minute.

There’s some truth to my old view. Let’s start with “cruises are expensive.” The thing about them is that their cost is fixed; when you make an ordinary trip, you can choose piecemeal what kind of hotel to stay in, what kind of food to buy, cutting corners or indulging yourself at each point. But when you crunch the numbers, they turn out to be quite reasonable: your ticket buys your hotel room (small, but you also have the rest of the ship to roam about), your transportation (zero hassle, compared to trains and ferries and flights between destinations), your food (generally quite good, though you have to pay extra for sodas and booze), and entertainment (if you want to take part in shipboard activities). A la carte, that stuff adds up to about as much as a cruise ticket, unless you really do it on the cheap.

What about old people? Depends on where you are and what you’re doing. The honeymoon cruise was in the Mediterranean (expensive, and expensive to get to), and it lasted for eleven nights; that kind of free time and disposable cash isn’t often found among the young. The wedding cruise was a weekend in the Bahamas, and the average age on board that ship was probably about thirty years lower.

The great thing about cruises is that they are relaxing. You can pretty much be as lazy as you want. You can also be active; they have onboard gyms, you can sign up for energetic shore excursions, or arrange your own sightseeing, more or less as you would on any other trip. The “less,” of course, is that you’re pinned to an external schedule: you can’t decide you want to stay a day longer, or swap one destination out for another, and you have to be back on board by a particular time (usually circa five o’clock) or you’ll be left behind. There are times when that may feel restrictive. But if you want to see a bunch of (sea-adjacent) places with a minimum of logistical difficulty, while being well taken care of, cruises are great.

It’s the “well taken care of” part that gets thorny. As one of my friends said this weekend, cruises are flagrant examples of conspicuous consumption. They’re basically floating hotels — complete with restaurants, lounges, theatres, gyms, swimming pools, shops, even casinos that come with a list of pay by phone slots right from the rooms — and the number of staff they carry to keep the place running is borderline absurd. Very international staff at that (the Bahamas cruise had people from sixty countries), but of course it isn’t egalitarian; it’s stratified like whoa. kniedzw and I noticed patterns on the Mediterranean ship, certain nationalities gravitating toward certain roles. Most of the bartenders, for example, were from the Philippines. The ship officers, entertainers, and other passenger-facing positions that were less about direct service skewed European/white; as you move toward the more menial and below-stairs positions, the staff become darker, come from less affluent nations. A room steward might be Brazilian; the person who washes the dirty linens taken away by the room steward might be Cambodian, and you would never lay eyes on her. Thinking about patterns like that tempers my enjoyment of the luxury.

Having said that, I generally have to give cruising a thumbs-up. I wouldn’t do it often, even if I had the money; it’s only one flavor of travel, and not one I would want to do all the time. But if you are in a mood to indulge yourself, to relax and take it easy while also seeing interesting places, they turn out to be a pretty decent deal.

0 Responses to “On Cruising”

  1. tchernabyelo

    Interesting, and I tend to agree. I never considered cruising as a holiday option until we went as a family group (my wife, her parents, and both of her sisters plus their partners), and as a family holiday, it was ideal. Room and time enough to do your own thing, but plenty of options to spend time together in a neutral and pampered environment, which make it very different from, say, all descending on one house at once. As a result we’ve cruised twice more, again as a family group, and also done a broadly similar all-inclusive beach hotel vacation. Left to our own devices, though, it’s not something we’d do (with the probable exception of an Alaska cruise, as frankly it’s by some margin the most practical way to do that area).

    I think the other advantage of doing it as a family group is that we don’t then feel the need to socialise with other people on the cruise. We’re pretty active people, making plentiful use of the gym, the pools, and reasonably active shore excursions (snorkelling, ziplining, that kind of thing), but I have heard people complain that they couldn’t get round all the different retaurants etc. on board because some of them were “just too far to walk”. I’m not kidding, here. That’s scary.

    • Marie Brennan

      I’ll defend that comment in the case of people with disabilities; in my limited experience, the proportion of them on cruise ships is higher than the proportion of them in my daily life, which makes sense given that it’s a fairly easy mode of travel for those with limited physical mobility.

      On the other hand, cruises do foster an extreme degree of laziness, if you let yourself give in.

      The honeymoon cruise, my husband and I were alone; this past weekend, we were with a bunch of old friends. I enjoyed both, but when we were alone we didn’t bother socializing. We just enjoyed a nice, quiet time alone together.

      • tchernabyelo

        Your first comment is entirely fair and matches somewhat with our experience.

        The ability to avoid exercise, coupled with the 24-hour availability of free food, is not conducive to a healthy lifestyle, and does seem to be particularly tempting to the American psyche. On the last cruise, we used the gym every day unless we were ashore doing energetic things, and we didn’t use a single elevator the entire trip. That helps, but I still put on weight.

        • Marie Brennan

          Oddly, I don’t find myself overeating on cruises nearly as much as those around me. When I do eat, I gravitate to the healthy things, not the desserts; I’m not much of a cook, so having instant availability of well-rounded meals with nutrition in them is actually much more appealing than sugar.

  2. carbonel

    I’ve been on five cruises now — just returned from an Alaska one a couple of weeks ago, in fact. This the first one I’d done “on my own,” though — the other four were family vacations, and I didn’t have any control over when, where, or what. I enjoyed the family ones enough that when I was looking for a relaxing vacation with a friend who needed a rest, cruising was the first thing that came to mind.

    This cruise was on Holland America, and apparently most of their service staff are from Indonesia and the Philippines.

    There are two cruise things that I find particularly annoying. First, the constant attempt to upsell you on things — coming around with liqueur shooters or drinks, offering various things at a price. This cruise had a lot less focus (heh!) on the taking pictures to sell them to you thing than others, so that wasn’t much of a factor, at least. The other was the outrageous cost of Internet access. Access was charged by the minute, which is okay for e-mail, but not so much for everything else. And the lowest by-the-minute charges were $.40/minute for a 200-minute package, with pay-as-you-go being $.75/minute. There’s being a profit center, and then there’s extortionate.

    Overall, though, I have a great time cruising. I like doing the touristing thing also, but if I’m looking for something relaxing where I don’t need a vacation from my vacation afterwards, a cruise is a great way to go.

    (My parents do a lot of cruising; they’ve been on two round-the-world ones, and this winter went on a repositioning cruise with a bunch of days at sea. I’d like to try that sometime, but time and money are probably going to be restraining factors for a long time.)

    • Marie Brennan

      See, I like the outrageous price of Internet access, because it discourages me from getting online at all. 🙂 Sometimes it’s nice to unhook myself for a bit, y’know?

      I also don’t drink much at all, so the constant attempts to sell me some leave little mark. I do know what you mean about marketing, though; it takes a bit of effort to ignore it all.

      • tchernabyelo

        We’ve cruised with Princess, and to be honest they haven’t really been at all pushy with regards to trying to get you to spend more. Sure, they do plug the “art auction” and if you do sit down in a bar area then waiters will ask if you want drinks, but that seems eminently resonable (there are plenty of places you can go sit where there aren’t waiters).

        And I’m with you on the internet access. I go on vacation to be away from normal life. I’m one of those people old enough to have grown up before being connected to everyone you knew 24/7 was normal social behaviour (and I live in a remote enough area that I am regularly even out of cellphone range), so I don’t miss it when it’s not available.

  3. preraphaelite

    If you haven’t read it already, I *highly* recommend “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” — the title essay in a collection by David Foster Wallace. It’s a dark, funny, philosophical meditation on cruising, with an emphasis on the “well taken care of” angle, but many interesting points on assorted aspects.


  4. clodfobble

    It’s interesting, because I actually consider the ethnic patterns to be less uncomfortable on a cruise ship than in my daily life, precisely because they are international. Cambodia is, on the whole, a poor country. Someone from that country is unlikely to have any real educational opportunities at all, restricting their employment options to the more menial tasks–but contrast that with, say, the maid of Hispanic descent in the United States, who certainly could, or should, have those opportunities as an American, yet still finds herself in the menial job due to a number of complex social problems.

    I realize one is just a larger-model example of the other, but for me, it’s more frustrating to see it on a local level where there’s far less excuse for it.

    • Marie Brennan

      There’s some amount of truth to that — but it gets me thinking about menial jobs, and the fact that somebody has to do them (until we invent a better Roomba), so the question becomes who that somebody is. And the pattern, on the small or large scale, tends to be that it’s the darker-skinned person who’s caught in a position of less education, less opportunity, less choice. It’s problematic in either case.

      I’d actually like to know more about the terms of a cruise worker’s employment. If it’s a menial job that pays them better than a menial job at home, maybe offers better benefits, maybe lets them go out occasionally into the places the wealthy passengers are visiting, then I’d feel reasonably positive about it. If, on the other hand, those people are basically kept below decks for months on end, hardly ever getting out into the air? Then I feel much more dubious about the whole thing. (Maybe the Wallace essay referenced above would answer that.)

      • clodfobble

        For what it’s worth, we spent a fair amount of time chatting with two crew members on the one cruise I’ve taken (honeymoon, 7 years ago.) One was from Poland, and I want to say the other was maybe from Nicaragua? Definitely Central American. Both were waiters, which is how we ended up talking to them, so I have no idea if their opinions would differ from the housekeeping staff. But the two of them were extremely positive about their jobs; they both said that as long as you were willing to be away from home for months on end (and these two were both young, no spouses or children) then it was an absolutely fantastic place to work. They said they got rotating shifts of shore leave themselves whenever they went into port. How that added up with their off-duty time on the ship, I don’t know, but they were pretty happy with the whole situation.

        • Marie Brennan

          Yeah, and I rather confused the staff on our first cruise by wanting to talk to them all the time. 🙂 (We were on our own, so not constantly hanging out with friends, and we were more interested in learning how the underbelly of the ship worked than chatting up our fellow passengers.

          Some of the people we talked to had family back home, and it sounded a little hard, serving six-month contracts at a stretch. But that ship had three restaurants just for crew, and various other things that made it sound like the company (Celebrity) did what they could to provide variety and entertainment for the staff — though in ways that discouraged them from mingling with passengers.

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