Cruising – Part II: Survival tips for the reluctant cruiser

Last week, we introduced the topic of family cruises. Despite the negatives — long lines, mediocre food, jam-packed pools and nonstop PA announcements — cruising has its good points, especially for parents traveling with teens. Cruises give families opportunities to connect but also breathing room and time to pursue individual interests. (Which is a nice way to say, time away from each other so you don’t drive each other crazy.)

Ready to set sail? Here’s what every family cruiser needs to know before booking.  

Avoid the Boozers and Bozos

Travel is educational. But sometimes you wish your kid wasn’t learning so much. Like the time I took two of my kids to an all-inclusive in the Bahamas and they watched in fascination as a 60-ish matron passed out by the pool after too many Bahama Mamas.

Cruises, alas, attract just as many boozers and bozos as the all-inclusive properties. But there are ways to reduce your exposure to the party-hearty types. For starters, stay away from super-cheap cruises.  

I’ll never book a $159 three-night cruise to the Bahamas or an $85 day-long cruise from Fort Lauderdale to Freeport. The percentage of boozers and bozos goes up expontientially as the price of the cruise goes down.

Used to be, there were certain cruise lines to avoid, too. I sailed on a Carnival ship  to Mexico in the late 90s that was the booze cruise to end all booze cruises. My mom, six-year-old, two-year-old, infant son and I endured four days of raunchy pool games, evening toga parties and hourly drink specials. The only consolation was that the boys were too young to get the dirty jokes and innuendo.

Ever since, I’ve stayed away from “The Fun Ships.” But Carnival has been going  upscale in recent years. In 2002 it introducted the Conquest class of ships – glitzy behemoths that boast 12’ by 24’ LED screens over the Lido deck pool, reservation-only restaurants and other amenities you won’t find on the old school Fun Ships. 

I’ve been reading and hearing that the newer Carnival ships attract a different crowd, and that the cruise line has dialed back on the sophmoric pool games that seemed to be the mainstay of shipboard fun a decade ago. I’m convinced – enough so that I’ve booked my family and I on a Carnival cruise this December. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Although I don’t avoid particular cruise lines any more, I do avoid booking a cruise that is offering a specialty or themed package that could get lively. For example, I would wager to guess that the Iron Chef at Sea cruise will be much more sedate than the swingers’ cruise (yes, they really do offer them).

NCL doesn’t do the midnight buffet, instead offering a chocolate buffet at the more family-friendly hour of 9 p.m.

Hang Out with Your Buds

Since we’re already on the subject of theme cruises,  the right theme cruise could be just the ticket for a perfect vacation. Theme cruises run the gamut from a School at Sea for homeschoolers Sept. 5 on Carnival to the Bluegrass Cruise 2011 Feb. 19 on Royal Caribbean.

Dad can soak up football talk on the Ravens Cruise July 10 while Mom soaks up the rays poolside and the little ones enjoy the kids’ club. (But skip the football buffett and make it family time at dinner.)

 Check out Theme Cruise Finder to discover more than 500 upcoming themed cruises. Or, cruise with your own group, whether it’s extended family, your neighbors, or your book club members and their families. I avoid group beach house rentals like the plague but wouldn’t hesitate to book a cruise with dozens of friends. And if you’re the one coordinating the trip you can even snag free or reduced travel for yourself.  

Want a Good Night’s Sleep?  Book the Cheapest Cabin

When I head to my cabin for the night, I don’t want it to sound like a college dorm nearby. And usually it doesn’t, because I’m a cheapskate who typically books the most inexpensive cabin category, in the bowels of the ship.    

Way down there you’ve got lots of steps to climb, or a long elevator ride, but you usually don’t have a noisy nighclub or piano bar right over your head. Those public areas are almost always on the top decks. When we treated my mother to an Alaskan cruuse for her 80th birthday, we sprung for a nice mid-level cabin for her and put ourselves in our usual cheap cabin category. Unfortunately, her “nicer cabin” throbbed with disco music until the wee hours while we could have heard a pin drop down in our cabins.

The only time I’ve encountered noise in the cheapy category was on a NCL cruise this past New Year’s Eve. The ship employees – situated one deck below us – partied in their cabins late into the night. Usually, the ship staff are too over-worked and exhausted to do anything but sleep when they finally get back to their cabins.     

Getting On and Off the Ship Easily

I took a family trip to Italy four years ago and my suitcase – crammed with dirty laundry and souvenirs – arrived home three weeks after I did. It got lost once in Rome and apparently a second time at the Philadelphia airport, while I wasted hours on the phone with customer service reps in Guatemala City. (They were delighted to learn that my daughter was born in Guatemala but, no, they couldn’t give me the internal number for USAirway’s baggage claim in Philly. And, anyway, the baggage claim folks never answer the phone for them, either.)

Ever since, I don’t check bags. Not when my oldest and I went to look at colleges in Europe for eight days and packed bulky winter clothing. Not when my third son and I volunteered at an Italian middle school for a week. And not when I’m cruising.  

So, when I get to the ship, I keep my compact roll bag at my side and don’t add it to the huge heaps of oversized, overstuffed suitcases that the porters trundle away. That way, I have access to my suitcase at all times – often hours before suitcases are delivered to  cabin doors. I’m in my swimsuit, poolside, while half the other cruisers are sweating it out, wondering when their suitcase will ever appear. 

And on disembarkation day, my family and I take ourselves and our carry-on bags off the ship whenever we darn well feel like it. (Up until the final disembarkkation time.) No waiting for the announcement that ‘Green Tags Can Now Disembark” or worse yet, waking up at the crack of dawn because we’re in the very first disembarkation group.  

Making Sure You Don’t Miss the Boat 

In years past, I’ve flown to my cruise ship the day of departure and all went well. But that was when airlines offered hourly scheduled service to Miami and other popular cruise embarkation points. Miss your flight? No sweat, hop on the next flight.

That also was before God decided to give the Mid-Atlantic winter weather more appropriate to the Arctic circle.  Got a flight today? No problem, after three feet of snow melts — sometime next week — we can get re-schedule your trip out of Philly.

These days I book my flights to the port at least one day before the ship is scheduled to depart. Often, I book flights two days in advance of sailing, simply because the airfares end up being cheaper that way (even with the additonal hotel night). For example, this past Christmas, my family and I took a New Year’s cruise that departed Dec. 27. But airfares on Christmas Day were so much lower that it was ano-brainer to celebrate with family on Christmas Even, then  head to the airport on Christmas Day.    

–Margo McDonough


I Hate to Admit I Love Cruises…and why you might love ’em, too

Cruise ships are populated by boorish, overweight Americans who squander their time in port shopping, eating and whining about the heat (or mosquitoes, filth, pickpockets or lack of WiFi). That is, if they get off the boat at all.

 Cruise passengers fork over vacation dollars to endure long lines, mediocre food, jam-packed pools and nonstop PA announcements about “bonus bucks bingo” and “napkin folding workshops.”  

So goes the conventional wisdom about cruise passengers and the cruise experience. Some of which is true — at least some of the time, on some of the ships.         

Yet in the last five years, I’ve enjoyed a cruise to Alaska, another to the Mediterranean and two to the Caribbean. And I already booked a 7–night cruise that departs out of San Juan the day after Christmas.

You can learn to fold napkins, or better yet, juggle, while cruising.

I’m not sadistic; I don’t like crowds, boors or inane entertainment any more than the next person.  But I do love the fact that my kids love cruises – and I know that a happy kid makes for a happy parent.    

I’ve also experienced the opposite — how a cantankerous kid can ruin everyone’s vacation. When my oldest son was in his early teens, he let us know he wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of spending a week in Williamsburg, Va. We told ourselves he would change his tune once we got there.  

Nope, his tune didn’t change…it just got more raucous. He complained during the long drive, refused to wake up at a reasonable hour to go sightseeing, yawned loudly during the historical tours, harassed his siblings incessantly and soon made us all miserable. 

I wasn’t comfortable leaving a 14-year-old alone in a time-share condo in Williamsburg. But if we had been vacationing on a cruise ship, I would have ditched him in the Teen Club and gone out with the rest of the family to have fun. (And he would have had way more fun, too, playing the club’s video games and surfing the Internet.)

Spending every minute of vacation together can be great when your kid is a well-behaved kindergartener. Spending every minute together when your kid is a teenager is a recipe for disaster.   

Cruises give a family some breathing room but also opportunities to connect. My non-negotiable cruise rule is that everyone attends dinner together every night, no exception. We make it a leisurely, sit-down meal in one of the main dining rooms, not a grab-and-go at the buffet.

During days at sea, I often get in a few hours of pool time with my youngest, a fourth-grader, before she’s ready for the Kids’ Club and I head off to read in a deck chair or work out in the Fitness Center.

On port days, at least two of my four kids usually decide to head ashore with us for either an organized excursion or (more often) sightseeing on our own. The kids who stay onboard are safe and secure, either in the Kids Club, or in the case of my older teens, on their own by the pool, in the game room or on the basketball court.

I’ve sampled the pleasures of some great places while cruising – from Monte Carlo to Glacier Bay, Barcelona to the Bay Islands of Honduras.  On a Christmas cruise, my daughter and I spent a day together in the Caymans – we went to a turtle farm, to the town of Hell and then spent a few bucks to laze on a hotel’s chaise lounges on Seven Mile Beach. Later that afternoon, we connected with the rest of the family for a late afternoon snorkel. Half the fun for Natalie was telling the boys about all that they had missed by sleeping away the morning. (The tourist talk might have made my husband jealous but after a late night in the Teen Club the boys didn’t care that they had missed the turtles.)   

I’ve met plenty of cruise fanatics – the types who take three or four cruises a year and never vacation any other way. That will never be me. My family and I cruise but we also continue to travel independently, take guided charter tours, rent time shares and condos, sign up for volunteer vacations and enjoy every possible way to get away.  

Stay tuned, next week I’ll share survival tips for the reluctant cruiser. Discover which ships and lines attract more boozers and bozos. Which ships still do formal nights. The ones that offer a decent breakfast – not just muffins and croissants — on disembarkation day. And, even more importantly, which ones don’t kick you off at 7 a.m. on that last day.

 –Margo McDonough