Published January/February 2011

Shore up or Ship out

Is a cruise vacation right for you?

The popularity of cruising can’t be denied. In 2009, the most recent year for which data is available, the industry boasted occupancy above 100 percent (full occupancy defined as two people per cabin), despite increasing the number of ships at sea and the number of berths available.
These days, with amenities like surf pools, demonstration kitchens, rock-climbing walls, golf simulators, ice-skating rinks, onboard movie theaters and planetariums, cruise-ship entertainment options extend far beyond trivia contests in the lounge and lessons on folding bath towels into animal shapes.
The options can be daunting, maybe even a little off-putting, especially if you’re looking for a week or so of relaxation, away from the fast pace and activity-a-minute nature of everyday life. Does that mean that a cruise isn’t the right choice for you? Maybe. Maybe not. There are as many types of cruises as there are travelers.
We talked to AAA Travel Agent Jeff Carroll to get his take on a few scenarios that might have you thinking, “To cruise or not to cruise?”
Is cruising right for you?
Time is the biggest factor here. In 12 days, a cruise ship can take you from Barcelona, visiting Monte Carlo, Rome, Pisa, a few cities in Greece, and Dubrovnik, Croatia, before concluding in Venice, for example — and you only have to unpack once.
A popular option, particularly if you want to concentrate on one area, is a river cruise. These ships are smaller in size and allow you to explore, in-depth, the culture and history of a particular region. Most include city tours and other special excursions, and allow for exceptional amounts of free time to make the vacation your own.
On a river cruise from Amsterdam to Regensburg, Germany, I loved the fact that Tauck’s tour busses would take us from the ship to the center of town and essentially set us loose. We could accompany the included tour or go off on our own, meeting at the designated time and place for a ride back to the ship. And the ship navigated the river at night, leaving days free for exploration and discovery.
Another bonus, adds Carroll, is that many river-cruise companies offer specials where single passengers can cruise at the double-occupancy rate.
One thing to keep in mind is that river cruises do cater to an older, adult crowd. Some companies, such as Tauck with their Bridges program, offer family vacation options, but most are best suited for children eight and older. For families with small children wanting to visit Europe, bigger cruise lines would probably be the best bet. Even Disney Cruise Line offers summer and fall itineraries to the Mediterranean and Northern Europe.
On a Caribbean itinerary, you’ll spend at least half the time at sea. So if you’re content with three days of beach and four of ocean breezes poolside onboard ship, you might be happy with a cruise. But, if you want to feel the sand beneath your feet and wade in the salt water every day, an all-inclusive resort or independent vacation to an island paradise is probably the way to go.
If you do choose to cruise, because you will be spending a significant amount of time at sea, it’s especially important to choose an option that suits your style in terms of atmosphere, entertainment and dining options, and more. And, depending on the trip, there could be a wide variety of needs to be met. Which leads us to…
How to choose your cruise?
Every cruise line has a unique atmosphere and caters to a different clientele. A travel agent can really help find out what your group is like and make recommendations based on the personalities and generations involved.
Disney is obviously very family centric. Carnival tends to host more of a good-time party crowd. Holland America clientele skews a little older. Royal Caribbean boasts that it offers something for everyone, particularly now that it has the two biggest ships at sea, Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas. None are “better” than the others but, particularly when you are on an itinerary that features multiple days at sea, it’s important to research the best fit for your group.
Fortunately, with kids programs and classes at sea that range from cooking demonstrations to surf lessons, it’s easy to find a vacation that will please most everyone. A good kids program is key for anyone wanting a family vacation, but also needing a little quiet time for mom and dad.
AAA member Karen Arredondo is a frequent cruiser who recently traveled on Oasis of the Seas. A senior who followed the ship’s progress from inception to launch, her impression is that the experience lived up to its hype and is perfect for families. At the same time, she and her husband found plenty to do onboard, enjoying the specialty restaurants and employing the philosophy that, “You can experience a lot by just sitting back and looking.” They enjoyed the ship so much, and found so many options onboard, they didn’t even disembark at two of the ports.
Alaska is consistently ranked as a top cruise destination. I’ve personally done two Alaska cruises and found it to be an excellent way to see the Great Land. Most lines offer exciting excursions that allow you to go dog sledding, ice-hiking or zip-lining, or just take time to leisurely explore the port towns. And few things compare to the experience of witnessing a majestic glacier calving as you enjoy breakfast on your balcony.
There are other options for visiting Alaska, but Carroll points out that, for the most part, “You can’t see glaciers if you don’t get on a boat.”  
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