Mitchell and Penny

Mitchell and Penny love cruising… But they’re not afraid to rock the boat.

Journalists Mitchell and Penny Symons have been on more that 80 cruises, aboard 35 ships owned by 12 different lines, spending a combined total of seven whole years at sea. Here they answer your cruising queries…

Booking a cruise 

MRS: Cruise lines generally release their lowest fare when their itinerary schedules are first published.

As cabins fill up, the prices go up too. If a certain sailing is not selling as quickly as the line would like, it might drop prices or offer additional incentives such as drinks packages or included tours, but reductions – and increases – are quite unpredictable.

Some lines run almost continuous offers with a supposed deadline that never actually arrives, so don’t let them rush you. The best time to book a winter or off-season deal is either nine months in advance or a month before departure. But those who do need summer-holiday sailings should always book a long time ahead, or they may end up disappointed.

If you have a specific cabin in mind, especially if it’s a high-end suite, you should also book well in advance – a year or even more. The price may drop after you book, but then you might be able to get a fare adjustment, a cabin upgrade or receive the difference in onboard credit. It’s worth asking, particularly if you have booked through an agent, who will have some leverage.
If you wait until the last minute, the low prices come with limited availability, so you may get the fare but not the cabin you want. Having said that, people do drop out and there are bargains to be had. We got last-minute transatlantic balcony cabins on the QM2 just before Christmas last year for £395 per person (the balcony turned out to be an irrelevance, with a force ten blowing most of the way, but it was still a good deal).

If you can, avoid booking in January and February, which are traditionally peak times, even though the cruise lines will tempt you with promotions. Slow months, such as August, will see them panic and start offering some seriously good prices on sailings that still have a lot of empty cabins.

All companies claim to offer great deals if you book your next cruise from the boat on your current one. There will be various inducements, including a very low deposit, and you’ll be allowed to complete the booking with your own travel agent, so it may be worth taking the plunge – especially if you’ve built up a few loyalty points.

MR: I’d be interested to know how much – or, rather, how little – you paid for that cruise. Last month we went on a Celebrity cruise, in a balcony cabin, for a modest £50 per person per day (through Vacations To Go, our favourite cruise consolidator). At that price, we were delighted with how much was included – all our food, lodging, travel and entertainment – rather than peeved at the cost of the extras, many of which were unnecessary or a matter of personal choice.

Sadly, the business model for most of today’s cruise companies is to get us on board as cheaply as possible and then to make their profits through the extras. The typical cruise ship has in excess of 50 “profit centres”, as the industry calls them, on board. That’s the premium restaurants, bars, coffee shops, excursions, spa treatments, photographers, bingo, casino, internet and all the rest. The wonder is they don’t pay us to come on board, just for the opportunity to sell to us.

And I’m afraid this trend will continue, because the cruise lines are always looking for new ways to part us from our cash. At the moment they’re holding the line in the main restaurants but I can envisage a time when they start to charge for premium foods such as steak and lobster (they already do this for some items on the previously free room-service menu).

If you really hate paying for extras, perhaps you should try one of the luxury lines. On Regent, for example, everything really is included – even premium drinks, speciality restaurants and excursions – and you won’t be pestered by photographers. But, needless to say, you pay handsomely upfront for the privilege.

It’s your call.

MRS: The only trouble with everything being included is that I end up drinking too many delicious coffees. Being over-caffeinated is not the best way to enjoy a cruise – though when the tours are also free, I do a lot more exploring than when I have to pay.

MRS: Every spring, ships that have wintered in the Caribbean cross the Atlantic to work the Mediterranean market. Then in the autumn they sail back. These one-way trips are sold as “repositioning cruises”, and prices can be as low as half the round-trip fare from the same port. The return flight is often thrown in for free, and you can even add on a few days at the other end if you fancy, typically in Miami or Barcelona.

If you don’t mind being at sea for long periods, repositioning cruises are a good option, and a great way to try out luxury lines that would normally blow the budget. Because there’s no itinerary, Captains can allow extra time to detour round bad weather, and there are usually lots of extra activities to keep you occupied on board. Better still, the ships are rarely full (imagine no queues for the buffet, no shortage of sun loungers and splashing about with the pool to yourself). We’ve done a number of these cruises and we love them. Look online for companies that specialise in this market.

MR: What, like in the good old days when ships were 20,000 tons, charged you a couple of months’ salary for a week’s cruise and no one – not even the captain – had a balcony?

There’s one simple reason why ships keep getting bigger, and that’s money. Bigger ships allow the cruise lines to carry more people and to charge them less, which is what we consumers demand. Cruising used to be a niche activity for wealthy maiden aunts but now it’s massively popular, with 1.5 million Brits taking to the seas in the past twelve months – all of us determined to get more for less. True, we might find ourselves sharing a holiday with nearly 5,000 other passengers, but most of us will get a balcony (or ”veranda” as balconies have become), and we’ll be paying less than £100 per person per day.

MRS: I don’t enjoy the sight of these 200,000-ton monsters disgorging more passengers than the indigenous populations of the Caribbean islands they visit. Cruising on small ships is much more enjoyable – you really feel like you’re at sea – but Mr Cruise is right, you’ll pay more for the pleasure. Often a lot more.

MR: Let me answer your question with a bit of celebrity trivia. Rod Stewart is said to have “people” who go ahead to his hotel to black out the windows. Now, you and I might think that a bit excessive (personally I wear an eye-mask which does the same job at a fraction of the cost) but it does illustrate the point that, for some people, light is not always a good thing.

A few years ago, Mrs Cruise and I took a balcony cabin on a Royal Caribbean ship and put our sons in an inside cabin across the corridor. The two cabins were otherwise very similar but the boys slept much better than we did, simply because they were never woken up by the sun shining into the cabin.

The following year, we booked two inside cabins on another RCL ship and had an excellent time. We enjoyed the same access as any other passengers to all the amenities and restaurants, and we soon got used to returning at night to a windowless cabin. It was, we discovered, just an attitude of mind.
It was also a hell of a lot cheaper.

The price of a cruise is always prefaced by the word “from”, and the cabin you get for the starting price (unless you’re on an all-suite ship) will be an inside one. If you can handle that, you’ll be getting a lot of holiday for not much money.

If you decide that daylight is a non-negotiable, the cost shoots up alarmingly. Is it really worth paying more than twice as much for a suite with a balcony?

So while I can’t promise that you won’t feel claustrophobic, you can console yourself with the thought that you’re paying half as much as many of your neighbours.

MRS: Unless you already have a problem with claustrophobia, you should be fine. Today’s inside cabins are the same size and have the same features as outside cabins. It’s not like the bad old days on board the QE2 where some of the inside cabins were no better than crew cabins. Another option to consider (on the really large ships) is an inside cabin overlooking the atrium and the shopping arcade.

MRS: Short trips are a very good introduction but you’ll have to be quick as they sell out fast. That’s because they’re such good value – you can find a two-night, five-star cruise on a stunning ship for a lot less than staying in similar style on land.

For example, this autumn you could take a three-night break on the Queen Mary 2 from Southampton to Zeebrugge, Le Havre and back from £362pp. Cheaper still would be a two-night trip on Ventura from £194pp. At the other end of the scale you could try four nights cruising the Hebrides on the Queen’s favourite ship, The Hebridean Princess, from £1,200pp. At the very top end you could opt for three nights cruising the French Riviera on the SeaDream for
£1,549pp.

Several ships make trips to the European Christmas markets in November/December, and next summer you could do mini trips round the Channel Islands, or try a quick hop over to Ireland.

As to whether short cruises are representative, their popularity means they tend to sail full, which is not always the case with longer trips. There are likely to be queues, and your chance of swimming in an empty pool will be almost zero. You will also lose a lot more time on embarkation and disembarkation, in proportion to your cruise as a whole. So if you like the short version, it’s safe to say you’ll love the long one.

MRS: Just as when you have work done at home, there can be all sorts of snagging problems after a major refurb. Mostly these are minor, but we went on the old QE2 after her notorious 1987 refit, and we had our six-month-old first baby with us. There were countless problems and the air conditioning didn’t work, so many cabins were either too hot or icy cold. Ours was fine but there were no feeding or changing facilities in the refurbished nursery. As a gesture of goodwill, we were upgraded for our meals into the Queen’s Grill, so our son’s first taste of real food consisted of lobster thermidor, sole bonne femme and other delicious treats, all carefully liquidised by the chef.

The moral of the story is to be prepared for snags – but make the most of any compensations.

MR: I’d say the Canaries – especially if you’re looking for spring or autumn sunshine.

But that would need at least 11 or 12 days. An ideal shorter (summer) cruise would be the Norwegian fjords. Either the Canaries or the fjords would enable you to take cruises in and out of the UK without having to fly – one of the great advantages of a cruising holiday.

MRS: Some cruise lines have three or four-day ’taster’ cruises but they can be disproportionately expensive and the day you lose at the end when you disembark early in the morning might annoy you. These cruises are usually busy and sometimes attract a party crowd, so be warned.

MR: You can, but you would be well-advised to do your initial research online or at least to compare prices after you have received a quote from the travel agent. Most agents will try to get you the best deal but you might be able to do better yourself. We like vacationstogo.com, which has the best search engine. If you prefer a British company, there are many and of the ones we’ve used, we would recommend iglu.com. But don’t be put off using a travel agent – they are good for guiding you through the whole process and, thanks to the internet, the days when some agents used to take a huge commission and palm you off with a free taxi to the airport are over.

MR: River cruises are fabulous but they are not representative of cruising generally. They are all about going through the heart of a country and touring around it. Generally these tours are included in the price. Ocean cruising is as much about the ship and all its facilities as it is about the destinations.

However, if you’ve been put off the big cruise ships by the thought of crowds and queues, then a river cruise might be a good compromise. It won’t be cheap though. River cruise ships are smaller than their seagoing counterparts so they cannot make the same economies of scale.

Life onboard

MR: I couldn’t agree more. Sadly though, it seems you and I are in a minority, as these shows usually play to packed houses and score highly in the end-of-cruise questionnaires.

The fact is, most of the people who book entertainment for cruises are terrified of offending anyone. They’d never dare to offer anything more stimulating or grown-up than those tired old song-and-dance affairs – but surely there’s nothing wrong with challenging the audience just a little? By all means dip into the Great American Songbook, but do it with intelligence and imagination. Let’s have a tribute to Rogers and Hammerstein, but tell the audience how and why Oklahoma was the first modern musical, or that South Pacific was controversial because it dealt with issues of race in such a progressive way. Introduce the works of Stephen Sondheim – and not just Send In The Clowns. Why not run condensed versions of musicals such as Follies and Company?

I swear I’ll lose it if I’m forced to endure another butchering of Route 66 (in a show inevitably called American Dream) and it sounds like you will too. We can’t be the only ones… can we?

MRS: Some people do go into fault-finding mode on a cruise. You can sympathise when the problem is impossible to solve (eg noisy neighbours on a fuly booked ship) or if the staff don’t seem sympathetic or helpful. But among the more ludicrous complaints I have heard are “It was raining in the rain forest”, “I hate looking at the sea” and ”We’re not getting off the ship – it’s all foreign out there”.

And yes, there is such a thing as a miserable ship. I won’t name names but we have been on one – the third leg of a round-the-world cruise – where the staff were overworked, as they’d had a bad bout of norovirus, and the weather was terrible for six weeks (though when the sun finally came out, as we boarded in Auckland, everyone perked up enormously).

Moaners are a particular pain at mealtimes, as you say, but you needn’t be stuck with them. Have a word with the Maitre d’ and ask for a transfer. We were once allotted a table with a couple who did nothing but grumble, so we requested a move. There were no tables for two so we were given one for six, which we could have to ourselves unless we invited someone to join us. Perfect!

MR: I think there’s a deeper aspect to this, which is that some people do get depressed on holiday, perhaps because they’re not used to spending so much time with their partners, or simply because they’ve invested so much hope in the holiday that it could never match their expectations. When it falls short, they spiral into despondency.

MRS: I share your pain. While Mr Cruise has only ever had one filling – luckily devil – I too have a mouthful, plus a few crowns, the result of a childhood riding accident and the general dental butchery of the 1970s.

A few years back, to my horror, one of my front crowns fell off just two days before a transatlantic trip on Queen Mary 2. Luckily I managed to get it re-fitted at my local hospital before we left, or I would have felt very self-conscious with a hideous gap in my smile. I’ve certainly never known an onboard dentist on any
of the cruises we’ve taken.

I’m afraid you’ll be on your own as far as any dental problems go, so here’s my advice. Book a check-up about a fortnight before you set sail, and if anything looks at all dodgy, have it sorted while you can. Then include one or two emergency dental kits in your suitcase. I have tried these and they’re fine for a temporary repair until you get to the next port and find a dentist. And of course it’s common sense to avoid toffees, Florentines and even shellfish if your teeth are less than robust – though it has to be said I once cracked a filling on a piece of crusty bread, of all things.

There are very likely to be dentists among your fellow passengers, so you may be able to get some advice, but they won’t have any of their equipment with them. The ship’s doctor can prescribe antibiotics or strong painkillers if necessary, while the information desk should be able to help you find a dentist at the next port, and even make an appointment for you. If your dental problems are severe, it’s probably best to pick a cruising itinerary that includes countries whose dental services are as good, if not better, than here in the UK.

MR: I’m saying nothing…!

MRS: More than half a million  British people are now vegans, which means they don’t eat any animal products at all, including meat, fish, eggs, milk, cheese or even honey. Sadly, just as supermarkets and restaurants have been slow to catch on to this remarkable rise, so have the cruise lines. All ships off er vegetarian options but most of them fail to understand vegan requirements, so many of these dishes contain eggs, cheese or cream.

Our own son is among those half-million converts, and when he accompanied us on a recent transatlantic trip aboard the Queen Mary, we gave up on the formal restaurant after one night because it was virtually impossible to order a vegan meal, unless a bread roll and a green salad is your idea of dinner.

Eating in the buffet – which we prefer anyway – proved much more successful. We persuaded our son to eat fish on this particular crossing (although he wouldn’t touch the eggs because they were not free-range), and buffets allow you to eat as much as you want of salads, vegetables and fruit. There’s usually plenty of choice, although I have yet to see a buffet that offers vegan cheese or vegan desserts.

Choose your cruise by the standard and variety of its buffet options, and I’m sure your wife will find plenty of good things to eat. It’s also a sensible idea to take a few essentials with you. All staterooms have fridges, because the cruise lines hope you will consume the overpriced drinks inside them, but you can ask to have these removed and use the fridge for your own supplies. We always do this, to make room for almond milk and Mr Cruise’s special sugar-free muesli.

The culinary prospects for vegan cruisers are far from hopeless but they could be so much better. Yes, it’s mostly the younger generation who have taken up vegan eating in a big way, and while the core cruise population still eats meat, the onboard catering is bound to reflect this. But keep asking about vegan options, add your comments about it to your end-of-cruise questionnaire, and eventually the cruise lines will get the message.

MR:  Thanks, Mrs Cruise, for outing me as a faddy eater who’s nutty enough to take his own food with him on a cruise – of all places! However, she’s not wrong when she writes about buffets where, incidentally, even carnivores might enjoy a vegan dish such as stir-fried tofu, or even just pasta with a tomato sauce. But what about Quorn, which is enormously popular (especially in our household)? I’ve never seen it offered on a cruise ship. Can’t think why not.

MRS: Things ain’t what they used to be, that’s for sure. When we first started cruising, more than 30 years ago, you could buy a pretty decent designer watch on board for around $50 (we ended up with a drawer full because we couldn’t resist a bargain). These days, most of the watches and jewellery for sale on your cruise ship could be bought just as cheaply at home. The onboard shops still do good business, of course, but only because cruisers are a captive market, and some folk buy things out of boredom, or simply to use up their credit.

Sadly, bargains are equally hard to come by onshore. Partly that’s because there is very little genuine competition: pretty well the same stuff  is in all the shops and street markets in all the ports (as often as not made in China), and if it’s not cheap and tacky then it’s way overpriced, at least while there’s a cruise ship in town.

The Caribbean ports all feature the same shops – Diamonds International, Tanzanite International, Effy etc – and many of these are owned by the same people as the cruise lines. Given that you only have a few hours in each port, it seems a criminal waste to spend them pointlessly comparing prices in these shops when you could be off seeing new places.

And while there’s nothing wrong with buying something you genuinely like or want to keep as a souvenir, don’t fall for “investment potential”. Mr Cruise insisted on buying me a Tanzanite necklace back in the 1980s, when the stone was hailed as precious, rare and running out. Thirty years on, there seems to be an inexhaustible supply. At least my necklace survived our house fire a couple of years ago (unlike the drawer full of watches) but only because I was wearing it at the time, 5,000 miles away.

There are only a few parts of the world where it might still be worth splashing the cash. The shopping is pretty good Bermuda, and you’re not missing any spectacular sights if you choose to take advantage of it. The French Riviera is good for perfumes, especially if you head for the smaller villages up in the hills, while Spanish unbranded leather goods are better quality than any of the designer handbags you can buy on board your cruise ship. With things like this, my best buys have always been ashore, and from shops that the locals use, not the ones in the tourist areas.

Back on board, everybody knows there will be an end-of-cruise sale. If this happens to coincide with the end of a fashion season, you’ll find that genuine bargains can still be found (on our last Celebrity cruise I picked up half a dozen fantastic sunhats, worthy of Joan Collins, for just a fiver each).

MRS: Walkie-talkies! Most kids love them and all you have to do is make sure they keep them switched on and charged. You can also try pinning kids down to agreeing to meet at certain fixed points and places during the day, but in our experience that does not work. You can text but you might find yourself running up large phone bills. Roaming fees need to be watched carefully – texting or phoning while at sea is expensive because you will be using the ship’s satellite. The big ships have teen clubs, and if you get to know the staff  you can ask them to make sure your kids keep in touch. Walkie- talkies are also useful ashore, but of course your kids may try to go out of range!

MR: We empathise on this one. You might have to share unless you are travelling as a four or as part of a larger group. Two-seater tables in the main dining rooms are at a premium (although cruise lines have installed more because many people feel as you do). You should still be okay if you are prepared to accept a less busy time to eat, which increasingly these days is later.

Alternatively, many lines now offer anytime dining programmes which allow you to pick a restaurant, time and table-size of your choice. From here, if you find a table that you like you can then ask to block book it for the rest of the cruise. If that doesn’t work, there is always the buffet, which on most lines offers the same menu as in the main dining room but allows you to eat much more informally and almost certainly on your own.

MRS: The buffets have improved enormously and, on the premium lines, you actually get service in the buffets – as attentive as in any restaurant.

MR: There is no bank onboard but you can exchange currency. However, this will be at rates which might make an airport bureau de change green with envy. Definitely take your currency with you and don’t change it back onboard.

All about cruises

MR: It’s all a bit of harmless fun. A ship associates itself with someone famous who, in turn, performs some sort of ceremonial duties and – who knows? – maybe gets to have free cruises for the rest of her life (though my guess is that ships are careful to choose people successful, wealthy and busy enough never to become a nuisance).

It’s not compulsory, and not all ships do it (or they simply choose the wife of the cruise line’s president – a smart move by whichever executive makes that decision).

As far as I know, there is no such thing as a cruise-ship godfather – perhaps because of the unfortunate connotations that would bring, thanks to Francis Ford Coppola.

I don’t think a godmother’s duties are very taxing. In the case of artistes, they’re not expected to perform (I asked someone from the entertainment staff on Ventura, where Dame Helen Mirren [above] occupies the ceremonial post). Perhaps they simply drop in for a cup of tea when they and the ship happen to be in the same place.

MR: What, like in the good old days when ships were 20,000 tons, charged you a couple of months’ salary for a week’s cruise and no one – not even the captain – had a balcony?

There’s one simple reason why ships keep getting bigger, and that’s money. Bigger ships allow the cruise lines to carry more people and to charge them less, which is what we consumers demand. Cruising used to be a niche activity for wealthy maiden aunts but now it’s massively popular, with 1.5 million Brits taking to the seas in the past twelve months – all of us determined to get more for less. True, we might find ourselves sharing a holiday with nearly 5,000 other passengers, but most of us will get a balcony (or ”veranda” as balconies have become), and we’ll be paying less than £100 per person per day.

MRS: I don’t enjoy the sight of these 200,000-ton monsters disgorging more passengers than the indigenous populations of the Caribbean islands they visit. Cruising on small ships is much more enjoyable – you really feel like you’re at sea – but Mr Cruise is right, you’ll pay more for the pleasure. Often a lot more.

MR: Timing is everything. I f you turn up at noon to embark on a large cruise ship, you will find yourself in a scrum with thousands of your fellow passengers, all determined to get to the buffet for one o’clock. And I suspect it was ever thus.

To avoid such unpleasantness, my tip is to turn up later. If embarkation is from noon till four, be there at 2.30. The queues will be much shorter and you will be allowed to go straight to your cabin, rather than have to carry your hand luggage around the ship. Yes, you will miss lunch (though the buff et usually remains open longer on the first day), but you can stoke up beforehand or make up for it later.

Choosing when to embark, and doing so when you’re rested and relaxed, is one of the many advantages of arriving at the port a day or two early, rather than stepping off the plane and rushing straight to the ship. And sometimes you’ll be deeply thankful for the extra breathing space.

Mrs Cruise and I will never forget the maiden voyage of Sapphire Princess out of Sydney in 2004. The five-hour wait to board was inexcusable – especially as there were several passengers who had come straight off twelve-hour flights, only to have to stand in non-moving queues without any refreshment to sustain them.

We decamped to a nearby cafe to wait for the chaos to subside (the ship’s not going till we’re all aboard, so why stand in a static queue?) From our vantage point we watched the local TV news crews. As such people do, they had come with their story already written. This was a great day for Sydney and a fantastic trip-of-a-lifetime for the lucky passengers.

“What a brilliant scene,” gushed the airhead reporter to the camera. “It’s like a carnival!”

Well, almost, if your idea of a carnival is children crying and elderly men slumped over their cases, on the verge of passing out.

Having been in the TV news game herself, Mrs Cruise waited for the reporter to finish her piece and then gently pointed out that the real story was a little diff erent. This lady gave her that look of simpering condescension they teach at air stewardess school – and now, apparently, at journalism college – and told her that they knew exactly what they were doing.

MRS: You can ensure that you don’t miss the boat by either going on an organised tour, or by leaving plenty of leeway if you go off on your own. Generally speaking, the ship will wait a few minutes for stragglers but you really don’t want to do the walk of shame, as people catcall you from the upper decks. Be aware that there is no good time or place to miss the ship but some are much worse than others – particularly if they necessitate several connections to get to the next port.

As for the second part of your question, embarkation typically ends at least two hours before the ship actually sets sail, so there is potentially some scope for getting on late. However, why risk it? Fly out the day before your cruise and enjoy something of the local culture in your departure port.

MR: The EHIC card covers you for the same health insurance as the NHS, but not all European countries you might cruise to are in the EU (e.g. Norway).

The EHIC card doesn’t cover your possessions and nor does it cover you if you are taken ill onboard and have to pay medical fees. So my advice is to bite the bullet and buy some insurance. If you go away for two or more trips a year, you might find that an annual policy works out cheaper.