S3, E2: Where, and Why, to Cruise in 2024
In this week’s episode of Unpacked by AFAR, cruise expert Fran Golden shares her favorite itineraries for 2024, what’s new in the world of sustainable cruising, and the right cruise for every traveler.
There’s a special magic to being at sea. Watching a port retreat as a ship begins to sail, the sensation of gently (or not so gently) rocking waves, the expansiveness of open water. This week’s episode of Unpacked is all about that magic, whether you would label yourself a “cruiser” or not.
Aislyn Greene, host: I’m Aislyn Greene, and this is Unpacked, the podcast that unpacks one tricky topic in travel every week.
So today we are talking about cruising. And I have to admit that before I worked at AFAR, I didn’t think that I was a cruise person, whatever that means to you. I just, I had never done it before. It wasn’t a part of my world. And then I did a cycling river cruise in Europe with Backroads, a cycling company. And I realized that a cruise can offer surprising perspectives on places. I mean, I saw things I never would’ve seen otherwise.
And each night I got to return to the comfort of my cabin, where I did not have to unpack or repack once. Well, until I had to get off the ship, but. . . . Since then I have sailed to Antarctica and through the Mediterranean. I’ve found that I’m drawn to smaller cruise lines that have a strong sustainability focus. And through all of that, I realized that there really is a cruise for nearly every personality. So, whether you love being on the high seas or you’re a little skeptical about it, we have plenty for you in this episode, I promise.
You’re going to be hearing from Fran Golden, who literally wrote the book on cruising. She actually wrote—as you’re going to hear—several books on the topic. She has been known to step on a cruise ship and sail away every month in a year. And she covers cruising for AFAR and many other travel outlets. So she knows her stuff.
During our conversation, she shared where she’s cruising in 2024, her recommendations for the best new ships and itineraries this year, as well as sustainability in the cruise world, which is a really big topic right now. She also shared tips on navigating things like ship Wi-Fi, single supplements, and the dreaded “S” word: seasickness.
Aislyn: Well, Fran, welcome to Unpacked. It’s so nice to have you here today.
Fran Golden, cruise expert: Well, thank you. I’m happy to be here.
Aislyn: And you’re not on a cruise ship right now, it looks like.
Fran: I’m just off a cruise ship.
Aislyn: Are you really?
Fran: I unpacked yesterday.
Aislyn: No. Where were you? Where did you come from?
Fran: I was on a new cruise line called Explora Journeys, cruising from Barbados to Miami.
Aislyn: Wow. And how was that?
Fran: It’s very nice. It’s a really interesting new line that’s sort of resort style. A big ship for about 700 guests, so kind of an exclusive experience, but on a ship with a lot of space.
Aislyn: Yeah. And did you stop at various islands along the way?
Fran: I did. I wandered around St. Kitts and St. Lucia, Castries, and also we went to Antigua. So we were in St. Johns, where I did a fabulous little shore excursion, which was yoga on a beach overlooking a yacht harbor. It was just breathtaking. And I had never actually done yoga on the beach, so that was a lot of fun.
Fran: And it’s also just, it’s a lovely, um, area. You know, there’s some beaches there where you just, you can be on a narrow strip and actually have beaches on both sides and with few people around. So that’s what I like about St. Kitts.
Aislyn: Well, I would love to hear more about your cruising background because I know that you are deeply experienced in this world. So what drew you to cruising and how often do you sail?
Fran: Well, I like to joke that what drew me to cruising is my family went across from New York to England when I was about two or three years old on the old SS United States.
I don’t really have any memories of that, but I suppose it was, it was, you know, something that may have pushed me in that direction. But what drew me to cruising was I was working for a travel publication and they assigned me to go on a ship. And the first ship I went on was a Norwegian cruise line ship where I shared a cabin with my husband and two very young children, and it was an inside cabin, and the kids were on bunk beds.
But somehow, the experience stuck with me in a positive, sort of family-oriented way. Following that, I was assigned to go on Seabourn, which was then an up-and-coming luxury brand. And it was such a heavenly week onboard, with champagne and caviar and the like, that I did not want to get off. And the kids were not on that one.
Aislyn: A very different experience.
Aislyn: And so how did you kind of parlay that into what you do now, which is, it seems like, cover cruising full time.
Fran: Right, which I’ve done pretty much since the 1990s. I mean, with some breaks for editing jobs and that kind of thing to pay the bills.
But, you know, I was in the right place at the right time. I had only been on a few cruises when I met an editor who was looking to assign the book, [The Complete] Idiot’s [Travel] Guide to Cruise Vacations, which I took on. And then Idiot’s became Dummies—got sold to Dummies—and Dummies, I did the Dummies Guide to cruise vacations, and then a whole lot of cruise books for Frommer’s. And that kind of got me into that realm and, if I’m counting now, I think I’ve been on 170 ships.
So it’s, you know, there’s a lot of background there. Some of them, honestly, I’ve just gone on to inspect for a day or two. Like, you know, sometimes it’s just a quick look. But no, I’ve had some really amazing experiences on the high seas. And I will admit, and this may come as a shock to you, I get seasick.
Aislyn: No, really? That does come as a shock.
Fran: Yeah. So, so it probably wasn’t the correct, you know, profession for me to choose. But I load up on my Dramamine or Bonine or wristbands or behind the ear patches or, or everything I can possibly get my hands on if it’s rough seas. And I make it work.
Aislyn: And you love it enough that it’s worth that, it sounds like.
Fran: I mean, it’s the way I’ve seen the world. I’ve been, um, to about 105 countries and my knowledge of the inland world is much less than my knowledge of the seaside world.
Aislyn: Wow, wow, that is fascinating to me. And do you still feel like when you set sail somewhere new or, or somewhere you’ve been, do you still feel kind of a rush?
Fran: Absolutely. And I put myself in situations where I will have that rush with, like, adventure activities and that kind of thing. But even in a port like St. Kitts that I’ve been to, you know, numerous times, I always look—and I think all, all travel writers will tell you this—but I always look for that intimate human encounter.
People when you go on a—sit on a park bench and see what happens or walk into a grocery store and see what happens. You know, talk to people. And those are the memories, I think, that really stick with us.
Aislyn: Yeah, absolutely. Well, how often do you sail these days?
Fran: It’s been up to 12 times a year. I’ve cut it back a little bit in the past year because I’ve had a lot to do. But yeah, I’ve been known to get on a ship every month.
Aislyn: Amazing, amazing.
Fran: Well, amazing or crazy, one or the other.
Aislyn: I don’t know. I mean, you, you are clearly, you wrote the book or books on cruising. You’re clearly a pro, so I can see why. I would love to actually, but a little bit later, get your tips for people who do get seasick because it sounds like you have some really good [tips].
Aislyn: But, um, which companies are you excited about right now?
Fran: Well, I am excited about the new Explora Journeys. I’m always excited about Windstar Cruises, which is a line that I often recommend to friends because they’re really small ships.
Their largest capacity is 342 guests, and also they’re the official cruise line of the James Beard Foundation. I’m personally trying to do many of the adventure lines right now while I still have the energy. So my next cruise, which will be in January, is a new route, which I’m very excited about, on the western coast of Africa, leaving from Dakar and going to the Cape Verde and Bissagos islands and Gambia.
And I’m really excited about that. It’ll be a lot of, um, probably pretty intense hiking and Zodiac tours and snorkeling. And I just bought new water shoes with, you know, that cover my ankles so baby stingrays and other things don’t bother me.
Aislyn: And who is that with? Is that with Explora?
Fran: That’s with Hurtigruten, which is a Norwegian line. It’s a company that does, um, regular service up and down the coast, delivering goods and carrying some passengers to, to all the coastal communities on the west coast of Norway. But they also have some expedition ships, and they’re rebranding now as HX. So I’m going on HX.
Aislyn: OK, OK. And what is Explora Journeys known for?
And, they have started this line to provide, again, that luxury experience, but not on a small ship. So there is a pickleball court, and there is a small casino, and there’s like five restaurants, which, by the way, have some of the best food I’ve ever eaten on a cruise ship. Eating is a big part of the experience.
Aislyn: Yeah, absolutely.
Fran: But what’s cool about being on a big ship—but with again, like, you know, they’re going to try to limit it to about 700 passengers—there’s so many pools and so much outdoor space that you really can pretend you’re on a yacht.
And speaking of that, there’s also a lot of new ships coming out that really are like super yachts. Like, for instance, I, last year I went on the first Ritz-Carlton yacht. And, you know, again, like I think people traveling today are looking for relaxation, and I don’t think there’s anything better than being at an infinity pool by yourself, sitting on a daybed looking at the sea.
Aislyn: Hard to complain about that one. Are there any ships that you’re particularly looking forward to in 2024?
Fran: It’s interesting because the new ships in 2024, the one that everybody will be reading about is Icon of the Seas, which is the world’s largest ship, which carries some 7,000 passengers plus crews. So you’re, you’re in a small town on the high seas and a ship that’s operated with liquefied natural gas [LNG], which is the cleanest burning fossil fuel available to ships right now.
You know, some will argue that, there are other things that happen with LNG, although there’s capture programs for methane now, and they’re, they’re really trying to build these ships now that will eventually use the same facilities they have onboard to carry sustainable fuels.
So we’re seeing a precursor of the, you know, cruise lines going much more eco-friendly and all the cruise lines that are members of the Cruise Lines International Association have committed to pursuing net zero by 2050.
So, but Icon of the Seas is just—I mean just with that many people and all kinds of new attractions, so that’s one. There’s going to be a sister ship to Silver Nova, which also operates on LNG and, um, hybrid forms of energy, including, um, batteries.
And, you know, that ship has taken a much more resort-like focus than Silversea cruises, which is a very fancy ultra luxury line, has done before. So I’m looking forward to that. And, and Ritz-Carlton will be bringing out a new slightly larger yacht, so.
Aislyn: How many people can sail on their yachts, or at least the first one?
Fran: Um, well, the first one is 298 passengers. I think the second one is approaching 450.
Aislyn: Got it.
Fran: Small, they’re small.
Aislyn: You’ve talked a little bit about this, you know, the sustainability angle (and pickleball courts), but how have you seen cruising change in recent years?
Fran: Well, I think the big change—and I have a story about this—but is the advent of, uh, fast Wi-Fi. That may sound silly, but I got married on a cruise ship. And when I got married, it was a Princess ship. And when I got married on the cruise ship, among my guests was a lawyer who’s a litigator for a major corporate firm and my cousin who was, you know, at the time a big-time consultant.
And I saw the two of them go absolutely crazy because they had information they had to receive or send and to the point where my lawyer friend was ready to fly off the private island for a few hours to get to Nassau, you know, in the Bahamas.
As it turned out, there is a secret, even if you’re on a ship that doesn’t have lots of Wi-Fi capability, which is to get up in the middle of the night when everybody else is sleeping and nobody else is using the system. There is Starlink on cruise ships now, and they’re, you know, they’re all falling in line, um, signing up. And it’s fast and, you know, wonderful if you have to work on vacation, which a lot of us, you know, can’t take more than a few days off, um, without addressing, if nothing else, all our emails. So, that’s a big one.
I also am really, you know—we’ll talk about food again—but I’m really fascinated with how cruise lines have really come up with ways to suit all tastes. Like, a lot of the cruise lines now have vegan menus and will do, you know, raw food if you request, and they definitely have gluten-free and fat-free and everything else that you could possibly want. They’ve really adapted.
And they’ve also added all kinds of specialty restaurants. On the all-inclusive lines, you usually don’t pay extra. On the mainstream lines, you might pay extra but you can have, you know—you can go to a sushi restaurant or a pan-Asian restaurant. You can go to a French restaurant. You can go to Italian. So again, like taking that approach of the resorts and just having a wide array of restaurants I think is, is a big selling point.
And then the other thing is the focus on outdoors. So on most of the new builds, not all of them, but deck space is really thought through. So you don’t necessarily have to be with the crowds at a middle-of-the-ship pool.
Aislyn: Bundling all of that together, and you know, you’ve mentioned a couple of trips that you’re taking this year, but which itineraries are you particularly excited about in 2024?
Fran: I’m certainly excited about that western coast of Africa. You know, again, an untapped area. I’m excited, although I haven’t figured out how to go on yet, there’s going to be some river cruises in Colombia for the first time. We’re also seeing a lot of luxury and expedition lines looking at the Kimberly region of Australia and onto like Raja Ampat in Indonesia, some New Guinea, so you know more of that Pacific focus.
Especially with the expedition ships, they’ve pretty much focused on the Arctic, even some ships going to the actual North Pole, wherever it is at that moment, and Antarctica, but now we’re seeing expedition ships go to other areas, including sort of exploring the Mediterranean and places like that with more of an expedition angle. And some of those ships have helicopters and submarines. So if you’re looking for a new view of destinations—
Aislyn: Have you done both of those?
Fran: I have done the helicopter in Greenland, with Quark Expeditions, an expedition line, and it was amazing. And in fact, I was on a, uh, Northwest Passage and Greenland trip, and they offered three separate opportunities to go up in the helicopters.
The first one, you know, was on a beautiful clear day. The second one I passed on, the idea of going out in fog and then landing on the ship did not appeal to me, but everything was fine, you know. But the third, the third one was, was taking people to a top of the glacier to hike. And I’ve hiked glaciers in Alaska before. So I’d had that experience and I had some things I needed to do back on the ship. So I just asked the pilot, “Would it be OK if I do a round trip with him?” And there was nobody else on this wonderful Airbus helicopter and he said, “Do you want to see what this baby can do?” And I was suddenly in Top Gun.
Aislyn: Really, what did he do?
Fran: —it was terrifying and fascinating. Oh, you know, sort of going up towards the mountain until the, the helicopter goes, “Warning, warning!” I felt like I was in very good hands the entire time.
Aislyn: Yes, yes, yes, absolutely.
Fran: But it was, it was just really fun.
Aislyn: Wow, talk about an expedition.
Aislyn: But not the submarine. You haven’t done the submarine yet.
Fran: I haven’t done the submarine yet. And it’s just, just circumstantial. I will do it eventually when given the opportunity.
Aislyn: Wow. That is so cool. For people who are kind of drawn to the outdoors and expeditions, what would you recommend for them?
Fran: Um, well, two places I’d probably start. One is the Galápagos, which is just, I love the Galápagos.
My most recent trip was on Silver Origin. Well in that case, you’re on just a beautiful luxury ship. But you also are out all day in Zodiacs, either, you know, looking for bird life and other creatures along the shoreline, or you’re taking a Zodiac on land to, for instance, walk on volcanic rock past, I don’t know, 10,000 giant iguanas.
Or, or, you know, you’re taking a Zodiac and snorkeling and if you’re like me, you’re a shark whisperer, so you’ll see one, two, five, maybe more sharks come checking you out. They’re reef sharks, so even though they can be dangerous, they’re not particularly looking for you.
Aislyn: You mentioned Quark. Is that a cruise line that you would recommend for people who want to have that activity?
I had the most magnificent Antarctica experience with Abercrombie and Kent, the luxury tour operator. They use Ponant ships in Antarctica and they bring in their own team. And I’m talking, we had some of the, you know, best bird experts in South America. I mean, just an incredible group of more than two dozen expedition guides.
What I like about Quark, by the way, in Greenland in particular, is they have a program where they bring on two Inuit chefs who do sort of a gourmet version of Inuit cuisine using foraged and hunted and fished for ingredients and it was kind of mind-blowing.
Aislyn: Wow. That’s so cool. Well, speaking of Ponant, I actually sailed with them to Antarctica about five years ago, and it was over the new year’s time. And it was one of the highlights of my life. The ship was beautiful. There was fantastic French food and French pastry. So much French pastry. And then, you know, ringing in the new year, passing whales and icebergs. Yeah, it was exceptional.
Fran: Yeah, Antarctica is a trip and, you know, what’s cool is you can, there’s different itineraries that you can do. Like now, something that’s sort of caught on—Silversea is doing, Linblad is starting it, I think, next season—is, you can fly part of the way to Antarctica and only cruise for a week. You know, it used to be these cruises were always two weeks or longer, and now there’s a way to fly in, see, see some of Antarctica and get back quickly.
Aislyn: And are you skipping the passage then? Is that what’s going on?
Fran: You are skipping the passage, which, you know, in my case, my last case was a Drake’s Lake. But I have friends who have gone through the passage and been strapped into their beds, which wouldn’t make me happy.
But anyway, the other thing with Antarctica is I’ve been advising people—my itinerary, which was 17 days, also went to South Georgia. And South Georgia has a lot more penguins than Antarctica, you know, the subarctic area. I mean, at one point, I landed on a beach with 100,000 pairs of mating king penguins. And they’re the size of a small child, so if you can imagine yourself, you know, and then of course among them are elephant seals, these giant, slow-moving creatures, and somehow they get along with the penguins and nobody bothers each other.
It’s one of those, you know, if you want to feel like you’re in a nature documentary, I think that’s a must-do. And I feel that way again about Galápagos too, especially in the water.
Aislyn: So you would recommend if you’re going that far, try to tack that on or find an itinerary that has that.
Aislyn: OK. Well, you mentioned it earlier, and I do feel like we can’t talk about cruising without talking about the sustainability aspect of it all. What are you seeing? How has that changed, which cruise lines would you recommend?
Fran: Well, I mean, I think you know in general cruise lines are committed to reducing single-use plastics, so I think that’s really an important thing to look at. There are some ships coming out now with the hybrid fuel systems and propulsion systems. So you know, you can look at, look at a ship that at least runs part of the time on batteries. Um, Ponant has a ship like that and I think Hurtigruten does and some other lines too.
I think that, um, as we move forward, you’ll want to see what fuels, specifically, cruise ships are, are using. There’s all kinds of things on the table. There is, like I say, liquefied natural gas, methanol. Explora Journeys is talking about hydrogen for their fifth and sixth ship. What the cruise lines haven’t done is gotten on the same page, but they’re all looking in this realm—there are, have already been more than, I think, three dozen experiments using sustainable fuels from crops, from manure. But there are those kinds of experiments. So what I would do is, if you’re considering a cruise line, I would look at their online presence in terms of sustainability. Some cruise lines are actually offsetting carbon by giving contributions, there’s that type of thing taking place.
Explora Journeys, which I was just on has a huge reef conservation project at their private island in the Bahamas that they’re funding. And to give you an example of how well the cruise lines are starting to do, like that ship that I was on, Explorer I, the godmother is Sylvia Earle, who’s one of the most well-known marine biologists and ocean conservationists.
And I said to her, you know, “Like, really? You’re looking at the cruise industry?” And, you know, her attitude is, “They have money to spend and they’re committed to sustainability, so why wouldn’t I be?” So, and I’ve heard that from other conservationists too. So bottom line, the cruise lines are putting their money where their mouth is on sustainability.
I should mention, cruise lines are also—during COVID, they all focused on greatly reducing how much fuel they need. So, um, they updated HVAC systems and, you know, this type of thing. And most ships are making their own water, almost all their own water in some cases, so they’re not going to impact communities that may be short on water.
The cruise industry has also developed plug-in capabilities, so literally there’s a giant plug that can plug the cruise ship in at a port that has sustainable energy and they can just turn off all their engines. Of course, it doesn’t work if the port itself isn’t, you know, it doesn’t have sustainable energy, and unfortunately very few ports around the world have that right now.
Aislyn: So that may be something that we see over the next few years is more port cities adding that capability.
Aislyn: Yeah, wow. Well, you know, we hear this sometimes: People say that “I’m not a cruiser, you know, that’s just not, not what I do.” What would you say to someone who thinks that they aren’t a cruiser?
Fran: So I would say, first of all, that there are parts of the world that are best seen from a cruise ship, and that would, to me, include, well, at least the southeast coast of Alaska. In some other parts of Alaska, obviously the Galápagos, because you don’t wanna just go to the Galápagos and be on land. That doesn’t work.
And Antarctica, and, you know, and there’s others. I could almost argue the Caribbean, because you’re not just going to one island, and island hopping isn’t particularly easy, which is why I put the Greek islands also in that category.
And by the way, Italy and France—coastal Italy and France—another one that’s, that’s a lot easier. And there is a cruise ship for everyone. There are such things as sailing cruise ships. They might call them sailing yachts, but they’re cruise ships.
There are cruise ships that have under 50 passengers. So, if you’re like, “Oh, I can’t be with a crowd,” you can be on a very small ship and, you know, it, it’s like a hotel. There is one for everybody’s taste. You might not like to go to a big name brand chain, you might seek out boutique hotels or Airbnbs. There are cruise equivalents.
Aislyn: You know, I would say, I didn’t have a strong opinion either way, but it just wasn’t part of my life. I’d never done it, and then what kind of changed my mind was a Backroads river cruise through Europe. It was a cycling river cruise, and so every day, we’d go off and so we’re getting beyond these port towns and cycling into these incredible, like, fields.
One day we crossed over from Austria to Slovakia, and we actually cycled over the border. And then every day you come back, eat dinner, you’re, everything’s at the same place, you’re not packing your gear with you, and I was just blown away by that experience. It was quite profound.
Fran: Right. I mean, basically the ship, you know, your hotel goes with you, right?
Fran: So, so it’s very carefree. I mean, to me, I’m a real Type A, and I get on a ship and I relax. I mean, they’re feeding me, somebody is making my bed, sometimes even two times a day, you know, if you take a nap, and I come back after dinner and my bed’s made again, and there’s a certain sort of pampering element. You’ve got crew from more than 60 countries around the world, you know, just, just amazing, um, people to talk to and hear their experiences.
And you know, you can travel at a very high, you know, champagne and caviar level or a very rustic level too. I mean, personally, my favorite are ships where I can just pack my normal clothes and not have to worry about extreme formality. On the other hand, some of my most wonderful cruise experiences have been on the Queen Mary II ocean liner, which is definitely formal and has a ballroom where people wear ball gowns and it’s a total different kind of experience. So there’s just such a broad spectrum. To say you don’t want to be on a cruise ship is like saying, “I never want to go to a hotel.”
Aislyn: Yeah, yeah, that’s so interesting. I love that. What would you recommend for people who don’t want the formality?
Fran: Well, I mean, like I said, the one I’m about to go on in West Africa, the Hurtigruten. I mean, I have a pile of, consisting right now, of T-shirts and some old safari clothes and a couple hats. And that’s probably what I’m taking. A couple bathing suits, you know, some water shoes.
On the ship I was just on, Explorer I, you’re not required, there’s no dress code. It’s what you feel like wearing. Now, granted, some people, you know, wore jackets at night. I mean, the only time it was recommended that is semi-formal is this extraordinary experience they have where they bring a land-based chef on board. That person designs the menus—and right now the menu is by, um, the chef from Aquavit in New York. And I think it was 190 euros per person and worth every penny.
I mean, you know, Scandinavians rule on extreme gourmet food these days, but it was really creative and, and wonderful. Um, so, there, there is, again, that spectrum. But I mean, in Alaska, there’s UnCruises, very relaxed. Lindblad Expeditions tends to not put a lot of focus on what you’re wearing—it’s easy to find these experiences.
And if you want that barefoot windjammer experience, you can find that too. So if, you know, if you want to be on a ship, a sailing ship and help pull the ropes. You know, that’s out there.
Aislyn: Wow, how cool. I would like to do that someday.
Fran: It’s fun, I’ve done it. It’s like, you know, to me windjammers are like camp for adults. You know, especially when you’re sharing a head. Most of them you would have your own.
Aislyn: Yeah, if you really want the summer camp experience, you can look for that.
Aislyn: You mentioned that food is a big component of this for you and that you like Windstar. So which, what do you like about that? And which other lines would you go for if you’re a food person, food-driven person?
Fran: There’s, there’s so many. And there’s cruise lines that you would go to for wine as well. I like variety. What I like on Windstar in particular is some of the cruises actually will have a chef chosen by the James Beard Foundation on board, you know, doing cooking classes and all that.
You know, so that’s a lovely experience. They also have a tapas bar and, you know, also a restaurant that focuses really on, well, there’s French cuisine, but they also always have dishes prepared with local ingredients. And what I particularly enjoy on that line and other lines are market tours with the ship’s chef, which has become a new thing, where they will go off and they will, um, purchase ingredients.
And I was on the Seabourn ship in the Middle East and the chef went off looking for fish and couldn’t quite find what he was looking for at the market in terms of quality and the amount he would need to feed everyone onboard. But he did have quite a discussion with somebody selling dates and walked away with a barrel of dates. And you know, it’s kind of like, “Will your, will the passengers eat all those dates?” And he said, “Ah Fran, you forget that there’s crew onboard. What the passengers won’t eat, the crew will eat in terms of those, those wonderful dates.”
Aislyn: Yeah, the market tour, what a great way to see a new city or town.
Fran: Well, exactly. And when you’re with a chef who speaks the language or has an interpreter—and really, I mean, I was with a chef who picked tomatoes at a market in Nice, you know, it’s just like the whole process of him tasting and fussing and making sure everything was particularly right. I just really enjoy that.
But almost all the luxury lines—Regent, Crystal, Seabourn, Silversea, Explora, you know, Ritz-Carlton—they put an emphasis on wonderful food and on those lines in particular, you’re going to find the truffles and the foie gras and the, and the caviar. But in addition to that, in the mainstream lines, they are also now focusing a bit on sustainable products. So, uh, Holland America in particular is only serving fresh Alaska seafood in Alaska.
And they’ve recently translated that program so they’re going to actually pick up fish on itineraries around the world. So, you will, you will be able to sample fresh fish from, from where you’re cruising and the cruise lines are also pretty good about now getting on wine from the regions where you’re cruising. So you can try Greek wines in Greece. You can try Australian wines in Australia. For the aspect of sustainability and also because people are more curious about food. We’ve all become foodies and we want that experience.
Aislyn: And why not? You’re there, why not align in that way, right? And then have someone tell you a little bit about the winemaking or the region.
Fran: Exactly. I mean, I can’t go on a cruise and not eat locally for lunch or whatever. That’s just what I do. And often what I do is go into a shop and ask the shopkeeper where to eat, so I really get that authentic experience. But another thing I’ve learned is you can look for local blogs and even if you have to translate them, you could find some wonderful local food blogs around the world that will lead you in the right direction
Aislyn: That’s a great tip. Well, we touched on it just a moment ago. But what about river cruises specifically?
Fran: Well, river cruises are the original slow travel, right? You know, Cleopatra on the Nile. And, you know, a lot of people focus on the river cruises in Europe, which are wonderful. My favorite route is from Budapest to Bucharest, um, where you get to see Serbia and Bulgaria, you know, and some of Croatia, and it’s just a really interesting itinerary. And then, of course, you’re in Romania.
People tend to do the route between Germany and Budapest, but consider doing the whole Danube. And the same with the Rhine. You can do pieces of it, or you can do the whole thing, and you can go from Amsterdam to Basel, Switzerland, for a comprehensive experience.
But there are also river cruises out elsewhere. And in April, some friends of mine and I—five couples traveling together—were on a dahabiah in Egypt, which is a traditional sailing boat. And it was just such a magical, casual, relaxed, wonderful experience. All our meals were out on deck, and it was hot, you know, in terms of touring the ancient sites, but just, you know, a really wonderful experience, a heartfelt crew, dressed traditionally. And so there are experiences on the river. Mekong is wonderful through Cambodia and Vietnam, although you have to be prepared there to hear the history, and you’re going to hear the honest history.
And, you know, other rivers around the world, so you can, you can also cruise in the U.S. on rivers, on the Mississippi or Columbia and Snake, for instance. So, you know, so if you like river cruising and you try it once in Europe, then also look at other places. I recommend a cruise through Bordeaux, but you might not remember much of it.
Aislyn: Just take lots of photos.
Fran: Just take photos of all those wine labels.
Aislyn: Yes. Good tip. Good tip. Well, what about, like, the really nitty-gritty details, like the single supplements and the all-inclusive versus not. How do you navigate that? And it just seems like that’s a bit of a mystery to me.
Fran: Yeah. I mean, that’s a matter of, um, personal taste. Do you order the pupu platter and get everything or do you go, you know, separately à la carte?
Um, the all-inclusives provide sort of more of a—I don’t know—no-brainer experience, but, you know, cause you don’t have to keep worrying about what you’re spending. On the other hand, you are paying for the shore excursions that you’ll be doing and the wine and beer you’ll be drinking, you know, in the fare.
That said, I mean, I think for, for especially somebody that hasn’t done a lot of travel, Viking does a great job with their river ships and their ocean ships in giving you a handheld experience with shore excursions in every port and good lecturers and, you know, excellent food and all that, you know, and a value-added price that includes your tips and Wi-Fi and everything.
You can choose to do ships on a semi all-inclusive basis, like for instance if you’re a big drinker you might want to buy a drinks package so you don’t have to worry about that. Sometimes you can get a discount if you buy several shore excursions, um, it’s really a matter of personal taste.
With the single supplement a lot of cruise lines have gotten more generous with their solo pricing.
Aislyn: That’s good.
Fran: If you’re looking at a particular cruise line, I would first look to see if they have a posted deal on their website. If they don’t, I would call their reservations and see what you can negotiate. That’s sort of an unknown little tidbit. Because if a cruise ship is not full, and they’d just as soon have one person in the cabin than no one. So you may, you know, it has traditionally been if you were a solo traveler, you may get charged both fares. They’re not really as committed—I mean they are committed to that on again sold-out sailings, of course—but, but it’s not the case on every sailing.
So I would always call a cruise line if I’m a solo traveler and don’t see a solo deal, I would call and see what they can do for me. Or call a good travel agent who will know how to navigate that. I mean, that’s another thing. Cruises can be complicated. You know, you’ll be asked on some ships, for instance, to figure out what time you want to eat, or make dining reservations. Again, there’s an array of shore excursions. You can pick spa treatments. Sometimes you can and should book those in advance.
So if you could find a travel agent that really has cruise experience, I would recommend that.
Aislyn: OK, because they can help basically kind of filter what you want and need and then take care of booking and reserving everything.
Fran: Yeah, they can be your navigator, haha.
Aislyn: Yeah, I mean the, the cruise puns are endless in your world. It’s really, you really have to, like, rein yourself in.
Fran: I do.
Aislyn: Oh, that’s great. OK, cool. Is there such a thing as a, like, an off-season or a shoulder season for cruising?
Fran: Absolutely. And the best time to go is right before, you know, beginning of December, right before the holidays. Cause everybody’s busy sending out cards and packing and not necessarily cruising—and right before Thanksgiving. Not during Thanksgiving and Christmas and Hanukkah and New Year’s, but right before any major holiday. The other times, when the kids go back to school in the summer, so by mid-September anyway, you’re going to see some really good deals then as well.
Aislyn: OK. And so that could be a good time, like, as a solo traveler too, to consider booking some of these.
Fran: Yeah. Here’s how you can tell. You go to a cruise website, such as iCruise.com or there’s many others, you know, a cruise seller, and you put in the ship and the destination that you want to go to. Or maybe you don’t even put the ship, just put the destination and see what deals they have. Because you’ll, you’ll see a wide array, you know, a ship that maybe is trying to sell for $7,000 may suddenly be $2,500 if they’re not full, right?
So, so I mean there’s that kind of range. So again working with an agent, they can help you navigate that again as well. But you can also just, just look online and compare, and it’s pretty easy to figure out what cruises are not full.
Aislyn: Got it. OK, great. Well, we talked about this at the very beginning: I would love your tips on navigating seasickness. What do you bring? What’s in your kit?
Fran: I bring, I literally bring everything I can think of. You know, and it’s funny because a friend of mine just told me that Dramamine, I believe, is making something with ginger now. Ginger has never been the be-all end-all, but one thing I do do on board is, is, is—you know, just because it’s supposed to be the homeopathic remedy—I will seek out pickled ginger, or candied ginger, or ginger ale on board. And I think in mild cases, that may help.
I’ve had some success with wristbands. The, the harder plastic ones seem to work better for me than the ones with a stretchy band, for whatever reason. And, you know, with the medications, I think it’s important to test a few different ones for yourself to see your tolerance in terms of getting sleepy. And what I do is I put myself on a maintenance dose of, like, a half tablet of Dramamine, you know, just to see what, you know, the water is going to be like. And, you know, once I get my sea legs, I might drop it or I might up it. I can’t do two tabs of Dramamine. I will be in bed.
And, and you also, by the way, if you’re doing any medication, have to be concerned about drinking too much. So you might want to have that one glass of wine, but no more.
Aislyn: Maybe don’t buy the drinks package.
Fran: Yeah, exactly. I mean, the transderm patch, I’ve had some luck with it. Makes me very, very thirsty, so I have to drink lots of water on it. But, uh, you know, I bring a combination.
Aislyn: Great. Yes. Yeah. We used the patches on our Antarctic journey and that helped. I hadn’t—I put it on, like, maybe a day in, because all of a sudden it just hit me out of nowhere, and we had the Drake Lake as well, and that seemed to help, but we did have the dry mouth.
Fran: Right, and the other thing that you can do, obviously, if you’re really feeling ill, or you’re not prepared, is go to the ship’s doctor, and they will have an injection they can give you. Also, they will have a stock of tablets. I, I mean, I’ve been on some ships—a bad sign when you’re on a ship is when they put out a bowl of, of sea sickness tablets.
Aislyn: Oh no. You know, it’s not, things aren’t looking good.
Fran: But the captain—so one thing is to, and you can, you can somewhat predict because the captain will come on the speaker system, usually at noon every day and, and often they will tell you what the prediction for waves is coming up.
I mean, I personally have a tolerance for five- to seven-foot. Once it goes above eight or nine, I start really feeling it. So, you can get some hints from what the captain is saying.
Aislyn: OK. Listen to the captain.
Fran: Listen to the captain. Well, always anyway, but yeah.
Aislyn: Well I shouldn’t bring up Triangle of Sadness. Did you ever watch that movie?
Fran: I did. I actually thought it was hysterical, but you know. What can I say?
Aislyn: Oh yeah, yes, I, well it’s funny because yes, I, I watched it recently and my sister was about to get on a ship and I was like, “You’re crazy to watch this right before you go.” But that was, that’s an epic one. Do you think green apple works? Have you had any success with that?
Fran: No, not particularly, and that was what—you know, my great aunts used to give me hard, sour candies in the back of the car. But what really helps—I’m glad you asked that—is having a full stomach. And it’s totally counterintuitive. But, if you’re not feeling well, eat.
Aislyn: Oh, interesting. That is shocking.
Fran: You know, bread, crackers, something like that. Having a full stomach does help with the equilibrium. At least in my case. You know, I’m not a doctor. So I will reach for that green apple, if I’m hungry, you know, just to have something in my stomach. And I have to admit too—of all my years traveling, you know, and with the medications, I’ve very rarely actually been sick, you know, only on one or two cruises.
I remember a particular one off the coast of Corsica. That, and one in Baja, you know, Mexico, off Baja, Mexico. But I have to think that, you know, being cautious with the full stomach might have something to do with that, so.
Aislyn: Yeah, yeah, and you’re, you come prepared, so that’s smart. Well, just looking ahead, I know you don’t have a crystal ball, but what do you think the future of cruising looks like?
Fran: I think that there’s some prototypes out for ships, you know, they are building ships that last about 30 years. So the ships that they’re building now, you know, we’ll still be around by 2050.
But I think, you know, cruise lines, again, in terms of propulsion, we’ll look at everything. Like you may even see Carnival Cruise ships with wind turbines on top. There is a new collapsible wind turbine so you can go under bridges, which would have been a factor, right? But I think you may see that.
You may see solar panels on top. You may see, in the future, less deck space because of the wind turbines and solar panels. But I’m pretty sure you’ll see electricity in there somehow. Some of the ideas that I’ve heard, such as nuclear cruise ships, I don’t think I really buy. Nobody’s announced that yet. But you will see as they develop, again, green methanol, green LNG, synthetic LNG, you’ll definitely see a push to those.
Because cruise lines—look, they know their bread and butter is the ocean. And, and they want to do the right thing. So, um, you know, when you’re talking about an industry that’s focused outdoors to a certain extent, you’re going to see changes.
I definitely think you’ll see more sustainable food onboard. I think you’re also going to see, and it’s happened already, a real focus on cultural and nature excursions and ports of call that are also sustainable. And really focus deeply, not just on history, which has been sort of a thing for a long time, but on learning about the people and the places you’re visiting.
Aislyn: Love it. We’ll see you out there on the high seas.
Fran: For sure. Let’s do it.
Aislyn: Well, thank you so much for your time, Fran. I appreciate it.
Fran: Thank you.
Aislyn: That was Fran Golden. Thank you, Fran, and happy sailing. We’ll share links to her stories in the show notes, as well as to her social media handles and some of the itineraries she mentioned in the conversation.
Next week, we’ll be back with a guide to maximizing your points and miles in 2024. It’s kind of a crazy time for the points and miles system, but we have a really fantastic episode for you.
If you enjoy today’s exploration, I hope you’ll come back for more great stories next week.
Subscribing makes this super easy. You can find Unpacked on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast platform. And be sure to rate and review the show. It helps other travelers find it.
And if you have a travel dilemma you’d like us to unpack, email us firstname.lastname@example.org. This has been Unpacked, a production of AFAR Media. The podcast is produced by Aislyn Greene and Nikki Galteland. Music composition by Chris Colin.
And remember, the world is complicated. We’re here to help you unpack it.
Ready for more unpacking? Visit afar.com and be sure to follow us on Instagram and X. We are @AFARmedia. If you enjoyed today’s exploration, I hope you’ll come back for more great stories. Subscribing always makes that easy. And be sure to rate and review the show on your favorite podcast platforms. It helps other travelers find it. And if you ever want to ask a question or suggest a topic for coverage, you can reach out to us at afar.com/feedback or email us at email@example.com.
This has been Unpacked, a production of AFAR Media. The podcast is produced by Aislyn Greene and Nikki Galteland. Music composition by Chris Colin. And remember: The world is complicated. We’re here to help you unpack it.