Are you a cruiser? They say that once you have been on one cruise, you will be a cruiser forever. 'They' say a lot of things, and sometimes it's just better to find out for yourself. Across the globe there are a raft of cruises ranging from the three day sampler cruises on a fun ship like Carnival Spirit, to a four month cruise on the Queen Mary 2. And yes, that pun was intended.
Unless you have a spare $20 000 for the Queen Mary, it's probably better value to spend $600-$700 on a three night sampler cruise, to find out whether cruising is the thing for you.
Although this article covers general things that are applicable to a lot of cruises, it is based on the specific experience of the three day cruise out of Sydney on board the Carnival Spirit.
Multiple cruise ships leave from Sydney Harbour every year
'All inclusive' doesn't actually include everything Your 'all inclusive' cruise won't include everything on the ship. Alcohol is definitely not included in the price of your ticket, nor are many other non-alcoholic drinks like cans of soft drinks or mocktails. On the Carnival Spirit, for example, you can get a cup of coffee from the self-serve buffet but it's pretty bad, so if you want a 'specialty' coffee, made by an actual barrista, then that's extra.
Other things that aren't included are spa treatments, some gym classes, certain food at certain restaurants, some kids programs, specialty programs like cooking or language classes and the photos they will inevitably snap of you as you embark on your cruise.
Professional photographers will be on hand to capture everything you do (for a price)
Don't be disheartened though because a lot is included in your ticket such as three meals a day (with a choice of least two or three different restaurants or buffets), snacks 24 hours a day, some drinks, plus loads of free entertainment from pools, water slides, magic shows, comedians, seminars, movies, mini golf and video games.
Is a cruise really like a floating hotel? Well, yes in most respects, if your idea of a hotel is a sprawling 12 decks, covering three football fields, housing thousands of people that are thrown together with no way off. Spirit is the only Carnival cruise ship that is based outside of the US. Many cruise ships come to Australia but they are based elsewhere. While Spirit underwent a bit of work to make it ready for the Australian market, there are few things that have missed the mark.
My cabin aboard the Carnival Spirit, complete with luggage mat so I can open my suitcase without dirtying the bedspread
First, it's important to know that many of the cabins (they call them staterooms but we shouldn't get carried away) only have one power point. So if you are sharing with two or three other people you need to be able to time-share. Not that it really matters anyway, because chances are your phone and iThingy won't work at sea (international roaming rates will apply outside of certain areas) and buying wi-fi is expensive (from $29 for 45 minutes to $159 for 480 minutes).
There are not as many complimentary toiletries provided as you would normally find in a hotel. For example they provided shampoo but not conditioner. There are also no tea and coffee making facilities in the rooms. There will probably be a small minibar and fridge, but chances are it will only provide drinks and not food or snacks. The cabin bathrooms are very modest, both in size and in quality, although the public areas are much more swanky (the decor may not be to everyone's taste, but every person and every ship, are different).
Most cruise ships have a range of pools, spas and water activities such as these water slides on the Carnival Spirit
Many cruise ships pride themselves on their hospitality and service, and I would have to agree that it is a step up from a normal hotel. Staff make a real effort to learn your name, and on the Spirit, the waiters in the main dining room will break into song and dance at least once a night.
Unlike a land-based hotel though, there are extra noises and sensations on a cruise ship. No matter how big the ship, it will still move around, and you are advised to always use the hand rails when moving up and down stairs. As a result, there are anti-bacterial hand wash stations all over the ship, plus tissues to use when opening and closing toilet doors. Overkill, or unfortunately necessary?
What's the food like?
All cruises you go on will have multiple restaurants and cafes where you can eat. Some may attract a surcharge for a fancier meal, but many will be included in your ticket price, and generally there will be some form of food and drink available 24/7 whether it is a buffet meal, a late night pizza bar or an all-day burger joint.
Carnivores are taken care of onboard, vegetarians less so
Leaving aside the fancier restaurants with a surcharge (which might be $40 per person per meal) the quality of the food available is good. Variable, but good in general. You need to keep in mind that the chefs are cooking for thousands of people over long periods of time.
Because there are often so many people on board, there are also different dinner sitting times (early, say 6-6.30 or late, after 8.30pm) so that all the people on board can be accommodated in a somewhat orderly fashion. This is usually for the sit down restaurants with menus, not the all-you-can-eat buffets which can be a bit of a zoo if you try and go during peak times.
How long does it take to get on and off
A ship will start boarding up to six hours prior to setting sail, and you will be allocated (or nominate) a boarding time when you buy your ticket. Obviously the earlier you get on, the more time you will have before the ship sails. Disembarking is a different story, and they will try and get everyone off within a couple of hours so they can clean the ship and get ready for the next cruise.
For my three night cruise which departed Sydney at 6.30pm I chose a 2.30-3.00 boarding time. I had to show my boarding pass and Australian photo ID to get into the International Passenger Terminal at Circular Quay. I joined a short queue before speaking with a check-in agent. There were at least 30 agents to speed this process up.
I was asked a couple of questions and had my photo taken for security purposes. They will ask if you have had flu or gastro-like symptoms in the previous 24 hours. If you say yes, a nurse will be called to check you out. It's bad news when a whole ship contracts some nasty infectious disease, so be honest if you have been sick (and buy travel insurance, just in case).
Our ship docked at 6.30am and everyone had to be off by 8.45am, with the first people being asked to leave at 7.15am. If that seems a little early for the last day of your trip, I was told that even though you are assigned a group time to disembark, you can basically get off the ship anytime you like, as long as it is before the final call.
Despite thousands of people on board, you can still find solitude on the enormous ships
It is probably worthwhile remembering that even though your ship docks at a particular time, it doesn't mean that it is when you will be setting foot on soil, so be wary when booking return flights or organising other commitments. That being said, it would be entirely possible to do a full days work on the Friday, head down to the terminal, have a three night cruise, get off the ship at 7.30am on the Monday and go straight to work.
Will I get seasick?
Even though these ships are bigger than anything you could possibly imagine, you will inevitably still feel it rolling and moving in the water. Unless the weather is particularly bad, it is usually a gentle rock. Some people won't be bothered by this, some people will. It's also important to remember that if you have flown or made a long drive to get to your cruise, or if you have changed time zones, then you will probably be affected more by the movement than if you were feeling 100% before you got on.
There are medications and other things, such as magnetised wrist bands, you can bring with you to reduce the effect of motion sickness and you should definitely speak with a doctor or pharmacist before you leave.
There are almost as many staff on board as travellers
What else do I need to know?
Unless you're in a big fancy stateroom, the cabins are quite modest, especially if you're sharing. Pack light and remember your bathers, a jumper (it gets cool at night and in the air conditioning, no matter what time of year it is) and at least one decent outfit.
Most cruises will have an 'elegant' night where you are able to dress up. It's not quite top coat and tails, although I did see one gentleman with a dinner suit and black bow tie. Thongs and flip flops are not allowed in certain areas of the ships at certain times, so pack at least one pair of good shoes.
You will be given a card on embarking which doubles as a room key and a payment card. Few places take cash or credit card once you're on board. Bring a lanyard from home so you can wear it safely around your neck and make sure you check your credit/debit balance before you leave home. Onboard shopping is not as expensive as you expect, but they are limited in what they offer so make sure you bring along plenty of nappies and wipes if you have small children.
After the safety muster, 700 people crammed onto a small section of deck
There will be a compulsory safety drill before the ship sets sail, where all passengers and crew have to assemble at an assigned muster point. The whole process takes less than 30 minutes but it can be a long time to stand in extremely close proximity to literally hundreds of other people. It can get a bit claustrophobic so if you are feeling unwell, anxious or have small children, it might be wise to walk immediately to the front of the group, near the railings so you don't feel hemmed in.
Children and families are incredibly well taken care of, with multiple kids clubs for different age groups, all day and all-you-can-eat dining options, a range of pools, water slides and video games not to mention about ten million nooks and crannies to hide in. The largest cabins sleep 4, with a combination of beds, sofa beds and bunks.
Don't fret - there are always adult-only areas (usually licenced) if you want to avoid other people's kids (or your own).
Would I do it again?
I joined Spirit as part of a blogging conference so I probably wouldn't have chosen this cruise otherwise. There are so many different types of cruise, on different types of ship, attracting different groups of people, for different lengths of time that it is easy to find something that suits you. Check out the various companies carefully or read websites like cruise critic to find out whether you're cruising with like-minded people.