1. Research the ship to find the best fit for you
Choosing the right ship is the most important step in determining how successful your cruise vacation will be, and not all ships are created equal! Take the time to research the amenities of the exact ship you will be cruising on, not just the cruise line.
2. Check for themed cruises
Whether you are interested in a romantic trip for two or a trip the whole family will love, look into cruises that fulfill your and your guests’ special interests. Many cruise lines offer themed cruises or special events for singles, families, music lovers, etc.
3. Check in After 2pm
Most cruisers are eager to get on the ship as early as possible, which means that the cruise terminal can be really busy–and more than a little stressful–during the first few hours of boarding (generally from 11am-2pm). And while you may be able to get on the ship that early, chances are you won’t be able to get into your cabin until later in the afternoon, which means your first few hours on board will be spent hauling your stuff around. Not exactly the most relaxing start to a vacation! Instead, avoid the rush and the crowds by waiting to check in until after 2pm (assuming your ship sets sail at 4pm or later!) You’ll be able to walk right on without waiting and then go straight to your cabin.
4. Looking for deals
Want to get a great deal on a cruise? Book your cruise for just after Labor Day when kids are back in school–the 2nd week in September offers some of the very best deals of the year. Coming in at a close second is the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, a time when most people are too busy to travel.
5. Spring for a balcony
Room options are typically either Inside (no windows), Outside (window/porthole view to the outside), Balcony (a room with a balcony on the outside of the ship), and Suite (a larger cabin often with separate living and sleeping areas and more amenities). If you plan on taking advantage of in-room dining, have kids who will be taking naps or typically get seasick, you will really appreciate the extra space and killer view you get from a balcony room or suite.
6. Make the most of an interior cabin
If cost is your primary concern, plan on spending most of your awake time enjoying the ship and excursions, making the time spent in your room mostly for sleeping and getting ready.
7. Avoid over packing
Make a list of clothing you need on the trip. Then cut that in half! While ship cabins do make the most of a small space, they are still small! No one cares if you wear the same clothes over again, and all ships offer laundry service. Find out ahead of time how many “formal” nights the cruise has, if any, and also how strict the dress code is. Also bringing a wrap or a light sweaters. Even if you’re in the Caribbean, the AC is turned up so high inside the ship that you’ll wish you had a little something to keep you warm. And evenings on the decks can be breezy and cooler than you would expect.
8. Pack an empty, mid-sized nylon bag
Don’t be surprised if you end up coming home with more than you left with. Whether it’s souvenirs or gifts for the family, it helps to have something bring them back without stuff them in your luggage.
9. Make yourself at home
Though you’ll see many destinations while on your cruise, take the time to unpack! Whether you are on a cruise for 3 days or 3 weeks, making yourself at home by unpacking will make your trip more enjoyable. Room stewards are experts finding out-of-the-way places to stash suitcases, and even the smallest cabins have a surprisingly large number of drawers and closets. Even “large” quarters on ships are a much smaller space than you are used to living in. Take a few minutes each time you come back to the cabin to keep things tidy in order to avoid feeling like the walls are closing in on you.
10. Make the most of your dining
Ask for the dining menus for the week when you arrive. Cruise have multiple dining rooms and each will have a different menu. You are on vacation! Many first time cruisers don’t realize that even in the main dining room, you can order as many entrees, appetizers, or desserts as you please. If you have special dietary needs, ask for a special diet menu that may include lower sodium and lower fat options.
11. Take Advantage of Free Room Service
Most cruise lines offer free room service, which makes for a relaxing evening in. Don’t feel obligated to go to the dining room – this is yourvacation! Room service breakfast is also a very nice way to start the day, particularly if you have a balcony room. You can order your breakfast by putting the provided menu on your door before you go to bed just like in a hotel. But here’s the secret: you don’t have to order a full breakfast. You can just order coffee so that you don’t have to leave your room in the morning just to grab a cup of Joe. And this way, you don’t have to wait for it; you pre-select the time you want it to be delivered. If you wait to call for coffee in the morning, you’ll be waiting a long time.
12. Drink Smart
While cruising is mostly all-inclusive, drinks are not generally included! Therefore it is smart to get creative on how you partake. If you like wine, order by the bottle rather than the glass. You can take the bottle with you, whether you are in the dining room, in the cabin or on deck. It is more economical than individual drinks. For non-alcoholic drinks you can typically purchase a drink card that will give you access to unlimited soda.
13. Explore Your Ship.
There are tons of on-board amenities you can take advantage of when you are out at sea or want to stay on board vs. going on an excursion. In the first couple of days, be sure to walk around and familiarize yourself with the ship and its offerings. Also – ask others what they are looking forward to on the ship or have enjoyed doing thus far.
14. Choose Excursions Wisely
Cruise lines offer shore excursions at every port – from bus tours to activities like snorkeling and zip lining. You may also have the option to tour around yourself, but be mindful of time and language barriers. You are best off reviewing excursions in advance of the cruise and booking them online to avoid any confusion or overbooking the day-of. This will also give you time to carefully read the fine print and excursion restrictions.
15. Don’t Miss the Shows and Activities
While the shows and activities do vary from ship to ship, they are almost always really good and very entertaining. You may even have the opportunity to see a big name performer for a concert or comedy show for almost nothing. Because of the smaller size of a cruise venue vs. an arena, these events are more intimate and enjoyable than typical concerts–there is literally not a bad seat in the house! Activities also give you a chance to interact and meet other travelers.
16. Talk to Everyone
You get the opportunity to meet so many people from so many walks of life and such different parts of the world. Don’t be surprised if you make friends that last long after your cruise.
17. Take Advantage of the Kids Club!
A ship typically has well-organized camps and activities for children, organized by age, typically 3+. (For younger children there are sometimes classes or special babysitting times offered.) These interactive classes and activities will keep the kids entertained while giving parents some free time as well. We have personally been most impressed with the quality of kids club facilities and variety of activities. The best part is that aside from late night babysitting, it is completely free!
18. Research Ports Ahead of Time
Take the time to find out a little about the ports you will be visiting to find out what you might like to do or see while you are there. You may also find some highly rated excursions at a better price than you would find if you purchased on the ship.
19. Find a Favorite Hangout
Every ship is different but all are purposely designed to offer comfortable spaces for a variety of tastes. Often your favorite memories from a cruise will come from having found your “special” place somewhere on the ship, whether it be a particular bar or restaurant, deck chair, or cozy corner in the atrium. The staff assigned to that particular spot on the ship will generally stay the same through the duration of your cruise, which can come in handy, and it is also a good idea to have a designated meeting spot in case you get separated on board, since cell phones don’t usually work at sea!