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Updated: 16th May 2018
I’m fresh off the boat, or ship to be exact (boat is a tut-tut word to a pro cruiser), from my first ever proper cruise around the Baltic Sea taking in Scandinavia and Russia with Princess Cruises. ‘You’re more of a roughing it, stressing it, making it as difficult as possible kinda person aren’t you?’ my Dad said after the cruise, expecting me to say I hated it. To be fair, it’s likely a fair comment after dragging my parents across Indonesia by beaten up boats and non-safety rated airlines in December.
But, and I’m almost ashamed to admit this to my hard-core travel buddies, I actually quite enjoyed it.
So why did I go on a cruise?
Straight up, I was invited as part of a photography/content campaign and a year ago my answer would have been a big fat NO. But something has changed since then, at first I thought it was another side-effect of turning 30, like my new-found need to talk about when I’m going to have babies or learning to take up curtains (spoiler alert: it’s difficult!) but after sitting down with a cuppa and reviewing the itinerary, I was sold on this particular cruise.
Ten days, seven countries, only two days at sea and some impressive stops on the way. Since travelling for work and photography full-time my back is destroyed from lugging gear around (okay, that might be a 30-side-effect) and I don’t really relax on my travels, dashing around even when I’m slow travelling a country. So unpacking once, being able to dust off some clothes that are saved for non-existent ‘special occasions’ and enjoying a carefree trip sounded pretty good.
Wait! I think this might be what people call a holiday right? Maybe we got so obsessed with travelling (ego-travel as I’m hearing on the news today, because as all journalists know, Instagram and avocados are to blame for everything wrong with us millennials) we forgot how to just switch off?
In other news, it seems I missed that lesson at school where they teach you what actually happens on a cruise, and judging by a lot of my Instagram messages this week, so did a whole lot of us. Great news though: I’m here to enlighten! Two weeks ago I thought I was super open minded, now I’ve realised when it comes to cruising I had all the stereotypes and dumb myths readily stored in my mind. So, let’s debunk them and answer some of the more common questions I’ve been getting thrown at me:
1. Is cruising is for old people?
Myth or Fact: Oi, I’m only 30… But seriously, kinda
I think it’s fair to say cruising has historically and still is, targeted at an older traveller. Whether that’s a generational thing, or because of the ease, it’s fair to say there was a majority percentage for older clientele. The good thing is though I’m not ageist and I’ve come back with a ton of friends that are as cool as my Nan. There was a mix of families, couples and a few groups of mates my age who were onboard and loving it. Your cruise experience is very much what you make it so let’s go with the cliche line; age is just a number.
On a more serious note, I met plenty of people who were cruising as it was the only way they could travel. Whether for health or insurance reasons, mobility issues or other personal reasons I have no intention of discussing on here, these were remarkable people who wanted to explore the world and cruising allowed them to do just that – so back off pissy bloggers throwing all the shade at everyone.
2. Are cruise ships prisons you never escape from?
Myth or Fact: Myth, unless they have a jail I missed on the behind the scenes ship tour.
To be honest, this was my biggest issue with cruising. I’m super hyperactive, sleep for about 5 hours a day, and if you put me on a beach with a towel, I’ll be bugging you to go and explore after 20 minutes. But cruise ships, at least the Regal Princess, are HUGE.
There was eleven + unique dining and drinking venues, various shops, a theatre, tv studio, gym, many pools, a spa and a whole host of other stuff that you can read about here. Also, we were only on the ship for two days and with longer port days on this route, most of my time was spent exploring new destinations.
Top tip: Pick the right itinerary and ship
A huge factor for me in deciding to join this particular cruise was the itinerary. Not only does it pack a punch (7 stops in 11-days) but it was a great mix of less foreign cultures to me in Northern Europe and more ‘intrepid’ destinations such as St Petersburg in Russia.
When it comes to choosing the itinerary look at not only how long you have between each destination (sea days) but also how long you have in Port. The Regal Princess which I travelled on is a fast ship, so our port time was maximised. For example, in Olso, it was 12-hours and St Petersburg two-days, though we did have a couple of shorter port days.
Likewise, while a larger ship can conjure up ideas of crowds I was relieved to find that wasn’t the case, it simply just provided the chance to meet more people from different background, both guests and staff.
3. Is cruise wifi terrible AND expensive?
Myth or Fact: Not on the Regal Princess
Historically cruise wifi has been a bit shit and very expensive, but the Regal Princess has some groovy-new, best of the seas wifi called Medallion Net which is excellent for ship wifi. It’s still a bit pricey at $10 a day, but I was paying the same when I travelled the USA, and I get that it’s not the most natural place to keep you connected. Trust me when I say, this was a big one for me running a business online, and if our ship hadn’t off been able to please my internet-addicted needs, I would have likely needed to jump off (not literally, the captain doesn’t like that).
4. You’ll spend the whole trip stuck on a bus?
Myth or Fact: Only if you want to
Okay, I don’t know where I got this one from but after a whole host of Googling it seems I’m not the only one confused here. I genuinely thought when the ship docked we would all line up, get on a bus, be shuttled on some city overview tour, dumped off in a tourist hot-spot and then have to get back on said moving-hell-hole a couple of hours later to return.
You don’t need to book an excursion and for the most part, even look at a bus. Apart from St Petersburg, Russia, where we did have to schedule a tour as that is the requirement to bypass the visa law on a cruise (yep, you read that right, no visa needed for Russia) we could either walk, cycle, run, jog, public transport or cart-wheel into the city. However, you want to spend the time is your call.
5. Am I going to die of an illness that will spread like wildfire on a cruise?
Myth or Fact: Alright dramatic, chill out…
I’ve read this on nearly every ‘things you should know/why you shouldn’t go on a cruise post’ and I’m sure it started from somewhere. But, you’ll be pleased to know, I’ve returned alive and healthy which is a lot more than can be said for my parasite-infected Asia trip last year.
6. Buffets, buffets, re-heated buffets – that’s cruise food right?
Myth or Fact: Whats wrong with a good buffet? And no, definitely myth!
Firstly, I love a good buffet. Secondly, these buffets were not good, they were great, although the buffet dining room was pretty crowded at times (though not when I was sneaking cookies at 2 am).
There were so many different dining options on the ship, from sit-down, to formal to casual grab and go burgers and ice-cream (two ice-cream shops, it was heaven). Many are included, and some have a surcharge, but a $40 extra for the wine-pairing table with four courses and matching wines seems alright to ex-London resident me. I’m not very lyrical when it comes to talking about food, but my buddy Vicki who was on the same trip has all the Regal Princess food options covered here for people who like their nutrients not to just be frozen dairy.
Top tip: Dine off the ship when possible
While it may be tempting to return to the ship for your all-inclusive lunch, take the chance while ashore to find local restaurants and dine in the destination.
Cruising doesen’t always have the best impact on a destination as thousands of people can disembark and not spend a penny, so find a local restaurant for lunch (and maybe even breakfast and dinner too). You’ll be putting cash in a local business, interacting more and get to enjoy my favourite hobby in the world, people watching over coffee.
My tip is when looking at restaurant reviews would be select the restaurants which have the highest rating from natives to the country, like which restaurant in Copenhagen has the highest score by the Danish, that way you know you are finding somewhere popular with the locals and not just tourists.
7. Looking at the sea forever will drive me mad
Myth or Fact: Yes, it would. But you really don’t have to
See point 2, so much to do. Also, choose your cruise based on what you want. I loved this route because there were so many city breaks, but if you hate the sea don’t go booking a cross-Atlantic one. Research is the key, and then you won’t go cuckoo looking at crashing waves.
Top tip: Make the most of chances to mingle
There are ample opportunities to meet people on cruise ships. From formal nights when everyone is in high spirits and looking smart, to specific clubs and get-togethers for certain interests. While you might want to spend time enjoying the balcony views from your state-room, it really pays off to attend events where you can connect with your fellow cruisers.
Not one for organised get-togethers? Simply hang out in a bar or the hot-tub and I guarantee you’ll be making friends in no time at all, friends from different parts of the world and all with a story to tell.
8. Is everything super expensive on cruises?
Myth or Fact: Somethings, but only if you want to drop the cash
A glass of house wine was $7/£5 which I don’t think is bad at all compared to say a classy hotel, it’s quite cheap when you consider how much drinks are in some of the destination cities such as Oslo or Stockholm. I guess it comes down to how much you have paid to be on board which I’ll cover in just a few points you eager-beaver.
If you drink too much, gamble too much, buy too much or throw bank notes off the balcony, then yes – you’re going to burn a hole. Likewise, if you opt for the big-ticket excursions over smaller tours or self-discovering, that is something you need to factor in.
Top tip: Take up a new hobby or sport
With a gym, tennis, basketball and mini-golf course on board, the Regal Princess had plenty of opportunities to not just stay fit and healthy, but also to meet other people and share a game with (and the ensuring beers by the pool afterwards).
For those who want to fully relax on vacation and not be working up a sweat, there are so many new things you could turn your hand to onboard as you would with a land exploration vacation. Whether it’s Russian doll painting, history classes, board games or just joining in the trivia quiz with a few drinks and new team-mates, you won’t struggle to make new friends and hobbies on board.
9. Bingo or knitting?
Myth or Fact: Yes, and I went (not knitting, not yet) but there is a lot more to do
Firstly, I’ve been going to Bingo since I was 22 (I grew up in Bournemouth, we have an old population). Secondly, there are loads to do on board, and it changes each day. While some of the activities are aimed at a specific, as yet established type of audience (Elevator roulette, for example, you still make no sense to me) there are so many different shows, bands, talks, activities, sports clubs, gym classes etc that you can easily find something to fill every hour with.
10. Are cruises worth the money?
Myth or Fact: On this cruise,100% yes
Right now I can see an inside cabin on our route for €815 + €152 port fees, so a total of around £840 based on two sharing, which goes down to £665pp if you grab the squad and go four in a room that you’ll only be used for sleeping, and hopefully showering, in. Point being, for ten nights accommodation, travels between cities and all your meals in Scandinavia, that’s super cheap compared to what I’ve dished out doing city breaks to those destinations before. It all depends how you want to travel. I had a balcony on this cruise but to be honest, with the little amount of time we spent in our rooms I would have happily stayed in an inside cabin. That said, it’s not usually that much more for the balcony so y’know, treat yourself and all.
Top tip: Get around like the locals
In most of our ports of call, we could walk, cycle or bus into the city centre, so if an excursion just isn’t your thing you can explore solo. This tip, of course, is also good for saving money.
Getting around as the locals do is not only a great way to explore the city but also a chance to understand it better; I always find the day-to-day life of a destination is the best start in getting under its skin. The added bonus of cruise docking times is you likely won’t be getting stuck in work rush-hour foot traffic which is great for you and means local workers don’t need to battle the ship guest just to get to the office.
11. Are cruises all inclusive?
Myth or Fact: Some, but mine wasn’t
Some cruise lines are now all-inclusive, but with Princess Cruises, they are not. You can pay as you go or buy packages for drinks, soft or alcohol, in advance. Loads of things are included though, like coffee, tea, food, lemonade of the weird American kind (where is the gas?!?), entertainment. Each cruise liner is different so check as before you book.
12. Can I go on a cruise with my mates?
Myth or Fact: Yep, and if you go dorm-style, it’s dirt cheap.
I touched on this above (missed it? It was the neat little break down of how economical cruising is if you bunk up) but I think this would be how I would do it again. A big group of mates, as we had, makes the journey really fun and there’s enough space to avoid them if you want some downtime completely. There were plenty of twenty-to-thirty-something large groups having a laugh at Club 6 in the evening, and I think it’s a pretty sweet way to travel as a group as the cruise organises everything, so you don’t end up with a leader of the group so to speak.
13. There is no culture to discover on a cruise
Myth or Fact: WRONG! There are 5000 friends you just haven’t met yet
This is why I personally wouldn’t do a cruise in certain places. I want to be off the ship and getting stuck into another culture. For this cruise route, I think being mainly western culture destinations; I didn’t have that same need as I would in say Patagonia or Morrocco to un-earth some culture.
But on-board you can actually make deep connections rather than the fleeting moments we so often have when travelling. With over 3000 cruisers (still not sure if that word is suitable in this context) and 1000 staff, you can meet people from all walks of life. I learnt SO much about other peoples cultures on this cruise and got to return time and time again to learn more and continue the chats. Still, as they say, life is what you make it, and cruising is the same, chat with people, make connections and make the most of it.
Top tip: choose anytime dining
With a multitude of dining options on cruise ships, from late-night buffets to romantic, window-side tables for two, on my Princess Cruise, there was also a range of dining options which allow you to connect with your fellow passengers.
By opting for any-time dining you’ll be presented with the chance to either wait for your own table or join a larger table of other guests. Potentially you could spend each evening of your trip sharing wine and memories with a new set of friends to be, think back to your early backpacking days and hostel chats and then upgrade it by about 10000%; all of the great conversations without a shared kitchen or pot-noodle in sight.
14. Will I spend the whole cruise vomiting and swaying everywhere?
Myth or Fact: Hopefully not
I was sea-sick for the first two days, but I put that down to the seasoned traveller in me rejecting all tablets offered and pulling my tough guy act until I realised I was being dumb. The ships are so big and sturdy though when I started popping my pills I couldn’t tell if we were moving or not. I was on an upper floor at the front of the boat, but some of the guys further back and lower said they felt it more in their room, so it’s worth potentially enquiring where your stateroom will be when booking.
15. Am I going to miss out on half the stuff in the place I want to visit?
Myth or Fact: How long is a piece of string?
Speed and stamina, essentials on a city-break cruise like this. You can look at it in two ways; 1. An introduction to places that you may return to or, 2. Maximise the time. The only place I didn’t feel I had quite enough time was Copenhagen, but if I had hired my bike for the full day rather than a half-day, I think I would have. Most of the port days were long, some over 12 hours, so plenty of time to explore a city and from my experience in these particular destinations, mainly Oslo, Copenhagen, Tallin and Stockholm, some of which I have been to before, a day allows a pretty good amount of time to explore depending on your speed.
Top tip: Get off-ship tips from the crew
With a crew of over 1500 on my Princess Cruises, there was the chance to meet staff from around the world. I had some great banter and have kept in touch with a few of the guys from my ship and not only is this another chance to learn about someone else’s home, they are also usually experts in the destination you are visiting.
With many staff roles allowing the chance to venture on land, check in with your favourite waiter or bartender if they have some insider tips of things to do when you head onshore, they will usually have visited more than once and have worked out the best spots in the city or ways to maximise your time.
16. Will some Frank Sinatra wannabe be crooning in the theatre every night?
Myth or Fact: Not on my ship!
Being a drama school grad (yeah, I really put that to use), I’m down with all things entertainment and the cast on the Regal Princess were great. They had three main shows, and then plenty of smaller ones, which ranged from full-blown productions to current chart hits to throw-back Motown nights and more classical music. There was even a ‘tv-studio’ which did live versions of popular game shows, and the stateroom TV’s were loaded with modern Movies so, don’t stress, it’s not all bad karaoke.
17. Cruises are bad for the environment
Myth or Fact: Fact
I’m going to leave this one open to an update down the line as it’s something I’m trying to understand fully and to what extent. There is no doubt cruising is bad to a degree, especially with fuel and waste, but with more ships plugging in at docks and new systems being installed it is slowly improving. Most of the comparisons I have seen aren’t accurate; this is more like a floating town which is a permanent home to 1500 people before you even think about the guests, something which I don’t see in any of the comparison papers. It would take around 7 A380 planes flying between each city to get the same amount of passengers around, so I want to do a separate article and study on this which is taking some time. A lot of people that are critical of cruising fly a lot (Hi) or would happily take a fuel ship to Antartica or similar, so like I said, lemme get back to you with some clear facts down the line.
That said, to me, some obvious things should be implemented straight away. Ballon drop parties are popular on cruises (and even bio-degradable balloons can take four years to decompose). Straws with cocktails are also common, and it’s something I’m surprised any sea-based business still supplies now there are so many better plastic alternatives. I was pleased to see recycling bins on open decks and Princess only giving out plastic straws on open decks when people specifically asked, but more should be done and that doesn’t just apply to cruises or the cruise companies, but as end consumers… demand=supply and all.
What I was impressed with when touring the kitchens is that everything comes in as bulk and gets carved upon the ship which limits the amount of individual plastic, and after seven years working in restaurants where nearly everything comes in a single plastic pouch, it was a pleasant surprise. Anyway, watch this space as I swat up on the facts, not opinion.
Top tip: Buy your souvenirs locally and do what you can
Let’s be honest, cruising isn’t great for the environment, but then, nor is flying. So, the same thing applies with all our travels – and I think this is especially important when cruising because you have much less time in the destination. So, as much as possible, support local businesses. While most ports will sell anything you may want to take home, venture into the local, family-run business when you are in the city and spread that tourist dollar further.
18. Would I like cruising?
Myth or Fact: Well, this is one for you to answer
I’ve been asked this so much in the past week, mainly by people I barely know so, I’m hoping all the above will answer that question and please, drop any other questions below and I’ll keep extending this far-too-long article until I’m basically the Wikipedia on random cruise questions.
Top tip: Pick your excursions wisely
When it comes to picking cruise excursions it can be tempting to take the standard, ticking off the big sights trips but speak with the destination team to unearth some more unique tour options which provide the chance to interact with the locals and learn about their cities.
For example, Princess Cruises offered Beer Tasting in Tallinn with a local expert right through to traditional fishing-village lunches with locals in Denmark; you can make your time on land a chance to connect with the very people who call your port home.
If in certain destinations you still can’t find the perfect itinerary for an excursion, book an independent, local tour which ticks all your boxes or just go it solo – it’s amazing how much you can pack into a shore day and how much that will elevate your overall enjoyment of the cruise.
I was a guest onboard my Princess experience but all random babbling above is mine alone.
This 11-day Baltic Sea cruise with Princess Cruises starts from £999pp for an interior stateroom based on twin-share*. Taking in Warnemunde Germany, Oslo Norway, Copenhagen Denmark, Stockholm Sweden, Helsinki Finland, St. Petersburg Russia and Tallinn Estonia, it offers a great chance to explore many cities in a short vacation.
*load factor, dates, availability and other factors will affect the final quoted price