25 Tips and Tricks for Smooth Sailing on Your Next Cruise
More than 25 million people globally will head off on a cruise vacation in 2017 -- over 1 million more than last year's total, according to a Cruise Lines International Association forecast. Cheapism.com reached out to nearly a dozen industry experts seeking tips and advice for getting the best possible cruise experience, from when and how to book to avoiding the crowds.
Last-minute deals can be great for those able to take off on a moment's notice, but most people have to plan a trip well in advance and should lock in a good price as early as possible. "If the price happens to go down before final payment date, and you're in the U.S. or Canada, you can generally get the difference back," says Billy Hirsch of the blog Cruise Habit. It may be possible to take advantage of a new deal even after payment -- maybe as a drink package or room upgrade.
When it comes to finding the right cruise, a travel agent can be invaluable and, in many cases, cost no more, Hirsch says. "In some cases you'll pay less, as agents may have access to special perks or even discounted rates on specific sailings. Even if the price is the same, the value of a good travel agent is that you have someone who is a pro, able to answer your questions and guide you to make the right decisions."
Embarkation day typically involves waiting for luggage to reach the cabin via the ship's valet, leaving you without essentials, says Grainne Kelly, a travel agent for 16 years. Prepare by packing a carry-on. "Include swimsuits, sunscreen, a change of clothes, and snacks," Kelly says. "It may be a couple of hours before you're reunited with your luggage, so be sure to keep any essentials on hand."
Ship cabins are designed to make the most of a small space, but they're still small, especially for families. Kelly advises not packing too much. "Make a list of all the clothing you will need on the trip, then cut that in half" and use onboard laundry service, she says. Most of the time you'll be in a swimsuit anyway.
While it's important not to overpack clothing, the opposite is true for baby necessities. "Make sure to bring enough formula, baby food, and diapers aboard, as these items will not typically be found for sale on your ship," Kelly says.
Ship staterooms typically do not have many power outlets, and power strips are prohibited for safety reasons, Hirsch says. Lots of gadgets now charge via USB, though. Bring a multiport USB power pack ($24 on Amazon), which takes up little space and can charge multiple devices off one outlet.
Staterooms can be tiny interior cabins with no window or suites more opulent than your home. Either way, be realistic about how you'll spend cruise time before reserving. "Is it nice to at least have a balcony? It sure is," Hirsch says. But most people are likely to spend little time in a stateroom, considering ports of call and shipboard activities and public spaces. It's just a place to sleep.
There are a few instances when a room with a balcony is worth the extra expense. One is when traveling with kids, Kelly says. The balcony provides a lot more space. "It's so nice to sit on the balcony after your kids go to sleep, especially if you have younger kids with early bedtimes," she says. Also consider a balcony for cruises to Alaska or Norway's fjords, where sights are stellar and public decks and other viewing spaces are packed.
If motion sickness is an issue, the right cabin can make all the difference. "Choose a stateroom on a lower deck and midship -- not all the way toward the front or back -- as you'll feel the motion much less," Hirsch says.
A flat daily rate for unlimited drinks for the entire cruise -- whether for beer and wine, all alcoholic drinks up to a price threshold, or non-alcoholic drinks -- might not be worth it, Hirsch says. "Search for recent bar menus from the ship on which you'll be sailing and calculate, based on what you think you'll drink, and how much you'd spend if you pay for each drink on its own." If the math works out, buy ahead of time through a travel agent, who can often get better deals.
Remember: You'll be spending a week or more with strangers in the cabins on either side, Camosse says. The neighbors could be partiers, parents with babies, or newlyweds (wink, wink). "In all cases, the noise could make for a rough week," he says. "Take precaution by bringing a set of earplugs."
Shop around to find the right shore excursions, and don't automatically book through the cruise line, Hirsch advises. Sometimes you can save by booking directly with a local tour operator -- but booking through the cruise line provides recourse if something goes wrong, and you're guaranteed to get back aboard in time. If the ship leaves without you, you're stuck trying to get to the next port of call, or back home, independently.
You're going to be traveling with hundreds or thousands of other people, many of whom want the same activities as you. To avoid being shut out, book before stepping foot on the ship, Merikanskas says. Cruise lines allow online booking for shore excursions, dining, spa treatments, shows, and more before the ship ever leaves port.
Like on airplanes, Wi-Fi aboard ships is spotty at best and can be quite expensive. Compose emails before connecting to minimize cost. "There's no reason to type out your communications while paying for each passing second," Camosse says. "Put all emails together while offline, then log in and fire them off."
Shipboard meals are planned for the entire week. Ask the front desk for a copy of the week's menu for the main dining room so you can plan accordingly. "If you're thinking about skipping the main dining room one night, this is the way to do it so that you won't miss your favorite meal," Camosse says.
Port maps are not typically handed out to the entire ship -- just to travelers at onboard port lectures, Camosse says. Make a point of getting your hands on them for helpful tips, coupons, and more. "They can save a lot of money and heartache," Camosse says. If port lectures aren't your thing, ask guest relations for a map.
The breakfast buffet is a madhouse when the ship is in port, as everyone is trying to get a bite before disembarking. Rather than battle crowds and miss an early-departing excursion, order room service. On most ships, there's no charge.
Always make sure the sliding balcony door is locked. It's easy to access cabins via the external connections between balconies, Camosse says. And while in port, it's possible for contractors such as painters and cleaners to get access to balconies.
Staying healthy on a cruise is all about prevention, veteran travel journalist David Yeskel says. That means frequent hand-washing and use of sanitizing stations placed around the ship. For added protection, he brings a Verilux CleanWave portable sanitizing wand ($60) for hard-to-clean or easily missed surfaces such as the TV remote or bathroom door handle. "I use it as soon as I come aboard and start unpacking," Yeskel says.
Port days are often one of the best and cheapest times to explore the ship, says Koreen McNutt, senior director global cruise at Expedia. "Take advantage of smaller crowds on board. Often while other passengers are out on excursions, discounts for amenities onboard such as spa services may be more widely offered," McNutt says.
Cruise companies are launching all sorts of technologies that improve the cruise experience, McNutt advises. Royal Caribbean Cruises, Disney Cruise Line, and Carnival Cruise Line provide wristbands -- sometimes costing extra -- that help travelers navigate the ship, make onboard purchases, access staterooms, and more, and other lines plan to offer them. Many now also have dedicated phone apps.
On the last morning of a cruise, there is always a long line of people disputing transactions on their final bill. Don't get stuck in it. Ask for a printout of the bill the evening before arriving back in port and spend the final moments of a cruise relaxing, Camosse suggests.
Avoid waiting for luggage to come off the ship at the end of a trip by carrying it off yourself, says Expedia's McNutt. Forgoing the ship valet gives travelers more control over packing and disembarking.