Cruise ship tips and advice: 25 insider secrets

Whatever sort of cruise you choose – resort-style, boutique-luxury, leisurely river or adventure – you want to make the most of your precious time on board. And if you're cruising for the first time, there are lots of things you can do to save time and money that might not apply to land-based holidays. 

Doing your research before you book is key to finding the right sort of ship and itinerary that suits your lifestyle and budget. There are many tempting cheap offers floating around but if you're looking for a cosy couple's getaway then a bargain-priced three-night sampler cruise on a ship with two or three thousand fellow passengers is not going to fit the bill. 

Check our many reviews and tips in our own cruising section, talk to friends who've already cruised and pick the brains of a cruise-specialist travel agent (cruising.org.au).

World's largest cruise ships meet for the first time

The world's three largest ships, Harmony of the Seas, Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas, have arrived together in the same place for the first time. Video: Royal Caribbean

While we're talking pre-cruise homework, taking out cruise-specific travel insurance is advisable; even if you're not leaving Australian waters, Medicare and private-health policies do not cover medical expenses, which can be enormous on cruises. A good policy will also cover your expenses for cruises that are cancelled, unforeseen flight delays that mean you miss the ship's departure and pre-paid port excursions that might have to be missed because of weather or sea conditions. 

We've talked to cruise experts and veteran cruisers to compile 25 top cruise secrets to help you plan your next, or first, cruise.

VALUE FOR MONEY

1. JOIN CRUISE LINES' AND TRAVEL AGENCIES' EMAILING LISTS

You'll receive weekly, daily, last-minute and past-passenger deals that have a short booking window – if you have a flexible schedule and can take off for a cruise at short notice, there are some amazing bargains to be had.

2. GRAB AN EARLY-BIRD FARE

Many lines, especially river cruise companies, offer bonuses such as free flights, pre-paid gratuities and on-board credits when you book and pay several months in advance. You also have the benefit of booking your preferred cabin and if you're planning a family cruise during school holidays, always the busiest times, booking at least six months ahead is almost essential.

Advertisement

3. JUMP ON A REPOSITIONING VOYAGE

These are one-way cruises when ships move seasonally to different destinations; for example, overseas ships based in Australia for our summer sail for the Mediterranean or Caribbean in March and April. They can be great value, particularly if you enjoy lots of sea days, but don't forget to factor in the airfares to and from the ports.

4. BE SURE ABOUT SHORE TOURS

Check the cruise itinerary and ship's excursions before you leave home and work out which ones are easy and cheaper to organise yourself. The main thing to remember is that if you're delayed on a ship-organised tour, the ship will wait for you – if you're on your own, it won't.

5. BECOME A GROUPIE

Major cruise lines offer discounts, perks or a free cabin when a group books a certain number of cabins, whether it's for a bunch of friends or for a special occasion such as a wedding or anniversary.

BUDGETING  ON BOARD

6. VET THE NEWSLETTER 

These useful itineraries include daily special offers, especially on sea days, such as a cocktail of the day, discounts or free drinks at the shops, spa raffles and discounted treatments.

7. ENJOY FREE ACTIVITIES

You might not do hip-hop or line-dancing at home but why not give it a go? You'll work off some cruise kilojoules and have much more fun than you expected. Movies – shown in cinemas during the day and often on giant poolside screens in the evening – shows, trivia games, libraries, gyms (but not classes) and sports courts are all free. 

8. TAKE A BREAK FROM THE KIDS

On major cruise lines these are free for children aged three and above; qualified childcare staff organise games and activities while the grown-ups take a well-earned break. 

9. STAY OFFLINE

Even though internet packages are becoming more reasonably priced, it's still much more expensive, and slower, to go online at sea than at home. You generally pay about 75 cents a minute although pre-paid timed packages bring the price down. Bottom line: wait until you're in port and can find free Wi-Fi hot-spots.

10. SAY THANKS, BUT NO THANKS

 …to the on-board photographers who will snap you getting on and off the ship, during dinner and on gala nights. Same goes for souvenir cocktail glasses – do you really want them gathering dust back at home?

FOOD & DRINK 

11. DO YOUR SUMS ON DRINKS PACKAGES

Before you sign up for a drinks package, do some sums to make sure it is good value for the number of alcoholic, soft drinks or extra-charge coffees and teas you are likely to consume. It's also worth remembering that a service charge (usually 15 per cent) is added to every drink you buy.

12. GO FOR THE CHEAP EATS

When specialty restaurants are open for lunch, the menus are usually cheaper than at dinner. You can also buy various levels of restaurant packages, which do save money when you plan to dine at all those included on the package. It's also advisable to book tables as early as possible and online before you board if the cruise line offers that option.

13. GO LOCAL

Some group special-event dinners organised ashore by river cruises don't live up to expectations. If you'd prefer to sample real local cuisine unaccompanied by up to 180 fellow passengers, ask your cruise director for recommendations or do some restaurant research before you cruise.

14. BEAT THE BREAKFAST QUEUES

People often forget that the main dining room is open for breakfast and if you don't fancy queuing at the buffet this is a civilised option. Room service for breakfast is another treat; remember though, if you like tea and lots of it, order extra tea bags and jugs of hot water. 

15. BYO DRINKS

Policies vary from line to line about how much – if any – alcohol you can bring on board and that's now extended to soft drinks. Some lines allow you to bring a bottle or two of wine on board, then charge you corkage. Some allow you to bring up to 12 cans of soft drink, but no bottles – because passengers could be sneaking in vodka or gin in that innocuous-looking bottle of water. Talking of water bottles, bring your own refillable bottle and top it up with water from the tap – it's as pure as you'll find anywhere – and free.

See also: The new food experiences coming to cruise ships in 2017

SUITE LIFE 

17. BYO POWER BOARD

These days we travel with numerous devices that need re-charging every day and there are rarely more than one or two power points in cruise ship cabins. Pack a power board and don't forget an international adapter if you're travelling on a US or European-owned ship, in Australia or elsewhere around the world.

18. BE A SPACE INVADER

Storage space is often at a premium, so apart from trying not to over-pack in the first place (always a challenge), remember that you can put suitcases under the bed and if you're not doing laundry as you go, stash your dirty washing in the cases. Bedside cupboards and drawers offer handy extra space; hanging clothes takes up less space than keeping them folded in drawers, and you can always ask your room steward for more hangers if you need them. Things you don't need to pack include travelling irons (not allowed on board), hairdryers (supplied in your cabin) and beach towels.

19. GET INTO A LATHER

Over-door or hanging toiletry bags add extra storage space for often economically sized bathrooms. Air fresheners are a thoughtful addition – you can buy mini non-aerosol varieties. If you're cruising on a budget-priced ship you might find there's only one shower dispenser that has an all-purpose shampoo and liquid soap, so bring your own products if you prefer a bit more luxury. Most showers have a retractable line for hanging light items of clothing – and if you're going to hang washing on your balcony, bring pegs or bulldog clips to stop them blowing away. 

20. BOOK A BALCONY CABIN

Talking of balconies, a balcony cabin does cost more than an inside or oceanview cabin, but for a extra few dollars a day a balcony cabin more than repays the cost in quality of cruise life – you have uncrowded sea and port views, fresh air whenever you want, and the luxury of privacy. 

See also: Don't call them cabins - the most luxurious suites at sea

GO WITH THE FLOW

21. BUY A SPA PASS

Even if you don't want to indulge in any of the fabulous spa treatments on offer (they are generally more expensive than on land), a daily or cruise-duration spa pass offers the opportunity to use spa facilities such as steam rooms, saunas, thalassotherapy pools and snooze-inducing heated tiled loungers. Passes are usually limited to ensure the facilities aren't overcrowded, so check if your ship's spa offers them on the day you embark.

22. STAY ON BOARD

Sometimes it pays dividends to skip a shore excursion and stay on the ship when it's in port. While most  passengers take the opportunity to go off exploring, you can enjoy the relatively un-crowded facilities of the ship – there's no problem finding a sun-lounger, pools are peaceful and you'll probably enjoy even-better-than-usual service in the restaurants.

23. CHILL OUT

Most large, ocean-going ships these days have adults-only pools, whirlpools and sun-decks where you can escape from the constant music that plays on other pool decks – not to mention exuberant kids having a wonderful, noisy time. Some adults-only sanctuaries have private cabanas you can hire by the hour and their own bars. Ships' libraries are also havens of tranquility – and observation lounges are often deserted in the middle of the day. 

24. AVOID PEAK SEASON

If you're looking for less busy cruises, whether ocean-going or river, it's best to book in shoulder or low seasons. These vary according to destinations – in Australia, for example, the peak season is the Christmas school holidays and for European river cruises, you're looking at April to October. River cruises in Europe start operating in March and usually go through to December; Christmas-market cruises are becoming increasingly popular but the cold weather doesn't appeal to everyone. 

25. FIND YOUR SWEET SPOT

There's often so much happening on board you can forget about those peaceful places where you can do absolutely nothing. There are few more relaxing experiences than watching a ship's wake churning into the distance, gazing at the horizon, watching the sun set and rise, and seeing stars in skies that are many miles from landfall. 

See also: The best spa experiences on cruise ships

FIVE SECRETS FOR BEATING THE CRUISE BULGE

ABSTAIN Cocktails look and taste delicious but beware – they're laden with sugar and kilojoules. A typical Long Island Ice Tea is as apparently as fattening as a Big Mac (about 2060 kilojoules). Order a vodka and soda, your favourite spirit with low-kilojoule mixers or stick to white wine-spritzers.

WALK Ignore the lift and take the stairs, do circuits of the promenade deck (helpfully marked so you know when you've completed a mile), use a treadmill in the gym and choose shore excursions that don't involve long, sedentary bus rides.

CYCLE Take bike rides on river cruises, hire bicycles in port cities to explore and work up a sweat on stationary bikes in the ship's gym.

DOWNSIZE Fill a small plate rather than a dinner-size one at the buffet – various studies have shown this visual trick helps you reduce the amount you eat.

RESIST A cooked breakfast with eggs, bacon, hash-browns, sausages and buttered toast adds up to a lot of fat and kilojoules. Treat yourself to one per cruise rather than indulging every day – you'll be grateful post-cruise.

FIVE MAJOR CRUISE NO-NOS 

LETTING KIDS RUN WILD Yes it's a holiday but not everyone wants to trip over out-of-control kids rampaging around the decks. If a pool or sun-deck is designated "adults-only" that's exactly what it means. No under-18s allowed. 

SMOKING Don't do it in your stateroom, on your balcony, or anywhere other than the dedicated spots on the ship. Apart from annoying non-smokers, some lines impose hefty fines for breaking the rules.

FAILING TO WASH YOUR HANDS Sounds basic but people forget and then a norovirus-stricken ship hits the headlines. Use the ship's hand sanitisers and never pick at the food in the buffet with your fingers. 

HOGGING SUN-LOUNGERS There aren't as many sun-loungers as passengers so be prepared to take turns. If you leave your belongings to "reserve" one, don't be surprised if the crew removes them while you wander off to do something else.  

BEING LATE Keeping fellow passengers waiting on a bus before or after a shore excursion is inconsiderate (and some tardy cruisers do get left behind) but being late back to the ship means you are very likely to miss it. And that's expensive.

See also: How to pack for a cruise holiday

See also: Eight things I learnt on my first river cruise

Comments