Cruises Are Back, Baby

I’ve hiked the Himalayas, scaled dunes in Namibia, gotten lost on Japan’s back roads in a blizzard. I enjoy travel with an element of chaos and unpredictability because that’s where the excitement lies.

But I don’t need an adventure every time I take a few days off. To all those who think themselves too cool for a packaged seafaring vacation, I bring ye fair warning: Don’t board a cruise ship unless you’re prepared to face the shattering truth that you might enjoy it.

The last time I embarked, until recently, was spring of 2019. It was a family weekend trip out of Florida, unremarkable in its banal hedonism. Then Covid-19 arrived, and cruise ships became avatars of pestilence. A March 2020 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 17 percent of U.S. Covid cases at that point were linked to cruise passengers. It dryly noted, “Cruise ships bring diverse populations into proximity for many days, facilitating transmission of respiratory illness.”

Not to mention that cruises are floating environmental disasters, even when they don’t turn into half-sunken environmental disasters. There was a moment when the world seemed to collectively decide that cruises are gross and we shouldn’t go on them.

The aversion was remarkably temporary. As anyone who’s been to an airport lately can tell you, travel is booming as we make up for lost time and then some. Flights are packed. Americans are on track to drive 3.2 trillion cumulative miles this year, the highest tally since 2019. And a recent AAA survey found that 52 percent of Americans say that compared with before the pandemic, they’re as likely or more likely to consider taking a cruise this year. Cruises are back, baby! And I would know, because I recently went on a quick Bahamas trip — just me and several thousand of my closest friends.

After the downer of the past few years, we’re all longing for escapism. These days the demand for a little bit of fun — weekend getaways, Jet Skis, Taylor Swift tickets — is so heated that economists have come up with the term “fun-flation” to explain our free-spending ways. And cruises are perhaps the pinnacle of American travel fantasy, offering a respite from the reality of jobs and laundry and laboriously making your own margaritas.

Yet they remain a relative deal, which is part of the reason cruises have come roaring back. The pricing for my Bahamas trip started at about $400 a person. You can think of that as airfare, hotel and restaurants all rolled into one. Of course, there are upsells at every turn, but nobody’s forcing you to pay $68.97 plus tax for three prints of the photos of your kids in front of the Glamour Shots Easter basket backdrop on Deck 7 (just one example of a charge that is actually on my credit card). Exercise some restraint, though, and a cruise is a bargain. You might find a hotel for $100 a night, but it probably won’t have water slides and group dance parties.

Which brings us to the other thing that makes American cruises singular: More is always more. My family’s home for four days was once one of the largest passenger ships ever built, some 900 feet long and displacing more than 100,000 tons. It has swimming pools, a basketball court, a mini-golf course, a spa and a theater. There’s a comedy club, a piano bar, a steakhouse and a sushi restaurant. When all of that gets to be too cheerful and smoke-free, there’s a casino. And yet this Xanadu of overstimulation is nonetheless inferior to newer, bigger ships; Royal Caribbean’s upcoming Icon of the Seas displaces about 250,000 tons and will carry nearly 8,000 people, passengers and crew members. The boats are so elaborate that you almost forget that the ostensible point is to go somewhere.

While cruises themselves follow the same formula as always, parachuting hedonistic day-trippers into tourist-friendly ports, the post-Covid clientele has changed. The passenger manifest now skews rightward: A 2022 YouGov poll found that only 12 percent of Democrats said they’d feel “very comfortable” going on a cruise, compared with 35 percent for Republicans. Before Covid, the numbers were fairly even, but evidently the blue-state crowd is having a tougher time putting the Diamond Princess out of mind. If I had a nickel for every dirty look I saw after someone unleashed a hacking cough in a crowded area, I’d have zero nickels (unless I brought a mirror). Everybody else was fully immersed in the don’t-care zone.

Which is a mind-set that’s highly compatible with line dancing. In 2000, when “The Cha-Cha Slide” was released, I decided that I wasn’t taking orders from someone named Mr. C the Slide Man, and I’m afraid that stance has only calcified. Thus on embarkment day I looked on, sneeringly yet not without envy, as 100 of my fellow passengers transmogrified into a single-brained line-dancing organism, ready to take it to the left, then back now, y’all, then hop this time. Can I not shed my inhibitions and cha-cha real smooth? No, I cannot. Something in my constitution denies this kind of guileless, earnest exuberance, this freedom from self-consciousness. Also, I don’t know the moves, which is both embarrassing and dangerous when there are 100 people kicking in close formation.

Cruise ship enthusiasts may be well versed on the subject of group dance, yet they are surprisingly naïve about certain other customs and social mores. When a Royal Caribbean ship pulled up alongside us at port in the Bahamas, I wondered if the crowd over there included guys who wear socks in the swimming pool or ladies who approach the taco bar at 8 a.m. and ask, “Are those them morning burritos?” Well, feel free to judge us, you Royal Caribbean snobs, but I’ll have you know that our crowd had a pretty great time, and not just because the beverage package included 15 alcoholic drinks per day. If that sounds like a lot of drinks per day, don’t worry; cruise ships have their own onboard jails. They also have morgues — a fact that you’ll try not to think about as you wonder how much sodium is in your morning burrito.

But you can worry about that when you get home. Often enough, when vacations are concerned, the best course of action is to give in and give up. Sometimes all you want from a vacation is frictionless cheesy leisure. And on a cruise ship, that’s the only kind they’ve got.

Ezra Dyer is a columnist for Car and Driver magazine.

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