If you have followed our journey for any length of time, it is no surprise that Jeremy and I love to travel. We have visited at least one new country every year of our marriage, and we trot all over the US on a regular basis for work and for pleasure. (See some of other adventures: Iceland part 1 and part 2; Italy Venice, Rome, Cinque Terre; England part 1, part 2; Grand Canyon)
This February, we were given the opportunity to head out on a cruise--which is a new kind of adventure for us. The cruise was actually a work trip for Jeremy (tough job, right?) because he is a tour manager for a band that was part of the "entertainment" for a chartered marriage cruise. I was able to tag along on the adventure.
In all honesty, my first instinct was a little skeptical about the idea of cruising. As a lover of seeing new sights and exploring new places, the idea of spending five precious vacation days on a boat with just a few short hours in ports in Mexico was not the MOST appealing to me.
I can confidently say, however, that after a week on a cruise ship with great people, lots of sunshine, and no phone service or wi-fi, I am a believer that cruises can, in fact, be awesome. Seriously, I came back so refreshed.
That said, I figured I would share a few things I learned about how to make the most of a cruise by making it your own. If you're like me, and you don't particularly love being herded around with a bunch of tourists on your vacation, there are some easy ways to make a cruise feel like more of an adventure. Maybe your family is taking a cruise or you find it's the cheapest way to take a vacation this year, but you want to make the most of it? Here are some tips for you! If you're an experienced cruiser, this list is probably going to be a little bit "No, duh" for you. Forgive me!
A little bit of back story...I had been on one cruise before this one. I was 17, and it was a Disney cruise with a group of friends for a friend's 16th birthday. Those are memories I will always cherish, but being on a planned trip with a bunch of teenagers was a totally different experience than cruising as an adult. So, I felt like a cruise virgin this time.
This time around, we headed off on an adventure on the Carnival Triumph on what was technically a "work trip" for Jeremy. This cruise consisted of five nights, two and a half sailing days, and two days in Mexico (Cozumel & Progreso). I entered the week running on hardly any sleep and a lot of pent up stress, so a break from reality was exactly what I needed.
Two of my favorite things about vacations are planning them in advance and making memories off the beaten path. I love to do research so that I have an idea of what to expect going into a trip. But, I encountered a lot of roadblocks in researching cruising. A big reason is that I think a lot of people just follow scheduled programming on a cruise (aka the opposite of off the beaten path) and stick with the crowd. Here are a few things I learned along the way that might be helpful for you!
1. Find Local Places -- And Don't Buy a Cruise Line Excursion
Cruises are designed for you to go to the service desk, pick out the excursion of your choice, and do everything in tandem with the cruiseline and other tourists. We knew that's not what we wanted (both because of the cost and the experience), so I hunted for other options for our group of nine people.
I was surprised to find that the cruise ports aren't right on the beaches. You generally walk through a touristy little "village" built just for tourists with lots of duty free shopping and vendors hawking wares, and then you're expected to hop on an excursion paid for by the cruiseline or take a taxi to a beach somewhere filled with other tourists. And if you just follow the advice of the locals once you get there, that's exactly where you will end up. But, just a few minutes of research in advance could make a world of difference.
In Cozumel, I did a little bit of googling in advance and discovered a resort called Playa Azul with a free beach and a cheap restaurant that was out of the tourist zone and off the beaten path. It was absolutely perfect. There were only a handful of people there and hardly any cruise tourists. The water was perfectly clear, the snorkeling was amazing, and the chicken fajitas may have been the best I've ever had. There was also an adorable little Key Lime Pie shop across the street that was run by a mom and her young daughter. She made the best Key Lime Pie in the world. What I wouldn't give for a slice right now. We seriously had a blast, and it was so refreshing to get away from the cruise atmosphere. We would have never had that relaxing experience if we hadn't done a little research and hunted for a quiet spot.
A few tips for when you decide to take the road less traveled:
- The locals at the port may try to convince you otherwise. When we tried to hail a cab, the guy at the taxi station told us not to go to Playa Azul and lied to us saying it was too expensive (although I knew it was free to get in) because he wanted us to go to a busy tourist beach with an overpriced all inclusive rate. I don't know if he gets a kickback for saying that, but I'm glad we stuck with our gut.
- Be prepared to be scalped for paying in American dollars. There wasn't a single ATM that distributed Pesos at the cruise port, so we didn't have much of a choice, but we definitely realized that we were not getting a fair exchange rate by paying in American dollars. Everything was still really cheap, but while the official exchange rate for a plate of fajitas costing 130 pesos may be $6.66...they charged us more in the neighborhood of $12. Still not outrageous for AMAZING fajitas, but we wished we had access to Pesos somehow so we could pay the true rate.
2. Don't be afraid to experience some cultural flair
Our second port, Progreso, isn't much to look at. It's mostly a gateway for cruise excursions to take you somewhere else. The actual town is pretty run down, but it feels like a true Mexican city. We put some steps on our step counters walking around away from the port, and it was really fun to feel like we got to see Mexico's true colors.
3. Roam the decks during quiet times of day
Some of the most relaxing moments on the ship were spent when other people were busy at a port or doing other things on the ship. One of my favorite things to do on vacation is get up and watch the sunrise (even if I go back to bed afterward). I love to watch a city wake up, and I loved watching the ocean wake up too. The decks were so quiet early in the morning, and it made me forget I was floating through the ocean with 4,000 other people.
One morning, we brought our breakfast up to the deck and ate in lounge chairs while other people were in the restaurants. It was a quieter and simpler way to enjoy the morning.
4. Skip some programming to make your own fun
Our cruise was a chartered marriage cruise, so most people followed a given schedule in the evenings. We played hooky every night (but one) from the scheduled dinner in order to eat with our little group at the buffet. I know a lot of people LOVE the scheduled dinners, but the leisurely meals away from the large crowds were some of my favorite memories from the trip. One night, we brought all of our plates up to some lounge chairs on the deck and spent hours chatting in the evening breeze--cell phone free and just focused on good conversation.
Whatever cruise you're on, look at the list of programming carefully. There may be some things you definitely don't want to miss, but you may also find that you'll have an even better time skipping it to do your own thing.
5. Make friends with the cruise staff
One of the best parts of traveling is meeting people of different cultures. While the other cruisers may all be Americans, I bet the crew on your ship are from all over the world. Take some time to get to know them.
We had the most amazing concierge on our floor named Rudy. He memorized all of our names and always had a smile on his face. I talked to people all over the ship who came from places like Indonesia and the Philippines. Many of them leave their families for 8 or 9 months at a time and go months without seeing their own children so that they can provide for them financially, and yet they serve (relatively) wealthy Americans like us with a smile and a joyful spirit. There is something to be learned there. Don't miss it.
6. It's a cruise...embrace the cheese!
While you'll never be able to get away from all of the "touristy" and "manufactured" parts of cruising...that's half the fun! This isn't like other forms of vacationing. This is all about your relaxation, escape from reality, and ability to do whatever you feel like doing without having to plan it. So eat another free ice cream cone, watch another movie on the deck, and take another photo of that towel swan on your bed. Don't pay for wi-fi because this is your chance to disconnect completely (that may have been my favorite part). Sleep late because you can. Watch Secret Life of Walter Mitty one more time (our ship had an entire channel that only played that movie on repeat). Embrace the fact that there is nothing to do but eat pizza, lay in the sun, go to the gym whenever you want, and ride up and down the elevators that smell like cruise food. This is nothing like real life, and that makes it awesome.
Overall, I'm so grateful for the refreshing relaxation we had on board the Carnival Triumph and for the fun experiences we made while on board and on land.