In my household, I’m not the only globetrotter in the family. My sister leads an equally unique life. She had met her husband while working on the Royal Caribbean cruise line. My brother-in-law still works on board as a navigation officer. They had a new baby, and we accompanied our six-month-old nephew on his first cruise adventure!
I’m not typically a cruise vacation type of person. Still, after 8 months of non-stop traveling and planning, I was quite happy with the opportunity to travel en masse. For this particular itinerary, we boarded the vessel in Orlando, Florida. Boarding a cruise ship is a bit of an ordeal, and the vibe feels like the beginning of summer camp. Guests are all really excited to kick off a week worth of pure gluttony.
The cruise itinerary is structured with port days, where guests have an entire day (range between 8-10 hours) to roam about the destination. Clearly, that’s not enough time to get to know any place. Hence, a cruise vacation is more about enjoying amenities on the ship. For this 7-day itinerary, we had 3 port days, and the rest were sea days.
Much like summer camp, every minute of every day is filled with multiple activities, catering to a variety of needs. How to keep track of them all? Of course, there is an app for that. Activities aside, there are simply endless choices of food available at all hours of the night and day.
While not baby-sitting, we spent time reading by the pool at the Solarium (a kids-free area), and hitting the gym (honestly, the quietest place on board, other than your room). We opted not to purchase wifi on board, and I really enjoyed being disconnected for those few days.
The most challenging decisions in a day surround food – do we want to fight the crowd at the buffet, or stick to a schedule and eat at the formal dining rooms? With limited stomach capacity, what should we eat? Other than eating, how much time should we allocate toward lounging by the pool vs. actually being somewhat active? I cringe even as I type these sentences, but that’s the funny reality of a sea day.
When the vessel docks at port, guests have few precious hours to get a taste of each destination. The cruise line has many organized shoreside excursions to help guests make the best of these few hours. But of course, these excursions cost extra. Otherwise, some planning is involved in making the best of the short time onshore.
I didn’t come on a cruise with high expectations to actually travel and see a place, so anything I would experience was a bonus. For a seasoned traveler, this is a healthy expectation to set if and when you find yourself on a cruise.
Labadee Haiti, aka Fake Haiti
Our first port of call was Labadee, Haiti, which I called “Fake Haiti.” Fake, because this is Royal Caribbean’s private island, exists for the pure purpose of giving guests a brochure-perfect beach day. I’m not gonna lie, the beach was pristine and perfect. Service was most impeccable. As soon as we walked off the vessel and approached the shore, Haitians dressed in polos and light-colored shorts offers up help to get us a spot, carry over lounge chairs and umbrellas. The entire scene was the epitome of American tourism.
I enjoyed the beach immensely, and it was an ideal condition for the baby’s first beach experience. For lunch, a massive spread of barbecue buffet was laid out. While standing in line was not perfect, I quite enjoyed not needing to pull up my Google Maps to find a place to eat.
While I munched on corn-on-the-cob, stuffed my face with a chicken leg, and looking out at this pristine ocean, the real Haiti is plagued by political instability and natural disaster. The dichotomy is mind-boggling and unsettles the Peace Corps Volunteer in me.
In contrast to our first port of call, Falmouth, Jamaica, was much more real. That is if you dared to step off the cruise terminal without being whisked off to a packaged excursion. We decided to roam about on our own, and I was delighted to get a taste of the local village life.
Just two blocks away from the cruise terminal, a vibrant village emerged. There was quite a bit of heckling from tour guides and people selling various goods. It can be a tad overwhelming, but the energy reminded me of walking through markets in Western Cameroon. As with most villages, we visited a church and passed by a local school that had amusing Jamaican proverbs. “Cockroach nah business in a fowl fight,” which means “Keep out of the other people’s business.” Wisdom to live by.
On our wandering, we stumbled upon a Chinese restaurant with my last name, though not that weird since Lee is a common name. I would have loved to linger and spend a night in this village. Alas, at least now, I know this place exists, and that’s the joy of travel.
Our final port of call in Cozumel, Mexico, actually involved some adventure. In the morning, we had taken a taxi into the somewhat sleepy old town center. Instead of spending an entire day just roaming about, we decided to rent a car and explore the island. Cozumel is so compact that we were able to circle around the whole island is a 90-minute drive.
Outside of the cruise terminals and the Old Town, the island is mostly undeveloped. We had delicious tacos at a shack, Bar Miami, on the eastern side of the island and visited Mayan ruins at San Gervasio in the afternoon. By this point of the week, I was quite happy to have a little reprieve from the 6,000+ guests on board.
Verdicts On Cruise Vacations
This concluded my third cruise vacation over the past decade. First was a week-long journey to the East Coast of Canada, and the second was a short weekend jaunt from Shanghai to Jeju island. With three cruises under my belt, I have a good idea of what cruising is about and able to contrast it to other forms of travel.
Why You May Like a Cruise Vacation
Most seasoned travelers scoff at the idea of a cruise vacation, but I’ve come to see quite a few benefits. Luxury cruise is a $38 billion industry for a reason. There is a demand, and to which this industry perfect caters.
Many Choice But Little Planning Involved
With independent travel, a lot of planning is involved. From the itinerary to what to eat each meal. Decision fatigue is real. Group tour travel takes care of the planning part, but perhaps with less flexibility toward your preferences. With a cruise vacation, someone has done all of the legwork to plan a variety of events. You get the luxury of choice without making any of the plans. It’s a win-win. Decision fatigue can still creep in if you try to do too much on a cruise ship, but that is easier to manage.
All You Can Eat/Drink/Play
The main difference between a vacation and travel is this free-for-all mindset. Limited amount of time to enjoy ALL the things: all the food, all the sights, all the drinks, all the shows, all the activities. The cruise ship plays this up to the maximum. The buffet lines for food are just the beginning of this glorious (cringe-y) excess.
Drink packages are encouraged to ensure guests never suffer from alcohol/soda thirst. Pay a lump sum, and you can drink all the alcohol, Starbucks coffee, and soda that you want. Otherwise, you must “suffer” like a commoner and drink water, lemonade, and iced tea all day. Tough life. Everyone walks around the ship all day with a tumbler. Xav says everyone looks like the Statue of Liberty, holding their drinks up high.
Sarcasm aside, the cruise ship is this perfect place to let loose, not to have any restrictions, and to enjoy to your heart’s content. That is until you get the credit card bill at the end. Each guest is given a sea pass that works like a magical card. The pain comes only at the end, but for the duration of the cruise – have ALL the fun!
Get a Taste Sample of Multiple Places on One Trip
Compared to Europeans, Americans have a limited number of vacation days, and we must use them effectively. Cruise vacations enable a traveler to see multiple destinations all within a short period. Sure, it’s not the in-depth exploration that a seasoned traveler may deem worthy, but it does give a taste. Guests can always decide to return to a destination for a more comprehensive visit at a later time.
For guests who experience accessibility challenges, a cruise vacation allows them to visit many more places with relative ease. My parents love cruise vacations. They didn’t get to travel much in their younger years, and now they are older and can’t walk as much, cruise ships are great for them to explore the world easily.
Traveling in a Group to Appease All Ages
Travel partners make or break a trip, but on a cruise vacation, it matters less. Everyone can pick and choose the activities they enjoy and regroup for meals. For kids, there are daycares and activities across various age groups to ensure they are entertained and free up parents also to enjoy their vacation. This aspect is a big selling point because I often hear traveling with kids is more exhausting than daily life.
With events like a bachelor/bachelorette party, celebrating birthdays, or other life milestones, where the intent is pure debauchery, a cruise vacation is also ideal. The people who want to drink all night and sleep all day can do so; the rest in the group who prefer to spend more time to lounge and enjoy the sun, or partake in activities can also find joy. Everyone is happy.
Why You May Want to Avoid a Cruise Vacation
While I believe in “try it before you knock it,” setting the right expectation is essential to ensure a pleasurable experience. My motto has always been: low expectation, high satisfaction. Here are some reasons that may lead you to stay away from a cruise ship:
Don’t Want to Pay for Convenience
Cruise companies aren’t operating these luxury ships out of the goodness of their hearts. They are there to make money, and they make the process to squeeze every penny out of you incredibly facile. They absolutely play into the pay for play VIP model. You may think you’ve already paid this one lump sum price that will cover every aspect of vacation, but wait, what about convenience?
With 6,000+ guests on board, waiting in line is inevitable. Crowds are a necessary evil. Sure, there are strategies (don’t eat during peak hours) and less popular places (the gym) to avoid the crowd, but to have peace 100% of the time is quite impossible. That is, you pay for it. Outside of the many eating options already exist, there are specialty restaurants with more refined food and less crowd.
If you want fancy drinks while lounging by the pool, you gotta pay. If you wish to post instantly on Instagram and show the world what a fabulous vacation you have, then pay up for wifi. Every which way you turn, there is upselling taking place. The signal, “you are on vacation, and you deserve to treat yourself” is omnipresent.
Dislike Crowds and High-Energy Environment (Extreme Introverts Beware)
I compare cruise vacations to summer camps, and not just any old summer camp, but the really high-energy rah-rah kind. After all, it is a vacation, and they want you to be in a good mood. So, be prepared for plenty of high-energy announcements, a lot of clapping, and servers who break into songs and dance at random intervals. It’s all a part of the ambiance, and a rather pleasant one if you aren’t being negative Nancy about it.
For extroverts who feed energy off of other people, a cruise vacation is made for you. For introverts who need time alone to recover, some strategy is involved to ensure you are not entirely sapped of energy by the end of the week. Take walks around the open deck, spend time in kids-free zones, and eat during off-hours. With the right expectation and some simple planning, the experience can still be plenty enjoyable.
Want to Actually Experience Local Life and Culture
If you think cruise vacation as transportation that gets you to different destinations, then explore the local culture at your own pace, then this is definitely not for you. The main event is not the destination, not the local sights, nor culture, nor people. The main event is the massive ship and all the bells and whistles. You are there to enjoy the ship with travel on the side, not the other way around.
Eco-Conscious and Uncomfortable with Waste
As previously eluded, cruise ships come with a lot of waste. Recent reports have revealed the extent of cruise waste at an astounding level. (The Real Cost of Cruises on Patriot Act) The by-product of a gluttonous experience, unfortunately, is a pile of garbage.
In this end, this was a fairly relaxing vacation from full-time travel. The experience highlighted the travel vs. vacation difference for me in a significant way. I was so relieved to not have to plan ANYTHING. No need to pull up Google Maps every 15 minutes. Nor to plot transportation logistics nor accommodation. No need to read any reviews on dining/entertainment establishments. Everything was ready. Pure bliss.
Would I go on another cruise vacation? Probably. There is a time and place for this type of adventure. Seasoned travelers, what are your thoughts?