The first thing cruise addicts do on board
OCEAN cruising is big business in Australia. Waves of Aussie cruisers go to sea again and again, and some even head straight to the future bookings office as soon as they board.
The committed are attached to cruising like barnacles on a hull.
They've discovered cruising is great value for money. Rumour would have it that the cost per day is far less than staying in a hotel or resort and includes meals, shows, entertainment and activities.
And then there's the ease and attraction of the "unpack once" factor. No constant fiddling with suitcases and bookings and tickets and schlepping to the next plane, train or car. You just go to bed and wake up in the next port-of-call or to a glorious day at sea with nothing - or plenty - to do.
So, is this all true? Is cruising really the best value holiday going?
Escape dived into the details.
There are inexpensive, mid-range and luxury ships; huge, mid-sized, small and boutique; and family-friendly and adult-focused. You can cruise on a floating amusement park, a foodie's paradise or a day spa at sea.
You can take themed cruises based on food, wine, art, comedy, singing, dancing, wellness, photography and Elvis. Do you want magicians, water parks, a surf simulator or laser tag? A family cruise with kids' clubs? Lavish entertainment? Exotic ports-of-call? Speciality restaurants? Hot rock lounges overlooking the water? The potential is as boundless as the ocean.
If it's important to have Nutella dispensers on the ship, P&O has you covered. Fancy a cruise to the Melbourne Cup? No problem - Carnival Spirit will sail from Sydney on November 4 on a six-night racing-themed cruise and fares include entry to both the Melbourne Cup and Oaks Day, plus advice on backing a winner and dressing like one.
Doing the research yourself can be a lot of fun but you'll probably end up totally confused and drowning in brochures and websites. Or you can chat to a cruise agent, who's eaten at the restaurants, been down the waterslides and sipped the cocktails created by bionic bartenders.
If you are departing from Australia, the most affordable destinations are the South Pacific, New Zealand and Australia itself, largely because you may not have to fly to get to your ship. For internal Australian cruises you won't need a passport.
Asia is also at the affordable end of the scale and more and more cruise ships are heading there to service the growing Asian market, which keeps fares down. Airfares to Asia aren't prohibitive and accommodation, tours, and well, everything, cost less than in Europe or North America.
Mid-priced destinations include the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and Alaska, which are st
ill reasonably-priced due to high volumes and competition. Cuba and South America are emerging destinations in the mid-range space and both are easily reached by ships based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
More expensive destinations such as Antarctica and the Arctic are typically serviced by smaller vessels and most cruise lines offer all-inclusive fares for polar destinations, including excursions on to the ice.
EXPERT TIP: Book at least 12 months in advance and look for promotions and early-bird airfare sales. Also keep an eye out for cruise package deals that include flights, accommodation, transfers and tours, as these can save you money and time.
CHOOSE YOUR CABIN
Typically you will have the choice of an inside cabin (some of these may even have a virtual ocean view window), a cabin with an actual window, a cabin with a balcony or a top-end suite.
While fares vary from ship to ship, indicative prices on a budget cruise per person, per day, range from about $170 for an inside cabin to $210 for an ocean view cabin to $220 for a balcony cabin. This is in the vicinity of what you might pay for a hotel room, and that's before you eat or go out on land.
Generally, the more expensive the cabin, the more inclusions and bonuses attached. These could be in the form of beverage deals, prepaid gratuities (tips), shore trip credits, on-board spending credit, hotel accommodation, cabin upgrades, and cheap or even free airfares.
EXPERT TIP: Many passengers say a balcony cabin is money well spent for the access to fresh air, an uninterrupted view and the privacy of your own little nook.
Fares for budget and mid-range cruises include all meals, non-alcoholic drinks, port charges and government fees.
Luxury cruise inclusions often extend to larger cabins with better furnishings, a higher staff-to-guest ratio, access to specialty restaurants on the ship, gratuities, alcohol and extra comforts such as pillow menus and even private butlers.
Further, many high-end cruises operate on smaller, boutique ships that can access smaller ports and often stay longer. You might compare it to the difference between three-star and five-star hotels - you still get a comfy bed but pay extra for the pampering.
Most shipboard activities and entertainment are also included in the fare. On some cruises you may have to pay extra for adventure activities such as zip-lining across the deck or riding Segways but you may be able to buy unlimited passes for these activities for the entire cruise.
On mega-liners, such as Royal Caribbean, all adventure activities are included in the fare but they may charge more if you want extended times or personal lessons.
Stage shows are a staple on most cruises and are also free but, to paraphrase George Orwell, some shows are more equal than others.
While many ships provide their own stage shows - and these are usually bright, energetic affairs full of talented young performers - the bigger Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line ships may offer fully fledged Broadway spectaculars such as Jersey Boys or Grease. When you consider how much it costs to see these shows on land, the fare looks even better. And you can see a show every night.
Comedy shows are a regular feature on Carnival and P&O and bookings for these cruises reflect their popularity.
EXPERT TIP: Book as many activities as you can on your pre-cruise personaliser to get the times and dates you want. You may also avoid queues or missing out altogether.
Cruise lines know their ports well and research the excursions extensively. They go to great lengths to provide authentic local experiences, reputable tour operators and value for money. Shore excursions usually include transfers from and back to the ship, a snack or meal and approved guides. There's also the security of knowing the ship won't leave until you're safely back on board.
Some cruise lines are even confident enough to offer a "best price guarantee" for their tours.
EXPERT TIP: Detailed excursion descriptions are usually available and it's a good idea to lock them in before you board to ensure you get the ones you want.
You never go hungry on a cruise. All meals and plenty of snacks are included in the fare but most ships also have specialty restaurants that attract a cover charge.
These premium meals generally cost about $30-$60 a head, which is still less than what landlubbers pay for similar fine dining.
Think Salt Grill by Luke Mangan on P&O, Wonderland and Chops Grille on Royal Caribbean, Nouveau and Bonsai Sushi on Carnival, The Verandah on Cunard, La Mer and Harmony on Princess, Silk Road on Crystal, and Silversea's focus on gastronomic excellence in its partnership with Relais and Chateau, to name but a few.
EXPERT TIP: There are often discounts for specialty restaurants on the first night of a cruise. And lunch may be cheaper than dinner, even though the menu is usually the same. Cheers!
If you like your ocean cruise coloured with cocktails and enjoy a nice bottle of wine with dinner, the grog bill can mount up. Tipples are mostly reasonably priced but spirits and beer usually have a lower mark-up than wine.
Most ships offer a range of beverage packages and they all have conditions. A full package covering most, if not all drinks, will set you back $80-$90 a person per day and you need to work out your likely daily consumption to calculate whether this will be value for money. (It is advisable to do this arithmetic before your fifth piña colada.)
Many cruise lines will insist both adults in a cabin take the same package. If a drinks deal is important to you, ask whether your cruise line has an "extra value fare" that includes a cheaper drinks package before you book.
These slightly higher fares may also include other benefits such as priority boarding, cheap or free Wi-Fi and on-board credit. Barista-made coffee, bottled water and soft drink packages are also available.
EXPERT TIP: If you plan to delay buying a drinks package until you get an idea of how much you are drinking and spending, don't wait too long. Some deals have to be taken for every day of the cruise, or if they allow a late buy, there must be a certain number of days left on the voyage. Check Ts & Cs.
No shopping, cooking or washing up. Your cabin serviced twice a day. The kids well-fed and entertained. How do you put a price on that? Not to mention the peace of mind and freedom they bring. There are heaps of cruise options for families and you are bound to find one, or more, to fit the kids' needs and your budget.
Most ships have kids' clubs catering for three to 17-year-olds and these are split into age groups. They are highly secure, professionally run and included in the fare. Parents often report kids didn't want to leave the clubs because they were having so much fun.
You'll pay a little more for babysitting services after hours but, as it is at home, it's money well spent.
Many cruise lines, including Royal Caribbean, Carnival, P&O and Norwegian, also cater for special-needs kids and a cruise agent can make appropriate recommendations.
EXPERT TIP: Worried about finding the kids on a big ship without mobile phone coverage? Bring (or hire) walkie talkies.
Cruising is a great-value holiday if you like fine dining, attentive service, quality entertainment, exotic cocktails, interesting people, room service, luxurious spa treatments, exciting ports of call, fresh sea air, ocean sunsets, romance, laughter, relaxation, live music, singalongs, happy children and duty-free shopping. Bon voyage!
For more travel news and inspiration sign up to Escape's newsletter.