Activities, Entertainment, Mealtimes & More: Everything You'll Need To Know About Life Onboard A Cruise Ship
A Prepared Cruiser Is A Happy Cruiser: Plan Ahead & You'll Make The Most Of Your Shipboard Experience

From The Moment You Book 'Til The Day You Return, Here's What To Expect Before, During & After Your Sailing

Our Guide To Life Onboard: See Below For The Insights That'll Have You Navigating Your Cruise Ship Like A Pro

You've booked what you're certain will be the perfect cruise, and you're already daydreaming about life onboard: picturing yourself poolside, relaxing in the spa, or dining in one of your ship's incredible specialty restaurants. You're excited, and you should be – but if you really want everything to come together as imagined, it's essential that you arrive prepared, no matter which ship you're sailing or where it's headed.

Here at CruisesOnly, we've got plenty of expert advice on how to get ready for your upcoming cruise, from which travel documents you'll need and what to pack to cost-saving tips and what you can expect from a typical day at sea. We want to ensure that you'll make the most of your experience, and that's where the information below comes in handy: these helpful hints, tricks, and reminders will save you time and money, eliminate stress and unwelcome surprises, and give you a leg up on your fellow passengers.

BOARDING YOUR CRUISE SHIP (EMBARKATION)

- Avoid unnecessary delays by checking in online beforehand, just as you would for a scheduled flight.

- Most cruise lines "stagger" embarkation to keep things moving smoothly; be sure to pay close attention to your appointment time/embarkation window, and plan accordingly (i.e. don't cut it too close, but don't arrive too early, either).

- If you'll be departing from close to home, consider how you'll be getting to and from port: parking at the pier is super-convenient, but it's also expensive, so you may want to opt for a less-costly alternative like an offsite lot, a taxi cab, or a ridesharing service.

- Proper travel documentation (e.g. a valid U.S. passport, a birth certificate plus driver's license) is your responsibility, and if you arrive without it you won't be allowed aboard your vessel; be sure to contact your cruise line and/or the appropriate government agencies beforehand to determine what you'll need in each and every port of call.

- Review your cruise line's guidelines regarding which items are prohibited aboard your ship; some are pretty obvious (e.g. no weapons of any kind, no illegal drugs), others less so (select beverages, candles, extension cords, pool toys, certain types of sports equipment, etc.), so it's always wise to check ahead of time.

- Skip the lines entirely with priority check-in; virtually every cruise line offers it, and if you're a repeat passenger it may be available to you completely free-of-charge as part of your cruise line's loyalty/rewards program.

- You'll almost certainly be leaving your luggage with the porters at the pier, but there's no need to wait for it to be delivered to your stateroom; bring along a thoughtfully-packed carry-on bag (e.g. a swimsuit, flip-flops, toiletries, portable electronics, etc.) and you can start enjoying yourself the moment you step onboard (it's also the best place to store your most valuable items including jewelry and any critical medications).

NOW THAT YOU'RE ONBOARD: HINTS, TIPS & TRICKS

- Navigating your cruise ship can be confusing, especially for the first day or two; write down your stateroom number on a slip of paper and keep it with you.

- Your cruise ship, with the exception of the casino, is "cashless," so you'll need to plan accordingly. Determine which credit card you'll want to use for onboard expenses, or come prepared with an adequate amount of cash that you can use to set up your shipboard account.

- Consider skipping the buffet on embarkation day: seemingly everybody will make a beeline for it within minutes of boarding, resulting in a pretty chaotic scene, and there are almost always other venues open where you can grab lunch, drinks, a light snack, etc.

- Take a few minutes to inspect your stateroom to ensure that everything's in working order (e.g. test the toilet, the lights and outlets, etc.); your cabin steward can assist with any needed repairs, special requests, and more.

- If you're traveling with children, be sure to swing by your ship's kids' club to see what's on offer for toddlers, tweens, and teens; you can take a tour of the facilities, introduce yourselves to the counselors, and sign-up on the spot (attendance is optional, and virtually everything is included in the cost of your cruise fare).

- If you'll absolutely, positively need Internet/Wi-Fi access while you're at sea, plan on adding a service package, which can be purchased onboard or in advance of departure (package details – including pricing, connection speeds, and more – will vary widely from vessel to vessel); if not, you'll want to remember to set your phone and other devices to "airplane mode" and/or turn off access to data that's normally provided via your carrier (roaming charges can pile up quickly, and they can cost you an obscene amount of money if you're not careful).

- Every evening, a newsletter detailing the following day's activities will be delivered directly to your stateroom; use it to help schedule your time at sea and ashore.

- All cruise ships, per international regulations, are required to conduct a safety briefing, or "muster drill," prior to (or at the beginning of) departure; attendance is mandatory, even for children (your crew will take roll call), and your specific muster station is assigned based on the location of your stateroom (check the signage in your cabin to see where you're expected to assemble, then listen closely to your ship's public-address system for an announcement indicating that the drill is about to begin).

RECOMMENDED WITHOUT RESERVATION: SCHEDULE YOUR SPA APPOINTMENTS, DINING TIMES, ETC. ASAP

- Virtually every shipboard activity that requires a reservation (e.g. a spa treatment, dinner in a specialty restaurant, select theatre shows, etc.) can be booked online well in advance of departure (and it's always wise to do so, as the prime slots and spots will fill up quickly).

- Missed the cut-off time for online booking? Upon boarding, head immediately to your ship's guest-services desk (or its box office, spa, etc.) to ensure the widest possible selection of remaining options.

- A visit to your ship's spa or salon can be expensive, but many cruise lines will offer special discounts whenever your ship is in port; consider trading some time ashore for a good deal on a favorite wellness or beauty treatment.

- If your budget allows for just a single specialty dinner, consider enjoying it right off the bat: select specialty venues will sometimes offer discounted meals on the first day of a voyage, and an opening-day reservation is often easier to come by.

- Most cruise ships feature very flexible (non-specialty) dining options; make sure you're aware of the choices that are available to you (e.g. seating times, seating assignments, etc.), and feel free to touch base with your maître d' or other dining-room personnel if you have any issues or concerns (e.g. you'd like to be moved to a different table, you have special dietary needs, etc.).

- Weigh the pros and cons of purchasing a beverage package (e.g. unlimited soda, alcoholic drinks, bottled water); depending on your needs and the needs of your traveling companions, a beverage package might add up to a significant savings, but you'll want to read the fine print before committing (select package prices don't account for gratuities, which are often assessed on a per-drink basis, and most come with a number of requirements and restrictions).

- Don't assume that the live entertainment you're interested in won't require reservations and/or an additional fee; while the vast majority of shipboard performances are available free-of-charge and on a first-come, first-served basis, there are a handful of exceptions (e.g. select dinner shows like the Cirque Dreams® productions available aboard Norwegian Cruise Line).

LIFE ASHORE, TOO: HOW & WHEN TO BOOK YOUR SHORE EXCURSIONS

You can book your shore excursions once you're onboard; visit your ship's excursion desk for assistance, but be sure to do so ASAP: as with spa appointments and specialty restaurants, shore excursions always fill up quickly, and you'll want to make sure that you don't miss out on any of your itinerary's must-see attractions.

- Research the destinations you'll be visiting both before and during your travels; coming ashore is an essential component of any cruise vacation, and you'll want to identify the highlights (and the hidden gems) in every port of call.

- Don't forget to pack attire that's appropriate for the excursions you'll be taking (e.g. comfortable sneakers, waterproof footwear and clothing, hats and visors, sunscreen, a water bottle with carry strap, etc.).

- Always protect your valuables – your travel documents, your cash/credit cards, a cellphone – while you're in port; store everything in something that stays dry and secure (e.g. a money belt or another type of wearable pouch) and keep it on your person at all times.

- If you plan on dining early, try to book your excursions accordingly to avoid having to rush back to your ship (keep in mind that room service is an option, too; with few exceptions, it's already been included in the cost of your cruise fare).

- If possible, save the shopping until the very end; you'll find plenty of stores, stalls, and souvenir stands within a stone's throw of the pier, and you'll avoid the hassle of having to lug/manage your purchases over the course of an outing.

- If your excursion ends early, consider returning to your cruise ship so that you can enjoy its most popular amenities at a leisurely pace (with so many of your fellow passengers still ashore, you'll have little in the way of competition).

SAYING "FAREWELL" TO YOUR CRUISE SHIP (DISEMBARKATION)

- Your cruise line will provide you with detailed instructions/guidelines for leaving your ship.

- Often, these will be delivered to your stateroom on the final day of your cruise (or the evening before); they may also be outlined via a video that plays on your in-stateroom television, or via announcements that are broadcast over your ship's public-address system.

- Be as prepared as you can be the night before you return: make last-minute purchases (your ship's shops will be closed when you arrive in port), pack everything possible, settle any outstanding shipboard accounts, and keep any extra gratuities that you'd like to distribute handy (it can be hard to locate your cabin steward or a favorite server amidst the flurry of activity that takes place during disembarkation).

- Avoid unnecessary delays by carrying your own luggage off the ship; if you require (or would simply prefer) assistance, plan on leaving your bags outside your stateroom door at a time that will be designated by your cruise line (crew members will collect/tag your luggage and store it in a secure area until your ship has docked, at which time it'll be moved to a collection area within the terminal, which you'll find identified on the tags provided).

- If your vessel visited one or more international ports of call, you'll be expected to complete a customs-declaration form (regardless of whether or not you've made any purchases, or even set foot off your ship); one form per family will suffice, and you'll present it to a customs agent as you exit the ship.

- Try to be patient and polite! Disembarkation is often a slow-moving process (especially aboard the biggest of ships), and you can be sure that you're not the only one who's disappointed that their cruise vacation has come to a close; expect delays (past/loyalty passengers, passengers with early flights, and passengers who are carrying their own luggage will generally be given preference), and don't forget to thank your crew members as you exit.
Free upgrade!

Book an eligible stateroom on any qualifying sailing and receive a free upgrade! In some cases, you'll be upgraded to a more desirable location aboard your ship. In other instances, you'll be upgraded to a stateroom with extra space and/or a better view. It's also possible that you might receive all of these benefits. Select your sailing date to see which upgrades are available.

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