The new cruise liner terminal is now finally up and running at Kai Tak. A few ships have used it, but once passengers get over the disappointment of not docking at Ocean Terminal, they face another surprise. No taxis. They are told to call taxis, which take about eight minutes to arrive. Not a great welcome to Hong Kong.
It’s no giant leap of imagination to work out that disembarking passengers would need taxis or minibuses to get them the considerable distance from Kai Tak to anywhere else in Hong Kong. How difficult can it be for the folks at the terminal to make sure taxis or buses are there to meet the arriving ships? Presumably they know when they are coming.
No longer are cruises the sole preserve of the well-heeled retiree, though the only one I’ve taken; the river boat down the Yangtze from Chongqing to the Three Gorges dam was densely populated by elderly loaded Texans, who had all voted for George Bush Senior. But rumour has it that younger people take cruises these days, perhaps because it includes kids’ entertainment. A friend is currently doing the onboard after-lunch lecture circuit and promises to report back, so more of that later.
In the meantime, the Sunday Times travel magazine has a few hints for cruise virgins. It’s important to know how to secure the best value cabin, hog the best patch by the pool and ensure decent service. While slightly Euro-centric, the bigger ships are usually pretty similar globally.
Ease the shower squeeze
On many vessels, especially Royal Caribbean ships, passengers can use the day spa bathrooms, without booking a treatment. This avoids the crush of two people trying to negotiate their tiny cabin shower at the same time. The spa often has nicer toiletries too.
For the best value cabin, opt for the “obstructed view outside” category. These have windows blocked by lifeboats or tenders but usually still let in some daylight. It’s preferable to a claustrophobic inside cabin with zero natural light. On the subject of cabins, bring a cloth shoe rack, a strong magnet and a multi-plug socket. Ships have metal walls and limited space, so hang the cloth shoe rack with the magnet for storing bits and pieces. The multi-plug stops his- and- hers phone charger squabbles – cabins usually have only one socket.
Bag a pool spot
Cruising involves lots of waiting and queuing as the hordes try to file on and off via narrow gangplanks. Hand carry your swimming togs and head for the loungers by the pool on embarkation day and avoid the line to collect suitcases. But don’t nod off: Carnival and Norwegian cruise liners remove unattended belongings after 45 minutes.
Best table means best waiter
Nip up to the restaurant after boarding and ask the Maitre D to allocate you a table served by the most popular waiter. Not the table with the best view – pointless at night. Tables are his job, so smile sweetly and ask nicely.
Avoid sea sickness
Be selective on day one until you’ve got the lie of the land, or you risk spending the entire trip trying to shake off the clinging poison ivy passenger. Ward off sea sickness by booking a mid ships cabin on a lower deck, mid way along the ship. Higher cabins and those at either end tend to rock and roll. If you feel queasy, head for the deck or balcony and gaze at the horizon. Lying down usually makes it worse.
Save on buying bottled water at the ship’s shop by drinking the tap water – it’s perfectly OK. Iced water, tea and lemonade are served with meals, so bring glasses back to your room afterwards.
Tipping and drinking
Buying booze onboard is expensive – so much for duty free. Check if your operator allows you to bring some wine onboard – some do. But never beer or spirits. Don’t bother at ports of call - bags are screened as you get back on the ship so your bottles will be confiscated by security. You’ll have to queue to get it back on disembarkation day, the Sunday Times travel magazine warns.
Finally, the horrible subject of tipping. Traditionally, cruise ship workers earn little or nothing and are relied totally on tips. Now thanks to international seafarer welfare agreements, they must be paid a monthly salary, even though they must still fund their own passage to join the ship at the start of their contract.
Tipping is still a sticky issue. Most operators, all-inclusive or not, automatically add $HK50 to $155 daily to your bill, payable on departure day. It sounds steep, but is usually cheaper than dishing out individual tips. You can ask to have these removed or reduced by speaking to the onboard customer relations folks. But do so without explaining to every waiter that comes near you on day one and you risk being ignored for the whole trip. But if you explain you’re doling out tips on a merit basis, you could get great service. Whichever way you do it, factor the cost of tipping into your budget, as it can mount up. Most cruise ship staff work long hours for lousy pay.