Cruising in [Royal] Style

Back in November I took a five-day cruise to Mexico on Royal Caribbean. Once aboard, I learned within minutes you can find plenty to do regardless of age or the time of day. Of course, you can also do nothing at all. To help navigate through the onslaught of activities, many of which cost extra, I’ve listed below some tips and suggestions:


#1: Second-guess your travel agent:

I spoke to my travel agent over one or two rushed phone conversations where she asked for my credit card information, stating there was “no cash used on the boat”. Cocktails, sodas, spa services, etc. would be charged to my room keycard, she assured me. As such, I left with maybe forty bucks in my wallet. Big mistake.

If you want fast cash, the ATM on the boat charges $6 per withdrawal. If you ask staff about cheaper ways to get money on land, you will receive several roundabout answers: we can’t guarantee where an ATM would be located, or if there is even one near the port, most people don’t understand the conversion rate so we encourage everyone to use US dollars in Mexico, or even if you take cash out on land, if you have any left over we can’t exchange it for you.

You also have the option to pay cash when tipping room service, changing money at the casino, and settling all your gratuities on your last day. For the housekeepers, wait staff, and other attendants, if going by recommended amounts, this comes out to $40-$50 a day total. When going to the concierge desk to pay gratuity with your card, you will be firmly encouraged to pay the customary amount for everyone. If you want to make your own decisions on who should be tipped and how much, once again, bring plenty of cash.

#2: Step Foot on International Soil:

It shocked me to discover how many cruisers stayed on the boat when we pulled into port. Take a break from your floating resort and explore! Royal Caribbean makes it easy with guided tours, or “excursions”, a great option if you have a large group with you. Again, be prepared to pay, ($30-$120 per person, depending on the activity). If traveling solo and on the cheap, if you ask around you can get to some pretty neat places on your own.

At our first stop, Costa Maya, five dollars will get you a van ride to Mahahual, a village three miles away and right on the beach. Here you can sunbathe, eat chips and salsa, and haggle with vendors for everything from “silver” jewelry to hand-made, hand-painted pottery to Cuban cigars. You can also get an open-air massage, $20-$30 for half an hour or twice that for an hour, depending on who you ask and the deal you can get. To get pack to the port, hop into any cab parked along the main drag, all for around the same price of five bucks or so.

We then headed to Cozumel, a tiny island about 28 miles wide and 9 miles long. With rougher beaches, unless you have some serious surfing chops stay inland. I rented a car here, (automatic, so be sure you can shift gears on bumpy roads), driving around the entire island in one afternoon. While this cost me sixty dollars, try your luck at bargaining and you may get a lower price. During my drive I beheld the island’s natural beauty, stopped by the Mayan ruins, and grabbed some local grub downtown.

#3: Spoil Yourself for Free:

While the boat will never stop reminding you it’s a commercial business first and a relaxing escape from reality second, you can have plenty of fun without emptying your wallet. To get the most out of your all-inclusive stay, take advantage of room service, available any time and free before midnight (after midnight it costs $3). Order breakfast in bed or forego the formal dining room for a night of appetizers and sandwiches in your stateroom while watching TV. (If you stay up late enough, tune in to Mindless Chatter, a hilarious Royal Caribbean exclusive that films the cruise director’s after-hours antics all over the ship, from interviews with kitchen staff to hanging at the bar with patrons.)

Out on deck, play basketball, scale the rock climbing wall, or even play a round of miniature golf. Indoors, you can relax in the “adults-only” sun room with pool and Jacuzzi, belt out a tune at karaoke hour, or hit the gym almost anytime with its lengthy operating hours. You can even shoot pool on a state-of-the-art table which shifts with the tide and always remains level.

#4: Check Your Arrogance at the Door:

As a backpack-and-Tevas traveler, I had my misgivings about going on a cruise. Traveling to another country yet still surrounded by other Americans, speaking English the whole time and paying my way in dollars? Yes, some of that occurred, but I also relaxed more on this vacation than any other. I laughed at myself when I did something goofy like an unintended belly flop or a spill in my heels on the way to dinner after too much tequila. At times it may feel like Royal Caribbean just caters to commercial consumerism, so bring along some skepticism and self-control. However, don’t forget to also pack your sense of humor and fun-loving spirit.

June 1, 2011