Modern-day cruises are idealized as activity-rich fun parks on water — with a balance of high-end dining, world-class entertainment, and luxe amenities. They’re not always fun, though; massive, complicated ships, seasickness, and poor preparation can make cruises a massive bummer. But you can avoid that; to help ensure your cruise adventure is top-notch, we’ve assembled these 15 must-know cruise tips.
1: Check cruise line safety and cleanliness reputation
Before you book that bucket list vacation, be sure you research the cruise lines that top your list. Most of the big names are scrupulous about keeping their ships clean and their staff focused on safety. That said, lines like Carnival have endured some rough media attention of late following reckless accidents. To help you with your research, we recommend checking out the CDC’s inspection reports and the U.S. Department of Transportation Cruise Line Incident Reports.
2: Check the ship map before boarding
Cruise ships are massive — overwhelming, even. As a frame of reference, the longest cruise ships on the water could fit more than five Boeing 767-400s lengthwise if put nose to nose. They’re also about half as tall as the Statue of Liberty. In short: Study the layout of your ship before boarding so you’re not overwhelmed. Knowledge of where your cabin is in relation to other key stops onboard will ensure you’re not disoriented the first couple of days. Our recommendation: Create landmarks visible from the exterior of the ship that you can use to help guide onboard navigation.
3: Find the on-board medical facility
Even if you’re not one to get sick easily, make sure you know where the ship’s medical facilities are located (usually on the lower deck). Pair its location with an onboard landmark (as noted in number 2) so you can easily find it if the worst happens and you need some medical TLC during your voyage.
4: If you’re prone to seasickness, get a room toward the center of the ship
You might ask: Why would someone prone to seasickness go on a cruise? Because your BFF asked you to, or the family is going, or it’s where your cousin is getting married — a million odd reasons. If you’re one of those burdened with seasickness, try to book a room towards the center of the ship where you won’t have views of undulating water or experience the rocking of the ship quite as much. Then, imagine you’re in a hotel room in Vegas.
5: Know your ports
While some choose to cruise solely for the onboard activities, others are keen on spending time at ports of call. If you’re one of the latter, make sure you research the ports in depth so you know the general layout, what you might like to do while on land, and how you should navigate the area to make the most of your time off ship. Keep in mind: You only have a limited amount of time onshore, so plan your land-bound adventures with ship-prescribed time limits in mind. Also, study the terrain and the weather so you can dress and pack accordingly.
6: Pack sunscreen
Speaking of on-land treks, pack effective sunscreen. Yes, you may plan on spending most of your time indoors, but that doesn’t mean you won’t be shuffling between activities on deck. Play it safe and make it a habit to lather up each day with several applications throughout the day. Trust us; you’ll be happy you did and far less blisteringly orange.
7: Buy some water-proof shoes (and pack some extra clothes)
A big part of almost any cruise is the onboard water park/pool experience. You may not be interested in this part of the adventure, but many onboard will be — and will likely splash you here and there as you pass by the pool or water park facilities. Pack a few extra pairs of clothes in case you get drenched by accident and need to change. More importantly, wear water-proof shoes. Don’t be foolish and tool around on deck in leather loafers. You’ll regret it.
8: Pack a lightweight bag for on-land excursions
It’s a good idea to have some kind of a lightweight bag to carry with you wherever you go on the ship, but it’s even more important if you explore ports of call. You don’t need to take everything with you, but make sure you pack a collapsible bag that can easily be slung on your back with a handful of necessities (including your ID and additional sunscreen).
9: Look for a “bring your own booze” policy to save money
Part of the allure of cruises is their “all-inclusive” pricing model. The truth is, however, they’re not all inclusive — alcohol usually costs extra and it’s not cheap. To help offset the cost of onboard imbibing, check the cruise line fine print to see if you can bring a few bottles of your favorite vino or spirit on the ship. Some lines will let you — with limitations.
10: Make sure you don’t need to make dining reservations
As part of the all-inclusive magic of cruises, much of the dining is paid for and you can feast almost any time you’d like. That’s largely made possibly by large buffets that are restocked constantly. However, many cruise lines have higher-end restaurants with table service that require a reservation (and an upcharge). Before you wander in and start ordering, check the cruise line’s website to see what the specialty restaurants are, what the upcharge for dining there might be, and whether or not you need to make reservations in advance.
11: Visit buffets on off hours to avoid crowds
While buffets seem like a culinary playground at first blush, they can quickly become a zoo of hungry travelers come mealtime, each one vying for the last cut of roast beef or piece of chocolate cake. Not only does this competition put diners on edge, it means that the dining room will be noisier than all heck. To avoid this mayhem, check the hours for the dining room and go during non-peak hours. Pack some snacks if you get hungry waiting for this window so you don’t become hangry. Nobody wants that.
12: Bring cash for tips
All-inclusive? Yes. But it’s still good form to tip. While ships often have ATMs here and there, fees are hefty. Avoid this unnecessary cost by packing cash in smaller denominations. You can use it if you dine at higher-end restaurants, spend a lot of time at the bar, or like how the service staff dolled up your towels into swans. Be judicious about your tipping, but give where it’s warranted; you’ll find the staff is eminently grateful and might even give you better service.
13: Explore your cabin
Let’s face it: Most cabins on board cruise ships are small. And that’s generally fine, because most cruisers spend the majority of their time elsewhere on the ship or absorbed in on-land excursions. But you do want to make the most of your home base — especially the storage. While spots for stowing your luggage are limited, ship builders have gone the extra mile to make every inch of available space usable. So, be sure you scour your cabin for extra drawers, cabinets, and closets you can use for storing what you bring on board. Just be sure you do a full sweep before disembarking to ensure you don’t leave anything behind.
14: Understand cruise attire
Not all activities on board a cruise are created equal. Some can be enjoyed in cruise casual attire (read: slacks, khakis, and casual dresses — no cut-offs) while others demand cruise elegant attire (read: dress shirts and pants with a sports coat, cocktail dresses, and gowns). If you’re not sure what a given activity demands, check with a staff member on board and they will be able to tell you.
15: Stay offline
Here’s a fun fact: WiFi on a cruise ship can cost 75 cents per minute. That’s $45 for one hour of connectivity — and it’s not even the speedy kind you enjoy on land. Why? Well, all of the WiFi access on a ship comes through a satellite, which is a bit slower to deliver bits and bytes. Instead of contending with slow load times and a steep bill, just plan to be off the grid for your cruise. You’ll find your vacation is far more enjoyable when you’re not checking your phone every 15 seconds.
Have more cruise tips from your own experience? Email them to us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll add them to the story (at our discretion, of course).