Cruise Expert Gene Sloan Talks Travel
Heidi & Ted reached out to e-chat with writer Gene Sloan, who was the cruise editor at USA TODAY for more than a decade until he recently left the newspaper.
QuirkyCruise: Briefly tell us about your career at USA Today.
Gene Sloan: My wife and I joke it was the longest internship in the history of journalism. I first walked in the door at USA TODAY’s Virginia headquarters in 1990, the day after I turned 21, for what was supposed to be just a three-month stint. But I stayed for nearly 29 years.
I spent the first few years writing about a broad range of topics including food, entertainment and travel as a reporter in the Life section before joining the small team — two writers and an editor — that co-founded USA TODAY’s first travel section.
Over the next decade, as it grew, I served as one of the paper’s main destination writers, traveling the world for stories. I also edited the section for a time. It was 2008 when I split off to found USA TODAY’s online cruise area and focus on cruising and the cruise industry full time.
QuirkyCruise: How many cruises have you been on, of any size?
Gene Sloan: I recently counted it up, and including river ships, I’ve been on 132 distinct vessels operated by 38 lines. I’ve sailed on some of them multiple times, so figure at least 150 separate cruises.
QuirkyCruise: And how many of our favorite “quirky” small ones under 300 passengers?
Gene Sloan: Counting river ships, about three dozen.
QuirkyCruise: How many countries have you visited?
Gene Sloan: At last count, 85. I’m hoping to add a few more this year.
QuirkyCruise: Have you counted ports? If not, can you guess?
Gene Sloan: That’s a number I’ve never tried to figure, but it must be a few hundred if we’re counting river destinations. It depends what you count as a “port.” I’ve done some really out-there “expedition” cruises in places like the Arctic where the stops included remote research stations, abandoned explorer huts and the like, all reached by Zodiac. Not sure if those would count as port calls!
QuirkyCruise: At USA TODAY, how did you choose the ships you wrote about? Did you have a choice of ship and/or destination? How much was personal choice vs. advertising based? Was your mandate mostly to cover big ships?
Gene Sloan: My bosses at USA TODAY gave me a huge amount of leeway in deciding what to cover as long as it resonated with readers. They were wonderful in that regard. I pretty much set my own agenda.
My philosophy always was to expose readers to the broadest possible view of the cruise world with coverage of everything from the biggest mega-ships to the tiniest vessels, sailing ships, river ships, expedition ships — even ferries.
At any broad cruise site such as the one I ran at USA TODAY, a large percentage of the traffic comes from stories about the big, mass-market ships operated by the big, mass-market cruise brands. That’s what most people are searching for on the Internet. This leads some sites to only write about these ships. But I think that’s a disservice to readers.
QuirkyCruise: How do you feel about big vs small? When does size matter in your opinion?
Gene Sloan: When I’m traveling for myself, I always prefer a small ship – the smaller the better. To me, the travel experience is always richer and deeper when you’re in a small group. Small ships are more intimate, and they can get you more off-the-beaten-path.
But I also know there are many, many people who feel strongly that big ships are the way to go, and I understand the appeal. Big ships offer a lot more options for activities, dining, entertainment, nightlife. They’re often a lot less expensive on a per-day basis. You get a lot for the money.
I do think there are certain destinations where going small makes a huge difference. Southeast Alaska, for instance, is a destination where I think you just get a much, much better sense of the place on a small ship. And by small, I mean a vessel that carries fewer than 100 passengers.
I’m a big fan of UnCruise’s super-small vessels in Alaska, which can get you deep into the wilderness of the region far from the tourist hordes in Juneau and Ketchikan. They carry Zodiacs and kayaks for exploring. They’re not the newest or snazziest ships, but that’s not what matters in a destination like that.
QuirkyCruise: What are your favorite 3 small ship cruises and why?
Gene Sloan: The most memorable small-ship cruises I’ve taken all have been in polar regions. But this probably has more to do with my own personal quirks than whether they really are the best small-ship experiences. I love the sense of being far, far away from civilization that you get on a trip to the Arctic or Antarctica. I love the emptiness of it all. I’m also fascinated by the history of exploration, which is a big part of the story of the polar regions.
My Top 3 list surely would include a voyage I did through the Northwest Passage a few years ago with Adventure Canada where we followed in the wake of the lost Franklin Expedition and Roald Amundsen. Last year I traversed the lesser-visited Northeast Passage on Hapag-Lloyd Cruises’ 155-passenger Bremen. The latter only was the fourth cruise across that waterway by a vessel that wasn’t a Russian icebreaker.
In both passages, we traveled through areas that many vacationers would consider bleak. Some passengers on my Northeast Passage trip, in particular, were disappointed they didn’t see more majestic landscapes and wildlife. But to me, it was just being there, a place so rarely seen and so far from the rest of the world, that was the allure.
QuirkyCruise: Where does taking a cruise (small ship or otherwise) make the best sense vs. air and land travel? Beyond Antarctica and Galapagos.
Gene Sloan: Other than Antarctica and Galapagos, Southeast Alaska is probably the poster child for a place where cruising is the way to go. Given that there aren’t even roads connecting many of the towns, you really can’t do it any other way if you want to be moving around.
I’d also put the coast of Croatia near the top of the list — in that case, definitely on a small ship. A small ship can get you to the coastal islands of Hvar and Korcula as well as Split and Dubrovnik all in one easy trip where you only have to unpack once.
All of the big destinations in the Arctic — the Northwest Passage, Spitzbergen, Franz Josef Land, etc. — also are best done by ship in my opinion.
QuirkyCruise: Where do you see the cruise biz going?
Gene Sloan: The boom right now is in expedition cruising, and I think that’s going to continue to be one of the biggest stories in cruising for several years. It used to be mostly the realm of small, niche companies with aging but functional vessels. Now major brands such as Crystal and Seabourn are getting into it in a big way with new and much more upscale, state-of-the-art ships. Ponant and Silversea are expanding rapidly in the space. Ditto Hapag-Lloyd Cruises and Hurtigruten.
It taps into changing trends. I do worry that some of the great little companies that have dominated this niche until now may struggle as these well-financed players come in.
Meanwhile, on the big-ship side of things, ships will continue getting bigger, on average. We may not see vessels significantly bigger than Symphony of the Seas — the new world’s largest cruise ship — but big-ship lines such as Carnival, MSC Cruises and P&O Cruises have vessels on order that are significantly bigger than anything in their current fleets, and I think we’ll see more such orders.
QuirkyCruise: What do you think of river cruise travel?
Gene Sloan: I’m a big fan. It’s a great way to get into the interior of a region with the same “you only unpack once” convenience of ocean cruising. You get a taste of a place in a way that is easy. Someone else figures everything out for you and your hotel room moves with you. That said, not all destinations where there are river cruises are best seen by river — at least not initially.
That’s the case for sure in Italy, and I’d say even in France. Cruising down the Seine or Rhone are wonderful experiences, but I think a first trip to France should be a land trip that focuses heavily on Paris. There’s just so much there. Then make the Seine or Rhone cruise your second or third trip to France.
QuirkyCruise: Do you have a favorite river?
Gene Sloan: The Rhine. There’s a reason it’s one of the most popular rivers for river cruising. It was one of the great thoroughfares of Europe going back to Roman times, and it’s thus rich with history. It offers cute little medieval towns, historic cities such as Cologne and scenery that includes the castle-lined Rhine Gorge.
It’s also a major working river, which is fascinating to see and get to understand. I love watching the bustle of long, sleek cargo ships working their way between the interior of Europe and its northern ports.
A piece of advice I have for would-be Rhine cruisers is to book one of the longer trips that includes a detour into the Moselle River. The Moselle is absolutely lovely and should not be missed.
QuirkyCruise: What river(s) do you have on your wish list?
Gene Sloan: I’ve done most of the major ones at least once and some many times. But two that I am conspicuously missing are the Volga in Russia and the Dnieper in Ukraine. Those are No. 1 and No. 2 on my river cruise agenda right now.
QuirkyCruise: Has the huge increase in the popularity of river cruises, especially in Europe, created scenes similar to Barcelona, for instance, drowning in too many ships on many summer days?
Gene Sloan: It’s a problem in some of the smaller towns, like Rudesheim on the Rhine. They really can get jammed with river cruisers on busy summer days. But it doesn’t bother me as much as some people. Even in a place like Rudesheim, you can get away from the crowds. You’ll find huge lines there for the cable car ride up to the Germania monument, for instance, but you can skip the lines — and have a wonderful adventure mostly removed from other visitors — by heading to the monument on foot. It’s a modest hike uphill on a trail through beautiful vineyards. You’re literally walking between the rows of vines. Plus, you’ll save the 8 euro cost of the cable car. The last time I walked it I only ran into one other person.
QuirkyCruise: What do you think of expedition ships in general?
Gene Sloan: They’ve become my favorite way to cruise. They get you places that you can’t reach on more traditional ships, for starters. But I also like the way that, in most cases, the entire experience is integrated. One of my criticisms of traditional ocean cruising over the years has been that it’s common for even relatively high-end lines to sort of just dump passengers in destinations without any guidance. In addition to transportation between ports, the traditional cruise fare often includes the “hotel” experience of lodging and dining on board but not the touring experience.
If you want to actually see or do anything in the places the ship goes, you either have to plan it yourself or buy an expensive tour from the line. The expedition cruising model is that the touring portion of the trip is fully wrapped into the hotel and transportation experience. Your fare includes the line putting you up in a room, feeding you, getting you between places and then showing you the places.
This is what people want, even if they don’t know it. It’s one reason Viking’s new ocean cruises, which include a tour in every port, have been so popular. It’s also a big part of the allure of river cruising, where included touring and significant guidance on what to do in port are more traditional.
QuirkyCruise: When (if any) is a trip billed an expedition when it really doesn’t cut it?
Gene Sloan: At one level, none of the growing number of “expedition” ships are going on expeditions in the true sense of the word. If you’re going on one of these trips, you won’t be Ernest Shackleton striking out into unknown parts of Antarctica, your end destination and even survival in doubt. But that’s reading things too literally.
In the cruise world, expedition cruising has come to mean a certain type of voyage that is going to be about adventure and involve visiting an off-the-beaten-path place that would be hard for a traditional ship to reach, usually involving landings by Zodiac boats, often with the exact itinerary unknown and dependent on weather or even wildlife movements.
I do think that under that sort of definition, an expedition cruise really is something that only can be done on a very small vessel. As the niche booms, we’re seeing lines announce plans for bigger expedition ships that carry more people, and I’m not sure that’s a good trend.
Hapag-Lloyd’s new expedition ships, for instance, will carry 230 passengers vs. 155 for its just-retired Bremen. It doesn’t seem like a big difference, but getting 230 people loaded into Zodiacs and off to a landing isn’t nearly as easy as handling 155.
QuirkyCruise: Is the focus on the destination being subverted by most new expedition ships being billed as very luxurious — suites, spas, multiple restaurants, helicopter and submersible rides — and geared to only the super wealthy?
Gene Sloan: Yes and no. Definitely a lot of the marketing around some of these new expedition ships, such as the soon-to-debut Scenic Eclipse, is around their luxurious amenities from super-suites to submarines. The vessels surely are a lot swankier than expedition ships of old and not exactly affordable. But expedition cruising always has been expensive and mostly the domain of the wealthy.
What’s happening here is the vessels finally are catching up with the clientele. It’s not uncommon for an Antarctica cruise to cost $1,000 per person, per day, and until recently that was for a trip that was on a vessel that might have been 30 years old and a bit run-down. People put up with the older ships to get the experience.
QuirkyCruise: What travel (of any kind) are you pining for, whether you’d get an assignment to write about it or not?
Gene Sloan: I am very eager to explore the “stans” — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, etc. I got my first taste last year during a trip to Mongolia where I spent a couple days with Kazakh eagle hunters along the Kazakhstan border. I found them fascinating people. Like the polar regions, it felt so far from the world that I know. It’s hard to find an excuse to go to the stans, though, when you write about cruising.
QuirkyCruise: Can you share a favorite story or anecdote relating to a small-ship cruise?
Gene Sloan: The first thing that pops into my mind is actually a bit of a disaster, but one with a positive takeaway. I was on the first sailing of Silversea’s Silver Cloud in 2017 after it got a major makeover to turn it into an expedition ship. Silver Cloud originally was built for 290 passengers, but the overhaul cut its capacity to 254, and it’ll only sail with 200 passengers when visiting Antarctica. That’s where we were going on this first cruise.
We started in Buenos Aires, which was great, but about an hour out of our second stop, Puerto Madryn, we heard a big noise and the ship went dead in the water, the engines down. After drifting for a couple hours, they did get an engine back up, and we made it back to port. But, alas, the trip was over. The damage was too great to quickly repair. What a mess, right?
It surely was a disappointment for everybody on board. But I am here to tell you that Silversea’s response to the situation was everything you would have hoped for and more. Everyone got full refunds for the trip. That was a given. A voucher for a future cruise, too.
But what really impressed was how the staff scrambled to arrange wonderful and surely not-inexpensive whale-watching outings for every passenger on the ship within hours of returning to Puerto Madryn. Then while we were out catching a rare glimpse of the southern right whale, they feverishly worked the phones to figure out how to get us home, a not-uncomplicated task involving the booking of multiple flights and hotel stays for nearly 200 people with less than a day’s notice.
Upon our return, the staff was out and about around the ship answering passenger questions and generally trying to make things as right as they could until it was time to depart. It was not a great situation, for sure, but the way they handled it was so superb that I came away with an even greater respect for the line than I had before.
QuirkyCruise: Finally, what’s next for you in your career?
Gene Sloan: I’ve started my own content creation company to provide cruise-related content to multiple publications. At least, that’s the plan. Let’s call it a three-month internship. We’ll see if it turns into 29 years. Gene can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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