You might wonder, are cruises worth it?
As a general rule, cruises are worth it for anyone who enjoys traveling in comfort and style. There are a wide range of cruise lines catering to the budget conscious as well as those who prefer higher-end luxurious cruises. These can be as relaxing or activity filled as you choose.
It used to be that you could book one for under a hundred bucks per night. That was pretty much all in except for drinks, specialty dining, excursions and of course any casino play.
A lot has changed since then. The pandemic hit shuttering the hospitality and travel industry. Cruise lines, in particular, were completely dead in the water. Only recently have they began sailing again.
The Popularity of Cruise Ships
The global cruise industry revenue was over 27 billion dollars in 2019 and growing by 7% year over year. Obviously, COVID-19 devastated the entire travel industry. Now that the worst is over, the cruise lines are ramping up with some great deals.
Typically, cruises are more expensive than renting an Airbnb or an all-inclusive resort. Yet, cruising can be addictive and the preferred option for many.
Three reasons cruises are popular include the level of comfort and convenience, multitude of activities and experiencing different cultures.
Comfort and Convenience
One of the most appealing aspects is the comfort and convenience.
Almost everything is taken care of for you and who doesn’t like to feel pampered? Besides daily room cleaning, your room steward might provide a turndown service complete with a towel animal.
The quality and variety of food is spectacular, often comparable to five-star dining. One of the most common complaints is gaining weight because everything is so good.
Even though you’re visiting many different countries, there is zero hassle. The ship becomes your home and it’s nice to only unpack once. Plus, the captain and crew take care of all the driving.
Multitude of Activities
There is little chance of ever getting bored on a cruise. On every one I’ve been on, there was a daily program filled with activities such as:
The majority of these are completely free. In addition, some chargeable activities might be offered such as a wine tasting, art auction or a behind the scenes ship tour. Personally, I also enjoy relaxing as the ship plows through shimmering tranquil seas.
Experience Different Cultures
For any of you skeptics out there, you still might be asking yourself, are cruises worth it? A cruise is like the smorgasbord of travel, seeing and tasting new sights in different ports.
Although you’re only there for a few hours, you’re given a chance to glimpse the people and culture. You might be intrigued with certain cities and choose to return for a longer visit.
This is exactly what my wife and I did as we were captivated with Puerto Vallarta. In fact, it’s become a popular retirement destination, prompting our article, Is Puerto Vallarta a Good Place to Retire.
Another consideration is a ship can be the easiest and most cost-effective way to explore some areas. For instance, a South Pacific cruise would be ideal to visit scattered islands such as Tahiti, Fiji, Bora Bora and others.
What Happened with The Cruise Industry?
I suspect everyone remembers the extreme Japanese quarantine of the Diamond Princess. In the news for weeks, 3711 passengers and crew became a COVID epicenter.
No press could have been more devastating!
The expression “floating petri dish” was widely circulated, along with the horrifying realization of being isolated on a “prison ship”. This was especially acute for guests in inside cabins who didn't even have a window.
I’m fairly certain no one will ever claim that cruise was worth it! Since then, a lot has been done to improve public health standards.
Public Health Initiatives
To address public health concerns, the majority of cruise lines have implemented stricter measures, such as:
Bigger Ships with More Attractions
Since 1980, the industry has grown, on average, 7% per year. According to Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), cruise ships are the fastest growing segment of the leisure travel market with an estimated 30 million travelers in 2019.
As a result of this growing demand, all the major lines are building bigger ships with extensive amenities.
The largest one in the world, Royal Caribbean’s Symphony of the Seas, carries up to 6,680 guests and 2,200 crew members. The ship costing $1.35 Billion was launched in June 2017.
Never a boring moment with activities such as 3-story waterslides, laser tag, a zip line, surf simulator and Central Park. Evening entertainment options include Broadway quality productions, aqua shows and ice-skating performances.
Counter to the trend, my preference remains the mid-sized boats (under 3,000 passengers) without the expensive attractions. This usually means less kids running about and more interesting longer itineraries.
Also, the cost is generally less on these older boats.
Better Deals with More Incentives
While there’s pent up demand from all those people who miss their cruises, there’s also a lot of hesitation after the bad press and public safety concerns. This has led to more deals out there.
The primary objective for each ship is ensuring all cabins are filled with paying customers. To achieve this, we’ve noticed reduced fares and/or free services. Once more people start cruising again, there’ll be less need to offer these incentives.
For some lines - such as NCL, Princess and Holland America - they're including previously chargeable services. These can include beverage plans, specialty dining, internet access and other offerings. As of March 2022, promotions include:
The good news is there’s more deals than ever before.
Are Cruises Worth It...Depends Upon Your Expectations
Everyone has their own perception of value.
For instance, you might be able to book an inside cabin for $50 a night. That includes food, accommodation and a plethora of activities. Sounds like a great deal as you’d be hard pressed to get a hotel room for that price.
However, this might fall far short of your expectations. Instead of being a wonderful vacation, it might feel like a let down. The food and entertainment were so-so and you wish you’d chosen a more upscale ship and/or booked a cabin with a balcony.
The point being, there's something for everyone based on your budget and preferences.
If you’re thinking about celebrating a special anniversary or perhaps a retirement, you might be inclined to splurge. Several of the deluxe options include:
These could easily cost upwards of $500 per night per person. While the upfront cost will be significantly higher, you can be assured of exceptional food and service. In addition, almost everything is included.
Mid-Range Cruise Lines
Now, that’s not to suggest you won’t have the experience of a lifetime on a mid-range cruise ship. These ships tend to be larger with more passengers and amenities.
While the food and service may not be quite as upscale, they’re generally livelier with a more diverse age group. Some of these lines include:
Booking costs are generally around half the cost of a higher-end cruise. However, there can be additional charges incurred onboard which will drive up the final tally.
Budget Friendly Cruise Lines
Value for the dollar is a big consideration and there are several budget friendly options. These lines tend to cater to families and groups offering great value. Examples include:
I’ve been on several Carnival cruises and always enjoyed myself. As I recall, a cabin with a balcony was under $100 a night, which is hard to beat. The food and service were decent with lots of fun activities.
How Cruise Lines Nickel and Dime Us
With the exception of the deluxe lines, almost everything extra is chargeable. For instance, beverages, gratuities, internet access, room service and excursions are usually an extra cost.
Your ship card is used for everything onboard including the gift shop and casino. Many folks are shocked at their final statement as they disembark the ship. In some cases, the costs incurred were more than what they paid for the trip.
Beverages Are Expensive
It’s no secret that drinks are a main source of revenue for the cruise line. And, the beverage plans aren’t cheap as they know most folks enjoy a drink or two when on vacation.
That cold beer or cocktail tastes awful good while relaxing by the pool. Then, a nice glass of wine goes perfectly with the evening meal. Later at the show, another drink caps off a perfect day.
The average cost of a beer is between $6 to $8. That daiquiri or glass of wine might be $10 to $12. And don’t forget the automatic gratuity of 18% or more. Four drinks a day could easily exceed $300 after a week-long adventure.
Other than water (not bottled), iced tea, coffee and juice almost any other beverage comes at a cost. This includes bottled water, soda or specialty coffee.
Internet / Wi-Fi
We’ve all become dependent on our smartphones. When you embark the ship, you’ll likely download their app to keep track of ship board activities and even reserve dining. All free and ever so convenient.
Accessing the internet is a whole different matter. Out at sea, the only viable way to connect to the internet is via a satellite link. If you need internet access to check email or surf the web, these packages are pricey and slow.
On our last cruise, we received 250 minutes package of free internet. Hurray! Unfortunately, after checking a few emails, we didn’t properly log out. Later in the day, we realized we’d burned through all our minutes.
An alternative to minimize costs is waiting until you get into port. Then find an internet café or place with free Wi-Fi.
While the buffet and main dining are usually very good, the specialty restaurants entice you with a truly culinary experience.
The specialty restaurants (chargeable) are where you need to go for that amazing meal. Naturally, dining packages can be purchased.
The usual way of tipping is when we’ve received good service.
The cruise industry has turned this custom on it’s head by charging automatic gratuities. Every passenger is charged a daily gratuity about $14 to $16, which can be more than $200 over a week.
The justification, this money is shared amongst all the staff. Why not just pay them a decent wage? Instead of rewarding exceptional service, these daily gratuities are used to supplement staff salaries.
This isn’t the case in other hospitality businesses. In my opinion, gratuity fees should be discretionary based upon the service you receive. Even ordering a drink incurs an 18% gratuity charge, even if the service is pathetic.
I used to love sipping my morning coffee and having breakfast on our balcony. What a great way to start another perfect day! No rushing or jostling crowds at the breakfast buffet, just relaxing and collecting our thoughts before beginning the new day.
Everything’s changed and you can now expect a $7.95 to $9.95 charge for room service, plus that stinking 18% gratuity charge! Considering the cost of the trip, it appears these room service charges are another money grab.
In fact, the appeal of booking a cabin with a balcony greatly diminished after this. Why bother when it’s double the cost and they’re nickel and diming us for room service?
Shore Excursions / Tours
Shore excursions and tours are grossly marked up, often double the cost of what’s available onshore with reputable tour operators. However, they’re convenient and the ship promises not to leave without you.
The ship claims booking with them guarantees you won’t miss the ship. When you think about it, these local guides wouldn’t be in business long if they didn’t get you back to the ship on time.
Moreover, the ship uses local people for their tours. The difference is they squeeze them on cost and then mark it up for greater profit.
We’ve used viator.com on several occasions getting the same or even better tour at half the cost. This has worked particularly well in Caribbean ports with a plethora of independent tour operators.
Travel insurance is like a safety net you hope you'll never have to use. Without it, any unexpected setbacks could wreck your trip. A medical emergency at sea could cost thousands of dollars.
When you book, inevitably travel insurance will be prominently positioned as a recommended option. As a general rule, it’s usually about 5-7% of the cost of your vacation.
While it’s convenient to accept, you might want to check with 3rd party travel insurers. For about the same rate, you might get superior coverage at competitive rates.
Closing Thoughts on Are Cruises Worth It
One could argue the newer mega ships are more like floating hotels filled with attractions. This appeals to many and might be the perfect vacation, especially for families and larger groups.
My preference are the mid-sized ships. Instead of a whirlwind week filled with screaming kids, these tend to be longer with more interesting ports to explore. In fact, the overwhelming majority of passengers are baby boomers.
Another interesting observation is how many are repeat cruisers. For instance, one couple we met were on their 30th cruise! Like myself, they loved everything about being on the water, relaxing and enjoying themselves.
While some cruises have been more memorable than others, I can’t think of a single one which wasn’t worth it.