26 cruise secrets from a cruising expert that will blow your mind


Psst! Don’t tell anyone, but I have a secret for you: If you want to avoid the breakfasttime crowds at the buffet on Celebrity Cruises‘ new Edge-class ships, head to the tucked-away Eden Cafe.

The Eden Cafe has great breakfast items, including yummy breakfast wraps and several healthful choices. And it’s sometimes completely empty.

Or, just order room service. Unlike at hotels on land, room service on Celebrity ships is completely free at most times of the day — as it is on many cruise vessels.

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Heading to the off-the-beaten-path breakfast nooks on cruise ships or ordering free or almost-free room service are two of the secrets to cruising like a champ that I’ve learned over the years. When you have sailed on nearly 200 ships, you pick up a thing or two.

There are a lot of cruise secrets to learn. Of all the possible things you can do on a vacation, cruising is a bit of an odd duck. Cruise ships have lots of unusual traditions, quirks and rules — “secrets” to the uninitiated — that can take many sailings to figure out.

Speaking of odd ducks, keep an eye out for the toy ducks hidden around many cruise ships by passengers, one of the more unusual phenomena of cruising in recent years. If you find one, you can take it home as a souvenir. That’s my third cruising secret for you.

Here are 23 more cruise secrets that you may not know if you’re a newcomer to cruising or even a veteran of several sailings.

There is no limit to what you can order in main restaurants

Go ahead: Ask for a second appetizer or two main courses. On cruise ships, by long tradition, there’s generally no limit on how many dishes you can order when dining in an included-in-the-fare main dining room.

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Related: The ultimate guide to picking a cruise line

It’s a common sight to see veteran cruisers request extra appetizers, main courses and desserts. You also can ask for a main course to be brought out as an appetizer in a smaller size or for an appetizer to become a main course. It may seem brazen at first to order multiple dishes at every course. But if you want to, go for it. It’s a great way to try new things.

The room service is inexpensive — or even free

PRINCESS CRUISES

Speaking of ordering up a storm, don’t be shy about calling for room service when staying on a cruise ship. Unlike at most hotels on land, room service on cruise vessels is either very inexpensive or completely free. The lines that do charge for room service generally just charge a service fee of $5 to $10 per order, sometimes only on late-night orders. A few have per-item charges, but they’re generally not all that much.

There sometimes are hidden nooks for breakfast

Cruisers have a penchant for heading to the main buffet restaurants on ships for breakfast so such eateries often are packed in the mornings. But on some ships, you’ll also find alternate venues open for breakfast that many cruisers overlook.

As noted above, I’ll escape the crowds on Celebrity’s Edge-class ships at breakfast time by heading to the hidden-away Eden Cafe, which serves up breakfast sandwiches, freshly baked cinnamon rolls and other quick-serve items. The breakfast burrito-serving Cafe @ Two70 on Royal Caribbean‘s Quantum-class ships is another of my favorite alternatives for a morning meal.

The first day of a cruise is a great time to dine in a specialty restaurant

On most nights, the top specialty restaurants on cruise ships fill up fast. It can be hard to get a reservation to experience one. But you’ll find a lot more tables available at specialty restaurants on the first night of a cruise, when most passengers head to an included-in-the fare main dining room or buffet for dinner. You might even get a discount for dining in one, as some cruise lines take to special offers to fill specialty dining restaurants on embarkation day. For example, Carnival Cruise Line typically offers a complimentary or reduced-price bottle of wine in its steakhouse on night one.

The food is often free at extra-charge coffee shops

The food is free at the International Cafe on Princess Cruises ships. PRINCESS CRUISES

Many bigger cruise ships have extra-charge coffee bars on board that serve up lattes, cappuccinos and other fancy coffee drinks for an extra charge. But unlike at coffee shops at home, these venues often don’t charge extra for food items. You’ll often find lovely hand-made pastries, mini-sandwiches and other gourmet bites on offer that can be yours for the taking — completely gratis.

There often are organized LGBTQ+ meet-ups

Many cruise lines organize regular LGBTQ+ meetups on ships. You’ll sometimes find them advertised in ship schedules as “Friends of Dorothy” meetings, and they’re usually held in a private area of a lounge.

You can continue Alcoholics Anonymous meetings while on a ship

Many cruise ships also host regular Alcoholics Anonymous meetings on board. You’ll find them listed in ship schedules as “Friends of Bill W” meetings, and they usually take place in a private place on board such as a meeting room. The “Bill W” is a reference to William Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.

You can skip the buffet crowds on embarkation day by heading to a table-served eatery

The first thing many cruisers do when arriving at a cruise ship on embarkation day is to head to the buffet for both a quick bite and to wait for their cabins to become available. The seating areas of these venues can quickly become unbearably crowded. To avoid the crowds, ask if there is a table-served restaurant on board open for lunch. There often is, and in many cases, you’ll find it nearly empty.

A table-served eatery also is a good option to escape the lunchtime crowds on sea days

A table-served restaurant also is a great option for lunch on sea days as an alternative to eating in the buffet. On sea days, you’ll often find the buffet on a ship packed, as it’s typically right near the deck-top pool areas where many passengers are congregating. Take the time to seek out a table-served restaurant option — often the main restaurant will be open — for a more relaxed and uncrowded lunch experience.

You can drink anywhere

Unlike in many cities and towns, there’s no law on cruise ships saying you can’t walk around in public areas with an open beverage container. You can carry your beer or glass of wine with you wherever you go on a ship and no one will say a thing.

You can have the pool deck to yourself on port days

Most passengers get off their ship when it arrives in port to experience the local destination. But there’s nothing saying that’s a requirement. You’re perfectly welcome to stay on board during port calls and enjoy all the ship has to offer, including its pool decks. While some venues on ships close during port days, you’ll usually find top-deck attractions such as pools, waterslides and bars open and, often, blissfully quiet.

You can get spa discounts on port days

A spa treatment at a Silversea spa. SILVERSEA CRUISES

It’s not just the pool that you’ll have to yourself by staying on board during a port day. It’s the spa, too. With everybody off the ship touring, spas are relatively quiet on port days — so much so that many ship spas offer discounts on port days to get people to sign up for services. Ask at the spa if it offers such a discount program, and keep an eye out for spa deals in the daily newsletters that many ships deliver to cabins nightly.

You can send your kids to camp for free

Resorts on land often charge hefty fees for their daytime kids programs — if they have them at all. But kids programs on cruise ships usually are included in the fare. You often can send your kids to wonderful, counselor-supervised kids camps on ships for hours at a time for no cost.

You can get a discount on your next cruise by booking it while still on board

On many cruise ships, you’ll find a future cruise desk where you can sign on for another sailing at a discounted rate that you can’t get when booking after you return home. Often, these offers come in the form of a credit that is applied to your next booking. All you have to do is put down a small deposit on the future trip to get the savings, which might add up to $100 or $200 per cabin, or a percentage discount.

Better yet, you often don’t have to know which sailing you want to do. As long as you put down a deposit while on board, you can choose a specific itinerary and sailing later. You can also transfer the booking to your favorite travel agent, so she or he can handle the details and get paid commission from the cruise line.

Your wine bottle will follow you

A couple drinks wine at a bar on a Princess Cruises ship. PRINCESS CRUISES

You’ll save money in most cases by buying wine by the bottle instead of the glass on cruise ships — and the good news is you don’t have to drink it all at once. If you can’t finish an entire bottle in one sitting at a bar or restaurant, your server will mark the bottle with your room number and store it away for drinking at a later time. It’ll then be there waiting for you when you next return to the venue — or even a different venue (your server at the new venue will track it down).

You can save on beer by buying in bulk

Some cruise lines will offer discounts on beer that’s bought in bulk. Look for a “bucket of beer” deal when sitting at a cruise ship bar — or ask your server if one is available. You’ll usually get four or five beers in a souvenir bucket for a cost that is a bit less than what it would be to order each one individually.

You can bring your own alcohol on board on some ships

Many first-time cruisers assume they can’t bring their own drinks on board a ship. But many lines will allow this, usually with some limits. It’s one way to save money when cruising, as drink prices on ships can be high.

Adults can bring up to two bottles of unopened wine or Champagne or six beers onto Disney Cruise Line ships at the start of a cruise and at every port of call, for instance. At Royal Caribbean, the bring-your-own allowance is two bottles of wine or Champagne per cabin at boarding, plus up to a dozen standard cans, bottles or cartons of nonalcoholic drinks.

A caveat: Many lines levy a “corkage fee” if you want to bring your wine into an onboard restaurant. Be sure to read the alcohol rules for your line before you bring any drinks on board.

You can use your cabin walls for more storage …

Looking for a clever way to expand the storage that your cabin offers? Here’s one of our top cruise ship cabin hacks: Throw some magnetic hooks into your travel bag before you cruise. Walls on cruise ships often are made with metal that is magnetic, even if they look like wood, thanks to faux wood veneers. You can attach magnet hooks to the walls to hang up clothes and other items. Smaller magnets can come in handy for tacking dinner invitations, excursion tickets and other important papers to cabin walls.

Related: 20 things you should bring on every cruise — including duct tape

… and your TV as a nightlight

If you’re staying in a windowless “inside” cabin, you’ll find that it’s darker than dark. If it’s too much for you, there’s an easy hack that will bring just a bit of light to the room at night and allow you to tell when morning arrives.

Turn your television on, and set it to the bridge camera station (most cruise ship televisions have this). You’ll get a picture of the darkened (but not completely dark) sky at night that will bring a touch of light to your room. When morning arrives, your television will grow brighter, too, helping you to wake up. Don’t forget to turn the TV volume off, as this channel often plays background music.

Related: TPG’s ultimate guide to cruise ship cabins

Some cabins come with special spa access

A special spa cabin on Holland America’s Koningsdam. HOLLAND AMERICA

Spa lovers, take note: Special spa cabins on some ships come with free access to spa thermal suites and pools that normally come with a hefty extra charge. If you’re the sort of person who loves lounging daily in a spa, you might want to pay up for one of these special cabins. They often cost more than a standard cabin but not as much as the amount you’d pay to buy daily spa passes during a sailing.

Your room might have hidden storage areas …

Do you have lots of personal items you need to store away during your cruise? Do a thorough sweep of your cabin for hidden storage areas upon arrival, including looking under the bed and the couch, if there is one, and in your cabin bathroom. You may be surprised by the concealed storage nooks that you’ll find.

I once spent a whole week on a cruise before I realized that one of the mirrors in the bathroom popped open to reveal a large storage area for toiletries. Thinking the bathroom had limited storage options, I had been keeping most of my toiletries in the drawer in the nightstand next to my bed!

… and hidden outlets, too

While you’re exploring your room, keep an eye out for hidden electrical outlets and USB ports, or ask your room steward to help you find them. Cruise lines have been adding lots of outlets to ships in recent years to satiate guests’ ever-growing demand for power. But they’re sometimes hidden away in the most unexpected places.

I recently stayed on a retrofitted Azamara vessel where USB ports were built into the bottom of new lighting fixtures next to the bed. They weren’t immediately obvious, and I only found out about them by reading a description of the room category on the line’s website while doing research for a guide to the ship.

The ship has remedies available for seasickness

Big cruise ships these days are relatively stable — so much so that you might not even feel them move. But should you start feeling seasick, you often can get seasickness medicine for free at a ship’s guest services desk. Often, the guest services desk will stock individual packets of meclizine, a seasickness remedy that is available over the counter in the United States. Normally, you won’t be charged if you ask for a few. You also can ask room service to bring you traditional remedies such as green apples or ginger slices.

You can get free internet time by signing up early

Some cruise lines will give you a chunk of free minutes if you sign up for an internet package on the first day of a cruise. You also can get discounts for internet packages by purchasing them online in advance of your sailing.

You don’t have to go to presentations to see them

Just because a talk about a port or a disembarkation briefing is happening in the ship’s theater doesn’t mean you have to run down there to see it. You’ll often find that presentations on ships are broadcast live on ship television so you can watch them from the comfort of your cabin. Sometimes, they’re also rebroadcast on a loop on cabin televisions for a day or longer, so you can watch them at another time.

Bonus tip: There’s really no need to watch a disembarkation briefing. I stopped going to them years ago. Most lines will spell out how you get off the ship on the final day of a cruise in a short letter they’ll send to your cabin the night before disembarkation. It’ll repeat everything you’ll be told at the disembarkation briefing and waste much less of your time. Anyways, it’s not rocket science. The disembarkation process for most ships boils down to a long-winded version of “wake up, have breakfast, get off.”

You usually can get into shows without a reservation

On most cruise ships, there is no reservation system for nightly shows. You just show up at the theater at show time and grab an open seat. But even on ships where a reservation system does exist, you often can get into shows — even sold-out shows — without a reservation. Many people with tickets to cruise ship shows, which normally are free, don’t show up at showtime, and that leaves lots of open seats at the last minute. Arrive a few minutes before showtime and you’re likely to get in.

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