There was a time when shipboard shops sold only sundries such as toothpaste and candy bars, a few logo items such as T-shirts and sun hats and a small line of duty-free perfume, jewelry and gift items.
As a result, passengers streamed ashore with their shopping lists, spending freely in duty-free ports from Hong Kong to St. Thomas, and returning exhausted, dragging back on board everything from hand-carved Chinese furniture to cardboard cartons of liquor.
Then cruise lines began to realize that shipboard shopping could be big business and that they could compete with ports of call, at least on smaller items.
After all, the reasoning went, passengers could be tempted by shop windows countless times during a cruise compared to only once or twice in port.
These days, aboard several large ships such as Royal Caribbean Cruise Line's Sovereign of the Seas or Princess Cruises' Star Princess, a passenger could be forgiven for thinking he or she has wandered into a shopping mall.
Perhaps the best of the lot--certainly the most upscale and varied--are the shops aboard Cunard Line's QE2, an impressive collection that fills a third of the Boat Deck.
The most distinctive is the only seagoing branch of London's Harrods. But you'll find other prestigious boutique names as well--Gucci, Dunhill, Christian Dior, Louis Vuitton, H. Stern, Garrard, Elizabeth Arden, Louis Feraud, Pringle of Scotland, Liberty of London, Hamley's of Regent Street and Aquascutum.
You can rent a tuxedo, buy a tin of caviar or a tea cozy, a teddy bear or a trench coat, a logo T-shirt or a silver flatware service for 12.
Norwegian Cruise Lines' Norway was one of the first ships to introduce the concept of an avenue of shops, with its enclosed promenade deck "streets" called Champs Elysees and Fifth Avenue lined with enticing shops and boutiques vending everything from mink coats and diamond bracelets to casual sportswear. Another lineup of shops is on the Noordam, owned by Holland America.
Almost every large cruise ship carries a full array of duty-free items at prices competitive to their ports of call. You can find Lladro porcelain, Hummel figurines, French perfumes, Rolex watches and Diane Fries dresses, all priced lower than at home.
Port regulations throughout the world require shipboard shops to be locked up when the vessel is in port. But once the ship is at sea, they throw open the doors at various hours during the day and evening. Notice is given when there's a special sale or promotion.
Shopping aboard ship is a good idea when:
--You might want to return an impulse buy that didn't work out and that cute little shop in St. Lucia, whose name you've forgotten, is now 50 nautical miles behind you.
--You want to try on garments in the comfort of your own cabin with no one around to pressure you into buying.
--A shipboard shop is having a one-day special on an overstocked item. We've snapped up bargains ranging from Dutch cheeses to waterproof Windbreakers on these "day at sea" sales.
--You might feel uncomfortable bargaining in a society where it is expected.
On the other hand, shopping ashore is best when:
--You want to buy some colorful, inexpensive souvenirs for the folks back home or distinctive local arts and crafts for your own collection.
--You have come to a place noted for good buys on a particular item, say, Brazil for gemstones or Martinique for French perfumes, and are careful to shop at reputable companies such as H. Stern in Rio for sapphires or Roger Albert in Fort-de-France for fragrances.