On a recent episode of Bravo’s Below Deck, chief stew Fraser Olender declared, “I would rather my funeral be me rotting in a car park in Texas than ever set foot on a cruise.” Fraser leads a housekeeping crew aboard a megayacht, so he knows a thing or two about hospitality and boats. But he is 100 percent dead wrong about cruises.
If you want a relaxing vacation where you can also see a lot of great places, there is no better bang for your buck than a spot on a cruise ship. You just need to know the right way to do it.
My first cruise was a disaster. I hated it. I was a law school student tagging along with my family. I had no real understanding of how to relax. I believe at one point I actually said, “You mean I’m just supposed to lay by a pool and do … nothing? Read a book? What?” Also, in hindsight, I was claustrophobic. Sometimes when I hung out in our tiny cabin it felt like the walls were closing in. I was very lucky to have parents who had sprung for a room with a balcony. I was able to open a very heavy sliding door and pace in the fresh air like a wild animal at a zoo.
I brought my boyfriend of three months on that trip. We survived our time at sea, and eventually decided to get married. When we were planning our honeymoon, we ran into an issue. I wanted to see the world. But my husband-to-be was (and remains) a picky eater who required easy access to pizza and burgers.
The solution to newlywed bliss was, improbably, a cruise. I had fun on that cruise—and then many cruises after. Here is what I’ve learned.
The cruise ship you pick is essential. From the quality of food to how comfortable you are in the rooms to how loud the pool area is—the cruise line dictates a lot of that, and the specifics can vary from ship to ship, even within a particular line. Especially quality of food. I’ve been on ships where the food was barely edible, and I’ve been on ships where I would happily eat their pasta for the rest of my life. Luckily, there are an incredible amount of cruise ship ranking and review websites out there, not to mention a healthy number of cruise ship vloggers. I’ve also noticed that if you go on a bigger, newer ship, the chances of eating cheeseburgers that do not taste like charcoal improve.
Time of year and geographical route will strongly dictate who your fellow passengers are. That first family trip was a Caribbean cruise in the middle of spring break—it was filled with teenagers, and 20-somethings who appeared to be drinking their body weight. I’ve never seen so many neon bikinis. Our fellow cruisers were loud, chatty, and gave me a headache. Which isn’t their fault! I’ve just been 50 years old since I was 23. If you are younger of heart than I am, by all means, sail to the Bahamas in early April and enjoy buckets of beer in the hot tub with strangers.
If you’re like me and prefer a more geriatric clientele, then Alaska in September, the Mediterranean in November, or anywhere in Europe after August are excellent choices. Our honeymoon was spent on the “Holy Lands” cruise in late October, because we are Jewish and sexy. Also, Italy and Malta were part of the itinerary. Nine times out of 10, we were the youngest people in a room. We saw one other young couple, presumably on their own honeymoon. We did not make friends with them. Instead, we did what has become my favorite part of a cruise: studied them at a distance for the whole of the trip. They were us, but if we understood wine pairings and had access to a country club.
Yes, there is the unavoidable matter of a large number of people in relatively close quarters. People performing the “vacation” versions of themselves can be particularly annoying. But you can find peace on a cruise ship, it just takes a little effort. Contrary to popular belief, on major cruise lines you don’t have to eat with strangers. In fact, we’ve never once eaten with strangers. You simply tell the host or hostess that you need a table for two and voilà, you are seated. I’ve even eaten alone with no problems. You can take your book to the pool and, as long as you don’t make eye contact, people will generally leave you alone. There are always various nooks and crannies aboard the ship where you can relax without disturbance. I love getting a cocktail or coffee and then taking my laptop to write in an empty lounge or a closed bar. You also don’t have to go on the excursions offered by the cruise line; you can plan your own, which I highly recommend. When we went to Alaska, we hiked a nearby mountain in the rain, and while I (along with our cab driver) was kind of surprised we survived, it was one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done.
Recently, we dragged our small child along for our first cruise since the pandemic started, and her first cruise ever. We researched kid-friendly cruise lines: We needed something with a small pool, toddler activities, and a general understanding among guests that it’s OK to have a tiny human with you. I was nervous to be around so many other people. But our kid loved it and I was reminded of the absolute best reason to go on a cruise: exhaustion.
It has been a tiring and emotionally draining two and a half years for the best of us. I am not the best of us. Our daughter was born in April of 2020, which was both joyful and stressful. Life has been hard and I wanted a break. Perusing Zillow had become an obsession, not just a hobby; I was so sick of my house. I wanted to see beautiful places. I didn’t want to figure out what we would eat. I’ve planned twelve thousand meals in the past two years, and I needed a week where I just didn’t have to think about food. I didn’t want to plan an itinerary. I wanted to pick a few fun things to do ahead of time and just go. Just be.
And that’s the beauty of a cruise. A little planning on the front end, and then you’re done. You can do as much or as little as you want. At the end of each day, you’ll go back to a clean room, often with a fun little animal crafted from towels on your bed. Plan one now, and you can spend the rest of winter dreaming about a warm vacation—even, if it suits you, a boozy spring break.