Cruise Culture: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Tourism

By Nomadic Matt | Published July 19th, 2012

statue in Stockholm SwedenLast month, I took my first cruise as an adult (previous cruises had been with my parents) and found it to be a very culturally eye-opening experience.

I broke completely out of my norm of independent travel and stepped curiously into mass consumer travel. Instead of hostels, figuring out local buses, and street food stalls, it was a lush stateroom, endless buffets, and planned events. Instead of young and independent travelers, it was families celebrating anniversaries, birthdays, and quinceañeras.

And while you may not learn about your destinations on a cruise (more on that in a bit), you learn a lot about people. I discovered that there is a distinct cruise culture — a culture that makes for incredibly interesting people watching. Since for a lot of people a cruise is their only form of travel, it was interesting to hear about travel and the world from those who see it through a highly-sterilized and commercialized experience.

After all, a cruise is a resort meets Disney World on the sea.

Things That Amazed Me

First, there was formal night, a night where you dress up for a “nice dinner.” It was like going to adult prom. Everyone was dressed to the nines– I even saw people in tuxes. Families were taking portraits (including the classic “back-to-back mother/daughter shot”), and teenage girls celebrating their quinceañeras ran around in prom dresses and tiaras. I remember overhearing one guy say that formal night on a cruise is the only time of the year he dresses up. But what really interested me was that for so many people, this seemed like a big event despite the overrated cheese factor. I can’t really figure out why people loved it so much. It’s just a formal night on a cruise. You get lobster instead of steak, and it’s not like those pictures they take are free.

I felt that people made a big deal of the night because you were supposed to make a big deal of it.

Secondly, I was amazed that cruises were such family events. My cruise buddy Jason, a more experienced cruiser than I, told me that there are actually only a few boats for singles or young people. Most ships tend to be populated by families or older adults. Thinking about all my cruise experiences, I can see that. What I really found interesting was the nature of families here: tons and tons of large, extended family. Our stateroom was surrounded by a family that took up 7 rooms. At dinner, one family took up 3 large tables. Everywhere I looked I saw large families. Cruises, it seems, are where families go to travel. I guess it is the new family reunion.

enjoying life on a cruise

Because cruises for that many people cost a lot of money, it made me wonder – do people know they could head to Paris for far less? Do they even care? Or do they cruise because it’s an easy, organized way to get everyone in one spot?

For most of the people I spoke with, a cruise was just a simpler and easier way to organize a large family gathering than a massive trip to Paris.

And in talking to people what I really learned was that travel and vacation were synonymous words for them. This was their vacation, but in their mind, this was also traveling. Forget the fact they never left “the resort”, to most people on a cruise this was travel.

And I think that’s unfortunate. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a vacation, but to think that heading to a mass consumer destination is the same thing as travel is not a good thing. Just like heading to Vang Vieng and saying “I’ve been to Laos” is bad, so is heading to a cruise port or an all-inclusive resort. It sterilizes the destination and hides the local culture. You aren’t really experiencing Mexico when you are in Señor Frogs, but it was amazing to me how many people expressed the idea that “Mexico is awesome!” while there.

I think there is a distinct difference between travel and a vacation. The first is about experiencing the world, the latter about relaxing.

The Dark Side of Cruise Culture

enjoying life on a cruise
On the one hand, I think cruise culture is interesting because it’s always about having fun, keeping a drink in your hand, eating, and meeting new people. It’s a very happy and lively atmosphere. And that’s good.

But there is the dark side to cruise culture – it’s insular. For a lot of people, a cruise is their only chance to get out and see the world. It might be their only chance to experience other cultures, especially since most Americans don’t travel a lot. And what I didn’t like about the cruise was that it was so inwardly focused with everything designed around never looking outside the ship. I disliked how there was no emphasis on learning about the destinations we were going to.

In Haiti, when I started asking my Haitian tour guide in Labadee about life beyond the wall (in Labadee, Royal Caribbean’s private resort, there is a double walled, barbed wire fence keeping people out and us in), he became visibly uncomfortable about discussing it as if it was taboo to discuss “things that happen over there.”

Now, we don’t need to have a discussion on Haitian, Mexican, or Jamaican politics (the three ports of call on my cruise), but I don’t see why cruises couldn’t at least offer some basic information about their ports of call. There was nothing in our daily itinerary planner about our destinations. (Jason confirmed that this happened on many other ships too.)

In a way, I felt like the ports of call were completely irrelevant. If there’s no effort to inform travelers about their destinations, why not just park the boat somewhere close to a beach and stay there? Why make a show of it?

We Americans don’t travel much. Our news programs don’t seem to report on a lot beyond what Miley Cyrus is doing. I know this is going to seem offensive, and I don’t mean it to be, but cruises have a definite “Middle America” feel to them. (I use that term because “Middle America” is often considered synonymous with consumerism.) Cruises are a highly commercialized and sanitized experience; they gloss over the reality of each destination to create a bubbly, you-don’t-need-to-think-about-it picture. That’s something I really hate about American culture. It’s often very insular and this seemed to perpetuate that attitude.

enjoying life on a cruise

I met people who have never traveled beyond a cruise. Folks who went on cruises two or three times per year. And while there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a cruise, what I learned on the ship is that cruises seem to cater to a superficial, turn-off-your-mind form of travel. (Writing this post made me realize that I saw the exact same thing on my old Carnival cruises, so I’m not trying to single out Royal Caribbean.)

I’m happy people are leaving their houses. That is a step in the right direction. I’d rather have someone on a cruise than at home. While we all need a vacation, cruise companies could at least provide some fundamental knowledge about the ports of call they stop at. Shit, print out the Wikipedia page for heaven’s sake. Anything is better than nothing.

Instead, I felt that many of the folks on cruise ships had no idea about the world and cruises were more than happy to oblige people and support that attitude. Note: Not all cruises are like this. There are many wildlife and nature cruises that have naturalists and lectures on them.

A lot of people write off cruises because of the sanitized, Disney feel to them and I definitely picked up on the carefree vibe. I’ll definitely go on a cruise again because I enjoyed tuning out. For once I enjoyed not traveling. (And in that vein, all-inclusive resorts are probably in my future, too.) There’s nothing wrong with wanting to sit by the pool with a drink in your hand. That’s all I wanted.

But for that family whose only experience out of the country is this one cruise? I think the cruise lines should at the very least provide some basic information about the destinations they visit. There should at least be the option to learn more about the local culture so that family could walk away with some knowledge of the local area beyond that it has zip-line tours, some ruins, and cheap drinks.

Then again, maybe I’m assuming that people care and want to learn more about their ports of call rather than drown their brains in frozen piña coladas.

They might not, which might be why cruise ships don’t provide anything beyond mindless entertainment.

But that thought depresses me too much.

I’d rather think there is still hope.

comments 44 Comments

I went on a cruise with my family right before I started college and I hated it! At the time, I couldn’t quite pinpoint why I hated it so much, but now it is abundantly clear: I hated being stuck on a boat. I wanted to explore the destinations more than what was allowed. As I’ve gotten older, I realize that I am a traveler, not a vacationer. Travel is a challenge and I love it. I can’t say I’ll ever step foot on another cruise ship, nor am I interested in dropping money on an all-inclusive resort. They can take their towel animals and 24 hour pizza buffet and shove it! :-)

Great post Matt! I feel the same way about cruises, you really can’t call it travelling. Cruising is probably the height of mass tourism. Its also one of the least responsible forms of tourism considering as most cruise ships hire foreign staff and very little money is actually spent at the destination. The destination is just ancillary. Its all about the consumption.

Joey

I never thought I’d go on a cruise until I started looking into options for Hawaii for my honeymoon. The cruise was the cheapest way I could find (5.5 years ago) to see 4 islands. It was at an island each day so it felt more like a floating hotel than a cruise.

I did a second cruise a few years ago that my brother chose and didn’t enjoy it that much. In Grand Turk we were on a beach that had a security-checked entry point to the shops and beach area. It sucked, so my wife and I figured out a way past the walls and onto the road leading in. In Nassau on the same cruise, we asked our cab driver/impromptu tour guide to take us to the local neighborhoods and tell us about them. It was such a different side than what you see at Paradise Island.

We’re going on a 3rd cruise this winter, which is paid for by my in-laws (coincidentally, it’s the exact same cruise you just went on). I’m excited for the relaxation, but am trying to figure out a way to actually see more than what’s at the ports.

In other words, great points about the distinction between travel and vacation!

Thanks for the post, Matt. Basically confirmed my preconceived notions about cruises. Q: Would you consider going on another cruise if it was more focused on the places you were going to visit and gave a more realistic picture of the destination countries?

Scripted Adventures

While I agree with much of your view on cruises, I also know that there are a variety of small cruise lines that sail with expert naturalists, lecturers and even language coaches to enhance the experience in port for travelers. These ships often stay more than one night in each port and certainly do not own their own islands, the most sterile and off-putting creation in all of vacationland! I am planning a cruise around the coast of Spain next fall where I will be able to shop in local markets with the chef’s staff and visit the kitchen as I desire. Before the cruise we plan to rent an apartment and spend 2 weeks dining in Spain’s great restaurants. I will put this trip in my travel column.

I was interested in seeing what you thought of cruises after your experience. Do I agree with you? I’ll say this – last year, I wrote a post called “3 vacations that I won’t take.” A cruise is one of those three. I followed that up with why I don’t like all inclusive cruises.

In both of those posts, I echoed your sentiments.

I agree with pretty much every reason you listed. People don’t get to experience a local culture on a cruise. They get short stops at destinations and see all the tourist sites and shop before heading back on the ship. Some cruises are cheap but many are expensive. There are better, more affordable ways to see the world.

This isn’t a comment to knock cruises. I know I am not the only one who feels this way but cruising feels like “faux travel.” It’s the illusion that you are traveling because you leave home but you don’t really get to experience the world. I think people miss out on a lot if they just go on cruises.

You did a cruise for a vacation. That’s great. Cruises are PERFECT for a vacation. I have no problem with people who enjoy cruises. However, if that’s the only way people travel then I think they are really missing out on better travel experiences.

Your article makes me remember a conversation I had with a co-worker years ago. She had gone on a cruise with her family to Central America and was shocked that the cruise company used Roatan, Honduras as a port of call. “Why do the cruises go to such poor places” was her comment. She wasn’t very happy that her young child had to see some of these impoverished areas – she didn’t find it appropriate. Instead of looking at is an educational moment she was complaining about it. I know not all folks are like that, but that shows some of the mentality out there. Cruises are a big resort floating on water.

I totally agree there’s a difference between vacation and travel and you CAN balance both. I worked on cruises, have gone to Dominican and Mexico at all-inclusives to relax but have also travelled independently in Europe and Asia for culture, exploration and education.

After working on cruises, I won’t ever go on a cruise as a passenger. It was more fun as a crew member (world experience of its own – 60 different nationalities, over 1000 crew members on my ship). Cruises are mainly for families and retirees and I enjoy seeing a destination both day and at night – totally different experience. Most cruises to the Caribbean dock around 8am and leave by 5pm. Sad actually.

Great post, Matt. Having a few dozen cruises under my belt it’s a lot easier to see the mass appeal. It boils down to having to unpack once and hitting all these destinations (educational or not) — and at the end of the day coming back to something folks are comfortable with.

A lot of Americans are still scared as hell to go overseas or even get on a plane. There’s 21 ports around that US that folks can drive to without stepping foot on a plane. Convenience is huge.

Great post. I completely agree with what you said about cruise ships providing more information on their ports of call. The only way I can rationalize why they wouldn’t is that maybe they assume the people on the cruise already did their research on the destinations ahead of time, hence why they chose this particular cruise. In all reality though, that is probably not the case. And thanks for the laugh – “Shit, print out the Wikipedia page for heaven’s sake. Anything is better than nothing.” I have been on three Royal Caribbean cruises and they were all wonderfully relaxing and enjoyable, but I agree that they are a far cry from what I consider “traveling.” (The one exception is that on the Baltic cruise we were able to take a full day tour of St. Petersburg without having to worry about visas, which was very nice. I probably would not have gone to Russia if it weren’t for that.) Thanks for the great posts!

I couldn’t express my own feelings about large cruise ships any better if I tried, and I love the distinction between “vacation” and “travel”. I’ve often referred to cruises as a vacation in a can. The appeal to families is certainly understandable, but I often feel trapped on a cruise ship no matter how many activities and buffets they offer.

The only exception to this (sort of) that I’ve experienced is an Alaskan cruise that I took years ago. It certainly had the cheese factor of other cruises with the silly formal dinners and whatnot, but it also provided exposure to nature, wildlife, and aspects of Alaskan culture that I haven’t experienced on cruises in other places. Then again, maybe that’s because no one feels the need to separate passengers from locals with tons of concrete and barbed wire…

Loved reading your post and your updates while you were actually onboard. I cruise once a year and also throw in USA and international travel each year for a balance.

I love my annual cruises for 3 main reasons:
1. I don’t have to think about anything once onboard, making it 100% relaxing.
2. They are cheap. When I can get a private room, food, stellar service, some entertainment, and transportation (including airfare!) for $700pp, it’s hard to complain.
3. I cruise with my sister, giving us a great chance to reconnect without imposing on someone’s home. With no stress on things like driving directions, we don’t end up bickering and we can easily spend as much or as little time together as we choose.

That said, I do my own research ahead of time to make sure I don’t end up at Senor Frogs during the day. While I’ve had plenty of fun on sea days, I head out to do my own thing in port, with past experiences ranging from eating lunch at a local home, hiking in Alaskan forests, and learning how to use a machete to open coconuts and whack down sugarcane. Is it 100% authentic? No, since you only have 8 hours to explore, but with a little effort it is possible to get away from bars and souvenir shops.

Cruising is far from perfect and I’d never choose it when my goal was experiencing a specific destination, but it does fit into one of my needs of downtime and spending time with family while still offering a few teases of local culture. Glad you got to try it out and share the good and the bad with us.

I did the “sistah” cruise thing too. It was a great way to reconnect with my far flung two sisters—we even had a bunk bed. It didn’t take us long to fall into our childhood patterns. Apparently, I’m a bossy oldest sister, but the prickly middle one got to choose her bunk first.

I also agree that to a large extent, a cruise is what you make it.

Thanks, Matt. Your description of cruises is one of the many reasons that I have not chosen to take a cruise, at least not at this stage of my life. As someone who was born in the Caribbean; whose family still lives there; and who has traveled an fair amount (I guess), I am often disappointed at how travel/tourism in the Caribbean is structured. I have had people tell me that they’ve been to my island homeland only for them to tell me a few minutes later that they never left their resort (and that they really liked the beach. Hey, I like it to. I don’t blame them). I’m glad that they had a good time, but it’s sad to me that they and the country’s tourist board don’t take the time to highlight its rich cultural history as well as its gorgeous beaches. To me it sends a message to visitors that there is no culture to speak of, and there is nothing to experience beyond the beach. I tell people that I would never go to Paris and sit in my hotel or by the pool all day and then say I went to Paris. While I agree that people who choose to go on cruises like this are looking for a particular experience and have made that choice, I also would not want to patronize tourism companies who choose to structure their itineraries and activities in this way. These companies are making a value judgment about the locales they tour. If the entities wanted to provide cultural excursions that highlighted local life, then they would. Unfortunately many of these smaller island have not developed their own economic structures and so will do almost anything for tourism dollars and local development. Maybe I’ll go on a cruise like this someday, but I’ll look for other ways to experience the world for now.

I guess this is why they make vanilla and chocolate ice cream. I agree that a cruise is more like a “rest” than a travel vacation although I’ve had some interesting experiences on cruises to Spanish speaking countries. That may be because I speak Spanish and can usually get tour guides “off script” to discuss the issues of the day in their country, city, etc. It’s also interesting to get their take on the U.S.

I think cruises are perfect for extended family reunions or co-vacations because everyone can go their separate ways during the day and do excursions for their own fitness level and then reconvene for dinner. We did a Celebrity cruise in Alaska (7 days from Seward to Vancouver (yes, I know Vancouver is in Canada). There is no way any of us would have been likely to visit places like Sitka or Juneau any other way–especially the 85 year old great grandma. As the organizer of the family trip, it was a relief when I finally got them all aboard. Before that, it was like herding cats.

I’ve been on a Celebrity cruise that surprisingly offered “enrichment” classes in things other than napkin folding.

While your post seems accurate to me in many regards, it’s also a somewhat elitist point of view–(yes, I’m an elitist too). Many Americans get two weeks of vacation a year, if that. For them, a cruise provides a safe opportunity for them to rest and play and a chance to at least see a little of new places.

Lastly, if you sit down and actually converse with some of your fellow passengers, that can be an eye-opening experience itself. We once went on a cruise that left from Charleston, South Carolina. My husband and I were assigned to a dinner table for 8 and we were the only non-South Carolians—and the only non-gun owners. These people were still fighting “The War of Northern Aggression”! I can’t imagine that we would ever have had the chance to sit down and have dinner with them for 7 nights any way other than on a cruise.

See, now this brings up excellent points. Some people would never get to even SEE some areas of the world if it were not for a cruise. And how can you fault a cruise liner for that? Plus, having a central “location” for people (such as in family reunions) where everyone can group together or go off separately for awhile is a wonderful dynamic. But I especially loved being able to sit at the same table with people from an entirely different socio-political region: you’re right, when would that have happened otherwise? And that brings a fantastic opportunity to the table (literally) both all of you.

That’s why I think there is definitely some good to be said for cruises, especially by way of a social perspective. It all just depends on what you are seeking to gain from your experience.

Jeff

I totally agree! The Disney cruise I went on was even more over the top because, well, it’s Disney.

While I do enjoy some good poolside/beach time with a drink. I would get bored pretty quickly–as in I couldn’t do it for a week straight.

Instead I prefer a nice mix of historical/cultural sights, great food, nice weather and beaches etc. Italy fits this perfectly. We’ll see how my trip to Greece turns out in 3 weeks!

But back to cruises, some of my friends want to go on a gay cruise (yup I play for that team) but I am kind of reluctant. I imagine all it will be is a bunch of older gay men that look nothing like the company advertisements (we can’t all be models right?) and party drugs and promiscuous sex. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but my idea of travel isn’t the Palm Springs White Party on a boat

Loved this, Matt. I majored in Journalism in college, with an emphasis on sociological media perspectives, and this article seems like one discussion material straight out of one of my seminar classes. I know your point is about the insularity of cruises, but I find it so fascinating because it ties directly into the American mindset, and thus, the profile of the standard American traveler. Our nation has become The United States of Me; Americans’ ideas of travel include a pampered luxury resort (or cruise) where they can relax, unwind, suck down alcohol, and soak up sun. In other words: vacation. And that’s fine – but there is a very big gap between vacation and travel, and I’m not quite sure when or where they became socially synonymous.

A cruise taking you around exotic destinations is appealing, but far fewer people would sign up for it if the ship on which they traveled to these destinations didn’t have a pool, onboard entertainment, or never-ending food and alcohol. They just want to say “I went to Jamaica.” So they book a ticket on a luxury liner, but they never immerse themselves in the cultures they are visiting. They don’t meet the locals, they don’t try the food, they probably never hear the language – they simply step onshore, and if they are lucky, see a polished and manufactured list of tourist trap attractions. They might as well sit at home and “travel” on Google Earth.

Unfortunately, as you pointed out, that’s a hopeless circle of chicken versus egg: Americans (and I’m grouping us together, rather unfairly) don’t care to learn about their destinations, so the ships provide “mindless entertainment.” And ships provide “mindless entertainment,” so Americans don’t care to learn about their destinations. Who can really be blamed?

Like you, I’m not trying to insult cruises. For a getaway, a vacation, and a break from everyday life, being pampered and provided with everything at your fingertips is refreshing and revitalizing. But for purposes of actually exploring and experiencing the places where the ship stops, it leaves one sorely remiss.

And I’m sorry for hijacking your thread comments with my own soapbox rant here. I will step down now. :)

Meant to say “leaves one sorely amiss.” lol

I love cruises. When I first started working, it was our first form of “travel.” It was safe, everything was arranged for you. You have nothing to worry about. It was the perfect vacation. Then, my husband and I started to want more from our experience and we haven’t gone back to cruises since then. I did tell my husband that when we really need a break and just want ultimate pampering, we’re going on a cruise. Now, that’s a vacation. Where you don’t have to do or even think about anything.

What does this type of cruise cost typically? I’ve priced cruises in the Pacific – and you could fly to an island and stay at super 5 star resort and eat yourself stupid and still have change. They are horribly expensive .

I always saw mid-market cruises as somewhat economical, so I looked up a random 7 day cruise leaving from Bayonne, New Jersey on Celebrity on October 20, 2012 that ends in Puerto Rico. For an inside cabin, the cruise cost for two people would be $1,100 ($549 pp). For an ocean view cabin for two, the price would be $1,500 ($749 pp). Millions of people would be able to drive to Bayonne and save that airfare. However, they would have to get home from Puerto Rico. This cruise has three days at sea and stops at three islands before PR. Of course, this probably doesn’t include tips, alcohol and excursions.

Ju

Great post, Matt, I can definitely see your point, even though I’ve never been on a cruise. I believe you’ll have similar thoughts whenever you decide to embrace a vacation at an all-inclusive resort… I had my first experience on January, 2012, when I went to this kind of hotels on a 2-week trip to Cuba. I found that it was sometimes hard to get pass all the resort ‘attractions’, but what really surprised me was that only a few people were interested in doing so. In my case, I tried to balance some days laying on the beach with plenty of out-of-the-resort-area outings, where I could learn a lot about Cuban history and culture (to my advantage, Spanish is my mother tongue, so I may have had it a little bit easier, but I don’t think I would have had any less experiences if that hadn’t been the case). Anyway, I’m not planning to stay again at an all-inclusive facility any time soon… it just isn’t for me.
I hope the appartment hunt is going better, enjoy Stockholm! (such a beautiful city…). Best,
Julieta

PS: I think you’ll appreciate this short anecdote: while on a short excursion to Santiago de Cuba, right after introducing himself, the guide said: “I don’t think any of you travelled this far just to sunbathe and take pictures, so we are going to talk a lot about Cuba”. And he delivered. Such an uplifting remark put a smile into my face.

This is not a bad article except the obvious negative bias where you repeatedly express the thought that other people should not like things that you don’t like. How many times did you say “I can’t believe how much fun people seemed to be having, I mean it’s just a ____?”

If people are having fun, there is nothing wrong with that. I will give you a good example. I absolutely hate video games. I think they are nothing but a waste of time. You learn nothing, you go nowhere, you don’t even develop social skills – just the opposite. You develop skills that are of no use to you or society. But who says every moment in life has to be filled with contributing to society? If you enjoy a video game what is the harm in playing them? As long as you don’t get addicted (and that DOES happen).

I have spent years on cruise ships. I also do not enjoy the big, insular cruise experience. But the way you kept saying “cruises are” is just plain wrong. I guarantee you I could find you a cruise you would LOVE. There are places in this world best accessed by boat. Alaska, Greek Isles, Hawaii, South Pacific…

A seven-day expedition cruise on Innersea Discoveries in Alaska would have you wowed with whales and glacier watching. And guess what, you can’t hike or drive to glacier bay, or to whale’s feeding grounds.

There are also dozens of cruise ships in Europe that visit a port of call daily – with TONS of information about each port. Even in the Caribbean in general the information is there if you want it. I have been on tours in the Caribbean that drove all over the entire island, to every place of importance all in one day.

By happenstance (and a real traveler should know this) the places your ship stopped are not frequented by “independent travelers”. Haiti is on the official State Dept. “not recommended for US tourists” lists. The only reason you ever got to Haiti at all (unless you volunteer to build homes) is because your cruise line has an agreement with the government to own a private peninsula that is cut off from the regular residents. Please look it up.

Jamaica is dangerous to tourists, no one goes there just to hang out. The only tourist destinations are insulated enclaves like all-inclusive resorts. But I have taken ship tours on Jamaica to go zip-lining in the rain forest and horseback riding on horses that even swim in the ocean with you on their backs.

Had you gone to Grand Cayman, Curacao, St. Lucia or any number of other Caribbean islands I guarantee you could have rented a car, seen the island, gone snorkeling, eaten local food, etc. And the people to help you do that are on the pier or in the shore excursion department on board.

Try a European cruise on Oceania’s Marina, with a different port every single day and gourmet food (Michelin chef) and Ralph Lauren sheets at night, better than sleeping on a straw mattress in a youth hostel.

So, just because YOUR cruise was the way it was, stop painting the industry with a broad brush. Its as if I took a trip to Mexico and found poverty and broken down homes and wrote an article that says “independent travel sucks – never go anywhere on your own.” In other words – you just sampled a microcosm of something and applied your impressions to an entire genre of travel.

We travel several times a year with our kids and take the occasional cruise. Over a number of years we have been on a total of 5 cruises. Two were in the Caribbean and I didn’t particularly care for them and would agree with some of your conclusions about cruises and cruisers on these trips.

We have also cruised in Alaska, the Baltics and the Mediterranean and I see them as completely different types of trips. On these trips the cruise lines had experts on board to provide lectures and information about the ports of call. For example, on our most recent cruise on Celebrity in the Mediterranean there was a Smithsonian lecture series that I attended and found highly informative. Also on these cruises, I have done my research ahead of time and know what we want to do in port. When we dock, our family hits the ground running either sightseeing independently or hiring a private guide and we manage to see quite a bit in one day (or occasionally two).

There is little doubt that we don’t get to fully experience a destination but we do get enough of a taste to know whether or not we would like to return on a land-based trip. For example, we cruised in the Baltics when my daughters were 12 and 6 and at the time I wouldn’t have considered going to any of those countries on an extended trip however we absolutely fell in love with Stockholm, Copenhagen and Oslo and will definitely return on our own. There are also places that we would like to visit that can only be accessed by cruise ship such as the Galapagos Islands and the Norwegian Fjords.

Cruising is not the ideal way to see the world, and I certainly wouldn’t want to do it exclusively, but we do enjoy mixing one in with our other travels from time to time. It is definitely a very convenient way to travel with kids and I suspect that there are parents who would be afraid to travel abroad with their kids otherwise so for them it’s a good way to try something different while still having the familiar comfort of the cruise ship to come home to every night.

“Then again, maybe I’m assuming that people care and want to learn more about their ports of call rather than drown their brains in frozen piña coladas.”

How I wish this were true. But I’m afraid it isn’t. Many want to bury their heads in the sand and ignore the world around them because it’s depressing to them. Ignorance is bliss in their minds.

So, while I agree with the overall sentiment of this post I disagree with a few small points —

1. I think (though I don’t know for sure) that a Caribbean cruise would likely be cheaper for a huge family than a trip to Paris. Also, the idea of traveling through a huge city with my entire family makes me shudder. I’d much rather do Paris on my own, and go on a cruise with the family!

2. You haven’t been to Vang Vieng (right?) so I don’t think you can make that statement about it. Vang Vieng has A TON of problems but in my opinion you can’t say the people there haven’t been to Laos. Sure, they’re fools if they don’t go further but to be there they’ve survived at least a five hour bus ride from hell, stayed in a guesthouse and seen some countyside! If you want to say that about Vang Vieng you have to say the same about Koh Phan Ngan, etc. Vang Vieng has issues but its not an isolated, sanitized resort like Cancun.

Definitely agree that cruises should have info about the destinations. The only cruise I’ve been on, which was with the luxury line Silversea, had tons of info on our ports via lectures, a daily newsletter, and an onboard local helping answer questions every morning. I would have missed those things if they were not part of the experience!

I guess it’s whatever floats your boat! (excuse the pun) When your travelling on a long-term basis, I’m currently blogging about my own around the world trip, you can make different choices as you know tomorrow will bring another adventure. However, if you are eating into your annual leave, you need to ensure of quality R&R time. A cruise provides this. I had a few friends work on the ships and they smashed my stereotypical view that cruising was for oldies or those of an introverted nature. Party On!

You are right, Matt. People should know more about their destinations, no matter if they go there just to sunbathe and get a drink.

Years ago I took a Med cruise on Princess with my parents and every morning there was a short film about our port of call. It wasn’t a doctoral dissertation but it did offer an overview of why this place was worth a day trip. That being said, now that my parents are gone I can say without apology I absolutely hated the cruise experience.

I know people who spend around 20K taking their family on 7-10 day cruises and it irks the crap out of me. I think it’s a stupid waste of money. But then they think I’m completely “insane” because I spend weeks on end in Mexico without the safety of a razor wire fence and room service. To each his own, right?

Have you considered a Windjammer? or something like Tropicana that takes you between Mexico and Cuba? It seems like those cruises would be pampering without the gigantic Bad Hotel On The Sea feeling. If I ever take a cruise again (outside of island hoping) I want to try the windjammer concept.

Matt, Matt, Matt, where do I start.

First of all, you’re painting cruise life with an awfully wide brush. The cruise that you chose was filled with people who wanted to be together on a vacation. There’s a reason that you’re ship didn’t provide destination information – they’re clients didn’t care. Most of them were looking for sun, sand and fun. And, that’s okay. Those Middle Americans you alluded to work hard and cruises provide an inexpensive way to relax with their families. Yes, much more inexpensive than taking the clan to Paris. Everyone can go there own way during the day and meet up again over dinner while Grandma and Grandpa beam at having their family together. And, who says it’s the cruise lines job to educate cruisers about a destination? That’s a responsibility that we should take on for ourselves. It’s sad but not everyone wants to immerse themselves in a new culture. And, I don’t think that applies to just Americans. What about all those families celebrating quinceaneras? Were they all from the U.S?

I have almost 300 nights at sea under my belt. Let me assure you that there are cruises out there providing all the destination information that you could want, both before and during the cruise. These cruise ships are filled with well-traveled people who’ve seen most of the world. Days at sea include lectures from destination experts as well as all sorts of interesting presentations. I’ve visited Siberia’s smoking volcanos by Russian army truck, taken a motorized canoe to the icy tongue of Davidson Glacier in Alaska and hiked up Plateau Mountain in Longyearbyen while my guide toted a rifle just in case a polar bear appeared. These experiences were not on adventure cruises. They were on Regent, Silversea and Seabourn.

Admittedly, small ship luxury cruises are expensive, although you can find inexpensive fares on some itineraries, especially repositionings. But, those require the time to cruise for 14 to 21 days. And, there’s a good chance that 20-somethings and 30-somethings might find the night life a bit boring, even though alcohol is included.

I have a real problem when we begin to judge someone’s definition of travel. Looking down our noses at Caribbean cruisers does nothing to encourage them to see more of the world and makes us look like travel snobs. And, be careful. That Middle American cruiser has probably traveled through much of the U.S experiencing a variety of cultures. He just might think that you aren’t well-traveled.

Ziba

I agree Matt, I love Cruises. I have been to Cruise twice. One was Bahamas and the other one was Caribbean. I enjoyed both. I experienced almost everything what you mentioned here. My next cruise would be Mediterranean cruise. I usually travel to other countries, but I will go on a Cruise to see places that I cannot travel on my own. I think it’s easier for some people to travel to some countries this way as it is safe and there are many other reasons people choose to go on a Cruise.

I like to experience everything at least once. I have traveled by plane, Cruise, ferry, train, car (I mean country to country) and I love the most is travel by train especially in Europe. It was amazing. I wish I can travel again to Europe by train and see the places I haven’t been yet. Anyway, I wish you all the best Matt.

So, the good thing about mass tourism is that it takes all those ugly Americans and insultates them from meeting the locals at their destinations. They are all corralled on board the boat, or at beaches privately owned by the cruise line, or at Senor Frogs or Margaritavilles in the tourist ghetto. Almost no chance of harm to international relations!

T

I beleive that cruise lines are just trying to protect their travellers from accidental deaths in those locations, where they take you. Afterall, you are travelling to a third world country where you can get killed for 100 bucks or less. So if you are looking for that type of adventure go ahead climb the fence!!! :-)

Ashlea

I like how you always say how you feel even if it might come across as controversial! I felt the same way at the all-inclusive resort in Mexico that we stayed at for my college “educational” trip. We would drive to different attractions and go past the nearby city and that’s where I really wanted to be! Apparently nobody else felt the same way, one girl said it looked like a scene from Call of Duty…

Nice post! I think that most people that have seen the world will agree with your perspective. However way too many are afraid to step out of their comfort zone- stay in a small town, take a public bus, visit a place where English is not the language & experience things foreign to them. For these people a cruise is the perfect place to be away but sheltered from these things.
Taking a cruise around Europe and visiting 10 countries in 10 days for 4-6 hours per visit is not the way I want to see the world. When the daily schedule revolves around what time the next buffet is, that is not how I want to spend my time!
If your goal is to relax and be catered to then a cruise is a great option.
If I didn’t get really bad seasickness, I would like to take a cruise around the Galapagos, to Antarctica and to Alaska. Odds are that these would probably not be luxury trips.

I’d love to sit on the Lido deck with you and further this discussion – just kidding. Really good piece about cruising and the cruise experience as perceived from a “Nomadic” point of view. You are spot-on in so many of your statements. While the Oasis is an amazing cruise for the right person, you were plopped down into the middle of a cruise experience that is really a floating attraction rather than a cruise ship. Eye-popping, fabulous and innovative ships, the Oasis and Allure are really geared to attract first time cruisers, families and those seeking the unique resort-at-sea atmosphere. It isn’t your typical Caribbean cruise ship. It’s a destination unto itself.

A 7-night eastern or western Caribbean cruise on a mass-market cruise line isn’t intended to be anything more than a week of relaxation, sun, beaches and to decide what to do/where to eat on the ship. It’s the chance for everyone to gather in one place, unpack once, do their own thing during the day, and still be together in the evening.

I’m amazed that your ship didn’t supply an overview sheet of each port when they placed the nightly Cruise Compass in your room. Times have changed. But I’m sure the decision is based on needs and wants of the guests, not to mention a calculated cost savings. Considering how much waste paper is generated on a cruise, on a cruise such as yours, a port summary could be on a need-to-have basis, available at the Front Desk.

More and more, cruise lines are offering immersive, in-depth shore excursions. In Dominica, I’ve taken a shore excursion with only 16 people, to a private home for a cooking lesson. Granted, it’s only 3 or so hours of cultural “immersion” but it’s at least a snapshot into the people and their lives. From Tunis (yes I went to North Africa without flying), it’s a short motor coach ride to the ancient city of Carthage and a walk through thousands of years of culture and history where Hannibal was born. On an Amazon cruise, we visited a village where the children came out to greet us and gave us a hand-holding, one-on-one tour of their home and school.

It’s all about doing the due diligence to choose the right cruise and to know what to expect. And the age factor…did you know that the average age of a Carnival or Royal Caribbean passenger is 48?

I agree with you on the “sanitization” of the cruise experience, especially on the mass-market brands. But so are the all-inclusive resorts, cookie-cutter hotel chains and land-based tours. It seems that a major portion of Americans don’t travel much outside their realm and when they do, want to be with other middle Americans. Maybe they have only one or two weeks a year for a vacation. It can be a relief to know that everything is pre-arranged and paid for before leaving home. Shore excursions, specialty dining and beverage packages can all be pre-ordered from home, before your cruise, so you know the expected cost upfront.

One of my best girl friends from high school is totally anti-cruise. She’s never been on one and probably will never go. A lot of her preconceived notions are similar to what you initially expressed.

For me, aside from trains, it’s my only way of travel outside America. The cruise experience has become my way of life and a lifestyle. Sometimes it’s my “luxe bus” to cross the ocean. Other times, it’s reminiscent of Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine,transporting me to visit just-discovered Roman ruins, medieval castles and dark, musty 800-year old wine cellars. Or simply just a kick-back, almost-unplugged, weekend cruise to the Bahamas. A cruise vacation can be summed up best as: It is what it is and what you make of it. There’s possibly a cruise for everyone, based on lifestyle and travel agenda, if preconceived notions are left at home.

It’s important to go with an open mind. Draw an intelligent and informed conclusion in retrospect, as you did. Maybe I’ll see you onboard someday!

Excellent post, Matt!

I haven’t been on a cruise before, but always liked the thought of them as a ‘tune-out, mindless entertainment vacation’ – which from your description sounds exactly like what it offers. Everyone has a different definition of what ‘travelling’, but based on what you said, for me it wouldn’t be a cruise. That comes under ‘relaxing’, ‘drinking’ and ‘eating’ :D

Dave

Matt love hearing of your travel adventures and awesomeness you get up to, it’s been real inspiration for me to become a digital nomad.

However, I defend people’s right to enjoy themselves in the way they like. Your entire article is condescneding and ‘elitist’, looking down on people that choose to have fun by going on cruises. Let them be! Far out!

You’d probably have enjoyed yourself a lot more if you chilled out and just went with the flow, experiencing the cruise for what it is- and not expecting anything more than that.

Great post. I share similar reservations about the whole cruise experience. I think your distinction between “travel” and “vacation” is spot on. And I agree that the insular, sterilized experience people get on cruises or in resorts can be bad. A lot of cruise passengers are fairly wealthy and carry with them some influence (whether in their business decisions, politics, etc.). Hiding the “ugly” realities of port of calls gives a skewed view of the world when information and understanding is needed.

I’ve been on many cruises and transAtlantic crossings, and enjoyed all of them to some extent, in many cases quite a lot. I usually travel alone on them, and find thay can be very good value for money. But you have to pick your cruises. Actually, the one Caribbean cruise I took in college was probably my least favourite, and I don’t think I would have liked the cruise you describe.
But I really loved two Mediterranean cruises, all the crossings (from Soviet liners to twice on the QE2,) and river cruises on the Nile in the 1970s and on the Dnieper in 2010. I’m not keen to return to the Caribbean, but would like to cruise other parts of the world. For me, a cruise can be a great way to familiarize yourself with an area, like Ukraine, that can be hard to explore on your own.
I grew up hearing good things aobut cruises from my mother, who took a number before she was married, so I was always prejudiced in their favour.

Heather May

I have cruised once and really enjoyed the experience. There was lost of interesting things to see, do and watch (hula dance lessons, crazy pool games, Vegas type shows). I traveled with my father and we opted for the anytime seating for dinner. We met people from all over the world, spent time talking with lots of the staff members and even did a few excursions with 2 of the staff (one fromthe UK and one from france). You always run into people who don’t want to know what is going on in other places you just listen, nod and move on. Now granted I am 43 and enjoy listening to the older folks tell their stores of how they met and about their families. Its the same types of conversations I have on group tours, day tours or just when I met someone somewhere in a resturaunt, bar or what have you. I find that putting yourself in a situation where you can met anyone from another country or city for that matter can always teach you something and for me that is what the travel experience is all about.

Craig

Check out ‘Peaceboat.org’ for a cruise with a difference. Definitely the most interesting ship in the world.

Claire

I don’t see anyone discussing a major plus to cruises: taking you lots of places for a brief time so you can “be introduced” and decide if you want to go back and spend MORE time getting to know the place in-depth. I’ve traveled a lot and learned that picking a place based on blogs, books, reviews, etc. can still be misleading for your personal comfort zone. Nothing is worse than taking your sole annual week or two of vacation, taking a chance to go someplace you’ve never been, spending the money to get there and then, discovering you hate it. I’ve had that happen to me a couple of times, and it was really depressing. South Africa had too much active discrimination and tourist crime for my comfort. I hated the Costa del Sol because there was literally NOWHERE you could get away from people, and Barcelona because, well, various reasons, but getting cheated by the hotel manager who held my passport hostage and then an attempted mugging on the subway didn’t help…If I had been on a cruise, I’d only have lost a day on the Costa and another at Barcelona, instead of 7 days of my two weeks. And I would have avoided the hotel manager and maybe even the mugger! Cruises let you see what a place has to offer, what the “tone” of the population is, the weather, the food, etc. Since most Americans can’t travel that much, me included, I use cruises to figure out where I want to pick my next “one-stop, in-depth destination,” whether it’s Vancouver, BC, so I can see Whistler and Victoria, or San Francisco, CA, so I can go to some amazing restaurants, see great plays and explore the Golden Gate park’s amazing museums! Cruises can be a useful tool for “real travelers” if used wisely. I think of it as sampling destinations; I go back for the “full-size” experience later if I liked the “flavor”!

I’ve never been on a cruise but I can see the appeal if you just want to relax. And if you have two weeks for a family holiday and you need to stay within a certain budget I guess they are a good option.
If I was going on a cruise I’d choose one which stopped at interesting places and which allowed me to get off the boat and explore. I definitely wouldn’t opt for Haiti!
I think it’s important to remember that every kind of vacation or travel offers a particular experience, whether it’s staying in a hotel, volunteering, cruising or whatever. Even staying in hostels and taking local buses gives only a specific and partial view of a location.

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