Column by Adrian Brijbassi
Vacay.ca Managing Editor
“There’s something about a mass-market Luxury Cruise that’s unbearably sad,” wrote David Foster Wallace in his essay “Shipping Out.” Published in 1996 in Harper’s Magazine, Foster Wallace’s piece is filled with detail upon detail — most of them describing banal and saccharine moments — of life aboard mega-liners, vessels the author dubbed “floating wedding cakes.”
For critics of the cruise industry, Foster Wallace articulated through satire and keen observation all the reasons we dislike massive ships that manage to take you somewhere and nowhere at the same time. The argument is that even if nothing goes wrong, cruises don’t actually give you a travel experience so much as a contrived and shellacked slant on luxury and excess. If you could capture the modern cruise experience in a photograph, it would be of an overweight and aging model whose cellulose, frowns and wrinkles have been Photoshopped away, creating an attractive and marketable vision. When a cruise passenger is confronted with the reality that his or her purchase is fake, superficial and achingly blah, then Foster Wallace’s words resonate. The sadness sinks in with the knowledge that your money would’ve been better spent on a multi-night stay at a luxury hotel exploring one of the world’s great cities and attractions close to it, or on a riveting experience like an African safari, or being satiated by a culinary adventure where you get to taste fresh food and culture, rather than dishes prepared for the Western palate and sometimes reheated multiple times because it’s difficult to obtain supplies once a ship has set sail from its main port of call.
The best cruise ship experience I enjoyed had everything to do with the activities on land. During a cruise of the Galapagos Islands, I visited eight of Darwin’s islands, trailing a naturalist who informed an intimate group of passengers about the delicate ecosystem on each. The boat was a small luxury yacht susceptible to the Pacific’s mighty waves, which would assault the ship so hard they sent it into the kind of spastic motions you only want to encounter at an amusement park. I never got sick, but most others on board needed Dramamine or some other aid to keep their guts from spilling over. Still, the rocking ride was part of the experience, and not enough of an inconvenience to make the trip regrettable for anyone. Seeing the Galapagos is an event of a lifetime and one of the few reasons why I am glad cruises exist.
I travelled with Ecoventura, which has also hosted Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and their kids. It is a superb company with a stellar record and as accommodating a staff as you will encounter.
Foster Wallace’s trip was aboard Celebrity Cruises’ m.v. Zenith, a 47,255-ton behemoth he nicknamed the Nadir. That name would also fit the Carnival Triumph, which crawled into an Alabama port over the weekend after being stuck powerless in the Gulf of Mexico following a fire on February 10. Its toilets overflowed, its passengers panicked, its record of mechanical troubles made headlines. After last year’s sinking of the Costa Concordia off the coast of Tuscany and other cruise incidents in recent years, the industry is facing greater and greater criticism.
Like all forms of luxury travel, a cruise isn’t inherently dangerous. Since 2005, there have been 48 fatalities aboard large cruise ships, and 32 of them occurred during the Costa Concordia disaster. Considering there have been more than 120 million cruise passengers during that timeframe, the fatality rate is low. But those of us who observe the travel industry point out that luxury hotels like the Ritz-Carlton and Kempinski have rarely, if ever, faced questions over safety and crime. That fact is relevant because the amount of money cruise passengers spend on a sailing often equates to a stay at a fine hotel.
CruiseMarketWatch.com says the average cruise passenger shells out $200.85 US per day while on board. That’s lower than the average nightly rate at a five-star hotel in most North American cities, but on par with what a four-star hotel room would cost, with breakfast included. You can get deals on cruises just as you can on hotels. Believe it or not, you can book a four-night sailing on the Carnival Triumph starting at $479 (or $120 per day) for a May 16 departure to Cozumel, Mexico.
5 Tips to Know Before You Book a Cruise
Something tells me, the cruise line won’t be able to give those cabins away. These days, buyers need to be more aware than ever when making their cruise purchase. My advice when someone asks about going on a multi-day cruise aboard a mega-liner is always the same: Don’t go. Find a better, more authentic and ultimately more rewarding travel adventure elsewhere. But if you do insist on going on a cruise, here are five tips to follow:
1. Seek — and follow — credible advice. Ross Klein, a professor at Memorial University in Newfoundland, maintains Cruisejunkie.com, a website filled with material about cruise-ship safety, health and crime statistics. Klein has said his findings show a cruise passenger is twice as likely to be a victim of sexual assault on board a ship as opposed to land. Passionate cruise-goers I know insist a cruise is the best way to relax and enjoy a week’s vacation. Their advice is often to stick with the best of breed, the Royal Caribbeans, National Geographic Explorers and Disney Magics of the industry, those companies and vessels that have sterling records and reputations.
2. Bring ample supplies of your medical prescriptions. Anyone following the Carnival Triumph incident knows that passengers were running out of their prescription drugs, vitamins and nutritional supplements prior to reaching land. Be sure you’ve got enough of what you need to maintain your health for a longer length of time than your intended stay. Also, alert the crew before and after you board of any allergies or food-related conditions.
3. Pay attention to the safety demonstration. So many times people itch to leave the Muster Drill, the procedure where a ship’s crew must show the passengers what to do in an emergency. With thousands of people aboard a large ship, chaos will start fast if anything unfortunate occurs and the more people who understand what to do and when, the more likely injuries and deaths will be minimized. It’s 10 minutes of inconvenience and hopefully it includes information that you will never use, but listen up and memorize the instructions, just in case.
4. Know the facts. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States keeps a record of all cruise lines and each of their ships. It grades them, with a score of less than 85 deemed unsatisfactory. Take a look before you book. Also, check the Government of Canada’s vessel inspection rankings. As well, be sure to consume information from well-known, well-regarded and experienced sources who can give you objective information and advice about your plans.
5. Don’t lose control. If you’re drinking excessively at sea, you face the same vulnerabilities you would on land — if not more. Be mindful before you get crazy.
Need advice before booking a trip? Email me at email@example.com and I will be happy to track down answers to your questions through my sources at Vacay.ca.