Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Why I Don't Want to Go on a Cruise...

" The more complicated you can make any financial transaction, the easier it is to rip off a consumer"  --Robert Bell

Going on a cruise vacation.  What could be more relaxing and enjoyable?  And the prices advertised are so cheap!  Such a bargain, right?  Well, like everything else in life, you get what you pay for.  And with a cruise line, with some notable exceptions, you never know what you are going to pay until it is all over.  And then the bill comes and it is not what you thought you signed up for!

Hidden charges and opaque pricing are the name of the game in cruising.  The $199 Bahamas cruise may end up costing you $1000 to $3000 before it is all said and done.  And they literally won't let you off the ship until you pay.

And the experience?  Like being locked in a Greyhound bus for three days, fed bad food with the worst sort of companions, with no hope of escape.  It can be that bad.  It could be a lot better.  The cruise industry doesn't really care, frankly.  Their target audience is the kind of person who thinks a "night out" at Bennigan's is a good time - and good food.  They realize that a huge segment of their customer base is never coming back again, so they frankly don't care about trying to placate that sort of customer.

So if being trapped in a shopping mall for a weekend with a group of elderly folks from New Jersey sounds like a hoot, go for it.  Or perhaps a better analogy is a "casino vacation" - spending a long weekend trapped in a windowless casino, getting drunk, wolfing down enormous quantities of bland food, and squandering your life savings in the process.  And yes, many people DO think that is a fun time.

Drinking, I hear, helps - a lot. But they charge extra for that.

What are the problems with cruises?  There are a lot:

1.  Port Fees:  That low, low come-on price doesn't include a lot of various fees, including port fees.  Why do they charge extra for port fees?  Because they can, and it makes the come-on price lower.  It is like airline ticket charges - adding in airport taxes and federal fees like they are some unknown quantity.  ASK IN ADVANCE about port fees, so you know how much you will be spending.  Supposedly they passed legislation to eliminate this type of trickery, but be sure to ask, anyway.  You'd think the cruise industry would realize that deceit works against itself.  You'd think, anyway.

2.  Tipping:  Only a few high-end cruise lines, like Silver Seas, include tips.  With others, everyone has their hand out all the time.  Or, at the end of the cruise, a tip is added onto your bill, your bar bill, or you are given envelopes to tip various staff.  All I can say is to figure this out in advance, or you will end up double- or triple-tipping the staff.  Ask in advance, as tips can easily double the cost of that $199 Bahamas cruise.  You'll be chagrined after handing out tips during the cruise, only to be later socked with a "mandatory gratuity".

3.  Cabins:  Most come-on prices are for inside cabins with no windows, where you are likely to get seasick.  The temptation is to upgrade to an outside suite with balcony for "only" a few hundred more (and that is PER PERSON, double occupancy, of course).  But suddenly, your bargain cruise is costing $599, not $199 as advertised, which, for two people, comes to $1200 plus taxes, fees, and mandatory gratuities.  Most cabins are small and cramped, so don't expect to spend a lot of time inside them.  A balcony can help, but there are issues with these, as we shall see.

4.  SMOKING:  Many cruise lines are a throwback to the 1950's in terms of smoking.  Some European lines allow smoking everywhere.  So you get on board, get to your cabin, and.... it smells like an ashtray.  And, sorry, there is no alternative accommodation (all the other rooms stink the same way) and you can't get off the ship.  You are stuck in an allergy nightmare for three days, while your adenoids swell up and your throat closes.

So you find a cruise line that doesn't allow smoking in the cabins - and hope they actually enforce the rules (you've been in the "smoke free" hotel room occupied by smokers previously, no doubt!).  You open the window and step out on the balcony you paid $500 extra to have and.... smoke from the neighboring balcony wafts into yours!  Yes, Mr. and Mrs. Chimney have moved in next door, parked themselves on the balcony, and will chain-smoke for three days.  You paid extra for a balcony.  No, you can't realistically use it.

Very few cruise lines are smoke-free.  A few designate smoking areas on the outside of the ships (not in balconies, cabins, or restaurants).  Many still allow smoking in the nightclubs and "entertainment" areas, such as casinos.  If you are a non-smoker or allergic to smoke, or JUST THINK CIGARETTES SMELL LIKE A PILE OF FESTERING FECAL MATTER, well, you are stuck with it for the length of the voyage.  Have a good time!

Like I said, it is very similar to a Casino vacation - vacation for indoorsy people.

5.  Booze:  Relaxing on a cruise with a tropical drink in your hand!  What could be better!  Nice, fun, relaxing.  But the drink is watered down and costs $8.00 plus a mandatory 15% gratuity.  Mandatory gratuity - that's an oxymoron if ever there was one.  So basically you are paying $10 for a glass of fruit punch.  Have a few of these a day, a bottle of wine with dinner, and you are looking an hundreds of dollars a day for you and the spouse to stay liquored up enough to endure the smokers in the next cabin and the prattle from morons at your pre-assigned dinner table.  Your $199 cruise is pushing $2000, now, and you haven't even left the ship!

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.

6. Fine Dining:  Many larger cruises feature our old friend, Steamship Round and the all-you-can-eat buffet.  If you think this is fine dining, well, you are a moron.  And like most chain restaurants, the food will be bland, inoffensive, starchy, fattening, and served in huge quantities.  Some lines offer upscale restaurants for an additional fee ($30 each) per night, where you can sit where you want and order off the menu (as opposed to out of the trough).  But then again, you are adding another few hundred dollars to your "cheap getaway" cruise, aren't 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.

7.  Port O' Call:  If you know your way around a port town, you might actually have fun.  But many port excursions amount to bus tours with those lovely people from the boat, including that smoking couple in the next cabin (and smoking on the bus is permitted!).  You pay $100 to $200 extra, and get to stop at tourist traps and rip-off shops.  We saw this all the time in Key West, where the tourons flock off the boats and right into the worst sort of souvenir shops down by the docks.  Smarter tourists, who knew the area, might have found the beach at the Truman Annex or some other out-of-the-way location.  Want to eat ashore?  That's extra as well.  Hmmmm.... why not just fly to the destination, get a hotel room, and stay there?  It would be cheaper and you'd spend more time in the tropical paradise and less time in the greyhound bus cruise ship.

8.  Shipboard Entertainment:  We all have heard the jokes about aspiring actors and actresses and singers and musicians who work the cruise ship line.  It is the Branson for young people who have yet to make it.  Expect bland, inoffensive entertainment, but little else.  And increasingly, more and more cruise ships are relying on on-board Casinos for revenue.  Like a casino cruise, once they have you on board, they are hoping you'll go in there the whole time, and never leave.  If you set foot in the smoke-filled casino room, expect to drop several hundred dollars, at least, before you leave.  And conveniently, they provide an electronic card for you to charge your drinks as well as your gambling debts.  Your $199 cruise could end up costing you thousands!

9.  Checkout Time:  After three days of this nightmare, you are aching to get off.  But don't be in such a rush.  They won't let you off the boat until you settle up.  The $199 cruise (per person) upgraded to a balcony suite (with free smoke) is $599 per person, plus port charges (10%) plus mandatory gratuities ($250) plus extra meal charges ($300) plus alcohol ($1000) plus port-of-call excursion ($300) plus that nice massage ($250), plus a "fuel surcharge" ($60) plus your gambling debts ($1000).  What you thought would be a cheap weekend getaway has turned into a credit card debt of $3000 to $5000 that will take months to pay off.

10.  Getting Sick:  Being trapped on a Greyhound Bus for three to ten days with 3,000 strangers is a recipe for ship-borne illness.  And getting a cold, the flu, or the norovirus is not necessarily a small probability.  Of course, the cruise line can claim you were "seasick" - right?

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 on-board, you are basically stuck there for the duration.

How can you avoid this debacle?  The first step is: Don't Go.  Cruise lines thrive on this hidden pricing model. Go online, right now, to any cruise line website - chances are, they will have lots of "bargain" cruise prices, but nowhere is their drink pricing listed, their tipping policy listed, their port charges listed, their port-of-call excursion charges listed, their meal charges listed, or their fuel surcharges listed.

If they do list these fees, they are not easy to find, even using a "search" feature.  Most are buried in "Frequently Asked Questions" sections or have the glib answer of "ask your travel consultant for more details."  Who the hell uses a "travel consultant" to book a cruise?

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.

If you do go, you have to research the snot out of these things, which sort of kills the buzz entirely.  In other words, you have to go online, spend hours and hours (if not days) researching which cruise line isn't going to have smoke-filled rooms and utter rip-off pricing, and also learn all the arcane pricing rules.  Once on-board, you have the relaxing sensation of having to watch what you do every microsecond, lest you incur some hidden fee or charge.

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?

Like I said, what could be more relaxing than a cruise?  If you sneeze, it's like, "I'm sorry sir, there is a sneeze fee of $10 plus my mandatory 15% gratuity for handing you this tissue."

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 on-board, someone like this might try 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, of course, cruises which are "all inclusive" or have limited junk fees tacked on.  But they are expensive.  Expensive, yes, but you do realize up-front what you are paying for.  Silver Seas, for example includes everything, including booze, in the price.  The price can be a few thousand per person, but the food is better, the ships are better, the destinations are better.  And considering how much a "cheap" cruise can cost you - with all the hidden fees and charges, why bother screwing around with second-rate cruise lines.  SeaDream is another exclusive cruise line, but they are not cheap, either.

We may end up trying one of these cruises, but I don't know.  Anything that requires this much RESEARCH and WORK to figure out just isn't worth doing.  It's like fighting an adversary, not hanging out with a friend.  The cruise lines are not your pals,  no matter how friendly the staff may appear to be.  And their pricing structure is a clear indication of how they feel about you and what they think about you (you are cattle to be slaughtered, and you are an idiot, respectively).

Given all that, why bother going?  Only idiots would find this fun and relaxing.

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.

The only cruise I want to go on - a Silver Seas cruise, is very expensive.  And while "all inclusive", their pricing is also very elastic (they offer nearly 50% off for booking early, late, or, it seems, anytime else).

If you log onto any one of the cruise discussion groups, sites, or blogs (and there are many) it is a common refrain from "experienced" cruisers that you must RESEARCH the cruise, the cruise line, and even the ship in question, before going.  And then you must make yourself aware of all the pricing rule and games.  And THEN, you have to exercise self-control and restraint while on the boat, and keep a running mental tab of the costs involved and how much you've run up.

Like I said, what could be more relaxing?

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!