Why cruising’s a good idea after all

This article first appeared in WineNZ magazine in winter 2017. It's reproduced here with permission. Thanks guys! And we've added a few more photos and links.

Let me guess: you’re not a cruise person. The thought of sharing a confined space with 3,000 other people and vague memories of ‘The Love Boat’ have put you off.

But it’s time to think again. Cruising is becoming increasingly popular. There are more choices, more destination and more affordable options than in the past, plus cruising offers some unique benefits that other forms of travel simply don’t give you. We love being able to unpack once and still see lots of different cities and countries. Here are the other reasons we’ve turned into ‘cruise people’.

Popular Baltic cruise ports: Copenhagen, Tallinn in Estonia, St Petersburg and Berlin (yes, we know it's not a port city but it can still be done!).

Sometimes, cruising’s the easiest way to visit a city

Have you ever wanted to visit St Petersburg? It’s a great city full of history and intrigue, but many people are put off by the time, effort and expense required to get a Russian visa. In the past few years, Russia has offered a visa waiver for travellers who arrive in St Petersburg by cruise ship, stay for fewer than 72 hours and book an organised tour. And what constitutes an ‘organised tour’ covers everything from hiring a driver to a three-day tour including a day in Moscow. There are options to suit everyone.

Our advice is to look beyond what’s offered on your ship. While cruise companies offer tours and options for every port they stop at, what’s offered isn’t always the best deal. Local reputable travel companies offer tours and options specifically designed for cruise ship passengers and they are cheaper than what’s available through the cruise company. For example, we did a two-day tour of St Petersburg, including transport from the ship, very good local lunches, all entry fees, wifi and a brilliant Russian guide, for half the price offered on-board. You can read more here.

Our recommendation: check out your options. If you’re lucky enough to be heading to St Petersburg and want to know what’s available, we recommend Alla Tours in St Petersburg.

See places you wouldn’t normally see

Cruising gives you the chance to experience things you wouldn’t normally see and do. Easter Island, anyone?

Further north, Malta has become a popular stop on many Mediterranean cruises. Reykjavik in Iceland is included in some trans-Atlantic crossings. Tallinn in Estonia is a great place to spend a day during a Baltic cruise. And if you want to properly experience the Suez and Panama canals, cruising is the only way to do it.

Some Pacific island cruises from Brisbane now visit the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. And P&O offers a circumnavigation of New Zealand that includes a day in Stewart Island.

Our recommendation: check out what’s on offer from cruise lines like Celebrity, P&O and Princess. They regularly have itineraries that offer something a little different.  

South Pacific ports: Melbourne, Bora Bora, Noumea and Sydney.

Some places are too damn expensive to visit any other way

We’d love to visit Tahiti but flights and especially accommodation are just too expensive. The Great Barrier Reef is also on our wish list but it can be pricey.

There are great cruise options out of Auckland, Sydney and Brisbane that sail around Tahiti or along the Great Barrier Reef with stops at beautiful beaches and islands. You can experience the best of what the places offer without breaking the bank.

Our recommendation: keep an eye out for cruises that include the expensive places you’ve always wanted to visit. 

Some places only need a day

Every city and town is fascinating in its own way, but sometimes you don’t want to spend a week exploring every nook and cranny. We had a fabulous time in Noumea in one day. We explored the incredible Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre and the aquarium with plenty of time to walk on the beach, explore the town centre, practice our French and eat yummy pastries. See how we did it here.

Stockholm and Copenhagen are two popular European ports that you may want to visit but not necessarily spend days exploring. A day in Stockholm, for example, gives you time to visit the amazing 400-year-old sailing ship at the Vasa Museum, get lost in the Old Town and do a bit of shopping.

The flip-side is that you’ll discover places you’ll want to visit again. We did Berlin in a day and discovered a vibrant, exciting city that we’d go back to in a heart-beat. Here’s how we did it: we booked the ship’s three-hour transfer from the German port of Warnemunde, then spent six hours visiting the Brandenburg Gate, Judisches Museum, the Pergamonmuseum to see the 2,500-year-old Ishtar Gate built by King Nebuchadnezzar II, saw the Reichstag, strolled through the Tiergarten, admired the amazing street art, saw Checkpoint Charlie and parts of the Berlin Wall, had a beer and even did a spot of shopping in some of the uber-cool boutiques.

It wasn’t the ideal way to experience Berlin but it was do-able, enjoyable and better than missing one of the world’s great cities. And it sparked a desire to go back.

Our recommendation: make the most of every opportunity to get off the ship. Do your homework beforehand and know what you want to see. Even if you’re not particularly interested in a city, explore it anyway. You might be surprised by how much you enjoy yourself.

Exploring the Med: around Portafino in Italy, Burano near Venice, Santorini and Malta.

It’s a great way to travel without flying

Not everyone likes to fly. With more cruises now operating out of popular ports, you can easily explore the Pacific, Australia, Asia, coastal USA, the Mediterranean and the Baltic without setting foot on a plane.

You can even see the whole world: as this issue went to print [May 2017], a three-month cruise around the world from Auckland was underway. Ports include Colombo in Sri Lanka, Aqaba in Jordon for Petra, Venice, Lisbon, Reykjavik in Iceland, a few days in New York, Cartagena in Colombia, enough time in Peru to visit Machu Picchu, and Bora Bora. Not everyone has the money for this sort of trip but it shows what’s possible.

Our recommendation: investigate the cruises out of your nearest port. It may be a wee way away but you can make a road or rail trip part of the adventure.

You can hand your kids over to someone else

We know you love your kids but sometimes it’s nice to have a break. Kids’ clubs for children up to about 18 years old are offered at no extra charge on all ships. There are different clubs for kids of different ages. Trained staff will look after, feed and entertain your kids from sun up to sun down.

Our recommendation: check to see if you have to book your kids into the clubs before you embark. You don’t want the kids’ clubs to be booked out…

North and south American destinations: Easter Island, Machu Picchu, Cartagena in Colombia and New York.

Our tips for making the most of your cruise

Unless you really, REALLY like your travel companions, avoid booking a quad-share cabin. There’s just not enough space. All cruise lines offer connecting cabins and some even have family cabins.

Once on board, explore the ship. You’ll quickly find the places where you’d like to spend time. It may be with other people by the pool, a quiet spot on a side deck or in one of the many common areas. Whether you’re a people-person or not, you’ll quickly find your niche on the ship.

Cruise companies put a lot of energy into selling photo packages and other expensive add-ons. Just say no.

Do your homework about your ports of call. You’ll only have a day or two so know what you want to see and do. If you decide to do a tour through the ship, book it as early as possible as they can fill up before it’s time to sail.

If you’re not sure what to see or do in port, try booking a walking tour. They are usually the cheapest option and use local guides, and there’s plenty of time to explore on your own afterwards.

Explore the food options on-board. There’s always a buffet and an a la carte restaurant included in your fare. There’s also always at least one restaurant where you pay a surcharge. These restaurants have excellent food and wine and are worth the extra money, so check them out.

Ask your travel agent about on-board credits and drinks packages. Tours (called excursions on cruise ships) and alcohol aren’t usually included in fares. An on-board credit can be put towards a tour, and it’s nice knowing you can have a few drinks at the end of the day without paying extra.

Know how to get the most from your drinks package. This is where a bit of stealth – and lack of shame – comes in. You can usually only order one drink per person at a time. Grab yourself a bag and visit the different bars on the ship, popping each drink in your bag as you go. This only works for drinks in bottles, such as beer. But sometimes you want to kick back in your cabin with a few beers, and trekking back to the bar after each drink is a drag.

More amazing places to visit: Petra (a day-trip from the port of Aqaba), Iceland, Sri Lanka and Versailles near Paris (from Le Harve).

Updated: 30 August 2017