A Backpacker's Guide to Cruises

For some, this title is ironic, polarizing, an oxy moron, a moot point. Backpackers don't cruise, are you kidding me? Gasp - cough - lean against a wall in disbelief... I think backpacking is a mindset as well as an art form exhibited in the travel arena. What happens if Grammy wants the whole family to sail together to the Caribbean? And how about a reunion with your best friends from college? Sometimes it really is just about enjoying yourself and traveling conveniently, and instead of wasting energy debating the gross consumerism and inauthenticity of commercial, mass travel, why not go along for the ride - just as you would on the top of an Indian bus.

Ship Knowledge

 The ship's bow

The ship's bow

Quickly, here's your ship direction guide:

The bow is the front. The stern (or aft) is the back. Port is the left-hand side. Starboard is the right-hand side.

To remember this, port and left both have four letters while you point to the stars with your right hand.

As soon as you embark, get a lay of the ship - just as you would seize the town upon setting your bags by your new dorm bed. Ask the crew where you can find whatever's important to you: a relaxed bar atmosphere, the least crowded pool, the coolest free stuff to do on board, and more.

If you get seasick, go to the stern to the lowest level possible and try to stay outside in the fresh air. If you take dramamine, prepare for the subsequent, 2-hour nap. Stay hydrated, and bring packets of lemonade or drink mix if you don't like chlorinated tap water.

Click with the Crew

 Cruise ship crew

Cruise ship crew

Even if your ship is a Cialis commercial, don't forget that there are hundreds of people on board who see the world the same way you do. Those would be the crew members - people who have figured out how to travel and make money simultaneously. They work (more or less) ten hour days, seven days a week, and when someone interacts with them that doesn't fit the mold of the cruise-afficionado, it's a breath of fresh air they stick around to relish in.

I had long talks with the spa workers, the waiters, the bartenders - they all enjoy engaging in conversations that don't involve pool towels and premium wine tastings. These are the people who will tell you what to do in port and where to find the best value food/internet/just about anything.

Packing

 Get your sherpa on!

Get your sherpa on!

As this is a backpacker's guide, be sure to bring your ...backpack. Don't think just because you're following the crowd that you should pack like them also. Wearing a backpack will make it easy to carry on your own luggage and not have to drop it on the terminal and wait for its arrival later. Plus, collapsible luggage can fit under your bed.

Remember there's a laundromat aboard. You don't have to pack seven of everything for a week trip. You also have free shampoo and a clothesline in the shower. Pull out your hostel skills and wash your delicates in the sink. Did you know shampoo is quite alright for washing cotton clothes (and probably others)?

What to bring:

Note: This packing list is optimal for a week in a hot climate.

 Cruise Footwear

Cruise Footwear

Footwear: sneakers for the gym, walking in port, and around the slippery deck and sandals that work going to the pool and to dinner

Cruise ship attire: one pair of comfy pants (that can hopefully pass as dressy), one pair of shorts (exercise-friendly), a bathing suit, 2 - 4 t-shirts (some classier than others), a sweatshirt, one nicer outfit that doesn't wrinkle too much(if you're traveling with grandparents or a pinkies-up crowd)

Undergarments: 2 - 4 pairs of underwear (wash in sink or laundromat), 2 pairs of socks, and you ladies can figure out your own bra situation

Other essentials: a scarf/colorful pashmina if you're a lady, antibiotics and cipro for traveler maladies from the port, laptop (for media storage or if you like paying $.50 per wireless minute), a bottle of wine (that's all you're allowed as a cruise passenger), a cover-up and/or sarong, and all the obvious items like cameras and a toothbrush

Traveling in Port

 Preparing for Flight

Preparing for Flight

This will be one of the most aggravating aspects of cruise travel for the natural vagabond. Be prepared that you'll only be spending roughly five hours more or less in your cruise destinations. Here's how to maximize your time on land:

1. Do your research before you sail. Get familiar with the layout of the city and figure out the one thing you'd like to do in the port city.

2. Read the newsletter delivered to your room the night before a port. Note the sunrise time (wake up for all sunrises!) and when people can begin disembarking the ship. If there is a tender (a smaller boat that takes people from the ship to shore), listen to announcements and get in line early for one of the first boatloads. Tenders take longer.

3. If you want to pay more for convenience, go with a cruise-sponsored trip, but if you're sticking to your backpacker guns, know there are plenty of salesmen past the gangway willing to haggle and offer the same trip. It will probably be cheaper, but you may have to lean on them a tad for making it back in time to the ship.

 Find the real city

Find the real city

4. Find the main area of town where they funnel cruise-goers and keep walking a few blocks until you find the real city.

5. Don't buy liquor and expect access to it on the ship. They will package it for your final night to avoid losing out on alcohol sales at sea. Research other contraband in order to avoid losing anything you purchase as well.

6. The less baggage you have in port, the fast you can get through the line to get back on the ship.

7. If you have to tender, get in line 75 minutes before the ship embarks just in case the line is huge. If the ship is docked, line up a half hour or more prior.

Avoiding Extra Costs

Cruises today range from tens of thousands per voyage to incredibly affordable [considering the included service, transportation, lodging, food, and amenities offered for free]. I'm frankly amazed that for almost $100 a day my trip was actually possible.

 Lots to Oggle

Lots to Oggle

This is only the upfront cost, but if you follow the road rules of the backpacking type, it's possible to exercise, eat constantly, witness comics and flamboyant performances, learn from pros and entertain yourself for days for no extra charge (unless you can't resist a frosty brew).

Aside from gratuities for your cabin steward, one could avoid the ship charges altogether! But we all know that's not the point of a cruise.

Why Cruise?

I can see only a few reasons why a backpacker would travel on a cruise: a family trip, a reunion or trip with a group of people, or pure pampering in an all-inclusive setting.

For these trips, a cruise is an incredible way to travel, but since backpackers are often about roughing it, immersing themselves in the destination, paying pennies, and moving solo/in pairs, it doesn't always make sense to float on the ocean with 3,000 other people your parents' age.

 Getting in touch with the open ocean

Getting in touch with the open ocean

Here's what some backpackers said about cruises...

@nomadicmatt: Cruises aren't really a backpacker thing but in their own right can be a fun time. I've been on a few. lots of food!

@heyitsbryan: not my fave

@mattyingram: cruises make me feel like I'm in a straightjacket, listening to ABBA, watching someone on a treadmill. I need to breathe! [I don't like having limited time in ports] you do get to see more places without moving...but thats part of the fun, the crazy places you stay and crazies you meet. It constantly changes, and you have freedom to move.

@thetravelbee: Well, I'd like to take one, it sounds like fun! I have never been on one.

One thing that is sure to upset the backpacker majority is that the schedule port cities aren't really the "destinations" of the voyage. For many on board, it's not about the land but being at sea with all the amenities and excitement. I was in shock when people chose not to get off the ship in Mexico, blaming the weather or schedule engagements on the ship, but one can't get too obsessed with this.

Yes, for the backpacker, it is about the journey, just as much if not more, than about the destination. When the journey is too easy and the destination isn't enjoyed, what's the trip all about?

Getting away from "it all"

Did this guide help you? Have you had any personal experiences with cruises in the recent past? Do tell.