Cruising has become an increasingly popular and affordable vacation option for many Americans. New, bigger and better cruise ships are being unveiled every year as millions of families and couples around the world seek solace, adventure and entertainment aboard the colossal vessels and various port cities.
If you’re thinking of taking a cruise but are not quite sure where to start, read our cruise tips and tricks to find the best cruise for you. Even if you’re an experienced cruise-goer, there’s plenty of valuable cruise tips and tricks you might not know.
When to book
If you want to visit a popular cruise destination, it’s best to make plans well in advance. For instance, cruises to Alaska, Australia, or along the New England coast are sure to sell out quickly. But with destinations like Europe or the Caribbean, you may be able to find something relatively last-minute. With so many ships sailing to the Bahamas and other islands, finding accommodations will usually be easier.
Generally, if you’re able to snag a last-minute accommodation on a ship, you’ll end up paying less than normal. Cruise lines sometimes need to fill cabins and can offer a generous discount. That being said, if you want to be guaranteed a specific cabin type, it’s important to book early.
Find the cheapest time to go
The early weeks of September after Labor Day usually have cheaper cruise tickets, as does the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Do some research and if you’re able, go during one of these less busy times.
When in doubt, find a travel agent
If you’ve never been on a cruise before, it’s a smart idea to book with a travel agent. They can help you narrow down your choices and make the booking process go as smoothly as possible. They’ll often find special discounts or have exclusive deals with popular cruise lines. And in case something goes wrong, your travel agent will be there to offer assistance. With your mind at ease, you’ll be sure to have a more relaxed trip.
Research themed cruises
There might be a cruise vacation out there aimed specifically at your interests. For example, there are sometimes cruises that hold concerts with famous rock or country bands or solo performers. General ’80s, rock and blues-themed cruises are also common. And of course, beer, wine and culinary cruises are a favorite vacation choice, which often include tastings and meals both on and off ship. Some lines even offer exclusive themed cruises with cast members of popular TV shows, like “Star Trek” or “The Walking Dead”.
Couple or family?
Though there are some singles cruises, these are less common than cruises that cater to couples and families. If you have young children, it’s important to research what the ship’s policies are. Make sure there’s plenty for your kids to do so they don’t get bored. Carnival ships have water parks on board as well as a SkyRide to keep kids entertained. Of course, Disney cruises are also a great option for families. And if you plan on having some alone time away from the kids, make sure there are day care or children’s facilities available. Some lines even offer supervised clubs for teens.
If you’re looking for a romantic getaway with your partner and you’d rather not have toddlers splashing in the pool while you try to relax, choose a cruise that has adult-only spaces onboard.
Go off the beaten path
Some cruise lines, such as Silversea, offer exclusive excursions to meet tribal or indigenous locals and experience faraway cultures and untouched natural environments firsthand.
Other lines, like Fathom, allow you to volunteer and give back to the destinations you visit. Fathom hosts cruises to the Dominican Republic where you can work with the local community to transform the lives of residents. For instance, you can help provide education, take part in reforestation efforts or work to provide clean water access.
Choose your cabin type wisely
Do you get seasick? Then it’s probably best not to get an indoor room, even though it will be cheaper. The view of the sea in a balcony room might help dispel any nausea. If you can’t afford the balcony, switch the TV to the ship’s camera to give the illusion of having a window. Also, remember that cruise cabins aren’t like typical hotel rooms. Mostly everything, from the storage space to the shower, will be on the smaller side. So if you’re claustrophobic, see if you can get a bigger room ahead of time.
Don’t over pack
When taking a cruise vacation, a minimalist approach is best. To save room, only pack clothes and items that are absolutely necessary. A laundry service is usually available onboard in case you run out of clean clothes.
Arrive on time, check in later
Most experts recommend getting to your cruise’s port relatively early. Anything from a storm to traffic on the highway could impact your travel timeline, so it’s important to get to the area well before departure time; even the day before if you want to start your vacation early.
However, it’s not necessarily a good idea to board the ship as soon as you can. You’ll usually be standing in line with throngs of other cruisegoers. As long as you arrive a few hours before the ship leaves, you should be fine.
Eat to your heart’s content
As the price for dinner is included in the ticket sale, most cruise ships allow you to eat multiple entrees, desserts and side dishes in the dining hall. Most cater to dietary restrictions as well. Also, many cruises have free room service, so you can just order what you want and relax in your room.
Try at least one specialty restaurant
Additional restaurants onboard often come with extra costs. But it’s worth it to spend a little extra, since they’re usually helmed by celebrity chefs or offer exquisite fare. Many of these restaurants serve luxury food at lower prices than you would find on land.
Cruise tips and drink plans
While some cruise lines include all drinks under a certain price into their beverage packages, most cruise lines charge extra for alcohol and soda. Unlimited soda cards are often available and can save you money in the long run, but for wine, it’s probably better to bring your own (as long as the ship allows it.) Bringing aboard liquor and beer, however, usually isn’t permitted.
Plan excursions ahead of time
Make sure you book your excursions online beforehand, or have a precise itinerary ready if the cruise allows self-guided tours of the port city. If you explore the area on your own or with an off-ship company, make sure you arrive back at the ship well before departure time. Although it’s not common, you definitely don’t want to miss your ship and be stranded in a foreign country.
Then again, you can also just stay on ship and take advantage of the fact that most vacationers will be out and about, allowing you to relax in peace.
Check out a performance
Cruise lines typically offer comedy shows, theater, musical performances, acrobatics … you name it. And since there’s less of a crowd than a normal performance on land, you’re likely to be watching in an intimate setting. Shows are usually included in the price of the cruise, but reservations are required. Royal Caribbean and other lines often show well-known performances like “Mamma Mia” and “Grease.”
Order a romantic surprise
Many cruise lines allow you to buy a bouquet of roses or a gift basket to be placed in your room before you arrive. This small surprise is a nice touch, especially if the trip is celebrating an anniversary or honeymoon.
Cruise tips and tricks for the spa
If you’re in the mood for relaxing at the sauna, see what kind of discounts the cruise line offers. Typically, port days and your first day on the ship will have a discounted price for spa access and treatments. Alternatively, some lines offer spa staterooms and suites, so you can have access to all spa amenities steps from your bed. This can be pricey, but it sometimes costs less than ordering a week-long spa pass.
Treat crew members with respect
It may seem obvious, but it’s important to treat the ship staff kindly. This will make their day a little brighter, and they’ll probably look out for you in return. It’s a good idea to thank your waiter or room steward and make their job easier by being tidy. You’ll be happier if the staff around you is happier.
And don’t forget to tip! Many of the crew members depend on tips to supplement their basic wages. Crew members typically have long work days (10 hours or more) and may come in contact with hundreds of customers per day, so it’s good to keep this in mind.
River cruising tips and tricks
River cruises can be a charming way to see what a city has to offer. According to AAA spokesperson Julie Hall, only “14 percent of Americans have enjoyed a river cruise, but approximately four in 10 would consider river cruising for an upcoming vacation. Following this trend, AAA’s river cruise bookings have increased more than 16 percent in just the last year.”
The Danube River flows through nine countries in Europe and is a beautiful setting for a cruise. Other international destinations include the Amazon River in South America and the Yangtze River in China. Or, you can always stay local and take a cruise down the Mississippi.
What cruise vacations have you taken? Tell us in the comments below!