Over 30 million passengers are expected to cruise in 2019, according to Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) is the world’s largest cruise industry trade association. I know I have booked more cruises this year than any other form of travel and don’t see it slowing down any time soon. It is fun and affordable and has come so far since “The Love Boat”. Here are my tips and tricks!
Arrive the night before
Traveling can be stressful. Flights can be late, cancelled or you can miss a connection. A cruise ship leaves at a set time regardless if you board the ship or not, therefore I always recommend arriving the night before sailing if you are flying into your port of call. This way you can start your vacation a day early and not worry about travel delays. I have also heard many stories of delayed luggage and passengers having to board without their bags. Another perk of arriving the night before is that you can board the ship early on embarkation day!
Select an early port arrival time (PAT)
Your ship may not set sail until the afternoon, but there are advantages to boarding early. The sooner you board, the sooner you can enjoy all of the amenities the ship has to offer! The buffet, pool and waterslides will be less crowded. Also, the earlier you board the shorter the boarding time! Assuming the ship set sail after 4pm, the busiest time boarding will be between 12pm and 2pm, so if you can’t there before then, it might be better to wait until after 2pm and go straight to your cabin.
Skip the buffet, at least on embarkation day
On embarkation day, everyone is going to rush the buffet to get something to eat. The lines will be long and it is difficult to find a seat. Add to that, a lot of people will have luggage with them and you can see how this could not be much fun! Instead, do some research or ask a crew member what else is open. There are generally 1-2 restaurants that are open and will be less crowded!
Personalize your stateroom door
Every stateroom door looks the same, which can sometimes make finding your stateroom a little difficult (especially for kids). Most all stateroom doors are made of metal, which means you can use magnetic decorations to personalize the outside of your door. While this is most commonly seen on Disney Cruises, it is starting to become a little more common on other cruise lines as well. Etsy is full of cute door magnets! If you find a pineapple magnet you like, you may want to google what a pineapple magnet on a cruise ship door means first.
Wear a watch
There is ship time and there is local time, and sometimes the two are different. The clock on your cell phone, Apple watch or fitness tracker will automatically update to local time, which can cause lots of confusion since shipboard activities and port departures will be on ship time. You don’t want to a be pier runner, so instead, pack a wristwatch and set it to ship time.
Pack a carry-on
On embarkation day there is often several hours between when you board the ship and when your bags arrive at your stateroom if you checked them with a porter. First-time cruisers often don’t realize this and don’t bring a carry on with items they may need. If you pack you swimsuit you can jump in the pool or go on the waterslides while everyone else is still waiting for their luggage. You should also include your valuables, a change of clothes, toiletries and any medications you may need as your luggage may not arrive until after dinner.
Bring a day bag
If you are going ashore, you will need a bag to carry your items if you are going on an excursion, shopping or even the beach. You will need to bring your stateroom key card, photo ID, phone, credit card and some cash. You may also need to bring a change of clothes and a beach towel from the ship. Many first-time cruisers forget this and fumble with their items, carry them in a shopping bag or use their luggage, none of which sounds fun. I even take my day bag up to the pool on sea days with everything I may need including my kindle and a deck of cards.
USD is accepted throughout most ports in Mexico and the Caribbean. Ports in Europe, Asia and other parts of the world may require local currency. Often stores and restaurants accept credit cards, but smaller stores, street vendors and taxis require cash. You will also need cash to tip porters if you check your bag. Many cruisers also tip the wait staff and cabin stewards in addition to the gratuities charged to their stateroom.
Don’t be an early bird
The dining room doors open at your assigned dining time and not a minute earlier. If you get there early, you will be waiting in line. Most cruisers dine in the main dining room on embarkation day to check it out and the line can be very long! If you get there about five minutes later, you will be able to walk right in.
On most cruise lines, a 3-course meal (appetizer, entrée and dessert) is served in the main dining room. Don’t feel like you need to order one item from each. If you see 3 appetizers you want, order those instead of an entrée, or skip the appetizers and order 2 entrées instead. You can also ask to see the main dining room menu for the week. That way you can plan at dining at a speciality dining restaurant or buffet on nights that the menu doesn’t excite you.
Many guests head to the buffet for breakfast and lunch, but we prefer the dining rooms. They are less crowded; the food is often better and you’ll receive great service! Don’t worry, the dress is casual during the day.
It is best to do your homework and research ports. Plan shore excursions and make a tentative plan for what you will do in port before you get on the ship. Wondering around the port or going into the city without a plan and be disappointing and sometimes dangerous. Don’t leave it to chance! You can book excursions and activities through the cruise line, which is a good place to start, especially for first-time cruisers. You can also book private excursions but read the fine print on cancellations and their policy on getting you back to the ship on time!
Complete online check-in
Save yourself time and any possible headaches when on embarkation day by completing online check-in before you arrive! If you are cruising with children, sign them up for the kid’s programs online before the cruise. All of the cruise lines require registration by parents, and they won’t be able to participate in any activities until you do so. The lines to register children are generally very long on embarkation day, so it’s good to register them even if you don’t think they will go.
Cruise ship luggage tags
After you complete online check-in, you will need to print your cruise documents which will include luggage tags. These tags are used if you check your luggage curbside with a porter to be delivered to your stateroom. The luggage tag will have the name of your cruise ship, sail date and cabin number. There are instructions included on how to fold and staple them, but we prefer reusable plastic luggage tag holders. They are made to fit the printed cruise luggage tags but take note that due to size, they are not universal, so make sure you order the correct size for your cruise line.
Cruise lines prohibit certain items
There are obvious items that are prohibited like weapons and illegal drugs, but there are many other items that cruise ships do not allow on board. Check your cruise lines website for specifics, but the biggest no-no’s that get confiscated are irons, steamers and power strips that are not cruise approved.
Check your onboard account daily
On most cruise lines, you can check your shipboard account on the cruise lines app or even on your stateroom TV. It’s a good idea to check your balance every day in case there is an error. It is easier to fix it while still onboard rather than once you get home.
Gratuities will be automatically be added to your stateroom bill generally on the last day of your cruise if you did not prepay them. You will hear people say that you can remove them, but don’t be that guy. The tips are divided between the front of the house (waiters, assistant waiters, stateroom attendant, etc.) as well as the back of the house (laundry, dishwashers, etc.). You might think you are doing the right thing by removing them and giving the people you interact with cash instead, but you are shorting lots of hard-working people who spend months away from their families for lower than US minimum wage. If you want to thank someone for doing a great job, you can always hand them additional cash on the final day of your cruise, but please don’t remove tips.
And for Disney Cruises…
Many Disney cruisers participate in a totally optional, but very fun gift swap called Fish Extenders. Each stateroom on the Disney Cruise Line has a small fish or seahorse to the right or left of the door that is used to hold correspondence during the cruise. Participating cruisers hang a bag or personalized holder (that you can make or find on Etsy) that serve as a mailbox. You can search Facebook for your ship and sail dates to join a Fish Extender group. You will bring a small gift for each guest in your Fish Extender group for a gift swap.
Those are my top tips and tricks. Tell me in the comments below if you have a tip or trick that I may have forgotten!