The Dude Ranchers Association recently received an information request from a tenured cruise ship traveler. She was considering a family trip to a dude ranch but was concerned about the higher costs of a ranch vacation as compared to the lesser expense of a cruise ship option. She detailed her family expenses for her last cruise and then asked for insights and solid information as to why she should consider spending more money for the dude ranch vacation.

With a position as a 24 year veteran dude ranch owner and past cruise ship traveler, allow me to offer some personal insights (probably biased admittedly!) and comparisons of the experiences.

1. Size Matters! The average cruise ship capacity is about 3000 guests and larger ships carry over 6000 guests. The proposed New Freedom Cruise Ship will Hold 50,000 Passengers and be over one mile long! Vacations in floating cities verses those at remote small venue wilderness locations are going to be vastly different experiences. A typical dude ranch is going to have a capacity of 30-50 guests with larger ranches capping at about 150 guests. Traveling with the cruise ship masses will enable the decreased costs associated with the economy of scale, but you will be a number lost in, and at best managed in the masses of cruise ship humanity.

2. Dude Ranching is Experiential Travel. Experiential travel contrasts to more passive observational tourism. New and exciting participatory adventures, located in pristine outdoor settings are the theme to dude ranch vacations. Wilderness trail rides, white water rafting, shooting sports, cattle drives, fly fishing, and most other dude ranch events require a direct and personal involvement. These adventures cannot be fully appreciated with a passive observation of the event. Dude ranching exposes travelers to new experiences that are impossible to appreciate without active and personal levels of involvement.

A majority of time cruising is spent at sea. Time at sea limits guests to the ship based activity offerings. A cruise ship can provide swimming pools, saunas, movie theaters, casinos, bowling alleys, discos, fine dining and more “fun” events. While these cruise activities are fun, most of these activities tend to be less participatory and readily available at or near the urban based home sites that travelers often hope to escape from. Ports of call can offer a brief introduction into foreign culture or landscapes, but the shorter time constraints of the ports of call limits most cruise ship travelers to the touristy developed and more accessible attractions nearest the ports.

3. Authentic small venue travel verses commercialized corporate experiences. The Personal touch is evident in the small venue of dude ranching. The week spent at a dude ranch will likely give you close relationships with other visiting guests, with ranch owners and with ranch management / staff. Your diet, schedule of activities, and personal circumstance can be more easily tailored to fit your individual needs in a guest population of 30 verses 3000. How well did you get to know the owners of the last cruise ship you were on? You will likely become intimately connected to the owners and management of a family run, small venue dude ranch as you bask in their personal offerings of hospitality.

4. Safety First! Travel in today’s unstable world often carries fears and anxieties related to safety. Frankly, a large high profile target is a more difficult thing to secure and protect than a small remote location that is off the radar. Hijackings, cruise ship guest disappearances, cruise illnesses, and even a ship sinking has made the headlines in recent years. Pandemic illnesses have also detoured cruise lines to the nearest ports capable of handling large scale illnesses erupting in cruise populations. Risk is inherent in any adventure sport, but the management of risk in a small controlled setting is a far easier task than monitoring security cameras, security officers, sanitation and the subtleties of high profile large populations. The larger the ship is, the more visible the dark side of cruising can become.

5. Get Edified! A common theme to the dude ranch experience is the large number of “first time” life experiences and learning opportunities afforded at the ranch. A recent guest family at Marble Mountain Ranch proudly listed over 120 “firsts”.  These new experiences for their family came during the course of a 5 night / 6 day program at the ranch. This again touches on the point of experiential travel verses luxury or observational travel. A ranch provides numerous opportunities to see and TO DO new things on an intimate and personal level.

6. Bond Through Shared Adventures. Families and groups have divergent interests and capacities in the population of the family group. When families travel together, these differing interest can be a force to separate the group into divergent activity schedules on a cruise. This can become a point of conflict if parents attempt to keep the family together and there is not sufficient buy-in for the group to travel together as a whole. The teenagers want to go to the disco, the younger teens want the movie theater, Mom and Dad hope to hit the casino and cocktail bar while grandma wants to play bingo. This is great for satisfying diverse interests of a heterogeneous group, but it does little to enable inter-familial bonding. The modern family is already divided by lack of time spent together in fast paced urban lifestyles and the cruse ship schedule, while enticing, can just continue the trend to separate groups into smaller family cliques.

By Contrast, dude ranching by nature tends to place generational groups together for bonding in shared participatory events and activities. Whole families, and cross generational groups can ride together, raft together, dine and dance together, and spend more secluded time in a setting with fewer divergent distractions.  Follow-up confirmations of the activity bonding are easily done at communal family meals and at quiet sharing moments enabled by the ranch setting.

7. Disconnect From Technology. A key feature to the remote ranch settings is the often limited or fully absent cell phone coverage and internet access. Many families are choosing dude ranches over other travel options such as cruises specifically to engineer a time period when technological intrusions can be removed as influences in the family event. A week without cell phone communications and social media might be a scary thought for some of the technology addicted members of a family. However, for the sake of direct communications in the travel group and quality family time, the removal of these distractions for a period can be a powerful force in considering a dude ranch vacation.

8. Decompress For Inner Happiness. The Danish people are known for being one of the happiest people on earth and Hawaii is known to be consistently the happiest state in the USA. A common thread to the Danes and the Hawaiians is a cultural tradition of spending regular time to personally decompress. The Danes call this hygge and it’s best translation might be “coziness of the soul”. Common threads to hygge that can be found at a family dude ranch include relaxation, moments of solitude, comfort, indulgence and togetherness with loved ones. The campfire under a starry sky, with a cup of chocolate while the young-uns roast s-mores might be the perfect cowboy version of hygge. Decompressing in a cozy atmosphere is spontaneous and easy in a remote setting surrounded by the magnificent grandeur of nature. I would suggest that cozy settings for decompression with a loved one would be more challenging in a group size of 6000 guests on a cruise ship.

9. Time is of the essence. A dude ranch vacation in prime season is typically 3 – 7 days in duration. By design, this is lengthy enough for most visitors to fully immerse in the culture and landscape of a western dude ranch. The effect of the small group setting, technology disconnect, the hands-on participation in western adventures, the indulgence into upscale cuisine and legend western hospitality all has an additive effect when experienced over a sufficient period of time. The mantra of departing dude ranch guests is “I don’t want to go home!” My experience with the cruise industry was positive in general, but my approaching termination to the cruise was viewed by me with an increasing sentiment and desire to return home. Hurried ports of call, corporate feeling tourism and a loss of identity accompanying larger group settings are a few aspects of the cruise that were for me less desirable.

In summary, the aforementioned cruise ship traveler is focused primarily on and concerned with the cost differences between dude ranching and cruising. There is no argument against the contrast in cost except to say that the experiences are entirely different and the costs reflect the market value of producing the differing services. We all know the cliché about getting what we pay for. In the case of dude ranching, I suggest that we get more than what we pay for. Dude ranchers invest in life altering experiences, in engineered family bonding moments, and in healing of the soul. Dude ranchers invest in heritage, hospitality, horses, and the human condition.

Doug Cole