As you may very well possibly be aware (I may have mentioned it once or twice), we recently went on a cruise to The Far East on the Princess Cruises line. It was to be our first ever cruise and, not wishing to spend the entire honeymoon in a constant state of surprise, we cleverly (we thought) approached my new parents-in-law and enquired as to what to expect on our luxury sailing vacation since they were – and still are – old hands at this cruising malarkey.
The information they showered upon us was – it turned out – borderline useless, verging on the criminally negligent.
But don’t worry: our near-constant state of surprise and frequent nautical faux pas didn’t entirely detract from a fantastic trip after all and I’ve returned with only minor thoughts of cold, cold revenge on my cruise intelligence-deficient in-laws. My major thoughts – you’ll no doubt be thrilled to hear – are to expel from my brain tissue such cruising knowledge as I have recently absorbed, both to make room for this year’s hot new minimalist cranium look and to prevent any future cruise virgins with the good taste to find this site from making any of the mistakes we made.
So, if you’re about to be a first-time cruiser or you’re cruising for the second time but some time between your first trip and this upcoming one you were hit on the head by a tortoise and have suffered debilitating memory loss ever since, then this guide to what to expect when you go cruising may be just what you need. Or you might be able to cancel or exchange for a skiing holiday in the Alps. Perhaps you’re pretentious.
The information in this guide to your first Princess cruise is based on my time aboard the Diamond Princess, Voyage M834 to the Far East, November 2008. If you are incapable of moving back in time to travel with me then your experience may differ.
A cruise costs quite a lot of money. When you look in the brochure you’ll probably think: Golly gosh! That’s quite a lot of money! A pricey sum and no mistake! And yet if you break down the cost of the cruise on a per day basis it actually works out to still cost quite a lot of money. But that doesn’t include any of the drinks you’ll be buying or the sneakily hidden automatic tipping (we’ll talk more on this in a minute) or any of the tours you’ll want to do. Including these additional expenses, a cruise actually turns out to cost quite a lot of money.
Your cruise will be cashless! Yes, cashless! Every time you buy something in the onboard shops or bars you simply wave a card at the person you’re buying from and no money changes hands! This might mean that you lose track of how much you’re spending on a daily basis so you should be careful. On the other hand there’s less chance of you going swimming with your wallet in your shorts so why not celebrate and buy everyone at the bar the cocktail of the day?
Your cashless cruise with Princess will require that you bring cash in the form of American dollars. You’ll want dollar bills in order to do your laundry – smelly passengers risk keelhauling – and larger denominations if you want to buy any foreign currency on your trip from whichever one of the currency exchange machines has won the onboard Not Out Of Service Lotto.
Once you’ve been on a Princess Cruise you become part of the Captain’s Circle, a secret cabal whose membership entitles you to complimentary cocktails, access to the Captain’s Cabin after 10pm for late night soul-searching, and soft toilet paper. Winking at security while touching your left ear lobe with your right thumb when you first board ship indicates you’ve been incorrectly given a blue "first time with Princess" card and you should be upgraded within twenty four hours. Or molested. Why not celebrate this by buying everyone at the bar the cocktail of the day?
Tipping is something you should do only if you want and only if you’ve had good service above and beyond that which the job demands. Unless you’re American or on a cruise or both. Then, tipping is something that happens automatically whether you like it or not every time you buy a drink or every time it passes midnight. You can’t prevent the drink-buying tipping – except by not drinking and, seriously, that’s not going to happen – but the daily automatic tipping (ten dollars per person per day) can and should be stopped by telling the bursar when you first board "Hi, thanks for not being upfront about the cost of the cruise and instead sticking a semi-secret, not inconsiderable gratuity on my final bill when you could have instead included that charge in the initial cost of the cruise and simply paid your staff more." The bursar will then cancel your automatic tipping and report your feelings to the cruise line directors who will eventually change this stupid system that, for example, on my cruise would have amounted to twenty-five thousand dollars worth of automatic tips added every single day of the sixteen-day cruise. Yeah, ouch is right.
You will have a choice of cabins: inside, windowless ones for cheapskates or people who think they won’t spend much time in their cabin anyway so why bother spending money on something they won’t use, or outside ones with windows or balconies, or suites. If you’re reading this then you can’t afford a suite.
Your cabin will have one or more beds, a television set, a safe, a toilet, a shower, and not much else. But it will be enough. The television will be able to tune to a webcam view from the top of the ship and you’ll initially think this is the most pointless thing ever. And yet you’ll probably watch that channel more than anything else. The cruising spirit commands you to view the sea from the ship’s webcam. And afterwards, why not celebrate this by buying everyone at the bar the cocktail of the day?
Your Cabin Steward
The concept of someone entering the place where you live and sleep several times a day to move things around and leave little surprises for you may be one you experience regularly if drugs and crime have driven your neighbourhood into the ground or you live atop an ancient Indian burial ground. For everyone else you’re going to have to get used to coming back to your cabin during the day and exclaiming:
- Oh, the bed’s been made!
- Oh, the towels have been changed!
- Oh, the bed’s been made again!
- Oh, there are seventeen documents we’ve got to fill in before the Japanese will let us off the ship!
- Oh, come on! Why does she keep making the bed?
- Oh, all our toiletries have been arranged in descending size!
- Oh, there was nothing wrong with the bed! It’s been made again! Is she on commission?
- Oh, chocolates! How sweet!
- Oh, will you please leave my bed alone you obsessive compulsive maniac!
Unless you enjoy travelling halfway around the world just for the thrill of sitting on a ship in dock for half the voyage – and some people, it seems, do – then you’ll want to take advantage of a tour in each of your destinations.
If you aren’t fully versed in the art of queueing and sitting and waiting then you should probably get in some practice before your cruise starts now as embarkation and disembarkation for tours is one of the most thrilling (if you like disorganisation) and squeal-inducing (if you’re a queue afficionado) parts of your trip and I’d hate for you to not appreciate the otherwise mind- and arse-numbing experience of a lifetime.
Picture it: arrive at your tour meeting point in plenty of time to discover you’re one of the last there, get allocated your tour coach, watch other groups get called for upwards of an hour before you, then charge for that exit as your coach number and nineteen others all get called at once and you all pile onto the stairway waiting for the single security checkpoint to let you through. After that the tour’s got to be great, and luckily it usually is. Unless you go to Macau.
Food & Drink
Food is free and plentiful and mostly quite good. Go for the Anytime dining option rather than set time dining or you’ll be forever missing shows and complaining about it to sensible people who decided they preferred flexible eating arrangements and meeting and eating with new people each night.
You have a choice of restaurants all of which serve exactly the same food but have their own special themed dish. In the Savoy it’s cabbage on a stick. Santa Fe’s speciality is tequila-soaked cactus, whilst you can enjoy the best seaweed you’ve ever eaten in Pacific Moon. There’s an international dining room too but I didn’t go there as it involved memorising a complex route that involves approaching from the deck above.
Orange juice at breakfast, coffee and tea, and tap water cost you nothing; all other drinks are charged to your final bill. Soft drinks are not free. This surprises some people who think Coke is harvested at sea by cruise ships in giant underwater net bags and Sprite is simply sea water after it’s undergone some propeller churning.
Optional on even numbered decks, this still means that you’ll need to wear something should you wish to venture out onto the Promenade (deck 7). In addition, evenings are typically smart casual, meaning plenty of shirts, collared t-shirts, or t-shirts with collars drawn on them in felt pen are a must-have item for men. Oh, and underpants, it turns out. Did you know the ship has a brig?
On formal nights men are separated into those who are wearing tuxedos and those who just brought along a standard suit thinking that would be good enough, and a large fight commences at midnight in Club Fusion unless nearly everybody’s been in bed since 8PM because they’re old and it’s dark out (quite likely) or there’s some entertaining activity already occurring in the large club (a flying pig demonstration, for example). There are no prizes for the winners, or shame for the losers (other than the shame of knowing they should have bought a tuxedo); it’s all just for fun. If you are a victorious tuxedo-wearer then why not celebrate this by buying everyone at the bar the cocktail of the day?