I’m a huge fan of cruise vacations. They have a bad reputation for feeling like cattle crammed into a trailer, but that’s only true if you set your vacation up that way. I find it to be a really relaxing and quiet solo experience, and here’s how I do it.
Finding and Booking a Cruise
When picking a cruise, use the custom search at VacationsToGo.com. You have to put in your email address, but it’s totally worth it – these guys have the best search out there. You can filter by exact dates, length of cruise, departure/arrival ports, ports of call, price ranges, you name it. You can’t book your exact room through their site – you have to pick up the phone – but it’s how I narrow down which cruise I want. (I do often use them for booking too.)
Don’t focus too much on the cruise brand. For the most part, they’re all good enough, with a few standouts. Disney is more expensive, but if you’re a family, I hear it’s worth it. The kids do their thing with the boat staff all day, and adults get pampered too. A few high-end cruise brands like Silversea throw in all alcohol and tips in your cruise price. Carnival is the Wal-Mart of cruising, with plenty of screaming/yelling kids and spring breakers. Princess is mostly retirees. (I mostly cruise on Princess.)
When picking a room, I’d only recommend 3 kinds of rooms:
- Inside room – no window, no balcony, no worries. They’re phenomenal to sleep in (very dark and quiet), and when you’re awake, you’ll be out and about the ship anyway. And of course they’re cheap.
Regular balcony– forget this. Not worth the money.
- Aft balcony – hangs off the back end of the ship. No wind, so you can leave the window open all night. The wake off the back sounds like waves crashing on a beach. The tail end does mean exaggerated motion, though, so if you’re prone to seasickness, stick with rooms in the middle of the ship. Cheap, but sells out fast, and not all ships have them.
- Huge suite with balcony – at a really high price tier (think $10k+), you get a hot tub, outdoor dining area, and a butler who brings you food. Once-in-a-lifetime splurge.
Aft balconies are far and away my favorite – I actually pick my cruises based on the availability of cheap aft balcony cabins. I end up spending almost the entire cruise back there, watching the world go by, thinking and writing.
If you book excursions through the cruise ship, you’re likely going to be on a bus full of tourists, moved around like cattle. This isn’t an experience I enjoy, but on the plus side, they work like clockwork. If the cruise-managed excursion is late, they hold the boat for you.
The alternative is booking independent excursions – either ahead of time, or when you step foot on the dock. Do not do the latter. Check out CruiseCritic’s forums for advice on your particular destination, or use Google search confined to CruiseCritic.com. Lots of valuable advice on those forums. Independent excursions are usually more intimate, slow-paced, cheaper, and off the beaten path – but there are risks.
If an independent excursion is late, the cruise ship is leaving without you. It’s your responsibility to catch up with the ship at the next port, on your dime. If the independent excursion doesn’t show up, you’re just out of luck – the cruise line isn’t going to do anything for you. (It’s happened to me.)
That said, my best memories are from independent excursions, especially Alaskan bear-watching tours with Island Wings, so they’re pretty much all I do now.
What Clothes to Pack for a Cruise
There’s a traveling joke that says pack half the clothes and twice the money, but on cruises, don’t fall for it.
- For warm cruises (Mexico, Bahamas, etc) – pack nothing but t-shirts, shorts, and swim trunks. Don’t bother with pants. You’re on vacation.
- For Alaska cruises, pack lots of layers that can easily be added/removed. The outer layer needs to be very light rain gear, including a hat.
- No matter where you’re going, only bring comfortable footwear that you’ve already broken in. You’re going to be hoofing it a lot – this matters.
Bring a lightweight waterproof backpack. In hot climates, this is for your towels, sunscreen, and water. In Alaska, it’s for the camera and the layers you’ll remove as you’re hiking around.
Boarding, Drinking, and Eating
If you drink booze, get an unlimited drink plan. Pick a bar – my favorite is usually the aft bar looking out the back of the ship, because it’s generally an adult area and less windy. As soon as you find a friendly bartender, give ’em a twenty. They’re going to be your buddy through the entire trip, so take care of them throughout.
You have three food options: the buffet, the sit-down restaurants, and the extra-charge sit-down restaurants.
At the buffet, you can be as healthy or unhealthy as you want. You’re never going to find a better selection of fruit, veggies, and vegetarian food. On a recent cruise, I accidentally got into the vegetarian buffet line, and I ended up going back most of the trip because it was so doggone good. (Lots of curries and stews.)
The sit-down restaurants are a little more formal in the sense that you have a waiter, but people still show up in jeans and t-shirts – this isn’t the Titanic. The food quality is just night and day better in the sit-down restaurants, but you’re usually stuck at a table with other folks, and that’s a dice roll. If I’m going to sit down and have a slow meal, this option just isn’t my bag.
The extra-charge restaurants are a stunning deal. Yes, they cost around $15-$50 per person, depending on the restaurant, but it will be the best bang for the buck you’ve ever had on a vacation. You don’t want to eat like this every night – it’s going to be a big meal – but it’s a nice experience. As soon as you board the ship, make reservations for one of these places for the very first night if you can. That way, you’ll understand if you want to come back additional nights. (They usually fill up quickly.)
If you’re worried about the restaurant costs, save your money by not buying the ship’s Internet. You came here to have a vacation, remember? Forget surfing the web.
Which brings me to my most valuable advice: bring a notepad and a pen. After the first day or two of watching the world go by, you’ll be in a different mental place. That’s when it’s time to ask yourself the big questions, and build yourself a big plan.
I cruise on Holland America and love it. Been to Europe and Alaska, looking to do the Panama Canal next. Pretty much everything you said is spot on. The extra charge restaurants are amazing. Tipping the bartender is good. I also find $2 bills to be very useful. They are rare, so waiters remember you when you slip them one. I would recommend trying to stick with a particular cruise line if you find one you like, because they all offer frequent-cruiser programs where you get perks like discounts, early boarding, and others.
Just realized my picture was taken in the sit down dining room on a cruise 🙂