Writer Carol Novis enjoying life at sea
How to ensure you’re not sold down the river
Israelis are typically associated with two basic kinds of vacation: either the intrepid variety, such as post-IDF young people take to India or South America, or the group tour, generally conducted in loud Hebrew and frequently encountered in European capitals. Anglo-Israelis have another staple, the de rigeur trip back “home” to visit relatives.
But in recent years, an increasing number of Israelis have discovered the pleasures of cruising. After all, what’s not to like? A cruise ship is basically a floating hotel with all the food you can eat, entertainment and daily stops in interesting places. Naturally, Israelis, who are pretty shrewd, have caught onto that.
If you are contemplating a cruise, though, there are a number of factors that you learn only through experience. Here are a few:
Not all cruises are the same
Don’t assume that because the ships look the same, the cruise experience will be the same. Every cruise line has its own character and that is reflected in the types of people who sail on it, the amenities, and of course the price. Some lines have the reputation of being party boats; others cater mainly to older people. Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian offer a more cost-conscious trip, although this can depend on the ship. Mainstream lines include Princess, Celebrity and Holland America. Even within this category there are differences. Princess ships, for example, tend to be large and glitzy; Holland America ships distinguished and old-world (in a good sense). Disney, of course, aims at families. Adventure lines include Lindblad and luxury lines include Crystal, Cunard, Regent Seven Seas, Seabourne and Silversea. Israeli shipping line Mano offers relatively small ship sailings to various ports in the Mediterranean.
Not all ships are the same
Decide if you are interested in a big cruise ship (over 3,000 passengers), a mid-sized one (1,000-2,000 passengers) or a small one such as you find in river cruises. The advantage of larger boats is that you might be offered a larger number of amenities, including such unexpected ones as water parks, ice skating and a sushi bar, as well as an almost infinite number of people to meet. The disadvantage is that these ships tend to be impersonal. You can meet interesting people at dinner one night and never see them again. A smallish boat, on the other hand, tends to be friendlier. You might not get casinos or Las Vegas type shows but you may not want them. A recent cruise we took around the Black Sea on a smaller ship, for example, had no entertainment crew but it did have an excellent library and university professors offering daily lectures on such subjects as modern Russia and the Crimean War.
Do your homework
Check out reviews of the lines and ships in which you are interested on sites such as TripAdvisor, Cruise Critic.com, Cruise Diva and Cruisemates.
Prices are misleading
Let’s say the brochure gives the price of an inside cabin for a week-long cruise as $800. This may not be the final word. If you book early or at the last minute, you can often find a cheaper fare. Also, some travel agents offer on-board credits, even if they can’t offer discounts. Credits are as good as cash since they can be used for tips, which are generally not included, and amount to about $11 a day per person. You can book directly through the cruise line, but a travel agent doesn’t cost any extra and will fight on your behalf if there are any problems. The internet site CruiseCompete.com has more than 100 agents who compete for your business (although I can’t vouch for them personally). Remember that cruises are cheaper when kids are in school, and vacation periods are more expensive. Luxury cruises can work out to less than they seem since they often include all tours and tips. But keep in mind that you may also have to pay for a flight to the port, a night’s hotel accommodation since you don’t want to miss the trip due to flight delays, transportation to and from the port, and, of course, health insurance.
Hidden costs and how to avoid them
Cruise lines don’t charge exorbitant amounts for the cruise itself because they earn a lot from the extras. For example, you might be charged not only for alcohol, but for soft drinks and good coffee, or even for sitting on certain parts of the deck. There are also shops, casinos, art sales, expensive spa treatments, and exercise and other classes offered for a price. But the biggest cash wasters are the shore tours, which can cost hundreds of dollars each. In my experience, they are rarely of a high level and passengers are herded around like sheep. I believe that anyone with a modicum of initiative can have a better time alone. If you go this route, Google is your friend. Research before you go and decide which places you want to visit. Look at where the ship’s tours go for idea) Print out guides. Then research public transport, and if that is not practical, hire a taxi at the port, making sure you agree on a price before you start. (Just make sure you get back in time, because the ship won’t wait for you.) Alternately, you can find a local guide on the Internet. On a visit to Odessa, for example, we found a wonderful guide to Jewish Odessa, who met us at the ship with a car and driver and took us around for four hours. In small towns, such as those in Alaska, you can easily walk from the ship to all the places of interest.
Another hidden cost is Internet connection on board. Ships charge substantial amounts for this, and the connection is usually infuriatingly slow or non-existent, unless you are in port. My suggestion is to head straight for an Internet café at each port or else the public library, if it is handy, where Internet is freely available.
The Jewish element
You can generally get kosher food on the bigger lines, which comes in packages like airline meals. If you eat vegetarian, you will have no problem at all. Mano has kosher food and you can also find specially organized kosher cruises on regular ships.
Most big ships offer a place for Shabbat services, with wine and challah. Many of the Jews on board tend to congregate there on Friday nights, even if it’s just to meet one other.
Cruising isn’t for everyone. If you like doing things on your own, enjoy spending a lot of time exploring one place, value peace and quiet and aren’t enamored of descending on a small port with several thousand others, then this may not be your kind of holiday. But if you want a hassle-free and interesting way to see different parts of the world without ever needing to repack a bag, then cruising may be for you. There’s a reason why 19 million people around the world took cruises last year, and why increasing numbers of Israelis are also opting to do so.