7 Things Smart Cruisers Always Do

(Image credit: Viking Cruises)

If you’ve been on a cruise, you’ve probably spotted the savvy cruisers from a nautical mile away. They’re the ones clinking Champagne at a sunset-view bar that you only discovered on the last night, or chatting with their onboard friends via walkie-talkies.

But you don’t need to be a seasoned ship-goer (or follow one around) to make the most of your cruise experience. Just follow these cruising dos (plus one don’t!) and you’re guaranteed to have a bon voyage.

(Image credit: Trish Friesen)

7 Things Smart Cruisers Always Do

1. Consider a “guarantee cabin.”

It’s common to romanticize the idea of standing at the edge of your stateroom’s balcony with a glass of Champagne, but any room sporting an outdoor space comes at a premium. If you’d prefer to make the most of your cruise outside the confines of your cabin, one hack many people don’t know about is the option to book a “guarantee cabin,” which is code for letting the cruise line pick your stateroom.

The upside to room roulette is it offers the cheapest fare (and a rare potential for an upgrade). The downside is you could be in an inside cabin above the nightclub. Decide before you book if you’re willing to take a gamble on your nest.

2. Study the ship layout in advance.

Whether you’re sailing on a 148-passenger ship or a 6,296-passenger mega-vessel, it’s wise to study the layout before you hop aboard. While deck plans are affixed to the walls throughout, it’s easy to get confused. Don’t make the same mistake I did and waste your first few hours walking around in circles.

Pro tip: Some ships show you where you are onboard with messages weaved into the carpets or via the lighting.

(Image credit: Viking Cruises)

3. Check your ship’s BYOB policies.

The bring-your-own-alcohol rule varies widely from cruise line to cruise line, but it’s always worth checking your ship’s policies, given the upcharge for onboard alcohol. (Most cruise ships do not include a full range of alcohol in your fee unless you’re sailing with a luxury line such as Seabourn, Silversea, Regent, or Crystal).

Disney Cruise Line allows guests 21 and older to bring two bottles of unopened wine or bubbly (or six beers) on board at the beginning of the voyage and at each port of call, whereas Carnival Cruise Line’s policy is a little more strict — they only allow one bottle of wine or Champagne per stateroom and only on embarkation day.

4. Pack essential items in your carry-on bag.

Because your checked luggage often takes a few hours to arrive in your stateroom, it’s wise to have a few essential items in your carry-on. Pack anything you’ll need for your first day — toiletries, bathing suit, coverup, hat, sunglasses — in a carry-on bag sturdy enough to hold your essentials and stylish enough for the dining room or pool.

5. Make a restaurant reservation in advance.

Beyond the grand dining rooms and big buffets, most large-scale ships offer guests the option to dine at their specialty restaurants with white-glove service and ocean views from every table. There’s an extra fee (typically ranging from $25 to $75 per person), but I truly believe it’s worth the splurge.

The only catch: Tables can book up quickly. Make your reservation well in advance of your trip.

P.S.: If you’re traveling with children, most major lines offer dedicated children’s programming for bambinos ages 3 and up for free. If your child is over 6 months old and under 3 years old, don’t fret — most ships have nurseries with excellent sitters and age-appropriate play areas that cost about $10 per hour.

6. Order room service.

Another worthwhile splurge? Room service. If you feel like sipping a coffee and eating a croissant in the comfort of your own cabin, order room service (included in the cost of most sailings) for a small delivery fee ranging from $4 to $8 depending on the ship.

My favorite time to ring for this heavenly, 24-hour service is in the morning when all I want to do is put on a fluffy robe and nosh on a tray of freshly baked pain au chocolate pastries.

7. Plan a day onboard (while everyone else is ashore).

Staying on the ship while everyone else is on land is an ideal way to use the amenities — pool, spa, climbing wall, skating rink (!) — without the crowds.

The One Thing I Always Skip

Cruise lines often outsource shore excursions. On the upside, a local expert leads the activity; on the downside, the experiences are often costly and inconsistent. After a number of frustrating shore excursions, I’m a big fan of exploring a port of call on my own (and at my own pace).

How do you make the most of your cruise experience? Add your ideas in the comments below!