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.