Are you cruise material?


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They catch on fire. They run aground and sink. They lose power and with it, sanitation facilities. Yet cruising is the fastest-growing segment of the travel industry, increasing at an annual rate of 7 percent. More than 15 million travelers sailed from the United States alone in 2012, generating $19.6 billion in cruise ship sales.

The number of passengers has roughly doubled during the past decade, according to the Cruise Lines International Association. The trade group's membership includes more than 200 ships and 325,000 beds, both of which are expected to show continued growth through 2015.

After disembarking many years ago from my first cruise -- a mega ship that was part of a Disneyland package deal when the kids were small -- I vowed never to set foot on one of those floating prisons again. That was after three days of being held captive in a windowless chamber along with thousands of other hapless tourists who didn't know enough to ask if the room had a window. Turns out many don't on those big ships that hold 4,000 passengers and 2,000 crew members.

That was just the beginning of our trip to hell -- long lines, bad food that had to be eaten at assigned times, tacky entertainment and even tackier fellow passengers who interpreted "all you can eat" as all you can shove into backpacks to nibble on later in your dark, airless, swaying cell .... Well, harpoon me honey!

And then I went on a second cruise and fell madly in love. That was last fall, and I can't wait to go again. What made the difference? Turns out the boat is everything. This time it was a Seabourn ship with 200 passengers, a marble bathroom, walk-in closet, bedroom and sitting room with an enormous window, incredible food, a fully stocked bar in my stateroom and 24-hour room service. Watching the Mediterranean roll by in the moonlight with nary a soul in sight became my definition of peace, and ordering freshly baked chocolate chip cookies at 2 a.m. set a new standard for luxury travel in my mind.

The surprising thing is that the Seabourn cruise cost less than many of the mass-market bigger ships because it was on the cusp of the season, a fact we accidentally discovered when it turned out to be the only time we could go. Yet the weather was perfect and the crowds were gone in early October, a bonus we hadn't considered but will from now on. The cruise was truly all-inclusive, from those warm cookies to the martinis we drank at midnight in the disco and the cabs that waited dock-side to drive us into town. Even tipping was included, so that the only possible way to spend money onboard was in the casino or gift shop. And that's rule No. 1 of cruising: Read the fine print!

Cheap rates often mask a host of hidden expenses that can add up, from a daily rate of $50 or so for alcohol to fees for bottled water, Internet access, specialty restaurants, spas and entertainment venues. Even cruises that offer free airfare often make it up some other way, and you may be better off booking your own flights. Consider the destination as well. Alaska and the Caribbean are among the most popular routes, but sailing off the beaten path, say to the Balkans, or on ships that might not fill up as fast, can offer substantial value.

A big revenue generator for cruise lines is the shore excursion. Here you will pay, and often at quite inflated prices, for the convenience of having a tour guide or bus waiting when you dock to whisk you away to see the sights. In many ports independent operators, and even the same operators, are available for much less, and public transportation, including cabs, is another option depending on what country you are visiting.

While small ships can enter small ports -- the Isle of Elba, for instance -- or other places most ships don't stop, there are some advantages to size. Two of Royal Caribbean's giant ships, Allure of the Seas and Oasis of the Sea, have ice skating rinks, rock climbing walls, water parks, surf simulators and zip lines on board. Broadway shows and even the Radio City Rockettes are part of the entertainment on other ships. Big ships are also more family friendly, with activities for children. Most of the smaller ships and luxury lines are geared to adults and do not encourage children.

With so many public spaces on board, those who fear getting claustrophobic need not worry. But for passengers prone to seasickness, there is legitimate cause for concern. While most people enjoy the sensation of being rocked to sleep and even think rocky seas can be fun, sort of like Kennywood's Noah's ark, the constant movement can be very unpleasant for some. But there are antidotes (see accompanying story ) and onboard infirmaries where anti-nausea medications are dispersed. Choosing a stateroom that has no windows facing the water and is located in the lower midsection of the ship will also help. That's where you will feel the least amount of motion.

All things considered, why do people go on cruises? And should you be one of them? Here are some things to think about:

Pros:

1. You don't have to unpack to see the world. Once onboard a cruise ship, you can put your clothes away and relax. That's the key word and the key reason many people enjoy cruising. The decision-making is kept to a minimum, whether it's where to have dinner or when to stop drinking. You can walk home! Most ships set sail during the cocktail hour, the perfect time to unwind with a drink, a book or a nap. You are, in a sense, forced to take it easy.

2. There's no mad rush to catch a plane or train as you travel from place to place or reason to worry about connections. You travel at night and wake up there. The exceptions are cruises to Alaska, Antarctica and other wilderness zones where the ship sails in the daytime so passengers can enjoy the scenery. Often this is the best and sometimes only way to see the sights in remote regions.

3. Cruises offer more than sightseeing. They are really a complete vacation, with onboard nightclubs, casinos, spas, pools, gyms, libraries, movies and educational activities. Our cruise had a resident historian who prepared us for Spain with a lecture on 700 years of Moorish rule, and Monaco was preceded by a lesson on the Grimaldi family. Arriving in port academically prepared added a welcome layer of appreciation to our sightseeing. Top-notch entertainment, fine dining and other amenities are combined with generally excellent service, especially with luxury lines that are competing with luxury hotels for business.

Cons:

1. If this is your first trip to Europe or wherever, don't expect to see that much. You may have a day or two in port cities, which isn't enough time for more than a quick overview. If you really want to visit museums or historic ruins, or dine in local restaurants and shop, you will be frustrated by the lack of time. Cruises are much better after you've already been somewhere, with the exception perhaps of the Caribbean, where all the towns and beaches look pretty much the same.

2. You are stuck with your fellow passengers, for better or worse. Friendships do develop onboard, and if you're lucky you will hit it off with some people. But the smaller the ship, the more confined you will be. Unless you're on a singles cruise or something, it's best to bring your own companionship. That said, like tends to attract like. What made a particular cruise attractive to you probably struck the same chord in your shipmates, which is why they aren't on the big party boat or vice versa.

3. Cruise ships can be dangerous. Aside from the high-profile disasters in the past two yeas, theft and sexual assault are not uncommon, especially on larger ships that employ thousands of workers. Many stay onboard for months at a time. Stewards who prey on lonely women or offer their services as gigolos can pose another threat. And then there's Legionnaires disease and other illnesses that can sweep through a unsanitary ship.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D.-W.Va., introduced legislation July 23 that would give the federal government more power to investigate consumer complaints and end an industry-wide practice that prevents information about onboard crimes from being publicly available. "This conduct should make us all very angry," he said. "If the industry is seriously working to improve the safety and security of its ships, why have we witnessed so many serious incidents in the last 16 months?"

Good question. And yet in a recent panel hosted by USA Today featuring the CEOs of the major lines, all claimed to be doing just that -- improving the cruising experience on every level, including safety. No one wants to be the next Costa Concordia!

lifestyle

Marylynn Uricchio: muricchio@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1582. First Published September 3, 2013 4:00 AM


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