(See other articles in this series in the Travel section.)
I always thought cruises weren’t for me. They looked like artificial experiences, Las Vegas on the seas. Then I reached the end of my rope while caring for my father. Going somewhere warm with all my needs met and nothing to do grew in my mind as a way out. I was reconnecting with my friend Al after many years, and imagined how good it would feel to lie back and look at the ocean with him, and to sit with my arm around him in the comedy club, feeling joy at his body shaking with laughter.
I called him. “I know this is really morbid, but… When my father dies, would you go on a cruise with me? I just need something to look forward to. I’ve got nothing now.” “Sure!” He said he loved cruises and had been on many of them. I felt better than I had in years, and called him back later that day. “I know I said after Dad dies, but I just saw that there’s a cruise leaving Baltimore in two weeks. I really need to get away. Can you come with me?” He thought about it for twenty seconds, then we were on our way.
I knew I’d love being with Al, but I never expected to love the cruise itself as much as I did. My worst expectations came true, but I hadn’t considered that almost everything on a cruise is optional. Schedules are delivered to your cabin and there’s something happening every minute of the day. You can join in as much as you want, but you can also take a book to a quiet corner. Modern ships are huge, and with a little hunting around, you can find a place all your own. There’s always an adults-only section, too, where you can stretch out on a deck chair for a nap without getting in the middle of a water fight. It was a perfect get-a-way.
As a bonus, the Carnival Pride was the Love Boat for us. We’d really been in love for years, but I hadn’t been free. Now that I was on the verge of independence again, we decided to be a couple, and have been together ever since. A ship is a fine place to find or kindle or rekindle a romance. A promenade deck in the moonlight is a cliche for a reason.
What you make of them
Cruises are what you make of them. For most people, a cruise is a vacation. If it’s another step in your ongoing journey, you can turn it into something else. It can be cheap room and board. It can be a chance to slow down and catch up on chores. It can be a scouting expedition for your future travels. Or it can just be downtime to relax after rushing around the globe.
One way cruise ships are like Las Vegas is that they don’t make their money on the rooms. The cabins are loss leaders that get guests aboard to spend money in the casino and at the bars. There’s usually a channel on the cabin’s television which shows you the ship’s route and current position. On the first cruise Al and I took, we were three days at sea before our first port. I thought it should only take us two days to travel the coast, so I checked our path the second day. We were making a leisurely loop, heading out to sea and curving back before continuing south. The longer they can keep the drinks flowing, the better for them.
If you understand the situation, you can use it to your advantage. If you don’t gamble and don’t drink much, your trip is subsidized by everyone who does. You just pay for the cabin and let them pick up the slack in the spas and nightclubs and specialty restaurants.
(The downside of this system is that it limits your time in the ports. They’re paying port fees every minute they’re docked, the casino is closed while they’re in port, and you’re spending your money ashore instead of with them. They want to get you back aboard and back to sea.)
CruiseSheet is my favorite resource for finding cruises. It allows you to search by embarkation and destination ports (or general areas), sort by price per day, and set up reminders to be notified when the cost of a cabin drops to a given threshold. Other travelers have also told me they’ve just walked up to a ship on the day it was leaving and gotten rock-bottom prices. I haven’t tried that yet, but it’s a great idea if you’ve been staying in a port town.
If you’re a solo traveler, you’ll almost always have to pay a “single supplement“. Cruise lines advertise prices based on double occupancy of cabins. If you’re taking a cabin for yourself, you’ll pay 1.5 to 2 times as much. When you find a deal on CruiseSheet, just click through to the booking page and specify that you’re booking for one person. The prices will update with the supplement added. Your $50/day trip may now be $70/day, but it could still be a great deal for you. There are a few ships that accommodate single travelers now, but very few.
The way around the supplement is to find a friend to go with you. Those cabins are small, but you spend little time in them. It’s like a hostel. You’re only sleeping there; you’re out and about during the day. Even with many days at sea, it’s not a problem if you take a friend who’s reasonably compatible. There are also online message boards where travelers post ads looking for someone to split the cost. That seems like opening a door to misery, but could be worth a try for a short trip.
Cabin in the woods
You may have come for the ports, but be sure you take advantage of the days at sea. They’re terrific opportunities to relax and catch up, especially if you’re coming off a period of intensive travel. Your time’s your own. You can read, write, catch up on movies, or get online and get through your backlog of chores. You can hit the gym, swim your laps in the pool, walk your laps around the upper deck, and join a pickup game on the basketball court.
When I went on my first transatlantic cruise, I was feeling behind on everything. I looked at the cruise as a cabin in the woods instead of a cabin on Deck Four. It was a chance to get away and get back on top of my long list of todos. The ship went straight from Florida to the Azores, six days at sea. I worried I’d feel trapped and get literal cabin fever, but the days flew by. When we spotted land again, I’d only finished part of what I’d hoped to do, but had a good tan and had played lots of volleyball.
When you do get to the ports, the hit-and-run visits form a sampler plate you can use to research future travels. You get to pop in and out of several countries without packing and unpacking over and over. The eight or nine hours you have in a place let you get the flavor and see if it’s for you. That can save a lot of disappointment later. You may have always thought you’d love Istanbul, but be disenchanted when you get there. Better you saw it for a day instead of booking two weeks there and discovering your mistake after you check in.
Athens was an important destination for me. Our ship made a rare overnight stop there, and I spent two days exploring the ruins and museums. It was second only to Rome in deepening my understanding of Western culture. But in two days, I’d seen what I needed to see. I may go back someday, but I know now there’s no rush about it.
The reverse is also true. You may go to places that didn’t look good on paper and realize you have to come back. A couple of hours in Santorini were plenty, but Mykonos charmed me. When I’m in that part of the world again, I know where I want to spend a week or two.
Your shipmates are also great sources of information. Many of them will have been to the ports before, or been to other places that interest you. Strike up friendships and share what you know. You’ll be assigned a time to eat in the main dining room each night, and will sit with the same group throughout the trip. If you can’t stand the people at your table, ask to be moved, or eat in the buffet. But if you do get along with them, you have a makeshift family for the length of the cruise. You get to know their stories. You talk about what you all plan to do in Lisbon tomorrow and ask how it went the next night. You pick up invaluable tips. You make friends and follow their adventures on Facebook. Maybe you even find someone to share your next cabin!
Cruises and the Planet
So I’ve grown to love cruises and how they fit into my travel bag of tricks. My only misgiving is that they don’t sit well on my conscience. Neither does flying. My back can no longer take 36-hour bus rides, so I’ve resigned myself to getting on planes despite my shame at contributing to pollution and destruction. I take some solace in the fact that I stay in a place for weeks or months once I get there. I use long-distance trains in countries that have them. I walk or bike or use public transit when I get to a city. I try to convince myself that the benefits of travel — to myself and everyone I meet — outweigh the damage I do. Sometimes I believe it. Not often.
Cruise ships are worse. Much worse. The 2016 environmental report card from Friends of Earth gives Disney Cruise Lines an overall grade of A-. The next-highest grade is a C, and it goes down quickly from there. I can’t justify cruises on ecological grounds. They’re awful. It would be perfectly fair to avoid them for their impact.
If you want to take advantage of them but feel uneasy, you can advocate for their betterment. There’s plenty of room for improvement. Lobby governments for stricter regulations. Lobby the cruise lines to find better fuel sources and reduce waste. Invest with organizations like TerraPass to try to offset your flying and sailing.
As for me, I just find them too good to give up. I pick my battles and try to sleep well with the ones that remain unfought.