photo: Johnjewell |

Every cruise ship has a distinct personality.


    Despite their differences, however, nearly all ships share certain common elements. Of course, the larger ships will have the most bells and whistles and amenities on board, while smaller ships may only have a small portion of the offerings listed below. With spas, pools, casinos, restaurants, theaters, and so much more on board, your ship presents a whole little world that’s just awaiting your discovery.


      INSIDER TIPOn a ship, “port” denotes the left side of the ship and “starboard” the right when you are facing forward (i.e., in the direction the ship is sailing).

      Reception Desk

      Sometimes referred to as the Purser’s Desk, Guest Services, or Information Desk, this is the place to ask any questions you might have, as well as to take care of any financial matters. The Reception Desk is centrally located in the lobby or atrium and is generally open 24 hours a day for passenger convenience.


      Shore Excursion Desk

      The Shore Excursion Desk can offer not only the sale of ship-sponsored tours, but may also be the place to learn more about ports of call and gain information to tour independently. At the least, you can expect basic destination information and port maps.


      Onboard Entertainment

      On big ships, expect lavish theaters showcasing big Broadway-style productions or Las Vegas–worthy revues. Other shows might highlight the talents of individual singers, dancers, magicians, comedians, and even acrobats. Not to be outdone, the ship’s crew often puts on a fun-filled talent show. Singing along in a lively piano bar is another shipboard favorite, while other lounges often feature pre- and post-dinner dancing led by an in-house band. Later in the evening, lounges host bands that crank out rock ‘n’ roll hits, while dance clubs with a DJ reign into the late-night hours.


      Onboard Enrichment Programs

      If more cerebral presentations are important to you, consider a cruise on a line that features stimulating enrichment programs and seminars at sea. Speakers might include destination-oriented historians, popular authors, business leaders, distinguished government figures, radio or television personalities, and even movie stars.

      For a hands-on learning experience, “edutainment” is also a popular shipboard pursuit, with options like cooking, pottery, scrapbooking classes, wine tasting, and more. If you never seem to find the time at home, consider classes to master new computer software programs, delve into the fine points of digital photography, or take piano lessons. A small fee is usually charged for courses or supplies, but some demonstrations are free.


      Pools and Sundecks

      Naturally, you’ll find at least one swimming pool and possibly several on your ship; there might even be elaborate water parks, children’s water-play features, or adults-only swimming havens. Just be aware that many cruise ship pools are on the small side (more appropriate for cooling off than doing laps), and that many contain filtered salt water. Competition for prime sundeck chairs can be stiff, depending on the ship, so arrive early to stake your claim.


      Spa and Salon

      Simply being on a cruise can be a stress-reducing experience. Add to that the menu of spa and salon services at your fingertips and you have a recipe for total sensory pleasure. Just note that spa services don’t usually come cheap, and are more or less equivalent to what you might pay in any resort spa. Most cruise-ship spas are operated by Steiner Leisure, the largest spa and salon operator at sea (the company operates Mandara and the Greenhouse spas aboard cruise ships), with facilities on more than 100 cruise ships worldwide. In addition to facials, manicures, pedicures, massages, and body treatments, other hallmarks of Steiner Leisure are salon services and products for hair and skin.


      Fitness Center

      Cruise vacations can be hazardous to your waistline if you’re not careful. Happily, maintaining a fitness regimen at sea is no problem with a wide assortment of exercise machines such as stationary bikes, treadmills, and elliptical machines. As a bonus, shipboard fitness centers with floor-to-ceiling windows have some of the world’s most inspiring sea views.

      For guests who prefer a more social atmosphere as they burn off sinful chocolate desserts, there are fitness classes for all levels of ability. Basic aerobics and group exercise classes are most often complimentary, but note there is typically a charge for some specialty classes (Pilates, Spinning, yoga, kickboxing, etc.). Personal training services are also available for a fee.


      Sports Activities

      Shipboard sports facilities might include a jogging track and a court for basketball, volleyball, or tennis—or all three. Innovative and unexpected facilities, such as rock-climbing walls, surfing and sky-diving simulators, and bungee trampolines are challenges introduced at sea by Royal Caribbean. For the less adventurous, more sedate pursuits include table tennis and shuffleboard. Shipboard golf programs can include clinics, use of full-motion golf cages, and even individual instruction from resident pros using state-of-the-art computer analysis.


      Casinos and Gambling

      A sure sign that your ship is in international waters is the opening of the casino (age minimums for play vary from 18 to 21, depending on the cruise line). Most casinos are required to close while ships are in port; others may be able to offer 24-hour slot machines and simply close table games. In addition to slot machines in a variety of denominations, cruise ship casinos might feature roulette, craps, and a variety of card games. Every casino has a cashier, and you may be able to charge a cash advance to your shipboard account. If you don’t care for casinos, bingo games and scratch-off lotteries are also usually on offer.


      Onboard Shopping

      Shops on board your cruise ships will carry merchandise ranging from funky to fashionable. Duty-free shopping is such a popular cruise ship pastime on many ships that it’s possibly second only to eating. Expect reasonable prices on souvenirs and logo items, as well as duty-free items like imported perfumes, cosmetics, jewelry, electronics, designer items, clothing, and toys. Additionally, liquor and tobacco products can often be purchased at a substantial savings. Art auctions are another shopping opportunity on many cruise ships. Just don’t exceed your personal allowance for duty-free items, as you’ll have to declare your purchases with U.S. Customs before disembarkation.


      Photo Shop

      Cruises are a series of photo opportunities, and ship’s photographers are on hand to capture boarding, sail-away, port arrivals, and other highlights such as the Captain’s Reception (and there’s no obligation to purchase the photos). On formal nights, there are often several locations where you can have portraits taken in front of your choice of backdrops. Prices for the prints, which are put on display, range from $11 to $24, depending on size. Digital media, batteries, film, single-use cameras, and related merchandise may be available in the photo shop. Some ship’s photography staffers are capable of creating a photo CD or prints from your digital media.



      Cruise ship libraries run the gamut from a few shelves of relatively uninspiring titles to huge rooms crammed with volumes of travel guides, classic novels, and the latest best sellers. As a rule, the smaller the ship, the more likely you are to find a well-stocked library (since on small ships, the passengers are more likely to lean toward quiet diversions). DVD movies may also be available for checkout.


      Internet Café

      Being out to sea doesn’t mean you have to be out of touch. However, ship-to-shore telephone calls can be quite pricey, so it makes economic sense to use email to remain in contact with your home or office. Most ships offer Wi-Fi for your own laptop, as well as shared computers with connectivity in Internet cafés; you can purchase blocks of online time or even unlimited access for the length of your cruise. A few ships now even offer Wi-Fi for free.


      Smoking Areas

      Like it or not, it’s getting harder and harder to find a place to light up during a cruise these days. Ships are catching up to their land-based counterparts, and smoking has been banned in all of the restaurants and showrooms at sea, as well as in many of the bars and lounges. Although casinos are one of the last bastions of smokers, some have “smoke-free” sections or entire nights to clear the air. Nearly all cruise lines restrict smoking in cabins, and some lines include private balconies among the no-smoking zones as well. On occasion, cigar aficionados will have a dedicated cigar lounge. For the most part, however, smoking is now largely limited to designated outside areas on deck.