Cruising Without Hassle Part 1: Like Walking on Water

The cruise line industry is having something of a post-recession resurgence. There are plenty of options for those looking to give a cruise a try, so it's important to choose wisely.

It is midnight and it’s summer time. Do you know where your friends are?

If they are on a cruise, the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) knows. It tells us 2.9% are cruising in South America, 4.4% are in Alaska, 6% in Asia and another 6% elsewhere in the Pacific, 10.6% are sailing in Europe (probably on the continent’s rivers), 19.5% in the “center of the world”—the Mediterranean, and a whopping 35.5% are in everyone’s favorite, the Caribbean. The numbers don’t add up to 100 percent because 15% are in “Other markets,” wherever they might be. But they are not lost. Passengers may worry about norovirus infections and the mounting size of their bill afloat but…given the success of today’s high-tech navigation the world’s 421 cruise ships (270 ocean-going, 151 boats sailing on rivers) are never lost.

Cruise experiences and shore excursions come in all forms.

It’s all big business: 22 new ships (6 ocean and 16 river) are coming in 2015, an investment for the cruise lines of $4 billion. Cruise ship capacity has increased 18% since 2009 and the economy, which has seen the US GDP rise 14% since 2009 now shows cruise tourism climbing 26% in the same time period.

Maria Miller, Senior Vice President, Marketing Norwegian Cruise Lines, quoted by the CLIA, says, “Passengers are at the helm. People continue to set sail: from a global number of 17.8 million in 2009 to 23 million in 2015. And cruisers tell us what pleases them: The chance to visit and explore several locations (and come back another time for more detailed visits.) The variety of activities and the high quality of entertainment. The fine dining and the pampering and the ease with which it can all be planned.”

The CLIA describes today's average cruiser as 49 years old, married, employed full-time, college educated with an income of $114,000. In a June press release, Richard Branson indicated Branson’s Cruise Line intends to “lure a younger generation of passengers to cruise ships. It has ordered the first of three ships, each capable of carrying 4,200 passengers and crew, from Italian ship maker Fincantieri S.p.A., with delivery starting in 2020.”

This again brings up what travel professionals always tell their clients — and we will get back to that later: If you are elderly and maybe a bit cranky do you want to cruise with noisy children? Well, it depends on so many factors: how long is the cruise, does it make provision for children, are the kids yours and well-behaved even if they get bored? And are they noisy?

The San Diego Union-Tribune had a cartoon a few days ago showing an elderly couple in Disneyland complete with balloons and cotton candy smiling at each other and saying, “Why are we having such fun? Oh! We didn’t bring the kids!”

We’ve been on a Carnival where we were wakened several nights by the noise of happy and possibly inebriated teenagers having pillow fights around the pool but we’ve also sailed on a senior heavy cruise where it was hard to go down a corridor without banging into folded wheelchairs stacked beside cabin doors.

Passengers are different so cruise lines have to offer alternatives. The big new ships from Royal Caribbean understand how to deal with families — kids have to be entertained and kept busy…

…whereas older passengers are more tolerant of long flights to get someplace and they show more interest when they get there. Images Top, Machu Picchu; Patagonia; Queen Charlotte Islands, Canada

Travel agents who specialize in cruising claim an increase of 61% in their bookings to date in 2015.

One such travel agent is Christy Scannell whom we met at the San Diego Travel Show earlier this year. We knew immediately she would have useful information to give our Physician’s Money Digest readers.

We were sure Christy would know important issues about cruising. It turns out what she wants us to know is ourselves! It almost sounds biblical: “First know thyself.”

You see, not all cruise lines are the same. It is important to tailor the style of the cruise line to your personality. “If you are aged 65 and retired and used to upscale travel and often stay, for example, at the Four Seasons, then you need to choose an upscale cruise line like Silversea,” says Christy, “not an entry level line where the entertainment may be confined to hairy chest competitions! You might not find Carnival Cruises a good match, for example. Their brand is very red, white and blue fun and they do it well, but first know, is that your personality? It is very important to know who you are. Sometimes,” says Christy, “it’s as if I have to tell them who they are!”

Christy realizes it sounds self-serving to say this but she is emphatic you are paying for a travel agent whether you are using one or not. Cruise lines have the assumed cost of one built into the price of the cruise and don’t give a discount if you deal with them direct. On the contrary, says Christy, she can sometimes offer prepaid gratuities and an onboard group credit on your cabin bill, especially if she has other clients on board that cruise.

Upscale cruise lines are more expensive but a lot is often included and if you are going to explore Southeast Asia, for example and don’t speak any foreign language, isn’t it comforting to know you are being well looked after?

Alaska cruises allow useful comparisons between small boat and big boat cruising. Small boats get into Alaskan villages and offer close-ups of nature…

... large cruise ships offer an expensive variety of shore excursions including helicopter flights to Huskie dog villages or zodiac inflatable boat visits to glaciers.

Christy points out a good travel agent knows the difference between cheap and value. As an example let’s look at the now much marketed concept “all inclusive.” The expensive cruise lines are becoming more genuinely all-inclusive -- covering air, gratuities, shore excursions and alcohol. “Some persons may say, ‘Why should I pay for other passengers’ drinks?’ but that’s the trend in upscale cruising and it simplifies the cruise experience for many. There is another hidden benefit to upscale cruising: you get the small ship experience with its favorable ratio of crew to passengers,” says Christy.

You can get this favorable ratio if you embrace a new protocol upmarket passengers are discovering on big cruise ships. For example, the creation Norwegian Cruise Lines now calls its “Haven Suites,” perfect for multi-generational travel. Royal Caribbean followed this with its suites of special amenities -- and it looks like Carnival’s new ship Vista will offer this too: a select part of the ship restricted to those buying suites that give special amenities. This creates a great choice for families that want to have, say, a Caribbean cruise in the summer (when school is out). Normally the small ships (which offer upscale cruising) move to Europe in summer but the big ships sail the Caribbean year round, and those with have new suites and special-amenities offer a style of upscale Caribbean cruising not previously available in summer.

Once you’ve experienced your butler coming to the door of your suite with afternoon tea you’ll never be the same. Maybe you’ll be dancing like the couple in Rubens’ painting (detail) in the Rubens House in Antwerp in Belgium.

Photography by Authors

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the New Hampshire Academy of Family Physicians, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.