Cruise Like a Pro With These 10 Insider Tips

Cruise experts and bloggers share their savviest strategies for making the most of your shipboard vacation.

by NEA Member Benefits

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One of the great advantages of a cruise is that nearly everything is neatly wrapped up in one package: transportation, accommodations, meals and entertainment. But before you book your getaway, read these tips from the pros to help you with the details: how to select the best ship, what to pack, savvy ways to save money—and much more.

1. Find the right ship. What appeals to you most about a cruise? Do you want a family vacation that offers plenty of kids’ club activities? Or are you looking for luxury and fine dining? Or a romantic escape? Experts will tell you there’s a cruise line or a ship to meet the needs of almost any traveler. But how do you find the right one?

Researching what experts and other cruisers have to say can help you make an informed decision. Some examples:

  • Cruise surveys: Condé Nast Traveler polls its readers about their cruise experiences then shares the results, with descriptions, of the Top 25 Cruise Lines.
  • Cruise pros: “Choose a ship based on your personal travel style, and not on price alone,” recommends Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief of Cruise Critic. “Each cruise line—and ship—has its own personality. Read reviews, contact an agent and do your research to find the best options for your specific needs and interests. Once you have a few narrowed down, then you can compare prices to choose the best fit for you.”

    Cruise Critic’s review website provides a wealth of helpful information. In “How to Pick a Cruise Line,” you’ll find pointers for matching your interests with the appropriate cruise line. For example, families with young kids may enjoy Disney, while those with tweens and teens often opt for Royal Caribbean. Travelers seeking formal cruise traditions such as ballroom dancing often pick Holland America or Cunard.

  • Bloggers: Ruth Soukup warns in Living Well Spending Less that individual ships have different offerings. “Take the time to research the amenities of the exact ship you will be cruising on, not just the cruise line,” she advises.

2. Book at the right time. You’ll find a wide range of advice for how to time the best price, but the bottom line is that top deals usually require booking early or late. Your choice depends on what’s most important to you; both options have unique advantages.

  • Early-bird rates: This is the best time to get low prices as well as your first choice of cruise dates and cabins. “Cruise lines reward those who plan ahead with their best prices up front,” says Experience Cruise expert Fran Golden. This can mean savings of 25 to 50 percent off posted fares in addition to optimal rates and selection for flights and hotels at your port of embarkation.

    “Take advantage of early booking offers, which can include a price reduction or extra amenities like shipboard credit, a bottle of wine or an upgrade,” advises Simon Duvall, community manager for the cruise-review site Cruiseline.com. “If the price of your cruise drops after you book but before you make final payment, you usually can get your rate adjusted just by asking.”

  • Last-minute deals: You also can get a good deal within the last two months prior to sailing. But while the rates may be low, you won’t necessarily get the exact dates, cabin type or location, ship or even port of embarkation you want. And if you have to fly, you may end up paying more for airfare if you book at the last minute.

3. Pack smart. Another advantage of cruising is that you get to travel to multiple destinations but only have to unpack once. But with so much to do on a cruise, how do you know what to pack?

Check the cruise dress code and your itinerary for clues. For example, do your research before packing formal attire. It may or may not be necessary. Even more important: Pick the right clothing—and footwear—for any activities you choose in port. Jeans are good for horseback riding, even if you’re visiting a tropical destination. And you’ll want closed shoes for the fitness center, hiking, biking and other such activities.

Keep in mind many ships have laundry facilities, so you don’t have to plan for new clothes each day.
 
“Remember that prices will be a bit higher for items onboard than they’d be at home—just like at any resort,” says Spencer Brown of Cruise Critic. “So don’t forget to pack things like sunscreen, a first-aid kit, over-the-counter medicine. You never know when you’ll need them.”

But leave your valuables at home. Don’t pack anything you can’t afford to lose. Damage or theft is a real risk on any vacation. For more packing tips, check out this list from Cruise Critic.

4. Pack your carry-on so you can hit the deck running. “Pack swimsuits, medications and anything else you’ll need for the first day of your cruise in a carry-on bag,” Duvall says. “It can take several hours—and depending on when you board, sometimes as late as early evening—for your bags to be delivered to your stateroom. You don’t want to miss out on fun at the pool or other activities going on when you first board the ship.”

5. Be tech savvy. Cellphone roaming charges and high prices for shipboard Wi-Fi can take a bite out of your travel budget. Check with your provider to find out if you’ll pay roaming charges, and turn off your phone’s data and cellular service as soon as you leave U.S. waters.
 
“Staying in touch is vital for most Americans, and the major cruise lines hear your pleas for better service,” notes Stewart Chiron, a cruise industry expert known as The Cruise Guy. “Cruise lines, and land-based cellphone and satellite companies, are spending billions upgrading systems, and costs to cruise lines and passengers have drastically dropped over the past year.”

Still, Chiron recommends checking with cell carriers before you leave home to find the best international plans as well as downloading the magicApp from magicJack, which allows you to make phone calls through your smartphone using Wi-Fi.

“Check with your cruise line before sailing about their package pricing,” he says. “Planning in advance can save you lots of money while staying in touch with family, friends and work.”

If you’re traveling with laptops, tablets and smartphones, pack a power strip so you can charge everything using your cabin’s limited electrical outlets.

6. Research your ports. Cruise lines offer excursions at every destination, but they usually come at premium prices. If you’d like to leave the beaten path or explore ports on your own, look into opportunities before you sail. Check out guidebooks, go online or ask friends for advice.

Unlike airports—where you can pick up numerous free local publications full of tourist information, maps and coupons—cruise ship docks rarely have any materials, so you may find yourself lost and disappointed.

To save space in your luggage, instead of bringing an entire guidebook, tear out and pack only the sections that cover the ports you’ll visit.

If you decide to set off on your own in port rather than joining one of the cruise line’s excursions, make sure you know when you need to be back at the dock. If you aren’t there on time, the ship will leave without you.

7. BYOW. If you can’t imagine enjoying a great meal without good wine, why not bring it with you? Many cruise lines will allow you to bring one 750-milliliter bottle of wine per adult for your personal consumption on the ship. (You can’t take it when you disembark in foreign ports.) You can drink it in your cabin or pay a corkage fee ($10 to $25 in the dining room). Policies vary by line, however, so check before you pack your libations.

Keep in mind that if you’re flying, you’ll need to pack the wine in your checked baggage (how much do you trust bubble wrap?), but you must transfer it to your carry-on when you get to the cruise ship terminal.

Here are more Cruise Line Alcohol Policies.

8. Stay healthy and happy. Cruise lines have medical staff and pharmacies onboard, but it’s a good idea to bring your preferred remedies as well as a few just-in-case items for headaches, upset stomachs and so on. Even if you’re not prone to seasickness, it’s not a bad idea to bring some Dramamine or Bonine, Sea Bands and ginger (good for nausea) just in case.

“The No. 1 best thing you can do to stay healthy at sea is to wash your hands frequently and thoroughly,” says Duvall of Cruiseline.com. “Also, use the provided hand sanitizer particularly in the buffet, casino and other areas of the ship where you are touching things that other cruisers have handled. Finally, using the restroom in your cabin rather than in a public area of the ship will reduce your potential exposure to viruses.”

9. Stay on the ship. If you think everyone cruises to visit the ports, think again. Here’s what the folks who stay on the ship know: While most people crowd the tenders to go on shore, it leaves fewer crowds—and less competition—for shipboard amenities for those who stay aboard.

If you’re not excited about any of the sights in a port, plan ahead and book your spa appointments (often discounted) for while the ship is docked. And you’ll have your choice of prime lounge chairs beside the pool. 

10. Be aware of what is NOT included. Although cruises include a lot, they don’t include everything. Read the fine print before you book. Typical exclusions: excursions, drinks (alcohol, bottled water and soda), photos taken by the ship photographer, spa services, childcare (outside of kids’ club activities) and tips. Gratuities are discretionary, but many cruise lines add a set amount to your account every day. If you want to tip more or less, you must adjust the amount at the guest services desk.

“What’s included in the price of a cruise varies significantly from cruise line to cruise line,” Duvall says. “Luxury lines like Regent Seven Seas, Silversea and Crystal tend to be most inclusive, while mainstream lines like Carnival and Norwegian include just the basics, with everything else coming at an extra cost.”

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