Almost 25 million people take a cruise every year, a demand led by the American market where expectations of service and facilities are high.
It’s a great way to see the world while staying in one place, aboard a luxury liner or a small ship that offers all the pleasures of a fine hotel.
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The world is your lobster
With two-thirds of the globe covered by water, there is certainly no shortage of places to explore by ship. From Antarctic cruises to the Mediterranean, from the Caribbean to the islands of the Pacific, there is something for everyone.
Recent trends have been for smaller, “expedition” vessels that allow the exploration of exotic destinations, such as Patagonia or the Amazon.
Speciality cruises add to the options, from “clothing-optional” cruises or those dedicated to LGBT passengers, to military history tours or voyages dedicated to fitness and spas.
River cruising has also seen an explosive growth, allowing you to explore the great cities of Europe, the vineyards of Portugal or the atmospheric Mekong River.
River cruise boats need to be smaller to fit through ship canals and under bridges, which makes for a more intimate, personalised experience (something that’s equally true of smaller ocean-going ones).
The downside is a lack of on-board facilities, such as a choice of restaurants or entertainment but the upside is more concentration on good dining and staff training.
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Wave goodbye to your passport
When you first go on board ship, the first port of call is with the bursar. You hand over your passport and a credit card for on-board purchase.
In exchange, you will receive your cabin keys or entry card which will also act as an ID for the bar and shop.
In more modern ships, this might have been replaced with a wristband which has the advantage of being waterproof if you go swimming in the pool and is harder to misplace.
Such electronic tags can also be used to manage restaurant bookings and onshore activities.
When you leave the ship, no passport is usually required. The cruise terminal signs you out and then back in again with your ship ID.
It feels a bit strange to begin with but most passengers really appreciate the freedom of not having to carry, or risk losing, a passport.
It’s just one more bonus of cruising; no matter what happens, as long as you can find your way back to the ship, they will take care of you!
It’s all included
Cruises can offer some of the most affordable options for an all-inclusive holiday. From pick-up at your door, through flights, to all food and beverage, you can pre-pay for the entire trip.
That’s a great way for families to budget for their holiday and know how much they have for any extras, such as excursions or shopping.
Time to tuck in
Food is a big part of any cruise and modern ships offer a wide variety of venues, understanding that boredom might set in after a week on-board.
From breakfast bars to fine dining from big-name chefs, cruises make sure you are well fed and watered.
The “Captain’s Table”, where evening dress is required, does still exist on some cruises but many, of not most, are now much more informal.
Generally speaking, you can find buffet options, full-service restaurants, or pub settings here you can watch entertainment while enjoying bar snacks. The customer is always king, or queen, on a cruise.
The bar is a big social centre on cruise ships, while casinos and other forms of entertainment fill the evenings with lots of fun. Singers, musicians and dancers offer shows that are of West End quality.
Meeting other people on board is a large part of the experience and many people make new friends for life on board.
If you are bringing along the kids, or the grandkids, there is an equal amount of attention paid to their entertainment needs, from film shows to food menus.
When you need a break, kids clubs allow the adults time alone for a romantic meal or just a bit of peace and quiet.
Fitting it all in
Unless you splurge out on a major suite, your cabin will be fairly small but most are a miracle of design where every inch is used. There is a surprising amount of closet and drawer space for stacking your things and stowing away the empty luggage.
Twin beds or a double are the norm, unless you have specifically booked a single cabin (even then you might end up in twin or double). As well as cupboards there is usually a desk or vanity unit.
It is rare to have a bath but you can expect a shower and washbasin. At sea, the water is usually produced by a desalination plant and, while not suitable for drinking, is fine for washing.
When you arrive at the cruise port, your bags are taken off you and you find them delivered to your cabin.
The same process applies in reverse when it’s time to leave; you leave your bags outside the cabin door on the night before departure and they are waiting for you to check on the quay before going on to your final hotel or airport etc.
It comes in waves
Seasickness is a concern for many people contemplating a cruise. Given the massive size of many ships, and modern design, that is much less of a concern than it used to be.
However, it might still happen but most people adjust quickly and the staff are tied to dealing with the problem and will be sympathetic.
It may seem odd, but most of the crew will admit to a period of adjustment themselves with every new cruise.
If it’s still a worry, consider voyages in places like the Mediterranean, where waters tend to be calmer, or even a river cruise, where the problem should not arise.
Here’s a tip for you
Speaking of staff, you will have two key people taking care of you. The first is your cabin steward/ess who makes your bed, tidies up and generally takes care of you day-to-day.
The second is your waiter, whose job it is to look after you in the dining room.
It is traditional to tip both at the end of the voyage, although some all-inclusive voyages are doing away with this practice.
Each company has different rules and they will be spelled out to you during the booking process. No one can force you to tip, of course, nor stop you if you feel the need to reward good service.
Keep moving, or not
Cruise ships go to great lengths to keep passengers entertained. Gyms and spas are a given and I’ve enjoyed activities like rollerblading, dodgems, circus skills, surfing, diving and rock climbing on some bigger modern ships.
Other activities might include cookery lessons from the chef, quiz nights or talent shows. You might also find things like dance or language classes or dating nights.
Early morning yoga or aerobics sessions are among the wide variety of other options to help keep you fit and entertained.
Or you can just lounge by the pool and read a good book.
Ports of call
Ships tend to sail at night, arriving in a new port early in the day. That gives passengers time to enjoy a day on land before arriving back on board in the evening before the ship sails again.
This ability to explore new places while sleeping in the same bed every night is the key attraction of cruising.
Early in the cruise you will be offered a list of outings for every port of call. This might include sightseeing or shopping tours, or trips to attractions such as zip-lines or wildlife parks.
If there is an extra charge for these, it will be added to your bill at the end of the voyage. If none appeal, you are completely free to do your own thing, whether that is just wandering around, meeting friends or arranging your own taxi to see the sights.
The only thing to watch if you go off alone is that you are then responsible for being back on-board before the ship sails. Given tides and schedules, the ship cannot really wait.
If you do miss the sailing, it’s up to you to get yourself to the next port of call. The crew and your tour company will obviously do their best to help but it’s a situation best avoided.
Nothing beats that feeling of coming back to a familiar ship and crew after a day enjoying yourself onshore, knowing that your own room is waiting and a night of good food and good fun lies ahead.