Christmas Cruising Wasn’t What I Expected. Here’s Why

Christmas Cruising Wasn’t What I Expected. Here’s Why

Christmas Cruising Wasn’t What I Expected. Here’s Why

I love Christmas and I love cruising, so putting them together sounded like a perfect combination. But was it?

This past Christmas, I convinced my partner, Mark, that we should do a seven-night Holland America cruise to Mexico, from San Diego.

While he was excited about escaping cold, wintry London, he raised four big fears as we made our plans and they were things that I should have paid more attention to.

It was only through meeting people on the ship, like Liz and her group of 11, which later helped me understand who’s right and who’s wrong for Christmas cruising.

Fear #1 Cost of Christmas Cruising

Before I come back to Liz, what was the first fear that Mark raised? The cost.

Christmas cruises are far more costly than at any other time. That’s partly because Christmas cruises are in such high demand, and they sell out quickly.

But, did we get more value for the higher price of a Christmas cruise? In short, no. Yes, there were Christmas decorations up, like all cruise ships feature at this time of year, and a particularly beautiful gingerbread village. There was also Christmas lunch on the menu, and Santa Claus arrived, but we didn’t get significantly more.

We were simply paying more to be on a cruise ship at Christmas. If we’d gone two weeks earlier, we’d have had the same itinerary, same cabin, and entertainment. The daily program would have been pretty much the same and the food the same, too.

But, it would have cost 30% less. That’s a really important consideration because you’re going to pay much more for cruising over Christmas, but for not much more when it comes to the overall experience.

However, was it worth it for other reasons?

Fear #2 Not Your Usual Line and Crowd

The second concern Mark had was would the passengers be completely different at Christmas.

Holland America mostly caters to couples who are perhaps a little older. That’s the appeal.

Although I’m in my early sixties, I am often among the younger group on their cruises. I don’t usually find many families on board and there’s not a big party atmosphere.

People often joke that Holland America is a dead zone after 10:00 at night. I think that’s a bit unfair, but it definitely is a much quieter, calmer experience.

Not a traditional experience

Going on our Holland America cruise at Christmas was completely different to usual. Many chose this trip because it had a good itinerary sailing out of San Diego. Handy for people on the US West Coast.

Families chose it because it was a convenient Christmas escape on their doorstep. There were over 400 children on board.

The average age was way younger than it would usually be and so the experience matched it. It was often raucous by the pool, the nightclub was packed until late and there was much more of a party feel. Even the ‘how to fold your towels into animals’ class was a vibrant, boisterous event because the kids and teens were piling in.

The entertainment was more family-friendly than usual, with the films shown at the pool mainly kids Christmas films like Home Alone, and the comedy gigs were more PG.

We didn’t get a traditional Holland America experience.

Another consequence of the passenger mix was that many things that I would normally expect on a Holland America cruise didn’t happen. There weren’t enrichment and destination speakers. The only things they ran were the standard lectures, which are written at head office and delivered by the Cruise Director. These were often about the Holland America Origins story, or the history of board games, but not topics tailored to our specific cruise.

Christmas Cruising Wasn’t What I Expected. Here’s Why

Fear #3 It Would Be Overly Packed

The next key concern Mark had was that Christmas cruises get busy. And it was a way bigger issue than I expected. The ship was sailing at around about 115% capacity.

The way capacity is measured on ships is based on the number of fixed berths – so normally with two in a cabin. On this voyage, because there were so many kids and families, we saw many cabins with third and fourth occupancy, or with groups of friends. That made the experience very busy.

Every event was packed, which, if we were doing something like trivia was fun, but even the bingo was spilling over into another room. This was completely out of the ordinary. The casino was full every evening with only one or two slot machines unused and all the tables were packed with players. Getting a seat at shows was harder than usual, and some had standing room only. This was the same at some of the other music venues like the Rolling Stone Rock Room and the BB Kings Blues Club.

Christmas Cruising Wasn’t What I Expected. Here’s Why

Getting a table for dinner

Crowds showed up in a couple of more disruptive ways on this Christmas cruise. Getting a table right away at dinner in the Main Dining Room, for example, became a challenge.

We had booked a Neptune Suite which gave us access to Club Orange, a private dining area, but even then we often had to plan ahead. We ended up having to aim to go when we thought it would be less busy. Sometimes, we had to wait for a table at Club Orange, which would be unheard of during normal sailings.

But, when it came to the main dining room, crowds were an even bigger issue. There were too many people and lines were commonplace at popular times. We would see many people scattered around the ship with buzzers, waiting for a table to be ready in the dining room.

If you wanted a table for two, forget it. That wasn’t possible. On a normal sailing, it would be much easier.

And for Specialty dining on this cruise, the restaurants were sold out.

I’m normally very organised and make reservations weeks before. But even a whole month in advance, the most popular times were sold out.

Christmas Cruising Wasn’t What I Expected. Here’s Why

Packed onboard areas

The other crucial time when the crowds got too much was when we had a tender port in Cabo San Lucas. We got off the ship, went to the beach and by the time we came back, the line was enormous. It took well over an hour to get a tender ride back.

It goes without saying that the pool deck was overcrowded, with kids even taking over the adult’s pool at times.

We decided before the trip, because we did expect it to be busy, to spend a money on getting away from it all and book ourselves into The Retreat, which is a private outdoor area with cabanas. We had to pay a couple hundred dollars to go in there, but it really was worth it.

Because even in the normal quiet zones like the Crow’s Nest area or even the adult pool, it would be overcrowded and packed with kids and passengers.

Christmas Cruising Wasn’t What I Expected. Here’s Why

Fear #4 Too Christmassy

The other critical thing that Mark raised was, was this cruise going to be either Christmassy enough, or too much?

Well, there was a Christmas tree – not particularly a particularly spectacular Christmas tree – and there were some decorations around, but it wasn’t a magnificent Christmas experience.

Santa Claus did arrive, but only in the morning when we and many others were on an excursion.

They did have a carol concert, but it was very late at night, and we’d had a busy day and ended up missing that.

So, there were some limited Christmas events but we did end up missing most of them. I have seen other lines doing much more.

Christmas Cruising Wasn’t What I Expected. Here’s Why

Our Christmas revelation

Overall, this experience confirmed one thing about Christmas cruising to myself and Mark.

As we spoke to people, we realised that those having the most magnificent time on board were people that had come as a family. It was a way of bringing everyone together at Christmas, without all the hassle of going to someone’s house.

And this is exactly what Liz and her family did. They were a group of 11 people, ranging from 11 right through to 80 years of age coming together and sharing the Christmas experience at sea. They all had an incredible time.

So, I realised that a Christmas cruise as a family event was what really made it special.

For us as a couple, going on a cruise over Christmas and paying 30% more was not good value or that special due to the downsides I mentioned.

Away from family

As an aside, I was struck by a post on this from my fellow vlogger friends Paul & Carole Love To Travel, at the same time.

They went as a couple on an Azamara Cruise to Australia over Christmas and found it really hard being away from their family. They weren’t sure they would do it again. Emotions were probably magnified by being surrounded by families together on these trips.

When it came to solo travellers, there were some on the trip and a few in Club Orange. What I realised, as a regular solo traveller myself, is they appeared much more isolated than they normally would be. First of all, this is because the number of family groups on this cruise meant there were fewer opportunities for solos to share tables at mealtimes. Even going on excursions, families were going together so there were fewer people that you could get to know as a solo traveller.

Would I do a Christmas cruise again?

I don’t think I would. Unless I was going with a big extended group of people and friends, then maybe.



Gary Bembridge

I grew up in Zimbabwe, but I have been based in London since 1987. My travel life spans more than three decades and that includes more than 95 cruises. In 2005, I launched Tips for Travellers to make it easy and fun for people to discover, plan and enjoy incredible cruise vacations. And the rest, as they say, is history. I have the largest cruise vlogger channel currently on YouTube, with more than 3 million video views per month.

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