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Ted Tries a Cruise

Picture of a cruise ship anchored off Catalina Island

The Monarch of the Seas anchored off Catalina Island. This view is from the Catalina Countess, one of the tenders that ferry passengers to and from Avalon.

My parents enjoyed cruises. They had been suggesting for years that a cruise would be an enjoyable and very sociable alternative to my usual solo vacation. I had long resisted those suggestions because the idea of any kind of “resort” vacation didn’t seem very appealing, but mainly because of the cost.

Cruises have been designed, sold, and priced for “double occupancy” ever since a Divine Imperative established that policy millennia ago. A solo passenger who violates the sacrosanct “Noah’s Ark Rule” must pay a substantial surcharge, officially called a “single supplement.” Cruise industry executives get upset when unhappy singles call this a “penalty.” They insist the “supplement” is merely an unavoidable consequence of “Economics,” a mysterious law of nature seemingly as immutable as the speed of light. Regardless, a “supplement” that can double the attractive advertised price looks, walks, and quacks an awful lot like a penalty.

Still, at the beginning of 2007 I was getting tired of solo vacations. One of the popular inexpensive four-day cruises that call at San Diego and Catalina Island on the way to Ensenada, Mexico now sounded like a good idea. They operate from the port of Los Angeles, so I wouldn’t have to fly anywhere. It would be a “destination-free” trip devoted to sampling the cruise experience, as I had been to San Diego and Catalina several times and had no interest in Ensenada’s shopping opportunities. I decided to go in May, before the summer family vacation season.

The Automobile Club Web site advertised a “sale” on Royal Caribbean’s Monarch of the Seas, which then plied the Los Angeles to Ensenada route year round. (After refurbishment in 2008 Royal Caribbean moved the ship to the Caribbean, where it ran three and four-day cruises. In 2013 they transferred it to their Madrid-based Pullmantur subsidiary, and officially shortened its name to Monarch. By then it was the oldest ship in the Royal Caribbean fleet. The European and Latin American holidaymakers who now cruise the southern Caribbean and South America on the Monarch apparently don’t insist on the newest and flashiest ships.)

The price was just under $250 for an “ocean-view” cabin (with a porthole). Surprisingly, it was only a few dollars more than the cheapest “inside” (windowless) cabin. Of course, that was “per person, double occupancy.” But the reservation form included an option for one adult. Would the “sale” price still apply? Yes! The price was twice the double-occupancy rate, but still quite reasonable at $511.14 with all the fees and taxes. I filled in my information, selected a cabin, entered my credit card number, clicked OK, and waited. Instead of confirming my booking, the next screen said Unknown error contacting the cruise line. I tried it several times, with the same result.

I printed the booking information, wrote down the “special offer code,” and planned to stop at the Auto Club on the way home from work the next day. Maybe a live human being could get through to the cruise line. In the meantime, I decided to visit Royal Caribbean’s Web site to see how special that Auto Club offer really was. It listed no special offers for that sailing, but the price was identical to the Auto Club “sale.” The system successfully made the booking and sent me an immediate e-mail confirmation.

My “bible” for this trip was Sally Maisel’s Cruising Solo. I had “met” Sally on a Web travel forum in the late 1990s, and bought the book from her after exchanging some e-mail. Although it was still in print in 2007, the book was published in 1993 and never updated. Much of it was very out of date, but there was plenty of non-perishable advice.

Picture of my cabin

My very cozy stateroom. In the foreground at left is a small closet; there’s a little dressing area wedged between the closet and the bed. At right is the bathroom; the shower is behind the mirror.

The bed can separate into two single beds, with an open space between them that provides the illusion of more room. Here the bed has been made up for daytime use. The housekeepers come back in the evening to remove the green sash and pillows, make the bed if necessary, and deliver the next day’s schedule of activities.

I had read reviews of the Monarch that noted how small the cabins were. But it was still a bit of a shock to open the door for the first time and see how tiny my cabin really was. With the two twin beds joined into a single “queen” bed pressed against the wall on two sides, there was less than a meter of space to get in and out of bed. The bathroom resembled an airplane lavatory, with the addition of a small shower (its curtain didn’t quite reach the floor, so the floor always got wet). Cruise brochures use the fancy term stateroom when referring to a cabin. But cubicle— in its original Latin meaning of a monk’s cell— would seem more appropriate.

The brochure said a typical cabin was 11.3 square meters. Only a few of the most expensive cabins were significantly larger. It’s actually adequate for one person, and a romantic couple might not mind the “coziness.” But sharing it with even a good friend might be uncomfortable. A few cruise lines (but not Royal Caribbean) offer singles a more affordable alternative to the “supplement.” If you agree to share a cabin with another randomly-assigned single passenger of the same gender, you pay the much lower double-occupancy price. That’s not something I would consider, as sharing such close quarters with a total stranger would seem more appropriate for incarceration than a vacation.

I next followed Sally’s advice and joined the queue at the maitre-d’s desk to inquire about my dining room table. The Monarch had the traditional cruise ship dining arrangement: Dinner is at the same assigned table, with the same people, each night. (Breakfast and lunch are at a separate buffet, with open seating.) If you’re not traveling with a group, dinner table-mates can inordinately influence whether a cruise is enjoyable. On a ship with over 2,500 passengers, dinner can provide the only sustained opportunity to get to know people who might also be companions for other activities on the ship and ashore.

I knew I was assigned to the second seating at 8 p.m. Royal Caribbean’s Web site didn’t give me any other option when I booked. Sally said that’s the best choice anyway, even though it’s later than I usually eat. Singles most often request the late seating because families with children prefer the first seating at 5:30. The maitre-d told me I was at a “large table for six.” As Sally had specifically recommended requesting a large table, and cautioned against being stuck at a small table with one couple or family, it looked like I was all set.

Photo of a tender alongside a cruise ship

The harbor at Avalon on Catalina Island can’t accommodate large cruise ships. Ships anchor outside the harbor, and tenders like this one pull alongside to ferry passengers to and from the mole (stonework dock) in Avalon. Read more.

Arriving at the dining room that night, I was escorted to an empty round table near the center of a cavernous labyrinth of tables. I then spent twenty minutes staring at five empty chairs, conversing only with various staff who kept asking if anyone was with me. (Every crew member I encountered during the lifeboat mustering drill earlier that day had also repeatedly asked me that question.) After ordering dinner and starting on the appetizer, I resigned myself to dining alone. I’d visit the maitre-d the next morning for a new table assignment.

Then the Lovebirds arrived. The twenty-something pair seated themselves across from me and immediately sequestered themselves in their own private world of smooching, cuddling, whispering, and sharing each other’s food. They were all but oblivious to everything else. Five minutes later the Bumpkins turned up. An older couple from a small rural town, they seemed to have fallen off the proverbial turnip truck. They expressed befuddlement and even revulsion at the “exotic” items on the menu, and acted uncomfortable and overwhelmed.

Mrs. Bumpkin would occasionally exchange a few words with me. For example, she told me she had never heard of anyone going on a cruise alone. Except for a few whispered words to his wife, Mr. Bumpkin was silent. Maybe he had nothing to say. The Lovebirds didn’t even tell me their names until the second night. The Bumpkins didn’t introduce themselves until the third night. Both couples mostly ignored me. The empty chair next to me didn’t have much to say either.

Could greener pastures lie just out of sight? Under cover of a trip to the loo, I spied out the land looking for large tables with empty seats. There were some enormous tables with large groups, along with many full tables for six or eight. The only empty chairs I saw were at small tables meant for four, presumably under-booked for couples who requested privacy. I concluded it would be futile to ask for another roll of the dice. But in hindsight, that’s exactly what I should have done.

The food was generally good, elegantly presented, and attentively served. There was one “Formal Night,” for which the “suggested” male attire was a tuxedo or a dark suit and tie. I noticed that many men weren’t even wearing jackets or ties; their female companions were dressed for Tuesday rather than Sunday. While Formal Night is a quintessential cruise tradition, some ships are dressier than others and stricter about enforcing their dress codes. This inexpensive short cruise for laid-back Californians was definitely on the casual end of the spectrum. Had I known that, I might not have bothered with schlepping a jacket.

In the middle of dinner on Formal Night, Ms. Lovebird whispered to Mr. Lovebird that she wasn’t feeling well. They excused themselves and flew back to their cabin. I immediately thought of the much-publicized Norovirus, which had me worried until I saw the Lovebirds in the buffet the next morning. They were eating a hearty breakfast, billing and cooing in apparently fine feather.

The buffet didn’t provide any better social opportunities. The tables for two or four were occupied with couples and families, some with toddlers and screaming babies. Whenever I saw a woman sitting alone I walked over to her table, smiled, and asked if I could join her. Each time the answer was “I’m waiting for my husband (or boyfriend).” The fifth time that happened, I replied with “Oh... I’d like to meet him, too.” Her scowl finally convinced me that such a strategy wouldn’t work here. The only time anyone joined me at a table was on the last day, when everyone was grabbing breakfast before being hustled off the ship. Right after I claimed a table that a foursome had just relinquished, a couple sat down next to me and continued their conversation in Korean without even acknowledging my presence.

Picture of a cruise ship pool deck and the San Diego skyline

A sunny afternoon on the Monarch of the Seas pool deck, as the ship prepares to leave San Diego.

Elsewhere on the ship, couples and groups clung together, conversing among themselves— and with distant friends by cellphone— in a babel of languages. Many people sunning themselves around the pool sported MP3 players and earbuds. I did meet a few friendly senior couples. They chatted with me as we stood in queues, waited for the slow elevators, or rode on the tender to Avalon. When they inevitably asked about my family, I said I was single and cruising alone. The consistent response was a surprised or pained look, a ponderous pause, and finally “You’re really brave! I could never do that!”

On the first night I visited the photo gallery to survey the racks of pictures taken during boarding. As Sally recommended, I looked for pictures of single individuals. The only one I saw was of myself with a deer-in-the-headlights expression. I quickly took it down and slipped it into the “unwanted pictures” box. The activity schedule for that night listed a “Single Mingle,” in the disco at 11:30. I was quite tired by then, but I followed Sally’s advice and went there. A throng was gyrating to very loud thumping music, but I saw no sign of any mingling singles. I was beginning to get the feeling that I might be the only one of some 2,500 people on the ship who wasn’t part of a couple, family, or group.

The cruise industry now seems to be aggressively courting organizers of groups by offering them attractive pricing. That efficiently fills ships with family reunions, wedding parties, corporate functions, and other private special events. But it can make cruises less hospitable to individual couples, and especially to singles. Several groups were on this cruise. There were two high school reunions (they all wore name tags), a user group for hotel management software, a scrapbooking club that occupied a large conference room, two corporate functions occupying the other conference rooms, and a large contingent from Utah whose purpose I never learned (they announced themselves during the “welcome aboard” show on the first night, after the featured comedian made an infelicitous joke about Mormons).

Reflection on a cruise ship window

The windows of the Viking Crown Lounge reflect the pool deck and the ocean. The name is a vestige of Royal Caribbean’s early days, when their ships were Norwegian.

The “Viking Crown Lounge” is 13 stories high on the ship’s smokestack. It became my favorite part of the ship because of its 360-degree view, and also because it seemed to be the only public area without constantly blaring music. I was fortunate to meet Ron and Bob— a gay couple in all senses of the word— in that lounge on the first day. Standing at a window as the ship left San Pedro (the Los Angeles port), I overheard the two men discussing the various landmarks we were passing in the harbor. So I sat down next to them to listen to the “guided tour.” They had taken many cruises together, and had another one planned for a month later. They had ready answers to my “newbie” questions.

Although I didn’t expect to see them again, I kept running into Ron and Bob during the cruise. I once found them lounging in deck chairs after visiting the spa, where they had their big toes and pinkie fingers painted in bright red polish. I was grateful for their company, even though they both admitted that they would “never have the guts” to cruise alone.

The ship’s theatre offered a show every night. The singers, dancers, comedians, and nine live musicians were all amplified to tinnitus-inducing levels. The first night was a “welcome aboard” show featuring a comedian I didn’t find very funny. The second night was Starstruck, a revue of songs and scenes from classic Hollywood musicals. It would have been enjoyable if I had brought earplugs. The third night featured a comedy impressionist who mostly impersonated rock stars I had never heard of. I skipped the last show, Fast Forward, a revue of dance movies from the 1970s and 1980s.

Picture of a cruise ship bow

The Monarch’s bow. Read more.

I quickly learned why the cruise price was so low, and also why cruise lines penalize singles. The ship’s public address system blasted relentless pitches for a seemingly limitless array of things to buy. Bar servers scurried everywhere, selling and delivering drinks at $5.95 a pop (soda pop was also an extra-cost item at meals; so I stuck with iced tea, inexplicably provided for free). There were frequent announcements about the casino and jackpot bingo, as well as “seminars” touting expensive spa services and lectures on “recommended” shopping in each port (at shops that presumably give Royal Caribbean some kind of “consideration” to merit the “recommendation”). A duty-free shopping mall on one deck hawked jewelry, watches, perfume, cigarettes, and “logo items.” A lounge amidships hosted daily art auctions. The “adventure desk” sold a dizzying array of shore excursions. Peripatetic photographers captured cavorting couples and families for pictures on sale in the photo gallery, and videographers gathered material for a $35 “cruise in review” DVD.

Forget any notions of an “all-inclusive vacation” on a large ship. Expect constant nickel-and-diming, a game cruise lines perfected long before airlines started playing it. For mass-market cruises like this one, the business model is based on packing discounted cabins with couples, families, and groups who spend lavishly on all those overpriced extras that generate the real profits. That’s the actual “Economics” behind the punitive surcharge on solo passengers. The “supplement” covers the full fixed operating expenses of a cabin meant for two. But mainly it compensates the cruise line for the lost revenue from drinks, tours, bingo cards, spa treatments, trinkets, and everything else they would expect an absent cabin-mate to buy.

I don’t care much for drinking, gambling, or shopping; and I didn’t feel the need to buy shore excursions: “Been there, done that.” Fortunately, the extra full-fare ticket I bought for a phantom travel companion salved some of the guilt I felt about about shirking my duty to the shareholders of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.

In San Diego, I got off the ship as soon as the doors opened. I took advantage of the morning light for some pictures of the waterfront, and walked around the nearby Downtown. Then I rode the ferry to Coronado for lunch (the ferry dock is right next to the cruise ship docks). I had tasty moussaka at Spiro’s Gyros, a Greek take-out in the Ferry Landing Marketplace. (It’s now called Spiro’s Greek Café.) That was the one thing I had specifically planned, as I enjoyed the ferry ride and the moussaka the last time I was in San Diego.

In Avalon I boarded the first tender departure in the morning, walked around, and took some pictures. Then I ran into Ron and Bob. We strolled along Crescent Avenue, the beachfront tourist mall, until the fog rolled in just after noon. Since I really don’t enjoy walking around in fog, I went back to the ship for lunch.

Photo of Ensenada harbor

The harbor at Ensenada, just before the Monarch embarked for Los Angeles. The fog and “marine layer” of overcast didn’t clear enough for a picture until late in the afternoon.

I had been to Ensenada once before, on a cruise with my parents in 1969. I remember a sleepy little town with rutted dirt roads, shops with mysterious signs in Spanish, and a mariachi band that greeted the ship. It seemed so exotic. But nearly four decades of growth and development had obliterated everything quaint or distinctive, leaving little to offer visitors beyond shopping and folklórico shows. No more mariachi band on the dock— an enormous flag was the only thing visibly Mexican. If anything, the sprawl of houses and buildings with a mountain backdrop reminded me of Los Angeles. Signs in English, along with the foggy overcast that’s a frequent late spring feature in Southern California, completed a familiar-looking scene. I may have been the only one who didn’t think it was worth a visit. The ship was practically deserted. I spent a quiet relaxing day exploring the ship and reading a book in the empty Viking Crown Lounge.

There was one brief shining moment of community at my dinner table on the last night. In an attempt to avoid the awkward Ritual of Gratuity Distribution, we had all opted to buy a package that prepaid the standard “recommended” tips for the cabin steward, waiter, assistant waiter, and head waiter. That turned out to be a set of vouchers to stuff into envelopes and press into designated palms. So we still had to participate in the Ritual.

The head waiter paid our table one perfunctory visit on the first night. Apparently deciding we didn’t merit any more of his precious time, he never deigned to visit us again. But every night we watched him circulate and banter with the boisterous groups at nearby mega-tables. We decided he didn’t deserve even the $3 tip the package included.

After dinner we all headed to the Purser’s desk to ask for a refund. The clerk said that was impossible. I asked for a supervisor, who explained why it was impossible: The computer system provided no way to do that! So we asked for her supervisor. After ten minutes the Hotel Manager appeared, and told us one more time that a refund was impossible. But he could do a “special manual override” to transfer the head waiter’s tip to our waiter. Since we were satisfied with the waiter’s service, we agreed to that. After congratulating each other on our Stunning (partial) Victory Over The System, we went our separate ways.

Picture of a docked cruise ship

The Monarch of the Seas, docked and securely tied up in San Diego. Reflections of small waves in the water below give the ship’s white hull a mottled appearance.

The regimen of herding us off the ship on the last day began at 6:30 in the morning with a recorded voice loudly issuing orders through a speaker in the cabin. There was time for a quick breakfast in the buffet before assembling in the ship’s entry foyer. The crew had transformed that formerly-welcoming space into a vomitorium for efficiently disgorging 2,500 people, so they could ready the ship for the new horde boarding that afternoon.

After asking whether I was bringing any plants or meat into the country, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer asked me what country I was a citizen of. I couldn’t avoid laughing at what seemed an absurd question. He gave me an ICE-y stare and asked, in a deadly tone, “Why did you laugh?” I said I had just handed him my U.S. passport, along with a Customs form on which I declared that I was a U.S. citizen. With the same solemnity he said “Some people have false documents, you know.” He paused, perhaps to consider whether a thorough Customs interrogation might teach me proper respect for both my Homeland and the Authorities who valiantly Secure it from returning cruise passengers. Then he handed back my passport and curtly bade me good day. The vacation was officially over.

I would take another cruise only if the itinerary were compelling, and if I went with Someone Special (or at least with someone compatible enough to survive sharing a cubicle). Despite the impression I may have given, I enjoyed the cruise itself— particularly the resort amenities, activities, attentive service, and better dining than I’d normally allow myself on a solo trip, notwithstanding the less-than-congenial company. Even at double the price, the cruise provided good value for money. And to answer the inevitable question, the ship’s motion at sea was all but imperceptible. But the weather was very calm. Things might be different in the stormy winter months.

I was disappointed at not finding the variety of friendly people that my parents (and Sally Maisel) had led me to expect. After 24 solo vacations (and counting), I was quite accustomed to being the only solo traveler around, to being ignored by couples, families, and groups, and to keeping myself entertained. Even so, I did not particularly enjoy being the “odd man out” in a large crowd of couples, families, and groups.

I may have just been unlucky. If the Sheer Randomness of the Universe had only assigned the ship’s manifest differently, I could just as likely have bonded with agreeable dinner table-mates and enjoyed the company of all sorts of people— not necessarily single— who feel no need to “compliment” me on my supposed bravery.



Notes

This actually was my second cruise. The first was a four-day trip to Ensenada and Guadalupe Island with my parents when I was nine years old, on the Holland-America Line’s Statendam. Guadalupe Island was the real highlight. About 400 kilometers southwest of Ensenada, its inhabitants are seals, birds, and about 200 fishermen. Small boats brought us within viewing distance of a colony of elephant seals. The females lolled on the rocky beach awaiting the birth of their pups, while the males slapped each other with the pendulous proboscises that give their species its name.

Destinations with less ecological sensitivity and more mercantile opportunities long ago supplanted Guadalupe Island on cruise itineraries. The Statendam that sails today is an entirely different ship; and the Holland-America Line is one of several storied companies the Carnival conglomerate has gobbled up.

Picture of a marine rope

Detail of the heavy-duty rope that moored the Monarch of the Seas in San Diego.

The Monarch of the Seas was a large ship that provided a “sun and shopping” vacation for a mass market. I’m pretty sure I experienced a representative sample of that very popular type of cruise. But the Monarch was built in 1991, which even in 2007 made it a doddering senior citizen among cruise ships. Newer ships are bigger, flashier, and offer a wider selection of opportunities for passengers to spend money.

There are many other types of cruises. Some cater to well-traveled frequent cruisers, or offer elegant luxury for a dressy upscale clientele (at a commensurate price). Others are adventure-oriented small ships. Still others appeal exclusively to families. There are even “theme” cruises for interests ranging from jazz to murder mysteries. My cruise was probably the wrong one for me.

If you’re considering taking a cruise by yourself— especially if it’s your first solo vacation— seek out a travel agent experienced with single and solo customers for help in finding one that’s appropriate and congenial. That’s what I’ll do if I ever decide to cruise solo again. A travel agent might also have access to unpublicized information about rare cruises that penalize solo travelers less than the usual “double or nothing.”

Experienced solo cruisers on travel forums seem to agree that smaller ships are a better choice. It’s inherently easier to get to know the passengers on a smaller ship; and a staff that isn’t preoccupied with crowd control can take the time to help everyone feel comfortable. On large ships marketed exclusively to couples, families, and groups, a “soloist” is likely to feel lost at sea. My experience was apparently not unusual.

Large ships do offer the widest range of amenities and activities. If that’s what you’re after, a singles cruise might be worth considering. You needn’t spend all your time with the group on shore excursions, or at speed-dating and karaoke parties, unless you want to. Cruise lines that once offered “single share programs” have now abandoned them. Agencies that organize and market singles cruises are filling that void.

Singles cruises unfortunately provide no exception to oppressive double-occupancy pricing. If you can’t afford “One For The Price Of Two,” the organizer will spin the Roommate Roulette wheel for you. If you’re an easygoing soul who truly doesn’t mind sharing a cabin with a complete stranger, a singles cruise could save you substantial money. It might also provide an opportunity to make new friends who could be voluntarily-selected travel companions for future adventures.

Finally, if you’re at all serious about photography, bring your “good camera.” Since my trip was supposed to be about cruising and schmoozing, I decided not to schlep my digital SLR kit. I didn’t expect many photographic opportunities, and even considered not bringing a camera at all. But at the last minute I decided to take my old Minolta Freedom Zoom Explorer point-and-shoot and use up some frozen Kodak 400UC. As you can see, there was plenty to photograph.


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