As I start this column, the snow outside my window is falling at a rate of three inches an hour. So, I do what any sane person does: I curse myself for living in New England and let my mind wander back to memories of cruising around tropical islands and sipping on margaritas by the pool in the shade under a blistering sun.
The truth is that I have a love-hate relationship when it comes to cruises, but more on that later. First, we need to deal with the elephant in the room.
Is it safe to cruise? According to the Centers for Disease Control, the answer is no. They recommend that everyone should avoid cruise travel, even if vaccinated and boosted, because of the Coronavirus. Cruises are hotbeds of virus outbreaks even during normal times.
In their defense, cruise lines seem to be doing everything they can to make things safe. Almost all are requiring people over a certain age to be vaccinated and they all require a negative Covid test from everyone prior to boarding. Unfortunately, you’ll need to check with your chosen line before booking because some are allowing exceptions.
I’ve also read about some passengers ignoring the mask policies, so be forewarned. And, of course, make your decision based upon your risk and the risk for anyone you come in contact with.
Note that if you have been exempted from receiving a vaccine, countries often will not allow you in unless you are on a cruise ship specific tour bubble. There is also often a travel insurance requirement if you are unvaccinated. In fact, I’d recommend travel insurance for any cruise-goer nowadays. If there’s ever been a time it’s needed, that time is now.
Keep in mind, there is a lot of close contact on board cruises, but how stuffed the ship is depends on the cruise line. A line like Carnival Cruises tends to focus on keeping it economical, so they try to fit in more passengers, whereas companies like Crystal and Celebrity are less crowded, but are also generally more expensive.
And as the price goes up, so too oftentimes does the average age. In other words, if you want a party, a cheaper line might be perfect for you, but if you want a relaxing vacation, you might need to spend a little more.
My top suggestion would be to spend the extra money and get a room with a veranda. One of my favorite times in life is sitting on my private deck before bed, a glass of wine in hand, the starry sky glimmering above and the open ocean coursing by. Obviously, it will cost more, but you won’t remember that a few years down the road while reliving your cruise.
Possibly the most incredible part of cruising is waking up every day in a new port. The Caribbean, for example, is filled with island countries and territories. One day you’re dining in the Cayman Islands and the next snorkeling in Belize. No new hotel to book into. You just bring your key card with you and it gets you into the country and back on the ship.
Make sure to take a walk around (always research the safety of the area), stop into a pub or restaurant, but get away from the port. There is often real life just beyond the closest proximity to your ship.
It’s as good a time as any to point out that your room card is absolutely everything. It’s your charge card onboard and generally your passport as well (the line will, of course, require a passport before boarding you onto an international cruise, but you can put it away afterward).
Convenience is a pretty big selling point too. There is almost always food and drink available. Even after all of the restaurants and bars close up, you can order room service. Most of the food is free and easily accessible.
Sitting by the pool? Take a few steps over to the burger or taco bar and nosh away. Feel like making it an extra special night? Many cruises offer more upscale restaurants, where you will find gourmet selections at a much cheaper cost than you’d find on land. It might be $15 to upgrade to a steakhouse restaurant over the free fare and it is really good.
During these dark Covid times, you’ll need to be prepared for the possibility that there’ll be an outbreak on the ship and in such a case, an island or country is unlikely to let the ship disembark passengers. Also, you’re going to need to prepare to part with some Benjamins.
You can do this whole cruising thing for the cost of getting there and the cruise but be prepared to spend more, otherwise it won’t be that experience you’re hoping for. Just about everything costs more money. “Free drinks” might just include coffee, water and unsweetened tea, not soft drinks and most certainly not alcohol.
Do you want to go see that Mayan temple? You can make your way there on your own (cheapest), you can look for an excursion company not affiliated with the cruise line (cheaper than the cruise’s, but it can be a crap shoot), or you can pony up and be just about guaranteed a good tour with the ship’s (most expensive). To be sure, the surprise bill you will inevitably rack up during your vacation is always a hoot (insert bulging eyes here) when you see it at the end of the week.
I’m going to put entertainment pretty high up on the list of things I don’t like on cruises. I’ve probably been on seven or eight cruises, but the entertainment can be quite plastic, glossy and stiff, especially for the big productions, which have reminded me of cheap Vegas drivel. Though I’m admittedly not saying this is always the case.
A little research will help here. Smaller piano bars and poolside island-style music can also be exceptions, and you might well luck out with particularly personable musicians and singers.
While one of the truly amazing experiences is stepping off the ship and into a new land, there is many a port not near anything resembling a vacation, I’m talking a working port, where containers are being loaded and unloaded. Any town is miles away. This means paying for a cab there and back.
There are Irish themed cruises depending on your musical taste, and while I dissed the cruise lines’ entertainment, these ones are exempt. Joanie Madden is offering a Mediterranean cruise filled with trad and folk music in September (www.joaniemaddencruise.com); Debbie Casey is bringing folks around the Mediterranean on her folk music cruise (www.irishmusiccruises.com); and Gertrude Byrne, who features a show band-style lineup, has already sailed for 2022, but better luck next year (www.gertrudebyrnepromotions.com).
*Conor Makem spent 22 years traveling and honing petty gripes as an Irish musician, and enjoyed a further 13 years of people not returning his calls as a journalist. He is fluent in English, American and old Kerry farmer. More of his photos are on Instagram under cb.makem.