6 Bad Spa Experiences at Sea

bad spa experiences cruise ship
The 24-Karat Gold Facial may be tempting, but it's best to do your research before making the splurge. - Photo by Thinkstock / targovcom

Cruise ship spas can be relaxing havens where passengers let stress melt away after a hectic day in port, or reconnect with a couples massage. But these spas are also big business, so sometimes it feels like they’re just a little too focused on the bottom line. What does this mean for you? Typically, spas at sea are a mix of the good (most massages and facials, since therapists are generally well-trained in the basics), the potentially bad (Are Botox® injections and dermal fillers really procedures you want done at sea?), and, well, the ugly. Read on for what to avoid when you’re looking to relax: 

1. The Hard Sell

Most spa employees are instructed to turn on the advertising the moment you arrive, telling you about pricey packages and multitreatment “specials” when all you really want is a massage. The upselling really kicks in when the treatment — especially a facial — is finished and your therapist “prescribes” the products she used, suggesting you buy them … if, of course, you want lasting results. Don’t be shocked if they cost more than the treatment.

The Solution: Tell your therapist up front that you will not be buying products and that you prefer to have quiet, at least during your treatment.

2. The “Miracle” Treatment

Haven’t heard of Ionithermie? Neither had we until we got talked into trying it on a Princess Cruises sailing. Princess’ spas are managed by Steiner Leisure Ltd., the largest spa-at-sea operator, in partnership with 18 lines totaling about 150 ships (Canyon Ranch has four deals and a total of about 20 ships). Steiner aggressively promotes its version of Ionithermie, a procedure that uses algae, clay, and electric current to “detoxify” tissue and reduce the appearance of cellulite. It costs about $300 for three sessions. After being told by our perky therapist that we’d lost several inches from our thighs and hips after one session, she persuaded us to buy $1,000 of sea algae oil to use back home. Unfortunately, it didn't improve our cellulite.

The Solution: Don’t attend the free onboard “seminars” about beauty and weight loss because they’re almost always sales pitches for treatments that aren’t guaranteed to produce results.

3. Any Treatment That Requires a Needle 

You would think cruisers would balk at having cosmetic work done at sea. But no, Steiner’s Medi-Spa — available onboard Norwegian Cruise Line, Carnival Cruise Lines, Royal Caribbean International, Holland America Line, and others — offers Botox, dermal fillers, lip enhancements, and wrinkle treatments administered via needle by a “spa physician.” Steiner’s recruitment website says these doctors undergo a three-day training course in Miami on “facial injectables and onboard sales and marketing strategies” and that prior “experience in dermatology or plastic surgery is a plus but is not required.”

The Solution: Seriously? Leave all medical treatment to fully trained MDs at home.

4. The Fool’s Gold Facial 

Who doesn’t love gold? But with its 24-Karat Gold Facial ($325 for 75 minutes on Norwegian, Seabourn Cruise Line, and others), Steiner has pushed the gimmick facial beyond preciousness. Yes, Cleopatra may have slept in a gold mask some 2,000 years ago, but despite some passengers’ urge to splurge on a heavy metal glow, there’s scant scientific proof that treating skin with sheets of gold leaf has aesthetic benefits.

The Solution: Be a smart consumer and research any claims online before booking treatments that sound too good to be true.

5. The Fancy Steam

Sadly, free steam room and sauna access is pretty much a thing of the past at sea, except on older ships that have them in the changing rooms. Instead, we have entered the era of the “thermal suite,” an area of saunas, steam rooms, and hydrotherapy pools accessible only to those who book “spa” category cabins and those willing to pay about $40 for a day pass.

The solution: They’ve got you on this one. Passes are nonrefundable and they can sell out. Our advice: tour the thermal suite on embarkation day. If it’s impressive —some are amazing, with aft-facing Jacuzzis and Thalassotherapy pools that justify the premium — ask about discounted weekly passes and couples’ rates.

6. A Toothy Mistake

Who doesn't want to flash a megawatt smile in their vacation “selfies?” But before you sign up for that onboard tooth-whitening special, consider this: Fast, intense tooth whitening can cause sensitivity and even pain. Plus, you’ll have to forego certain beverages (coffee, tea, cola, and red wine) and foods (blueberries, orange juice, tomato sauce, etc.) for at least three days.

The Solution: See your dentist a week or two before your cruise for a tooth-whitening treatment, or try less-intense over-the-counter options.

Join the discussion

Do you have a spa-at-sea horror story to share?


Posted by badprincess

Do not trust the treatments onboard. The "plastic surgeon" convinced me to have Restylan (just like Juvederm), instead of a facial that I originally wanted. My face blew up for four days & my trip was ruined. After reading these reviews, I have asked the company, Steiner Leisure for a copy of the credentials and License since she stated she was a board certified plastic surgeon. Then they charged me $2000 & added a $300 tip that I did not sign for. It's robbery! Needless to say the company has not sent me the info I asked for. I think I may have to sue. Anyone else who suffered at the hands of this company can join me in this.

Posted by Seigrt2

This article was right on. We just got off a 7 day cruise a few days ago. There were spa specials all week. I almost got the Ionitherime consultation, but when I read that you needed 3 treatments (@ $139 each) I quickly decided against it. It sure would have been nice to lose between 1-8", but even that sounded too good to be true.

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