28 Secrets Cruise Lines Won’t Tell You

The perfect times to book a trip, what "all-inclusive" really means, and more secrets you need to know before setting sail

No trip is all-inclusive

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That “all-inclusive” rate typically doesn’t include alcohol, tips, shore excursions, Internet, dining outside our dining room, and what you spend on casino or bingo play. And please, do come play: Your odds are often even worse than on land. (Related: Try some of these travel hacks on your next cruise.)

Choose your room carefully

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Always look at the ship’s deck plan before you choose your cabin. Don’t pick one directly under the gym, the pool deck, the disco, or any late-night venue. Know that if you book a cabin at the front of the ship, you’re going to feel some up-and-down motion.

Come prepared to charge

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If your ship permits it, pack a charging station or a power strip. Many cruise ships still have only one or two outlets per cabin—and that’s not going to cut it in 2016. (Related: Use these tips for better smartphone battery life.)

Leave your car off-site

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If you’re arriving by car, do not park in the cruise terminal, which can cost $20 to $30 a day. Off-site lots typically cost half as much, offer shuttle service to port, and have your car waiting with the AC on at trip’s end.

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The threat of sexual assault is real

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You’re twice as likely to be sexually assaulted on a cruise as you are on land, a 2011 study found, and two thirds of assailants are crew members. Yet cases are hard to prosecute, with alcohol often involved and police often not on board. Stay safe by sticking with a friend.

Don't buy excursion packages from us

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Shhh … here’s a secret: You can book many of the same land excursions we offer for a fraction of the cost by arranging them privately with tour companies beforehand.

For God’s sake, wash your hands

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There were 11 outbreaks on cruise ships in the first six months of 2016, almost as many as in all of 2015. Most were norovirus, a highly contagious bug that causes stomach cramps, vomiting, and diarrhea. (Read this to learn about how to prevent norovirus.)

We overwork our staff

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Thanks to laws that allow us to register our ships in foreign nations, we don’t have to comply with U.S. labor regulations, so crew members typically work 12 to 13 hours every day, with no minimum wage, overtime, or benefits. Don’t be shocked if your service reflects this.

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We make our own water

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Ever wonder where we get all that freshwater? We make it. That’s right—giant onboard desalination systems remove salt and impurities from ocean water so it’s safe to drink.

Wait until you reach land to go online

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Our Wi-Fi prices can be crazy high for subpar performance. So save your surfing for port days, and ask the crew for the nearest free hot spot. (Since they can’t afford ship Wi-Fi either, crew members flock to Internet cafés when they disembark.)

The earlier you book, the cheaper

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Sorry, procrastinators: Most cruise lines now favor early booking promotions over last-minute deals, and the least expensive rooms sell out first. For the lowest price, book right when we announce an itinerary, often about 18 months out.

Got robbed? Not our problem

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We’re not required to report thefts of less than $10,000, so no one knows how much petty crime really happens on board. But it’s a lot: Leave your valuables at home.

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We can protect you from pirates

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We really do train for pirate attacks (even though they’re extremely rare). We can’t share many details, but let’s just say that our ship’s fire hoses are good for more than fighting fires.

Try to cruise the week of Dec. 15 or Jan. 2

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Most people don’t want to travel right before or after the holidays, so we drop our rates to fill our ships. The first week of September is another low-cost option. Avoid traveling during school holidays, especially between Christmas and New Year’s.

We offer more than shuffleboard and bingo

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As cruise lines compete to offer the coolest attractions, you can now find zip-lines, bumper cars, ropes courses, rock walls and hair-raising water slides on board. Walk a “plank” on the Norwegian Getaway that hovers 180 feet above the ocean. Or try simulated surfing or skydiving on a Royal Caribbean ship.

Keep an eye on your kid in the swimming pool

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There have been more than a dozen drownings or near-drownings on cruise ships in recent years, and most ships don’t have lifeguards. Disney is a notable exception; it began hiring guards in late 2013 after a four-year-old nearly drowned on the Disney Fantasy. (Related: Here are the water safety tips lifeguards wish parents knew.)

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The ship will leave without you

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We may stick around for an extra hour if we’re missing a busload of tourists. But if we’re missing one or two people, we are gone. And if you miss us, it’s on you to find—and pay for—a way to get to our next stop.

You may not get your luggage right after check-in

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Pack a carry-on bag with your bathing suit, a change of clothes, medication, and anything else you’ll need to enjoy those first few hours on board.

Not everyone on staff is qualified

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Don’t be surprised if the ship photographer doesn’t know much about photography or if some of the performers aren’t particularly talented. We hire so many people at such low rates that we're bound to end up with some inadequate crew members.

There's a hidden bar with cheap drinks just for the crew

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Crew members say they do a lot of drinking, partying, and sleeping together to blow off steam. But if you’re thinking of joining them, forget it—fraternizing with guests is the fastest way to get thrown off the ship.

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You can bring your own booze

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Most cruise lines allow you to bring one or two bottles of wine onboard, though you will probably have to pay a corkage fee. If you are buying wine onboard, it’s most economical to buy a full bottle, even if you only want one glass. Your waiter can mark it with your name and save it for the next night.

Yes, people do occasionally fall over the rails

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About 20 people a year, according to a website that tracks media reports of passengers overboard. Many of them are either incredibly drunk or they intentionally jump to commit suicide.

Order however much food you want

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Can’t decide between two entrees? Have you always wanted to try escargot? Many passengers don’t know that it’s OK to order more than one appetizer or entree. You can also request seconds or thirds. We’ve had people ask for seven or eight lobster tails on formal nights.

Wealthy passengers get perks

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On Norwegian, luxury travelers can stay in a hidden, keycard-protected area called The Haven that includes a concierge, 24-hour butler service and a pool and restaurant away from the crowds. On other lines, affluent guests get special seats at shows, personalized shore excursions, and a promise that they will never have to wait in line for anything.

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Some ports of call have extremely high crime rates

In Nassau, Bahamas, Americans have been victims of armed robbery and rape and the U.S. Embassy has issued a travel warning. Other ports that have particularly high crime rates include St. Lucia, Honduras, and some parts of Mexico.

Before you book, check to see if you qualify for any discounts

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We may offer them to senior citizens, active or retired military, residents who live the same state as a port city, firefighters, police officers, or teachers. You’ll get lots of extra perks if you've traveled with us before. Also ask for a price adjustment or upgrade if the price of your room drops after you book. Then set a “price alert” at cruiseline.com to get notified if the cost of your cruise drops below the level that you paid.

Bring strong magnetic hooks

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They’ll stick to the metal walls of your cabin, giving you a handy place to hang your jacket, wet swimsuit and other items to save space.

Don't wait to book your next trip

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If you love cruising, consider booking your next cruise while you’re onboard your current one. You can get a great deal, and many of us let you change your ship or cruise date—or even cancel—with no penalty as long as you do it by a certain time.

Sources: Sherry Kennedy, founder of cruisemaven.com; Jim Walker, a maritime attorney who specializes in cruise line law; Brian David Bruns, former crew member on six cruise lines and author of Cruise Confidential, a former cruise crew member from Thailand and three current cruise line employees who asked to remain anonymous

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