Saturday, March 19, 2016

The Thing About Cruises

We never considered ourselves as "Cruise People" until one day we were trying to put together a trip to Alaska. We were short on time and money and the cruise itinerary seemed to check a lot of boxes for the best value. We decided to try it. We could ignore the real "Cruise People" and just focus on our own trip objectives - i.e. seeing Alaska.

Funny thing was that most of the people we got chatting to on that cruise (and on subsequent cruises -yes we caught the bug!) also claimed not to be "Cruise People" and we could see that they were working it their own way too. That's the thing with cruises - like anything in life - they are what you make them. The ships are big enough to house everyone and let them oscillate to their own routines. If you want a floating version of Butlins you can attend all the activities the ships puts on. You can be a bar fly, dance to the ships bands and drink the nights away. You can find a quiet spot, just snooze or while away your time with a good book. If you want to spend your days sunning yourself by the pool, you can do that - though I wouldn't recommend that you go on an Alaskan Cruise - might be a bit chilly for that!

We chose Princess Cruises and really liked them. The food is good. The cabins comfortable, clean and well appointed. The staff are amazing. The ships are well laid out and there are few kids on board, although we usually cruise during school time for best prices and to avoid the families. Every ship also has it's adults-only areas, so we'd retreat to there if we needed to. We decided to stick with Princess so we could  rack up the loyalty points. We have also only ever stayed in the cheapest cabins. Not having a window has never been a problem, in fact, I love the darkness in the interior cabins. Lying at night being rocked by the ocean in a cozy bed in darkness - well, its like being back in the womb - I get the best nights sleep on cruises.

But the highlight of most people's cruise experiences, whether they are "Cruise People" or not, are the port days.

There are three ways to approach port days -

1 - stay on the ship. Never an option for us, but many folk enjoy having the ship to themselves. If good food and a spot by the pool is your idea of a great day then go for it.

2 - Take a shore excursion through the ship. These are really pricey, but they do guarantee that the ship will not leave port without you if the excursion has some kind of hold up on land.

3 - Go it alone. Simply walk off the ship and find your own way from the port to local attractions. This is much more cost effective. The total price of a taxi is usually less than the cost per person for the simplest ships tour that is, in effect, a taxi ride from the port to the center of town.

My biggest complaint about the cruise company is that they are usually not very forthcoming with their port details. Of course they want you to take their tours, so they try to frighten you into taking a tour by telling you how bad traffic is, how unreliable taxis are and how the ship will leave without if you are not back on time - and leave it will!

But a good map, some accurate place names and realistic taxi expectations would help us "independents" (as the ship calls us) safely plan our time in the majority of ports. Admittedly there are ports that can be downright dangerous, and this is when I would definitely buy a cruise tour.

In the past  I didn't bog about cruises, preferring to relax and well, take the time to enjoy my holiday. That was until I cruised in South East Asia and realized that my Port Reports could actually help other Independents make decisions on how and where to spend their port days.

My basic rule of thumb is to read all the ships tours then check out the ports online to see what else might be available. Generally speaking anything you can book through the cruise can be booked for less independently - if you are brave enough!

Once on-board it's also a good idea to try to suss out what other passengers are doing. Generally others who are independent will be open to sharing a taxi and in many countries you can even hire a taxi for the day for cheaper than the cost of four ship tours. The added advantage of this is that you can spend your time in the proportions you want to at a site. If you're lucky you may even get to an attraction before it is mobbed by a bus load from your own ship.

In my experience, like-minded folk tend to find each other. Just be clear about what you want to do. It's fine to say no to a taxi share - most people will understand that you don't want to go. If they don't you're better off having nothing to do with them any ways.

We've met some lovely people on port days sharing taxis and adventures with them and then maybe not bumping into them for the rest of the cruise! If you like your new buddies arrange to meet them on board for a drink - if it works that you see more of each other then it was meant to be.

Another tip for meeting people is to register as an Anytime Diner. This means you have no set mealtime. You just rock up when suits you. Sometimes you need to wait in line.  We usually ask for "Two sharing" which means you get seated faster at a table for 6 or 8. Everyone getting seating like this is going in with the attitude of being social and meeting new people and so it usually makes for an interesting, and most times, fun night though we've had a couple of cringe-worthy nights too, but usually there's at least one other couple who is pretty cool and in my experience the "awful" guests have triggered bonding between the others!

The other option is Set Dining - good if you are cruising with a group of people who want to gather at the same time and place every evening to regroup - like a family reunion type thing.

So once you've started bonding with the cruise people who aren't really "Cruise People" you will find that cruises, like life, really are what you make them...and it's hard not to make it great when you are being waited on hand and foot, being served fabulous food, sleeping like a baby, meeting interesting people (if you feel like it - you can ask for a table for 2 when you want a night off being social) and exploring foreign lands!

Byddi Lee

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