In my introduction to this series, I wrote about how my fiancé and I chose our Alaskan cruise, from the decision to go at all to when and on what line. We knew we wanted to save money on the actual fare in order to maximize our excursions budget (more on that in Part 3) and we didn’t need a ship with tons of specialty dining or extra activities because we don’t believe in paying for upgrades on an all-inclusive vacation (if we want to go to the spa or for a fancy dinner, we’re lucky to live in a city where there are options that are both cheaper and better than anything we could get on any cruise). Ultimately it was simply timing and price that pointed us towards Royal Caribbean’s Serenade of the Seas. We chose a 7 Night roundtrip Inside Passage sailing in September 2021.
The ship operated at only 35% capacity and we were really impressed with Royal Caribbean’s health and safety practices. I go into more detail about this aspect of the ship in Part One but suffice to say that we counterintuitively felt safer on the cruise ship than we have in certain restaurants and bars on solid ground. If you’re used to masking policies in your every day life (which you should be), the masking policies around the ship won’t feel any different and the great thing about Alaska is that so much of your time is spent exploring outdoors. Looking back at our photos, you can barely tell that we’re travelling in extraordinary circumstances. If anything, the lack of crowds just made our budget-friendly cruise feel more exclusive.
We chose an inside stateroom, the cheapest fare option available, and it was all we needed. Unless you’re severely claustrophobic, I see absolutely no point in an ocean view room (which is just as small and basic as inside but it comes with a single window) and I’d rather go out on deck than sit on a tiny balcony right next to my neighbours. Unless you can afford a suite, an inside stateroom really is the best value on the ship. Importantly, the Serenade’s inside staterooms come with a small couch in addition to the large bed (that separates into two twins if you’re travelling with a platonic friend). This one extra piece of furniture made it possible for me to read or plan our schedule while Phil napped and allowed us to spend more time in our small shared space without feeling like we were on top of each other. The bathrooms are small but the closets are plenty big enough for a reasonable packer (I’ll write about this particular skill in a later piece but for now I’ll just say that you never need even half the luggage you think you do). Bring your own shampoo so you’re not stuck using Royal Caribbean’s mystery goo but otherwise even the ship’s most basic room is plenty well appointed. Our state room attendant’s name was Chertin and he was a dream of efficiency and non-overbearing friendliness.
My relationship to cruising has been a slow evolution. Growing up, my family travelled a lot but never cruised. The official line is that my father gets seasick but I really think it’s just not my mom’s vibe. And, to be honest, it’s not really mine either. I’m picky about food and generally pretty averse to buffets, which makes any all-inclusive deal a risky proposition. I live in a city that’s spoiled me when it comes to stage shows, making me a very grumpy audience member for a ship’s various “tribute to Broadway”-style shenanigans. I hate crowds and cheesy group activities, so the thought of having to share my dining table with a group of assigned strangers at every meal is second only to interacting with a cruise director on my list of horrific cruise concepts. I drink very little so the appeal of an unlimited drinks package is completely lost on me and, though I love to swim, I’ve never encountered a ship swimming situation that didn’t feel like old person soup.
But the reality is that pretty much all of that stuff is avoidable. You can eat every meal in the dining room if you’re not into buffets and be served three course meals that are, if not the greatest food in the world, completely acceptable and occasionally even excellent. If you call the cruise line ahead of your sailing, you can request to be seated alone (during Covid this became the norm) and if you choose traditional dining at a set time every night, you’ll have the same waiter and assistant who will learn what you like and even things like your preferred level of chitchat (Percival and Dita really impressed us in general but when Dita started bringing Phil his preferred juice without even asking, he was head over heels).
Even Royal Caribbean’s buffet is pretty decent as far as buffets are concerned. Right now it’s a little awkward because you have to ask for items and be served by a sort of B team of staff (though all Royal Caribbean crew members are friendly and competent, there’s a clear hierarchy that can be observed in food service from the best of the best who are main waiters in restaurants, to assistant waiters who are equally personable but not quite as experienced or have weaker English, to buffet staff who sort of run the gamut) but if you’re travelling with a picky group, the variety available at the buffet is helpful even if the quality is just kind of fine. In normal times, the buffet’s omnipresence is a really convenient bridge between meals or if you need a snack (when I sailed with Celebrity in 2019, I’d sometimes pick up a post-karaoke slice of pizza before heading to bed because they always had pizza and a few other items available between meal times) though when we sailed during Covid the buffet wasn’t available for dinner and closed at 3pm. When we needed a mid-day something, the snack bar offered fantastic roast beef sandwiches (though that’s the only particularly good thing there so it gets tiresome after a couple) and once or twice we allowed ourselves to swing by Latte-tudes for one of the top notch lattes despite our general pledge to keep our on-board purchase bill as low as possible. We didn’t buy a drinks package so 1-2 cocktails a night (Royal Caribbean makes an awesome Painkiller) plus a few lattes and the on-board gratuities was all we paid at the end of our trip, a total bill of less than $500.
Aside from the safety training on the first day, absolutely none of the activities are mandatory so middling musical tributes and old person soup will only be forced upon you if your travel companion is an overly social nerd who loves old people even more than he loves hot tubs. Unfortunately that’s exactly who I brought with me on my most recent cruise, but he’s cute so we can forgive him.
Facilitated by John, a self-centering showman of a cruise director who does not know the tune to Sweet Caroline, we saw a charming juggler, a great Adele tribute performer, and maybe the worst comedian in the world. We participated in a never-ending quest to find a hot tub that was actually properly heated (zero success, which is ridiculous and such a waste of Alaska’s hot tub + cold air opportunities). We played four games of trivia and won all four, collecting a very stupid selection of cheap useless prizes like stress balls and highlighters. We lost bingo and I spent the rest of the trip hearing about how the host did a terrible job calling the numbers (Phil works in a retirement home and is therefore an expert on how bingo ought to be run *insert eyeroll emoji here*). I’m self conscious singing publicly at home where I know far too many people but I’m all about it when in the middle of the ocean with a bunch of strangers so the one activity that I really drove us to was a couple sessions of karaoke. I wouldn’t say the activities team on the Serenade of the Seas is the most dynamic and we were underwhelmed with pretty much every activity we attended but it’s nice to have something on the schedule to structure your sea days.
One entertainment element we were pretty impressed by was the music on the ship. Nearly every venue had a different form of live music every night so you could wander from the classical guitar in the atrium to singer/songwriter vibes in the pub to, our favourite, the embarrassingly named Funk It Up dance band who consistently inspired a few of our favourite older couples to dance like no one was watching (but we were, because they were adorable). There’s nothing cool or sophisticated about any of it, no matter how hard Royal Caribbean may try, but there’s an earnestness that can be easily bought into if that’s your sort of thing.
When I cruised solo, I read a bunch of books while overlooking the water and even spent whole sea days just hanging out alone in my cabin as I recharged between ambitious port travel days. If, like me, you’re not someone whose personality is particularly suited to on-board activities, you’d think sea days would be a downside of cruising but it’s actually one of my favourite aspects. When I’m visiting any new place, but especially a place that’s really far from home, I feel a lot of pressure to see as much as possible. I force myself to get up early and I’m usually taking on a packed itinerary that requires a lot of walking. And if I’m being honest, I find it kind of exhausting and, by the end of the trip, sights that I should be excited to see start feeling like a bit of a chore. The existence of sea days allows me to recharge mid-trip without the guilt of all the things I could be doing instead of sleeping in or reading or (don’t judge) watching pre-downloaded Netflix shows on my ipad. Sea days themselves aren’t particularly interesting, but they help me really make the most of the time I’m spending on land, which is the actual point.
Beyond not really loving the trappings of on-board life, the other baggage I brought with me when thinking about cruising for the first time was all about the idea of cruising. There’s just a kind of baked-in pretension among the well-travelled that cruising is frivolous or even a little ignorant. Especially with a line like Royal Caribbean, a massive American brand with a name that suggests bikini-clad island hopping rather than genuine cultural experiences, I do understand where that opinion comes from. When most people think of cruising, they think of the Caribbean, and that’s not a kind of cruise I’ve ever found appealing (honestly, just pick a pretty island and go to a resort). I’m not in it for the bottomless margaritas or parties on the pool deck. To me, cruising is all about facilitating travel and you should only cruise to somewhere you’re really interested in going. The ship is just a convenient way to get from place to place without having to haul your luggage around or spend all your time and money organizing hotels and transportation.
When talking about more ambitious ports like, say, Tokyo or Lisbon, the stereotype is right to say that all you’re getting is a somewhat superficial little hint of the place, not a full experience. But a cruise is made up of a collection of these hints and, ideally, it gives travellers an idea of where they’d like to revisit for a longer, more in-depth exploration. It’s not inherently better to have experienced one place fully over having stepped into the shallow end of lots of different places. It’s just different. And if those two approaches to travel can work together, that’s the best of all.
I also think it’s important to acknowledge accessibility when talking about the merit of cruising. Travel is incredibly cost prohibitive and cruising goes a long way to ease that burden. Phil and I have another cruise coming up this spring and there’s no way we could have afforded two full weeks in Europe if we weren’t doing it through MSC. We’ll get to visit 8 different countries that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible for us. If we fall in love with any of them, we’ll know to save up so one day we can go back. And it’s not just cost when I talk about accessibility. Cruises make it possible for all sorts of people to travel. On-board activities and the home base setup allow parents with small kids to see the world and expose their kids to new places without having to carry all their stuff or worry about kid-friendly accommodation. Excursions booked through the ship make it possible for people with physical disabilities or other limitations to travel safely with support. And the comfort zone of the ship makes it less overwhelming for new travellers or travellers with anxiety and other issues to take on new challenges while being able to easily return to a familiar space.
I think this last point gets to the heart of some of the anti-cruise sentiment I had in my head before boarding my first ship. There’s something a little irksome about this big floating American thing chaperoning you around the world. You shouldn’t be having steak and cheesecake for dinner when you’re in Kyoto, and struggling with the language and customs is part of the experience so why should you get to be toured around by English speakers then return to your big American haven at the dock to be waited on by an international crew who’ve been essentially ranked by their English language skills? But it’s all about balance and option and facilitation. If you can handle flying to the other side of the world with no support system and fully immersing yourself in a place you’ve never been where you don’t speak the language and are unfamiliar with the food and customs and literally everything, that’s very impressive. I’m happy for you. But that’s not where most people are and I’d rather there be some way of getting those people out into the world too. Travel shouldn’t just be for people with no reservations.
Personally I like the two extremes of cruising. For Alaska, we booked lots of excursions and experiences but never through the cruise line (look out for Part 3 for all these details). But in most international ports I like to go it completely alone, wandering on foot or by local transit to friend-sourced restaurant recommendations and must-see spots, or even just meandering with the help of GoogleMaps (smart phones and Google’s various tools are a god send for an independent traveller; don’t even get me started on the stress of navigating China where said tools are blocked). For 8-12 hours, I want to test myself, walk further than I normally do in a week, eat things I’ve never heard of, and practice communicating mostly by pointing. But then I want to put my feet up and order a Painkiller in English. I don’t have the stamina to go full out for the whole trip and I’m not interested in letting that stop me from flying far away.
Which is to say nothing of the wonder that is actually sailing. One of the things I love most about travel is the actual travel. I like getting from one place to another. I live for a train ride and boats are a very very close second. Less bothered by the cold than most people, Phil and I spent a lot of time on deck, listening to the water and counting shooting stars as we sailed. I may not be made for cruise ship culture but cruise ship travel is pretty magical.
Do I wish the cruise lines had more sophisticated entertainment and food that more enthusiastically embraced each itinerary’s specific ports? Absolutely. But Royal Caribbean’s standard of service is remarkably high considering the price and the scope. On multiple occasions, Phil and I wondered how it was possible they were making ends meet with the value they offered for what we paid (we think it’s probably the wi-fi packages that make the profit; don’t be that sucker). The Serenade of the Seas is fairly humble compared to the floating theme parks a lot of cruise ships resemble but it was everything we needed, frankly far more than we expected, and it did what we needed it to do, it brought us to Alaska.