A few weeks ago I went on my first-ever cruise: a 10-day voyage in Italy and Greece on the Royal Caribbean’s Jewel of the Sea, with my husband and two kids (1 and 5 years old).
We had a great time. We saw some of the world’s most beautiful places, had delicious food every day and were truly entertained by many the activities the ship offered. In general, it was a success.
That said, it could have been a little bit better if we’d known a few things in advance. Some were minor issues, like how expensive alcoholic drinks were, while others were kinda major, like that our cruise wasn’t child-friendly. Here’s what stood out to me most—both the good and the bad:
1. There are different cruises—some aren’t for little kids
So, this is probably a no-brainer to some people, but as a cruise novice I had no idea that a Mediterranean cruise could be non child-friendly. Like, yes there was a daily program for 3 to 11-year-old kids, but my 1.5-year-old daughter wasn’t even allowed in any of the three pools!
I got some nasty stares from fellow cruisers who saw my daughter running through the corridors, which was only compensated by the adoring looks of others—especially the waitresses from China and guests who were tipsy enough to accept the fact that there are little people, too. The crib we reserved was too small for my daughter (it was the Graco pack-and-play for newborns) so she ended up sleeping on a pullout sofa.
2. Food galore
The food on cruises is something else. Huge breakfast and lunch buffets, topped off with free a la carte dining and a 24/7 fresh fruit and pizza service. The menu always offered several steak and seafood options and I enjoyed all of my meals. Unfortunately, gluten free, vegetarian, and vegan options were limited although clearly marked.
There were a few paid “specialty” restaurants on the ship, which irked me because I thought it was supposed to be all-inclusive. However, it didn’t much matter because all the food on the ship was decent and we usually had lunch on-shore anyway, having some of that excellent Mediterranean cuisine.
3. They act like you know…
One of the first “shocks” we had after boarding the ship was the realization that the only potable water available was the stuff for purchase at the bar. We assumed we couldn’t drink our bathroom tap water, and a small bottle of water cost $3,50. Rather chagrined, I asked a staff member where I could fill my daughter’s sippy cup. He kinda blew me off sayings something that sounded like “you could go to the windammer.”
I only found out what he meant the next day. The Windjammer was a large restaurant/cafeteria located conveniently between the main swimming pools and daytime entertainment area, where you could get foods, snacks, coffee and water for free all day long. Also, it turned out that the bathroom tap water was essentially drinkable. So, I guess we’re just the idiots who didn’t know.
4. It’s very commercial
What turned me off right away was the fact that they try to up-sell you on everything. Sure, the food is free—but all drinks cost money (7 dollars plus 18% mandatory gratuity for a Heineken, anyone?). The morning stretch-class was free, but the yoga wasn’t. Wifi wasn’t available at all unless you were willing to spend 16 dollars per day, per person, for the whole trip.
Do you want to know what the drinking package cost? It was $63 per day, per person, or $95 for two people. And you couldn’t just opt in or opt out as you felt like—you had to commit to this deal for the entire cruise, which meant spending almost a thousand dollars on booze. Plus, you still had to pay extra for wine with dinner (other than the house wine, I suppose).
5. The crowd is international…ish
I love international crowds, because I like diversity and observing other cultures. In a way, that’s what our cruise was like. The employees were from China, the Caribbean, Romania, Australia, and so on. The passengers, on the other hands, weren’t as diverse. They were what I would describe as “average Americans” and the vast majority was of retirement age.
6. A balcony costs $800
When my husband told me we wouldn’t have windows in our room, I was disappointed. When he asked me if he should “bid” on a room with a sea view and a balcony, I immediately said yes. We won the bid but as it turned out, the minimal bid for 4 people was 800 bucks. And we rarely sat on that balcony because it was pretty wet out there. Then again, having a balcony is nice for sunlight and general orientation. My sisters-in-law were in a windowless room and accidentally slept until noon the first day because they had no idea what time it was! (plus: we saw dolphins!)
7. The coolest activities
On the first day at sea I was already learning how to make delicious sushi in a Japanese restaurant, while my husband was participating in group exercises classes, and my son was learning about dinosaurs at the Aquanauts club. Throughout the cruise, we enjoyed the karaoke, haircuts and massages, and after-dinner shows. Some of these things required payment while others were free.
8. The un-coolest activities
But not all activities on the program schedule called the “Daily Compass” were equally enticing. In our group we were all 40 years or younger, so nobody was in need of a “discover the source of your back-pain” session or even remotely interested in playing bingo, learning how to fold napkins, or attend an auction of kitsch paintings. Wait, I'm lying--I did participate in the napkin folding session and learned how to fold a candle-cum-palm tree.
9. 6pm “curfew”
Almost every day we stopped in a new place: Crete, Mykonos, Rhodes, Santorini, Athens and Naples. Clearly, there was a lot to see in very little time and it didn’t exactly help that we always departed before dinnertime. It probably saved us a lot of money, because we weren’t tempted to go on serious excursions or have a fancy meal on-shore, but on the flip side we saw relatively little of each location.
10. Plan day trips in advance - or pay up
Every time we arrived at a new destination, I was at a loss about what to do. I didn't have Wifi on the boat (because it cost a fortune), and I didn't book excursions on the boat (because they also cost a fortune). But it's not easy to hatch a good sight-seeing plan on the spot, so I squandered a lot of time figuring out logistics.
As a result, I probably saw less and paid more to see each destination than I would have if I had researched and planned in advance. The only regret I have, however, is that I didn't spend enough time on the beach. With little kids, it's really hard to explore ruins and visit museums, but spending time together on Mediterranean beaches is pretty much our idea of heaven.