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20 things to know before going on a cruise


Embarking on a cruise is a fun adventure that promises unforgettable memories and experiences. From the pristine beaches of the Caribbean and Bahamas to the rugged wilderness of Alaska, there are seemingly endless destinations to choose from, making cruising an easily accessible way to explore the world. 

Before you set sail, however, there are some things that you should be aware of in order to make the most of your cruise vacation. Planning ahead will help ensure that you have a smooth journey with no unexpected surprises. 

Below is a list of 20 things to know before going on a cruise. 

Each cruise line strives to provide a distinct experience, so it's important to choose the right one


With 9 mainstream lines to choose from, new cruisers may find themselves wondering what the differences are. Each company, whether it's Royal Caribbean, Carnival, Princess, Norweigan, or Virgin Voyages, targets a certain demographic to provide a unique experience that's tailored to their preferences and interests. 

Those, for instance, seeking a relaxing adults-only getaway may not enjoy the family-oriented atmosphere onboard many of Royal Caribbean's vessels. Similarly, Carnival won't be a good fit for travelers seeking a quieter experience. 

Though your friends and colleagues may have their opinion on which line is "best," you must evaluate your personal needs and wants before making a decision. Once you've chosen the cruise line, you can then begin to narrow down which ship you want to sail on based on factors like itinerary, onboard amenities, cabin options, and budget. 

Keep in mind that amenities vary greatly within each fleet. Royal Caribbean's Oasis Class, for instance, has features like zip lines, surf simulators, and ice rinks, whereas their Quantum Class vessels have skydiving simulators and bumper cars onboard. 

Read more: What are the best cruise lines of 2024 for every traveler?

You'll need the right travel documentation


Are you an American citizen sailing out of a U.S. port on a round-trip itinerary? Then you may be able to get away with bypassing the passport requirement, so long as you have a certified birth certificate and valid government-issued I.D. 

These sailings, which are otherwise known as closed-loop cruises, allow Americans to travel to certain desintations in the Caribbean, Mexico, Canada, and Bermuda without needing a valid passport, which is defined as a passport that expires no earlier than six months after your cruise. This means that if you are sailing May 25, 2025, your passport will have to be valid through the end of November 2025. 

An example of a closed-loop cruise would be a 7-night voyage out of Miami that visits St. Thomas, St. Maarten, and Perfect Day at CocoCay before returning to South Florida. 

It's important to check the specific requirements of your cruise itinerary and destinations, as some ports have additional entry requirements. Those sailing to Alaska out of Seattle, for instance, will need a passport for certain excursions. 

Read more: Where can you cruise without a passport?

While the base fare is pretty inclusive, there are plenty of ways cruise lines entice guests to spend extra

Playmakers on Symphony of the Seas

Most mainstream cruise lines include a wide array of amenities in their base fares; however, they're designed to cover only the essentials. This allows guests the flexibility to choose additional add-ons at their discretion. 

The majority of cruise lines include accommodations, select food venues and beverages, entertainment, onboard activities, and transportation to ports in their fares. If, however, you want a cocktail during sailaway, you'll have to pay extra. Similarly, while most activities on the ship are included, those ashore (i.e., on port days) will be something else you'll have to budget for. 

From drink packages to shore excursions, Wi-Fi packages, spa treatments, specialty restaurants, and more, there are numerous ways that you could accidentally find yourself spending more than you anticipated, especially if you aren't aware of what's included. 

Read more: 16 hidden cruise ship extra charges you should know about (2024)

Speaking of add-ons, you can often save money by booking them in advance


While not true for all lines, many have lucrative discounts on add-ons in the months and weeks leading up to your sailing. You can, for instance, save 10% off the cost of your Carnival's CHEERS! drink package on their online portal before your sailing. This reduces the daily rate to $59.95 for cruises that are 6 nights or more and $69.95 for those of 5 nights or fewer.

Royal Caribbean is also known for offering discounts on add-ons through their Cruise Planner. Be sure to frequently check the offers available for your sailing, as they can range from 10%-40% off! The best sales, however, tend to be around Black Friday, as well as Labor Day and Memorial Day. 

Plus, your line's respective planner is a good tool to see what's available during your cruise, especially if you aren't familiar with your ports of call. If you have any add-ons that are must-dos, you'll want to reserve them as soon as possible, as they could be sold out by the time you step onboard. 

If you aren't within driving distance of the terminal, you'll want to schedule your flight for the night prior to the ship's scheduled departure


While organizing the cruise itself is undeniably the most fun aspect of the planning experience, many must also account for travel logistics. If you don't live within driving distance, this entails additional expenses on airfare, which can be quite costly. 

In addition to flights, you'll have to reserve a pre-cruise hotel, as you don't want to fly in the morning of your departure. A single flight delay or cancelation could result you in missing your ship because they won't wait on stragglers; they have a strict departure time they have to adhere to. 

As I reside in North Carolina, I find myself flying to South Florida for the majority of my cruise vacations. To help offset the cost of a hotel, I try to use credit card points as much as possible. Since I am a Chase Sapphire Preferred cardholder, I transfer points to Hyatt quite regularly. In fact, for my upcoming cruise on Celebrity Ascent out of Piraeus (Athens) in July, my finacée and I were able to reserve two nights at the Grand Hyatt for free! This would have cost us over $550 out of pocket had we paid in cash. 

Read more: The costly cruising mistake newbies make planning their first cruise

Come equipped with motion sickness medication

Dramamine for kids

If you've never been on a cruise, it's best to operate under the assumption that you'll get seasick at one point, as this will ensure you come prepared with medication if you do find yourself feeling ill. If you think that you're immune to the motion of the ocean and neglect to bring any medication, such as Dramamine or Bonine, you may end up regretting your decision. 

Seasickness is a result of a conflict between the eyes, the motion of the ship, and your inner ear, where the vestibular system is located. While there are some natural remedies that people swear by, you don't want to ruin your vacation if they don't work the same way for you. Plus, you'll save money by purchasing the medication at your local drug store, as the price for the same product onboard is inflated. 

Would you rather spend the entire day trapped inside of your stateroom or out and about exploring everything fun onboard? 

It's important to bring other toiletries, too, as cruise lines don't provide you with much

hanging organizer

Typical land-based hotels usually provide you with some sort of shampoo, conditioner, and body wash. Depending on where you're staying, the list might be more comprehensive, including additional toiletries to ensure guests have a comfortable stay. 

Cruise ships, on the other hand, come equipped with the bare minimum. While some upscale lines, such as Celebrity, have a wider array of options, many only offer basic toiletries. In fact, Royal Caribbean gives guests a singular shampoo/body wash hybrid.

If you're picky about what products you use, make sure that you bring everything you'll need for the duration of your sailing. Although cruise ships do have some supplies onboard available to purchase, the selection is relatively limited. Additionally, you will pay far more than you would on land. 

Read more: What Toiletries to Pack for a Cruise (Packing List)

You should consider purchasing travel insurance

insurance form

While nobody wants to contemplate the worst-case scenario occurring during their highly-anticipated cruise vacation, it's important to be prepared for unforeseen circumstances, such as the onset of a sudden illness or flight delay. These types of events can disrupt even the most well-thought-out travel plans. 

Though travel insurance may seem like an extra charge that you have to front, should something unfortunate happen, you'll be thankful that you opted to spend the additional money. Depending on what the situation is, travel insurance could save you thousands of dollars. 

You can expect coverage on things like medical emergencies, luggage mishaps, and travel delays. You'll usually receive 24/7 access to a dedicated hotline, too. 

Read more: Cruise travel insurance and why you need it

Most staterooms can only fit four passengers, so large families may have to separate into multiple cabins


Though larger families can often squeeze into one hotel room, it's unlikely you'll be able to do so on a cruise ship, unless you're willing to splurge on a suite. Most rooms are only able to accommodate four passengers, so families of five, six, etc., will have to book multiple cabins to comfortably fit everyone. 

If you're traveling with younger children, book in advance to ensure that you're able to secure adjoining rooms. Those with preteens may be okay with having them across the hall, especially if you don't want to pay for two balconies. 

There are some ships that have rooms able to fit more passengers. Ships within Carnival's Dream Class, for instance, have a few Deluxe Oceanview Staterooms that are a great choice for larger families, as they're able to accommodate up to five cruisers. Plus, they feature a split bathroom, so you'll have one washroom in addition to the standard ensuite bathroom. 

Read more: Jaw dropping cruise ships with family suites

Certain items are prohibited


One of my closest friends went on her first cruise back in 2022. Since she packed a lot of dresses that were prone to wrinkling, she thought that she could bring her steamer to use onboard. Upon receiving her suitcase, she found out that it had been confiscated, as streamers are prohibited on cruise ships due to the fire hazard they pose. 

Before you waste valuable space on items that aren't allowed onboard, check out which items you can and cannot bring with you. While many prohibited items are common sense, such as weapons and illegal substances, others may surprise you. 

Everyday household items, including extension cords, irons, and coffee makers, are among those that are prohibited. Additionally, although camouflage clothing isn't banned onboard, many countries reserve the pattern for government officials or military members. Prior to leaving, you should confirm that the destinations on your itinerary do not have any restrictions about camouflage attire. 

Read more: 20 things cruise lines really do not want you to bring on ships

Expect crowds because you will be sharing the ship with thousands of other guests


Even the oldest ships at sea, such as Carnival Elation, can accommodate over 2,000 guests, while some of the largest (i.e., Royal Caribbean's Oasis and Icon Classes) can hold over double that. Regardless of which size vessel you're cruising on, you're sure to encounter crowds during your sailing. 

In other words, your cruise won't feel like a private yacht. From embarkation to lunch at the buffet and sea days by the pool, you'll find yourself surrounded by fellow travelers throughout your voyage. 

Crowds, however, don't have to be a negative aspect of your trip, as cruising offers passengers the unique opportunity to connect with other guests from all walks of life. In fact, cruising makes for a great solo vacation since you're able to meet people so easily! 

Read more: How to beat the crowds on your cruise ship

The time of year can really impact your overall experience 


When sailing in March or April, it is almost guaranteed that you'll be around more families and college students than if you were to cruise in May or September since spring break is the first opportunity many have to travel following the winter holidays. Of course, since the demand for cruising is higher than ever, you will likely be on a ship sailing at, or very close to, full capacity, regardless of when you go. 

If you're looking to minimize the number of children you're cruising with, though, consider sailing during the shoulder season, as this typically aligns with the American school system. Similarly, you will want to avoid holiday sailings because they see an influx of families. 

Another advantage to cruising during the shoulder season is that the fares are often significantly lower since there isn't as much of a demand. 

Read more: I took a spring break cruise on Carnival's smallest ship. Here’s why I wouldn’t do it again

Your itinerary is subject to change


Inclement weather and mechanical issues can cause your ship to skip a port of call, so it's not recommended to book a cruise for a single port. 

In February 2024, high winds caused those ashore at Perfect Day at CocoCay to return to their ships hours earlier than planned. While Freedom of the Seas was able to sail away, Oasis of the Seas couldn't safely depart until late that evening. 

Similarly, Hurricane Lee disrupted major cruise line itineraries in September 2023, with Disney Cruise Line's Disney Fantasy receiving a modified schedule. Rather than an 8-night cruise to Bermuda, the ship sailed to the Western Caribbean, visiting Cozumel, Mexico; George Town, Grand Cayman; Castaway Cay; and Nassau. 

Travel agents can help save you time and money


Travel agents provide more than expert advice. While they can certainly help you select the perfect cruise line, ship, cabin, and itinerary, they often offer incentives to book with them, such as onboard credit, prepaid gratuities, and other small gifts. 

While these perks won't amount to a free cruise, they'll help you save a little extra money on your upcoming vacation. Sometimes, they're able to offer group rates, too, which can save you on the base fare. 

As an example, my fiancée and I booked a cruise onboard Icon of the Seas for June 2025 through my travel agent. At the time of booking in mid-January, we reserved a standard interior cabin for $5,125.60, including gratuities. The website advertised the same fare for over $300 more! 

Tips for things like spa treatments and beverages are automatically added to the final bill


Tipping on a cruise ship works a little bit differently than on land. Rather than receive a bill each evening in the Main Dining Room, for instance, you're charged a daily gratuity, which can either be paid in advance or charged to your onboard account to be settled at the end of the sailing. 

The daily rate is divided amongst hardworking crew members, including cabin stewards, dining and culinary services staff, the guest services team, and others who work behind the scenes. At the end of the cruise, many guests feel inclined to leave an additional cash tip. Of course, this is not a requirement. 

When it comes to select onboard purchases, you'll automatically be charged a service charge, which is essentially the tip. This includes items like spa treatments and alcoholic beverages. The service charge varies based on which line you're sailing with; however, it's usually anywhere from 15%-20% of the total cost. Since the tip is already included in the final bill, you don't have to leave anything extra, unless you feel as though the service warrants it. 

Read more: 10 do's and don'ts of cruise ship tipping

Don't be afraid to try new things, especially food


Since there's so much food included in your cruise fare, it's a great time to step outside of your comfort zone and try a dish you otherwise wouldn't pay for. 

When my cousin and I sailed on Carnival Vista, he ordered frog legs as an appetizer because, well, why not? Similarly, my friend tried escargot for the first time while we were all cruising on Allure of the Seas in 2022.  

If you're worried about not liking a dish and contributing to food waste, you can always ask for a half portion. Plus, this will allow you to try more without filling up on the first dish you're served. 


Those who have a drink package should make the most of it by exploring new beverages. From cruise line-exclusive cocktails to new wines and craft beer, there's always something to try that you likely haven't had before. And while there's nothing wrong with sticking to your tried and true favorites, it doesn't hurt to branch out a little bit! 

A schedule of the ship's events will be available either via the mobile app or printed copy distributed by your stateroom attendant 


Your cruise line's respective schedule will be your go-to spot for everything ship-related. From dining times to fun activities on the pool deck, show times, and more, you won't know about the wide array of activities to choose from if you don't check the schedule. 

While most cruise lines have gone digital through the app, you can often request a paper copy of the schedule from your cabin steward. They'll leave the following day's schedule when they service your cabin, so you'll be able to comb through the offerings before drifting off to sleep. 

You don't have to purchase a Wi-Fi package to use this feature of the app, either. Simply connect to the complimentary internet once onboard to begin scrolling through!

If you don't complete the muster drill, you will be tracked down by the crew members 


Amidst all the excitement of embarkation day, you'll have to carve out a little time to complete the mandatory muster drill. Even though emergencies at sea are rare, you must be aware of certain protocols before sailing into the open ocean, which is why all cruise lines are required to conduct muster, or safety, drills before departure. 

Thankfully, the majority of cruise lines have converted to a virtual process, which allows you to watch videos on your own time via your mobile phone or in-cabin television. You'll also have to visit your assigned muster station and listen to a few brief announcements over the PA system before the emergency signal is broadcast. 

Those who don't complete the drill will be tracked down by the crew. They're technically able to kick you off the ship if you repeatable ignore, or evade, their attempts of getting you to finish the drill. 

Read more: The cruise ship muster drill: What is it and why it's important

You won't need to carry cash or credit/debit cards onboard


Once you're on the ship, you can safely secure your wallet in your in-cabin safe, as you won't be able to pay for anything with cash or credit/debit cards. 

Instead, you'll be given a cruise card (or in the case of Virgin Voyages & Princess Cruises, plastic wearable devices) that will serve as your charge card, room key, and personal identification. Yep, that means you won't have to show your passport or driver's license for each drink that you purchase! 

The only times onboard you'll need cash are if you want to play any table games in the casino or leave a personal tip for your favorite bartender, waiter, etc. You will need it when going ashore, too, as your cruise card won't work for purchases made in port. 

Research prior sailings, so you can get an idea of what the theme nights will be 


Theme nights onboard cruise ships are when guests dress with a particular theme in mind. Disney Cruise Line, for instance, is known for their infamous Pirate Night, whereas many Carnival ships have an 80s Rock-N-Glow Party on the lido deck. 

While your respective line won't send out a list of the themes in advance, they're easy to figure out if you want to come prepared. An easy way to do so is to head to Facebook and look up a group for a previous sailing. You can also scour Google for an old daily schedule. 

Popular themes may include White Night, Western Night, or highlight a specific decade. And while you don't have to dress to participate in the fun, it makes it a more immersive experience! 

Read more: 10 Hidden Features on Cruise Ships

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