Two-thirds of Americans have never been on a cruise before — and perhaps it’s not hard to see why. In surveys, travelers have expressed concern about safety, security, health, comfort and convenience while voyaging at sea, likely frightened by stories of stranded ships, tight compartments and tainted food.
In reality, your chances of catching the norovirus and being trapped in a closet-sized bathroom while your ship smashes into an iceberg are reassuringly low. Moreover, with the right approach, cruising can be a memorable, convenient and cost-friendly way to explore new sights.
Here are 13 tips to ensure, well, smooth sailing — whether you’re a novice or a veteran of the sea.
Pack a day bag with everything you need.
You’re allowed to bring a small bag with you on most cruise ships, but usually, your suitcases and larger bags must be tagged, checked and delivered to your room by the cruise staff.
This is to ensure your own security, but it also means that you might not get most of your luggage until the evening — leaving you to watch "Judge Judy" as you wait for your suitcase to arrive.
Instead, try this: Sometime between when you get off the plane and when you check your bags for the cruise, take a second to repack your bags. Take out anything you’ll need for the rest of the day, such as sunscreen, swimsuits or a fancy evening dress. This way you’ll be prepared to enjoy the cruise amenities regardless of when your bags show up.
Bonus: Everyone else will be waiting for their bags, so you can take advantage of prime-time downtime at the pool...ideally with a Mai Tai in hand.
Get to port ahead of time, and leave late.
If you’re on a tight schedule, you might be tempted to book your flights so you arrive the same day that your cruise leaves. That’s a rookie mistake.
The best-case scenario is that you’ll make your connection, no problem. But still, there’ll be a nagging worry in the back of your head. What if the flight gets delayed? What if we can’t find the right transportation in time? What if I need to stop and pee?
Worst-case scenario? You miss connecting with the cruise before it sails off into the sunset, leaving you peeved and vacation-less on shore.
Similarly, it can be a jolt to your system to jump back into the swing of a workweek the day after you get off the ship.
A better way to enjoy your trip stress-free is to arrive in port a day before the ship leaves, and to book an extra day there to stay the night before heading back. That way, you won’t have to worry about things outside of your control, and you can fully enjoy your vacation.
Peace out from the internet while you're sailing.
Cruise ships have notoriously bad — and notoriously pricey — internet. Instead of succumbing to the urge to post everything online the second it happens, why not take a break and relax?
Use this as an opportunity to eschew social media and email for a bit, and you’ll likely find it much easier to unwind and enjoy yourself. Besides, you can always post away to your heart’s desire when you reach a port or return home.
Bring any medications you may need.
Sure, you can get almost any medication in the shops on the cruise ship. But you’ll pay an arm and a leg to do so, and you’ll need to leave your room, which can be especially challenging if you’re someone nursing a delicate stomach (you know what I’m talking about).
Instead, pack up a small pharmacy to bring with you on board for any of the common ailments you might have. We’re talking things like:
*Antacids or Pepto Bismol
*Any necessary prescription medications (don’t forget!)
Having these medications on hand will ensure you’re ready if a foul wind comes blowing, so you can pick yourself back up faster and enjoy the rest of the cruise.
Eat at the specialty dining restaurants on the first night.
Everyone’s still scoping things out and getting the lay of the land (or, er...ship) on the first night. That’s why most people choose to eat in the main dining hall or at the buffet.
Here’s a sweet insider tip: Do your research on what specialty restaurants are onboard the ship ahead of time, and pick one. Then make a reservation once you get on the ship. If it’s a popular restaurant, it’ll be easier to book a spot on the first night.
Plus, some cruise lines are known to surprise guests in the specialty restaurants with special offers on the first night, such as a free bottle of wine or a discounted meal. You won’t know unless you try it!
Keep your watches and phones set to ship's time.
If you’re traveling horizontally across the globe, you might find yourself switching time zones frequently. And while it might be tempting to change your clock according to whatever time it is at different ports of call, it’s often a better idea to keep it set to the ship’s time, which can sometimes be different. This time is almost always posted conspicuously throughout the boat and in daily bulletins, so you can keep track.
Doing so is important, because you’ll want to make sure you arrive on time to any dinner, spa treatment or show you’ve booked. If you get off the ship, this will be doubly important.
The ship will wait for you to return if you book any excursions through the cruise line. But if you DIY your own shore excursions (a cheaper and often more fun way to go), you’ll need to make sure you’re back in time. Otherwise, the ship can and will leave without you.
Buy the spa pass.
Here’s the truth about cruise ships, especially when they’re at sea in between ports: The decks can get crowded. Real crowded.
Fortunately, you can often buy a per-day or per-trip spa pass at a reasonable price that will grant you access to some of the spa’s amenities, such as the steam room or thalassotherapy pools. Simply head to the spa’s counter to ask about a spa pass once you get on board the ship.
While it’s not the same thing as an hour-long Swedish massage (for that, you really will need to book an appointment), it can be an easy, cheap way to relax and destress away from the crowds of screaming kids.
Avoid a vacation spending hangover.
Vacation spending hangovers are a real thing, and can take the wind out of your sails (pun intended) as soon as you get the credit card bill in the mail when you get home. This is especially true on a cruise vacation, when it’s easy to get blindsided by a litany of small charges that quickly add up.
To avoid that, make sure you budget in all of the little costs before you book the trip, so you know if it’s within the range of what you can afford.
Do your research ahead of time and estimate the costs of things you might need, and things you might want on your trip, like:
*Airfare and hotel before the cruise
*Specialty restaurant dining, coffee, ice cream, etc…
Keep up to date with ship happenings.
Since the ship’s wi-fi probably isn’t the greatest anyways, cruises often hand out paper newspapers each morning. Consider it an old-timey, functionable perk. Alternatively, if it’s a newer ship, they might offer an app with the latest happenings of each day listed on it.
Make sure you take time to read through the newspaper (or app) each morning. There are usually some valuable treasures here, such as free demonstrations, lectures or classes. Events like these are especially good at filling the time while you’re sailing between ports with not a lot to do.
The ship’s newsletter is also a great place to learn about any important cruising details, such as time zone changes or updates about shore excursions.
Bring extra power accessories.
Electrical outlets can be notoriously few and far between on cruise ships, even inside of your room. So, why not bring extra?
Some cruises limit you from bringing aboard full-on surge protectors and power strips, but other cruise lines are OK with it. Even if you can’t bring on a power strip, you can often still bring on a multi-prong plug. Make sure you check with your cruise line on any restrictions about power supply.
Speaking of power, it’s also a good idea to bring a portable power supply (think rechargeable energy sticks) with you if you’ll be using your phone as a camera while you’re out. The last thing you want is to be out on a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, only to have your phone die out on you.
Research your cruise line.
Each cruise line has its own vibe and type of person it caters to. Make sure you research each cruise line and pick the right one for you before you book.
Imagine what your ideal cruise would be: Do you want a fun jaunt with the kids? Or are you hoping to spend more time in each port, absorbing the cultural experiences? Perhaps you want to dress up for dinner frequently? Do you want to stay out late partying at night?
Keep in mind what your fellow passengers might be like as well. Nothing’s worse than hoping for an educational, laid-back experience and finding yourself in the middle of a frat-themed party boat.
Order to your heart's content.
In regular restaurants on land, you’re limited in what you can order by your wallet.
But in the main dining room of a cruise ship, the laws of the restaurant world have temporarily been suspended. On most cruises, you can order whatever you want and however much of it you want with dinner, at no extra charge. (Sadly, this doesn’t apply to the specialty restaurants.)
If there’s something on the menu that you’re not really sure you’d like but you’ve always wanted to try, now’s a good time to order it, alongside a reliable old standby. Or, maybe you’d prefer a lobster and steak surf-and-turf dinner? Don’t blatantly waste food, but now’s the perfect chance to eat away to your heart’s content.
Of course, remember that you’ll need to work off all of those extra pounds later…
Bring a bottle of wine on board.
Understandably, most cruise lines won’t let you load up on your own booze before the trip. That’s how the cruise makes money; you buy their drinks, including soda, wine, beer and cocktails.
But most cruise lines will make a small exception, allowing you to bring on board a six-pack of beer or a bottle of wine to enjoy. Make sure you check your cruise line’s rules before you do this, lest your bottle be confiscated.
Pro tip: Bring a bottle of champagne on board, if the cruise allows. Then order orange juice from room service one morning to enjoy a sunrise mimosa. The cruise might charge you a corkage fee anyways if you try to bring the bottle of champagne with you to enjoy at dinner. Better to savor it in your own cabin.