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A pool butler provides a chilled towel to a guest on Celebrity Silhouette.

Tim Bieber / Courtesy of Celebrity Cruises

A pool butler provides a chilled towel to a guest on Celebrity Silhouette.

10 ways to find your bliss on a cruise

A veteran cruiser offers newbies advice on optimizing your experience

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.

 
  NEW TO CRUISING
 
Tips & tricks on cruise basics
 
 

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. 

Enjoy a cocktail on deck on your next cruise.
JD Lasica / Special to CruiseableEnjoy a cocktail on deck on your next cruise.

Your drinks tab could add up

1

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.

 

Helicopter tours over Tahiti allow visitors to view the scenic landscapes from a bird's eye view.
Courtesy of Tahiti TourismeHelicopter tours over Tahiti allow visitors to view the scenic landscapes from a bird's eye view.

Consider your excursion options

2

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.

 

Let loose and try something new like a salsa dance class during your stay on Celebrity Silhouette. Bonus: You'll probably never see these folks again!
Tim Bieber / Courtesy of Celebrity CruisesLet loose and try something new like a salsa dance class during your stay on Celebrity Silhouette. Bonus: You'll probably never see these folks again!

Go explore!

3

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.

 

Until now, most cruise lines' Internet connectivity has been fairly awful. Royal Caribbean has been leading the charge to change that, with upgrade to its ships' networks to increase bandwidth speeds, enhance wireless availability and bring high-speed Internet to its newest ships through a new generation of low-orbiting satellites.
Courtesy of Royal Caribbean InternationalUntil now, most cruise lines' Internet connectivity has been fairly awful. Royal Caribbean has been leading the charge to change that, with upgrade to its ships' networks to increase bandwidth speeds.

Manage your Internet costs

4

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

5

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.

 

Make reservations for an intimate meal graced by luxurious appointments such as Bulgari china, Riedel stemware and Frette linens at Pinnacle Grill on your Holland America cruise.
Courtesy of Holland America LineMake reservations for an intimate meal graced by luxurious appointments such as Bulgari china, Riedel stemware and Frette linens at Pinnacle Grill on a Holland America cruise. It costs an extra $35 per person.

Take charge of your dining options

6

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.

 

Try your hand at blackjack, craps, roulette, slots, poker and bingo at Gatsby's Casino aboard Ruby Princess.
JD Lasica / Special to CruiseableTry your hand at blackjack, craps, roulette, slots, poker and bingo at Gatsby's Casino aboard Ruby Princess.

Pace yourself in the casino

7

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.

 

You can bet these gals are wearing sunscreen during their beach walk on Grand Bahama Island.
Courtesy of Grand Bahama Island Tourism BoardYou can bet these gals are wearing sunscreen during their beach walk on Grand Bahama Island.

Use a strong sunscreen

8

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.

 

Part of the daily schedule during an Alaska sailing on ms Oosterdam this month.
JD Lasica / Special to CruiseablePart of the daily schedule during an Alaska sailing on ms Oosterdam this month.

Keep up on the action

9

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.

 

The staff in the dining rooms on Royal Caribbean cruises are charged with making sure that all dishes meet exacting standards.
Courtesy of Royal Caribbean InternationalThe staff in the dining rooms on a Royal Caribbean ship. Feel free to leave some extra cash, but don't skimp on the tipping. 

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!

In our New to Cruising series

Patti Pietschmann
I'm the LA Travel Diva and national cruise correspondent for Examiner.com and spend time cruising with first mate Richard, traveling the world, reviewing fine restaurants, going to plays, movies and events. It's the good life.

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