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Cruise Tips for Independent Travelers
You don’t usually see “independent travel” and “cruise” in the same sentence because it seems like one is pretty much the antithesis of the other. On some cruise vacation, every minute of every day is planned for you, right down to who you eat dinner with and at what time. However, with the right attitude and a bit of know-how, even an independent traveler can have a fantastic cruise vacation.
1. Choose Your Cruise Carefully
More and more cruise lines are clueing in to the fact that people like having some choices in how they spend their vacation. The industry leader in this trend is Norwegian Cruise Line with their “freestyle cruising” concept. To start, they’ve done away with dress codes, huge dining rooms, and assigned meal times. Instead, you have a choice of different meal options, including a casual buffet that’s open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, one “dress-up” dining room, and several restaurants that allow you to order from a menu. I cruised to Alaska on the Norwegian Pearl, and I ate at a different restaurant every night of the week: French, Italian, Asian, Spanish, and more.
2. Find a Quiet Area on the Ship
When you’re on a ship with thousands of passengers (plus another thousand crew members) it’s important to find some peaceful places where you can get away from the crowds. The easiest way is to spring for a slightly nicer cabin, where you don’t feel like you’re hanging out in a shoebox. A balcony stateroom is definitely a nice place to spend a week.
If that’s not in your budget, explore the ship and do some detective work on what places are busiest when. Bars and lounges are usually open all day, but only get crowded in the evenings. Likewise, eating early or late is more relaxing than fighting the crowds during peak meal times.
3. Choose Small Group Excursions, or Do Your Own Thing
Things can get pretty hectic on port days. If the ship docks at noon, chances are there’s a crowd of people waiting to rush off the ship the minute the gangway is down. If you hang back an hour, you can stroll off the ship at your leisure. Same with coming back on board: Come back a bit early and avoid the last-minute rush to get on board or you’ll find yourself waiting in a huge line to get through on-board security.
If you're fiercely independent (or on a tighter budget), you can avoid the pre-planned shore excursions offered through the cruise line and explore the ports of call on your own. Taking a walk around the harbor area is a nice way to get to know your destination, and if the town is small enough, you can easily explore it on foot. Taking a cab or a bus to a particular attraction lets you avoid being herded around with hundreds of tourists. Taking hikes into the surrounding area is also a nice way to venture out on your own.
If you’re interested in the excursions offered by the cruise line, pick small group excursions. For example, I did two excursions on my cruise. The first was a sightseeing flight and the second was a scenic train ride. The flight was a lot more fun because it was just less crowded. A small sightseeing plane doesn’t fit quite as many people as a train does. The train ride was nice, but dealing with the huge crowd getting on and off the train, plus being surrounded by loads of tourists, was pretty annoying. The lesson here is that you want to look for tours that accommodate fewer people.
4. Look for Small-Venue Entertainment
Most ships have one huge theater that houses a fabulous show every night. The ship’s headliners (comedians, acrobats, dancers, singers, etc.) usually perform there and it can be fun once in a while. But some of these entertainers will do additional shows either after the main show or sometime the next day in a smaller venue of the ship. For example, comedians often do a shorter, more casual after-show in one of the bars or lounges, which not only provides a better atmosphere but also comfier seating.
5. Pack Light
You’ll be tempted to take lots of stuff because you’ll be staying in one place for the whole trip, but fight the urge to overpack! You’ll have a lot more freedom on embarkation and disembarkation day if you just bring one bag. It doesn’t have to be airplane carry-on size, but you should be able to handle it easily.
Carrying your own luggage on and off the ship can save you a lot of time and hassle because you never have to check your bag. That means you’ll have it right away on day 1 (instead of waiting for hours to have your bags delivered) and you can disembark quickly on the final day (instead of searching for your bags in a huge luggage hall with hundreds of other passengers).
6. Some Final Budget Tips
Since your cruise fare includes accommodation and food, staying on budget should be a snap, right? The cruise line usually has other ideas though, wanting you to spend your hard-earned money on drinks, excursions, gifts, photos, and spa services. It helps to do some research ahead of time on what’s a good value and what isn’t.
Some things, like internet access and specific spa services, are not a good value early in the cruise because they always run specials later in the trip. If you watch the daily cruise newsletter, there’ll be special deals available almost every day. You’ll usually find better deals on port days, because they want you to keep spending money on the ship, and not just in town.
If you follow some of these tips, I'm sure that even the most independent traveler can find fun and relaxation on a cruise!