ABOARD THE MARINER OF THE SEAS OFF THE COAST OF ECUADOR – I’m sorry, did you say something?
Oh, right. You want to know about what it’s like to take a last-minute cruise.
Just let me climb out of this deck chair and grab my flip-flops, souvenir drink cup and “I Crossed the Equator” T-shirt. My notebook is around here somewhere, too, and it’s not too wet, at least most of it. I did take notes, I swear, at least at the beginning.
No, really. I have a little time to talk. Bingo isn’t for another hour.
Aboard one of the world’s biggest cruise ships, time drifts by for tranquil and serene passengers on a stunning trip. Some are traveling the entire 16,892 miles around the entire continent of South America, from Florida to Los Angeles in 47 days.
But here’s the strange part: The 3,600-passenger Royal Caribbean Mariner of the Seas is barely more than half full. And a few weeks ago, fares for the final leg from Valparaiso, Chile, to Los Angeles were suddenly in the bargain box – starting at $899 for 16 days.
Obviously the dismal economy prompted such fire-sale prices.
How could anyone with an urge to see South America pass it up?
“It was cheaper for us to come on this cruise than to take a trip across country in our RV,” says Bonnie Ciegler of Key West, Fla., traveling with her husband, Otto.
With its exotic itinerary of Chile, Peru, Costa Rica and Mexico, this final leg of the cruise cost the Cieglers just $56 a day each, including lodging, entertainment and meals.
It cost me a bit more, traveling alone.
The first hurdle to last-minute cruises, of course, is a big one – getting someone reliable to go with you. Like most passengers aboard Mariner of the Seas, Patricia and Jim Trembley of Edmonton, Alberta, booked a year ahead, with plenty of time to plan, dream and look forward to the cruise.
Meanwhile, the Cieglers booked just 11 weeks in advance. They had time to arrange to be away from their volunteering schedule.
Me? I booked the cruise eight days before flying to Chile to board. No potential travel companion materialized on short notice; both my husband and a friend wimped out with some lame excuse about having to work.
That meant paying the dreaded “single supplement” – the charge for a solo traveler wanting his or her own room, which can double the cost of a cabin. Was my bargain cruise in jeopardy?
Luckily, the last-minute cruise deal also included a huge break on the single supplement, which was slashed almost in half. Cruise experts say that if a cruise costs $100 a day or less, it’s a great bargain.
Including the single supplement, I paid $127 a day for an ocean-view room. With a roommate, it would have been $87.
I got lucky with my last-minute cabin. Cabins in midship – not too far forward or back – are considered quietest. But last-minute cruisers get the leftovers.
“Obviously, midship cabins are best from a geometric point of view; they have the least motion,” says Ned Metsch of Huntington Beach, Calif., a veteran of five cruises.
“But, one time, we took cabins in the far forward, and it didn’t bother me. And once we had cabins on the very rear of the ship – you could look out and see the ocean behind us – but it wasn’t too bad.”
Then again, Metsch’s idea of a bad cabin is a bunk on a military cargo ship in the Korean War.
The only cabin left in my lowly price range – room 2582 – was indeed midship, but on the lowest level. According to the ship’s map, it was equipped with bunk beds and was located next to the ice-skating rink. Not good.
But, in fact, it was fine. A quiet, stable, perfectly nice cabin – and the bunks must have been stowed away because they weren’t there.
One of the major drawbacks of booking a last-minute cruise is that you don’t have time to anticipate the trip. Isn’t that the whole point of a vacation – the build-up, the anticipation, the poring over guidebooks at Borders?
However, the flip side of booking last-minute is a kind of wild, carefree, even reckless feeling you get when you do it. One day you’re sitting in Michigan. The next you are in the middle of the Pacific watching dolphins frolic.
The only bad part, honestly, is being alone.
There are quite a few solo travelers on this cruise, which is full of sophisticated and pleasant passengers from all over the world. I met a professor on sabbatical who is doing three back-to-back cruises on his own. I met actress Cloris Leachman, a guest of the cruise line, in the Schooner Bar one night.
I’ve actually made friends. It’s just that when you spot the Southern Cross constellation for the first time in your life on a star-spangled night at sea, it stinks not having someone familiar to share it with.
When Mariner of the Seas left Port Canaveral, Fla., in late January, several passengers were denied boarding because they’d forgotten to get a required visa for Brazil. They had to go get one, then at their own expense fly down and meet the ship en route. And these were people who had booked far in advance.
For last-minute cruisers, the issue of missing documents is an even bigger potential nightmare. There is less time to fix mistakes. There is little time to get a passport, visa or immunization you might need.
“It is the sole responsibility of the guest to identify and obtain all required travel documents … such as a passport, visas, inoculation certificate and family/legal documents,” reads Royal Caribbean’s cruise packet.
Having had nearly every travel immunization known to science and having just renewed my passport, I was last-minute ready.
About 17 passengers and a crew member left the ship at Arica, Chile, on the mother of all shore excursions – a trip to Machu Picchu. The three-day journey cost $2,650 and involved several planes, trains and buses, with the passengers rejoining the cruise in Lima, Peru. Naturally, that required major advance planning.
But the good news is that most shore excursions are available even after you come aboard. Flavors of Arica? Still open. Lima Highlights? Available. Cabo Baja Jeep Safari? They still have tickets.
Last-minute cruisers won’t get shut out of shore excursions, don’t worry. They’ll be begging for your business.
Also in the don’t worry category: packing. Last-minute, you basically just throw what you’ve got in a suitcase and leave. Bathing suit. Shorts. Something nice to wear on formal nights. Hat. Sunscreen. That’s pretty much it.
The trickier part had to do with my early arrival in Chile – the logistics of hiring a city guide, getting a hotel, local cash and bringing the right plug adapter. Also, I was concerned whether my T-Mobile cell phone would work in South America (it did).
One day before I left, I remembered to call my credit card companies to put a travel note on my account. One hour before I left for the airport I remembered to pack my toothbrush.
When the northbound Mariner of the Seas crossed the equator off the coast of Ecuador, a jolly ceremony featured Neptune, king of the seas, and the dunking of Capt. Johnny Faevelen in the pool for not seeking Neptune’s permission to cross.
“I do not give you permission!” Neptune rumbled.
Right after that, I ran into the Trombleys on the staircase, and they said they had one more piece of advice for people booking last-minute cruises.
Never tell other passengers how little you paid, they said. It might make them feel bad.
I nodded and walked slowly up to the soft-serve machine next to the pool, then spread out my towel and dozed off, but not before I thought of a corollary to the Trombleys’ advice.
Always e-mail your would-be traveling companions from the ship and let them know what a swell time you’re having on your last-minute cruise.
Maybe next time they’ll be more impulsive. Just go.