What does the day after Thanksgiving mean to you? Is it "Black Friday," the recently traditional (since the mid-1970s) day on which Americans head to the mall and spend themselves into a post-tryptophan tizzy? Or is it Buy Nothing Day, the only slightly less traditional (since 1992) day of international, if relatively niche, protest against overconsumption?
I fall more on the "buy nothing" side of the debate. Not that I have anything against getting good deals on stuff I need, but I do have something against (a) getting up early, (b) crowds, and (c) traffic, so why put myself through it? I'd much rather stay home, nurse my carbohydrate hangover, enjoy the late fall colors, and just generally chill out. Still, you can't deny the pop-culture heft of Black Friday, on which day thousands of people will hit the stores at 4am, grande coffee in hand and mission in their eyes.
Even cruise ships are not immune from the shopping frenzy. Given the amount of square-footage dedicated to retail aboard cruise ships these days, here are some things to keep in mind when shopping on ships -- no matter the time of year. After all, there are some ships that deliver the goods better than others.
The Shopping Scoop
Over the past decade, the onboard shopping vibe has shifted tectonically. The setup has moved from a point where most ships had little more than sundries boutiques and duty-free shops to a point where some have as many as 10 or more stores selling everything from pretzels to high-end china.
Shopping is big business on cruise ships, and the bigger or more high-end the ship, the bigger the business. Since shops are only open while ships are at sea, all merchandise sold on board is duty-free -- but don't think that automatically means you're getting a deal. In fact, you'll almost always find that prices are higher than you can find them elsewhere. Luckily, technology now lets you comparison shop before you buy: Just head to the ship's Internet center and check the prices online -- or whip out your smartphone and do a price check right from the ship's shop (if your ship is equipped with wireless Internet access).
Generally speaking, cruise lines don't operate the onboard shops themselves, instead contracting with a concessionaire who stocks, mans, and manages them. If you buy something on board and later have a problem with it, you'll have to deal with the concessionaire rather than the cruise line.
Onboard Shopping Standouts
Some ships do better on the shopping front than others. Given that one man's junk is another's treasured keepsake, don't consider this a "best ships for shopping" list. Let's just say these ships are standouts when it comes to onboard shopping.
- Celebrity's Solstice Class (Solstice, Equinox, Eclipse, Silhouette): Celebrity's Solstice-class ships offer the best and most varied shopping at sea. More than a dozen shops offering principally high-end fashion goods are spread across three decks, totaling 6,500 square feet of space. The newest of the sister-ships, Celebrity Silhouette, added the first Bulgari shop at sea, vending the company's portfolio jewelry, watches, sunglasses, and accessories. The Michael Kors shop (the first at sea for the U.S. designer) offers handbags, watches, jewelry, small leather goods, sunglasses, and sandals. Other shops offer a range of upscale products from brands like Mad Bags, Soybu, Eileen Fisher, and Mar Y Sol, some of which employ eco-friendly materials. For techies, Celebrity Eclipse and Celebrity Silhouette offer the Celebrity iLounge, the only authorized Apple retail stores at sea, selling laptops, iPods, and other gizmos.
- Cunard's Queen Mary 2, Queen Victoria, and Queen Elizabeth: Shopping aboard Cunard's three queens maintains a distinctly British flavor. Aboard all three, passengers can shop for goods from London's famed Harrods department store. You can also browse and buy books on maritime history and various Cunard memorabilia at the bookstore. Queen Victoria's Cunardia Museum Shop features items like Waterford Crystal decanters, Swarovski paperweights, and crystal ship models by Crystal Galleria. Queen Elizabeth stocks teas, preserves, biscuits, and gifts from Fortnum & Mason, hand-woven Scottish woollens from Harris Tweed, and classic menswear from Hackett of London. Aboard both Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth, shops are in the Royal Arcade, a two-deck space designed after a traditional Victorian shopping arcade. You'll find wrought-iron-style detailing and old-fashioned freestanding "street" clocks by Dent & Co., who made Big Ben once upon a time. Royal Caribbean's Oasis and Allure of the Seas: The biggest passenger ships at sea also have one of the biggest retail selections at sea, with Oasis hosting a Coach handbag and accessories boutique, several other fashion outlets, and an art store at sea, where passengers can buy prints and other edition works by artists represented in the ship's collection. Allure went for a single big name for all the works at its art store (pop artist Romero Britto). There's also a Guess boutique stocking handbags, shoes, jewelry, perfume, watches, and accessories. The "most fun shop" award on Oasis and Allure goes to the "Pets at Sea," shop, where kids can create their own stuffed animals. My son still has his "Heidi the Tiger," complete with little Oasis of the Seas T-shirt.
- Disney's Dream, Magic, and Wonder: In terms of breadth, Disney's ships don't rank against the competition, but they're not trying to. Instead, Disney's ships sell one thing -- Disney -- and for most folks on board, that's all they need to do. You can get plush animals, books, clothing, toys, mugs, and hats. There is also a huge selection of those enamel Disney pins that are so freakishly popular that the ships hold regular pin-trading sessions on board. I'm no Disneyphile, but last year my two-year-old son was so taken by the characters on board that I got bit by the retail bug and had to stop myself from buying him every Mickey, Donald, and Goofy doll in the place.