Cruising for the beginners

Thinking of going on your first voyage but feeling all at sea? World of Cruising’s Editor At Large, John Honeywell, answers all those questions you were afraid to ask.

1 – IS IT EXPENSIVE?

Here at World of Cruising, we believe a holiday afloat can offer some of the best value available. With very few exceptions, the holiday fare includes all accommodation, meals and entertainment. How many four-star hotels include the cost of a four-course à la carte dinner in their basic room rate? You don’t even get breakfast in many cases. How much would it add to the cost of your weekend in London or Blackpool if you booked seats for a musical or went out to a nightclub? On a cruise you can do both every night at no extra cost. True, there is a growing number of  “speciality dining” restaurants at sea, but the cost is a fraction of the full price of eating similar food ashore. And if you don’t want to pay extra for entertainment – in the very few cases where a charge is levied – then there’s always an alternative way to spend your evening.

2 – IS IT A SHIP, A BOAT, OR A LINER?

That’s easy: always call it a ship – although every time you share a lift with half a dozen other passengers, at least one of them will talk about their boat in the same way they refer to the floor their cabin is on, rather than the deck. In the Royal Navy, only a submarine is referred to as a boat. General rule of thumb: a ship can carry a boat, but you can’t put a ship on a boat. Long before the development of the cruise business, liners were the passenger ships that made “line voyages” between one port and another: Southampton to New York or Liverpool to Cape Town, for example. Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 is a hybrid cruise liner – the only one of its kind in the world today.

3 – WHAT’S THE BEST CRUISE LINE FOR ME?

It all depends on how much you want to pay, what your lifestyle is, and where you want to go. Think about how you would choose a hotel. Are you a Premier Inn person or a Four Seasons? Travelodge or Best Western? Do you go for a homely B&B or a posh boutique hotel with personal attention from a butler or fitness trainer? Where do you like to travel – Margate, Marbella or Martinique? Brighton, Barcelona or Barbados? The equivalent is available at sea if you know where to look, and World of Cruising is the best place to start your search.

4 – WILL I BE BORED?

Only if you’re a boring person. There are activities round the clock, at sea and ashore. Top-class entertainment in the theatres, trivia quizzes in the pubs, and fascinating lectures on every topic under the sun. Work up a sweat in the gym, sit quietly people-watching in the atrium. Snooze in the sun on a sun lounger, or sip Champagne while simmering gently in a hot tub. Sit on your cabin balcony with a good book, or lie on the bed and watch a film on your cabin TV. Explore a new destination, climb a waterfall, go horse riding on the beach or snorkelling with stingrays. Throw money away in the casino or raise cash for charity in a sponsored (and gentle) jog. How can that be boring?

5 – WILL I GET SEASICK?

Cruise ships are fitted with stabilisers that can reduce the amount of motion, but they are still at the mercy of the waves. Your cruise ship might look massive as you gaze up from the quayside, but if you have ever looked down on one from the plane as you fly into port, you’ll realise that the hugest vessel is tiny and insignificant compared to the wide-open spaces of the ocean. Many passengers fear the prospect of crossing the notorious Bay of Biscay en route from the UK to the Med (it can get very rough in stormy weather, or it can be as calm as a millpond, even in winter). If you are susceptible to it, the prospect of seasickness in poor weather cannot be completely ruled out, so be prepared with motion-sickness medication.
I use Stugeron; some swear by ginger or acupressure. If the worst comes to the worst, a jab from the ship’s doctor will do the trick and you can sleep until the weather improves.

6 – WHERE DO I GET MY TICKETS?

Mainstream cruise lines keep costs down by expecting you to check in online, upload your own security picture, and provide credit card details – all before arriving at the ship. You’ll have to print your own boarding pass and baggage tags. And you’ll need a stapler to attach them to the luggage. Premium and luxury lines, and many of the specialist travel agents, will put everything together in a leather-bound wallet complete with swanky bag tags and other souvenirs. Viking’s documentation comes in a handy zip-up padded pouch that is the perfect size for carrying an iPad or Kindle.

7 – WHAT’S A RE-POSITIONING CRUISE?

Lots of ships spend summer in one region and winter in another, plying the same – or similar – itineraries week in, week out. The journey from one route to another, made at the end of the season, is a re-positioning cruise. Typical voyages are between the Mediterranean and the Caribbean, Alaska and Mexico or (through the Panama Canal) the Caribbean. These often provide exceptionally good value fares, although possibly with a limited number of port calls, so they are ideal for passengers who enjoy days at sea.

8 – WHY AM I EXPECTED TO PAY GRATUITIES? WHO GETS MY MONEY?

In a world where we are expected to tip our hairdresser but not the supermarket check-out assistant, and the cabbie but not the bus driver, it’s inevitable that tipping is a controversial topic among cruise passengers. Gone are the days when passengers handed over little brown envelopes to their cabin stewards and waiters at the end of a voyage. Nowadays the lines that add gratuities will include them as a daily extra on your shipboard account. Some operators, such as Saga, Thomson and most of the all-inclusive luxury lines, include tips in the fare but also leave guests with the option to reward good service individually. P&O Cruises, whose £5.50 a day is among the lowest rates, say 100 per cent of the money goes to the crew and adds: “We strongly believe this should remain voluntary and therefore this charge can be varied at the Reception desk at any time.”

9 – HOW CAN I AVOID GAINING A POUND A DAY AND OUTGROWING MY CLOTHES?

Self-control. Choose the salad options from the buffet – there will be a much bigger selection than you could ever assemble at home. Don’t feel you have to pile your plate high with a ladle-full of every hot option. Skip the bread rolls at dinner. Take the stairs instead of the lift. And smile.

10 – SHOULD I TAKE MY OWN SOAP AND SHAMPOO?

Luxury cruise lines provide recognisable top brand name toiletries in their en suite bathrooms. Like budget hotels, mainstream operators are more likely to have refillable shower gel and shampoo dispensers, and possibly a small bar of soap. If you want to use a familiar brand to keep looking your best, or you think you might have allergy problems, then take your own.