SINGAPORE – A two- to four-night cruise to nowhere can be breezed through fairly quickly.
There are no grinding, crunching chains when the ship drops anchor in the middle of the night as it slips into safe haven – an annoying sleep disruption to any passenger at the ship’s fore.
There is no mad scramble for land excursions.
Importantly, medical situations can be readily handled since ports are almost within sight. This transpired just last week when the Quantum of the Seas cruise ship sailed back to Singapore because of a suspected Covid-19 case on board, though that turned out to be a false alarm.
Over the years, I have cruised a dozen times. The shortest was a weekend getaway to nowhere and the longest was a 22-night polar dive expedition to Antarctica.
Amid the waves, sea spray and occasional pesky bird droppings, here are some lessons learnt and tips to make a cruise experience better.
Check the weather and time your trip
Short-trippers may end up taking a cruise on impulse or wrap their getaways around their time-off windows. Most ignore the weather.
I plan my cruises around weather forecasts and seasons. A cruise is less enjoyable when the days are continuously bathed in seven shades of grey.
“I will not cruise to be cooped up in the cabin or indoors. It is strange to wear a bikini in the rain, by the pool,” quips 35-year-old bank executive Tina Lim. The seven-cruise veteran, who packs half a dozen swimsuits for her sojourns, checks the weather religiously before nailing down a cruise date.
In addition, during bad weather, certain outdoor facilities or activities are curtailed for safety and practical reasons. Families with kids may be less bothered by this as they can resort to more mundane indoor facilities.
Photo buffs best understand the conditions required to get images of a molten sun amid crimson skies or sparkling city lights at the perfect blue hour.
Thus, if time is flexible, avoid sailing on days when there is extended bad weather on the radar. We are now entering into wettest months of the monsoon season, incidentally.
• Time a cruise around key dates. For example, passengers travelling during New Year’s Eve will be treated to stunning fireworks. Ships worldwide fire flares and blast air horns to welcome the New Year. Valentine’s Day cruises are always popular.
• Full-moon sailings offer shimmering seas, which add that sprinkle of romance to a cruise.
• Let the booking agent know if it is a special occasion or celebration – a birthday cake or a bottle of sparkling wine may be waiting in the cabin. Honeymooners might snag a cabin upgrade.
Two floating hotels, brimming with facilities on steroids
The two ships currently operating out of Singapore are Royal Caribbean International’s Quantum of the Seas and Dream Cruises’ World Dream. Both mega-ships are among the world’s largest – with an overall length matching an American nuclear aircraft carrier. And they are tiered like wedding cakes that spill over with innovative features and facilities.
Forget ping-pong tables, old-school games arcades or kids’ face-painting sessions.
Quantum of the Seas takes it to the next level with its cherry-picker-style observation capsule, robotic bartenders, bumper car hall, sky-diving and surfing stimulators, among others. And you are unlikely to eat your way through all its 14 restaurants in the span of three or four nights.
World Dream offers a ritzy hotel within a hotel for those willing to pay more. It is big on game stimulators, virtual reality and motion theatres – think Universal Studios and you get an idea. It boasts an array of 35 dining options and bars.
For both ships, some dining outlets are inclusive while the speciality ones require payment. The same applies to selected activities as well.
• Decide on the facilities that appeal to you. Some require more physical participation, while others are more docile yet allow younger kids to scream their heads off.
• Take along your own Dom Perignon or Grand Cru for a special candlelight dining experience.
The cabin and deck plans
“My window view is 80 per cent blocked by an orange lifeboat dangling from the ceiling.”
That lament from a fellow cruise passenger was her introductory line, when we exchanged pleasantries during an Inner Passage Alaska cruise a few years back. She pleaded unsuccessfully to change the cabin with the hotel manager.
Passengers on short cruises may be more forgiving if they land in a badly located cabin. If a choice is available, make an effort to go through the deck plans and layouts.
• If grandma is joining the trip, pick a cabin nearer the lifts or on the dining-room deck.
• Cruises to nowhere do not face gale-force winds or towering waves. So, the higher the deck, the more majestic the view. In rough open seas, mid-ship lower decks are better.
• The system generates the cabin allotment. Check prices online, but also speak to the booking agent to assist on cabin options. It is difficult or costly to make changes once the system allocates the cabin.
The crew make or break the cruise experience
The software of a cruise ship? The crew. And it is often overlooked.
Be it a short or long cruise, I always make it a point to know my cabin steward, the waitress at my favourite section of the dining hall, the bartender, the hotel manager and the pool deck hand.
These new friends can make the next few days smoother sailing. Some words in Tagalog will go a long way – the Filipinos are masters in hospitality and are well represented on ships.
Most important, perhaps, is the maitre d’. He or she decides the seating arrangements. It may mean either a romantic table by the window or a table hemmed in by two noisy families.
The captain is king, but he is far too distant.
• Decide on the dining options before boarding. The crew is always more relaxed and attentive during the last seating, but you may be late for the evening showtimes.
• Once on board, I make a beeline to my selected speciality restaurants soonest to parlay my requests. Talk to the crew manning the popular facilities and seek their advice on the best timings or the best vantage point for photography. Be nice but be real.
Gratuities: An important part of income
Both ships slap around 15 per cent service charge on the cabin prices a person. This is a fair arrangement, given that tips are integral to the crew’s income – provided that it is not some sinister scheme by the management to boost revenue.
“With cruise gratuities automatically charged, both our front-line and behind-the-scene crew members who play a crucial role in creating guest experiences will be equally rewarded and recognised,” says Mr Michael Goh, president of Dream Cruises and head of international sales, Genting Cruise Lines, in response to queries.
Passenger S.H. Raja, who has cruised between Asean ports, such as in Malaysia and Vietnam, and Far East ones in Japan, China and Taiwan, says: “Upfront gratuities eliminate the instances of passengers who do not understand the standard etiquette. Some passengers are tight-fisted and treat tipping as getting rid of loose change in the wallet.”
And in these pandemic times, the crew works doubly hard. More cleaning, more care and more attentiveness. The hours are longer and harder now. And the cap on passengers shrinks the tip pool. Thus, show more gratitude.
• Recognise exceptional service with a further tip, even if the gratuities are pre-paid. I make a mental note of the waiter who remembers my weakness for desserts and quietly provides double helpings; my chirpy steward who cleans the cabin spotlessly and slips extra chocolates on the bed during turn-down service; the restaurant manager’s attentive but unobtrusive service; the mixologist who makes excellent cocktails; the deck hand helping to reserve my favourite shaded spot by the pool.
• Tip only in the local currency or in major currencies such as US dollars and euros. Getting rid of the spare renminbi or rupiah is not sincere.
• With the current pandemic, the health and safety culture has been rewritten for both passengers and crew. The recent Covid-19 false alarm aboard Quantum of the Seas has sharpened the learning curve for the cruise industry. More importantly, it demonstrated that the pilot cruise programme has a robust, efficient health-response system in place.
For those yearning for a “cruise-cation”, sailing at half the maximum capacity is a big draw. With seven crew members for every 10 passengers, this is an almost unprecedented level of care and attention.
And at slightly more than $300 a night, with full board for two persons plus entertainment, that is a pretty good deal.
• The writer’s most recent cruise was a 22-night expedition to Antarctica in March. He was polar-diving with leopard seals between icebergs. During the cruise, he visited the ship’s clinic twice for fever. He shared his aged rum generously with the doctor, hotel manager and expedition leader.