Cruising – The Good, The Bad, The Inbetween or Lessons Learned From Our Recent Not-So-Spectacular Trip

What went wrong?

I love cruising. I think I’ve taken 10 cruises in total. My first cruise was when I was 12 years old to celebrate my parents’ 25th wedding anniversary. One of my first big vacations with my boyfriend (now husband) after college was on a cruise. A big part of my honeymoon included a cruise. And in the Summer of 2018, I was so excited to be taking my daughter on her first cruise. Unfortunately, after over two decades of great experiences, this time it fell short.

It took me a while to write this post (7 months to be exact). I wanted to have some time pass in order to figure out what exactly went wrong. The passage of time worked. I can now pinpoint the problems with our vacation to one big issue: the cruise line we selected was only set up to handle families during peak travel times of the year. And that’s not when we went.

Bryan and I have always been very keen to travel during the off-peak vacation times of the year. First and foremost, it is always A LOT cheaper. The other major perks of traveling during the off-peak times include far fewer crowds and barely any kids. Fast-forward to vacationing with our own child in tow and those were still some of the three biggest factors to us. And that is where we went wrong. Because if a cruise ship has hardly any kids around, then they are not going to put forth much effort for the few that do show up. This brings me to our first issue with our Alaskan Cruise on the Ruby Princess, the kids club.

The Kids Club – Availability

The kids club options that the Princess Cruise Line offered sounded fantastic. The listing of hours and activities we received on the first day looked like it would be a great experience and that Emily would have a great time. The problem was that the club actually remained closed for most of the cruise. This was in order for the staff to prepare for the next week’s crowd. This group was deemed more important than our own based on the increased number of children expected to make an appearance.

At first, I thought the club closure wasn’t a huge deal. With both of us working fulltime jobs we try to use our vacations to enjoy family time together. What I didn’t realize was that family time together while stuck on a boat in a small cabin can be really boring for a 4-year-old. Especially when that 4-year-old was given a tour of the cruise that included the Kids Club area. Emily was dying to hang out on the indoor playground and play with other kids.

The Kids Club – Age-Appropriateness

Finally, with only a couple of days left to go before the cruise ended, the Ruby Princess gods deemed it was finally time to open up the club again. Emily was ecstatic and spent all of breakfast one morning asking when she could go check out the place.  Unfortunately, it turned out that while they originally offered 3 separate clubs, one for teenagers, one for 8-12-year-olds and one for 3-7-year-olds, they only opened the room for the 8-12-year-olds. Ever wonder why you don’t send preschoolers directly to the 3rd grade? Emily can now give you a list of exactly how boring that would be for the preschoolers. After this happened a second time we gave up on the kids club altogether. I heard other parents loudly complaining about this as well so I know we weren’t the only unhappy campers.

While irritating as someone that has just paid a lot of money for a cruise, I can understand that financially it wasn’t in the cruise line’s best interest to appease the 15 or so families with children that were on vacation. I just wish they would have been upfront with their scheduling. If my daughter hadn’t gotten to see the fun play area and hear about all the exciting things she could do and people she could play with, she would not have been so disappointed when it didn’t happen.

The room:

Another big problem we had was the bedding. In a standard room like the one we had, there are two twin beds with two additional bunk beds that extend down from the ceiling. Emily loved the bunk bed and found it fantastic that she had her own private place to stay. The downside was that there were warnings everywhere that a child younger than 9 shouldn’t be on the top bunk. While I was fine with her making a little fort for herself while we were awake, I figured that warnings were a very good point to heed when there was no adult supervision (due to her dad and I sleeping). Therefore, much to her chagrin, Emily was forced to sleep on one of the main two bunk beds.

In theory this was fine, one parent on the other twin bed and one parent in the upper bunk. Bryan offered to sleep in the upper bunk on night one. He spent the next day complaining about how bad of a mattress it was to sleep on. Partially because it was only fair and partially to prove that he was just being a wimp, I took my turn on the top bunk on night two. It ended up being one of the worst sleeping experiences I’ve ever had. With both of us refusing to take a second night on the top bed and not allowing our more than willing daughter to take a turn we instead took turns sharing the twin bed with our constantly tossing and turning 4-year-old for the remaining five nights of the cruise.

Cruising - Lessons Learned

The Entertainment

The last big disappointment on the cruise was the entertainment. It was probably fine for the adult-only crowd but with Emily with us we were no longer staying out late to go dancing, drinking or frequenting the casinos. Therefore, I had really been looking forward to the kid-appropriate evening entertainment, such as the cheesy dance numbers taking place in the main dining room, towel animals in the rooms and midnight buffets to gape at. None of these were available on the Princess Lines. Since I had experienced it on all the other cruises we’d been on, I didn’t realize it wasn’t a given.

I was also used to a family-friendly broadway-esque performance, staff talent show, magic show or cirque du soleil number being performed on the big stage every night. That also turned out not to be a given as this time there were only 3 different performances for the 7 nights aboard the Ruby Princess.

Needless expenditures:

One other tip I’d like to add is just to avoid buying a WiFi package. Try as we might to leave work behind, Bryan and I got a little worried about being completely out of touch with our teams back in Honolulu and bought a WiFi package for $100. The WiFi was horribly slow at best and on most days simply didn’t work. Save yourself the aggravation and just use cell service once you dock in the ports. It is what we ended up doing anyway, albeit $100 poorer.

What went right?

In summary, I wasn’t happy with our Princess Cruise Line experience, but I LOVED, LOVED, LOVED Alaska. As a girl who has always valued life at the beach over life in a snowy mountain I am now seriously thinking of including Alaska in my retirement plans. For the summer months at least. Click here to read about how much I loved Alaska.

So which cruise line should you take?

I’m certainly no expert when it comes to cruises. Even with 10 cruises under my belt, I’ve only been on 5 different cruise lines. But this is how I would “stereotype” those five lines:

Carnival cruise lines:

Big crowds, big boats and cheap. Great for virgin cruisers. I haven’t been on the Carnival cruise line in years so this may have changed, but we stopped traveling on Carnival because we were tired of having to make friends with other passengers during dinners at assigned tables. Call us anti-social but forced conversations during vacations just wasn’t our thing. That being said, there always seemed to be a party happening on the top deck and fun functions with the cruise line staff to watch.

Norwegian cruise lines:

Trailblazers in getting away from the traditional dining experience by offering more “restaurants” (many with a surcharge) and fewer sit-with-strangers at a specific time each night setting. Called “freestyle cruising” it was fun to sample the various restaurants that the cruise offered. While I actually love the chilled fruit soup dish that accompanies most menus in the traditional cruise dining room, it was exciting to spend one night at a Mexican restaurant, followed by a sushi lunch and dinner the next night at an Italian restaurant. There was also a lot more entertainment to appeal to the younger crowd (both younger adults as well as kids), including glow-in-the-dark bowling alleys and water slides. I took a sake tasting and sushi-making class one day aboard the ship. This may be my favorite affordable cruise line.

Holland America cruise lines:

I don’t know how to say this without coming across as “ageist” but this is definitely for the senior citizen crowd. As an example, my own mom mentioned how much younger she felt compared to most passengers when she took the Holland America line while in her 60s. We didn’t even realize the age difference between us and the average passenger until it was pointed out to us (over and over again) by the older crowd that took a keen if not humorous interest in why us kids (we were in our 30s) decided on the Holland America line. The problem with taking a cruise with people 2 generations older than you is that the cruise designs most of their entertainment with that age range in mind.

However, the ship made up for their typically senior citizen leanings by setting up a huge ship-wide bar crawl for us “young-uns”. Let’s just say that from what I remember of it, it was well worth the price of admission. Needless to say, there was a lot of alcohol!

Disney cruise line:

The gold standard that all cruises should live up to. I traveled on Disney when I was childless and not one bit interested in hanging around a bunch of kids during my vacation. I assumed this would be an impossible dream since it was Disney after all. However, they worked hard to provide adult-only pools and other options. There was even an adults-only section on their private island, Castaway Cay.

Everything you could think of was planned out perfectly, from a pirate-themed bon voyage party with fireworks to amazing broadway-esque performances at night. And that perfection will cost you double what the other cruise lines would charge you. For some reason, it seemed like everyone with a young family that I knew ended up taking an Alaskan Disney cruise this summer. I sadly looked at the pictures of their kids having the time of their lives and wished I hadn’t been so cheap.

Princess cruise lines:

This is the cruise line for those wanting an education on their vacation. Most of the onboard activities were geared towards lectures and learnings, primarily for those in the 50s-60s range without kids. Known as the “love boat” this cruise line will excite those looking for a more traditional cruising experience. I read a blog review by a lady who took her dad on the same cruise as we took. She raved about how wonderful it was to spend the afternoon curled up in various corners with a good book. It sounded like the cruise this blogger selected really was perfect for her. That the exact type of person who will revel in the Princess cruise lines. It’s just not for someone looking for ways to keep her energetic family entertained.

Good luck on selecting your next cruise, may the odds be ever in your favor!