So you’ve saved and saved (and saved) - and you are finally ready. Or – you just got married and want to recognize the nuptials in style. Or it’s your anniversary, graduation or birthday. Or the kids finally moved out – or you’ve just retired. Or – for a multitude of reasons, you decided to treat yourself to a cruise. One week, two weeks – it doesn’t matter. It’s a cruise. Cabin steward and assistant steward, assigned seating and assigned waiter, assistant waiter, water boy and sommelier – head waiter and Maître d. Formal nights and meet and greets with the ship’s officer elites. And everything is included in the price of the fare except end-of-cruise tips. What’s not to like? Well – none of it or all of it –depending on your perspective.
Things have changed. A lot. You’ll likely have one cabin steward, not a cabin steward and assistant like just a few years ago – and he or she may only freshen up your room once a day – not twice or thrice like the old days. You’ll likely never see a sommelier, probably only have one dedicated waiter at dinner, and most passengers on formal nights wear sport jackets and cocktail dresses rather than tuxedos and evening gowns.
End-of-cruise tipping has given way to automatic daily “service charges” or “gratuities” and while this practice is at a crossroads in the industry, only upscale cruise lines like Azamara, Crystal, Regent, Seabourn and SeaDream have eliminated them entirely. Mass-market lines like Carnival, Celebrity, Princess, and Royal Caribbean are still pushing the envelope, hiking such fees at accelerating rates. Effective April 1, 2017, Norwegian Cruise Lines announced “automatic service charge” increases of almost $50 per couple per day for some cabins on some ships. These automatic fees are specified in the implied contract – but not advertised in the base ticket prices or tacked-on “port taxes.”
In addition to automatic “gratuities” you’ll likely be charged a mandatory 15 percent “service charge” bar tab gratuity for cocktails, beer, soft drinks, juice and water, and a 20 percent spa gratuity – and you’ll still be encouraged to tip staff cash on top of the built-in “gratuities” to ensure prompt (or at least polite) service. Many ships have begun charging for room service, again with mandatory gratuities and expectations for additional cash tipping. “Mass-market cruise lines are reluctant to be too upfront about the daily per capita costs for fear of discouraging would-be passengers from committing to what is patently a very discretionary expense. They “hook” you with a reasonable daily per person cost (based upon double occupancy) and “make up the margins” with expensive excursions, in-house shopping “opportunities,” casino profits, specialty restaurants, internet fees, “art” auctions, for-fee coffee bars, and beverage charges.
Meals in the upper deck buffets and main dining rooms are included in the price of the cruise; “specialty restaurants” charge extra. The buffets still offer a wide variety of well-prepared meals pretty much throughout the day and into the evening – but expect to deal with lines and limited seating options. Main dining rooms offer upscale restaurant fare for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but most-are still using a service plan that really need larger staffs to function properly and strains to provide first class service with the current bare-bones staffing levels. “Specialty Restaurants” abound and tend to provide excellent service – but again, for an extra fee.
Multiple cocktail lounges, pubs, pastry nooks, bistros and coffee shops proliferate on multiple decks throughout the ship and are a real treat to find and sample (for a fee) – with a variety of musicians, bands and entertainers to liven up the experience. On sea-days, the various retail malls open up – jewelry, clothing, sundries, tax-free liquor (for end of cruise delivery) – fun, tantalizing and difficult to resist. Millennials desperate to plug in online may find connectivity slow and expensive - but ship board apps for smart phones are rapidly supplanting printed onboard itineraries.
Theaters offer dance routines, musicals, magicians, comedians and destination experts depending upon the time of day – many offer “first seating” and “second seating” performances in the evening, with a few cruise lines increasingly requiring “pre-booking” to manage crowds.
Midnight buffets and ice carving demonstrations have largely given way to “movies under the stars,” or fist-pumping DJ bacchanals. Bingo, wine tasting and galley tours are giving way to rock climbing walls, singles’ happy hours, parachute rides, state-of the art fitness centers and hip-hop dance parties to appeal to the well-heeled Generation Y/Echo Boomer seeking experiences and thrills. Oh – and apropos singles – cruise lines are increasingly offering “single studios” for the unaccompanied traveler, and in addition to condoms, some ships sell pregnancy tests, and by prescription – morning after pills.
Yes – things have changed. But cruising is still cool – a hedonistic thrill – a treat. Even with all of the potential surprise charges – you are basically paying mainstream hotel prices for a very unique experience which includes lodging, entertainment, most dining, and an almost daily change of scenery. And that’s the thing. It is a cruise! Interspersed with a sea day or two, you wake up to a kaleidoscope of exotic ports – St. Maarten, Antigua, Martinique and Trinidad; or Puerto Vallarta, Manzanillo, Mazatlán and Cabo San Lucas; or Aruba, Santa Marta and the Panama Canal. There are trips to Alaskan glaciers, Northern Europe and the Baltic Sea, Northern Africa, the Cape of Good Hope, India and South East Asia. Australia, Thailand, China and Japan beckon, as do the South Sea Islands and Hawaii. Voyages range from one week to a few weeks to various legs of a World Cruise – with re-positioning cruises offering unique trips of just a day or two.
Cruising is evolving as the industry struggles to remain viable - and profitable. And it remains a special experience, a unique luxury, and often a once in a lifetime indulgence. Keep your eyes open, do your research – and in this day and age said research has never been easier – choose the cruise line, the cruise ship and the cruise that fits that golden mean between fiscal reality and fantasy, and enjoy the heck out of it.