Recently, we decided to try something a little different. As much as we love travel by land and air, we were curious to see if a cruise could offer an affordable, relaxing, and fun alternative to get a couple of digital nomads from point A to point
B C (Argentina to Chile).
Short answer: no.
For the long answer, read on.
What we learned is that cruising is diametrically opposite to the way we like to travel. We usually shun resorts and stay in regular apartments in real neighborhoods. A cruise is basically just a floating resort, and in the little time we spent ashore, we barely got to see the fake neighborhoods, let alone the real ones.
But okay, it’s a different style of travel, less about culture and more about luxury and relaxation. Put your feet up and appreciate the finer things, right? Not so much. In every facet of the experience, Norwegian would put forward the least possible effort to meet their obligations, but would incessantly and relentlessly pitch their expensive add-ons. Essentially, what we thought was a ticket for agreed-to goods and services was actually just to get us in the door for a two-week timeshare presentation from Alec Baldwin’s character in Glengarry Glen Ross.
Even the luxuries were tacky and superficial. The cruise liked to drape itself in the soaring rhetoric of adventuring the world and sailing into the sunset. And yes, while the sun does in fact set at sea much the same as it does on land, glass elevators and steak dinners are a thin veneer of opulence on top of the rather pedestrian reality of spending two weeks bobbing around in a mobile motel. The illusion shatters quickly.
That said, things went about as well as they could have. Nothing went horribly wrong: great weather, no missed ports, no norovirus outbreaks. We were perfectly positioned to evaluate the cruise on its merits. How did it fall so short?
To start with, cruising is not cheap. For our 15-night voyage, two tickets for one small interior room, after taxes and fees, cost $3444. That works out to about $230/night, which is way above our typical rate on the road. But ostensibly, there’s a lot included in that, so let’s break it down by our major travel needs: shelter, food, transportation, and experiences.
We’ve done pretty well with our housing so far. Over the last 13 months renting apartments through Airbnb, we’ve spent between $19-42/night (including utilities). In contrast, our rent when we left Seattle was around $54/night (not including utilities).
This is what $19-42/night buys us on Airbnb:
And here is what $230/night gets us on a cruise:
We like food, but we don’t actually spend all that much on it. Not counting alcohol (which I’ll get to later), we have never averaged more than $20/day on food, even in places with relatively high cost of living like Buenos Aires. Together with the above, you can begin to see how easy it has been for us to live more economically on the road than at home.
The food on the ship was rarely outright terrible, but it was never very good, either. Often our entrees arrived cold, portions were incredibly skimpy on anything tasty and healthful (one “side of vegetables” was three sad, lonely slices of zucchini, another a dozen green beans and two cubes of carrot), and nothing reflected any real care. I missed the ability to quality control my own meals far more than I enjoyed not having to cook.
I mentioned we keep our daily food budget below $20, though sometimes we come in at much less than that. Granted, some of that is self-selecting. In an expensive city, we tend to compensate for the high prices by opting for more pasta and rice and whatever is local and cheap. On the other hand, in Thailand and Malaysia it was actually more cost-effective to eat out than to cook for ourselves. Well, on a cruise, there are no dials to adjust for frugality. The mediocre service is a sunk cost, and any hopes of improving over that low bar come with a hefty price tag.
This is the biggie, and the tipping point for even considering a cruise in the first place. Flying in South America is extraordinarily expensive (like flying domestic in Canada expensive). Buses are the preferred method here, but 3000km by bus is a big ask for one’s brain and one’s butt. We’re looking at easily $1500 in transportation costs to hit just some of the same destinations in reasonable comfort, or $100/day in cruise terms. Still not adding up in the cruise’s favor, but if we’re going to agree to spend a little extra sometimes to see some special places, at least now we’re in the same ballpark. The question now becomes whether there’s any way to justify the enormous cruise premium.
On this trip, the value propositions we classify as experiences fell into three major categories: ports of call, onboard entertainment, and everything else.
Ports of Call
So obviously, the main consideration for this or any cruise is the itinerary. Where does the ship go? In our case, Patagonia was a bucket list thing, one of the adventures that we really wanted to get to in our travels and were willing to wiggle a bit on our budget for. That said, of the 10 cruise highlights (Montevideo, Punta del Este, Puerto Madryn, Falkland Islands, Cape Horn, Ushuaia, Punta Arenas, Chilean Fjords and Glaciers, Puerto Chacabuco, and Puerto Montt), 3 were essentially filler: Punta del Este, Puerto Madryn, and Puerto Chacabuco were perfectly fine places to stop, but we would not have gone out of our way for them.
It’s also important to note that, while we may technically visit a lot of destinations, a day in port is a terrible way to experience a locale. For one thing, we get next to no time to actually walk around. We were typically parked for about 8 hours, but the usable time was much less. The majority of our stops were not docked but anchored, and required a ferry boat (or “tender” in cruise parlance) to get to shore. Let’s say we arrive in port at 7am. “Tender tickets” are distributed starting at 6:30. We would in line as early as possible (and frankly, there wasn’t really a line to speak of since nobody wakes up at 6:30 on vacation). After the quick succession of privileged numbers were called (high-ranking reward program members and the like), the rest of us passengers had to wait for the paying tours to get their rides out of the way. Remember, we all paid for this trip with the promise of getting to see the same places, but those of us who would rather guide ourselves (or anyone who wanted to save 50% buying their tour on land) can stuff it I guess. Sometime around 9:30am we might actually hear our first-round number called, but even at the front of the line, we’d end up getting bumped a couple of boats as stragglers for the official tours cut ahead of us. By 10am we’re finally on the ferry, riding 20 minutes to shore. Last tender back to the boat is at least a half hour before departure, which leaves us… 4 hours? Nowhere near enough to enjoy it in any meaningful way.
Still, there are a few places that we legitimately would have trouble reaching affordably on our own (Cape Horn, The Falklands, the fjords). And luckily, we’ve already made plans to revisit two of our destinations “full-time” (Montevideo and Punta Arenas) and give them the attention they deserve.
Okay, so most of our time is spent on the boat itself, surely there’s plenty of stuff to do every day?
You’d be surprised. As I said, everything on the cruise is designed to wring money out of you. Here’s a snippet from a typical day’s schedule:
Of the 36 things on this list
- 9 explicitly and transparently cost money
- 8 are sales pitches or implicitly cost money
- 5 are unhosted gatherings that cost the cruise nothing
- 3 are “weather permitting,” which on a cruise in Patagonia means “not happening”
Ignoring the ones that are euphemisms for babysitting, that leaves us to pick between trivia, some light cardio exercise, and napkin folding. The “how the ship is run” talk was interesting, though. I don’t just mean when some native Spanish-speakers (justifiably) complained how non-bilingual everything was for a South American cruise. One of the higher-ups let slip that the crew demands (and gets) much better food than the passengers do. Are you kidding? I would have traded everything on our menu for something with a little spice!
There are just so many missed opportunities here. We did have a very international crowd, why not language classes and conversation nights? I love learning about the places we go, why weren’t “port talks” about the history and culture of the our destinations? Instead we got thinly-veiled sales pitches for overpriced excursions. ALWAYS BE SELLING!
And it’s not the staff’s fault. I’m sure company policy ties their hands in terms of making the best of it. The hosts for these events often joked about their nonexistent entertainment budgets, unavailable or non-working equipment, and prizes of “cheap plastic crap.” But, why? Why was “having fun stuff to do” a complete afterthought? I mean, I know the answer – free entertainment doesn’t make the company money. ALWAYS BE SELLING!
Anyway, this is clearly not good for morale, and it showed. Nobody really seemed to care about their jobs. One minor but telling example: about 2/3 of the way through the cruise, one of the entertainment options was a screening of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The sea was pretty rough that day, and the roiling swells would cause the stage curtains that backed the projection screen to, every five seconds, sliiiide across the stage to the left, then sliiiide across the stage to the right, eliciting a scraping noise not unlike pulling a shower curtain aside. Every five seconds, for the entire 2 hour 16 minute runtime. At any point, anyone on the staff could have run up there and secured the curtains (as they were during live performances), but nobody cared, so nobody did. We just got to put up with a fun new shower-curtain-themed soundtrack.
Fine, well at least we get to take a load off and relax. Think of all the great privileges that are included* in our fares:
Don’t have to cook (um, I like cooking?)
Don’t have to do laundry (kinda… aside from the free towels, laundry service on the ship is incredibly expensive, so we actually did in fact have to hand-wash a significant number of socks and boxers to make it through the journey)
Don’t have to do dishes (okay, this is nice)
Don’t have to make the bed (haha, like we make our bed)
Also, included is a strong term. Norwegian actually charges $27/day extra, ON TOP of the $230/day for our tickets, as a “service fee” to tip the housekeeping, restaurant, and behind-the-scenes staff. Normally, I’m all about tipping. I mean 20%+ on everything, no excluding drinks or tax funny business. But damn it Norwegian, how about you pay your staff a living wage and I’ll tip when they go above and beyond? Especially since I have no way of verifying this fee even goes where you say it does.
Bonus Category: Work
I hesitate to include this, because for most people, a cruise is intended to be a purely recreational affair. On those merits, I still believe it falls short. But it’s also important to detail why, for our purposes as digital nomads, a cruise ship is a terrible environment to work in.
Few suitable workspaces
The only ones I was able to track down were the following:
- Our cabin
- Internet café
Lifestyles roomdoesn’t exist, now the photo studio
Conference roomalways “reserved”
- Observation lounge
As tiny and depressing as our cabin was, we of course tried to spend as little time in it as possible. Unfortunately, the “internet café” was really just a couple of tables in the atrium outside of the main lounge. Since the lounge hosted almost every event, this made the entry area one of the more heavily-trafficked parts of the ship – not great for focus.
Also of course, everyone else on the ship wanted to get out of their cabins too, which made the two “quiet” spaces – the library and the observation lounge – very popular.
Well, technically there was internet available on the ship, and as the Internet café’s name suggests. It was just prohibitively expensive.
Yeah yeah, ALWAYS BE SELLING. Two weeks without internet isn’t going to kill me.
People, noise, activities, waves. A crowded ship is simply not an ideal place to get work done.
But Kevin, a cruise is supposed to be a vacation! Aren’t you just complaining that what it was and what you wanted it to be were two different things?
Yes. Absolutely that’s what I’m doing. But more than that, I’m hoping to dissuade any likeminded travelers who, as I once did, may be harboring fantasies of a stint of nomading on the high seas. That may well be possible, but a cruise is not the answer.
We’re not whiling away our grandkids’ inheritance over here. Our savings is our runway. Every dollar we spend frivolously is one less we can invest in our businesses, or use on future travel, or put toward a house. That’s not to say we don’t get to enjoy ourselves, just that we need to prioritize. As with the rest of our journey, we constantly have to balance our goals of making progress on our endeavors, saving money, and experiencing interesting things. In this case, the ticket itself was a major splurge, and in trying to eke out some enjoyment from what that bought us and resisting the calls to spend more, it felt like every day we were at war with our own vacation.
I could see how things would be different for, say, people with mobility issues (who may have no other way to get to some of these places), or families traveling with children. I mean, I was once a teenage boy myself. There is definite value to an endless buffet from a parent’s perspective! But for an able-bodied, childless couple like ourselves, I absolutely must recommend against a cruise.
So that about covers everything, feel free to turn away now. But there were a few observations that didn’t fit in the rest of this article, so if you’re still enjoying the ride, relax… there’s more!
Other things we hated:
Other people. Man, I sure do love living alone with my wife. A cruise really seems to bring out the worst in people. Little old ladies would bowl over someone else’s grandkids if it meant being one spot further up in the buffet line. People would grossly argue with the staff about having to sanitize their hands. And what is it about today’s political climate where everyone thinks we need hear their poorly-researched opinions? I had always heard that it was rude to talk politics or religion at the dinner table, but I guess that advice skipped the boomer generation.
Newlywed game. Oh, how naive we were. Way early in our voyage, when we still thought the cruise could be fun, we volunteered for the newlywed game. Actually, we volunteered for the middlewed category (yes, we’ve been married for that long), but because we were younger than every other volunteer by at least 20 years, we ended up playing the newlyweds. Ah well, it was a bit of embarrassing fun, and we got a free bottle of bad champagne as a thank-you.
It turns out they replayed that damn show constantly. Two weeks of, “oh hey, you’re the newlyweds!” We couldn’t stand watching the TV anyway because it meant more time in the
broom closet cabin, but once we realized channel-surfing meant endlessly reliving that nightmare, we pretty much gave up. We should have gotten wine bottle residuals for how often they reran it.
Bad customer service (before and during cruise)
Twice, we attempted to reach out to Norwegian guest services before we set sail. First, I contacted to explain our situation as nomads and that I had a kitchen knife with me, and that I would be happy to arrange for them to hold onto it. I was supposed to get a reply within 3 business days. No response.
The second time, as it started to dawn on us we might not like living in a broom closet, I emailed to inquire about any available room upgrades and their cost. I was supposed to get a reply within 3 business days. No response.
Spoiler alert, when we got our bags dropped off, they’d opened mine, rummaged around in it, and left a note that they “discovered” a “prohibited item” and would be “confiscating” it until the cruise was over. Which is exactly the kind of privacy violation and misunderstanding I’d reached out to avoid.
Their alcohol policy was similarly condescending. To make sure you buy their $8 beers and $15 cocktails, Norwegian is incredibly strict about outside alcohol. I mean x-ray your bags to make sure you’re not smuggling in a pint of hooch in a rum-runner strict. We knew this going in, so made sure to take advantage of the best deal on the boat, the $15 “corkage fee” for bringing your own wine aboard. We could pick out some incredible Argentinian wine from Mendoza for $5-10, bring it on for $15, and spend half as much as buying an identical (or more likely, much worse) bottle onboard.
Of course, this didn’t win us any favor with the staff. Whenever we brought bottles on the ship, we were always clear and explicit that we were doing so intentionally, NOT smuggling them. Yet as soon as the bag goes through the x-ray machine, “Sir, there are wine bottles in here.” “Yup, I want to pay the corkage and bring them onboard.” *they glare* “Wait over there for someone to come down.” Cue waiting 10 minutes in the Zone of Shame while the compliant passengers shuffle by and avoid eye contact. Why is only one person on the ship authorized to fill out the corkage purchase slip? Better yet, why do we have to wait for them to show up from the other side of the ship – shouldn’t he be, you know, around during the boarding process? The only time the corkage fee even comes up?
And finally, the endless service fees seemed really underhanded. Everything onboard that cost money automatically adds 18% gratuity to the price AND has an line for tips. Maybe hoping inattentive people will double-tip? Our tickets included a couple of meals at the specialty restaurants, and we had to pre-pay the gratuities on those dinners even before we boarded. Yet every receipt we got had big empty tip lines that just screamed “cheapskate” if we left them blank. I’m all for rewarding good service, but given every other way Norwegian price gouges, I’d really like to see some proof that money is even going to the crew. Even then, I’d like more control over recognizing good service. Not that I didn’t appreciate the huge amount of effort that went into pouring that watered-down pre-mixed cocktail into a glass packed to the brim with ice, Mr. Bartender, but I’m not sure the way you pissily hucked it my way qualifies as “above and beyond.”
- To be fair, our only cruising experience so far is with Norwegian. We heard from other passengers that some of the alternatives (other companies, river cruises in Europe, boutique cruises) differed quite a bit. Norwegian seems to follow the budget airline model – advertise a low price to draw you in, but after all the hidden costs are factored in, the meager savings hardly outweigh the corners cut. A trip with Ryanair might be worth the headache if you’re on point with an e-ticket, no checked bags, and a short flight. Stretching that ALWAYS BE SELLING, treat-the-passengers-as-cattle attitude across 15 days is where it really grates. Even so, what Wikipedia calls the “a la carte” model seems to be pretty standard for all but the highest-end lines, so much of my criticism is probably valid beyond our limited experience.
- The exception to the sub-par entertainment was the Amber Strings, a Polish string trio that often played a set of classical and popular songs at the end of the day in the observation lounge. Going up there to read a book and listen to Bach as a nightcap was by far the most elegant and relaxing part of the cruise. Dziękuję!
- Moreover, we did actually have some positive experiences on the cruise. We met nice and interesting people, some of the crew were very hospitable to us, and we really did see some amazing things we otherwise may never have. But in the grand scheme of things, was it the best way we could have spent that money? Absolutely not.
Whew! Now that I’ve got that out of my system, it’s time to get back to work.