When I got the opportunity to take a five-day, four-night cruise to Catalina Island and Ensenada, Mexico I was a bit resistant. Somewhat of a homebody, I hemmed and hawed about leaving my kids and our small herd of critters to an unsuspecting grandparent with a tendency to be a pushover.
The fact that I'm skeptical of anything being as good as it sounds didn't help, but my husband's enthusiasm — and the fact we'd promised to go with our neighbors — found me agreeing to endure what I figured to be four days on a too-small ship riddled with germs and weird food.
Cruise bargains While it's common for companies to offer new clients a free cruise for starting a membership or opening an account, check with cruise lines directly, first. Oftentimes, "free" cruises wind up costing more than booking directly. Some cruise lines offer four-day excursions starting at $199 per person. As an added plus, booking via the cruise line provides access to cruise line websites for advance booking (no long lines) and selecting various activities and dining room seating.
Passports With new homeland security requirements, passports will be required for all travel by sea beginning January 2008. Apply for passports at least four months before you leave to avoid hefty expedition fees.
Avoid getting sick While media hype is rampant about cruise ship virus outbreaks, incidents are few and far between. Some basic hygiene practices include washing hands frequently and avoiding local water supplies while off the ship. A handful of restaurants in Mexico advertised drinks made with filtered or bottled water.
Shore excursions Horseback riding to snorkeling is offered via cruise lines as a courtesy, but most ports of call are loaded with tourist locations for excursions at a third the cost or better. Horseback riding during a recent trip to Ensenada would have cost more than $100 per person via the cruise line, while arranging the trip in town cost a third as much and included a seaside tour and a flea market stop.
While cruises run the gamut from three days to three weeks or more, our cruise line vacation planner said shorter cruises are popular for first-time skeptics like me. She promised, however, after a day on board, we'd be ready to sign on for more.
Our stateroom was a bit over $400, far less than what hotels, food and entertainment would have cost for a non-cruise vacation; but the biggest plus was an all-in-one price that included meals, entertainment, on-board activities and 24-hour room service (no charge!). Though not required, the extra expenses included recommended gratuities ($10 per person, per day), alcohol, retail purchases and souvenirs.
All told, the trip was a complete surprise at every turn. Learning the ins and outs of the small-city-sized cruise ship proved an adventure all its own. With more than a dozen decks, various clubs and retail outlets, including a day spa, we needed a map of the ship to learn our way around.
Staterooms were small but exceptionally clean and well-appointed. Our cruise line agent advised us not to splurge on a bigger room — we'd hardly be there — and to pass on a room with a window to feel less seasick. A faux window prevented us from feeling claustrophobic.
Though a bigger bathroom would have been nice, staterooms were spotless and inviting with high quality bedding, robes and towels. Our room also included a lockbox inside a roomy wardrobe and cable TV with special channels detailing ship advisories and shore excursions.
As for service, dining room and stateroom attendants were friendly and attentive, remembering details like my husband's nightly espresso and extra ice in our stateroom. Before the cruise I'd laughed at the notion of tipping beyond the cost of our trip, but by the week's end, we left the recommended amount in addition to special tips for our dining room waiter and room attendant.
"Towel animals" adorned our bed alongside tiny chocolates on turned-down sheets each night. Breakfast and dinner could be had in a formal dining room — think lobster, beef Wellington, baked Alaska — or enormous buffets at both ends of the ship. Soda drinkers, like me, had to pay $2 for the drink, but a quick trip to a grocery store at our first port of call remedied the problem.
While ship dress code was casual "touristy," a lone formal night wound up being more fun than expected (after being dragged kicking and screaming to attend) and the captain bought an hour's worth of free drinks. Entertainment favorites were two comedy specials and a musical performance after dinner.
During our final meal, we were almost sad to return to our cozy staterooms and pack our bags. After returning to long workdays, busy schedules, and cooking and cleaning, we've got definite plans to return — as soon as possible!