An around-the-world cruise is something other people do — and by other people, I mean lottery winners, trust-fund babies, one percenters.
I'm none of those, but I recently tasted this seemingly forbidden-to-the-masses fruit anyway.
I hopped aboard a luxury ship in the middle of a 102-day world voyage and spent eight magnificent days living like royalty at a fraction of the cost. I enjoyed wonderful service, saw exotic ports and had so many on-board classes, performances and lectures to choose from that I almost wished the ship hadn't made port calls.
What's my secret? I took a short segment of a long voyage. Some lines call them getaways; others tag them hop-on, hop-off or exotic segments. For cruise lines, it's a way to fill empty cabins; for passengers, it's a way to snag great savings and sample the good life.
You could pay $20,000 to $250,000 for a full world cruise, but a slice of that pie could cost less than $1,000. Segments can be as short as the three-night Shanghai-Hong Kong voyage offered by Cunard on the Queen Elizabeth (fares from $599), or a week-long trip such as the line's Hong Kong-Singapore itinerary aboard the Queen Mary 2 (from $1,099).
Or you can choose a longer trip, such as Princess Cruise Line's 11-day segment from London to New York (from $2,214) or the line's 17-day Panama Canal segment (from $2,599, double occupancy).
Hitching a short ride on a long voyage allows travelers strapped for time or money to sample the world cruise experience. Even if you have time and money, trying a segment might be wise so you can see whether you're cut out to spend months at sea. Who knows? You might get the shipboard equivalent of island fever.
You can depart from a nearby home port, such as Los Angeles or San Francisco, or fly to Europe or Asia to do a segment, then fly home after you disembark.
Best of both worlds
That was my strategy. I flew to Singapore, a city I had never explored, spent some time wandering, then joined the Crystal Serenity amid its annual world cruise.
I had friends on board, and the line was offering short segments with fares starting at $2,275. My eight-day getaway included port stops in Koh Samui, Thailand, known for its beaches and bars; Bangkok, Thailand, one of Southeast Asia's great cities; Sihanoukville, Cambodia, another happening beach destination; and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where I disembarked to fly back to Singapore and head for home. Airfare for my trip added about $1,900 to the cost.
It seemed the best of both worlds. I had time to wander the streets of an unfamiliar city and scored playtime in other places that were either new to me or that I hadn't visited recently.
I also lounged on a deck chair and watched the sea tumble by, enjoyed the snappy service of a butler who brought me snacks every afternoon, and hobnobbed with some of the best-traveled people in the world.
Many meet annually in January when Crystal's 100-day-plus cruise sets sail for parts unknown. They call their shipboard friends — and the crew — a second family. They book their rooms years in advance to make sure they get their favorite cabins.
As far as this group was concerned, I was the proverbial ship that passed in the night, but everyone was friendly and shared tips about shipboard customs and things to do and see in the cities we would visit.
"Try to mix with people on a cruise — you'll have a better time," said one woman who had been on more than a dozen world cruises.
I shopped with them in Bangkok, played in the ocean with them on a Thai beach and went with them to get four-hands massages in Ho Chi Minh City. (Yes, four hands. That means two masseuses for each customer. Heavenly, and a great deal at $60, including a handsome tip.)
I also ran into Jim and Marilyn Kaiser of New Canaan, Conn., veterans of 33 cruises, who had hopped on in Singapore, as I did, and would hop off in Vietnam, also like me.
"We'd like to do a longer cruise," said Jim, "but I'm still working. We can't spend all that time at sea." His strategy: "If you don't have the time to sail the world, you look for a short itinerary in places you want to see."
Marilyn was impressed with their short voyage. "It's been 20 years since we cruised with Crystal," she said. "We couldn't believe how many activities there were on the ship. Every day, there are 20 things we'd like to do."
I had to agree. You could learn to play a Yamaha piano, get your teeth whitened, write a memoir, take a digital photo class, learn to knit or work off your buffet line excesses in the gym, pool or in a Pilates, Zumba or yoga class, among other activities.
If you felt like stimulating your brain, you could tap into the world political scene by listening to speakers such as diplomat John Renninger, former director of the Asia division in the United Nations' political affairs department.
Hungry? Try one of six restaurants and cafes, including three specialty restaurants.
If anyone was bored, it was his or her own fault.
'The 405 at rush hour'
Of course, there also are the ports. I had chosen a Southeast Asian segment because I enjoy the sights and sounds of the region. One of my favorite experiences took place on the bridge, as the Serenity left the South China Sea and nosed into the Saigon River for a port stop near Ho Chi Minh City.
"Back in the day, all you could see here was jungle," Capt. Birger J. Vorland said as the 820-foot ship nosed up the river. Tugs and barges were seemingly everywhere; some were scurrying to get out of the way, but many didn't seem to be paying much attention to the giant ship looming over them.
"My No. 1 job is to keep everybody safe," the captain said. His tone, and that of the other bridge officers, was low and measured, a marked contrast to that of the Vietnamese pilot, who was also standing on the bridge at the time. His lilting tones stood out as he tried to make himself heard over a hand-held radio that had erupted with loud yelling. His job was to make sure the smaller boats stayed clear of the cruise ship.
"It looks a little bit like the 405 at rush hour, doesn't it?" Vorland said to me, referring to one of L.A.'s daily traffic nightmares. I nodded.
We cleared the busy area and approached our berth. "OK, Mr. Pilot, captain has the conn," Vorland said, taking back control of the ship. He did some pretty little maneuvers with the 169,000-ton ship, and we swung around in a perfect arc, sliding up right next to the dock.
Such a pro.
With segment travel, thrifty cruisers can get a taste of a grand voyage without a big investment
If you'd like to live large but don't have the time or money, long-haul cruise lines may have a deal for you.
Segment travel — hopping aboard a long cruise for a short time — offers thrifty tourists a way to get a taste of a grand voyage without a big investment.
Cruise experts say it's a burgeoning part of the cruise market.
“Taking advantage of shorter segment offerings is a budget-friendly way to explore multiple destinations, cultures and experiences in one trip," said Colleen McDaniel, managing editor of CruiseCritic, "and we’re certainly seeing that interest grow.
"For travelers looking to visit more off-the-beaten-path destinations, the itineraries are appealing, and the prices are usually far lower than you would pay if visiting the same destinations by land and air.”
Here's a sampling of short segment cruises. These prices are per person, based on double occupancy:
Cunard Line, (877) 449-9968, has some of the shortest segments available, including three-day voyages aboard its royal fleet, such as a trip on the Queen Elizabeth from Kobe, Japan, to Shanghai. Fares start at $599 per person.
Lindblad Expeditions, (800) 397-3348. This small-ship adventure line teams with National Geographic to explore Europe this summer. Its 17-week program of Europe expeditions can be segmented in one- and two-week, all-inclusive trips or hop-on, hop-off itineraries allowing you to reboard at a later time. One-week fares start at $7,990, with an air credit of $1,000 off the voyage.
Celebrity Cruises, (844) 418-6824. Celebrity Equinox offers a 28-day Grand Tour of the Mediterranean with few or no overlapping of ports. Passengers can segment it into seven-,14- or 21-day itineraries. Fares start at $699.
Princess Cruises, (866) 824-4240. On Princess, you can set sail on a voyage as long as 113 days or on a segment as short as 11 days. Options include a 22-day Hawaii and South Pacific segment, starting at $4,699, or a 50-day Circle Pacific cruise from Sydney, Australia, to Los Angeles, starting at $8,499.
Crystal Cruises, (888) 799-2437. Crystal offers multiple short segments on longer cruises. Those include the 2017 Crystal Serenity world voyage, which will include segments in South America such as Colón, Panama, to Lima, Peru, with fares starting at $2,370, and Manaus, Brazil, to Barbados, $2,870.