No-Nonsense Traveler: Choose the Cruise That's Right for You

Posted by Doug Stallings on March 25, 2009 at 9:45:19 AM EDT | Post a Comment
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I edit most of the cruise coverage for Fodor's, and one question I often see posted in our forums is something like "Would I enjoy a cruise?" All I can answer in most cases is "it depends."

The cruise experience, while a great vacation, is simply not for everyone. Some people are very prone to seasickness, some would prefer to spend their days lazing on the same beach, some want a true all-inclusive vacation (something most cruises are definitely not). But even if you love the sea, the most basic question you have to ask is not really whether cruising is right for you but what kind of cruising is right for you.

Nothing has brought this question closer to home for me than two cruises I've taken in the last 12 months, one on a big ship to the Bahamas and another just last month on a small expedition ship in Costa Rica and Panama. The two experiences could not have been more different.

Life on a Gigantic Mainstream, Ship

Last year, I did a cruise to the Bahamas right from Manhattan on Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Gem, a huge ship that holds 2,500-some passengers. This was a family trip with my parents and partner, so it met our needs perfectly. We got to spend time together, eat together, and relax together. We got to see Kennedy Space Center and walk around Nassau; we had a little beach time. The real downside of such a large ship was that there was never enough deck or pool space for everyone on sunny days—not even close. And to be honest, I got bored. Eating only fills up so much of you time, and the incredibly smoky casino just didn't appeal to me, nor do stupid "art" auctions or bingo. It takes forever to get on and off a large ship when there are so many people (I can only imagine what it's going to be like on the even more gigantic 3,500-person ships). I also know that other cruise lines have more to offer on their big ships. Still, we loved our balcony mini-suites, the food was good, the spa relaxing (though too expensive), and the drinks strong (though way too expensive). I felt nickle-and-dimed throughout the cruise, as I often have at any big resort or on any big cruise ship, but the fare was a relative bargain, and I was completely satisfied that we got our money's worth.

Life on a Small Expedition Ship

What a difference a year makes. My partner and I recently returned from a 9-night trip on Cruise West's Pacific Explorer. This small expedition ship carries only 100 passengers when full (we had fewer than 60 on this trip) and goes to places the Gem couldn't get within 10 miles of. We visited exotic, isolated stretches of the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica and Panama, including the Darien jungle, as well as the San Blas Islands. We made a truly memorable daytime transit of the Panama Canal. Each day we had guided hikes, snorkeling, or other activities in both the morning and evening. We almost always went ashore on inflatable zodiacs, and the crew could get all the passengers off the ship in about 20 minutes in groups of eight. Our cabins were very basic but were quite comfortable and not so much smaller than an inside cabin on a regular ship. The food was good, the drinks cheap, and all of our daily excursions were included in the hefty price. Most important, it was a thoroughly enjoyable trip in virtually every way. Granted, we didn't have TV reception or Internet service (though we could borrow videos from the ship's library to watch on our small cabin TV), but I was rarely bored (having a quiet place to curl up with my book was ample compensation for no pool or bingo).

What Kind of Cruiser Are You?

I've concluded that I am fundamentally a small-ship person. I appreciated the camaraderie of a smaller group, and I enjoyed getting to know the names of most of the crew. I loved that the focus of the cruise was what was happening off the ship rather than on. The modest Pacific Explorer was more of a conveyance than a resort, and that was just fine by me. If you're the kind of traveler who wants to eat in a different restaurant every night, gamble the night away, swim in a fancy pool, and dance to the wee hours, then an expedition cruise (or even a small-ship cruise) isn't going to appeal to you. But that's not me. I did get seasick (boy did I ever) on the last night, which never happened to me on the large ship; it was an unpleasant few hours but hardly ruined my vacation. We were also among the few people under 60, though that didn't end up being a problem either. The big downside of an expedition cruise is that you are paying a huge premium to have access to expert naturalists and so much personal service; in this case, the cruise costs about double the cost of our big-ship cruise. With price a major issue for most travelers, that's a consideration that can't be ignored. But not all cruises on smaller ships are so expensive.

So tell me what you prefer. Do you enjoy the big ships with all the bells and whistles? Would you consider a small-ship cruise like the one I took on Cruise West? Or do you prefer NCL (or some other big-ship line)? And as always, if you have any questions, issues, or trip-planning conundrums that you'd like me to address directly in future columns, please write to me directly at talkback@fodors.com.

Photo courtesy of gailf548 on flickr

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