The cruise is booked. Panic sets in. How do you sail away with thousands of strangers on a big-ship boat without losing your mind?
Rock-bottom rates for cruises can be enticing—they fall as low as $259 per person for a three-night Caribbean cruise that includes your cabin and all meals (drinks extra). But before you click-and-buy, learn how to upgrade your experience on what is essentially a floating hotel. While the cruise won’t feel packed or crammed—like you’re one of thousands—consider these tips both onboard (from dining venues to cabin choices) and when in port (opt for local and cultural, and don’t be shy about straying from the port) for carving out an intimate getaway that folds in all of your interests.
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Book a Balcony Room
When reviewing rates, balcony rooms or suites are always the priciest. That’s by design. Sea days can make some travelers stir crazy because everywhere you go there are, um, people. With a private balcony, you can read a book in peace as you sail through open waters or enjoy morning coffee with a view. Room service menus are often included in the cruise cost: take advantage of it.
Splurge on Specialty Dining
The per-person cost of a cruise includes all meals—but not at the specialty dining restaurants, often consisting of a steakhouse, surf option, and upscale ethnic eatery. Don’t balk at these extra fees (on average it’s an additional $25 per person) because this is how you get away from the crowd. These eateries often seat only 50-75 people at once (so different than the hundreds at a dinner seating in one of the main dining rooms) and offer more personalized service. Reservations are necessary.
Fly Into the Port of Call a Day Early
Especially if you are flying in from a snowy climate, or your travel path will be seriously wrecked if there’s a snowstorm, spring for a hotel room the night before the cruise departs. This way you’ll also be refreshed on your first day of sailing.
Head Straight to the Pool
While everyone else is unpacking in their cabins on day one, you should visit the pool. In fact, wear your swimsuit under your clothes when you walk onto the ship because it may take a few hours for your luggage to reach your cabin. The pool is always less crowded on the first day—enjoy the elbow room.
Read the Onboard Newsletter
Each night while you are out dancing, gambling, eating or drinking on board the ship, room stewards slip a newsletter into your room or the box just outside your room. Don’t just toss this, read it. This is the cruise’s bible for everything that is going on. On a recent Princess Cruises sail, news about afternoon tea was only mentioned in The Princess Patter.
Order Room Service for Breakfast
Before you go to bed at night, fill out the door-hanger form and indicate what you’d like for breakfast. Not only will you save hundreds of calories by not going to the buffet or the dining room (where, again, everything on the menu is free), you can eat in peace while still in your robe.
Opt for a Localized, Cultural Shore Excursion
Every cruise line offers shore excursions like zip-lining, horseback riding, and swimming with dolphins once you’re in port. What makes that experience in Cancun, Mexico, different than in Labadee, Haiti? More and more, cruises are rolling out localized experiences such as a cooking class or crafts demonstration. Some cruises even offer voluntourism. One example? Planting trees and playing games with residents at a homeless shelter in Montego Bay, via Royal Caribbean.
Travel Away From the Port
Even if you have only six hours in port, as soon as that ship docks, get off immediately and move as far away from the ship as you can. One great example is on Grand Maarten, which docks on the Dutch side. Grand Case—on the island’s French side—is a 40-minute car ride and significantly less crowded. Vendors, restaurateurs, and outfitters know lazy (or uninformed) tourists will stick near the ship and not balk at high prices for non-authentic experiences. Book ground transportation in advance through the cruise line or a private company. A word of caution: start your trek back to the ship at least two hours before it departs. Flat tires can happen anywhere.
Dress up for Formal Night
With today’s super-casual dress codes, formal night (typically held once or twice during a cruise) might seem cheesy. But that’s exactly why you should do it, to channel romance and grandeur on the high seas. Hang up your sundress or khakis and turn to a little black dress or suit coat. It’s fun no matter if you are sailing with your sweetie or on a multi-generational family vacay. Photographers roaming the ship snap shots against staged backgrounds: view during the sail at no cost. Now that you’re all dolled up, this is a great night to eat in the formal dining room or a specialty-dining restaurant—in other words, skip the buffet.
Hang at the Spa's Pool (Not the Main Pool)
Splashing kids are cute—if they’re yours. Otherwise, trying to snuggle with your honey or catch up with the girls at the pool is annoying with the DJ blasting his tunes or kids shrieking. Check out the spa area of your ship, which often has a pool that’s very Zen. Even if you have to pony up cash for a day pass, it is so worth it. Bonus: you can order food from these mini sanctuaries, too.