Like I said, it is very similar to a Casino vacation - vacation for indoorsy people.
And note that the cruise lines WILL search your luggage, as if you were a criminal. Yes, they claim it is due to 9/11 terrorist concerns. But in reality, it is to find and confiscate any privately owned booze you may try to take with you. Still think these people are your friends? Read the fine print on any cruise line contact. They can throw you off the boat for trying to "smuggle" booze on-board, or not let you board, but keep the cruise fees. They are deadly serious about this, as booze is a huge part of their profit margin, and if you brought in a bottle of scotch, that represents several hundred dollars worth of watered-down drinks they could have served you.
You are likely to be pre-assigned to a table of 6 or 8, so every meal is like eating in a cafeteria (and some of the meals are served cafeteria-style). Want a romantic getaway on your own? You ain't finding it here! If *might* be able to book a private table for two, but you have to do so in advance.
And note that some cruise lines ALLOW SMOKING in the dining rooms! So you won't really notice that the food tastes bland, anyway, as everything will taste like secondhand smoke.
11. Crowds: One thing all cruise line brochures have in common is that they show very few people on the ships. Once cruise line shows the ship anchored in front of their private island, with a happy couple having cocktails on the beach, apparently alone. What's missing? The THREE THOUSAND other passengers, all of whom apparently decided to stay on-board. Most cruise line brochures show the various decks, locations, restaurants, casinos, night clubs, and other amenities as being nearly vacant. The reality is, of course, different.
Consider how much fun it will be trying to find some deck space to stretch out and get some sun, on a boat with thousands of people on board. Go for a swim in the pool? Good luck even getting in. Now, again, there are some folks who just LOVE crowds - the types of people who thrive in malls, big cities, loud chain restaurants, and the like. To them, going somewhere where there are no other people is "creepy and weird". The sound of a large crowd, to them, is comforting.
On the other hand, there are others, like myself, who prefer solitude and quiet, to a screaming crowd, jammed in a small space. A private cabin with a nice balcony would probably be essential to my enjoyment of a cruise - unless I could find some out-of-the-way corner not jammed with people.
And the problem with cruises doesn't end with the boat. When we were in Key West, it was almost comical to see the instant population explosion that occurred when the cruise ships disembarked. Suddenly, the downtown part of Key West (the most lovely and least touristy, NOT!) is thronged with over 1,000 extra people. Locals learn to avoid the area when that occurs. So you go to visit an exotic port of call (not really) and then flood it with thousands of people, to enjoy for maybe 4-8 hours. It is true, the tourist destroys the thing he comes to see - particularly by cruise ship.
12. Cost: As noted above, the overall cost can be staggering - and far above what the "come on" or "last minute" pricing leads you to believe. For a "bargain" cruise, you can easily spend more on tipping, excess fees, liquor, upgrades, excursions, and the like, than you did on the base cruise price itself.
Cruises are wildly profitable for the cruise lines. Staff is mostly foreign born and paid very little, so the manpower overhead is not as great as it may seem. And the cruise ships are little more than floating hotels - and are not expensively built. It is not a coincidence that they tend to lose power, engines, or electronics on a regular basis (making headlines for a week or so, before the hoopla dies down).
Like so many other tourist rip-offs, the idea is to lure you in with a low, low price, and then sock it to you, once you fall into the baited trap. And a cruise ship is the ideal trap, as once you are onboard, you are basically stuck there for the duration.
None of the cruise line websites I visited had a simple breakdown on pricing and fees, or a suggestion as to how much the overall cruise would cost you. It is a recipe for a Credit Card meltdown fiasco. You will end up spending more than you plan on, period.
Have another drink? Um, how many is that so far? Are we over our budget? How much was that drink again? Does that include a mandatory 15% tip?
NOW THERE ARE SOME cruise enthusiasts out there who just love cruises (they love crowded malls, too) who would say, "Well, you just have to work the system, learn the tricks and rules and you will come out ahead!" Such folks are the kind that love frequent-flyer miles, convinced that they are "getting ahead" by gaming the system. They also enjoy the feeling of being an "insider" and knowing all the "tricks" to cruising. And if you go onboard, someone like this might tr to help you discover all the "tricks" to cruising.
But I think a better idea is to have a vacation where there are no "tricks" to learn - where the host is not some enemy to be deceived and worked around. It is better to have a low-interest rate credit card with no gimmicks than a 25% interest one with "miles" on it. It is better to go on a vacation without tricky rules and opaque pricing than to get a "bargain" on a cruise that turns out to have hidden charges and tricky rules.
There are other resort destinations you can go to where the pricing is straightforward. You go to Disney world and buy a ticket, and there are no fees you have to pay when you leave the resort. "I'm sorry sir, but you have to pay the Orlando handling fee, or we can't let you leave the Magic Kingdom" - that sort of thing only happens on a cruise. And if you want to have a glass of wine in your hotel room later on, you can drink one that brought with you, or buy one at any local liquor store. No one will search your bags before you go in, or accuse you of "smuggling" alcohol. And you do have your choice of hotels, too!
Dining out? The prices are on the menu, and you can pick the restaurant you want - with the type of food you want - as opposed to standing in line with 3,000 other people to eat the same thing. On exotic islands, you can go out and sample the local cuisine, often for far less than the cost of the "free" Steamship Round served on-board.
You have choices, control, and can keep track of spending. And since you aren't traveling at 15 knots, you can get to where you want to go and spend more than 4-8 hours there. Taking a Bahamas cruise doesn't mean spending a lot of time in the Bahamas. It does mean spending a lot of time on a boat.
UPDATE: January 2010.
We have been looking to go on a cruise, and are researching this thoroughly. But the more we learn, the less this looks like "fun". Most cruises are vacations for indoor people - smokers and gamblers (same people) whose compulsive behavior is guaranteed to run up a huge casino and bar bill. It is not a "fun ship" but an exploitation ship.
I recommend reading Cruise Confidential, which is an interesting book written by a fellow who was one of the few Americans to get a job working "below decks" for Carnival Cruise lines. Although the book promises to be a "kiss and tell" type expose, it actually got me more interested in going on a cruise.
Alas, Carnival Cruise Lines has one of the worst smoking policies around - allowing people to smoke in the cabins. They claim they "sanitize" the cabins, but I for one am not going to spend money to be trapped on a boat for three days, only to find out that I can't breath. Sorry, but cigarettes suck, and so do smokers. So we said "no thanks" to Carnival, which has the reputation as the white trash cruise line anyway (hence the lax smoking policy - smokers are just utter trash!)
The problem with Smoking - as I have noted before - is that cigarettes do not kill off smokers fast enough. Rather than trying to make a "safer" cigarette, we need to make one more lethal! Death to smokers! They have stunk up our world enough!
One tidbit: If you want to book a last minute cruise on Carnival, call between Tuesday and Friday and ask for a "Pack and Go" special. These last-minute deals are not offered on weekends.
For a comprehensive list of cruise line smoking policies, see this Frommer's guide, but I strongly suggest checking with a reservations agent first, as there is a LOT of misinformation on the Internet!
Royal Caribbean has a better smoking policy - no smoking in the cabins, although balcony smoking is allowed. However, navigating all of the options on the website for booking rooms, meal times and plans, pre-paid gratuities, can be a bit of a stressful nightmare. Um, where is the relaxing part, again?
We may try a short, three-night cruise, just to see what it is all about. They are fairly inexpensive and you are not trapped on-board for too long. We'll see!
UPDATE: February 5, 2011:
See my updated posting on this subject. We went on a Royal Caribbean Cruise and had a good time. The $189 cruise ended up costing $1525, all said and done, but having researched the snot out of this first, we knew what to expect.
And also, expecting the worst, we were pleasantly surprised. Yes, some of the worst-case-scenarios outlined above were present, but not as bad as I expected. And a lot of things were pleasant surprises.
I hope to do a detailed posting on the subject shortly.
Did we like it? Well, we booked another for November on the monstrous Allure of the Seas, this time with an ocean-view balcony. Room service is free!