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Cruising for Independent Travelers

cruise wine dinner Lesson #4: Though a lot of activities (spa treatments, for instance) and facilities (private balconies, etc.) offered onboard cater to people's individual interests, the notion of organized, group fun remains at the heart of big-ship cruising.

When you decide to jump into the ship's social scene, the first thing you must do is consult the newsletter delivered to your room each morning. I had tossed mine aside for two days in a row and found myself aimlessly wandering around the ship in search of things to do. But once I consulted the calendar, I found several appealing activities. Would I attend a wine tasting or an art auction? Or enjoy some oldies but goodies at an old-fashioned piano sing-along? I could even practice my drive at the golf simulator. I did these and more, and enjoyed each one.

But what I really enjoyed, most unexpectedly, was the cheesy group games that took place in the Rome Theater. The silly "Not-so-Newlywed" game where couples who had been married from 2 to 50 years were asked personal questions about each other had me doubled over with laughter -- when an 80-year-old couple is talking about their sex lives it is hard not to giggle. A family-friendly game called "In the Bag" had kids and adults alike scrambling through the audience in a type of scavenger hunt looking for lipstick, socks and other G-rated items. And "Battle of the Sexes" pitted the women against the men in a trivia contest -- a great way to get our of your comfort zone and form some friendships on the ship. I found myself screaming answers from the seats and running up to the stage to whisper strategy in the women's team rep's ear. By the way -- the women won.

If you're a night owl, you'll find no shortage of things to do after dinner. Most big-ticket events on the Triumph take place in the three-deck-high Rome lounge, including the high-quality and energetic main shows. (Editor's Note: Carnival has added the Seaside Theater as another entertainment venue.) The casino comes alive with the noise of slot machines giving payouts and groans of gamblers losing money at the tables; the World's Way Promenade (basically a row of bars and nightclubs of differing themes), though deserted by day, is packed with people when the sun comes down. There were two dance clubs: one playing top 40 and oldies that had a packed dance floor but a more sedate crowd, and another playing hip-hop that had a more boisterous bunch on its dance floor. Among the other bars were a California wine bar, a New Orleans-themed piano bar and a sports bar.

I wandered from a wine bar to a dance club to a piano bar all in one night -- something that would have cost me $50 in taxis and cover charges in Manhattan (or required a designated driver in other locales), but was simple and free on the ship.

All in all, my first cruise was a great experience. Yes, there were lines -- particularly during meal time and disembarkation -- and they were frustrating. Sure, some of the group activities were a little hokey, but if you're worried about your cool quotient, this kind of cruising probably isn't for you. And while the food was good, it will likely not impress the discerning gourmand (there was no specialty restaurant -- an upscale eatery where meals are served with a surcharge -- on the Triumph, but some of Carnival's newer vessels do have them and the cuisine is the best quality on the ship).

Ultimately there is so much to gain from a cruise vacation. Because everything is planned for you, the stress factor is nearly zero. The possibility for fun is nearly limitless. If your disposition toward independent travel is what's keeping you from cruising, don't forget your ship is actually going somewhere -- you can research and explore each port as much or as little as you desire. After all, independent travel is hard work, and what could be better after a day of self-guided touring then getting back on your ship where your next activity is as easy as reaching for your daily newsletter?

Tips for First-Time Cruisers
  • Juice stations and soft-serve ice cream are self-serve and easily accessible in the dining areas of the ship. All other beverages, including soft drinks, are an additional charge.

  • Check your daily bulletin for the day's drink special. If you order it without the souvenir cup, it's usually a great deal.

  • You can usually board the ship several hours before it leaves the port. Though you may not be able to go straight to your cabin, you can at least take advantage of the buffet, pools and public areas.

  • The most popular exercise classes (yoga, Pilates and spinning) are an additional charge and often very crowded. If you have your heart set on attending one or more of these classes, sign up early. Keep in mind these classes are aimed at beginners, so if you are particularly skilled, you may want to skip it.

  • Room service is available 24 hours a day, often for no additional cost (some ships do charge a fee for room service), though you should tip your server as you would a person delivering food to your home.

  • If you are going to visit the spa, keep in mind the prices are often substantially higher than what you would pay back home, even if back home is in major city. You can save some money by having your spa treatments done on a port day, when there is usually a discount.

  • Most ships have more than one pool. If you find yourself at one that's too crowded or not lively enough, often the other major pool will be the opposite.

  • It is very expensive to make a phone call from the ship. Use the Internet cafe (substantially less expensive), but keep in mind the service is much slower than you are used to at home. Better yet, wait until you arrive in port to access your e-mail -- most destinations have Internet cafes at or near the cruise terminal.

  • The ease of booking your shore excursion on the ship might cost you. You'll often get a better price for the same type of excursion when you book it yourself. This is where your independent traveler skills come in handy!

  • Tipping policies vary from cruise line to cruise line. Be sure to check out what the policy is on yours.

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    --written by Genevieve S. Brown
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