Going on a cruise? Let our cruise guide give you the best tips on making the most of your trip. Looking to sneak alcohol on the cruise? Jump straight to that section of the guide!
Step 1: Cruise Line Selection
While each of the major cruise lines listed below service many of the same exotic locales, each has their own special flavor appreciated by different types of cruise vacationers. Below is a quick blurb letting you know some generalities about each major line. Also available is Expedia’s Cruise Line Reviews.
- Carnival – Typically, Carnival services a younger clientele and offers the very well known and very popular “Fun Ship” targetted towards this younger crowd. If you’re seeking a quiet cruise, it’s possible, but try a ship not billed as a “Fun Ship.” [More Information]
- Celebrity – Before merging with Royal Carribbean in 1997 (but still operating as its own entity), it was one of the youngest major cruise lines when it started business in 1989. Their claims to fame are their commitments to fresh food, all inclusive spa and fitness packages, and innovation. [More Information]
- Princess – Remember The Love Boat? Well that was a ship in Princess’ fleet, the Pacific Princess. Since 1965, they’ve been sailing the seven seas and they claim to be the most recognized cruise line in the world (Love Boat probably didn’t hurt). They offer Personal Choice Cruising® which is the ability to customize every aspect of your trip from dining location and time to flexibility in entertainment choices. [More Information]
- Royal Caribbean – The second largest cruise operator in the world, it services more than the Caribbean including Europe and Mexico. [More Information]
Step 2: Timing the Cruise
Here is where the most money can be saved for your trip. You basically have two options when it comes to the cruise itself, far in advance or at the last minute. A good deal is to get a cruise to cost less than $100/day, which is easier the longer a cruise is. A great deal is if you can get that cruise for less than $80/day which is essentially less than $100/day after tips and gratuities. If it costs more than $200/day, you’re paying more than a premium to be cruising, find something else unless its absolutely necessary. Remember to include port fees and assorted taxes in that calculation.
Quick Tip: Cruises are most expensive around Christmas/New Year’s (but generally have special event celebrations) and cheapest right before it. Compare rates for the first two weeks of December and the last week, they will differ considerably.
Last Minute – All of the major travel sites have last minute cruise listings but there are also sites that specialize in last minute bookings. Always go to the special last minute sections and not do cruise searches with last minute dates, they don’t include special pricings. The downside is airfare may be much greater and may offset cruise price savings.
In Advance – What a majority of cruisers prefer, this gives you the chance to anticipate the cruise, do all your research, and generally have a good time counting down until you set sail. The worst thing in the world is to prep for a cruise, wait until the last minute and find its unavailable. If you book far enough in advance (10 months is more than enough) you can typically get good enough deals.
Quick Tip: If you purchase far enough in advance, the line may bump you up for free. Why? If all of the cheapest rooms are taken, they will bump you up so that the cheaper rooms are available to cruisers who may not be willing to purchase the more expensive cabins. But if you’re not already booked, you can’t get bumped.
Step 3: Booking your Cruise
The beauty of those sites is the wealth of information they provide you, most importantly the average cost of the cruise. You may do even better through a travel agent who can offer even cheaper cruises. I would suggest locating a local travel agent and trying to bargain, knowing in the end you can book online at set prices. It never hurts to ask if they can do better, chances are they can because they want the commission and are sometimes willing to take a little pay cut to make a sale. Travel agencies have been hit hard by the introduction of bargain search sites like Expedia and Travelocity.
Your choices come down to
- Inside vs Outside – Inside cabins won’t have a window and so you won’t have sunlight to give you an indication of what time it is. Outside cabins with windows will give your body an idea of when to get up, they also may have a balcony which is nice whenever you’re having breakfast or an afternoon rest.
- Higher vs Lower – This refers to the level the cabin is at. Higher cabins are more expensive but are more luxurious.
EaseOf Tip: Lower inside cabins are better for those who may get seasick because it’s close to the ship’s center of gravity. You will sleep better and enjoy it more (if you are easily seasick) in a lower inside cabin, plus you’ll also be paying less.
Step 4: Preparing/Packing Tips
Items to Bring: Of course remember all the typical vacation items (toiletries, underwear, bathing suits), but here are a few things you should have that you wouldn’t think of:
- Alarm Clock – So you know when to wake up and don’t waste too much time asleep. Some cruises have clocks with an alam, some don’t, don’t miss an expensive shore excursion because of it.
- Cell Phone – It won’t work in Cancun or St. Maarten, but if you have some US destinations such as Key West, it’ll work. Plus if you forget an alarm clock, it could double as it. It doesn’t take much space anyway.
- Beverages – Some cruises will allow you to bring non-alcoholic beverages on board which means lots of soda for the kids or lots of mixers for the 21+’s. Check in advance so you don’t have to dump it. You can try sneaking in alcohol in the carry-on. More on sneaking booze on later.
- $1 bills – While there isn’t any pressure to tip, when you do want to its nice to tip in $1s and not $5’s, esp. to the baggage handling folks when you first get on the ship. (Remember to tip room service, it is “free” after all)
- Seasickness Pills – Sometimes the waters get choppy, don’t miss a nights rest or a meal because of it. The stuff isn’t expensive anyway.
Read the Reviews: There are several popular cruise review websites that have very recent reviews and very well written reviews. A site I really like is CruiseReviews.com especially those written by Tom and Mary Milano. The major cruise package sellers also have their own review sites.
Sneaking Alcohol On-Board
Sneaking Alcohol On-Board: I’ve gotten a lot of questions on this so here are some tips. Listen, no one wants to pay $5 for a $1.50 drink and I was no exception. Sure the cruise wants to earn your money but if you’re a poor college kid, sneaking booze on is necessary.
- Pre-Boarding: If you are on a cruise where you can carry on other beverages, the easiest thing to do is to pour it into other bottles. Vodka looks like water, whiskey/rum and other dark spirits look like apple juice, and everything else (beer?) is not worth bringing on board. They aren’t going to search that carefully because they’re more afraid of weapons and bombs, college kids stealing on booze is the least of their worries now.
- From The Stops: Buying liqour in Mexico, or any port, is awesome because you don’t have to pay the taxes. If you drink it all before you land back in the states, you can avoid the customs and tariffs too. If you want to sneak it on board, don’t buy it in a government customs-free store and then take it on board. Transfer it to another bag because, at least in Mexico, they are clearly marked. In Cozumel, the bag was a huge red circle on it. When you get on board, just put the bag on the metal detector. They shouldn’t hassle you because they’re, once again, searching for weapons. If you go when the boat is about to sail and there are a ton of people getting on board, they’ll rush you through without a thought. Usually the customs folks are after them and if you have a nondescript bag, just keep walking. If you are stopped, then apologize about how you don’t know and give it to them. It’s not worth fighting, otherwise go upstairs and get drunk.
- On-Board: Anything bought in the store will be held by customs unless it’s the last night. You might be able to have them give it to you but they may keep it that night. Be nice and they may not care. Remember the guy in the store gets paid his wage regardless of whether or not he seizes your booze, so be a nice guy/girl and they won’t hassle you. Enjoy the booze!
Step 5: On the Cruise Ship
Dining: There are usually two options at each meal, sit down or buffet. Sit down means you get a waiter and a menu and you order your food. At a buffet, you just get in line, slop your food on a plate, sit in general seating. Sit down is always in one of the dining rooms while buffets are sometimes on sunning decks or other areas, usually more low key. If you have the time, definitely go with a sit down because the food is nicer and when are you going to be able to eat every meal at a “nice” restaurant. For dinner, your choices are the room in which you eat and the time you choose to eat. This is all a matter of preference because the menu is the same. As for the time, strategies differ. Later time and you can stay longer on off shore excursions without worrying about missing dinner, earlier time means you can eat earlier. You will always be fed on the ship so don’t pick earlier because you think you might be hungry, do pick it if you want to decompress after the meal but before the nighttime entertainment
Quick Tip: You can order as much food as you want (at least until you feel embarassed, which the staff will never make you feel) so order a couple appetizers and a couple entrees and definitely a few desserts. If you end up not liking it, don’t eat it!
Excursions: These can get expensive if booked through the ship. You can book them on the island you are at with local operations but there is additional risk because you don’t have the reputation of the cruise line behind it. These are all a matter of preference and I suggest reading some reviews on which shore trips may be worth the money and which may not be. (There’s a Carnival excursion where you ride through “simulated” Mayan ruins, definitely don’t do that one, “simulated” means “fake”)
Spa/Fitness: The Spa usually costs money, lots of money but the service is usually pretty good. The fitness center is worth going to because when will you be able to hit the treadmill and be staring out into the ocean? Throw up some weight and watch the sun rise? If you hate treadmills, the ship may have a track on one of the decks with real track rubber which is nice.
Nighttime Entertainment: Usually there is some sort of Las Vegas-type show or a magician/comedian (and maybe even a “dirty” one). Go because it’s free and because its better than blowing your money at the casino. If you don’t like it, sneak out the back.
Casino: It’s a casino with slot machines and table games. There will be some tournaments during the course of your cruise that you might want to compete it if you’re inclined for some fun.
Step 6: Disembarking
If your cruise stopped at a port outside the United States, you will have to go through customs on the way back in. This is what is permitted per person (as of November 2002 for your personal exemption (the rest is taxed):
- $1200, $800, $600 (depending on which islands you visited, $1200 is for multi-island cruises)
- 1 Lt. of alcohol
- 200 cigarettes (value is considered part of $ exemption)
- 100 cigars (value is considered part of $ exemption)
- All purchases exceeding the personal exemption are subject to customs tax.
- Read the US Custom’s Guides for entering and leaving the United States on pleasure or vacation.
You will find that your cruise will have a special customs area on the ship the morning over your disembarkation to take care of your customs tax. You go in and fill out a customs form, they assess the customs, and you pay a cashier. If you enter the United States and do not pay the tax, they can seize the goods by law and probably prosecute you. While we aren’t advocating breaking the law, it is possible that you will not be selected at random for a check, especially on a short cruise, but then again the tax isn’t very high and the agents are generally very accommodating. On a Carnival cruise, I declared 15 liters of hard liqour and was taxes $15. Each liter cost less than $9 on average.
If your port of call isn’t close to your airport, you can bet your money the cruise line operates a shuttle from the port to the airport. The shuttles will probably cost around $15 but it’s much better than a taxi and much more dependable (because they know when the ship docks).
Step 7: Giving back to the Cruising Community
This is probably a step you didn’t think you’d see, it’s called giving back to the cruising community, a community you just joined by taking your first cruise. You’ve used the forums that have helped you prepare for all aspects of your cruise and they’ve probably helped you a great deal, it doesn’t hurt to go back to those sites and drop them a review (even if it’s less than a page) about your experience so others may learn from it.
Thanks and enjoy your cruise!