“Land was created to provide a place for boats to visit.” – Brooks Atkinson
We are at sea today, making our way from Croatia to Greece. While I enjoy sitting poolside, I thought I’d record my take on cruises. I’ll start off with two qualifiers. I am not a cruise person. So it stands to reason that I am no cruise expert. And quite honestly, we often want to fully immerse ourselves in a country and explore various sights, cities, roads less traveled. A cruise doesn’t afford you this opportunity.
If you are like me and the thought of herding onto a mega ship with 3,000 (or more) of your closest friends only to pony up to the all-you-can-eat buffet line, and queue up with bus-fulls of people to explore the tourist traps at every port makes you want to run the other way, then you are likely not a cruise person either.
However, there are some benefits to cruising. You unpack once and your hotel room goes with you. You get to experience and explore new areas of the world, while getting a taste of many different cities and even countries all within one trip. Most of the heavy lifting to build an itinerary is done for you. And you can customize your experience to your style, preferences, and bank account. So, for these reasons, we wanted to try our first cruise. But how do we attempt a cruise whilst avoiding the cruise experience I was dreading? This is where the small ship cruise category comes in.
We have been on three small ship cruises, including the current one we’re on, and one river cruise. I classify small ship cruises as any ship with fewer than 1,000 passengers. Our first cruise was with Regent Seven Seas in the Western Mediterranean. If you want more specifics on that cruise, refer to my “Western Med 2017” blog. It was such a positive experience, we were sold on this type of cruising. We returned to Regent Seven Seas in 2019 for a Northern Europe/Baltic Sea cruise and had an equally good experience (for more details, check out my “Baltic Sea 2019” blog). Both of these cruises had somewhere between 750-900 passengers. This is our first Oceania cruise, and there’s approximately 650 passengers aboard. While we’ve only been on Regent, Oceania, and an Amadeus river cruise, a few other cruise lines to consider in the small ship category are Seabourn, Windstar, Silversea, Viking, and Sea Dream.
I can’t give you tips for mainstream, large or mega cruises. If that’s your thing, then you do you! What I can share are some of my small ship cruise tips:
When it comes to price, compare apples to apples. When comparing cruises, consider whether the cruise is all-inclusive or not. All-inclusive cruises, like Regent Seven Seas, typically have one price that includes all alcohol (including decent premium brands), onboard gratuities, and shore excursions. If it’s not all-inclusive, you have to keep these three things in mind when considering your budget as they add up quickly. To give you an example, a glass of wine sitting poolside can run you $15 a glass, and a simple group shore excursion with a licensed guide can run you $150-200 per person. These add up quickly and can easily end up costing more than what appears on the surface to be a more expensive all-inclusive cruise.
Cruise airfares. Many cruises will include round-trip airfare in their pricing. The advantage is that it may save a little bit of money and the cruise will help you manage any travel challenges – like missed connections. The downside is the cruise will prioritize cost over convenience – often meaning at least one stop and possibly with a tight connection. Cruise lines will give you a travel credit if you elect to book your own travel. You have total control of your schedule, flight choices, non-stop options, etc. when booking yourself. And, if you have airline rewards or credit card points, this is a great way to reduce the overall cost of your trip.
Location, location, location. Yes, the destination of your cruise is the key focus of your decision. But once you decide where you’re going, there’s another location you need to consider and that’s one involving where your cabin is located on the ship. Select a cabin that is closest to midship if possible. This will ensure the least amount of rocking or movement in choppy or rough waters.
Pre-cruise accommodations. Cruises will reserve rooms at a host hotel (or two) in the city of your embarkation. You will pay a premium rate to stay at this hotel prior to your departure. But what you get for that rate is a ton of convenience. The cruise line will pull your bags the morning of departure and transport them directly to the ship and provide you with direct transportation to the embarkation area. If you don’t mind figuring out how to get you and your luggage to your embarkation area on your own, the host hotel is likely not worth the expense. Our recent embarkation from Venice proved to be quite challenging when we elected to stay in a different hotel and our water taxi dropped us off at the wrong area. With no Oceania rep in sight and no clear directions on where to proceed, it was a challenge. We figured it out, after schlepping our bags a good distance, jumping on a short train across the water, and finally stumbling upon the correct cruise terminal building!
Pictures are deceiving. Don’t let the photographs on the cruise website fool you. That spacious cabin and bathroom? Yeah, it’s not nearly as spacious as that camera lens has made it look. These are not your typical hotel rooms; most cruise cabins are pretty tight spaces with even tighter bathrooms. That said, some small ship cruise lines – like Regent for example – pride themselves on their oversized cabin size and they are actually pretty spacious. Ours had a full walk-in closet, and a double-sink bathroom vanity with shower and separate tub! The one thing to keep in mind is they all typically come with great storage options, even for tight spaces.
A balcony is a must! If you can’t swing a balcony, at least select a cruise with large windows preferably that open. Some cruise lines, like Regent, offer all suite-style cabins with private balconies. That’s one of the things that attracted us to this line. There’s nothing better than watching the sea go by, sipping your morning tea, or taking a full breakfast from your balcony.
Confirm laundry services. Most ships offer dry cleaning and laundry service for a fee (and it’s not cheap). Plus, most ships also have a self-service laundry facility with washers/dryers. Confirm this before you pack; if you can do a load or two of laundry while on your cruise, you can plan to pack a lot less.
Prep your carry-on. Once you are aboard the ship, it can take some time for your luggage to make it to your cabin. Pack your swimsuit, flip flops, or an extra pair of t-shirt/shorts in your carry-on bag, so you can change, head to the pool deck, grab a cocktail, and take in the views as you leave port – and you aren’t waiting for your luggage to be delivered to do so. It’s a fantastic way to start off your journey.
Get to know your butler. If your stateroom offers butler service (as many do), get to know them early and let them know your preferences. My travel BFF Karen has an unnatural level of luck when it comes to service, while the rest of us struggle to get a Coke Zero in our minbar! It pays to meet your butler on day one and make your requests known. Do you prefer to have coffee or tea sent to your room each morning, or your mini bar stocked with sparkling water? Ask for it – they are there to accommodate you. And trust me, you are paying for it at this level of room!
The food 4-1-1. Don’t listen to the stories you’ve heard about how great those all-you-can-eat buffets are aboard a cruise ship. In general, food in the main buffet areas is good at best. It’s honestly what you would expect for a cafeteria-style meal (except maybe Wednesday night enchiladas at Luby’s in the old days – those were the bomb!). Depending on your cabin category, you will likely have access to reservations at one of the speciality restaurants onboard. The food – both in taste and presentation – at these restaurants is typically much better. The ship will also offer a white cloth, menu dining option with open seating and those are also typically better than the buffet line.
Is this Broadway? The answer is no. Even if your cruise is promoting a Broadway production, keep your expectations low. That said, the entertainment onboard can often surprise you and it’s worth checking out the shows or concerts. We’ve had the pleasure of listening to some fantastic musicians on every single cruise. If anything, I promise you’ll be treated to some awesome people watching, especially if there’s late night dancing involved!
Not all excursions are equal. When you consider your itinerary, read through the details of every excursion option and think about each destination you are visiting. You may elect to spend more for an exclusive or smaller-group experience in some ports. For example, exploring Catherine Palace after-hours and having a fantastic dinner on the premises, complete with local musicians, iced Vodka shots, and caviar, was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and worth the added expense while in St. Petersburg. However, when we docked in Sanary-sur-Mer and realized our excursion to Saint Tropez included a two-hour bus ride there and back, we opted to skip the excursion altogether and simply explored this charming little seaside town. We called this our “best decision ever” day and still consider it one of our favorite memories.
We learn lessons, tricks, and tips on every new adventure, and we have many friends who are much more experienced travelers and “cruisers” than we are. But if you are cruise wary like I once was, I hope you’ll find this information helpful, and perhaps it will nudge you to consider a small ship cruise as a vacation option in your future.