July 12, 2018

That Time I Learned How To Cruise...

I've already gone over what to know specific to Carnival and Norwegian (NCL) cruise lines, but here's what you'll want to know, no matter which cruise line you choose*...

Cruises are a unique way to vacation and there are some supplies you might want to pick up and keep it handy for every cruise you go on. 
Cruises are a unique way to vacation and there are some supplies you might want to pick up and keep it handy for every cruise you go on. Here is a list of everything I've bought for cruises that I use every time:

Cruise card
Your cruise card has several purposes: it's your cabin key, your on-board-credit-card, and your port ID card. Your cruise line may have a nickname for the cruise card i.e. Sail & Sign, Sea Pass, or Freestyle card. Many people get a hole punched in it (or it comes with one) at guest services or the casino and then wear it on a lanyard (I use a wrist-length lanyard). You will not want to leave your cabin without it.
The cabin-key part is mostly self-explanatory. For the cruise lines using wrist bands, you would hold it up to a panel on your door to unlock it. Carnival's newest ships' cabin doors also work like this, but with the cruise card.
Next, your card is used for food, drinks, shopping, casino games, and anything else that costs money. It's sort of like "charging it to your room" in a hotel, except the costs are split up by passenger (charged to their "folio").
For dining, they swipe your card to identify you in the main dining rooms and for specialty restaurants whether you will be paying or if you have some sort of dining package. For drinks, they'll swipe it for both if you have the package to verify you have it or if you are paying for your drink.
When getting off and on the ship, the cruise staff will scan it to keep tabs on everyone, and the local customs people will require seeing it to let you approach the ship. Usually, they will also want to see a photo ID to match your face to the name on your card. You can use your driver's license to do this so that you can leave your passport or birth certificate safe in your cabin.... in the cabin safe (pun not intended).

Onboard Spending 
Your only option to "pay" for stuff on board is your cruise card. You do have some options with how you then pay for everything at the end of the cruise.
You can choose to pay with any credit/debit card, cash, gift card, onboard credit, or some combination of these. You can apply these payment methods as you go or all at once at the beginning of the cruise.
NOTE: For a credit/debit card, the cruise line will place one-or-more holds on your account to make sure you have the money you are trying to spend. They will then do one big charge for the amount you owe at the end of the cruise and the holds will release. But there's an overlap of the holds and final charge, so don't freak out when you see this.
If you apply a lot of gift cards or cash to your account at the beginning of the cruise and don't use it all, you will get a gift card or check in the mail (respective to the method you used) about 2 weeks after the cruise ends.
For those traveling with friends, you'll be able to each only be responsible for your "folio" (your portion of the room/whatever you paid for with your cruise card). If you want to pay for everyone in the cabin at once, that can also be done easily.

No, not "appetizers"... All the cruise lines have a free app that keeps you in the know for your cruise. Before you board, all the app will do is count down to your cruise.
Once onboard, they work with the ship's wi-fi and have information like times things are open, menus, your cruise photos, ability to make dining reservations, activities schedule, your spending, and more!
NCL's iConcierge App
You have to connect to the ship's wi-fi (it won't do anything but make the app work if you don't pay for onboard internet service) to use it and make sure to put your phone in airplane mode to not incur data charges when your phone checks for emails!

Lido Deck Cocktail Servers
Particularly on the day you board, servers will be walking around with fruity drinks and ask you if you want one. THESE ARE NOT FREE. No matter how much it might feel like they are. Once they hand it to you, they will ask for your card (if you already have it - your boarding pass has the info they need if your card is trapped in your cabin's mailbox).
You will also see this throughout the cruise, but not as much.

Embarkation Day
Embarkation day is the day you board. Technical term. If your boarding pass lists a time, it is for when you can check-in, but boarding may be later. Particularly if your boarding time is early. 
When you do board, your cabin will not be ready unless you have a high loyalty status that prioritizes your room (if you're reading this, it's likely that's not you). 
You will need to keep everything you board with you until you're allowed to go to your cabin - usually around 1:30pm. 
If you ignore this norm, and your room is dirty - well then it wasn't cleaned yet cause you went to your cabin too soon.

Cabin Location
The type of cabin you select (interior, ocean view, balcony, etc.) is a matter of personal preference, number of guests you're comfortable with having in your cabin with you, and your vacation budget. 
However, the location you select is something you should consider if noise and/or vibrations will affect your relaxing and/or sleep OR if motion sickness is a concern.
You will want to check the ships deck plan and locate all galleys (the empty spaces), theaters, lounges, and pool decks. You will want to avoid being under a pool deck and galley, and not want to be anywhere near the lounges and theaters where there are loud shows and music.
If motion sickness is a concern, you will feel the motion the least in the back of the ship and on the lower decks. You will also want to avoid hurricane season (June - Nov). People will say you want to book mid-ship for less motion but my Navy friend told me otherwise. He pointed out that the restaurants that have servers carrying tray after tray of heavy plates are in the back of the ship for a reason.

Airplane Mode
Cell service has improved so much in the last decade that people forget that roaming is a thing. Within the US it's not, but step foot on to Mexican & Canadian soil (or touch down in another country) and every text, call, and KB of data is at a cost - and a HIGH one.
Same goes for cruising. Once the ship starts sailing away, turn your phone off completely, or put it on airplane mode, or turn off your mobile network access to use ship/hot spot wi-fi.
As mentioned above, if you're using the cruise line's app, you have to connect to the ship's wi-fi to use it.

Bed Arrangements
All cruise lines have beds that can either be two twin beds or one king/queen bed. You can either specify this in your cruise manager, call to specify, or ask your steward to change it when you get there. If there are more than two people in your room, the pullman beds and/or sofa bed will be set up for you.

In-Cabin Storage
You only get a little bit of closet space, so where do you stash your luggage if you want to unpack?! I always unpack, except for this one 3-day cruise I did which was in an older ship and had space on the floor to leave my bags open, like in a hotel room.
Something some don't expect is that the bed frames are purposefully high enough off the ground that you can slip your bags right underneath! my 20" and 25" rollers easily go underneath and I use them to store anything I don't need for the duration of the cruise (stuff I needed for before/after). Bigger bags can also fit under but you might have to lift the bed slightly.

Dining & Specialty Restaurants
All cruise lines have both free and for-fee dining options. The free options include the Main Dining Room(s) (MDRs), a buffet, and a few cuisine-specific free options. 
Specialty restaurants have a specific cuisine featured and most incur an additional fee. Some lines offer dining packages to save you some money if you plan to go to several specialty restaurants during your cruise.
Gratuities for specialty restaurants is either included or added on automatically, depending on the restaurant's policy (may even vary among restaurants on the same ship). You will want to check to make sure you don't double tip (unless you want to).
Teppanyaki on Carnival Horizon
If you're on a cruise with "formal nights," the MDR is your best bet, as they often have more pricey menu items as complementary options.
If you are looking for something upscale, you will want to hit the MDRs or the specialty restaurants. You will need to budget 1.5-2 hours for these meals. On Carnival and Royal Caribbean, you can choose between traditional and anytime dining for the entirety of your cruise. On Norwegian it's all anytime dining, but you can make reservations online ahead of time.
If you are trying to keep your vacation costs down, skip the specialty options and stick to the MDRs and other free options. Usually you will find a lot of what is being served in the MDR on the buffet, it's just not as fancy and possibly not as fresh. 
Looking for something fast? Go with the buffet or something that is counter service.
Pro tips: 1) Some of the specialty (for-fee) restaurants have lunch offerings that are free. 2) Make a note of when the MDR, restaurants and buffets close: the free options will get very crowded right after closing.
Cucina del Capitano's lunchtime (sea days) pasta bar

Don't use them. Okay, you can if you want. But if you always take the stairs, you will work off some of that extra food you're going to eat all week long. Plus the elevators are usually slow from all the people who do use them.

Room Service
One of my favorite things about cruising is complementary breakfast in bed! You will be given hang tags to place your breakfast order and select the time you'd like it delivered. Put the hang-tag on your door handle before going to bed and it will come to you free-of-charge. We always take advantage of this, even if we only want coffee.
Outside of the breakfast options, Carnival offers free room service from 6am-10pm with a couple of for-fee room service items at a low cost, and from 10pm-6am there are several for-fee items. Norwegian and Royal Caribbean each charge $7.95 per order for room service, so make sure you're getting several items to make it worth the cost!

Free Drinks
Most of the ways of getting free drinks aren't worth the time to attend that thing. Trust me. They make you wait a really long time at the champagne-art-auctions before giving out the champagne.

Don't bring 'em with you! Unless you really want to. The cruise lines provide both bath and pool towels in the cabins, and the pool towels can be taken off the ship when in port. Make sure they come back with you or you'll be charged.
Whatever you pack, it's more than you need. People like to say "pick what you want to bring then only take half." The key is to bring mostly items that are neutral colors so you can mix-and-match and get multiple outfits out of the items your bring. For help with packing, refer to my packing list.

Bathroom Supplies
Also included on all cruise ships are hand soap, shampoo, and body wash. If you have a favorite brand or need conditioner, you'll need to pack those, but if not, leave those at home! Tissues are also provided in the bathrooms.

Instead of passengers tipping-as-they go to the cruise crew, the cruise line will charge you automatic gratuities. There is a per-person-per-day gratuity that goes to dining room, buffet, and housekeeping crew. And there are percentage-based gratuities for dining packages, drink packages, and a la carte dining and drinks, charged at the time of purchase.
Some specialty restaurants have an up-charge that includes the gratuity. You are never expected to, or pressured to tip additional cash, but the crew is always happy to get a little extra if you are so inclined.

Carnival and it's sister brands have small laundry rooms on all ships that you can do you own laundry in. It's not cheap, but it is less than sending it out and/or paying to check (on a plane) another bag of clothes.
For all other cruise lines, your option is sending your laundry out. These sometimes offer a discount laundry day and/or flat costs for a bag-full, or free bags if you have a high status with their loyalty program.
For all cruise lines, if you have shirts that you would dry-clean before cruising, however, it may be worth having it done onboard and then you don't have to worry about wrinkles.

I can't say too much about the spa as I have never used it, but Husband got his haircut on a 2-week cruise, due to the timing of his previous hair cut, and because Carnival has comparable prices (for men's hair cuts) to our land-based salons. What you should note pertains to gratuities for the spa staff.
The cruise line will add a predetermined percentage (varies by line) to your bill as a gratuity - you can add more if you want to, but don't have to.
More importantly is to notice if you are charged the gratuity if you book-and-pay for the service before sailing. If it is not charged at booking, they will credit-and-re-charge you at the time of your service to add the gratuity on.
This was how we learned that Husband shouldn't have tipped cash for his haircut.
The mainstream cruise lines all have ATMs on board if you need cash, however, a possibly cheaper way to get cash may be to load some money on your cruise card for use in the casino, and then go straight to the cashier and request to cash out.
You will incur an ~3% fee for doing this, but it's usually less than the ATM fee.  Alternately, you can bring just a few large bills for tipping and make change at kiosks or the casino cashiers to avoid bringing a big wad of cash with you.

Missing the boat:  

Sorry for the pun, but my tip for this one is DON'T DO IT! If you are not back on board by the "all aboard" time either at the departure port or ports-of-call, the ship WILL leave without you. Make sure to leave enough time to get back to the ship when in port and note that the local port time is usually not the same as ship time.
If booking an excursion and the excursion group gets you back late: If it is an excursion booked through the cruise line, the ship will wait for you; if it is booked through a third-party, the ship will leave without you.
How You Get Tricked:
Also keep in mind that if you connect to wi-fi with your mobile device at,  say, a local Starbucks, your device will likely switch to local time w/o warning. Yes, I was almost back late because of this. Husband's watch and 20 minutes of running got us back in time.

You are not required to get off the ship when the ship is in port. If one of the ports doesn't have much to offer you, you may prefer to stay on board and enjoy short-or-no lines at the buffet, water slides, and other attractions. The ships do close some things while in port, so check your daily itineraries to make your final decision.
Whip & Freefall slides on NCL Breakaway

Drink Package: 
All cruise lines offer drink packages that save you money if you drink a large quantity of alcohol. My rule of thumb is that if you drink all beer, it's probably not worth it, if you drink only liquor, it probably is worth it. Either way, or if you drink some of both, here is a comparison chart, based on Carnival's drink prices and drink package price, to give you an idea. Drinks listed are not the entirety of what is available on board and "sharing items" like pitchers and "fish bowls" are not included.
IMO Norwegian's is straight-up not worth it due to it's high cost. However, they are perpetually running their "Free at Sea Promo that enables you to get it for just the cost of the gratuity on the package (20% of currently $99/person/day) when booking. I do find NCL's fares to be a little higher than a comparable cruise on the other lines, and the promo does not apply to guarantee rates (NCL calls them "Sail Away" rates). You'll have to do the math on if the higher cruise fare plus the per-day cost is less than what you would spend on drinks over the course of the cruise. For me, there is the factor of NCL having more itineraries out of NYC, which I can drive to, so the price of a flight is a consideration for me.
Carnival and Royal Caribbean let you bring one (750ml) bottle of wine onboard (must be in your carry-on) per adult. Norwegian allows nothing to be brought onboard which also factors into the "value" of their package.

Passports are not required to go to Mexico, Canada, Caribbean countries, Bermuda and Bahamas. If your cruise only includes these countries, you can cruise with your certified birth certificate and a government-issued photo ID (e.g. driver's license). The reason for getting a passport, if only traveling to these countries, is in event of an emergency. If there is an emergency while abroad and you need to fly home, it will be much much much easier to do so with a passport.

Private Islands:
Several cruise lines have private islands in the Caribbean that have the most beautiful beaches since the islands are not inhabited. You will enjoy free beach lounging and lunch and other free amenities vary by cruise line and/or island. On most islands, the beach chairs are free, but umbrellas and cabanas are not.  Sister cruise lines will have itineraries that visit their sister lines' islands.
Great Stirrup Cay

  • Amber Cove (Dominican Republic) - Carnival, Holland America, Costa, Princess: This is not actually a private island, but is a private resort-ish area that is free to use. Only the use of chairs, water slides, and pools are free of cost. Amber Cove does not have any beachfront areas.
  • Half Moon Cay (Bahamas) - Carnival, Holland America
  • Princess Cays (Bahamas) - Carnival, Princess
  • Castaway Cay (Bahamas) - Disney 
  • Harvest Caye (Belize) - Norwegian
  • Great Stirrup Cay (Bahamas) - Norwegian: This island also honors drink packages as they would on board.
  • Labadee (Haiti) - Royal Caribbean, Azamara
  • CocoCay (Bahamas) - Royal Caribbean: This island also honors drink packages as they would on board.
  • Celebration Key - Carnival: we're still learning about what to expect! (updated 4/27/24)

From Talk Like a Pirate Day to New Year's Eve, all SORTS of holidays are celebrated on board. Here's how some of the cruise lines celebrate:
Carnival (https://help.carnival.com/app/answers/detail/a_id/1394/~/celebrating-holidays)

More on cruising :)

*I have based this information off of Carnival, Norwegian, and Royal Caribbean cruise lines. If you are using a different one, or are cruising outside the US, you will want to refer to their websites


  1. These are really helpful tips.I don't have cruising experience so far.But we are planing a ferry trip this month.Most of these cruising tips are helpful for our ferry trip too.Specially the tip about using apps.


  2. For a person like me who has never done a cruise in his life, it's really very useful and interesting to read your blog posts!

    1. I'm glad you like them! You should try a cruise sometime :)

  3. Wow, what an awesome read! This article is full with helpful tips. I've never been on a cruise before, and I would remember not to recklessly assume that the cocktail served by the Lido Deck Cocktail Servers on the cruise is free, LOL! Awesome advices on the cabin location as well! ~ Ola @ WanderWithOla
    You will also see this throughout the cruise, but not as much.

    1. Yes! My friends got tricked into paying for drinks that looked like they were just being handed out. They didn't want to admit they were rookies and just paid for them.

  4. This is so helpful! I've always wanted to go on a cruise, but I am not sure how things work. I hope I can go on one!

  5. The best advice I can give a new cruiser is to put your phone on airplane mode immediately. I forgot my very 1st cruise and ended up with a $1200 phone bill. Now, as soon as we board the ship, I hit airplane mode and buy wifi if I need to access the internet.

    1. Yes. Very important. Somehow everyone forgot about roaming now that we can use our phones anywhere in the US. Leave the US and the price skyrockets!

  6. This is really interesting, I would definitely like to go on a cruise one day but had no idea what to expect or how to go about it! I'll have to keep all this in mind.

    1. Glad to help! I'm happy to answer any questions you have if you decide to go on one!

  7. so very useful! I love cruises and I really want to cruise in US so it's very important how it work there comparing to Europe.

    1. It's definitely different, but both are fun!

  8. The husband and I just booked our 6TH cruise but it's not till spring of 2021. But counting down will definitely be fun!

  9. It has been about 6 years since I have been on a cruise! I have been wanting to plan one for next year though so these tips will help a lot!

    1. I love cruising. After my first one I was hooked!

  10. Thank you for this. I would have no idea where to even start if I went on a cruise! I love that the beds can be switched around.

  11. There are some great tips here, I have only ever been on a cruise once and I loved it. Vicky

    1. I can't stop going on cruises. I keep thinking I'll get tired of it, but haven't yet!

  12. I have been on a Royal Caribbean cruise before and it was great. I really prefer to go on all inclusive cruises compared to those with the complicated pay for things and be charged after the fact.

    1. There aren't a lot of cruise lines that do all inclusive, but I agree that it really simplifies things. I'm going on my first Royal Caribbean cruise this December!

  13. I love cruises but I haven't tried it yet. Hopefully, I'd be able to do it this year.

    1. You should! Let me know if you have any questions about booking one!

  14. Thank you for sharing your experience. I would definitely want to take my family on a cruise.

    1. You should! You and your family would love it!

  15. There could nothing be better than having a cruise. It's always majestic and refreshing to be on one. I can't wait to be on another one.

  16. Honestly, this was wonderful information for a person like me. I had never thought so deep about all these essential points. After reading this post about your experience, I do feel like going for one by keeping all these things in mind.

    1. There's a ton to learn for cruising! It's not imperative that you find everything out before going on one, but I'm glad I read up before my first cruise.


  17. I cant wait for my next cruise. Carnival is on of my fav!

  18. I went on one to the Bahamas. It was so much fun; I want to do it again.

  19. Looks like you had such a wonderful time on that cruise. Thanks for the tips.

  20. These tips are incredibly useful. While I haven't had the chance to go on a cruise yet, we're gearing up for a ferry trip later this month. I've noticed that many of these cruising tips can be applied to our upcoming ferry adventure, with the advice on using apps being particularly relevant.