The Noncruiser's Guide to Choosing a Cruise
Forget superficial tours, bingo tournaments and less-than-satisfactory cuisine options.
Even the most cruise-averse travelers can enjoy their time.(Getty Images)
Let's say sailing on a floating resort with thousands of fellow passengers, slow-moving buffet lines and Vegas-style productions isn't exactly your idea of a dream vacation. Well, if you don't consider yourself a cruise person, happily, there are a raft of new cruise ships offering intimate settings, celebrity-helmed restaurants and in-depth experiences in far-off locales. "On a cruise you can be a traveler, not a tourist, if you pick the right kind of line," explains Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief of Cruise Critic.
Imagine waking up next to the magnificent fjords of Norway or the wildlife-filled islands of the Galapagos on a small ship that can reach tucked-away ports. "There are some places in this world that are best seen by water – which you realize when you're on a ship approaching an ancient fortified harbor or a calving glacier just a few feet in front of you," says Wendy Perrin, founder and editor of travel-planning site WendyPerrin.com. If you're open to a water-based trip where stimulating activities, culture and scenery are on the agenda, here are a few expert-approved tips and ideas to tempt even the most cruise-averse travelers to take to the high seas.
Determine the Type of Itinerary and Experience You Want
"The most important factor for travelers who don't consider themselves typical cruisers is to pay very close attention to the itineraries that intrigue you. Is your ship calling in huge ports that attract megaships or does it focus more on smaller, harder-to-reach places?" Brown says. "Typically the smaller ships tend to offer more in-depth opportunities for exploring, and by smaller we mean about 1,200 passengers – or less," she adds. She also suggests checking out itineraries that offer ample time at port and overnight stays to experience the local dining and nightlife scenes.
"Don't limit yourself to oceans and seas. There are also river cruises – say, on the Rhine in Germany or the Seine in France or along the Danube through four or five different European countries," Perrin says. "River ships are much smaller than most ocean ships – they carry about 160 passengers, as opposed to 2,500 or more – so they're easy to adjust to and you needn’t worry about any rocking motion," she explains.
Look for Lines That Offer Flexibility and Leave Room for Spontaneity
Take some time to enjoy leisurely exploration in under-the-radar places to soak up the local culture, people and natural scenery, and don't limit yourself to the ship's shore excursion options. "Regardless of the size or style of ship and cruise line you choose, it’s important to know that you’re not limited to taking tours in ports that the cruise lines organize," Brown explains. "These days, with companies like Viator and other destination-planning guide services, it’s easier than ever to create a custom experience with the help of an in-the-know local," she adds, highlighting that traveler forums offer an ideal platform for finding underrated experiences. Also, look for ships with stimulating onboard experiences (think: digital filmmaking classes with Crystal Cruises or interactive cooking classes with Holland America Line).
If regimented days at sea filled with bingo competitions and poolside activities deter you from cruising, look for itineraries that offer more days on land. "My leading advice is to go and sail somewhere where the ship docks for an extended period of time," says Charles Sylvia, vice president of membership and trade relations at Cruise Lines International Association, an industry trade association.
Search for Immersive Itineraries and Excursions
There are plenty of compelling itineraries to pique travelers of all interests and price points. "The classic bucket list of exotic itineraries includes the Galapagos, Antarctica, North America’s Northwest Passage and the Arctic," Brown says. Aside from these dreamy routes, "cruise lines are creating more off-the-grid itineraries," she adds, pointing to Western European cruises stopping in small villages and ports. "And even the Caribbean, on a small sailing ship or yacht, can be a completely non-touristy adventure. These small ship lines really do avoid the bustling ports that tend to attract megaships," she adds. Brown also highlights UnCruise Adventures as a cruise line catering to millennials craving cultural immersion. "It has successfully appealed to a demographic that wants immersive and authentic interactions with nature and local culture," she says.
[See: 10 Top Cruises for Health Nuts.]
Consider a Small Ship
Try a smaller boat if you want to navigate out-of-the way ports of call and enjoy an intimate, sophisticated onboard atmosphere. With typically 500 or fewer passengers on small-ship vessels, you can enjoy visiting far-off corners of the globe with few crowds. "During shoulder season periods when the usual Antarctica and other bucket-list itineraries aren’t ideal, expedition lines often offer a great opportunity to experience a more active, more immersive trip around relatively mainstream regions, like the Mediterranean and the Caribbean," Brown says.
If you're clamoring for a more active itinerary, consider taking a cruise with Lindblad Expeditions, which offers routes to remote destinations, such as Antarctica and Alaska. Aboard the Explorer, a 148-passenger ship, you can enjoy polar bear viewing in the arctic and mix and mingle with like-minded adventurers on board. "The upsides of being on a small ship are a more convivial ambiance on board, lots of bonding with both passengers and crew through shared experiences, and a chance to look at a popular region with a fresh eye," Brown explains.
But Don't Dismiss Larger Cruise Ships (or Big-Ship Amenities)
It's a common misconception that large ships lack opportunities to avoid artificial experiences and enjoy culture-rich experiences ashore. According to Sylvia, "more and more cruise lines are offering shore excursions that provide cultural immersion so that you're getting authentic, genuine experiences." He points to shark encounters in Hawaii and whale quests in Juneau, Alaska, with Princess Cruises. Plus, "there's so much cultural immersion," he adds, highlighting the line's partnerships with Animal Planet and Discovery, along with cooking challenges inspired by "Deadliest Catch." According to Sylvia, "you don't have to see a big Broadway-style show" just because you're on a megaship. "Don't forget about the cinemas or movies on deck," he says.
Try a River Cruise
According to Brown, river cruising has boomed in the last decade because smaller ships can access inland villages and places that are too isolated for larger vessels. "The Pacific Northwest region, which centers around the Snake and Columbia rivers, is awesome for fans of wine and food, and also for active adventures, from cycling to speedboats. And in Europe, where waterways like the Danube and Rhine served literally as highways (the most scenic highways) in bygone times – as goods and transport were delivered via rivers – the towns, cities and villages along the way are magic to explore," she says.
[See: The Best Cruise Lines of 2017.]
"You know what's great about being on a river cruise? Land is at eye level," Sylvia says. "For a first-time cruiser, that is fantastic," he explains, highlighting that many first-time cruisers really want to study different destinations with in-depth experiences. Plus, river cruises typically carry fewer than 200 passengers and the process for disembarking at ports of call is simple and convenient, he adds. And nowadays, you can find river cruises geared toward all interests, from eco-friendly itineraries to tulip and windmill tours in Holland with Viking River Cruises. "It's cruising without the crowds, lines or waves and with more included in the base price, plus the ship docks a lot closer to the center of town," Perrin adds.
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