Cruise Tips, Tricks and Secrets

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By ,   May 5, 2015 ,   Tips & Tricks

CruiseMapper's "cruise tips and tricks" article provides useful information for first-timers planning their future voyages. Cruise tips and tricks are also handy onboard the liner - to keep you away from mishaps and bad ("Cruise Minus") experiences at sea and in ports.

Cruise Tips and Tricks

For your convenience, our "wiki" collection of cruise tips, tricks and secrets about ocean cruising vacations are grouped in several themed sections - PLANNING, BOOKING, PACKING, MONEY-SAVING, EXCURSIONS-TOURS, CABINS, SHIPS, FOOD-DRINKS, TRAVEL MATES and General.

Cruise Tips, Tricks and Secrets - CruiseMapper

PLANNING

  • Prepare to be heaped up as there are numerous options. Travel agents could help - just choose the destination.
  • Don't over-research or over-plan - the first-time cruise is a thrill, so enjoy the uncertainty and all the new experiences.
  • Stick to your vacation budget. There are 4 main traveler types - economical (budget-minded), standard (middle-class), premium (affluent) and top-luxury (silver-spooned).
  • A cheap cruise ship with booked balcony cabin or suite often results in better vacation experience than large (crowded) ship with booked inside cabin. Yet, it depends - first in the village or second in Rome? Booking suite always means best service, amenities, freebies and perks.
  • Each year are scheduled almost 30,000 different cruise itineraries for over 2,000 destinations worldwide. The main are East-Southeast Asia, Europe (Mediterranean, Baltic, Norwegian Fjords / Arctic), Alaska, Caribbean, Australia NZ, South Amarica (Amazon, Antarctica).
  • "Kids cruise for free" deals (children travel for free in double-occupancy booked cabin) are offered by MSC, occasionally by Carnival, Royal Caribbean, NCL, rarely by Disney.
  • Best cruise ships for kids are all big liners (many of them newbuilds) with themed onboard activities specifically designed for children in different age groups, as well as for families. On the ship kids interact in a safe, comfortable and friendly environment, always supervised by professional staff.
  • If you don't like noisy crowds and long queues, try small ship cruise, riverboat or yacht charter.
  • Solo cruise passengers are around 1/4 of all. Sharing cabin (same-sex shared stateroom) is cheaper. Many cruise ships (both smaller and the largest) have studios - single cabins bookable without single supplement fee required. With some companies, single supplement rates on double staterooms are very affordable.
  • There are many and differently themed cruises independently organized on privately chartered ships.
  • If you're single, consider booking a singles cruise.

BOOKING

  • MasterCard, American Express, Visa are accepted for payments by all major lines, and some add to this list Discover Card, Diner's Club International, Cart Blanche, Optima.
  • All companies require a deposit to reserve cabin. As deposit, you pay a flat rate (usually between $100 and $1,000) or a percentage of the total cost (10-25%, depending on company, itinerary, cabin category). Holiday cruises, group bookings and special deals are priced differently. Deposits often are better priced with online booking.
  • Travel agencies require paying fare's remaining balance at the final payment due date. The final payment differs by company - generally between 45-90 days prior departure, up to 150 days for longer itineraries. Booking in this period requires paying in full. Cruise transfers (changes) can be made within a specific period prior departure, usually with an administration fee charge (percentage of the initial price).
  • Passenger shipping companies (ferry and cruise) differ in their cancellation and refund policies. The refund depends mostly on the remaining days (prior departure), strictly in the cancellation period. A refund is infeasible in the events of no-show or interruption by the passenger after the voyage starts. Charges don't include any fees by air carriers, hotels, car rentals, etc.
  • Most companies don't make exceptions regarding cancellation charges. Names or departure dates discrepancies are treated as cancellations. Although optional, it is highly recommended purchasing travel insurance (health) and trip cancellation insurance (possibility to exchange dates, in some cases - full refund).
  • Cancellation charges increase as sailing dates approach, while refunds diminish. Usually, for cancellations 60+ days prior departure, no charges are assessed, around 30 days - 50% of the deposit, and for less than 2 weeks prior - the whole deposit. Penalties for cancellations of luxury cruises may reach 100% of the fare, even for 30- days prior departure. Consulting a travel agency is highly recommended, since timetables and all rates are subject to change.
  • Booking with travel agency or online is often cheaper than directly with the company. With some exceptions, when compared to company's brochure rates, cruise agency deal prices are nearly identical (at least very very similar). The reason is that most big lines have no-rebate policies forbidding the agencies from undercutting company's rates.
  • Around 70% of all cruisers use travel agents to plan and book, and mainly with CLIA-certified agents specializing in ship cruises. Travel agents are certificated in general ship cruising, as well as privy of all offered products and services. Travel agents are aware of the best deals and promo discounts, and some have access to company discounts not available to consumers. Travel agents save time and money as they have updated, currently available information and can suggest best for you company, vessel, itinerary, stateroom (type, category, location), onboard activities. All details are ironed out in advance of the voyage. Travel agents can handle most potential shipboard and ashore issues - lost luggage, cancelled tours, delays, missed flights. Travel agents receive all kinds of updates in real time, which also includes new wellness and dining offerings, upgraded cabin amenities, promo offers, itinerary changes.
  • Agencies also do bargains with the lines (ship operators) and often can provide bonuses, such as extra OBC (onboard credits), deals inclusive of gratuities, sometimes even free cruise shore excursion/tours or bonus amenities, and sometimes they also can offer discounts based on the residency. 
  • The cruise passenger lines reduce their prices and those of their booking agency partners to ensure their ships will sail full. In order lines to avoid having lots of unsold cabins on cruise ships, bargains are a widespread trend (phenomenon) all the time. 
  • Wholesellers buy out huge number of cabins on a particular sailing way in advance. This is a major "why" they can sell deals at lower rates than the lines. The trick is, to get those rates you have to phone them instead of booking online.
  • Don't focus on the price alone - check the extras, like if the airfare is included in the price. International airfares are one of the main reasons why Europe don't get many Americans and also why repositioning cruises (in Spring/Fall each year) are such a hugely big hit among travelers.
  • Check first for any available last minute cruise deals. Potential savings on booking last minute cruises are up to 75% - best deals for budget-minded travelers with flexible schedules. Another option are the wave season cruise deals.

PACKING

  • Note: For more information see our packing lists.
  • Don't forget your passport - you'll be denied boarding (on embarkation day at the terminal, and there'll be no any refunds (cruise, airfares, vacation days from the employers, etc).
  • Don't overpack - enormous suitcases could spoil any vacation.
  • Bring extra underwear. If you use up your clean clothes, you can use the passenger laundry facilities with washing machines.
  • Save luggage space for the things you are going to buy on your cruise.
  • Pack walkie-talkies - especially when traveling with kids.
  • Pack ear plugs - sleeping on airplane is easier and they also allow good sleeping on the ship - (kids running, noisy neighbors, PA announcements, elevators, walkways, engines (lower-deck cabins).
  • Pack suntan lotion - at home it costs about 50% less on the ship or in port.
  • If you drink, on the ship you will probably consume alcohol, so pack aspirin.
  • Nowadays, all airlines are prohibiting sharp objects in carry-on bags, so pack such items in the checked luggage. Mainstream lines (Carnival is the best example) forbid high-heels on board their ships.

MONEY-SAVING

  • To save money on a cruise, listing by "lowest price" is not recommended - cheapest deals are limited to departure date, itinerary, ship, cabin category.
  • Early booking: advance planners who book cruises and pay deposits in advance from six to 18 months, are offered tempting fares and expensive upgrades. Search for reduced or free airfare, cabin upgrades and complimentary amenities.
  • Book onboard and take you advantage of some reduced deposits, free onboard credit, or fare discounts. 
  • Sail during shoulder seasons. If you can, choose to be flexible with dates. In this case, you can typically save a few hundred off the base rate. Book early sailings - in Alaska, for example, you may get a discount if booking one of the first season's sailings. 
  • Wave season is the peak time for cruise lines to offer onboard credit, free upgrades and other incentives. Cruise industry's wave season is actually a sales period which has historically taken place between January and March each year.
  • Hurricane season is not the best time to cruise, but will help you score some good values on Mexican Riviera, Caribbean and transatlantic voyages during the Eastern Pacific and Atlantic hurricane seasons. Hurricane season usually lasts from June 1 through November 30.
  • Last-minute deals are cheaper, but be prepared for least desirable accommodation. Another chance are the seasonal repositioning cruises (when ships change deployments / regions and homeports).
  • Member Discount Programs are the well deserved rewards to socially active people, who operate by several credit cards, and belong to diverse programs and huge organizations, like the military, AARP (American Association of Retired Persons), AAA (American Automobile Association). If you are a member of such organization, there could be potential discounts or rewards as benefits for your membership.
  • Loyalty Programs discounts are attainable only if you sail more than once with the same line. With a loyalty program, the line may offer you lower rates, free upgrades, on-board credits, priority services, and many special on-board amenities.
  • Sign up for the best specials and promotions on the line's official web site. You also may check their regular updates at Twitter, or Facebook. 
  • "Harbour cruises", 2-3-day shortbreaks and Cruises to Nowhere are great for first-timers - cheaper, shorter, with party crowds.
  • Avoid peak-season and Holiday voyages. They are popular with families (kids are out of school) but more expensive and crowded.
  • Use credit cards and cash for onboard purchases, avoid traveler's checks. Most ships have ATMs. Cash is used mainly in ports and the ship's casino - so bring cash to avoid ATM fees. Take some casino chips by using the ship card (it pulls from the credit card). Hold them for one hour, and then exchange for cash.
  • Work with travel agents: travel agencies offer discounts, onboard credits, special promotions, and other incentives for cruisers. In addition, in case something goes wrong, your travel agent will help you during your cruise. An agent who specializes in cruises may save your time and money.
  • Search online. If you do a research, you'll know much about average fares on preferred sailings, so when a sale comes out, you will know quickly it's really a great deal and be fast to snag. "Value", not the "lowest price" is what matters here.
  • Look for sales. Some lines nearly every week offer short-term promos. Wave Season (from January to March) sees often outpouring of sales. 
  • Never pay brochure prices. Unless it's a special and well-sold voyage where demand is much higher than supply, don't be tempted by claims of 65% of brochure rate - it is not a discount.
  • Persuade a friends' group to sail together. Many lines reward such group planners for organizing trips of 16 people (in 8 cabins) at least. 
  • Book close to home departures. Homeport cruising is continuously growing in number. The primary benefit is there is no need to add on the cost of airline tickets to traditional port cities.
  • Having cash helps develop budget and avoids going over or putting purchases on credit cards.
  • No spa treatments that cost extra. Better try some free exercise by walking ship’s deck, swimming, or using the fitness center. Another good idea is running or walking during port calls.
  • No premium dining as it comes at a high price, added to your bill. Better use the saved money for memorable meals ashore.
  • In the main dining rooms you aren't limited to one appetizer, entree or dessert of each. Order three entrees or desserts if you want to. You can order portions of entrees that are appetizer-sized as starters, and also order some appetizers for main meal. 
  • Specialty coffee at designated onboard coffee shops comes with extra fee, but sandwiches, pastries, and other food are often free. 
  • Check up if it's not cheaper buying a bottle of wine than some glasses, but what happens if you don't finish it? Cruise ship waiters mark bottles with guests' room numbers and save them for another night, may it be dinner in another venue.
  • No gambling until sunrise. Some casino freaks bring along envelopes for each day of cruise, with the cash amount they'll gamble each day.
  • Organize your own shore excursions. Spend a day or two to explore ports of call on your own. Choose a local guide and take a taxi to the center. You may also rent a bicycle. Allow enough time to return to ship, because it will sail away without you in case you don't reboard on time.
  • Access Internet during call ports. Internet access onboard is extremely slow and expensive. In order to save money on a cruise, pre-write the emails and you may send them while ship is in port. Find then an Internet cafe, bring along air card or choose a mobile hot spot. 
  • Extend your vacation with discounted pre- and / or post-cruise packages. And think about booking hotel on your own. You can also book cruise line's transfers airport-to-ship on a-la-carte basis and plan your own activities in order to save cash.
  • Seasickness medicine is free of charge - available at the ship's infirmary / hospital and at Reception Desk (Lobby).

SHORE EXCURSIONS and TOURS

  • Cruise lines provide huge selections of call port excursions / land tours via partnerships with local operators.
  • Direct booking with tour companies is often cheaper (25-50%) than ship's excursions. However, independent excursions are risky - being not checked by the cruise line for safety and quality. If the excursion is late, the tour operator must contact port agent who then contacts the ship. Captains always wait for delayed excursions booked through the cruise line, but not for independently-booked on tours passengers.
  • Book shore excursion (land tours) before boarding the ship. Most cruise lines offer online booking. It guarantees both availability and safety (in the event of tour delays, etc) and saves onboard time.
  • At tender ports the ship anchors in open sea and passengers are ferried ashore on tenderboats (tenders). Early morning excursions have priority tender boarding, next are Suite passengers. Pay attention to instructions, be patient.
  • Taxi sightseeing toors are often a good option (depending on port).
  • Loiter around taxi ranks in call ports and wait to share cab with someone else. This way you'ss save money and could meet someone new.
  • The cruise ship is not just transportation to seaports - it's where you spend most of the time during the cruise vacation. Cruising is great to sample several ports, but if you want to spend more time in specific port city, fly there, stay for a few days in hotel. On cruises, ship's schedule allows visiting ports for only several hours (depending on itinerary and boat) with no guarantee the weather will be fine.

CABINS

  • On Alaskan cruise is best to book outside-starboard cabin (northbound routes) and outside-portside cabin (southbound routes). This way you'll be facing scenery instead of open water.
  • Generally, cabin upgrades while on the boat are not possible as ships are usually booked to capacity. Changing cabins is possible only in "no-show" cases when someone paid but didn't show up. Know tha Reception Desk will know about "no-shows" after the ship sets sail.
  • Cabins below or above some venues (disco, casino, restaurant, kids-teens clubs, etc) are loud, Lower-deck cabins (near the engine room) experience noises and vibrations. Good location is the very front (bow) - you'll walk more, get some rumble from the thrusters (propulsion units) and more swaying, but no vibrations and less foot traffic by the door.
  • Expect the stateroom to be much smaller than typical hotel room.
  • Inside cabins don't have natural light at all, but if you turn the TV to bridge cam station and turn off sound, you'll have instant nightlight and be able to see when the sun is up.
  • Once onboard, staterooms may not be ready and luggage usually arrives several hours later. Don’t call the Reception. Cabin stewards carry thousands of luggage - it takes time. Don't forget to take a carry-on with basic necessities (documents, medications, phone, camera, toiletries).
  • Don't expect everything to be perfect. The cabin toilet might not work. The remote control batteries might be dead. Call the Recepetion if necessary, but remember - it's your vacation, so keep it cool. Control your emotions - be friendly but firm.
  • Cabin designers nowadays create storage space as much as possible. Explore your room or ask the cabin steward - you'll be surprised when you find the extra storage under couch or bed, behind the mirror or inside the ottoman.
  • Some lines provide top sheets, egg crate toppers, and alternative pillows by special request. Don't hesitate to ask, no matter before or during the cruise.
  • With all the electronics we use these days, cruise ship outlets are always insufficient. Remember to bring power strip or charging station, or ask the cabin steward. There is often an extra outlet which is hidden under the bed or behind the TV.
  • Be quiet in the stateroom - walls are generally thin.

SHIPS

  • Most advanced (as both technology, venues and fun options) are the new cruise ships. Yet, older liners are cheaper.
  • In Europe (UK, Baltic, Mediterranean) consider the shortbreak vacation option "ferry cruise". European ferries are large boats with many modern amenities and facilities and even in design similar to cruise vessels - with bar launges, restaurants, cinema, casino, spa and fitness, game room, kids room, sundeck with swimming pool (open in the summer).
  • On embarkation days, after boarding go to your stateroom or to Lido Deck (pool deck) for buffet lunch.
  • In cases of accidents or incidents (like heavy listing or grounding), don’t get down if there are no injuries. Remember that what you have experienced very few other travelers have.
  • To avoid Norovirus - always wash your hands before you dining.
  • Muster drill (aka lifeboat drill) is on embarkation day. It could save your life, so pay attention during it.
  • Crew and staff aren't supposed to intermingle with passengers - they can get fired if caught. If you have romantic encounter with a crew, use discretion and realize you're probably not the first traveler he/she is with. 
  • Passengers are allowed to bring drones (quadcopter) on cruise ships but can use them only on land and outside port's area. Active drones onboard are forbidden at any time, as well as on private islands.
  • Cruise lines have different tipping policies, commonly implementing standard gratuity rates, Expect set per-day, per-person tipping charged to your onboard account. You can always add more if you like the service. It's customary to give gratuity to head waiters, dining room waiters, assistants, butlers and cabin stewards on voyage's last night. Use an envelope (supplied by the company) or your own.
  • Most ships provide newsletter in all passenger cabins (or it's available via cabin's TV infotaiment system). Check it dress code, scheduled activities, spa and shopping promotions, etc.

FOOD and DRINKS

  • To stay healthy start a healthy regimen long before the cruise - eat healthier foods, drink more water, no sodas, sugary drinks, less alcohol.
  • There is no rule for "open beverage" onboard and you may bring drinks from bars or buffets to the stateroom or elsewhere on ship - the same is valid for food.
  • Explore the free drinks or buying drink package options.
  • Soda is not free on most ships, unlike iced tea in dining rooms. Buying soda cards offers discount pricing and unlimited soft drinks.
  • Most companies allow bringing onboard reasonable amounts of bottled nonalcoholic drinks and wine.
  • Beer drinkers can group and save by purchasing beer buckets. Beers in souvenir buckets are cheaper than ordering individual bottles / cans.
  • Refill the souvenir glasses at a discount. Another cruise secret is asking for the "drink of the day" in regular glass and save money. Watch the daily program for happy hours or drink specials with reduced prices. Order a fruity drink on the first day and get souvenir cup - use it throughout the cruise.
  • On embarkation day you can lunch at the Lido buffet (while waiting for the staterooms to be open). Most ships have alternative free-of charge dining venues (cafe, grill bar, pizzeria).
  • First-night dining at Carnival Steakhouse offers a complimentary bottle of wine.
  • Buffet food is almost the same as in MDRs (use the same galley / kitchen), and unlike MDRS the buffet's dress code is casual.
  • Booking alternative dining venues for the first night is at discounted price (on some lines).
  • Room service is often free of charge, but late-night service is usually at fee. Suite deals provide complimentary concierge and room service.
  • On Lido Deck are often available soft-serve machines (ice-cream for free).
  • At the Buffet Restaurant - don't switch direction, don't cut the line, don't walk around the others, don't eat in line, don't move the tongs between platters, don't make doggie bags, watch your kids, don't take more than you can eat.

TRAVEL MATES

  • For first-timers is best to travel with a person who has been on a cruise before (as passenger or crew), With a currently employed crew or staff member you may only have to pay port charges. Crew and staff can get free tours and know the port's best places to visit. And you'll be able to access some crew areas.
  • Cruise with friends - it's always more fun, and you can still meet new people onboard. Greatest thing is that you are not forced to be together all the time (like on land vacation).
  • Cruise with your age group - so choose the region wisely. Colder destination (like Alaska) means older crowd. Younger travelers usually can't afford longer itineraries due to vacation time limits. Short itineraries (like in Bahamas-Caribbean) are best for party cruises - cheaper (per day rates) and with younger crowd.
  • Respect other cultures. Remember that each country has its ways of eating, engaging, greeting, etc.
  • Allow elderly and disabled passengers to access elevators - taking the stairs is helthier.
  • Adults-only venues are not for kids - remember that booking "family cruise" is a kids-inclusive package.
  • Smaller and luxury ships' passengers are in the 45-60+ age group and offer better service and all-inclusiveness. Most of the largest lines (like Princess, Royal Caribbean, Carnival) have their passengers perfectly mixed.

General tips, tricks and secrets

  • The most important of cruise secrets, because it concerns your health: Take your medications in the carry-on bag - sometimes bags go to the wrong room and it takes a lot of time to find yours.
  • Take in the carry-on bag swimsuits and change of clothes - this way you can hit the pool before the others have even boarded.
  • On trans-oceanic itineraries (like Transatlantic crossing) depart from Europe because you'll gain 5 hours daylight (due to time zones crossing).
  • Set your watch to the “ship time” - it may or may not change after crossing time zones.
  • If you're flying to the homeport, leave enough time to compensate flight delays.
  • Don't be late for boarding - ships wait no more than 15 min after scheduled departure times. Each company has port agent who could help if you miss the boat. One option is to fly to the next call port and embark there, though you'll have to pay all extra expenses.
  • With assigned dining (dinner time), don’t be late and observe MDRs (main dining room's) dress code and etiquette. MDRs are not like regular restaurants and serving houdreds meals in such a short time needs good coordination. 
  • The onboard elevators are usually overcrowded. Better avoid taking the elevator when possible - climbing the stairs is the best you can do for health before dinner.
  • To avoid seasickness - stay on land. Still, many of the cruise liners are huge, so their movement is minimal. If you're feeling seasick - take a nap. take medication (Scopolamine and Dramamine are most common), ginger capsules. Move to open deck midship, look at the horizon. Use acupuncture wrist band. Stimulate underside of the forearm, 3 fingers down from wrist. Get a shot at the ship's infirmary (expect to sleep for few hours).
  • Lifeboat drill is mandatory requirement of Coast Guard for all cruise ships. Shortly before ship sails, passengers must gather for a review of all emergency procedures. Carry or wear from cabin your life jacket to the muster station. 
  • Few cruise lines impose strict codes for dressing up, but some basic guidelines are well provided. Make sure to be dried off when you enter the indoor areas from pool, put on a shirt and shoes. Swimsuit dining is only permitted at poolside bars and fast-food stands.
  • Cruise ship spa centers usually offer a discount for first- and port-day spa treatments. Check the daily newsletters and find out about these deals. The saunas, stream rooms and showers, that are not located in the thermal fancy suites are free.
  • Don't worry if some port talk is appointed at the same time as the massage you've dreamed for a long time. Shows and presentations are re-broadcast on ship's channel and you'll be able to catch the recording after missing the live show.
  • Casino fans can get a hole in the room card and free casino lanyard for easy play and not forgetting your card in slot machines.
  • Many lines provide free minutes when you sign up for Internet package the first day of your cruise.
  • Waiters and cabin stewards work up to 15 hours a day. Most of them get 1 day off in 8 months. Tip them extra on the first cruise day to be looked after like royalty. Let them know you'll be tipping them at the end of the voyage too. If you have any special requests, you'll become staff's top priority.
  • Remember that the Captain has authority to kick anyone off the ship if he/she thinks the person is danger to other passengers or the crew.
  • Scheduled port visits could be changed by the Captain - with partial refund.
  • The ship docks at a variety of ports, so make sure to return in plenty of time. You are responsible for keeping an eye on clock and getting back at the designated time. 

Remember that CruiseMapper's "tips and tricks" article is a "wiki" work - in progress, constantly updated with new additions to our themed lists above. Expect to find here more useful information and more cruise secrets revealed the next time you visit this page. Enjoy your vacations, and good luck!