Cruise ships are a means of travel with some substantial benefits… and drawbacks. Some people love them, and some people hate them, but they’re worthy of consideration, especially if you find other modes of travel too difficult or inconvenient.

They make it easy to visit several places in a single trip without the need to pack your belongings and sit in a car/train/bus/plane to travel to each one; your hotel room comes along with you, and even provides the transportation. You may go to bed in Cabo San Lucas and wake up in Puerto Vallarta, which is a great convenience, but can also make it easy to lose a sense of where you are.

Typical itineraries also limit the time you can spend in each place, usually just a short day of activities or sightseeing. They may also include one or more days at sea: paradise if you enjoy a relaxing day by the pool, but perhaps frustrating if you prefer more active exploration. Nonetheless, the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks for enough people to support a growing industry.

Today you can visit every continent on earth, including Antarctica, by cruise ship. The most exotic itineraries, such as the Galapagos and South Pacific, are best visited by small expedition vessels like Lindblad Cruises. While these cruises are expensive, you’ll be traveling with expert lecturers.

Carnival Corporation is the giant in the cruise industry. It owns Carnival Cruise Lines, Princess Cruises, Holland America, Cunard Line, Costa Cruises and Seabourn Cruises. The other major cruise lines are Royal Caribbean International, which owns Celebrity Cruises and Azamara Cruises, Oceania Cruises and P&O, which caters to the British market, and Norwegian Cruise Lines, which caters primarily to passengers on the east coast with year round sailings from New York City and Miami.

The golden age of transoceanic passenger travel is long gone, and the only surviving ship from that era, the RMS Queen Mary, is now permanently berthed as a museum ship and hotel, but that doesn’t mean that traveling across the sea by ship is gone too! In truth, modern-day passenger ships, including Cunard Line’s mammoth Queen Mary 2, are actually now much larger and more luxurious than they were years ago.

The picture of cruise ship travel painted by the circa-1980 TV series “The Love Boat” isn’t particularly misleading (except about the inevitable bliss before debarkation and the all-American crew), but it is rather incomplete. Due to economy of scale the vast majority of modern cruise ships are behemoths carry 2,000 to 5,000 passengers. While the luxury segment of the cruise industry boasts small boutique vessels, the odds are you’ll board a floating city. Voyages range from a few days to a full circumnavigation of the globe lasting three months while fares range from a few hundred dollars to $100,000+.

While the cruise industry once consisted of seniors, the age of passengers has dropped significantly. For example, the average age of Royal Caribbean’s passengers is 48. Cruising has turned into an enormously popular family vacation due to the specialized children’s programs offered aboard ships.

Get in
The most well-known destinations for cruise ships are tropical ports in the Caribbean or the Mexican Riviera, but cruises can be found almost anywhere there’s a enough water to float a boat and cities to visit. Cruise ships of various sizes visit the coasts of Alaska, Scandinavia, South-East Asia, East Asia, Mediterranean Europe, Australia, and New England; various islands of the Pacific Ocean; navigable rivers and lakes of Europe, China, Brazil, Egypt, and North America; and numerous other places. Even the North Pole and Antarctica are now destinations.

Unless your ship’s itinerary is confined to a single country, you need to prepare for a cruise like you would any other international trip, including passports. Some countries may have fewer restrictions on day visitors via cruise ship (e.g. waiving visa requirements), but check with the cruise line ahead of time, or risk having to stay on the boat while everyone else explores beautiful Freedonia.

Although cruise ships sail from an increasing number of cities, most people still have to fly to get to and from their port of departure. In keeping with their full-service business model, cruise lines generally will make airline arrangements for you if you want, notifying you with flight details 45-60 days ahead of the cruise. This leaves you with very little control and can mean inconvenient flight times or long flights to hubs with available connections. For an additional fee, say $50 per person, the cruise line will process a “deviation”. This means you can specify what airline(s), times, even flight numbers you’ll accept, and you are then notified of the price. Usually it is better to just book your own flights. Consider leaving for your port of departure a day ahead (particularly if threatened with possible weather delays), and use the time for sightseeing if all goes well.

At the cruise terminal, baggage is sometimes given to the porters for loading to the ship. They generally make it clear that they expect tips. On other cruise lines you won’t see your hold luggage from initial airport check-in until it arrives outside your cabin door. Hand-carried items are scanned just like at an airport, then you make your way to a processing desk to provide identification and set up a shipboard charge account. From there it is a quick photograph and up the gangway. The buffet awaits you. If you’re not hungry, it’s a good time to walk about the ship and get oriented. Before sailing there will be a life boat drill which everyone must attend; cruise lines take this requirement seriously. It usually involves explaining emergency procedures and how to wear your life vest. Pay attention as you will be on the high seas. Don’t blow the whistle on the life vest – you don’t know who has blown it before you.

Get around
The key advantage of a cruise ship is that it does the “getting around” for you. Large cruise ships may not be able to dock at all of the ports they visit, and instead have to anchor off-shore. Passengers going ashore are then transported to and from the ship by small boats called “tenders”, in a process known ungrammatically as “tendering”.

Instead of “floor” numbers, the decks on the ship may have fanciful names. You may find yourself referring frequently to the maps in the elevator and stairwell areas to figure out whether the Lido Deck is above or below the Promenade Deck. The biggest ships can be 15 or more decks deep (counting bars and whatnot perched above the pools), making even the most conscientious stairs-climber resort to the elevators from time to time.

Some ships have been outfitted with millions of dollars worth of art and elaborate interior decor, but generally there isn’t much to see on a typical ocean-going cruise ship. Even if you’re traveling “along the coast”, it’ll usually be too far off to enjoy the scenery. Some ships travel to geographically interesting areas such as Alaska or Scandinavia where they make detours to view fjords and glaciers, and of course the view is likely to be worth taking in on a river cruise. Generally speaking, the smaller the boat, the better scenery you can expect, because they won’t need to stick to deep and open water. Depending on oceanography, you may be able to spot whales, dolphins, or flying fish swimming nearby or even following alongside. But the real sightseeing opportunities come when you reach port, and are usually incorporated into shore excursions (see “Do”).

You’ll be surrounded by water you can’t swim in, but rest assured that all but the smallest ships will have a swimming pool, and in all but the coldest regions there will be deck chairs aplenty to lie on. The pools won’t be great for swimming laps, but some new ships are being equipped with small swim-against-the-current pools.

Without the legal restrictions imposed on land-based facilities, cruise ships routinely operate a casino. (Don’t expect one on Disney Cruise Line ships, however, and in general expect more emphasis on the casino on ships catering to the American market than on those for Europeans.) Las Vegas is also the model for cruise ship entertainment venues, featuring comedians, singing-and-dancing shows, magicians, first-run movies, etc.

A daily roster of activities is planned, particularly for days at sea. This is apt to include art auctions, bingo games, kitchen tours, port and shopping lectures, cruise enhancement lectures by naturalists, arts and crafts lessons, poolside contests, etc. Family-oriented cruises will usually have some age-specific activities geared to keep the kids and teens from getting hopelessly bored.

Most ships have a gym or health center complete with exercise machines. Sometimes there are instruction programs in things like Tai Chi at a small extra cost. Many people use the “promenade” deck – which usually loops around the ship around mid-decks – for walking or jogging, but these may have stairs that interrupt your rhythm, so a shorter jogging track might be available. Some ships find room for a putting green, golf simulator, or a basketball or tennis court (enclosed by ball-catching nets) on deck. Recently some new ships have been built with an ice rink, a rock climbing wall, or a “surf park”.

Spa facilities are a staple of cruise ships. Everything from massages to hairdressing to exotic health and beauty treatments are available at an extra price.

The “shore excursions” office will usually offer a variety of sightseeing tours and organized activities such as scuba, snorkeling, kayaking, bicycling, and so forth at each port of call. These will often fill the majority of your day in port, leaving little time to explore on your own, and the cruise lines’ commission can boost the price significantly over what you might spend by dealing directly with the locals. But they can be a great convenience compared to finding things to do and making arrangements yourself when you reach the dock, and also provide assurance in especially “entrepreneurial” locations that you won’t be scammed. Another benefit is that the ship will wait if the tours they booked are not back on time, but probably won’t wait for you if you are on your own. Popular shore excursions can fill up before you reach port – or even before you set sail – so it’s a good idea to sign up online well in advance if you really have your heart set on swimming with dolphins or climbing on a glacier.

For both convenience and to foster a casual-spending atmosphere, most large cruise ships run a “cashless” system in which they issue a card that you use to charge any on-ship expenses (except for gambling). Typically it is settled to a credit card, but can be settled in cash if a deposit is given.

One thing you may want to bring cash for is tipping the housekeeping and dining room staff at the end of the cruise. The cruise line will suggest “appropriate” amounts to tip each of these people; this is nominally optional, but is expected as part of their pay. Some major cruise lines, including Norwegian, Carnival, and Princess, now add the suggested amounts to passengers’ shipboard accounts automatically, with the option to remove or adjust this figure as desired. Royal Caribbean has the option to do this in advance. These systems further dispense with the need for the traveller to bring cash. Other cruise lines have a “no-tipping” policy, often aimed at the European market where the tradition of tipping is sometimes alien and can frighten customers away.

Cruise ships often take advantage of their “international” status to sell a variety of duty-free liquor and other items that would otherwise be subject to import taxes. They’ll usually feature boutique stores, and of course a shop hawking cruise-branded souvenirs.

Usually most meals are included in the price of the cruise. This often includes poolside snack bars, making for the unusual experience of walking up to the counter, ordering a burger and walking off without any form of payment. (It is not “free”, of course; you paid for it when you bought your ticket.) On mass market cruise lines there is typically a buffet on one of the upper decks, available during all meal times and sometimes even around the clock. Room service is usually available at all times at no extra charge (a $1-$2 gratuity is traditional).

There is also “sit down” dining with full waiter service available, usually with a multi-course menu featuring fancy dishes. Traditional dining room service is at a pre-set time (usually either an early and late seating) and at the same table every day, as a way to make most efficient use of limited dining room space. Exceptions might be made when the ship is in port and many passengers are eating ashore. In this arrangement, couples typically share a table with one or more other couples. Dinner might also be treated as a semi-formal affair, and even fully formal one or two nights during the cruise, with different menus each night. One benefit (or drawback, as the case may be) of this approach is getting acquainted with the other guests dining with you, and the restaurant staff assigned to your table.

In recent years, seeking to respond to many guests’ dislike for scheduled dining, some cruise lines have introduced “freestyle” or “choice” options which allow dining at any time (with the understanding that you may have to wait for a table, like in a busy city), and perhaps in various restaurants. Or they may rotate scheduled dining between different restaurants, to provide more variety. To appeal to younger and middle-class travelers, dining is also more likely to be “smart casual” dress or semi-formal, with true formal dining offered as a by-reservation option. Note that some of these options (especially alternative dining locations) may feature additional fees.

Drinks are usually not included in the price, even if the cruise’s promotional brochure says “all-inclusive”. Typically coffee, tea, and iced tea are available 24 hours at no charge, and soft drinks will be included with dinner, but cruise ship operators know better than to offer a free supply of often costly liquor to people who know they won’t need to drive or show up at the office any time soon, and furthermore are protected from drowning by only a railing and their diminished judgment and motor skills. Expect to find one or several well-stocked bars, catering to as many of their customers’ preferences for drinking environments as they have room for. You can expect the main dining room to have a very good wine list. Many cruise lines offer drink packages for the budget-conscious, such as an unlimited soda package for an additional fee.

Some cruise ships are primarily party vessels, full of young singles taking advantage of duty free alcohol and lower drinking ages in international waters. You can usually identify them by their extremely uneventful itineraries: straight out to sea, stay there for much of the trip, back to shore. Their advertising is usually also not particularly subtle. If you want one, you’ll recognise the signs; if you want to avoid one, likewise. Many mainstream cruise lines avoid the problem by requiring at least one occupant of each cabin to be a minimum age (with some exceptions for legitimate families) and/or by not serving alcohol to persons under 21.

Although most cruise lines promote their ships as luxurious, and the cabins (not “rooms”) usually range from “nice” to “elegant”, all but the most expensive ones tend to be a bit cramped compared to ordinary hotel rooms. Expect to find a large wall-mounted mirror or two to make the cabin seem bigger. Small private bathrooms with showers are the norm. The least expensive are less-than-motel sized cabins on the interior of the ship, without a window. Exterior cabins with a window are more expensive, with higher prices attached to rooms with balconies (often just enough room to sit and watch the sunset or have breakfast on a small table). Multi-room suites with private decks, bathtubs, sitting areas, and other amenities (if available) command the highest prices.

Stay healthy
Some people experience queasiness on cruise ships. This is least likely on the largest vessels, but sensitive inner ears can sometimes react to even the imperceptibly slow and gentle rocking of a calm sea. Over the counter motion-sickness medications such as Dramamine usually help, but the drowsiness they cause make them impractical to use for the duration of a cruise. Transderm Scop is a prescription patch that’s very effective. Some people find relief from special wristbands that stimulate pressure points that are believed to counteract the nausea of motion sickness.

Cruise ships are susceptible to outbreaks of norovirus and other communicable gastro-intestinal illnesses because of the large number of people sharing facilities, as well as the quick turnover that many ships experience (disembarking one set of passengers and embarking a new one in a single day). These viruses are spread much like the common cold, so frequent hand-washing is the best preventative measure; many cruise ships now provide dispensers of hand disinfectant in their restaurants. If you become ill (relatively mild vomiting and diarrhea are typical symptoms of norovirus), the medical staff will probably ask you to remain in your cabin and cancel your disembarking privileges until after you recover (usually within a couple days), to avoid exposing other travelers to the virus.

Although shipboard food and water will be sanitary, the usual precautions for overseas travel should be taken when eating and drinking ashore. In very touristy areas the water may be perfectly safe to drink; in less-developed ports you may need to be careful to avoid local water- and food-borne bacteria.

Your mobile phone will probably be rendered useless at sea (and dependent on local coverage in port). Some cruise lines are experimenting with providing limited mobile phone service while at sea, trying to balance the desire of some passengers to stay connected, with the desire of other passengers to get away from both their own phones and the conversations of their shipmates (e.g. no signal in restaurant and theater areas). You can also expect pricy rates, such as $4/minute. Most ships offer ship-to-shore phone service from your cabin, but of course at rather expensive rates. They may also provide a heavy-toll number for people at home to contact you on the ship.

Internet cafes are increasingly common, but the rates tend to be fairly steep and the speeds (usually relying on high-latency satellite uplinks) are unimpressive. Wireless service is available on some ships, but it’s also pricey, and the coverage of their access points may limit your options of where on board to use your laptop (Remember that most of the ship is constructed from steel: a particularly unfriendly material for wireless connections). Some new ships have wired networking available in cabins for an extra charge.

Get out
Called “debarkation”, this involves getting up to 3500 passengers off the ship as efficiently as possible; you can’t all leave at once. On large ships you put a colored tag on your luggage and place it outside the cabin the night before you reach your final port, and pick it up ashore in the terminal. Remember not to pack what you will be wearing to leave the ship. Carry-on baggage can be carried off. Deck areas are then called by color to disembark after customs clears the ship. Typically, those with early flights and cruise line shore excursions are given priority colored tags. Some cruise lines are now offering an option where passengers can be first off the ship if they carry all their luggage off with them. If your flight back home is a long time away, you can kill off that time by taking one last shore excursion.