Rick and I joined a group of family friends for a weeklong cruise through the Baltic. The people were amazing and the weather was perfect and we will probably never do another cruise again. Here’s why.
One big ass boat
So much of your time is wasted just waiting.
Perhaps not surprisingly, it takes a long time to load 2,500 passengers on a big cruise ship. But your “get to the airport 2 hours before your flight” call is compounded every day you’re on the trip. You can’t get off the boat before the crew lets you. You can’t leave to the next place until everyone else is aboard. And with cruising at 25 knots (about 30 miles per hour), you certainly aren’t getting to your next destination any faster than any other mode of transportation. This all works if you’re there to relax, and Lord knows I love someone else taking the wheel so I can have another bowl of mushroom soup, but I think we can all agree that cruise ships are the least efficient way of getting around.
So much of your time is spent trapped on the boat.
Cruise passengers are at the mercy of a higher power. And that higher power is the cruise itinerary. No matter how early you wake up, you can’t explore the city until you’re allowed off the boat. And no matter how much you fall in love with a place, you have to leave and get back on the boat to go to the next place. You eat there, you sleep there. That is the one and only purpose of cruise ships, but we didn’t realize just how much of your time was spent as a captive audience.
And the cruise itinerary’s claws extend beyond the ship as well: Several in our group took the cruise tour of Stockholm. The bus drove them around the city for two hours and then took them back to the ship. They literally never got off the bus or put their feet on the ground. Does that even count as visiting Stockholm? When we travel, we like to, I don’t know, touch the places we visit. Apparently that’s crazy talk in the cruise world.
Rick and I didn’t take the official cruise tour in Stockholm, but that didn’t mean we had enough time to explore properly. We were allowed off the boat at 8am and had to be back on by 3pm. We’re talking about one of Europe’s most interesting capitals. That’s not enough time to see the city, eat lunch, and visit a single museum. You can’t have dinner on land wherever you go. I understand that you paid for dinner on your cruise, but how do you know what a town feels like unless you’re out with the locals? A city’s culture isn’t the churches, it’s in the pubs after people get off work. It’s in the restaurants. It is definitely not in the cruise ship harbor.
So much of your costs are not included in the cruise price.
It was really frustrating to invest a lot of money in a planned vacation, and then constantly be asked for more money. I realize that cruise ships are there to make money, but the additional fees and expenses that had to come out of pocket really grated on us. Essentially, everything you bought on the ship was marked up to “hostage consumer” prices and then they tacked on a 14 percent service charge. That’s in addition to whatever tipping was suggested, which is an additional line item beyond your mandatory $40/day per person gratuity.
I know that our fare included room, board, and transportation to the next harbor and nothing more. But to be charged for soda seemed ridiculous. The cruise ship we went on made you buy a non-alcoholic drinks package for $20 per person, per day if you wanted access to sodas or lattes. Plus a 14 percent service charge. PLUS everyone in the cabin had to purchase it so there could be no sharing. That’s $320 so your spouse can have Diet Cokes at the pool.
The top-level dining packages still limit your food expenditures. The all-you-can-drink alcohol packages don’t apply to bottles of wine. They even enforced the service charge on purchasing the Wi-Fi, as if someone were actively providing me a service. The nickel-and-diming was relentless ultimately soured our travel experience.
I won’t say that we didn’t have fun, because we did. The performances were great. Our room steward was the kindest human we’ve ever met. We had excellent dinners with funny, erudite world travelers (who were part of our group) and I won money at bingo and we got to watch cities roll by from our private patio. It’s great to just wake up in a new city, without having unpacked a bag or arranged a train ticket. But it costs a lot to take a cruise—your time, your money, your carbon footprint. Be sure you understand those costs before you go.
Do your homework. If you’re as easily as offended as I am, it may be worth it to invest in a pricier cruise where more of the expenses are covered up front. If we could do it over again, we would have paid more in advance to feel like we were royalty. It’s all psychological but it works. If you’re taking a cruise so you’ll feel taken care of, do not underestimate this part.
Do more homework. Once you find your ship, figure out what you want to see in each destination. When your windows to explore are limited, you don’t want to waste your time on a museum you aren’t into, or crossing the city to a restaurant that is only open for dinner.
Don’t be afraid to ditch. Other than in St. Petersburg, where guest visas are contingent on being with a tour guide, we never did a cruise tour. As a result, we drank champagne on the rocky shores of Helsinki and we scootered our way through Copenhagen and danced with statues in Tallinn. Those are the moments worth experiencing, and honestly, the only moments you’ll remember.