Caribbean Cruise advice wanted
January 20, 2006 12:23 AM   Subscribe

I'm planning on taking a Caribbean Cruise in April (my first cruise of any kind). Your experience, knowledge, and wisdom would be greatly appreciated.

I've got April 21st thru the 30th free. I'm located in AZ. I'm more interested in the following places (but am open to suggestions): Bahamas, Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Jamaica. I will be bringing my girlfriend. Some of the questions that immediately pop into my head are: Are onboard food/drink/entertainment included? How much money is reasonable for the day to day costs above and beyond the cost of the cruise? What are some things to watch out for? Please feel free to elaborate. I don't know enough to even ask appropriate questions I imagine. Thanks in advance!

ps. Finding a strange restaurant down some back road where only locals go: good. Hitting the tourist-filled hot spot 75 yards from the boat for some bland jerk chicken and Americanized reggae muzak: bad.
posted by gummo to Travel & Transportation (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
It might go without saying but try for a cruise that is oriented towards people of your age group, whatever that is.
posted by grouse at 4:27 AM on January 20, 2006

Gummo, I don't know why you're set on a cruise, especially as you sound young (this might just be me reading into it) and definitely when you say that you want to find a "strange restaurant down some back road where only locals go." In general, people who want adventurous travel, eating with locals from food stalls, wandering down alleys, listening to cool music in local clubs and actually coming to understand countries don't go on cruises.

It's not your question exactly, but I 100% don't recommend a cruise. It's not that it's not fun, but it doesn't sound like it'll be up your alley. On a cruise, you spend most of your time aboard the ship. If you go on a cruise to see the destinations, I'm afraid that you'll be disappointed with the 6 hours that you'll spend on land, and with the options that are available when you're actually in some town. You won't have the means to get away, and the layout of the towns which have ports big enough for cruise ships is specifically to herd you to the vendors, restaurants, and bars that are "recommended" by the cruiselines.

Instead, take a week in the Virgin Islands or a week in the Bahamas. Somewhere with lots of little islands that are close together. Then you and the GF can get your nautical on by renting / chartering a boat, or by taking inter-island ferries (note: they're slow), or by going fishing for the day. If you do this, you're more likely to have an experience of hanging out in cool(er) spots and eating cool(er) food. It won't be perfect -- the carribean is quite racially divided and class divided. So it's harder than some places to get the hookup on which neighborhoods are cool and safe and which are sketchy or downright dangerous. But at least your trip will be yours and you won't share it with 1,400 of your closest friends from Kansas.

If you're going to fly anyway (from AZ to TX or FL) to catch the boat, then I don't see how the cruise could be cheaper than doing an awesome 10 day trip and staying in resorts in the Bahamas or USVI / BVI. Buy the lonely planet (or similar) book on the Carribiean and take off! G'luck!
posted by zpousman at 5:06 AM on January 20, 2006

Select the cruise carefully and it can be great. My wife and I went on a seven day Caribbean cruise as an engagement celebration. We both knew in advance that we were not 'cruise people' - we are far more interested in exploring ports of call and enjoying the local culture/history. I found a cruise, however, which went to seven islands in seven days. No time at sea. The ship would change ports overnight. At 7:00am, we ran off the ship and did not come back until 5:00pm. It was phenomenal. No worries about hotels or transportation. We absolutely loved it, although we were obligated to eat our evening meal on the ship, which was a disappointment (we thought the ship food was terrible, but we tend to be fairly demanding in that arena). We also racked up quite a bar tab in the evenings.

Unfortunately, we have been trying to find another such cruise package and have not found many that do not have at least one day at sea, which is a bummer.
posted by daveleck at 5:14 AM on January 20, 2006

I should also mention that our cruise originated and ending in San Juan, PR, so we tacked on three extra days before the cruise to explore. It was great!

My wife's boss goes on these seven day cruises which do not stop at any ports! They just cruise around for a week. I would have to throw myself overboard after about 24 hours...
posted by daveleck at 5:16 AM on January 20, 2006

In our ports of call, we hired local drivers to take us around each day. It was expensive, but richly rewarding, as we hired some wonderful guys who really went the extra mile to show us everything of interest. They'd pull over and pluck local fruit from trees for us to eat, and they knew exactly how/when to beat the tour buses to the more popular attractions.
posted by daveleck at 5:19 AM on January 20, 2006

Onboard entertainment and food is included, drinks are not. Selling you drinks is how a cruiseline makes money, so they are expensive drinks, at that. If you're big drinkers, it can add a lot to the price. There are also casinos on board, that's another moneymaker for the ship.

$50 to $100 a day for cruise sponsored shore excursions - except that I don't think that's what you're going to want. If you get off the boat and want to explore there'll be local taxi drivers who'll be able to help you for a lot less than the shore excursions. I wouldn't recommend going too terribly far afield with non-cruiseline tours, because you run the risk of not getting back for your departure, but if you want to explore the local towns and culture, then you should be fine. It'll likely be cheaper, too.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:17 AM on January 20, 2006

If everyone hasn't talked you out of the cruise yet, I've found that the oldest AksMe tagged with "cruise" has some helpful hints.
posted by jbrjake at 7:23 AM on January 20, 2006

Best answer: My wife and I went on a cruise to the western Caribbean for five days for our honeymoon. It wasn't so much because we were interested in a cruise, it was because the ports of call were all places that we wanted to go (Key West, Yucatan Mexico, etc.), and it was much cheaper and easier to take a cruise than to schedule multiple flights and hotels. Still, I was skeptical that it would be really cheesey, but we ended up having a fantastic time.

In the space of five days, we went bicycling all around Key West, scuba diving in Cozumel, climbed Mayan pyramids in the jungle, and ate ceviche and drank tequila on a pristine, empty beach near a little fishing village in the Yucatan.

If you just think of the boat as a moving hotel that takes you where you want to go, you'll be just fine. Don't expect great nightlife or exciting shows. It's basically a Holiday Inn on the water.

The shore excursions are only as good as what you make of them. I highly advice getting the hell away from the slips where the boats are docked, as all the shops and bars are just overpriced tourist traps, and there will be several thousand other people all milling around. We scheduled some excursions through the cruise company (sign up early!), and some we did on our own (I found the dive school in Cozumel, and arranged everything). Sometimes we just got in a taxi and said, "Take us to the next town over so we're away from the tourists." You'll know beforehand where and when the boats will be docking, so do some research, and have a general plan of where you'd like to go and what you'd like to see.

Cruises are all about eating, and there is food available all the time. I was really surprised at how many (fat) people were just there to eat for several days straight. Food is included in your fare (which is why it's such a good deal, you're getting travel, accomodations, and food for around $100/day). The food is definitely quantity over quality (think Old Country Buffet), since they're cooking for several thousand people. Certainly not great, but you could do worse.

Drinks are not included and are rather expensive, which can really add up. They don't do cash, they just add it on to your bill and you settle up at the end of the trip. Imagine running a bar tab at a strip club for five straight days and you'll get the picture. Many a drunken passenger had a rude awakening at the end of the trip when they were presented with a bar tab that cost almost as much as their ticket. Just be aware.

Every cruise line is different, so I can only speak for us. We went with Royal Caribbean, and had no complaints. The boat was a little '80s in decor, but it was pristine and very well-maintained. The service was great, and everything was incredibly organized. I've heard bad things about Carnival, but have no firsthand experience.
posted by Gamblor at 7:36 AM on January 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

My trip was with Carnival, on the oldest and smallest ship in their fleet (which has subsequently been retired and is now being used in Australia). It was worn out, horribly decorated, and the upkeep was neglected as they knew it was the ship's last season. The food was subpar, the entertainment was awful, but as I outlined above, our ports of call were phenomenal and our transport/lodging aboard the ship was dirt cheap. We made friends with one of the bartenders, who took great care of us. Our onboard expenses were more than we paid for our cruise tickets, but the total cost of the trip was still pretty cheap considering all the things we did and gorgeous places we visited.
posted by daveleck at 7:54 AM on January 20, 2006

Best answer: I've taken about five or six cruises and will just stick to your questions:

Are onboard food/drink/entertainment included?

On almost any 7 or 10 cruise, the price of food is included. Onboard entertainment is mostly included (things like movies, music and shows, not things like Bingo or the video arcade). Alcohol is not.

A specific note on food: The quality of food can vary greatly between cruise lines. I seem to remember Royal Carribean and Norwegian as having my finer dining experiences, with Princess not so much. I have not been on Carnival, but have heard theirs leaves much to be desired.

Alcohol and other pay items on the ship are handled in the following fashion: In the beginning of the cruise you give a credit card number, which they attach to your room. Your room key card then becomes also the charge card you use at the bar. Drinks will generally be about 5 bucks a pop, and they add in a 15% gratuity, so figure about 5.75 or so per drink.

How much money is reasonable for the day to day costs above and beyond the cost of the cruise?

Forgetting about what you'll spend on booze in a day, both on the ship and off (don't know what kind of drinkers you are), I think Jacquilyne was probably pretty close: $50 to $100 a day.

Obviously, if you buy a nice guide at the book store in advance of your cruise (which I highly recommend), you can really do some planning in advance. It will tell you for each island what spots might interest you and what won't, and what you can expect to pay for something like a cab ride, a meal at a restaurant, a day at a beach. This way you can really figure out what you're planning to spend each day. Maybe you decide to spend $50 at one island just going to the beach, but $150 another day going into town to a highly recommended restaurant. Personally I always skipped island restaurants because I figured I had already paid for food on the ship, so why should I pay twice. In the morning, take some fruit and other stuff with you from breakfast and just have a light lunch.

All that being said, zpousman makes a common argument about cruises: If what you want is to really dig deep into exploring islands on your cruise, you might be disappointed. Typically, your ship pulls in and you can disembark around maybe 8am. You have to be back by 4:30 or so. Now, 8 hours seems like a long time when you're sitting in your cube or office, but it's very short when you're on vacation. You won't have time for as much as you'd like. You'll have time for maybe a trip to the beach, a tour of the local rum distillery and lunch, shopping and a trip to the bar, etc.

Finally, if you are set on a cruise (and don't take my above statement the wrong way, personally I very much enjoy cruises), your most important task right now is reasearching which one to take.

Like I said, buy a travel guide and compare it to the initerarires of the trips you're considering. Read online feedback on the different cruise lines and each of their ships to see what will fit you best: service, food, activities, excursions, price, etc.
posted by poppo at 7:57 AM on January 20, 2006

Not much to add, as I've only been on one cruise, which was Royal Carribean. Food was excellent. Rooms are generally small, but you aren't going for the room. All fun except for the last day, waiting to leave the ship. Stake out a place in the bar.
posted by JamesMessick at 11:11 AM on January 20, 2006

Best answer: I highly recommend checking out Cruise Critic. The different cruise lines really do have different atmospheres. I personally despise Carnival and would never go on it again - boring (but okay) food, awful entertainment, disgusting drinks made w/ cheap alcohol, and TOO MANY KIDS. And trust me - I am not a picky, finicky person when it comes to cruises. It is certainly a good price, but the negative aspects, IMO, make it a bad deal nonetheless. Other cruise lines offer higher quality for only a couple hundred more per couple for the week - worth it, to me.

I highly recommend going on a cruise with as many ports as possible. You do get sick of the boat - it is fun and relaxing, but more than one or two days at sea and you will be going nuts. Especially if the weather is bad.

Spring for the balcony - most ships now don't have nearly as many public areas on deck as they used to, since so many rooms have their own balconies. It's so relaxing to sit out on your own balcony with a bottle of wine, and much quieter than the public decks.

As far as ports, I highly recommend Jamaica, St. Martin, St. Thomas, and the ships' private islands (great beach day). Belize is terrible around the ship but the country is lovely with interesting excursions available. Nassau sucks, and I've heard that Grand Bahama is even worse. My friend just got back from Cozumel and said it was terribly depressing and rundown after Katrina, so I won't return to that normally fantatic port for another year or two. Costa Maya is generally a disappointment - crummy beach, not any discernable culture, etc.

Just remember that crusing is not for everyone. I love it (when not Carnival) - I have had great experiences on both Royal Caribbean and Norwegian. I think people are disappointed when they have high, unrealistic expectations based off of the silly commercials on TV. As was said above, considering it a nice floating Holiday Inn is the best mentality. It's a great, relaxing way to spend time with your girlfriend and see new places - but it isn't going to be the most luxurious vacation imaginable (unless you go on Cunard, Windstar, etc.)

One tip - on the day of departure, get there 3-4 hours before it says to get there on your ticket - they WILL be boarding, and if you wait the line WILL be unbearably terrible.

Feel free to e-mail if you have any questions!
posted by gatorae at 11:40 AM on January 20, 2006

As an added comment to what zpousman said:

This regards Jamaica only...I lived in Jamaica for three months at a marine lab in Discovery Bay (about halfway between Montego Bay and Ocho Rios). I had many discussions with the locals about their relationship with "cruise people". On one hand, they are a source of rapid income, especially since the prices for people off cruises are significantly inflated. On the other hand, they are definitely not treated in the same way as someone who is there for an extended period of time, especially since there are some people who come off cruises and are rude to the locals and/or quite drunk. You don't have to be like that (and I'm not insinuating that you would.)

My advice is read a lot of guidebooks, and if you find something you want to do, find a local guide or catch the JUTA bus. Eat some ackee and saltfish. Enjoy yourself.
posted by nekton at 12:09 PM on January 20, 2006

Your greatest risk to a good cruise is in contracting a virus

This site offers some good advice.
posted by Neiltupper at 12:29 PM on January 20, 2006

Spring for the balcony - most ships now don't have nearly as many public areas on deck as they used to, since so many rooms have their own balconies. It's so relaxing to sit out on your own balcony with a bottle of wine, and much quieter than the public decks.

See, this is one of those highly personal things. In my cruise ethos, cabins are for sleeping, and you should spend as little time in them and money on them as possible, thus freeing up both time and money to be spent on more pleasant pursuits. If you're the type to go for a luxury hotel room, you'll probably want a nicer cabin, because, honestly, the cheap ones are dark little holes. But if you're a cheap motel sort of person on land, then cheap, inside cabins will likely be your preference.
posted by jacquilynne at 2:38 PM on January 20, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks for all the great info. I couldn't help but mark multiple answers as 'best'. And that doesn't mean the ones I didn't mark weren't good. There were a bunch of great tips. You have given me some ammo to go do the research I need to do. And that is exactly what I was looking for. Thanks a ton!!

In reference to some comments above (in case you're interested):

A. I'm 34. More towards the younger end of the people I've seen on cruise ships. Especially the more expensive ones. But old enough to not want too much mayhem on board. So a cruise that isn't swarming with kids would probably be preferred.

B. I've done the extended stay (6 months) thing a couple times (Alaska & Mexico), and that is definitely more my style. Both places were cruise towns and considering the difference between my experiences and the ones of the people I saw getting off the ship, I'm surprised I'm even interested in a cruise. But knowing very little about the caribbean, I think the cruise would be a good first step to get a once over of the place. I definitely plan on going back in the future and spending 6 months (or the rest of my life) in my preferred locations.

C. I'm the guy who spends $40 on a CHEAP room and never spends any time in it, opting instead to spend all my time and money enjoying the destination. So the floating Holiday Inn idea is fine with me. Although the private balcony is something I do believe I'd like. I can imagine myself spending most of my forced on-ship time in a deck chair in that spot.
posted by gummo at 3:21 PM on January 20, 2006

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