Why not go cruising?

By Lew Toulmin
This item appears on page 61 of the October 2009 issue.

by Lew Toulmin

According to the Cruise Line International Association (CLIA), only about 17 percent of the US population has ever been on a cruise. There are many reasons why some Americans shy away from cruising. Let’s tackle a few today, including too little to do, too much to do, stuffiness, companion problems and Norovirus.

Too little or too much to do?

Some ITN readers have told me they fear cruising will mean just sitting around looking at the horizon or playing shuffle-“bored.” Perhaps this was a legitimate fear on P&O Line ships in the 1930s, traveling for a couple of months from India to England, but today most cruise lines listen to their customers and give them what they want.

Have you always wanted to sample a yoga lesson, meet a best-selling author or delight in a seagoing planetarium? All of these experiences and many more are available on modern cruise ships, and new things are dreamed up with every ship launched.

Many ships are like modern Chautauquas, with lectures, interactive experiences and lots of new things to learn and do. And I haven’t even mentioned the shore excursions, which can give you glimpses of interesting new ports and countries that you may wish to return to and explore in more depth.

The opposite fear is there will be “too much” to do, with too much regimented “fun,” too many conga lines or too much drinking, partying, matchmaking or whatever. I, too, hate partying and drinking and matchmaking (and I am already blessed with the perfect match), but I love cruising and so does my wife.

There are cruise lines that are party- or kiddie-oriented (Carnival and Disney, respectively, come to mind), so we avoid those. But, to me, saying you don’t like cruising is like saying you don’t like food. Undoubtedly, you love some food, are indifferent to some and don’t like some. The trick with cruise lines is to find the ones that you love, the ones that fit your interests.

How? Do some research, carefully read each line’s cruise literature, request a copy of a typical day-at-sea schedule and talk to a CLIA-certified cruise consultant.

Too stuffy?

Some people retain the stereotype of cruising as stuffy, with lots of formal nights and tuxedos everywhere. In fact, only a few cruise lines (such as Holland America and Cunard) retain the tradition (which I like, by the way) of having a formal night about one in every three nights while at sea. (Virtually no cruise lines have formal nights after a day in port, when passengers are tired.)

So a typical 7-night cruise might have two formal nights (with tuxes or dark business suits for the men and cocktail dresses or perhaps gowns for ladies), three casual nights and two informal nights (with jackets for men but ties optional, and pantsuits or dresses for ladies).

And if you really don’t like dressing up, there are plenty of cruise lines for you. Many lines have embraced the “freestyle cruising” concept, initiated by Norwegian Cruise Line, in which you can avoid formality on all nights by choosing a dining venue that is more casual.

One common fear is that you will become “too stuck” — too stuck with boring or stuffy dining companions, for example. Many major lines do not even have assigned seating anymore, and those that do will happily move you to a smaller or different table. Just chat with the headwaiter.

With “freestyle cruising” and with most large cruise ships having alternate dining venues, you usually can eat in a different location each night. Many small expedition ships have “family style” dining where you can choose a new table with a different, interesting group of companions each night.

Indeed, I find that one of the best parts of cruising is meeting fascinating new people, usually at dinner. I ask around and chat briefly with people during the day to identify the people I want to know better, then I intentionally seek them out in the dining room.

No Norovirus?

Norovirus, previously known as Norwalk virus, is a nasty 24-hour stomach and intestinal bug that is in the headlines almost every month, often relating to cruise lines. Yet the number of outbreaks on cruise ships declined last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control, with only 15 outbreaks in 2008 compared to 21 in 2007.

Furthermore, analysis of 2006 data shows that 6,698 passengers and crew were affected by Norovirus, or about 0.06 percent of the 12 million people who went cruising. Normalizing this figure to account for the fact that the average passenger was on board for about seven out of 365 days in a year yields an infection rate of about 3.12 percent that year.

This seems like a pretty high figure, but on land there were 23 million cases reported, or about 7.57 percent of the population of 304 million. Surprisingly, you are safer from Norovirus if you go cruising. So welcome aboard! ITN

Lew Toulmin is the author of “The Most Traveled Man on Earth,” available for $16.95 plus $5 shipping from The Village Press (13108 Hutchinson Way, Silver Spring, MD 20906; www.themost traveled.com). You can visit www.themosttraveled.com.