Everything you need to know to maximize your cruise experience in 2024

Whether you’re a first-time cruiser or inveterate world cruiser, these tips will help you have more fun onboard and on excursions

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Whether you are cruising on a mega-ship loaded with adrenaline-pumping activities, or a small vessel lavishing intimate vibes, these tips will help you get the most out of your trip.

Book smart

Don’t grab the first deal you see on the internet, the best deals can often be had by booking directly with the cruise line, or with a travel agent. If space exists, both may potentially add a room upgrade, perhaps with a balcony, or a booking bonus. Booking bonuses are onboard “free cash” credits to spend on extras including: Wi-Fi, shore excursions, specialty dining, beverage packages, spa treatments, onboard shopping, or special activities like culinary classes.

If your itinerary visits foreign ports of call, it’s worth checking with individual country consulates for visa requirements. It’s possible the cruise line may cover visa requirements for the ship’s guided excursions, but not if you venture out independently.

cruise butler
A trip advisor can sometimes provide perks such as an upgrade to a balcony cabin or concierge suite with butler service.Photo by Toby Saltzman

Plan to arrive early

It’s worth arriving a day early at your embarkation point, even if it is in North America. Most cruise lines start boarding around noon and depart around the dinner hour. If your flight is delayed, the ship will not wait for you. You may need to arrange a flight or ground transportation to meet the ship at the next port at your own expense.

If you’ve bought the flight inclusive air-sea package, the cruise line bears responsibility to get you to the next port. If several air-sea passengers are delayed, the ship may postpone the departure. After booking, note your ship’s toll-free emergency number in case you have to inform them of a delay.

Think of the extra day as an extension of your holiday, a pre-holiday holiday if you will.  You’ve paid for that first cruise day. Enjoy it to the max, feeling rested and raring to go. You’ll appreciate the day to unwind, perhaps take a walk or use the time to explore the port city. For example: for the Port of Miami, explore South Beach, or stroll through colourful Wynwood Walls, Miami’s street art museum.

If your cruise departs overseas, arriving two or three days early allows you to get over any jet lag, while giving you time to explore a new country. It’s worth considering the cruise line’s pre-cruise packages, as they include transfers from the airport to a well-situated hotel with full breakfast, a guided city tour, plus transfers to the cruise ship, and back to the airport after the cruise. For a recent Viking cruise on the Seine River, my Paris pre-cruise package – which originally seemed pricey – proved economical. In the height of the season, my package cost less than I would have paid for the same hotel room alone.

First things first

As soon as possible after booking, sign in to the cruise line’s reservation system or mobile app. This allows you to pre-book your preferred options.

The most desirable activities book up quickly. These may include specialty restaurant reservations, art or culinary classes, theatre productions, excursions, or once-in-a-lifetime experiences including submarine dives or helicopter flight-seeing. When it comes to excursions, book your top choices as soon as possible. For example, if you dream of visiting Rome on a Mediterranean cruise that stops in Civitavecchia, don’t chance missing out on your preferred guided excursion or a shuttle to the city centre.

cruise cooking class
Book early for classes such as Oceania Marina’s Culinary Arts Center cooking class.Photo by Toby Saltzman

While the ship’s app may have a calendar to peg your choices, it’s helpful to print out a simple calendar based on the cruise itinerary, noting the ship’s departure time from each port.

Book your boarding time as soon as possible to maximize your first day on board.

Research port excursions and activities

Research each port before booking the cruise line’s excursions. While excursions may be pricey, they can be time efficient. For example, Barcelona is easily explored independently, but if you’re keen to understand Gaudi’s architectural influence, the paid excursion takes you from place to place for a comprehensive view.

If you explore independently note the cruise departure time. Before taking a taxi to a remote area, ensure you can get a ride back.

paris lineup
In some locations it’s worth joining the ship’s guided excursions in order to gain easy access and avoid long lineups. Here, cruise groups enter the Louvre in Paris ahead of long lines.Photo by Toby Saltzman

Embarkation day – Let the fun begin

At the cruise terminal, prepare to show your passport, cruise ticket, pre-printed boarding pass, and credit card for onboard expenses. Be aware of the currency used for onboard charges. Most cruise lines charge in US dollars while some Europe-based ships (including Explora Journeys) may charge in Euros.

Your room may not be ready, so bring a bag with swimsuit, hat, suntan lotion, and your needs for the day. Your suitcase will be wisked away by porters. So, keep with you all essentials including medications, valuables, smart phone, and other technology.

After boarding, you will find lunch served in various locations, including the main pool deck.

Boarding time is when many people rush to book excursions, spa treatments, specialty restaurants, art or culinary classes, and – for mega-ships – reserve seating for theatre productions and ice shows. If you haven’t done so before boarding now is the time.

If you miss getting dinner reservations in a special Asian, French, Italian or steakhouse restaurant, try lunch, which is usually cheaper anyway. Spa treatments and access to the thermal suite – which may have a sauna, ice room and therapeutic pool – are most popular on sea days. If you’re budget conscious, wait to check the ship’s daily rosters for discount deals, usually given on port days.

ship entertainment
On Royal Caribbean’s Icon of the Seas, the stunning Wizard of Oz production is exactly as produced in London’s West End theatre district.Photo by Toby Saltzman

Beverage packages

Before sailing, consider your drinking habits. Aside from all-inclusive cruises, most lines offer various packages including spirits, wine, beer and/or artisan coffee and tea. Unless you anticipate drinking a lot, you may be better off paying per drink. While it’s easy to flash your room card for a drink, you can economize by visiting self-serve stations for included water, juices, tea and regular coffee. Or enjoy your libations when discounted at happy hour specials.

Read the fine print

Unless your cruise is totally all-inclusive, beware of hidden costs, such as gratuities for beverages and spa services, or charges to access therapeutic pools, fitness classes or adult sundecks. Check your chits, especially for drinks or spa services, which may inconspicuously include a space for “optional” or second tip.

cruise wifi
Onboard Wi-Fi plans usually allow email, calling, social media, and internet surfing.Photo by Getty Images

Wi-Fi communications at sea

Whatever your roaming package, use the ship’s Wi-Fi plan. Put your phone on airplane mode before boarding and sync to the cruise ship’s Wi-Fi. Leave it that way throughout the cruise, as even a second of satellite transmission may cause huge fees. Onboard Wi-Fi plans usually allow email, calling, social media, and internet surfing. The trick to saving pricey internet time is to create and save all the emails you want to send in a note or document file while offline. Then after you do log on, copy and paste the information into the email for a quick “send.”

Savvy packing

Check the dress code. Ensure you have layers and gear for the anticipated excursions. All ships have launderettes or laundry services. If you like to rinse favourite items in the sink, pack a plastic hanger or two to give them shape while drip drying.

Though it sounds tedious, bring everything you may possibly need: camera batteries, sunscreen, moisturizer, Tylenol, aspirin, Band-Aids, allergy medicine, lozenges, seasickness pills, plus emergency antidotes for constipation or diarrhea. Such items are pricey on board. With new ecology sustainability measures: some cruise lines no longer supply shower caps, or body lotion. Most of all, pack your patience and a smile.

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