I’ve Worked on Cruise Ships for 10 Years—These Are 18 Mistakes Every Traveler Should Avoid
These insider cruise tips just might be the difference between disaster and the trip of a lifetime
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Cruise tips for the perfect trip
For more than a decade, I have worked on some of the best cruise lines, and for the last six years, I’ve been a cruise director. It’s a dream job: I am the face and voice of a 3,600-person-capacity ship, organizing entertainment around the clock for guests, creating the master schedules, coordinating excursions, hosting special events and so much more. I’ve been on hundreds of cruises and live on a ship for most of the year, so it’s safe to say that I know a few cruise tips you’ll find useful.
I also know a thing or two about the mistakes people make when it comes to cruises, whether they’re first-time cruisers or regulars, and whether they’re taking an adults-only cruise, a singles cruise or a family cruise. From creating a smart cruise packing list to knowing the things you can’t do on cruises anymore to finding the best deals at sea, this insider information will ensure that you have the best trip possible.
*Danielle asked that we use her first name only and not identify the cruise line she works for.
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Booking too late
It is true that if you’re very flexible with your travel plans and/or you live near a popular port-of-call (like Miami), you can get some great bargains on cruises by booking at the last minute. But those opportunities are harder to come by these days, thanks to sophisticated computer algorithms that do a great job of adjusting prices to fill bookings earlier.
What to do instead: If you’re sure you want to book a particular cruise or your travel plans aren’t flexible, book as early as possible—as in, the date bookings open. Prices will be at their lowest then, but if for some reason they do drop, you can ask customer service to match the new lower price. Just be aware that price adjustments need to be made before the “final booking window,” when all rates are locked in, usually one to three months before departure.
Not asking for an upgrade
Post-pandemic, a lot of ships are sailing at low capacity, so there are often plenty of open rooms. People are often nervous to ask for an upgrade, but those rooms will just be left empty if they’re not filled by departure time. We love making guests happy, and as long as you’re polite and phrase it as a question, not a demand, we’ll do our best!
What to do instead: When you arrive, talk to any of the employees greeting guests about rooms available for upgrades. Different cruise lines have different policies, and the employees will know how to help you. And in case you were wondering, you can ask for an upgrade regardless of how you purchased your tickets. If you’re there for a special event, like a milestone anniversary or a honeymoon, definitely mention it—even if you can’t get an upgrade, they will find other ways to make your cruise special.
Some cruises also allow you to “bid” for an upgrade, meaning that you can offer an extra amount of money for that nicer cabin. This is still a good deal, since even with the extra fee, it’s still cheaper than if you had paid the original rate for that room.
Not packing a carry-on bag
This is one of those cruise tips you’ll really be glad you know before your next trip. Many people overpack their main luggage and don’t give enough thought to what they’re toting in their carry-ons. Remember: It takes several hours minimum to get your luggage to you. Luggage times can range from a couple of hours to half a day, depending on staffing levels and your cabin location. This is why it’s essential to have a day pack with anything you’ll need right away—and don’t forget the fun stuff!
Being rude or cold to the crew
We’re here to help you, but we’re not slaves. I’ve seen passengers have full meltdowns over everything from not being able to get prescription medication from the first-aid station, to the buffet not having a dish they ate on a different cruise line, to their towels being folded instead of shaped, like they saw on Instagram. Regardless of your demeanor with us, we’ll always do our best to help you, but we won’t be motivated to go above and beyond for you. Keep in mind that some events, such as dinner with the captain, are by invitation only or are not advertised, and having a crew member to help you get your name on the golden ticket could make your cruise experience something out of this world.
What to do instead: Be polite and kind to the crew. To be clear: You’re allowed to complain, and we definitely want to know if something isn’t right or if it could be better, but just remember that we’re people too—often operating on very little sleep.
Not taking advantage of flash deals
During booking or before boarding, many cruises offer limited amounts of “flash deals” for things like entertainment shows or drink packages. Many people wait, thinking they can just decide once they’re on board, but you won’t find those same deals on the ship. And these deals are worth it: Purchasing a flash deal ahead of time could get you half-off discounts for food and alcoholic beverages, an VIP excursion or priority seating at shows. Talk about an easy way to get perks and save some serious money!
What to do instead: If they’re offering something you know you’ll use, it’s almost always cheaper to purchase it through a flash deal. Flash deals are publicized through a cruise’s site and via email, but the fastest way to be alerted is by installing the app for your cruise line and registering your trip. And be sure to purchase quickly, since many deals are available only for a short time and/or in limited quantities.
Using the internet a lot
Internet on cruise ships can be overpriced and unreliable. This is because ocean-going ships have to use satellite systems for internet, and they are slower and tend to lose service more easily. And expect to pay for the privilege of slower service—older ships still sell internet by the minute (50 to 75 cents), while state-of-the-art ships offer day passes. Day passes average about $25 per device, per day. This can add up faster than you realize. So while it’s technologically possible to stream a Netflix movie to your cabin, it may not be the best use of your time or money.
What to do instead: See it as a gift! My advice would be to switch off completely while at sea and save your money. Cruise ships are equipped for maximum entertainment, and you should take advantage of all the fun we have on board. (Plus, in a cruise tip that doubles as a life tip, it’s good for you to do a mini digital detox and take a break from social media every once in a while.) If you do need to use the internet—say, to check your work emails or contact family—it will be cheapest and fastest to wait until you’re at port and find a Wi-Fi hot spot. Otherwise, just plan to use the ship’s internet strategically; have a plan before logging on rather than just surfing.
Not signing up for the free loyalty program
All major cruise lines have loyalty programs that offer real perks, including discounts on tickets, free meals, free internet, priority embarkation and disembarkation, and even free cruises. If you don’t sign up, you’re missing out. While the perks will depend on what “tier” of the loyalty program you sign up for, top-tier loyalty programs are the best deal for serious cruisers. That’s where you’ll be treated like royalty, with upgrades, special events, free or heavily discounted tickets, priority booking and lots of other extras.
What to do instead: The base programs are free to sign up, and you’ll want to register for them as soon as possible because you can start earning points immediately. Higher-tier programs are fee-based, but they can be a great deal depending on what amenities you want and how often you plan to cruise. You will be offered the chance to sign up or upgrade during the booking process, but if you miss it, you can sign up at check-in or at any point during the cruise—even when disembarking.
Depending on the package and loyalty tier, some of your points will be available immediately for use on your current cruise. Some major cruise lines, like Royal Caribbean, have partnerships with major credit cards that allow you to use your card to rack up loyalty points throughout the year. (Editor’s note: Here are some Disney cruise secrets you’ll want to know about too.)
Sticking to the buffets
Yes, buffets are fantastic because they offer a wide variety of popular foods, and it’s all-you-can-eat around the clock. But if you’re only eating at the buffets, you’re missing some of the best food on the cruise! The restaurants are designed to give you a full dining experience and offer regional or specialty cuisines that can’t be found on the buffet. Plus, you can order according to your taste and special-order dishes if you have particular dietary concerns. Many restaurants offer extras like dining with the chef, watching the food be prepared or special entertainment events.
What to do instead: Ask your host about special dining events, like the chef’s table, or to help you get reservations for a specialty meal—for instance, a Brazilian steakhouse meal or a five-course tasting with wine pairings. These dining experiences usually cost extra, but they’re totally worth it. Try to book two or three if you can.
Not using room service enough
When you’re staying at a hotel, you might forgo room service because it can get pricey—or because you can’t order whatever you want, whenever you want it. That’s not necessarily the case on a cruise. Post-pandemic, you can order anything off the menu through room service, 24/7 … but not all the food is free. You may have to pay extra for that cheeseburger at 3 a.m.
What to do instead: While what’s included in room service varies from cruise line to cruise line, as well as what package you’ve booked, breakfast will likely be free—no matter what. Make the most of this cruise ship secret, and you never have to leave your room for breakfast again if you don’t want to! One etiquette-based cruise tip, though: While tipping isn’t necessary, if you do order room service in the middle of the night, consider tipping the staff a few dollars when they bring it.
Not reading the ship’s insurance policy
If you enjoy doing adventurous activities like ziplining and surfing, make sure you know the risks and what you are covered for in case of an emergency. The ship’s insurance policy covers only the very basic things—those that are directly the cruise line’s responsibility, like canceled cruises or lost luggage. But anything related to your health or other travel issues won’t be covered, so you’ll need to rely on personal policies.
What to do instead: Make sure to read through the insurance policy and ask your cruise host or travel agent if you have questions. Check with your personal insurance provider to see exactly what they cover for cruises and/or out-of-country trips. And it’s never a bad idea to purchase separate travel insurance.
Going to Medical for seasickness
Cruises are required to have a certified doctor on the ship, but it costs money to get medical care onboard. Doctors bill an hourly rate—often around $100 per hour—plus fees for any services or extra supplies. Cruise-ship medical bills can range from $50 to thousands of dollars if you end up needing to be helicoptered out. However, many medical items are available for free through the customer concierge, so save those medical trips for illnesses or injuries that really require a doctor’s attention.
What to do instead: Seasickness pills and other over-the-counter meds, such as ibuprofen and Tylenol, are free through guest services, as well as things like Band-Aids, heating pads and wraps. Stop by the host station, ask any staff member or call directly from your cabin. Pro tip: If you’re prone to seasickness, ask for a cabin on a low deck and mid-ship, since they pitch the least in relation to the rest of the ship.
Not tipping your waiter
It’s true that tipping isn’t the same on cruises as it is in other places—after all, most cruises are all-inclusive. But there are different levels of “all-inclusive.” Luxury all-inclusive cruises don’t require or expect tipping at all, while “regular” all-inclusive cruises don’t require tips for basic services … but it’s a nice gesture, particularly if the staff member went above and beyond to help you.
What to do instead: It’s still polite to tip your waiter $5 and your bartender $1 per drink at the restaurants. You can add it to the check or to your room tab, but cash tips are preferred. Bring at least $100 in cash with you onboard for tips and incidental expenses.
Taking sketchy DIY excursions
This really depends on the location, but in lesser-known areas, it is generally wise to stick to the ship-sponsored excursions as opposed to relying on sales pitches from locals, taking internet advice or just winging it. After all, you want to make sure you don’t get taken advantage of, you’re safe and the ship doesn’t leave without you if the excursion runs late!
What to do instead: Stick to reputable excursions. Your cruise director will have a list of ship-sponsored excursions and will also be able to advise you on local companies that the cruise line has worked with. It also never hurts to do research before setting sail, looking up your particular ports-of-call and seeing what excursions you might want to ask about.
Going too far from the ship
It’s fine to go ashore independently and find your own adventures, but I’ve seen too many guests end up losing track of time or distance, and then end up waving the ship goodbye from shore. If this happens, you’ll have to find your own travel to the cruise ship’s next port of call.
What to do instead: Instead of driving yourself, find a local taxi driver who knows the area well. Just be sure to negotiate the price and time before hopping in. If you do decide to go it alone, stay fairly close to port, watch the clock and build in extra time for things like traffic jams. Make sure to get back to the boat at least 30 minutes before boarding time.
Underestimating how windy it gets at sea
Anytime you’re outside on the ship, make sure to secure all your belongings. Hold on tightly if you’re walking around, and if you’re putting your items down, place them in a zippered bag attached to a chair or table, or tether larger items (like blankets) to furniture. It doesn’t take much wind to launch your cellphone, hat or glasses into the ocean. This happens far more often than you might think!
What to do instead: I recommend that guests always bring towel clips for securing towels, clothing, flip-flops and other flighty items. Your ship may come equipped with some anti-wind protections like special shelters by the pool, lockers or wind breaks—just one of the hidden cruise ship features you may not know about.
Not honoring cruise traditions
Ships, cruise lines and even cruising culture in general have their own traditions. The most popular one on all cruise lines is the “Cruising Duck.” Never heard of it? Guests bring a rubber duck and hide it around the ship to be discovered by others. But there are many more traditions based on individual cruise lines, travel routes or themes (say, a Disney cruise), and part of the fun is getting to discover them. You can read up about them on online forums or just wait to be surprised.
What to do instead: Participating in these little traditions will make it more fun for you on your trip, and it’s a great way to integrate yourself into the cruising community. It’s especially fun if you’re doing a themed cruise.
Not following current health protocols
Health protocols change often, especially post-pandemic. For instance, most cruise ships now require proof of COVID-19 vaccination. Some are still doing rapid tests before boarding. Most prefer (but don’t require) you to wear a mask if you develop any symptoms of illness while aboard. If you test positive for an infectious illness, you’ll be quarantined. And remember, it’s not just COVID they’re concerned about: Outbreaks of norovirus and influenza are common in the close quarters of cruise ships.
What to do instead: Stay up to date on the current rules, and do your best to follow them. This information should be given to you the week before your cruise, via email or your online portal. You can also check the website, call customer service or talk to a host during the boarding process. But please don’t argue with us—we don’t make the rules. If you need clarification or an exception, speak to the ship’s doctor.
Not booking your next cruise while you’re still on the ship
This may sound crazy, but it’s one of the smartest cruise tips. Booking your next cruise while on your current cruise is a terrific way to make the most of free onboard credit and loyalty points. Once you leave the ship, the deals they’re offering will be gone.
What to do instead: Ask your host about what deals they are offering before you disembark. This is the best time to get a great deal on your favorite cruises—and ones that won’t be available at a later date. Cruise lines really want you to book your next cruise while you’re still there and excited, so they may offer you a cheaper upgrade to a higher tier of the loyalty program and/or nicer perks on your next cruise. If you can book at this time, you definitely should.