We are seniors. We have been for awhile. And taking cruises is something seniors do. In the winter, many of those seniors go cruising in the Caribbean, where the weather is warm and shopping is duty free.
I had been fascinated by the idea of taking a cruise long before I joined the ranks of seniors. I first wanted to take a cruise since before I joined the ranks of teenagers, in the days of that TV classic from the late 50’s, The Gale Storm Show: Oh Susannah. Finally, last month, my husband and I headed off for ten days on a cruise involving stops at six islands interspersed with three days at sea. I was so excited.
We were with two of my cousins and their husbands and were joined for evening meals and many other events by a couple my cousins had met before who have enough nights of sailing with the cruise line we were on to be five-star passengers. The six of them had been on many cruises before. But we were newcomers. There were so many things we didn’t know, even though my cousins and their husbands tried to fill us in.
Maybe the fact that we didn’t have to do our own research was part of our difficulties. My cousin’s husband had checked out the price, the route, and the time of the year, concluding that the price was great, the route would take us to lovely ports, and the time of year would guarantee us pleasant weather. He was right, but that wasn’t enough for our first cruise.
Here is what we learned from our experience.
- Be prepared to experience motion sickness. No matter how big those ships are, the bow will be bobbing along in the water at some point and that motion can be difficult to adjust to. It is no surprise that the dining rooms are at the back of the ship, where the motion isn’t quite as extreme. Bring motion sickness medicines along. There will be some available on the ship, too, but those shops are like mom-and-pop shops everywhere, limited in what they offer and the prices are high.
- Start from somewhere close to home. Our ten-day cruise originated on the east coast. We live on the west coast. So our first travel day was consumed just getting across country. And our first flight was delayed by hours because of mechanical problems, putting us at risk of not making our connection or arriving on time, not the carefree beginning to our vacation we had hoped for. And the return trip was even more stressful.
- Start with a short cruise. This may seem counter-intuitive since it will cost a packet of money for a vacation and longer vacations always seem better than short ones. But we both concluded we should have tried a five-day, not a ten-day, cruise for our first one. Had we not been on the ship for so long, we would likely have enjoyed all of our cruise, instead of just the first half. That’s because. . .
- Cruise ships are confined and confining places where it is difficult to get away from anything unpleasant. And what was unpleasant for us was the viral infections we both picked up. For the final five days of the cruise, we couldn’t take part in many of the activities we had been looking forward to because our coughing disrupted those around us. In addition, the virus robbed the food – the exquisitely prepared and oh, so plentiful food – of its flavor.
- Remember that not everything comes with the cost of the room. Meals are included – and as I had expected, there was plenty of food at all the hours we were awake. But everything else beyond food comes with a price tag. It isn’t that the prices were all high – drinks were about what we pay for them back home. But we don’t go out to have cocktails ten nights in a row back home. On the ship, that’s what we all did. And the Love Boat series that included Dr. Bricker as one of the main characters never prepared us for the cost involved in visiting the ship’s medical center. For what we paid for our medical bills – thanks to my PSVT episode – we could have brought along another passenger or taken another shorter cruise. And it happened on the fifth day – what would have been our departure day had we opted for a shorter cruise.
- Be aware that people on cruises – both passengers who have been on them before and the staff – speak a different language. We didn’t know what the Lido deck meant. Everyone else knew that was the top deck where the buffet and the swimming pools were. I checked what I thought was the right box on the form to arrange for our disembarkation but when we were advised to be ready to leave the ship at 7:30 a.m. while our flight out of town wasn’t until 5:00 p.m., I thought they had made a mistake. When I called to ask why we had been told to be ready to leave so early, the helpful man at the other end of the phone explained, seemingly with great pleasure, that we had been approved for the Luggage Direct program. I had no idea what that meant except that it required us to leave much earlier than we wanted to. We didn’t know the difference between Expedited Departure and Luggage Direct, so we showed up to disembark with the wrong group. I thought a 7:30 a.m. departure time was pretty darn expedited, but we had to wait for the expedited departure folks to leave first. Once we figured out the language of cruises, I realized that what people told us was accurate, but it was as if they had been throwing Finnish words into the middle of English sentences.
- No matter what clothes you bring along, you’ll need different ones. I had bought three pairs of walking shoes to be sure I had good ones for walking around in port. The first pair bruised the top of my foot before I even set foot on the ship. The second one had decorative holes along the top – I thought it would be good to have shoes that could breathe. Each edge was the source for rubbing my toes, resulting in blisters. Thankfully I bought a pair of walking shoes on the ship – at a lower cost than any of the pairs I brought with me – that served for part of the time. I had to buy another pair when the blisters on my toes made it clear I was not going to make it back to the ship if I didn’t get out of that pair. And I hadn’t brought along dressy shoes for the three formal evenings. I made do with the third pair of walking shoes that could pass for ballet slippers.
- Be prepared to pony up plenty of money for anything off the island. Sure, it was possible to just walk off the ship and walk around town – each port offering essentially the same shops, all duty free, all offering goods I don’t need and wouldn’t use – but anything beyond that came with price tags per person in excess of a couple of hundred dollars. The one excursion my two cousins and I took together was a slightly lower price and I can’t imagine that any of the other offerings could have topped it. We went zip lining across the jungle canopy of the Dominican Republic.
- Check for where the smokers spend their time. On our ship, smoking was permitted around the outdoor swimming pool on the Lido deck – at the back of the ship – and on the verandas of the staterooms. Unfortunately, the couple in the stateroom just forward of ours were smokers. Every time we opened the door to spend time on our veranda, we heard one of them open their door. And then the smoke wafted from their veranda to ours. I wish we had asked to swap staterooms with them on the first day. I didn’t think of that until the end of the cruise.
Are we sorry we went on the cruise? Not at all. It was a wonderful opportunity to reunite with my cousins and their husbands. And we met other great people as well. Besides, it was on my bucket list.
Will we go on another cruise? Maybe. But unless taking a cruise is the only way to get somewhere we really want to go, I think we’ll opt for an all-inclusive package where we can stay in one place or go out somewhere else as we want to, not according to the ship’s schedule.