It’s the middle of winter here in the Northern Hemisphere, which always gets me dreaming about fleeing south. I’ll catch myself picturing golden, sun-soaked beaches lined with swaying palms. I imagine putting my toes in impossibly clear waters, a book in my hand and all my worries far away in the snowy Northeast. I can almost taste the fruity sweetness of a rum punch.
One of the most popular ways to escape the winter chill is by taking a cruise. It’s high cruise season in the Caribbean right now, with tens of thousands of people boarding ships each week. As spring approaches, many of those ships will move to new seas. Some will head to Europe, others to Alaska, and by the end of the year, cruise ships will have touched ports on six continents. In 2018, it was estimated that 30 million people would cruise in 2019. That’s roughly half the population of Italy or the entire population of Ghana, and that number is on the rise.
When it comes to ways to travel, taking a cruise is one of the more polarizing methods, with people seeming to fall into one of two camps. There are the “cruise people”: the ones who have made dozens of sailings, bring their own reusable drink cups, and know each itinerary and deck plan by heart. Then, there are the never-cruisers, the people who wouldn’t be caught dead on a ship. They can list off any number of reasons – ecological, moral, travel-purist, or otherwise – why the idea of cruising disgusts them.
When people ask me how I feel about cruises, I acknowledge that they’re not for everyone and are certainly not without their disadvantages. At the same time, though, there’s something romantic about being out on the open sea, and something very attractive about leaving cell service behind, escaping into the lap of luxury, and visiting far-off places that might otherwise be difficult to access. A cruise vacation can be the perfect fit for the right person or group. Today, I want to talk about the various pros and cons of taking a cruise so that you can decide for yourself whether going to sea is right for you.
PRO: You wake up every morning in a new place.
One of the biggest benefits of going on a cruise is the ability to visit multiple destinations without having to worry about the logistics of getting from one place to the next. After each port of call, the ship moves on to the next one, carrying you along with it. You don’t even have to pack your suitcase.
Part of the reason that M and I chose to take a Caribbean cruise for our honeymoon was that we found an itinerary that allowed us to visit six different islands over the course of a single week: St. Croix, St. Kitts, Dominica, Grenada, St. John, and Puerto Rico. It was so fun to wake up each morning and step onto our balcony to find a gorgeous new island just waiting to be explored. Plus, each island had its own unique landscape, culture, and set of attractions, which meant we never got bored.
CON: You don’t get much time at each destination.
Unfortunately, visiting all those places for a day apiece means that you don’t get to spend very long in any of them. For example, on many Caribbean cruises, you might only be allowed off the ship between 8:00 AM and 4:00-5:00 PM at any given port. While eight to nine hours might be sufficient to hit the beach or do some leisurely shopping, it’s not nearly enough to experience any place in-depth or go very far afield. If you’re dying to see a particular place, it may be better to consider making that your sole destination rather than trying to hit it on a cruise.
PRO: They’re great for families and large groups.
If you’re looking to travel with a group or a big extended family, a cruise could be a good fit. Cruising offers tons of activities and experiences that suit a wide range of ages, interests, activity levels, and price points (more on that last one in a minute). If you’re traveling with three other families, for example, you can split off during the day to do different activities before regrouping for dinner at night. There is enough to do separately and together to keep everyone happy and still loving each other by the end of the cruise.
CON: They’re terrible for the environment.
The environmental impact of cruising is one of the major downsides of choosing this kind of vacation. Much is made about how cruise ships have become so massive as to be akin to floating cities. Unfortunately, with that size and passenger load comes a similarly massive carbon footprint. In addition to burning fuel and gobbling up resources, cruise ships also generate a tremendous amount of waste. As a recent Forbes article pointed out,
“A passenger’s carbon footprint triples in size when taking a cruise and the emissions produced can contribute to serious health issues. On top of the pollution caused by their exhaust fumes, cruise ships have been caught discarding trash, fuel, and sewage directly into the ocean.”
To be fair, cruise lines have claimed that some of those dumping incidents were done accidentally or against company protocol. They are also facing increasing pressure from the international community and their own passengers to clean up their act. The fact remains, though, that from an environmental perspective cruising is one of the worst means of transportation you could choose, even compared to flying.
PRO: They can be very affordable.
Another benefit of cruising is that it can actually be an incredibly cost-effective way to travel. The cost of cruising varies widely depending on which cruise line you choose, the itinerary, where on the ship your room is located, and what excursions or additional packages you tack onto the trip. If you’re willing to stay in an interior stateroom (meaning in the center of the ship, with no window or balcony), you can save hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.
The flexible cost of cruising is another reason why cruises are good for groups, since everyone can book a room based on their own budgets and preferences. For example, one couple can splurge on a suite while another books a more modest room with a porthole window. Both couples will visit the same destinations and have almost all of the same onboard experiences available. (Some cabins come with extra perks such as access to specialty dining rooms.) You’ll just pay dramatically different prices.
Finally, cruise lines and other travel outlets are constantly running sales and deals that can save you even more money. I’ve seen prices for weeklong cruises as low as $299 per person for an interior stateroom. You can’t argue with that kind of bang for your buck!
CON: They’re not quite all-inclusive.
While a benefit of cruising is that much of the cost of your experience is covered in your booking price, the fact remains that cruises are not completely all-inclusive. You may have full access to most of the restaurants, pools, theaters, clubs, and other activities onboard, but others come with an additional price tag.
Cruise ships now boast specialty restaurants that promise an even more elevated experience, but beware that you’ll pay for each menu item a la carte. Excursions and off-ship activities cost extra, as do gratuities, taxes, and port fees. Drinks like soda, fresh-squeezed orange juice, and alcohol will empty your pockets even further.
Cruise lines will often run promotions that include some of these perks, so it is possible to get gratuities, a drinks package, or other onboard credit included at the time of your booking. You can also purchase packages a la carte, but make sure to run the numbers first. Alcohol packages can cost $45-$70 or more per person, per day. If you suspect your bar tab will be less than that, it’s better to just pay as you go.
PRO: They’re easy, convenient, and relaxing.
Taking a cruise is one of the most stress-free ways to travel. Your luggage is brought directly to your stateroom. You don’t have to worry about finding transportation from place to place since the ship moves between ports for you. You don’t have to find a restaurant to have breakfast or dinner, and the cost of those meals is already paid. Someone makes your bed in the morning and turns it down in the evening.
In a lot of ways, cruising is one of the best options for someone looking to just relax. Cruise ships aim to provide a feeling of luxury and pampering. Many of us, especially overworked Americans and parents of young children, are desperate for a vacation, and that’s exactly what a cruise provides. The nice part is that you can be as active and adventurous as you want in your ports of call and then step back into the relaxing arms of the cruise each evening.
True to form, M and I spent the port days of our honeymoon cruise exploring the islands and doing lots of fun activities. In the evenings, however, we loved being able to relax with a book on our balcony before getting dressed and enjoying a delicious, high-class meal. Afterward, there was always a comedy show or musical production in the theater, or we could take a romantic stroll under the stars on the top decks. Cruising allowed us to do the kind of fun, high-energy traveling we enjoy while coupling it with the rejuvenating vacation we needed after an exhausting wedding week.
CON: They don’t help local economies.
The impact on local economies is another black mark against the cruise industry. Unfortunately, hordes of tourists offloading into a port city don’t always translate to a surge of money being injected into the local economy. Cruisers are only in town for a few hours, giving them less time to spend money than people who stay overnight. The result is crowded streets and pressure on infrastructure without much of a payoff.
Additionally, restaurants, gift shops, and excursion outfits, especially those located in the immediate vicinity of where the ships dock, are often owned by foreigners looking to capitalize on an investment opportunity. I can speak from personal experience working in Skagway, Alaska, about how many of the businesses along the main tourist drag, Broadway, were seasonal enterprises owned by non-Alaskans. Money spent there often had little effect on year-round Skagway residents.
Port fees are a more nefarious example of how cruise ships fail to help locals. One way that local economies make money from the cruise industry is by charging a fee for each passenger arriving in port. Unfortunately, those fees are often very low – perhaps only $1-$2 per person – and cruise lines can threaten to bypass the port if an attempt is made to raise the rate. It becomes a matter of taking what little you can get, even if that means being held hostage by the cruise lines.
Fortunately, there’s good news. The negative (or, at least, lack of a positive) impact on local economies is one of the downsides to cruising that you are most in power to counteract. Here are some ways to ensure that the money you spend in a port city stays there:
- Book any excursions through local vendors online rather than through the cruise ship. Cruise lines can exert pressure and control over how much vendors charge for tours and how much of a commission the cruise line takes off the top. By booking directly, you ensure that your full cost goes directly to the vendor.
- Eat in restaurants and buy souvenirs from shops located away from the docks and main tourist areas. Ask locals where they would eat and which souvenirs are handmade on the island vs. being imported.
- Consider making a small donation to nonprofit organizations doing work in your ports of call upon your return.
PRO: Cruising can take you to places that would otherwise be hard or expensive to reach.
While you could easily visit the destinations on many itineraries by yourself, there are others that are much easier to access by cruise ship. Take, for example, the famous Hubbard Glacier. This spectacular natural wonder is tucked into a remote bay in southeast Alaska. It is completely inaccessible by car and roughly 225 miles (by air) from the nearest major airport in Juneau. Getting there would involve a comparatively large investment of time and money. Yet thousands of people visit every year thanks to cruise ships that spend a day idling in full view of the glacier.
The same applies to many islands in places like the Caribbean and the South Pacific. Their remote locations make getting there expensive and difficult, but you can easily board a cruise ship in Florida or Sydney and spend a day experiencing their delights.
CON: You might be sharing the experience with thousands of people.
One of the biggest complaints people have about cruises is that they are “crowded.” This is not an entirely unfair assessment. Cruise ships frequently carry 4,500 passengers or more, with another thousand crew members at least. Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas, for example, has room for a whopping 6,699 guests and almost 2,200 crew. That’s a lot of people.
While ships are designed to minimize the feeling of crowdedness and claustrophobia, the fact remains that you may encounter lines at the breakfast buffet, a pool teeming with people, or difficulty making a spa or specialty dining reservation because available spots are taken. To be fair, larger ships usually boast more – and more extravagant – amenities. Not only will you have more restaurants, shops, bars, and lounges, but you also might find a waterpark, laser tag arena, and even an ice skating rink on board. At the end of the day, though, the fact remains that you are in the middle of the ocean with thousands of other people who are confined to the same vessel.
If you want to minimize crowds, however, you can always choose a smaller ship or travel outside of high season when the cruise may not be filled to capacity. Another reason M and I chose the cruise we did was because the ship could only hold a little over 2,000 people at full capacity.
As the industry continues to grow and cruise lines race to build bigger and more extravagant ships, the debate about the value and ethics of going on a cruise will only become more important. I hope that this list of pros and cons is helpful as you make your own decision about whether or not to set sail. Above all, though, don’t let yourself be travel-shamed. Your time off is entirely too valuable to worry about what others might think about how you spent it. Make the decision that is best for you.
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