Thursday, February 14, 2013

Cruise Vacation? Hell, No!

Greetings Friends,

When I was a kid, my next-door neighbors in Brooklyn were semi-regular cruisers. I remember once going to the west side of Manhattan to see them off on a cruise aboard the Oceanic. I don't remember where the ship was headed, but I do remember how glamorous and sophisticated they seemed, setting sail on a big ship to an exotic locale. Back in those days, a cruise was not considered a commonplace vacation.

I've been on two cruises in my life: the first one, a Disney cruise, which ironically turned out to be aboard the very same Oceanic, only this time the ship was painted bright red. It didn't seem quite as big to me in my early 20s, as it did when I was younger. The stateroom I was in was so tiny, I had to go out in the hall to change my mind. The voyage was incident-free, unless I count the traumatizing experience of getting groped by someone dressed up as a giant chipmunk.

The second cruise I took in 1997 was my honeymoon. It was on a Royal Caribbean ship that sailed to Bermuda. I got married on the ship, and my now ex-husband and I sailed with another couple.We had a great time, save for a bunch of passengers who interrupted the tail-end of our reception, helping themselves to the hors d'oeuvres and cake that were meant for our guests. That and a minor, non-fiery engine malfunction were the only black marks on that trip.

The cruise industry has changed greatly since Kathie Lee Gifford did all those excessively perky ads for Carnival cruises, touting the company's "fun ships" as affordable, casual vacations. Lines like Holland America and Royal Caribbean wanted to hang on to the glamor and sophistication by requiring formal dress during dinner, and set times for all activities. Carnival introduced what became known as "freestyle" cruising to the world, scaling back the formality of their cruises, and in effect, cheapening the experience both literally and figuratively. As someone who was glued to "Love Boat" every Saturday night during the late 70s, going to dinner on a cruise meant getting all gussied up, not wearing the same clothes I had spent the day in. I always envisioned a cruise exactly as it was depicted on that show; the Carnival experience never appealed to me.

Fast forward through the millennium to cruising becoming one of the most affordable, sought-after vacations you can take. Dedicated cruise junkies will set sail several times a year, looking for the best deals on vacation packages. Some lines even offer what are known as "repositioning" cruises, which visit ports on the way to a different location from the one the ship departs from. Add to that the number of ports these gargantuan boats now leave from, you can catch one in so many places, it often does not require an additional plane trip to get to them. But, with convenience and a good bargain, disaster often accompanies the experience, as the unsuspecting passengers on the Carnival Triumph found out this week.

What happened on the Carnival Triumph is nothing new in the cruising industry. For years we've been hearing about outbreaks of norovirus and other illnesses due to the less than sanitary conditions aboard some of these vessels. When the Costa Concordia ran aground off the coast of Italy, killing 35 passengers, many people stood up and took notice of the dangers of cruising. But, the story, although major, did not impact the cruising crowd that sets sail on the fun ships. Today, for less than $500, you can embark on a 4-day jaunt on one of these floating hotels, and expect to have the time of your life - until the boat malfunctions and you're stuck relieving yourself into a trash bag.

After a few cheesy vacations taken in my early 20s, including the voyage on the mouse boat, I've always liked to research my vacation destinations/travel options before embarking on something as potentially disastrous as what these people have been through. Sure, things can go wrong on planes, and in trains and automobiles, but when you're being held captive on a floating hotel out at sea, the experience can be even more torturous and perilous. After all, a plane crash can kill you instantaneously; five days stuck on a debilitated cruise ship with raw sewage sluicing though your midst, little food, water, and no power, not only has the potential to kill you, it might actually drive you insane.

So, the lesson we learn from the Carnival Triumph, and all the other cruise ship cautionary tales out there in the great electronic void (I'd start with this one), is: do your homework. And always keep in mind that if something sounds too good to be true, it usually is.


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