Some little-known facts about cruising |

Some little-known facts about cruising

Walt Fraser

Last April we decided to go on a cruise! Yes, we’d be totally decadent; let somebody cook, make the bed, clean up, as well as entertain us and generally indulge us with all the comforts of a do-nothing vacation!

And all this for a very reasonable $100 per day, per person. And so we booked (on the Internet) a 10-day cruise on the “M/V Mercury,” a 77,000 ton, 1870 passenger cruise ship owned by Celebrity Cruises, leaving from San Francisco and sailing down to Puerto Vallarta with stops at Monterey, Catalina Island, Mazatlan and Cabo San Lucas.

But instead of reciting the various attractions of land excursions offered by the Cruise Line – or those that we discovered on our own – we want to give you, our readers, a little glimpse into the ways cruise lines operate and manage to turn a profit, as well as to point out some of the real costs of your cruise if you choose to add any of the many extras that you may not have included in your calculations.

First of all, it is quite possible to have fun, eat fabulously, be entertained royally and even have a very spacious and comfortable cabin, no matter if it is “inside” or “outside.”

Also, there are many free services, bridge lessons, a library, movies, ping pong, swimming, games to play, dance lessons and dances, craft classes, shuffleboard, other sports activities and more. And, of course, you always have the option to do nothing but sunbathe, read, sleep or people watch.

There are also plenty of opportunities to spend money, and they are indeed hard to resist. Here are some examples:

1. As on most cruise ships, there was a big casino. But remember this: The slots are tight!

2. All drinks except coffee, tea and lemonade cost money. Expect to pay $2.15 for a coke. In a weak moment, I once ordered and paid $10.25 for a vodka martini, although most bar drinks are around $6, including a mandatory 15- percent tip. (You are not permitted to bring your own liquor on board, and if you buy at the ship’s own duty free shop, the goods will be given to you the night before you leave the ship).

3. Shore excursions are offered at all ports, which on our trip were five. The cost usually ranges from a modest $15 to more than $150, the average being around $50.

4. Bingo is played several times daily, with cards costing from about $10 to $25 per session.

5. There are a lot of shops on board, including duty free, liquor, jewelry, cigarette and souvenir departments. And they always seem to have “specials,” like $10 watches, etc. It seems that goods in these shops got progressively cheaper toward the last days of the cruise.

Most cruise lines, although not some of the higher-priced ones, have a tipping policy that applies to your cabin steward (who usually, in turn, pays a portion of your tip to his/her assistant), all waiters, including bar personnel, as well as the maitre d’ and his/her assistant, and sometimes even the head housekeeper. There is a “suggested” amount, which the cruise line points out repeatedly.

What is not generally known is that on many ships these waiters and cabin stewards depend on your tips, since they are not paid any wages, and so it affects them very adversely when folks stiff them at the end of the trip. (Bar personnel also doesn’t get paid, but their 15- percent tip is automatically added to your bill). No wonder they are always there to help you!

You may ask why they would work under these conditions. On our ship, there were some 50-plus nationalities represented – the majority from India, The Philippines, Indonesia and Central America.

Many of them have families, and they send home most of the money they earn.

For a lot of workers from Third World countries, the money they earn is far more than what they could make at home. These folks work very long hours and work incredibly hard. Their time off is very limited and spent on the “C” Deck, where they have their own mess, a tiny swimming pool, a bar and some recreational facilities.

They usually sleep four to a cabin, and ever so often they get a few hours of shore leave. I got the feeling that discipline and supervision on the ship was extremely tight. In contrast, the officers are very well paid and their lives are much easier.

There was a time when it was easy to get on board a cruise ship and visit with your departing friends or family (just as it was once possible – a long time ago – to board and visit on an aircraft and stay until the plane took off). Since 9/11, security is now very strict. After you are allowed to board upon showing your ticket and I.D – such as a passport or driver ‘s license – you are issued your own plastic I.D. card, which serves as your cabin key, your authority to buy gifts, drinks, etc., on board (cash is not used at all except in the casino), and to enable you to leave and reboard the ship while it is in a port.

All your bags, as well as purchases in ports, are X-rayed, and you go through a metal detector. Still, the procedure is not as time consuming as at airports and has fewer hassles.

As another consequence of 9/11, it is no longer possible to visit the bridge or the engine room, for “security reasons.” Even the kitchen is now a sensitive area.

When I sought permission to visit with Head Chef Ulrich in the kitchen for some photos, he first had to contact his H.O. in Miami. I was amazed to learn that Ulrich is in charge of 120 cooks – and that does not include dishwashers or other kitchen personnel.

Here are a few more facts you may find of interest:

All of the officers on the “Mercury” were Greek. There were also a number of Canadians, Brits, Australians and a few Americans serving as staff personnel: working in the shops, the casino or otherwise in frequent contact with passengers, such as the cruise director. The total crew numbered 900.

The registry of the ship was the Bahamas, but the ship was built in 1997 in Germany. We were quite impressed by the smooth operation but even more so by the ship’s design and the care shown for passenger comfort and convenience.

All the newer cruise ships have stabilizers and thrusters to maneuver the ship sideways and keep it on as level a keel as possible. Consequently, far fewer passengers experience seasickness these days.

Finally, there are several reasons why ocean cruising is becoming ever more popular, and several come to mind:

1. The rest of your family does not get lost or separated from you – at least not for long.

2. There is no need to constantly pack and unpack. You do it just once.

3. There are often some great deals available, either early on or close to the departure date, either through a travel agent or the Internet.

4. You don’t need to constantly plan your itinerary.

5. There are no extra costs that you don’t expect, except for the expenses mentioned above.

So who knows, if a really good deal comes along, we might even do it again. Alaska sounds awfully good around July or August, just when our summer heat becomes really stifling!


Walt Fraser lives in Grass Valley, writes frequently for The Union’s Travel Page and has a radio show on KVMR highlighting classical music.

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