Is it true what they say about cruises? Maybe not...

Invariably, when I have just returned from a cruise – looking rested and feeling contented – I will encounter a "nonbeliever," the kind of person who "hates" the notion of a cruise even though, typically, he or she hasn't actually sailed on one. The reasons for not wanting to go on a cruise – often based on misinformation – prompt the following personal "primer" that answers the question, "What, in fact, have I learned about cruises?"

Cruises are not, as some imagine, the exclusive domain of rich retirees. Twenty-nine years ago, I sailed on my first cruise. I was heady with expectations, elated at my good fortune, and vaguely suspicious of all these shipmates who wanted to be my friends. Aboard our seven-day voyage to ports in Greece and Turkey, I encountered college kids, honeymooners, families with children, singles, and grandparents.

Some, like me, had seriously economized to afford the cruise. (Back then I paid $325. Imagine!) Others who were more affluent viewed the cruise as a familiar and frequent entitlement.

All in all, we constituted then (and cruisers still appear to be now) a rather egalitarian demographic.

Proof? Recent statistics for the cruise industry suggest that the average cruiser is about 51 years old, with a median income of $64,500 (a healthy sum, to be sure, but certainly not stratospheric).

In short, today's "average cruiser" is probably neither rich nor a retiree. Baby boomers are big cruisers. Of those who've cruised in the past five years, about 70 percent are under the age of 60.

Though I have no statistical evidence to back up this observation, it is apparent to me that younger cruisers (and families) are more visible on itineraries that embrace the sun (the Caribbean, Mexican Riviera, etc.), while more mature travelers seem to gravitate to cooler climes (Scandinavia, Alaska) where sun worship is not the preeminent pastime.

You get what you pay for. On my first cruise, I could afford only the least expensive accommodations. I settled for an inside cabin on the lowest deck. No porthole, no window, no balcony.

No more. Though sanguine "old salts" continue to counsel, "Don't worry about your cabin, you'll hardly spend any time in it," I have found that the second part of that axiom holds true only if your cabin resembles a broom closet and cultivates chronic claustrophobia.

When you're on a ship, the vista should include the sea, and I, for one, want to see it. I don't require a balcony – though I prefer to have one; there is no more conducive spot for breakfast, reading, writing postcards, watching port arrivals and departures, and quiet time.

Nowadays, an increasing number of new ships offer a significant percentage of outside cabins – many featuring balconies or verandas. If you can afford bigger, brighter, and balconied, go for it.

The clientele matters as much as the ship. As a matter of fact, the ship's "persona," ambience, and reputation are often defined as much by its passengers as they are by its service, cuisine, and itineraries.

While it is true that the onboard cast of characters may change from destination to destination, and even from voyage to voyage, a cruise line is defined by the company it keeps.

With whom do you wish to be traveling? Singles? Late-night revelers? Old money? Seasoned sophisticates? Families? First-timers?

No one can predict, yet alone guarantee, the exact composition of the onboard clientele of a particular ship, but input from a savvy travel agent – together with knowing comments from cruising friends whose tastes mirror your own – can provide valuable predictions and insights.

Oh, so you think none of this matters?

Wait until you and your hubby sit down for dinner with a group who consider tabloids to be great literature ... or until you find yourself surrounded, on a shore excursion to legendary and historic ruins, by dudes who have heard there's a great beach "not far from the castle."

The issue is neither snobbery nor pretension. For your cruise to be a success, you have the obligation to research the clientele with whom you are likely to be sharing your cruise experience.

On a ship with 1,000 to 3,000 people, surely you will find some kindred spirits, but – ideally – wouldn't you prefer to be surrounded by, and interacting with, folks whose dress, demeanor, deportment, interests, and style echo your own?

Days at sea matter as much as days in port. The recurrent refrain from those reluctant to cruise is predictable: "I will be so bored onboard that the only way I can sail is if I'm ashore most of the time." If you insist on adopting such a mantra, you might better enjoy a land vacation where you have the opportunity to linger a little longer.

Let's not delude ourselves: A ship allows you a very limited time in any given port, but if you regard this as your "relief" from seagoing boredom, you're giving the cruise experience short shrift.

Take another look at contemporary cruise-ship activities: Some include ice-skating rinks, miniature golf courses, virtual-reality theaters, high-tech gyms, spas, enrichment lectures, sports competitions, first-run movies, self-help seminars, elaborate production shows, and cooking demonstrations.

You may also be able to take part in dance instruction, galley tours, aerobics classes, and bridge tournaments, or visit the library, borrow a video ... or you could do what I do on sea days – enjoy the sea.

The point is that boredom is an option only if you intentionally ignore onboard opportunities for stimulation, exercise, enrichment, and entertainment.

Do not underestimate the serendipitous joy of finding a secluded spot on deck, catching up on your reading, or staring transfixed at the ship's wake as dolphins splashnearby.

Dining is different from eating. Few industries hype the pleasures of gluttony with the vigor that cruising does; television commercials, videos, and brochures explode with enticements for the calorically challenged.

Food onboard is plentiful and – in the current cruise-ship milieu – it is often offered in diverse settings at different times.

The traditional rule of eating in two seatings with assigned dinner mates has, on some ships, evolved into casual, open-seating dining where you may eat when you wish with whomever you like.

I applaud these options while noting that experience proves it is the quality of the food, the precision and knowledge of the servers, dining-room ambience, and diversity of the menu that resonate. They are much more important than the opportunity to eat round-the-clock, or to dress casually while dining, or to have access to 24-hour pizzerias.

Truth to tell, onboard cuisine may range from glorified banquet food to meals that rival those enjoyed at fine restaurants ashore.

Don't confuse gluttony with gourmet. And don't disembark with a weight gain that requires your own ZIP Code.

How? Experience new tastes, sample in moderation. (Despite your mother's childhood admonition, you are not rewarded here for "cleaning your plate.") Be especially vigilant at buffets, "tastings," teatime, and meals when you can order five courses when two or three would surely fill you up.

Watch out for the onboard extras. One of the most compelling attractions of the cruise experience is the notion that it provides an essentially all-inclusive vacation.

While it is true that your air-sea package logically includes air transportation, shipboard accommodations, meals, entertainment, and so on, some cruise passengers tend to be surprised with the speed at which supplemental (often spontaneous) out-of-pocket expenses can multiply.

Shore excursions, gratuities, beverages, dining surcharges at designated specialty restaurants, spa charges, and rentals for sports supplies all add up. Not to mention all the people you need to tip before the trip comes to a close.

Not every passenger will use all of these services and options and, indeed, several smaller "boutique" cruise lines have adopted pricing policies that include gratuities and beverages.

Nonetheless, it is smart to ask about, estimate, and monitor potential out-of-pocket expenses. Disembarking is traumatic enough (who wants to bid farewell to all of that onboard pampering?) without being startled by your bill.

See you on the sun deck!

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