Cruisers tanning at the stern of a boat.
Don Richards/Flickr

What We Wish They'd Told Us About Cruises Before We Went

You show up, you eat 10 meals a day, you explore some cute ports, and head home with a professional photo of yourself and your family on the ship's formal night. That’s all you need to know about cruising, right?

If only it were that simple. What follows are sanity-saving tips that could make the difference between getting the R&R you paid for and needing another vacation just to recover.
A departure board at an airport
FreeImages/R Mitchell
Be Conservative With Flight Times (If You Can't Drive to the Dock)
On some itineraries, if you miss the boat, you might miss the entire cruise (or a big chunk of it). So don’t take the risk of flying on the day of the sailing. Not only do cruises often depart from cities that are worth visiting in their own right, but arriving the day before also gives you peace of mind. For the flight back, don’t try to leave before noon. Though a cruise itinerary may state that the boat arrives at 7am, in reality it will take many more hours to actually get off the ship—if the ship arrives on time (it often doesn’t)—and more time to get transportation to the airport.
The pool deck of the Norwegian Epic
Aaron Toth/Flickr
Pack Your Bathing Suit In Your Carry-On Bag
When you arrive, you'll have it handy. The same goes for medications and anything else you’d want on the first day of your vacation. On today’s big ships, in a worst-case scenario, it can take until well after dinner on the first night for you to get your luggage delivered to your cabin, and force you to give large suitcases to porters. So keep a carry-on that contains whatever you really need for that first day.
Diners at the hibachi restaurant aboard the Norwegian Epic
Gary Bembridge/Flickr
Pre-Book Elements of Your Cruise Right Away
On most lines, cruisers are supplied apps or links ahead of time so they can reserve onboard activities and meals early. That’s the good news. The bad news is that those who don’t so speedily are often left out in the cold, especially on "sea days" (days when the ship doesn't visit a port), when all of the slots at the spa will be snapped up, the yoga class will have no extra mat space, and seats at onboard specialty restaurants will be in short supply. The latter wouldn’t be an issue if the meals at the main restaurants (which are always included in the base price of the cruise) weren’t significantly inferior to the grub at the specialty restaurants. But on many ships, you're really missing out if you don’t shell out a few extra bucks for a specialty meal. (Hmmm…I wonder why that is?)
A tender goes from the main Royal Caribbean ship to the shore.
Plan for Tendering
When a dock is too small for a ship, passengers must be ferried to shore in small boats called "tenders. While cruise line-led shore excursions are often overpriced—and easily replicated on your own or with the help of an outside (and often less expensive) tour broker like or—on tender days it might be worth buying from the cruise line for the simple reason that passengers who book shore excursions through the ship get priority seats on the tenders. If you don’t book your time with the cruise line, you might find yourself waiting for a long time to get to shore.
The Oasis of the Seas in New York Harbor
Roderick Eime/Flickr
If Seasickness Is An Issue, Book Middle and Big
People who suffer from motion sickness can cruise, but they need to pick the right ship and the right cabin on that ship. Rule of thumb: The bigger the vessel, the more stable it will be. Cabins closer to the water line and towards the center of the vessel (i.e. not near the bow or the stern) will experience less motion because they're close to the center of gravity and the ship’s fin-like stabilizers can help control how much a ship rocks side to side but not how much the ship's front is lifted by waves.
Children in an onboard parade on Oasis of the Seas.
Michael Bentley/Flickr
The Season and the Length Affect Who'll Be With You
I'm often asked which cruise lines get the most children—usually from adults who want a kid-free holiday. The truth is there's not much difference between Holland America and Carnival during school holidays: Both will carry hundreds of children. To avoid kids, you need to book a cruise when schools are in session or choose a luxury line (like Viking Ocean Cruises) that doesn't allow passengers under the age of 16. Conversely, you'll find many more retirees on very long itineraries simply because they don't have to explain to a boss why they're taking off more than a week for vacation. So if you're looking for people to party with, choose a shorter sailing.
A Lindblad expeditions boat with people in zodiacs.
Marc Cappelletti/Flickr
Look at the Differences Between Large and Small Ships
For some, massive vessels feel too much like cities at sea. They tend to be louder, more crowded, and passengers often find themselves waiting in lines to embark, at the buffet, at the get the picture. But because there are so many on board, they provide a certain anonymity that some vacationers prefer. On ships that carry fewer than 100—like on expedition ships (the Lindblad ship pictured) and yacht-like vessels—if a fellow passenger is bombastic or boring, it's harder to escape them. Their personality becomes a big part of your vacation. On bigger ships, the service won't be as personal and you won't get to visit the tinier, more exotic ports that small ships can do, but you can simply walk away when one of your fellow passengers isn't to your liking.
A cut up credit card.
Frankie Leon/Flickr
Be Careful About Using a Debit Card to Pay
On ships, stateroom keycards become credit cards, allowing you to buy everything from sodas (that's right, they're not free on most lines) to specialty meals to shore excursions. Usually, soon after you book the cruise, the line will request your credit card number to guarantee all your shipboard purchases (some ships do this in person when you board). Don't make the mistake of using a debit card. With those, cruise lines put several hundred dollars on hold until 30 days after the end of the voyage—the exact amount will vary by company—and once you get home, you could find that you're unexpectedly short on funds because of the cruise line's hold. You can pay your deposit in cash, and sometimes by check; ask before you board, because you'll have to pack a massive amount of cash to pay this way.
People peer out of their balconies aboard the Oasis of the Seas.
David D/Flickr
Check Your Bill Two Days Before the End of the Cruise
On most mainstream voyages, your ever-growing bill of purchases is available for review on the interactive TV in your room. We suggest checking it for mistakes two days before the end of the cruise rather than on the last day. With thousands on board, errors happen. We know someone who once accidentally got charged for a $500 bottle of champagne they didn't order! If you wait until the last day to sort errors, you'll have to wait in a huge line at the burser's desk with lots of other people doing the same thing you are.