(This article by Mark Cantrell originally appeared in Military Officer, a magazine available to all MOAA Premium and Life members. Learn more about the magazine here; learn more about joining MOAA here; learn more about MOAA's vacation options, including cruises, here.)
Many of today's cruise ships are opulent oceangoing cities, where your biggest risk is blowing your diet. Cruising was once an extravagance reserved for the wealthy, but today, despite all their amenities, the price of most cruises is within the budget of the average middle-class American. That's reflected in the numbers: According to the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), 26.7 million people worldwide cruised in 2017.
What's the big draw? “One word comes to mind: simplicity,” says Sherry Laskin, editor of the blogs Cruise Maven and Guide to River Cruising. “You don't need to constantly unpack and then repack when you're visiting different destinations around the world. Everything is taken care of, and if you want to be independent and go out on your own while in port, you can do that as well.”
If you haven't been cruising for a few years, you might be in for a few surprises, notes Colleen McDaniel, senior executive editor of Cruise Critic, an online site that reviews and rates cruises. For one thing, most are a lot less formal than they used to be. “Cruise lines have done away with much of the pomp and circumstance,” she says. “Formal nights are often optional, and dress codes are far more lenient to support a casual onboard environment.”
If you had assigned seating for dinner on previous cruises, you'll be interested to find you no longer have to sit with a table of strangers if you don't want to. Today's flexible seating means you can eat when - and with whom - you desire. And you don't have to eat in the dining room: Pizza parlors, the ship's buffet, and specialty restaurants offer other options.
Ships also are getting bigger, and now dwarf some of the largest liners of even a decade ago. Royal Caribbean's 228,081-ton Symphony of the Seas, for example, boasts 22 restaurants, 42 bars and lounges, theaters, an ice rink, and a zip line. At 1,188 feet long and over 215 feet wide - longer than aircraft carrier USS Gerald Ford (CVN-78) - it's currently the world's largest cruise ship. All that space allows cruise lines to pack their vessels with all manner of attractions, from onboard water parks to robot bartenders that can produce two drinks a minute while still listening to you boast about your slot machine winnings.
[RELATED: More about MOAA cruises]
What to Expect
If you've never cruised before, all the choices can be overwhelming. As McDaniel puts it, “There's a cruise for everyone, but not every cruise is for everyone.” Fortunately, cruise ships come in all sizes and configurations, and the smaller ships tend to be more laid-back and welcoming to those who prefer a more leisurely pace.
For first-timers, Cruise Critic recommends doing extensive research before settling on a ship and itinerary. You'll want to plan what to pack, which shore excursions you'd like to take, whether to book onboard activities in advance, which documents to bring, whether you need a passport, and how much you want to spend on alcohol, gifts, and other shipboard expenses. You'll be issued a swipe card that acts as a credit card while you're on the ship, and if you don't keep track of your spending, you could get an expensive surprise when the final bill comes due.
“Be aware of hidden costs - gratuities, bottled water, alcohol, and shore excursions,” Laskin advises. “Specialty dining can add hundreds of dollars to your cruise if you're not prepared.”
When booking a cruise for the first time, McDaniel recommends using a cruise-certified travel agent. “They're able to walk you through the complexities and make personalized recommendations based on your needs,” she explains. Best of
all, because cruise lines cover their fees, their services are usually free.
Something for Everyone
Why take a cruise instead of another kind of vacation? “You're able to create a completely personalized experience that can change from day to day,” says McDaniel. “If you want a relaxing vacation, you can book a cruise. If you'd like an active trip, book a cruise. Want great dining? Book a cruise. Want to do it all in the same trip? You can - if you book a cruise. The ability to customize a cruise to your own desires feels luxurious, but without the luxury price tag.”
For Laskin, the best part is just getting away from it all: “To be out at sea, standing on your private balcony on a moonlit night, breathing in the sea air and just enjoying the peacefulness of the moment.”
Plan Your Trip with MOAA: Contact the experts at MOAA Vacations for the lowest price, free onboard amenities, and excellent service. We provide service on every cruise line and every ship. Call toll-free at (800) 211-5107 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to ask about MOAA group departures.