Cruise options for travelers who have no interest in mainstream cruising

by Ned Levi on August 26, 2013

Adult female walrus on Lagoya, Svalbard, photo by NSL Photography

Not long ago, I wrote about cruising in my column, “Top ten cruise myths debunked.” “Pauletteb” commented, “Sorry, Ned, but nothing on your list changes my mind. Except for a small ship in Alaska, I’d rather have a root canal than go on a cruise.” I received a number of emails responding to that column expressing the same sentiment. I fully understand those feelings about cruising.

Cruise vacations aren’t for everyone. That said, I believe many who’ve never tried cruising or decided that they don’t like cruising due to a poor experience early on  may be unaware of some cruise options available to them that they might enjoy.

I’ve taken cruises for years, but don’t think I’m a typical cruiser.

For me, cruise ships are little more than transportation to get to great destinations — in some comfort, of course — as well as my hotel plus main restaurant. I’m not a gambler, nor a shopper. I don’t cruise to go to shows or ice skate. I no longer stay up to all hours of the night, so I don’t take part in the lively nightlife available on many of today’s modern cruise ships. I’m not a fan of large cruise ships, days at sea, “shopping ports,” large crowds, fast food and not-so-hot shows.

Cruise ships are clearly not my destination. So, what options are available for travelers who would rather have a root canal than take a cruise?

For some, a small ship may be an option to make a cruise viable. My wife and I prefer cruising on ships of no more than 700 passengers. That may sound large to many, but if well designed, they can feel smaller and be quite intimate. Smaller ships of 200–500 passengers may be preferable, but while they may be more intimate and offer a more personalized experience, for passengers who can suffer seasickness, the stability of the larger small ships are a better bet.

TIP: There are many seasickness preventatives which actually work. Perhaps the most effective seasickness preventative is the scopolamine patch (prescription only). The patch is highly effective (check to make sure you’re not allergic to the “Patch”), but it does have side effects. My wife uses accu-pressure bracelets, which have been highly effective for her.

Another option is to pay careful attention to the cruise itinerary. My wife and I try to choose itineraries with two main characteristics — minimal days at sea and ports with excursions to fascinating locations. For example, we were on a two-week cruise in the Middle East two years ago. The cruise had only one full day at sea; that was to sail through the very interesting Suez Canal, plus, we stopped in ports with amazing excursions to great sights, many of which are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

For some, a luxury cruise is a viable option. I’ve found that many luxury cruises lines aren’t particularly more expensive than mainstream cruise lines when you look at the total cost of cruising for each. Luxury cruise lines are generally “all-inclusive,” except for some “stratospherically” expensive wine options and special private excursion arrangements. If you compare mainstream cruise lines that charge extra for alcohol and soda, excursions, gratuities, etc., in addition to the cruise fare, the luxury cruise lines may compare more favorably to them than you’d expect and their quality of accommodations, excursions and level of service is typically significantly superior to their mainstream counterparts.

Finally, an “expedition” style cruise may be precisely what you’re looking for as a leisure traveler. Expedition cruises are considerably different than the cruises you’re likely familiar with. Last December, I went to Antarctica and this July/August I traveled through the Arctic region. Both of these cruises were on Silversea’s expedition ship, the Silver Explorer. I’ve also traveled on Celebrity’s Xpedition to the Galapagos Islands.

Expedition ships are generally small, intimate ships, with a passenger capacity no more than 150, which is critical concerning off-ship excursions to some locations such as the Galapagos, Arctic and Antarctic. There, they don’t permit more than 100 passengers at a time to land in any individual spot. That means larger ships would have to severely limit passenger time exploring land locations.

Expedition ships can go to locations where mainstream ships can’t physically visit, aircraft never fly and roads don’t exist. Only an expedition ship can visit the fjords of Svalbard, Greeenland, and the waters of the Galapagos. If you’re interested in seeing some of the most amazing sites of your life — breathtaking landscapes, glaciers, icebergs the size of city blocks, as well as seals, polar birds, penguins, walrus, reindeer, muskox, polar bears, frigates, and boobys up close, expedition cruising is very much worth considering.

On our recent Arctic cruise we were often astonished by unbelievable sights, such as the Walrus pod at Lagoya Island, in the Svalbard archipelago, and the Iceberg Graveyard in the Rodefjord of Scoresby Sund, Greenland, and much more.

I’ll have more to say about Arctic and Antarctic cruising in upcoming columns. Even if you’ve already decided that cruising is absolutely not for you, I suggest you might reconsider and think about expedition cruising.

Ned Levi, PPA, NPPA, as a professional travel photographer, journeys across the globe. You can view some of Ned’s travel and other photos at NSL Photography and get travel photography advice at the NSL Photography Blog.

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  • blynn29

    Tauck has some lovely small cruises.. either on the River boats in Europe .. or small ocean cruises as well

  • sirwired

    I agree, if you’ve soured on the “traditional” cruising options, small ships are indeed a refreshing change. The two best cruises of my life were a trip in the Caribbean on (now defunct) Windjammer Barefoot cruises, and a trip to Greece’s most famous historical sites on the zero-frills, youth-hostel budget, (now defunct… are we seeing a theme?) Easy Cruise.

    And you are on the right track on the destinations too… if you want a vacation that’s more than a floating hotel, find a ship that talks more about where it takes you than what they are providing on-board.

  • Marilyn

    I have taken 3 river cruises and they are much different from the ocean going trips. There is always something interesting to see along the shore and the excursions are frequent enough so that it is never boring. Usually the excursions are covered in the cost of the cruise so except for drinks and tips, it is almost all-inclusive.

  • pauletteb

    “Expedition cruising”? Ned, you may just have changed my mind!

  • NedLevi

    I just thought that before anyone dismissed cruising as a whole, they should understand that there are many more options available than Royal Caribbean and Carnival and the other similar big ship, main stream port cruise lines.

    Readers below have mentioned River Cruises, for example. In the coming weeks I’ll be discussing more details about Expedition Cruising, which is one of my favorites. Other than you’re on a ship, which becomes your hotel and main source of meals, there is little similarity to what most people think of as cruising and these types of cruises.

  • NedLevi

    Marilyn, what river cruise was your favorite and why, and on what line and which ship was it on? Thanks for the info.

  • NedLevi

    I’ve loved those Windjammer cruises.

  • NedLevi

    My dad swore by Tauck.

  • blynn29

    i took the Tauck tour from Amsterdam to Budapest. Was a DELIGHTFUL experience. Other riverboat cruisers would ask us every time we had to cross their boat to go on shore. “how’s your cruise”.. and ask us questions. they didn’t seem happy with their company they chose. Tauck. Truly top of the line..

  • Chasmosaur

    My father also took the Silversea Antarctica cruise, and he’s signing up for the Arctic one. He really enjoyed himself – including the incredibly rough seas that set his bed sliding across the room!

    I was jealous of his destination, but I did not inherit his sea legs or cast iron stomach, so I think I never would have survived that journey. :)

  • Marilyn

    Sorry to take so long to reply but I have had computer problems. It is hard to choose a favorite because I enjoyed all three. I can’t give the names of the cruise lines or ships but only the travel companies that I booked through.

    I think my favorite was the cruise up and down the Nile between Luxor and Aswan in 2011. We went in late Aug./early Sept. when it was blazing hot but for the most part our excursions were in the early morning and we were back at the boat during the hottest time of the day. It was never unpleasant when we were cruising as there was a breeze and many interesting things to see as most of Egyptian life is right along the Nile. We stopped at all of the major sites along the way and even had a flight to Abu Simbal. The ship was not one of the more luxurious ones (and you do get to see them because you have to walk through them as they stack up at the docks) but the cabin was spacious, it was clean and comfortable, and the crew was great. We had excellent guides for all of our shore excursions. I worry about them now and wonder how they are making a living. I booked this trip through Gate 1 Travel. I don’t think they are currently running trips to Egypt because of the upheaval there.

    Last fall I went on a cruise between St. Petersburg and Moscow also booked through Gate 1. Again, the ship was not a luxury boat but it was quite adequate and the food was wonderful. Of course, there were spectacular things to see in both cities and along the way but the weather was chilly and rainy so not conducive to much on-deck viewing of scenes as we cruised along.

    The first river cruise was up the Yangtze from Wuhan to Chungking in 2001 before the completion of the huge dam that flooded much of the Three Gorges area. River cruising was just getting started for Chinese tourism so it was not a fancy boat either but it was comfortable and the crew was accommodating. We didn’t have as many shore excursions as I would have liked but there was always something interesting to see along the way both in the natural landscape, farming practices, and government building projects as they were rebuilding entire towns at a higher elevation prior to the rising waters. This cruise was 4 days of a 2 week trip through China which I booked through China Focus Travel.

    As you can surmise from my descriptions, I am a budget traveler for the most part. As long as I have a comfortable bed, plumbing that works in the bathroom, and tasty food I am happy with a boat or a hotel room.

  • NSL14

    Thanks your reply and readership.

    I definitely want to do the Nile River cruise in the future. While I’ve been to Egypt, I’ve not had the time to include the Nile River cruise in my travels there. I have been hoping to take it this year, but the situation in Egypt is too fluid and dangerous for such a trip, in my opinion. The Egyptian people are wonderful. I have friends there and am sick about all the death and destruction there. Fortunately, so far, my friends are safe.

    I was thinking about taking a river cruise on the Seine, and Danube rivers next year. We’ll see.

  • Marilyn

    I think our next river cruise is going to be on the Amazon. We have nothing definite planned yet but we have been looking.

    If the situation in Egypt permits, I think you will really enjoy the Nile cruise.

  • NSL14

    The Amazon is on my list, but likely not for a couple of years.

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