Some 30 million people board cruise ships every year to hit the high seas in style. If you’re thinking about becoming one of them, first, congratulations, and second, there are a few things you should know. But not just from us. Here are 21 cruise tips and tricks from insiders to help you have the best sailing of your life.
Related: 11 Luxury Cruise Lines That Offer Stunning Suites, Fine Dining, and Exceptional Itineraries
Understand what’s included and what’s not before you step aboard.
“Make sure you know what’s included before you board your cruise, so you’re totally clear on what you’ve paid for in advance and what you haven’t. It may make sense to purchase an all-inclusive beverage package ahead of your sailing — which means less to think about once on board and potential savings depending on how much you imbibe. Windstar, for example, books cruises with rates for cruise-only options or at all-inclusive rates with unlimited beer, wine, cocktails, Wi-Fi, and gratuities. Make the decision that fits your circumstances the best when you’re booking, and simply enjoy once you’re on board.”
— Chris Dodds, captain on the Star Breeze from Windstar Cruises
Get the lay of the land ASAP.
“When you arrive on the ship, take time to explore each deck so that you know exactly where everything is so that you do not lose time or arrive late to an activity because you got lost. Review the schedules to see when you may be able to avoid lines for certain activities on board. If there are games such as bingo, reviewing the schedule also helps to ensure that you have the right amount of cash for the activity.”
— Dr. Terika Haynes, owner, Dynamite Travel
For the best en-suite views, book a room at the back of the ship.
“Although our ships offer many amazing views, especially in the comfort of your suite, I personally love the decks located on the back of the ship. Not only are they nice and quiet, but they offer wonderful sweeping views of the ocean or port. Often whales, seals, and dolphins can be spotted at the back of the ship, and a must-see for photographers is the amazing sunsets and sunrises you can catch from this area.”
— Kelly Cochrane, executive chef, Regent Seven Seas Cruises
For the best sunsets, head to the observation deck.
“There are a lot of places you can enjoy the views onboard, but my favorite is the observation deck. Quiet and secluded, the observation deck is a wonderful place for a spectacular view.”
— Allan Ortiz, head sommelier, Regent Seven Seas Cruises
Explore all your shore excursion options.
“Just because your cruise ship offers a shore excursion doesn’t mean you need to book the shore excursion with the cruise. I recommend working instead with an experienced travel advisor for your shore excursions in order to make your experience as immersive, private, and unique as possible.”
— Andrea Galvez, director and expedition cruise expert, Craft Travel Group
Don’t overlook night time excursions.
“Some cities are great for soaking up the sun, while others come to life at night – and some have special experiences to offer at every time of day. Do some research ahead of your voyage to find out what can’t be missed, and take advantage of all the time you have in port, especially during a late night or an overnight.”
— Andrea Baigorria, global head of PR and communications, Azamara
And pay close attention to the listed physical activity levels for excursions.
“Pay attention to the described physical activity levels when booking excursions. Many people don’t anticipate (or perhaps don’t believe it) when a Windstar excursion is marked as ‘strenuous,’ we actually mean it. Many of our guests are active travelers seeking a workout and will gleefully power up a hill on a mountain bike or paddle for hours. But if you’re a traveler who is not seeking physical exertion like that on your outing, stick to the easy, easy to moderate, or moderate levels to ensure maximum enjoyment.”
— Chris Dodds
Don’t overpack — take advantage of laundry service instead.
“My best packing tip for long trips at sea is to take advantage of the laundry services onboard. Additionally, I recommend limiting the amount of clothes you bring and packing smart. For example, windbreakers are handy in all climates and comfortable clothes for lounging around the suite and enjoying room service are a must.”
– Kelly Cochrane
And make sure to pack important items in your carry-on luggage.
“A lot of travelers overstuff their checked bags and don’t give enough care to what they’re carrying in their carry-ons. Keep in mind that it takes at least several hours to deliver your baggage to you. Based on the number of workers onboard and your cabin’s position, the time it takes to receive your baggage can range from a few hours to half a day. Due to this, it’s imperative to have a day pack that contains everything you’ll need right away. Also, don’t forget to pack some fun items. Fill a compact carry-on with essentials you’ll need quick access to, such as prescribed medicine, contact solution, a set of clothes, swimwear, lotion, sunglasses, and footwear.”
— Sean Harris, managing editor, Family Destinations Guide
Don’t limit your vacation to the sailing dates.
“Be sure to pick destinations that easily allow for extension trips. For instance, if you visit Antarctica, you can easily visit Patagonia in both Argentina and Chile, as their ports also serve as the gateway to Patagonia. Another example is visiting mainland Ecuador in combination with a cruise around the Galapagos Islands. What’s more, some cruises include one night at a hotel before embarking. If the cruise doesn’t include this, I highly recommend one night at a hotel before embarking to err on the side of caution due to flight delays.”
— Andrea Galvez
Share your special moments with the crew ahead of time.
“A great way to make the most of your time at sea, particularly if you’re going to be celebrating a special occasion, is to mention it in advance to your agent/cruise operator. More often than not, you’ll end up with some freebies to make your day extra special, including in-room treats, complimentary upgrades, private picnics, and onboard chefs who are typically happy to show off their creative talents by making a cake.”
— Jeremy Clubb, Founder, Rainforest Cruises
And make sure to get to know the crew, too.
“Get to know your crew members – they are from all over the world, and they’ve been all over the world, so they have some amazing stories to tell. They can clue you into the hidden gems of each destination, such as the best local shopping, restaurants, viewpoints, and more. Some of my favorite moments and discoveries across the globe have come from the recommendation of an Azamara crew member.”
— Carol Cabezas, president, Azamara
Always read the daily itineraries.
“Keep an eye out for the ever-changing activities and food offerings onboard, especially during sea days. On Azamara, you’ll find these in your Insider delivered to your room daily. You never know when you might find me hosting our guests in one of our restaurants or an incredible local performer out on the pool deck.”
— Ryzsard Gusmann, hotel director on Azamara Quest
Let yourself enjoy a full day at sea.
“My tip to make the most of your time aboard — make sure you have at least one day at sea. Cruises are so destination-focused that travelers often overlook those ‘at sea’ days in the itinerary. But, as the saying goes, getting there is half the fun!”
— Carlos Caicedo, Marketing Manager, Luxury Cruise Connections
“You have two options: you can prepay the tips before the cruise and not worry about that. Some people really like to do that, but some people like to tip based on the quality of the service they received. And so, we normally recommend that you tip the crew $20 per person per day, which is divided among all the crew members, and the guides between $10-15 per person per day. Those are tipping guidelines. We like to recommend to guests that they tip when they’re there because really tipping should be a representation of the quality of the service.”
— Fernando Diez, marketing director, Quasar Expeditions,
Have dietary restrictions? Speak directly to the chef.
“On a special diet, or have a food allergy/sensitivity that can make travel difficult? If you haven’t been able to adequately address your needs virtually during the booking or pre-cruise process, ask to speak to the chef once on board to discuss your restrictions or requests. Sometimes just having the conversation in person is enough to put any worries at ease, and it will allow the culinary team every chance possible to make your dining experience the best it can be.”
— Chris Dodds
Book specialty dining as soon as possible.
“Always try to book specialty dining as early as possible. If you wait until you board the ship, the popular restaurants are often sold out or have limited times available. I once waited until the last minute, and the only time available to book the steakhouse was at 5:30 p.m. on embarkation day. That was also the same time the ship was scheduled to sail through the Giudecca Canal in Venice.
— Ben Souza, editor, Cruise Fever
Ask about a chef’s table experience.
“If you love immersive culinary experiences, see if your ship has a chef’s table. This will likely be a three to four-hour tasting menu with an intimate group of eight to 10 guests led by the chef and sommelier. Only a very small portion of the ship’s guests will have the opportunity to take part in these limited events, so book early or inquire with the maître d as soon as you board.”
— Lauren Quirk, owner, Travel With Character
Bring a converter just in case.
“Bring a European travel plug adapter. Most cruise ships are built overseas, and you’ll often find that lots of the outlets both in common areas and even some in staterooms are the European-style plugs. If you’re out and about and want to plug your phone in to charge, an adapter might give you access to many more plugs than other guests.”
— Jonathan de Araujo, owner, The Vacationeer
You can’t count on onboard Wi-Fi, so make sure to do all your planning prior to departure.
“The Wi-Fi on ships is slow, unreliable, and expensive. When you’re home and have unlimited access to Wi-Fi, plan your port days, so you don’t waste the limited time you have in port researching things to do. Find out whether you’re able to use Uber/Lyft in the port or find the transportation schedule ahead of time. Buy your museum/attraction/tour tickets in advance.”
— Alissa Musto, cruise ship entertainer
Traveling with kids? Try connecting rooms.
“If you have a larger family, check out connecting room options. This has worked out really well for our family with children. Usually, one adult and one or two children can be assigned to each room. This setup allows for some more space and a separate space for the kids to nap while all still being connected.”
— Michelle Schomp, founder, Passport Explorers