Your Guide to Cruising Out of Korea

cruise boat vacation korea

Cruising vs. Regular Travel

Cruising is a worry-free way to travel, and it can be a tremendous bargain. While you won’t get as much time to immerse yourself in unique locals, you also won’t be worrying about annoying things like directions or whether the water is potable. If you’d like to set aside every worry except choosing which free restaurant to eat at, then a cruise is just the ticket. I love delving into exotic cultural adventures more than most, but I’ve got kids now, and they are enough adventure for a while.

At the end of 2015, I got lucky and won a 5-day cruise on Princess Cruise lines. I kicked in some money to bring my 2-year-old along and upgrade to a balcony room, and we cruised in early 2016. Then I used some mileage to fly down to Singapore for a trip stopping at 2 ports in Thailand. In this story I’ll be sharing our experience as I also share tips on taking a cruise out of Korea.

Why Cruising is a Bargain

A deal? Really?

Yes. Cruising itself is inexpensive because:

  1. You are purchasing the whole package. When you buy a cruise, you’re purchasing transportation, accommodation, entertainment, food, and drink (non-alcoholic anyway) all at once. This means they can charge a lower profit margin on every element of the trip but still make a substantial profit. Typically ranging from $80 – $150 per person per day, it is can be a great deal when you consider all you’re getting.
  2. You’re their hostage. They’ll be trying to upsell you the whole trip. Want Internet access? That’ll cost you a pretty penny. The casino is a big money-maker for them, as is every beverage you purchase – particularly alcoholic. They’ll frequently take your pictures so they can sell it to you later. Want those clothes washed? While the washing machines and dryers may be reasonable, the detergent will cost you. Expect to be nickel and dimed the entire trip. If you’re having fun and you’d like to support their business, spend away! If you’re on a budget, come prepared with your own detergent, camera, etc. to make sure your trip remains a bargain. And forget about Internet.

The Korean Cruising Problem

If you’re living in Korea, however, you’ll face one big added expense; there are no cruises originating from Korea. This means that any cruise you may be interested in will also require a round-trip flight ticket, adding to the cost and deducting from vacation time. Tokyo has a few originating cruises, but most of the cruises in Asia originate out of Singapore or Hong Kong. That is unless you make it all the way down under, where the Aussies and Kiwis are in love with visiting South Pacific destinations like Fiji and New Caledonia.

singapore mariott cruise hotel vacation

My Family Cruise Experience

In our case, we flew down to Singapore and arrived a couple of nights before our departure. We stayed at the incredible Singapore Marriott Tang Plaza Hotel, which was conveniently located a short cab ride from our departure point. Ideally located on Orchard Road, it was the perfect place to get rested up after the flight and relax the next morning. Singapore itself is an amazing destination (as most of you already know) and we were a short walk from lovely gardens, great shopping centers and one of the best hawker centers I’ve ever visited. If you’re not extending your vacation to include a lot of time in Singapore, then staying at the Marriott Tang Plaza or another Orchard Road-located hotel is a great idea because it’s Singapore’s hottest tourist area and its less than a 20-minute cab ride to your departure point, The Marina Bay Cruise Centre.  

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We boarded the Sapphire Princess and were immediately impressed. The main feature of the ship is the central Piazza, which serves as a communal dining/entertainment venue; it’s also where you check in and get your room key. The glass elevators and surrounding 3-story staircase make it a truly impressive gathering place. People will crowd the stairs to look down on the bigger performances and events. Other times, however, you’ll be able to comfortably savor fresh pizza and desserts from the surrounding restaurants while enjoying the less popular but just as enjoyable live music performances that occur multiple times daily.

From there it just got better. We learned that you needed to make reservations at the nicer restaurants for dinner, so we got on that early. We learned that you need to read the daily bulletin that they distribute early, as you may want to reserve spots for the daily activities. We learned that entertainment was abundant, with everything from children’s crafts and magicians to cigar bars and nightclubs (more on this later). My 2-year-old daughter danced her heart out when we attended one of the amazing Broadway-style performances. I enjoyed a having a cigar, a scotch and a chat with fellow travelers one evening. My wife took advantage of one of the free yoga classes, although there were others that had a fee. The gym was nice, but I stuck to swimming in the pool in the mornings for exercise.

movies pool cruise korea

Choosing a Cruise Cabin

Essentially, you have two basic choices. They make it out like you have four or more, but unless you’re willing to spend lots more money for the same trip, really it’s two: inside cabin or balcony. I mean, sure a window is nice, but do you really want to pay more money for it? Go lay by the pool if you want sun.

There are two reasonable attitudes to take on getting a cabin :

  1. You aren’t going on a cruise to spend your time in your cabin. There are multiple outdoor pools, there’s a gym, there’s decks, basketball courts, outdoor bars, and restaurants. There’s entertainment galore and tons of food to be eaten. Why would you spend your time on your cabin balcony anyway?
  2. Sunsets and sunrises on your private little balcony are just heaven. Keep in mind that room service is completely free (aside from tip of course). We thoroughly enjoyed watching the sunrise/sunset over the ocean’s horizon while sipping coffee and munching on fresh fruit and croissant & egg sandwiches.

Which camp am I in now? I could go either way. If it’s not too much, I’d love a balcony, but I think my next cruise will be a longer one, for 7 days or more, so that’ll be a big price difference. The cabin can just serve as a quiet respite from all of the fun and excitement outside.

Cruising Tip: Before you click, “Pay Now,” search for the exact cabin you’re about to purchase on a site like Cruise Deck Plans or Deck Plans Genius to see exactly what your cabin is like. Unexpected things can ruin your trip, like being directly under a swimming pool, or connected to a nightclub. Make sure you’ve investigated your room before you pull that payment trigger.

lamb chop cruise korea

Dining on a Cruise

Cruising is nearly synonymous with “gluttony” as most every restaurant – including room service – is included in the price. I was thoroughly impressed with the quality of the food they served – until I went to the main buffet restaurant. This is where gluttony takes on a new meaning, and it’s where they cater to the mass of humanity that wants instant quantity. I did not return. In researching this article, I found another article with the tip, “Don’t totally discount the buffet.” My tip is the opposite. Totally avoid the buffet.

There are also restaurants where you can pay a little more for fine dining. We won a dinner for two at Sabatini’s Italian Trattoria by watching the morning cruise TV show and answering the daily question. (Oh, yeah, watch the daily TV show and answer their questions. No one else does, so your chances of winning are great.) It was spectacular. The food options were most definitely a cut above what was being served at the regular restaurants – and it was a set fee for unlimited every course from appetizer to desserts. I will certainly be having a celebratory night out at one of the specialty restaurants on my next cruise – but just one. The usual restaurants do a great job, so there’s no need to go overboard.

General Cruising Tips

live music cruise korea

Onboard Entertainment

Since taking the cruise, I’ve had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of a few Broadway performers, and I’ve come to learn that when they don’t have other shows going, heading off on cruise ships is one big way they refill the coffers. This is to say that the entertainment on these cruises is world-class, and a performer on one of these cruises today may be part of the new cast of Hamilton next year. The song-and-dance numbers that they put on are truly impressive.

I’m sure the same obviously went for musicians because the jazz band we enjoyed during one happy hour was truly wonderful. The jazz ensemble we caught was amazing, and they obviously worked these performers a lot because we recognized them from some other performances on the ship too.

With all the activities on board, planning your time well is crucial. Avoid the disappointment of looking at the daily activities flyer in the evening and realize you missed a great event. When I discovered that one of the bars was simultaneously holding a 2-for-1 Happy Hour and hosting a live jazz band, I was ecstatic.

Destination Experiences

Before you plan on getting off the boat at each destination, ask how you get into port. If the ship will be docking in the port, then you’re golden. But if you have to be shuttled by ferry boats, consider that you’ll need to add an hour or so on either side for transportation just to get to the port. There will likely be thousands of people getting on and off of the cruise ship, and that’s quite a logistical maneuver. You’ll have to wait in line for your boat, board the boat with the rest of the herd, ride the boat and then deboard. If you only have 4 – 6 hours for your port of call, that doesn’t leave much time to experience the scenery. You may just want to stay on the boat and catch a movie. Most of the entertainment crew will have the day off, so don’t expect nearly as much to do on the board.

Save Money by Timing Your Cruise Booking

If you’re thinking about a cruise, there are two major ways to save money: plan way ahead or wait until the very last minute. Just like airplanes, cruise ships have to be full to make money, so they want you to buy your tickets well in advance to secure the money to operate the cruise. To do this, they discount cruises sailing a year or more in advance. Once they’ve covered expenses, it’s time to make a profit on all of the late-comers who sign up only months before the trip. Then a few weeks before sailing the wheeling and dealing kicks in once again so they can fill whatever is still open. They really want to fill every cabin.

sunset balcony cruise ship vacation koreaBooking a Princess Cruise in Korea

Princess Cruises in Korea are the only cruise line with a local office that I could find (if I’m wrong, let us know in the comments!). You can call the number and talk to a real person. Although they may not speak English, they’ll certainly put you in touch with someone who does. You can even attend their “party” on the last Friday of every month to learn about Princess Cruises.

Booking Cruises with Korean Travel Agencies & Sites

This is where you may even find cruises departing from and returning to Korea. They’re not common, but for special holidays and seasons, Lotte Tour and Hana Tour may collaborate with the cruise companies to send you in and out of Busan and maybe even Incheon to visit Japan, China, and Russia. You can also book through cruise-focused Korean websites like Cruise International and, where you can click around, but be warned, they’re absolutely terrible – as Korean websites tend to be. Ask a Korean to navigate them for you, but they’ll still make your head hurt as you try to click on all the highlighted stuff that has no links and try to cut and paste from the JPG that they stuck up so they didn’t have to make a real website. Or you could just go bang your head against a wall.

River Cruises in Asia

Besides the giant ocean liners, South East Asia offers some great river cruise opportunities. From amazing local operations like Paradise Cruises in Vietnam to the big river cruise companies like Viking and Avalon, there are plenty of river cruise options out there too. Having never been on a river cruise, I can’t tell you anything about them. If you’ve been on a river cruise in Southeast Asia though, I hope you’ll share your experience with us in the comments.

Been on a cruise? Help our readers! Write a cruise review and/or tell us your tips in the comments below!