My wife was kind enough to book a cruise to the Caribbean for the both of us last week. She’d been talking about that type of trip for some time but money was always a stop on that idea. There are plenty of ways to spend a week for a lot less money than a cruise – and that opinion still stands. Still, back after a week and here’s some thoughts of the whole affair.
Get a great agent
We were lucky to find a great agent and a great deal. Direct flight, transport, accommodations, gratuities and a drink package were all included – for $2200, tax-in. Most cruise prices only include the accommodations. All the rest combined, per person, would have been around $1000. Our agent found the deal, did a ton of prep work and was highly organized. It was a fire sale price really, quite comparable to a 5 star all-inclusive resort.
The best part is that they will take all your requirements in hand and budget it out for you. Some people don’t need a drink package, others can’t live without it. They’ll recommend excursions too, and give some great tips.
Great cruise line
Each line has their own target clients. Carnival is the 20-something pary-goer. Royal Caribbean is the family type. Celebrity Cruises, our line, is aimed for the retiree/affluent market. Now, I’m a jeans and t-shirt kind of guy at home but I’m practically in a suit at work, so no big swap for me. Every dinner was a 5 course meal, required “smart casual” wear and you had more than 2 forks. I am an avid food lover, I like that type of dining. My wife isn’t so used to it, but she found the charm in it. The activities on board also reflected that attitude, with an active pool deck but a more subdued ship interior.
Room service was included, so we had breakfast every day on our balcony. Get a balcony. Do not ever, ever go on a cruise without one. And one that faces the sea. It is spectacular and provides you some private sun.
Of all the target demographics, I found myself better aligned with this cruise than the others. I would much rather wear a dinner jacket than sit next to someone in flip flops.
Important note is cleanliness. At every port and every restaurant there was someone with hand sanitizer. There were always people cleaning the ship. Health and safety is extremely important in a closed space. I’m not sure how it’s handled on other lines but this is not a resort. Everything sparkles and is clean and there’s no smell. It’s astounding what a difference that makes to the experience.
Finally, nearly everyone we met had gone on a cruise before. Celebrity Cruises is not a discount line, so they had done the other ones before. Every single one of them would recommend this line again. This speaks highly to the target market being patrons and being served accordingly.
Above everything else that I do on vacation, eating is the #1 thing I enjoy the most. My wife doesn’t like quite a few things (seafood, fish, lamb quickly come to mind) so it’s not like I have that normally at home. This line had a great set of food, 5 course a night, with a varying menu. Our package included select dining, which meant we could select the hour of our meals. We took a late seating, which meant we had our own table, rather than splitting it with 4-8 other people. I had risotto, lamb shanks, eggplant caviar, apple gazpacho, baked alaska, blue cheese souffle and dozens more dishes. All extremely good and the portions were not American – i.e. you could finish the plate. Also of note, my wife’s lactose intolerance. They made special work for her plates, always with a smile, and I could not have thanked them more.
Even the buffet open during the day was great, with a rotating selection every hour. I stuck to Indian food mostly, but did try a few odd things. The homemade salmon sandwiches were a good midnight snack.
What I didn’t try were the specialty restaurants. They were $30-$50 a head and it is extremely hard to justify a $100 premium on a meal after having had a ballroom meal the night before.
Itinerary and excursions
We landed at San Juan, St Thomas and St Maarten. The first port was great, a small metropolitan town that reminded me of downtown Quebec City. Cobble streets, bars, military fort. People actually lived there. St Thomas and St Maarten were simply 2 towns meant to sell jewelry to tourists. I despised both port towns and felt dirty just being around them.
We did take a trip to do some snorkeling in St Thomas, which was cool. Saw some whales (very rare), sea turtles, rays, fish and corral. Well worth every penny. In hindsight, we should have tried to find a few beaches outside of town.
I’ve done excursions on resorts and they in no way shape or form compare to those organized by a cruise line. It’s like comparing McDonalds to Cordon Bleu. Companies will fight over a cruise line recommendation, which drastically increases the quality.
The not so good
Our ship had 3,000 people. You need to put those people somewhere and the upper deck was, in my opinion, too crowded. I am a natural introvert and being elbow to elbow for 7 days with other people drove me batty. The last day I spent mostly in my room, on the balcony.
Ships move. Get some pills or patches or whatnot and be ready for the possibility of rough seas. One night was particularly difficult. The advantage to this is that no one wants to get drunk and be sea sick, so there’s none of that crazy stuff you see on a resort. My wife is still feeling it after 36 hours off ship. One lady was sick the first 3 days.
The contrast in service between the ship, the excursions and everywhere else is drastic. The first two treat you like you are a client and ensuring their employment. I don’t mean pampering, I mean service with a smile. Just saying “hi” is a great thing. The service in the continental U.S. is abhorrent. Our driver had 60 people on the bus. He loaded it up alone, and emptied it alone. Every time with 4-5 people just watching him. Then these people wanted to get tips for being porters or for moving the bags 5 feet. Airport service was just as bad. I have had great service in the U.S. before but this level of apathy is incredible. It made me give extra gratuity to the on-board staff, just because the contrast was so high.
The real question is would I do it again. I would not do an eastern Caribbean cruise. The ports are much too commercial and American influenced for my tastes. I would try pretty much anywhere else in the world though, even a western Caribbean one. I would do it again, for anything under $2500, assuming all the same was included as in this trip. Anything above that, I could get a near-private beach at a Sandals resorts. I would also plan things a bit better in terms of ship activities. I’d spend the time to find the quiet spots at the quiet times. I’d try to keep the same table for formal dinner, just to have a better rapport with the wait staff.
Cruises aren’t for everyone. They aren’t wholely up my alley, as I prefer a bucket of beer on a beach and a good book, but they do provide a level of luxury at a great price point.