A few years ago, I had a dream job: I was hired as an anonymous cruise ship critic for a major publication. I boarded up to 3 cruises a month, and my work entailed taste-testing at every restaurant, measuring cabin square footage, gauging the traffic flow in congested areas, and calculating internet speed. Here are 10 things I’ve learned about cruising.
1. There’s a cruise ship that’s right for you
Some people say cruises aren’t for everyone, but I believe there’s a cruise line for every traveler and a traveler for every cruise ship.
Don’t like crowds? Sail on a small ship or a riverboat.
Don’t care for buffet lines? Almost all ships have specialty restaurants featuring a specific cuisine, like Italian or Japanese—sometimes a dozen or more.
Think cruising is only for retirees? I did for a long time, but the average age of cruisers (46.7 in 2019) has been trending downward.
Do the research upfront—a AAA travel advisor can make this easier—to make sure the ship you book is a match for your needs and style. Look beyond the cheapest or the most convenient embarkation port.
2. Booking at the last minute can save money
Cruising can offer great value, especially when compared to a pricey land vacation in places like Norway or Alaska.
Cruise lines start selling itineraries 18 to 24 months in advance of departure—sometimes even earlier. But if you’re flexible on where and when you cruise and aren’t finicky about the cruise line or type of cabin, booking at the last minute can yield terrific bargains.
This is especially true for the most popular destinations from North America—the Caribbean, Mediterranean, and Alaska—because the lines have more beds to fill, and that makes for a buyer’s market.
This isn’t the case with other types of cruises and destinations. If you seek a world cruise or a holiday sailing, cabins can fill a year ahead. The same may be true for itineraries sailing through unusual or remote destinations, such as the Arctic, Africa, or Southeast Asia.
3. Choose cabins according to your itinerary
Most ships have 4 main categories of cabins:
- Inside cabins that lack windows are the cheapest.
- Ocean-view cabins, which might offer a foot-wide porthole or a picture window.
- Balcony cabins, often the same size as the previous 2 categories but with a veranda, which might be as small as 35 square feet (just large enough for a pair of deck chairs).
- Suites vary in size, amenities, and price—and ships have far fewer of them.
I love cabins with a balcony, but because they cost more than inside or ocean-view cabins, I make a calculation before booking one. First, I determine if the cruise will sail through a particularly scenic region.
If I’m sailing the Inside Passage, a sunrise breakfast with champagne on my balcony might be irresistible. On a cruise with lots of sea days, however, I might prefer to socialize by the pool. That’s when I ask myself: How much time will I enjoy the scenery from my balcony if the weather doesn’t cooperate? Rather than buy an amenity that goes underused, I prefer to book an extra shore excursion or 2.
4. Solo cruisers have cabin options
Historically, cruises are priced per person but based on double occupancy. Solo travelers can pay up to twice as much for a cabin. But cruise lines today recognize the need to cater to solo passengers and are carving space for them on newer ships. These cabins are generally snugger, and few come with balconies—many are inside (with no view).
Of the big cruise lines, Norwegian is ahead of the game. It launched its “studio” cabins— measuring up to 100 square feet—on the Norwegian Epic in 2010. Its solo passengers have exclusive access to the Studio Complex and Lounge, a facility with a large-screen TV and a tended bar. (Solo travelers should be comfortable with dining alone, though most cruise lines will work to seat you with others when possible.)
Throughout its fleet, Cunard Line features single cabins sized like a standard double cabin. You’ll also find solo accommodations on the newer ships of Celebrity Cruises, Royal Caribbean International, and Holland America Line. On 4 of its ships in September 2022, Oceania Cruises reclassified its 18 smallest staterooms, measuring 143 square feet, as solo ocean-view cabins. On the line’s new Vista (debuting April 2023), solo cabins feature a veranda.
5. Make the most of port time
On my many cruises, I find one sight the saddest: passengers traipsing off the ship and ambling directionless into myriad jewelry and T-shirt shops.
To take home great memories as well as souvenirs, learn about the ports on your itinerary before your sailing to identify a fun or interesting activity you can do when your ship docks.
Guidebooks to ports of call or a country or region are a good starting point. Lonely Planet, Rick Steves, and other companies publish guides to European cruise ports; Fodor’s and Frommer’s issue guides to Alaskan ports. These books list top shore excursions offered by most cruise lines, but also provide leads for DIY exploration. They also identify local products to take home, and where to buy them.
Don’t want to explore on your own? Independent companies like Viator sell shore excursions and transfers for a wide variety of destinations.
The ship’s scheduled shore excursions add a level of security to port explorations because the cruise line has vetted the local tour operators. Also, a ship will never leave behind passengers booked on a shore excursion that returns late. The most popular tours sell out before embarkation, so book in advance to lock in your preferences. The downside? Shore excursions sold by cruise lines are priced at a premium.
If you head off independently, take along contact details for the ship’s local representative (listed in the daily newsletter) in case you have issues. Be sure to get back aboard before a ship’s designated sailing time. That is usually inflexible, and ships will leave tardy passengers behind.
6. Proper packing matters
We’ve all been there—arriving somewhere and discovering we’ve left behind something important. I’ve forgotten my swimsuit, spare camera battery, and prescription medicine (eek!). Or worse, the luggage we checked in for our flight is not with us when we arrive for embarkation. You can buy new swimwear onboard ship, but replacing some items—your prescriptions, for example—can be a hassle at sea.
Create a checklist of what you’ll need well before you start packing. Must-have items, such as medications, go in a day bag to carry on board the flight and ship. And because it may be hours between embarkation and accessing your cabin and luggage, take a bathing suit so you can enjoy the pool while waiting. That’s essential when cruising with kids.
But don’t overpack. The adage, “pack half the clothes and bring twice the money,” rings true, and most cabins don’t have extensive closet or drawer space. This holds doubly true if more than 2 people share a cabin. Verify if your ship has self-service laundry rooms. Most do, but not all. Besides, no one will call the fashion police if you wear the same outfit to dinner twice.
7. Don’t sweat the dress code too much
Formal night, an occasion for dressing up, traditionally is held on 2 nights of a 7-day itinerary. But because not everyone wants to don gowns and suits on vacation, cruise lines have adapted as the types and age of cruisers has broadened.
Norwegian and Carnival, for example, have abandoned formal nights. Even shorts are acceptable eveningwear at most of their restaurants. Celebrity Cruises has rebooted its dressy night as Evening Chic and encourages designer jeans or a cocktail dress for women; sports coats are optional for men.
Most mainstream lines, such as Royal Caribbean, Princess, Disney, and Holland America Line, maintain a formal night. To skip packing formal wear, head to the ship’s buffet, which does not typically enforce a dress code on any evening.
On luxury lines like Regent, Seabourn, and Silversea, evening wear is defined as “elegant casual” most nights (no jeans or shorts). On formal nights, an evening gown is expected for women and slacks and jacket for men.
Cunard Line maintains the strictest dress code and encourages black tie for Gala Evenings. It’s not for everyone, but when sailing Cunard, I look forward to putting on the dog.
8. Make your cabin home
One of the best advantages of a cruise holiday is not having to pack and unpack at each new destination. Put your clothes in the dressers and closets, so you can truly feel at home. Use your empty suitcases to store dirty laundry.
Make more storage room by packing magnetic hooks, which attach easily to most cabin walls. You can use these to hang baseball caps, belts, wet bathing suits, and anything else that can clutter up a confined space.
9. Ports are not guaranteed
A couple I know have booked their first Mediterranean cruise, and their ship’s itinerary includes the island of Capri. “It’s the one place in Europe I’ve always wanted to see,” one of them told me.
I hope everything goes according to plan, but I warned them that cruise lines can alter itineraries for many reasons. Weather is the most common. Capri accommodates only small ships. Larger vessels, such as the one my friends have booked, must anchor off Sorrento, on Italy’s mainland and, if seas are too rough, boat trips to Capri may not be possible.
Other factors also can come into play. For example, a landslide in August 2022 closed a cruise pier in Skagway, Alaska. In 2021, a dockworkers strike in Greece put the country’s ports off limits.
If you’re keen on a particular port, consider visiting it on your own before or after your sailing.
10. You don’t have to unplug
Not long ago, the only way to stay connected at sea was to call from the phone in your cabin, at a cost well above several dollars a minute.
Today, all cruise ships offer Wi-Fi. Although connection speeds vary considerably by ship, they have steadily improved in recent years. And some cruise lines have apps, such as Princess Cruises’ MedallionClass, that allow you to chat with other passengers or order drinks poolside.
Unlike a hotel, however, you’ll pay for that connection on all but upscale lines such as Oceania, Regent, Seabourn, and Silversea (where it’s usually included in the all-inclusive pricing).
Internet access is sold by the hour, the day, or the voyage, but prices vary considerably depending on the speed you want. Most basic plans start at about $7 per day, per device. If you want to stream video, you may pay as much as $36 a day.
Tip: Leave your phone in airplane mode throughout the cruise and connect with friends and family at home via Wi-Fi.
If the Wi-Fi signal is spotty, the router may be too far away or too many people may be logged on at once. Late nights and early mornings or midday in port are usually the best times to log on. Also note: In certain parts of the world, the satellite signal can be spotty—this is particularly true when sailing in narrow fjords, such as those in Alaska and Norway.
David Swanson’s writing and photography has been published in National Geographic Traveler, American Way, and the Los Angeles Times.
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