Travel Talk: Pick your cruises carefully and comfortably
Bud and I don’t consider ourselves cruise people. We’ve done eight or 10 over the past 20-odd years – far below some friends and relatives who are up over the 50 mark. Generally, we prefer to be on dry land with a set of wheels under us so we can take a road less traveled if the spirit moves us.
But we’ve just returned from a 17-day repositioning cruise across the Atlantic (ships follow the market from the Mediterranean in the summer to the Caribbean in the winter) on the newly-refurbished Carnival Sunshine, and we both rate the experience a true 10 out of 10!
What did we learn and why did we love it?
Beginning: Booking the right cruise is critical. This means knowing the cruise line, the itineraries and even the ships. Sounds complicated, but it’s fairly simple. Some lines cater to the luxury crowd – think Azamara, Seabourn, Crystal or Silversea. Some lines are more mainstream – think Celebrity, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, Holland America, Carnival or Princess – aiming for a broader market that ranges from singles and families to some higher-end travelers. Itineraries are a key: Ultra-short trips (three to five days) attract singles, weeklong are often kid/family oriented, and anything more than 10 days appeals to the retired crowd. Mainstream ships are 100,000 tons or so and are great at smoothing out a choppy sea, something very important to Bud. Luxury lines often like smaller ships, more personal, more flexible at getting into exotic ports.
For trustworthy advice, see the folks at AAA (42 Fort Eddy Road, 228-0301, aaa.com) or Penny Pitou Travel (55 Canal St., 524-2500, pennypitoutravel.com). Cruisecritic.com and tripadvisor.com are helpful, but remember, anyone can post anything.
Booking: Bud and I were looking for an off-the-charts great price, so we went for the November repositioning itinerary from Barcelona to New Orleans on Carnival. Repositioning itineraries are less expensive (fewer ports/fees with multiple days at sea and the ship has to relocate anyway), and Carnival had a battered reputation after last year’s incidents on the Triumph and the Dream.
We figured they’d be looking for passengers and have their act together – and they did! We got an exceptional balcony cabin for 16 nights at a lower price than a seven-night Caribbean cruise in a ho-hum cabin. Some passengers (happily nonclaustrophobic) got large inside cabins for $600pp – for 16 nights!
Carnival has worked hard to move beyond the “party-time” reputation of the 1990s and has put real thought into quality entertainment and – one of the basics of cruising – food.
Booking through the line itself will often get you the best cancellation/refund policies, but you can sometimes get perks like shipboard credit or free wine by using a third party such as vacationstogo.com or cruisedirect.com, but be wary of cancellation policies.
Comfy Details: Bud and I like our routines of coffee in the morning and reading on a lounger in the shade, so we packed our insulated coffee mugs as well as nifty towel clips to secure our beach towels on breezy days.
Sneakers were for morning exercise walks – 10 times around the track for a mile. We used Bud’s favorite binoculars (Canon lightweight with image stabilization) almost daily, and had our Kindles preloaded with more than a dozen must-read books.
In the interest of frugality, we booked just one ship-sponsored excursion (a well-worth-it bus tour of Gran Canaria) and opted for the hop-on-hop-off bus tours that have popped up almost everywhere on the planet.
We visited our doctor for anti-nausea meds but didn’t really need them. I’ve seen Lake Winnipesaukee more riled up than the Atlantic was!