Is a World Cruise Right For You?

When we booked our first World Voyage in 2012, I honestly believed that we would be sailing with many other ‘first-timers’ going around the world.  Mentioned elsewhere on this site, we were amazed to learn that in fact WE were the minority; that the ms Amsterdam & her circumnavigation itinerary served as the winter home for most of the people aboard. One gentleman in particular, now a good friend (Eddie) has been on 22 consecutive World Voyages – same ship, & generally the same cabin. He and his wife, Leah, are wonderful people, and call New York their home when not sailing the seven seas.

 

We met one couple this past year doing only a segment of the World Cruise – from Cape Town to Ft. Lauderdale. His comment to me was, “Why would I want to spend 100+ days on any ship? I like to fly to my destinations, rent an RV, and then fly to the next city!” I said, “Dave, I don’t believe they have RV rentals on Easter Island OR Komodo Island. What’s more, you’ll need snow-chains & a prayer in Antarctica!”

 

My thought process is simply this. Imagine being able to board a single cruise ship and set off for the four corners of the globe, without having to contend with the hassles of airport security, connecting flights, layovers, and other inconveniences. As fun as traveling is, it can also be very stressful. By going on a World Cruise, you shed all of that stress. Many folks would like to go on at least one full-fledged world travel adventure in their  lives, and a ‘round-the-world’ cruise is an excellent way to do so. With cruises that circumnavigate the globe, you can enjoy the best of both worlds – all of the amenities, services and features that make cruising so popular, and the ability to see and experience a huge number of different places.

 

Please bear in mind as you read forward here – I’m not an expert by any means. But I AM a good listener, take lots of notes, learn quickly, and have had conversation with dozens of folks.  I’m anxious to share with you!

As I mentioned, last year we were World Cruise virgins, but we quickly discovered these cruisers fall into two groups: those who fill their days moaning about anything and everything, and those who are fed up with the nitpickers. It’s a bit like meeting the neighbors for the first time. During our first cruise, these ‘old hands’  had a ready stash of stories to tell - what they thought of the food, the service, who said what to whom and on which world cruise, and how "they" (being Holland America) rip you off for "this or that." Naturally, both "this and that" changed depending on who you talked to and how many cocktails had been consumed.

In addition to established complaints and stories, the world cruisers had also established a daily routine - breakfast, time to rest, read, play cards, a lecture, lunch, time for another rest and read, then back to the cabin to get ready for pre-dinner drinks and the evening meal. Wives, I noticed, also made time for the laundry room, which was the best place to pick up on the gossip - and of course, on-board shopping. Although we had free laundry service, I frequently visited the washer & dryer to do underwear & other fill-in cleaning – I’m an early riser (typically by 4am) and I often needed something to do with my time while Cheryl and other ‘normal’ people slept. We both stayed away from on-board shopping unless they were offering 75% off, which they typically did. Who wants to pay full-price for a Holland America Alaska shirt when you’re touring the deserts of Egypt or Namibia?


Seriously, if you have the time, cruising all the way around the globe is the ultimate travel experience. Most passengers who do this are regular cruisers, and because of the time element (ranging from 90 to 120 days) they tend to be retired. However, families with tots and teens do make an appearance; on the world cruise last year, we had a 10-year old girl who had a private tutor, and this year we had an 8-year old boy. There was also one family with two teenage girls.

 

Potential downsides – if you don’t like sea days, you might get claustrophobic because there are several long stretches of days at sea. If you love the simple pleasure of watching a ship sail out of port, or the lingering sunset on a day at sea, you'll probably not succumb to the "yet another port" syndrome and take pleasure from the simpler, but often most satisfying aspects of shipboard life.

Oh…and the big one. Do you like people?  Believe me, a world cruise can test people's patience, and after several months together, tempers occasionally flare. You’ll be fine if you have a naturally optimistic and happy demeanor and like the company of a variety of people. Again, I’ll stress the word patience. There are sometimes lines for food, drinks, tours, entertainment, even laundry.  Call it age, wisdom, or experience, but many senior citizens have perfected their strategy for cutting in line and unfortunately, far too often. They have this ‘thing’ about being first. It may have something to do with entitlement, which is really nothing more than a selfish mindset.  To the extreme, we’ve seen some folks (who are otherwise healthy) show up for shore excursions in wheelchairs & scooters so they will be given preferential treatment disembarking or claiming a front seat on the tour bus – seriously! You then see those same people the next day shooting baskets or jogging around the decks – amazing! Their thought process is simply this: If I’m first off the ship for a tour, I get the best seat on the bus…I’m first off the bus…I’m the first one to see the landmark or destination…I’m first in line when it’s lunch or feeding time…and I’m the first one to get in line to re-board the ship when we return. You see this happen all the time. We’ve witnessed shouting matches as well as physical shoving & pushing. This past year, a fist-fight broke out on one of the tour busses as one man attempted to bolt to the front FIRST without allowing other people seated in front of him to get up and exit…as you would normally do. All manners and common courtesy seem to go out the window.

 

One incident in particular, was both hilarious yet sad. Here’s the setting.  Most all shore excursion participants meet in the large general theater several minutes before their tour is scheduled to depart. There may be several hundred folks in the theater representing several different tours. As people enter the theater, they’re continually reminded to take a seat, not to block doorways, etc., for safety reasons, yada-yada- yada.  Well…you see people trying to hide behind columns, around corners, and ANY location nearest the exit door so they can be the FIRST one off once the announcement is made!  People actually move the furniture around in the theater, aiming their chairs in the direction of the exit – their bodies practically in crouched position, like a cat getting ready to pounce on a mouse. The Shore Excursion Manager is always located at the back of the theater and as he receives confirmation on his walkie-talkie that the buses are ready to depart for a particular activity, he’ll make an announcement over the PA system that… “tour number 7 may now proceed to the gangway after getting your identification stickers here at the back of the room.”  OMG…you’d think a fire erupted! Dozens of people leap to their feet with elbows in prime combat position…crushing their way to the back of the theater! One middle-aged gal was obviously traveling with her mother – she was in her mid-80’s at the least, and barely able to navigate, even with crutches. When their tour was announced, the daughter grabbed her mother’s crutches in one hand, and with her other hand, literally dragged her to the extent that her ankles were scraping across the carpet – it looked like one of those zany, animated cartoons! Unbelievable!

 

Oh…& mention the word food - you see people who normally limp along in anguish suddenly strap a motor to their backside – don’t get in their way – feeding time!!    

Ok…so beyond the standard ‘round-the-world’ trip, there are additional options:

Segments:  You don't have to book an entire world cruise, but can opt, instead, for a segment, ranging from two weeks to a month or more. These are a great way to sample the world cruise experience if you are strapped for time and cash, and also a good way to test out the experience before committing to the full circumnavigation if you are a bit uncertain. You can embark in or depart from a nearby homeport, such as San Diego, San Francisco, Los Angeles, or Ft. Lauderdale. Some fly to Sydney or Hong Kong and catch the back-end of the trip. The drawback for ‘part-world’ cruisers comes when you have to fly, if only one way, because open-jaw travel can be pricey, and packing becomes more of a challenge due to airline weight limitations and baggage fees. As I mention elsewhere on our website, Holland America has a wonderful luggage program with Federal Express where you can have your bags shipped directly from your home to the ship, and back home again after the voyage. This is a godsend! Can you imagine trying to wrestle with seven to ten suitcases in a cab, at the airport, or at the pier? For Holland America suite occupants, this service is all-inclusive, while other passengers are charged a fee per bag. Even so, it’s well worth the spend.     

Grand Voyages: Since we started traveling the world two years ago, we’ve learned that many cruise lines offer lavish, lengthy voyages of 70 nights or more that may or may not be called World Cruises. Holland America calls them Grand Voyages. They may start in the U.S. and end in Europe or the U.K., or stay focused on a particular continent or hemisphere. Those not marketed as Grand World Voyages may lack some of the old-world grandeur, perks and excitement, but these epic voyages still carry the same advice. Although we’ve sailed on many cruise lines and until our first World Voyage on Holland America, our trips ranged between 7 – 21 days. We don’t have experience with any World Voyages other than Holland America; therefore, I cannot draw an accurate comparison. Having said that, suffice it to say we’re very satisfied Holland America customers and have no desire to experiment with competitors. We’ve heard from other well-traveled passengers that Holland America is probably middle-of-the-road in terms of price, programs, & accommodations – that works just fine for us! It’s not so much the on-board, daily programs that interest us – we manage to entertain ourselves regardless. And actually, Holland America provides a variety of different activities each day – early morning exercise classes, tennis, ping-pong, bridge instruction, computer classes, interesting lectures on upcoming destinations, various craft workshops, wine tasting, ship tours, and the list goes on. The accommodations are very important to some folks, but not us. You spend very little time in your stateroom to begin with, so for average people like us, spending $250K on a penthouse suite is overkill!  You can spend as little as $60K for a nice stateroom with adequate storage & good ocean views, with an average price of $110K for a mini-suite with balcony.   

Boomerangs: One recent spin on world cruises is the "boomerang," which combines two ships in one trip. For instance, you might sail the ms Amsterdam from Ft. Lauderdale to Sydney and then board the ms Rotterdam to sail back to Ft. Lauderdale. Sometimes the two ships are in port together, so you transfer on the same day; other times, the cruise line will, in many cases, put you up for a few days until your second ship arrives. This can be a great way to see a city you've always wanted to visit in more depth. Nearly everyone we’ve talked with doing boomerang world cruises use two ships from the same line, but if you're truly adventurous in travel planning, you could do segments on two different lines, though you would then be responsible for making arrangements in port between the sailings. We try to keep things as simple as possible. Boomeranging helps offset the dreaded world cruise tedium by bringing in fresh new faces and scenery for the second half of your trip. However, while cruise lines will help with the transfer of luggage from one ship to the other, having to pack and unpack again would take some of the convenience out of the trip.

Off-Season Sailings:  If you just can't get away during the traditional world cruise start date in January, I’ve learned that a few cruise lines have started to move world cruise dates to reach new clients. Princess is a prime example – they offer a world cruise that starts from Australia in May. I wish we would have known about this because living in Phoenix, our most brutal temperatures are from May – September. As I write this in late June, our high a few days ago was a blistering 119!

Size Matters:  Think carefully about how big of a ship you want. Until recently, there wasn't a wide variety in sizes of ships doing full world cruises. Today, you can choose anything from smaller, ultra-luxury ships like Seabourn, Silversea, to giants like Cunard’s Queen Mary 2. Keep in mind however, large cruise ships aren’t allowed in places like Antarctica because of pollution, and that’s one of the most beautiful destinations on earth. On the other hand, smaller ships also are more prone to the whims of the ocean, so they may not be the best if you are prone to seasickness. With a smaller ship come fewer passengers and hence, the more time you spend with the same group of people. (After 4 or 5 months, you may be desperate to meet someone new!) Also, due to the nature of their size, smaller ships offer less variety in facilities, restaurants and entertainment but again, it’s the destinations that are important for us. A larger ship can offer more options, but again, it's more limited in its ports. Also, check where the ship will dock; while smaller vessels can pull up close to a city, larger ones often have to seek out industrial ports farther away. This makes independent exploration more difficult and expensive. If you find yourself taking tours in each port because the ship isn't able to dock in the center of town, you'll quickly end up spending a small fortune. Finally, bigger ships have a greater number of passengers not doing the full trip. You'll have plenty of new people onboard, but the feeling that the ship is truly "yours" is somewhat diminished if 2,000 people come and go every few weeks. 

Here are a few tips for evaluating world cruise itineraries and picking the best for your interests:

Check for Sea Days: When choosing your cruise, look carefully at the dates on the schedule. Cruise lines don't always list sea days, so it might look as if you have a myriad of exotic ports, one after the other, when actually there's a week at sea in between them. Our experience has been approximately 55 sea days, 55 port days.

Think About Ports: Check the ports of call carefully; it would be a shame to head off around the world and visit places you already know. On the other hand, a few repeat visits are great for discovering some new little gems.

Make the Most of Longer Stays: Having a few overnights or extended port calls helps to break up the shipboard routine. You'll know the city better, won't feel as rushed and can actually do what you came on the ship to do: relax and travel. We’ve had overnight stays in Lima, Rio, Buenos Aires, Tahiti, Hong Kong, Singapore, Sydney, Perth, Auckland, Bombay, & Cape Town – so be sure to see if there are a good number of longer calls on your intended world cruise schedule.  Another benefit of a world cruise is the ability to disembark the ship for in-depth, multinight shore excursions, either during an overnight call or by rejoining the ship in its next port. You might be able to visit the rarely visited Himalayan mountain country of Bhutan or reach Macchu Pichu. As you’ve read, we did a 2-day African safari this year – we got off the ship in Richard’s Bay, and rejoined in Durbin. While these trips aren’t cheap, they can add a lot to your experience and give a nice break from shipboard routine. Look closely when comparing cruises to see what overland excursions are available.

See How Long You're In Port: Make sure stays aren't too short.  Cruise lines today are looking for ways to save on fuel, and having the ship at sea longer (thereby allowing a slower cruising speed) adds up to big savings. As a consequence, an hour or two is frequently being nipped from several port calls. If your ship always leaves at 4 or 5 p.m., is that really enough time to see everything? Fortunately, we’ve never had that issue with Holland America, but financial pressures change constantly so just be aware.

Look for Perks: Check what perks you get for doing the full world cruise. Many lines will offer complimentary business-class airfare or private car services to pick you up from your home. I’ve mentioned the Fed-X luggage service several times offered by Holland America – it’s awesome!  Special events, like a grand evening ashore, including dinner with the company CEO, are common. Look for exclusive events, such as having access to the Sistine Chapel or a camp-side dinner in the Namibian desert. In our case, it was a camp-side lunch, but absolutely breathtaking.

 

How to Pick a Cabin: A lot depends on your budget for this one, but even if you are going to be at sea for several months, spending $250K for a suite just because you can doesn’t justify the investment. There’s plenty of room in most all cabins for cloths, and empty suitcases can either be conveniently stored under the bed, or removed from your stateroom completely and warehoused in the bowls of the ship. Remember, MOST of your time will be spent in public areas or on land-based tours.  

The usual rules apply if you are able to pick your specific cabin. The lower rooms in the center of the ship are the most stable if the sea turns nasty, and odds are it will at some point over four months.  If you can't bear being near the water line, choose a cabin higher up but still in the center of the ship. Conversely, cabins at the front and back take the brunt of the movement in a heavy swell, but those at the rear often have wonderful views over the ship's wake (and sometimes get bigger balconies) -  check out the small print in the brochures if that appeals to you. Cabins near elevators can be noisy as people return to bed late at night. Staterooms at the back are handy for the self-service buffet on the top deck and the restaurants on the lower decks, which are invariably at the aft end of most ships, not just Holland America.

One other tip: Make sure you know the person you're traveling with well. Often, solo travelers might choose someone they're friendly with but not particularly familiar with. Four months is a long time!

What to Pack: You know how hard it is to decide what to take for a two-week vacation? Then pity the world cruiser, who has to pack for several months away, making sure to have something for warm, cold and wet weather, not to mention all those formal nights. Check out our “Pre-Cruise Preparation” pages for both 2012 & 2013. We made some mistakes during 2012, but learned a lot enabling a much better organized sailing in 2013. A little planning will pay dividends. Your cruise line can tell you how many formal, semi-formal and smart-casual nights there will be, so start by selecting outfits for them, remembering that accessories are a wonderful way of giving clothes you have worn once a new lease on life. We had 19 formal nights in 2013 and for us, that’s a bit much. Typically, we’d dress for alternate formal nights, so approximately ten. For dinner, we would either order complimentary room service or eat in the Lido restaurant, which is always casual. It’s also a good idea to match the itinerary against weather charts for the time of year you'll be visiting. For example, in January, Europe could be chilly, the Caribbean will likely be pleasantly warm but not hot and tropical countries like Malaysia might be steaming but also in the midst of a rainy season - so a light raincoat or umbrella might come in handy. It goes without saying the Antarctic will always be cold! If you live near a world-cruise departure port, such as Los Angeles, Fort Lauderdale or Southampton, you can pack as much as you want because you won't have to fly. But tempting as it might be to take the kitchen sink, remember you can always replenish your wardrobe as you sail around the world, especially in Asia, where you can pick up some real bargains. We found our best deals in Vietnam. Remember also that all ships offer laundry service, and many have do-it-yourself washing facilities. In 2013, Holland America charged $2 for a loaded washer, and the dryer was free - a pretty good deal actually. So ask if your ship does or does not, as this can help you save a fortune in laundry fees. Also, depending on your “loyalty status” with each cruise line, once you reach certain levels your laundry & dry cleaning services are free. We took full advantage of Holland America’s free services, with the exception of socks, underwear, and other small items. I did that myself in the wee hours of the morning – and during those times I also met some of the most colorful characters and scooped-up on all the latest gossip! Remember, if you’re just on a segment of a world cruise, with flights to or from the ship (or both ways) you’ll need to pack more carefully to stay inside your airline's weight limits. Plus, you may want to travel light so there's room to bring a few exotic souvenirs back home.

 

Navigating the Nitpickers - Social Life Onboard: We quickly learned that world cruises take on a different rhythm and character with so many passengers onboard for an extended period of time. This is both a blessing and a curse, and actually, tackling social life on a world cruise is entertainment all to itself! Dedicated lounges, concierges or events for those making the full cruise make meeting fellow travelers particularly easy. Also, world cruises are full of loyal repeaters, sometimes booking the same ship and as I mentioned, even the same cabin year after year. Even before the ship sails, there are circles of friends reuniting after nine months apart. Our Christmas card list nearly doubled after our first world cruise, and this year will be no different. Facebook, Twitter, email…we all stay in touch! We’ve been very fortunate in meeting some truly wonderful human beings the past two sailings, and will see many of them again in 2015.


Beware, though, there can be too much of a good thing. Cliques invariably form. Full world cruisers often stick together and playfully, and sometimes not quite so playfully, look down upon those on for just a segment as "interlopers." Or, newfound friends turn sour after a few months onboard. It isn't uncommon to see minor slights turn into disagreements or outright unpleasantness. And, while a world cruise seems exciting and stimulating, ‘world-weariness’  inevitably settles in, passengers become a bit more disgruntled, and complaining becomes a well-practiced art form. At times, it can get quite vocal! The irony is that, as the end of the world cruise starts approaching, rifts are healed and friendships reform. All the unhappiness, shortcomings and eccentricities are forgotten by the time the ship reaches the pier, and those who were complaining the most are often the first to book again. The longer people stay on, the more at-home and comfortable they feel, and sometimes they carry that a bit too far. Walking around the Lido restaurant in robes and slippers is not appropriate, even after two months onboard, though we frequently saw it!

 

As I become aware of other information appropriate for this section, I’ll be sure to post it as appropriate so please check back.