Planning your first cruise? Welcome to the not-so-exclusive club! Remember, there are a few things you might not realize about cruising, even if you read the fine print.
Don't feel shy about asking questions of us veterans — I'm closing in on my 400th cruise. So here are 10 tips to get you going so you'll feel like a pro.
Your drinks tab could add up
You're ready to have a good time, right? Well, the first thing to know is that while drinks are free on all-inclusive luxury cruises, they're high-priced on the vast majority of sailings.
Budget-conscious cruisers, especially, should keep this in mind: Unless you’re on an all-inclusive fare, nearly everything you drink — from bottled water to wine — costs extra. (You'll know you're being charged if they ask for your cruise card.) And there is always a tip added to your bill (think of it as a running tab) even if you just ask for bottled water at the bar to carry back to your cabin. We paid extra even for coffee on Princess because the mass-produced joe was so bad. They sold cards for freshly brewed regular coffee — and I’m not talking espresso or cappuccino. Specialty coffees always cost extra, except on all-inclusive luxury ships from, say, Crystal, Seabourn, Silversea, SeaDream or Regent.
Consider your excursion options
Shore excursions offered by the cruise line are not always as good as they sound and sometimes cost more than if you buy it yourself independently. Often an organized snorkel trip provides more time in a bus or van than in the water. And sometimes one grand adventure is better than three so-so tours. Do your homework and consider your best options.
On the first day of your cruise, leave your cabin and go explore the ship to become familiar with all that it has to offer! You'll likely find a fitness center, perhaps a sports deck, pools and whirlpools, sometimes an adults-only serenity area, art auctions, cooking and enrichment classes, and much more. We like to make reservations right away so we can enjoy romantic dinners in alternative restaurants throughout the voyage.
Manage your Internet costs
Wi-Fi costs extra on nearly all ships (with a few exceptions in the luxury category). Royal Caribbean, with its fleet of new smartships, sports the fastest connectivity on the high seas, and most cruise lines offer paid packages with an unlimited or certain amount of minutes. Be sure to check this out so you’re not hit with a big bill later if you exceed your minutes, and don't expect to stream video or audio when you're at sea. Here is Cruiseable's guide to Internet pricing on a cruise ship.
Wait until you get ashore to share videos or photos from your smartphone.
Turn off your smartphone
Make sure your smartphone is turned off except when you're taking video or photos on the ship. If you forget to turn off Cellular Data, you could be hit with a massive bill, like Cruiseable editor JD Lasica, who racked up an $1,825 bill without even using his phone! The safest course is to turn off anything that rings and keep it off. I actually use my iPad to take photos. If you do need to connect, do it on land at an Internet cafe in port.
Take charge of your dining options
Do you enjoy dining solo or prefer meeting others during dinner? Being social can prove to be a hit-or-miss proposition if you opt for a ship with assigned seating and dining times. That's why my husband and I spend a lot of time ordering in-room dining; it's free on luxury cruise lines and on Holland America, for instance. Most cruise lines now offer anytime or Freestyle dining, meaning you can choose when to dine and generally they'll seat you at a table for two or for however many are in your party.
Until we learned this trick (long ago), we were stuck in such awkward situations that we either ate in our cabin or an alternative dining venue that offered tables for two. So be sure to enter your table preference on the line’s website when booking and paying for your cruise. Sometimes if the ship is full it’s hard for the maître d’ to switch you.
Pace yourself in the casino
It's always a good idea to set a self-imposed dollar limit for yourself in the ship's casino (if it has one). It's easy to gamble to excess, especially during long days at sea.
Use a strong sunscreen
Newcomers often overlook this bit of advice, but if you're cruising in the Caribbean, Mexico or the tropics, be sure to slather yourself with lots of suntan lotion with a high protection factor. A bad burn can happen if you’re unprotected, and it will ruin the trip.
Keep up on the action
Yes, if you're a digital road warrior, it's a little disappointing that nearly all cruise ships print out only a paper newsletter or schedule that details the next day's highlights. (I'm old-fashioned enough that I prefer the analog version.) So you'll want to read this so that you don’t miss out on what’s happening aboard your ship. The printout is placed in cabins nightly at turndown. It has all the activities each day and night, information about the following day's port, helpful articles and important disembarkation info.
Remember you'll be paying for tips
10And finally, be aware that gratuities for the crew members who served you throughout your journey will be added to your final bill for each guest at the end of the cruise. Each cruise line lets travelers know the amount you'll be charged per day, so this shouldn't come as a surprise — but it still does to a lot of first-timers.
Have any other questions? Be sure to stay healthy by walking a lot and using the stairs instead of elevators, and drop me a line in the comments below!