The myths, the misconceptions, the opinions, and, sometimes, even the facts about cruising are repeatedly voiced by anyone and everyone who has ever taken a cruise. And those who have never done so have likely been exposed to every reason why you A. should or B. should not try this form of leisure travel. The truth, as the X-Files tagline went, is out there.
That said, after 25 years in the travel-writing business, and after 25 years of hearing every generalization about cruise travel, I took my first cruise, on the Carnival Miracle to Grand Cayman, the Mayan Riviera of Mexico, and to Belize. And yes, the truth is out there. Sometimes it is as clear as the Caribbean; other times it is as clear as a bowl of New England clam chowder.
For those who have said they would get claustrophobic/seasick/bored/driven to the poorhouse/all of the above on a cruise, here are answers to some common conceptions and misconceptions (A note: As you learned in third-grade grammar, there are exceptions to every rule).
You will get bored.You might get bored on a cruise, but chances are greater you will get exhausted. The range of activities for both the passive and active is wide. I entered (and won!) a trivia contest on presidential history, and I entered (but lost) one on theme songs from old television shows. My wife and two children also loafed by the pool, danced in a nightclub, and watched live entertainment. Some cruise ships have seemingly everything from miniature golf to wave pools. When we needed downtime, we vegetated in our cabin and screened an in-room movie.
You have to dress up for dinner.
This is 2007, not 1967. Most of the time, you don't have to be formally dressed for dinner in the main dining room, although formal nights are scheduled. On our seven-night cruise, there were two. You can always opt out by supping at the buffet or grabbing something quick at the ship's pizzeria. We ate at the buffet on one formal night because we had a late dinner seating and an early docking the next morning.
You'll be claustrophobic.
If you think all cabins are matchboxes, that depends. Our cabin was no hotel room, but it was spacious enough to keep two adults and two children from strangling each other. Linda Coffman, a travel writer and operator of www.cruisediva.com - and a veteran of about 60 cruises - says Carnival is known for its spacious standard cabins, averaging 185 square feet. Most cruise lines' standard cabins are 140 to 150 square feet; some are as small as 100 square feet. As for the ships, they literally are floating resorts, with eight or nine floors and innumerable public rooms. If you feel uneasy on a ship, it is probably not claustrophobia.
Everyone qualifies for AARP membership.Witness this scenario. One night, I entered an elevator occupied by four college-aged men and women and some of their parents. They had just returned from an evening at the lively and borderline-crazy Senor Frog's in Cozumel, Mexico. One mom, a platinum blonde who could land a role on Desperate Housewives, said, "I could use another shower." Replied one young man, "Did you say another shot?"
The not-so-desperate housewife laughed. "I said a shower. I definitely don't need another shot." A young man leaned into the blonde's hair and purred his approval: "You smell just fine," which prompted another college-age man to bark, "Stop sniffing my mom."
Not that I'm advocating drinking to excess, but so much for a ship full of stodgy seniors. On our cruise, there was a mix of singles, seniors, families and college-age passengers.
Coffman says a general rule is, "The more expensive the liner, the less likely it is to have kids on board. Carnival, Disney and Royal Caribbean are the best for families. Carnival and Royal Caribbean are best for young adults."
The costs are all-inclusive.They aren't. The cruise cost includes lodging, meals and entertainment. Drinks, including most nonalcoholic beverages, are extra. So are shore excursions, which can add up for families. Grab a piece of cake from a ship's pastry shop, and you may pay for it. Ship photographers are always ready with camera in hand, and the photos are extra. Most cruise lines have trashed the empty-envelope system for tips and switched to automatic service charges. On the Miracle, the service charge is $10 per person - child or adult - per day. For the four of us, our service charges totaled $280 for the entire cruise.
"The automated gratuity amount reflects the standard recommended tipping guidelines, and most people opt to leave the charge as is on their shipboard accounts," says Carnival's Jennifer de la Cruz. "However, guests do have the option to increase the amount for a specific employee who went above and beyond or decrease it if they feel a particular individual did not meet their expectations."
When you take guided excursions, expect to tip your guides, too.
The entertainment would make Simon Cowell gag.
First of all, the quality of live entertainment, like art, beauty, and the perceived talent of Pamela Anderson, is subjective.
Coffman recalls cruising on a now-defunct line: "The shows were so bad we used to sit and laugh at singers who couldn't sing and dancers who couldn't dance."
We attended shows on five of the seven nights. We saw two Vegas-style revues, two comedians and one hypnotist. Our reviews: The talent was as enjoyable as anything we have seen in theaters that don't float. Each of the revue's cast members could dance and belt out a song, and the hypnotist and comedians were professional.
Carnival has a reputation for top-notch entertainment, but many entertainers play a circuit, traveling from ship to ship on different lines, Coffman says.
You'll never feel any motion.Yes, the ships have stabilizers, and yes, you will feel motion when the water is rough - even in the usually docile Caribbean. We were unfortunate enough to be sandwiched between the tail end of Tropical Storm Cindy on our first full day at sea and Hurricane Dennis on our last day. We spent an extra 15 hours at sea, waiting for Dennis to scram, before we could dock and disembark. The swells were large, and motion sickness bags were available, but the motion would have been much worse without the stabilizers.
I took the motion-sickness medicine Bonine each morning, and although I could feel rocking, I felt no symptoms of seasickness. If any of my fellow passengers got sick, I did not witness it. As a precaution, try to book a cabin in the middle of the ship, where motion is felt least. And take seasickness medicine before you board or as soon as you wake up in the morning.
You're stuck with dinner partners.
Not necessarily. My family of four sat in a booth by ourselves. Carnival's de la Cruz says that cruisers who do not make a dining request are assigned randomly. It was by chance that the four of us constituted one group.
The cruise lines will keep groups together and try to honor specific dining requests but cannot make guarantees, de la Cruz says. If you end up sitting next to a guy who insists on telling you every detail of his job selling picture frames - until you want to smush his head into the chocolate mousse - you may ask the maitre d' for a new table.
"Ship maitre d's are typically able to accommodate changes when such situations arise, but it is dependent upon space at other tables or in an alternate dining room," de la Cruz says.
Everyone gains a ton.
True, in some cases. But it mainly depends on how adept you are at pushing yourself away from the table.
Try a Cruise
Carnival Cruise Lines
3655 N.W. 87th Ave.
Miami, Fla. 33178-2428, 800-227-6482
Some independent Web sites devoted to cruising: