How to Make a Cruise Fun Even If You’re Too Cool for Cruises

Even Gen Xers and millennials can find thrills on a cruise if they take these steps.

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November 19, 2019
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Photo By: Lauren Oster

Photo By: Regent Seven Seas Cruises

Photo By: Viking Cruises

Photo By: Viking Cruises

Photo By: Lauren Oster

Photo By: Viking Cruises

Photo By: Regent Seven Seas Cruises

Photo By: Lauren Oster

Photo By: Lauren Oster

Photo By: Lauren Oster

All Aboard. Seriously

So your extended family/old college clique/significant other is interested in the pleasure of your company on a cruise — and you’d rather be a passenger on the Titanic? Claustrophobic quarters, cheesy shore visits, wobbly conga lines of strangers — who needs ‘em? As David Foster Wallace put it in “Shipping Out” (a Harper’s essay that was eventually retitled, tellingly, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”), “there’s something about a mass-market Luxury Cruise that’s unbearably sad.”

That’s a heavy sentiment to lug on board, and it’s one that can hold true if you curl up and wait for your offshore ‘adventure’ to pass like an ill-advised meal of dodgy seafood. To paraphrase the Beatles, on the other hand, in the end the cruise you take is equal to the cruise you make. Go on: Be your own captain.

Know Your (Cruise's) Audience

Steering toward cruises with passenger demographics that match your own is the quickest way to ensure that you won’t be bored to tears at communal tables and cocktail hours. As Dori Saltzman at Cruise Critic notes, Disney and Carnival ships (and other vessels that emphasize kid-friendly programming) attract families and young children. That is particularly true over spring break and the summer months, when school-age travelers are likely to be on vacation. Ships that take extended (read: two weeks or more) trips, on the other hand, tend to have much older passengers, since retirees are more likely to have the time and resources to spend serious time at sea.

Want to meet somewhere in the middle? Viking limits its river and ocean excursions to passengers 18 and over (and isn't shy about detailing what its line does not have, including big-cruise clichés like casinos, umbrella drinks and photographers), and Regent offers select cruises featuring its Club Mariner Youth Program, with activities for children between the ages of five and 17 (as well as cruises that feature interest-specific “Spotlight” programming and “Go Local” tours like the Barcelona visit pictured above).

Kick Out the 'Jams

A stay in a bargain-basement ship’s cabin, like a long flight in an airplane’s cramped coach section, can feel like extended time in a coffin — which is cool if you’re into Goth travel, and there’s probably a theme cruise along those lines at this point. But that’s not what we’re talking about here. But here's the key difference: While quadrupling your fare to score a seat in business class means a few feet of extra space and a slightly-less-uncomfortable perch, booking one of, say, Viking’s Deluxe Veranda cabins (pictured here) means destination-hopping with a king-size bed (and cashmere throw, natch), a luxury robe and slippers, a private balcony (and binoculars, natch) and more. In other words, the upgrade may be well worth the money. While away the hours between ports by changing into your PJs immediately and cracking open the juicy vacation read you couldn’t extend your arms enough to appreciate on your flight.

Consider Beast Mode

Put an eco-minded spin on your region of choice with a group like AdventureSmith Explorations (a small-ship operator that zeroes in on sustainable adventure travel). “Each of our trips puts the focus on actively accessing wilderness and incredible wildlife viewing, with expert guides enhancing your overall understanding of a place. And all our ships are under 200 guests, so that your time can be spent more off the ship than on it: kayaking in remote coves, hiking ridgelines with a small group and snorkeling among penguins, tropical fish and sea lions and other marine life,” says founder Todd Smith. If your travel companions are focused on Baja California, for example, steer clear of spring breakers and set a course for The Whales of Magdalena Bay, a new, naturalist-led excursion on a 62-person National Geographic ship that brings guests in close contact with Pacific gray whale mothers and their calves. A generic booze cruise it is not.

See More Photos: 8 Adventure Cruises for People Who Hate Cruises

Make Yourself at Home

The Electric Slide is not compulsory on cruises — and if you don’t feel like leaning into cringe-worthy onboard themes and activities, that’s your Poseidon-given right. Choose a vessel with plush common areas that square with your group’s idea of a good time, then behave as you would at a particularly well-stocked rental house: Kick back for long chats, play board games and share drinks as the sun goes down. Consider saving your pajamas for your cabin, though. Pajamas in mixed company on ships are usually reserved for solving murder mysteries.

Respect the Buffet (of Destinations)

Fans of immersive travel balk at the idea of hopping from port to port with limited time to appreciate what they encounter, and that’s fair. There’s only so much sightseeing one can squeeze into shore time. This is where buffet strategy comes into play. Accept the format of your experience for what it is, know that your first pass will consist of small (and possibly strange) servings, and appreciate the fact that if you happen upon something truly wonderful, you can come back and fill your plate with it. Exhibit A: The bucolic village of Flåm (above), a 350-person settlement at the head of western Norway’s spectacular Aurlandsfjord. It receives an estimated 500,000 visitors per year, many of whom take a one-hour scenic train ride and then hasten back to their cruise ships. If Flåm leaves you cold, as it were, that can be the end of your acquaintance — and if it stirs your soul, your next vacation can be a smörgåsbord of fjords.

Embrace the Idiosyncratic

If you find yourself on a vessel in the Ponant Explorers series, you can recline with a cocktail on a sonically sensitive “Body Listening” lounger in the Blue Eye Lounge, a “multi-sensory underwater space” that features subsurface, whale’s-eye-inspired viewing windows like Captain Nemo’s bridge in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Viking’s ocean liners put a 21st-century spin on traditional Nordic spa rituals via drift-filled grottos with honest-to-goodness snowfall (above). Royal Caribbean’s RipCord by iFLY skydiving simulator holds guests aloft in the air (in the middle of the ocean). Modern cruise ship designers are well aware that their onboard diversions should provide guests with a lot of entertainment. Sure, their more unusual offerings might not be on your bucket list — but that doesn’t mean you can’t add and check them off in one fell swoop.

Let Someone Else Steer

Tagging along with a group when it’s time to go ashore needn't entail paying through the nose for a berth on a massive tour bus and a day of ferociously-scheduled “fun.” When your cruise operator opens reservations for shore excursions, keep your eyes peeled for shorter guided walking tours, which are often available for no extra charge (and a fine way to both soak up local knowledge and stretch your legs after spending a night on your ship). If you’re traveling with Regent, know that those “Go Local” tours we mentioned before are part of the line’s free unlimited shore excursions package — and that it’s worth your time to take advantage of their relationship with your destinations. Let’s be honest: Charming as you undoubtedly are, your chances of finding your own way to a Montenegran family’s table in Kotor (above) are pretty slim.

Tune In, Then Drop Out

Say that free walking tour we suggested you join turns out to be a slow march towards death (of boredom). Say, on the other hand, that it’s led you to a path you feel you simply must take. As long as you’re confident that you can make your own way back to your ship, it’s time to bid your guide a gracious farewell and savor the sweet taste of freedom. Climb that staircase to who-knows-what! Hole up in the gorgeous café your incurious group was about to pass without a second glance! Linger at a spontaneous street concert for as long as you like! Consider that while “vacation” is defined as “an extended period of leisure and recreation,” it is also defined as “the act of leaving.” You have permission to leave.

Do You

If your cruise’s destination-based activities don’t make your heart sing, investing a bit of time in pre-trip research (and a wifi plan that will keep you connected onshore) and building your own itinerary can pay off in a big way, as can downloads like self-guided tours and the Google Translate app. Dropping in on a city? Give yourself a break from cruise food by making reservations ahead of time at a local restaurant. Focus your explorations around a personal theme — street art, bookstores, wine bars, you name it. Heading to a less-populated destination? Book your own activities with local providers that get high marks on sites like TripAdvisor. Again: In the end the cruise you take is equal to the cruise you make.

Do Nothing

Commitments you may have made to your traveling companions notwithstanding, it's crucial to remember that nothing is required of you on a cruise. Americans aren't especially good at nothing: Ours is the only advanced economy that doesn't guarantee its workers paid vacation, and those of us who do earn it left a record-breaking 768 million vacation days unused last year. We're lousy at thinking about nothing, too: Stress levels in the United States are among the highest in the world. Cruises offer all sorts of potentially-delightful things, but it's worth remembering that they promise nothing — which, in our hyperkinetic, hyperconnected society, is a luxury everyone can appreciate.

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