If you’ve never been on a cruise you may be wondering if it’s the right type of vacation for you. And you’re not wrong to question that. We actually have a bit of a love-hate relationship with cruising. To help you out, we’ve compiled our pros and cons of cruises to help you understand just what you’re getting yourself into with a cruise vacation.
We’ve been on five cruises together over the past nine years: two Alaska cruises, two Caribbean cruises and a Bahamas cruise. Prior to that, I went on a Hawaiian cruise and Grant had done two Caribbean cruises. I don’t know that either of us would call ourselves avid cruisers, but I’m beginning to think that maybe we should.
After a combined 8 cruises, we’ve learned a thing or two. This means that we know what to expect and we can often find ways of making the not-so-great things at least a little bit better. So, here we go with our pros and cons of cruises.
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The Pros of Cruising
Pro: You can see several destinations easily
We always love a good road trip. And, let’s be honest, a cruise is a bit like a road trip on the water. Sitting in one place really isn’t our thing. We like staying busy and seeing as many different places as possible when we travel. That’s exactly what you get with a cruise.
Even on just a four-night cruise, you will typically visit two or three different ports. Make it a week-long cruise and it could be up to 5 or 6 stops. For anyone looking to see several different cities or countries, a cruise is a great way to do that.
Of course, for some folks that might sound overwhelming. It really isn’t too bad – we’ll have more on that below. Plus, there are a ton of cruise itinerary options. When booking your cruise, just choose an itinerary that fits your preference in terms of how many stops it has compared to the number of “at sea” days.
Pro: You only have to unpack once
While we love a good road trip, even we will admit that unpacking and repacking every day or two can get old quickly. On a cruise ship, your room moves with you so you only have to unpack one time. This really might be the biggest perk of cruising!
I’ll be honest, we often take advantage of this and pack more than usual. On non-cruise vacations, we typically try to pack into as small a bag as possible since we move around a lot. With a cruise, we feel as though we can take a bit more with us since we’re not moving often.
That is especially important on an Alaska cruise where you will need warm layers, even in the height of summer. On a Caribbean cruise, you’ll likely want casual clothes for sightseeing, nicer clothes for dinner, several bathing suits and maybe even workout clothes. Having room for all of this is nice!
Pro: Seemingly unlimited food and sometimes drinks
While every cruise line and even various ships are different, one thing you can almost always count on is a lot of food and drinks on a cruise. In addition to the main dining room, you’ll typically find a couple of casual options such as the buffet or maybe a pizza shop at no additional cost. You’ll also generally have two or three specialty restaurants at a small charge.
Regardless of whether it is included or costs extra, you are not likely to go hungry on a cruise. Additionally, you can usually get food just about any time of the day or night. And, yes, the food is typically very good. Of course, this depends on your personal preferences and expectations. I’ll just say that we’ve never been disappointed by the food on a cruise.
When it comes to drinks, you’ll usually find a bar around just about every corner. If you know you’re going to drink a lot, check into the prepaid drink packages. These are usually available for soft drinks only, mid-level alcohol and premium alcohol. You can sometimes even get a drink package included at no additional charge.
If getting unlimited drinks is important to you, be sure to look for that perk as you are booking your cruise.
Pro: Numerous onboard activities for cruisers of all ages
The number of onboard options definitely depends on the size of the ship. That said, even the smaller ships will do everything they can to keep you entertained, especially on days at sea.
The Norwegian Sky was probably the smallest ship we’ve been on and it had plenty to keep us busy for four nights. There was a casino, nightly shows, trivia contests, art auctions, various sports courts and special activities for kids.
Larger ships will have activities such as rock climbing, mini-golf, or broadway-style shows. Royal Caribbean’s Adventure of the Seas, which a good size ship but not their biggest, even had a wave/surf simulator.
On at sea days, you’ll often find games and classes throughout the day. We particularly enjoyed the martini tasting class on our Alaska cruise on the Norwegian Pearl. Similarly, we participated in a wine tasting on a Western Caribbean cruise.
Some of these activities (such as the martini tasting) will have an additional charge just to keep the number of participants reasonable. Many of them, though, are free.
Pro: Easier to manage the details of the trip
Planning a trip can be overwhelming; especially a trip with several stops. That gets significantly easier on a cruise. All you have to do is book the vacation and then just get on the ship and enjoy the ride.
Granted, you’ll probably want to book a few excursions and maybe plan a dinner in one of the specialty restaurants. Still, when compared to a typical trip with three or four stops (or more), the details are much easier to manage. The itinerary is planned for you, the food is right there and you’ve got plenty of activities to keep everyone happy.
You even get to bypass immigration when getting off and on at the non-US ports you visit. Sometimes you will have to pass through an immigration area but they generally just make sure you have your cruise ID card with you. Don’t get too excited, though, you will still have to go through customs when you return to the US and disembark.
Still, with everything booked all in one place, it makes for a much easier process.
The Cons of Cruising
Con: Lots of people in one place
One of the biggest complaints about cruising is just the sheer number of people in one place. Of course, when you’re on the ship everyone is “stuck” there. And while there are some large cruise ships, that’s still a lot of people in one relatively small place.
Even when you get off the ship, most everyone else will be getting off the ship too. There might even be a couple of other ships in port with you. Thus, even on land, it might be difficult to avoid the crowds.
Plan your activities carefully, though, and you’ll be rewarded. When we visited Nassau, there were several cruise ships in port. And, yes, right around the port was very crowded. We opted to head out to Fort Charlotte, which is a couple of miles away. Honestly, once we got a couple of blocks away from the main shopping area we immediately felt the relief from the crowds.
Even on the ship, you’ll likely be able to find a quiet spot to “hide” if you explore enough. Each ship will be different, but every ship we’ve ever been on has had at least one bar that we could generally count on to be quiet with good service.
Yes, the pool and the buffet will just about always be crowded. You’ll just have to accept that. Just don’t be afraid to look around for a quiet spot. You’ll likely find it – and a lot of other interesting parts of the ship too!
Con: Food can get repetitive
One of the best parts of a cruise is unlimited, free food. Unfortunately, that food can get repetitive on a long cruise. That’s why specialty restaurants are so popular now. While it can be annoying to pay more for a meal, sometimes it’s worth it by the fifth night.
Most cruise dining rooms have a set standard menu with the same classic dishes offered nightly. In addition, you’ll find “specialty” dishes that change nightly. Typically, the menu changes enough to keep it fresh. Sometimes you just want a change of scenery, though. Or, perhaps, you’re just not interested in anything on the menu one night.
Having the option of specialty dining is nice at those times. We particularly enjoyed Moderno, a Brazilian steakhouse onboard the Norwegian Pearl. The Italian restaurant aboard the Adventure of the Seas was so good we went twice in one week. And, sometimes, you just want something fun like Johnny Rockets, also on the Adventure of the Seas.
We have found a few free specialty restaurants, others charge a flat fee and some have a la carte pricing.
Con: Additional costs can really add up
One somewhat common myth about cruising is that it’s an all-inclusive vacation. The truth is that for most ships, a lot of costs are included but there are many optional costs that can add up quickly.
In terms of food and drink, you certainly can get away without paying any additional costs. You’ll probably want to pay for at least a few drinks, though, even if that is just soda or coffee. Yep, even soft drinks often cost extra on a cruise. You can pay for drink packages ahead of time, though, which will reduce your onboard charges.
Another likely expense is excursions. In each port, you’ll have a variety of options for things to do. You can book your adventures on your own or through the ship. You can even explore the port on your own.
Exploring on your own is free, other than any shopping or museum entrance fees you might opt for. Guided tours or excursions can cost just about anything. I’d say most tours will cost at least $70 a person and can cost up to several hundred dollars, depending on the activity.
As mentioned previously, some onboard activities may cost extra as well. Even with a prepaid drink package, wine tastings usually carry a small fee.
Finally, don’t forget transportation to and from the port and possibly lodging before and/or after the cruise.
The good part is that you are very much in control of these costs.
Con: Less flexibility with your itinerary
When booking your cruise, think about the itinerary carefully because you won’t have any control over it later. For instance, we have been to St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands and really don’t feel the need to return. It is a popular stop on many Caribbean cruises, though.
One cruise we’ve had our eye on is a Southern Caribbean cruise to Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao out of Ft. Lauderdale. This, of course, is a fairly lengthy cruise and only runs a few times a year. Fitting it into our school breaks has proven to be difficult thus far. Perhaps we’ll splurge on it for Christmas one year.
Finally, be prepared that your itinerary could change for any reason. Of course, if you are traveling during hurricane season weather can always prompt a change. My feeling on this, though, is that it’s better to be on a ship that can typically avoid a storm than stuck on an island that you can’t get off.
On our Bahamas cruise, Norwegian informed us as we boarded that the itinerary changed to include the same ports but a different order. That really was not a big deal but we certainly would have preferred the relaxing day on the beach at the end rather than at the beginning.
Choose an itinerary you know you will enjoy. If it changes, well, that’s just part of the adventure of travel. And, if there is a particular port you’re not excited about, know that you can stay on the ship. In fact, that is a great time to actually enjoy some peace and quiet in the main areas.
Con: Destinations are often overly touristy
Let’s be honest, most cities with a cruise port make the vast majority of their money off of tourists. They do that by offering adventure activities and shopping opportunities that may or may not be authentic to the region.
With that, it can sometimes be difficult to truly experience the local culture. We have found that exploring on our own offers the best opportunity to try the local cuisine or experience a local tradition.
When you get off a cruise ship, the vast majority of the time you’ll find the same duty-free stores at every port. You’re almost guaranteed to find stores selling perfume, jewelry, electronics and alcohol. While I love a good duty-free liquor store, I’d much prefer to visit a local distillery with a unique spirit that I can’t get at home.
If shopping is your thing, you’ll have plenty of opportunities on a cruise. Most cruise ships will even offer the opportunity to shop with an expert or provide shopping tips the day before each port. If you just want to find a local souvenir, you may have to get off the main drag. Most of the time you can find the local stores just a couple of blocks away from the ship.
The Final Pro: Most cruises have something for everyone
If you’re not sure you’ll enjoy cruising, I say give it a try and find out for yourself. You can start with a short and inexpensive three- or four-night cruise. See what you like and don’t like.
For those who like adventure, choose a couple of excursions that will give you the opportunity to explore and try something new. If you prefer to sit on the beach, that is almost always an option when in port. Or you can just stay on the ship. These are also great ways to save money!
If you’re traveling with a large group, there are plenty of activities for everyone. When we traveled with Grant’s family on an Alaska cruise in 2018, we enjoyed doing things all together some days and choosing separate activities on other days.
Most ships have a kids activity center for those who want or need child care. Some ships have an adults-only pool and lounge area. You’ll certainly find a variety of bars on a cruise. To balance that, most ships also offer AA meetings. There really is something for just about everyone.
Final Thoughts on the Pros and Cons of Cruises
Just like any other type of travel, cruising has its pros and cons. I’m sure everyone can find something that they love and something that they hate. Don’t let someone else’s thoughts influence you if you’re never been on a cruise. In fact, I’d even say you need to take at least two cruises before you really decide if it’s for you or not. Every cruise line is different and every ship is different.
When you’re choosing your vacation, weigh the pros and cons of cruises to determine what you can and can’t live it. Really don’t like crowds? Choose a smaller ship. Want to stay busy when you’re on the ship? Choose a large ship with a good variety of activities. Want to see as much as possible? Choose an itinerary with a large number of ports.
If you’re new to cruising, do your research and don’t be afraid to ask questions. We use Cruise Critic when we are researching a particular cruise or boat. While there certainly can be frustrations when cruising, it really is a great way to travel.