11 Tips Cruise Lines DON’T Want You to Know (But They Aren’t Against the Rules)

What tips would the cruise line rather you actually not know? We aren’t talking about anything illegal or against the rules, but when you know what we’re about to share, you’ll save tons of money, know some of the secrets behind cruising most don’t know, and do things way differently than the cruise lines planned.

The tips are ones you’ll want for your cruise, even if they aren’t the cruise lines’ favorite.

Drink Packages Not Worth It For Many

If you’ve taken a cruise to the Caribbean, you know cruise lines are very happy to sell you a drink package. You pay one set price and then you essentially have free run of whatever you want to drink.

Not having to worry about a bar tab is nice, but if you’re paying full price for this package, know that it’s going to be really tough to get your money’s worth. Let’s say the drink package is $75 before gratuity. Meanwhile, lines charge $12-$14 for cocktails and around $8 for a beer.

That means you’d have to drink six cocktails every single day of the cruise or ten beers every day. On a three-day cruise, you might be able to handle that. On a week-long trip, it’s hard to keep that pace up.

Then you add in the rules around the packages. If you buy the package, then your cabinmate has to get it as well, even if they aren’t big drinkers. And you have to buy it for every day of the cruise, so even if you’re in port all day, you’re still paying for the package.

Yes, there are always caveats. If you find a good deal or sale, then the math can work in your favor. And no matter what some people will definitely get their money’s worth. However, for most people the cost and the rules mean the math doesn’t work out in your favor.

You Don’t Have to Arrive in Your Boarding Window (Most Times)

This next tip is one that may vary from line to line and cruise to cruise, but we’ve personally used it on our trips.

When you book your cruise, you’ll be asked to select a boarding time. They use these times to spread people out during the boarding window so that everyone doesn’t show up right when boarding opens and creates long lines.

What you’ll find, is that sometimes the time you’d like to arrive is no longer available or even if you pick a time, it might not match your schedule, meaning that you have just kill an hour or two before you’re supposed to arrive at port.

What we’re finding more is that the staff seems to care less and less about your assigned boarding time. To be sure, we’ve arrived early to port and had to wait before we could board… but it’s been a long time. These days, it seems like your boarding time is rarely checked or asked for.

So we’re not telling you to show up way early, but if you get to the port before your time, you’ll likely you’ll still be able to board right away.

Watch for Pollution Aft on the Ship

Exhaust coming from a cruise ship

This one may not be anything that’s actionable, but something that we always keep in mind when sailing.

It’s pretty well-known that cruise ships throw out some heavy exhaust, and thankfully they seem to be getting more serious about reducing emissions.

But if you go on the back of the ship, you’re still likely going to find what looks like dirt or dark streaks around the deck and the railings. This is coming from the ship’s exhaust. In fact, there have been studies done that show the particulate matter in the air can be pretty bad when aft of the exhaust when the ship is underway.

Given this study and what we’ve seen with our own eyes, we don’t avoid the back of the ship, but we definitely keep it in mind when looking for places to get some sun. We just check to see where the exhaust is blowing and make sure that we’re not spending too much time directly underneath it.

Order a Second Entree (or Appetizer or Dessert)

Eating is a big part of your cruise. And if you’re in the dining room, then one tip is that you can order more than one entrée.

Cruise lines hate food waste and take steps to reduce it. Not only does it cost the line money, but growing food is a major source of carbon emissions. So reducing food can help lessen the environmental impact of cruising, which is a concern for the lines. One way to reduce waste is to serve relatively small servings in the dining room.

However, you can order another entrée in the dining room. It is sometimes no issue at all, but some lines have started to charge a nominal fee of something like $5 per plate. Still, if you’re hungry or just want to try a couple of dishes at once, don’t be bashful. This also goes for appetizers or desserts.

Buy, Refund, and Rebuy Items on Royal Caribbean for the Best Prices

This tip is specifically for those Royal Caribbean fans out there. If you’ve sailed the line, then you likely know that it uses something called dynamic pricing. That’s just a fancy way of saying that you can see different prices for items on board like drink packages or wi-fi or admission to the waterpark on CocoCay, depending on your specific trip.

But even then, the price you pay can vary as the cruise line runs sales and simply seem to change prices here and there.

One tip is that the things you buy before the cruise are refundable. So what you can do is purchase a package or item through your account and lock in the price. If you go back later and see that it’s dropped, then you can refund the item and then repurchase it, saving yourself the difference.

It is a bit of a pain dealing with multiple transactions, but it’s a way to make sure you get the lowest price and the cruise line gets less of your money.

Sundry Shops Can Be a Rip

Sundry items for sale on a ship

Every cruise ship will have a small sundry shop. In a pinch, it’s where you can get a spare toothbrush or Listerine, deodorant or some Tylenol.

We want to tell you to avoid buying here if you can at all. The pricing can be just outrageous. We’re talking $18 for a bottle of Dayquil outrageous.

Instead, we like to bring a small pharmacy of over the counter medicines when we travel. So if we get anything from a toothache to a headache or upset stomach or sunburn, we’re covered. It’s also nice having this with you in case something hits in the middle of the night when the shop is closed.

If you can wait, then ports of call will also have little pharmacies where you can pick up anything you need. It’s way cheaper than buying on the ship.

Older & Newer Ships Are WAY Different

Old cruise ship docked next to a new one

One little secret that’s not advertised by the cruise lines but any smart cruise passenger knows to factor in? The ships in the fleet are way different based on when they were built. Cruise ships can be in service for up to 30 years and yes, during the past three decades there’s been a little bit of advancement in what’s possible on a cruise ship.

So you can take the same exact cruise at the same exact time of year with the same cruise line — but on a different ship — and that will mean a completely different experience. And considering how much time is spent on the ship itself during the cruise, the ship you sail makes a huge difference.

Now, personally, we like the newer and bigger ships because we like having more things to do with more venues. But a lot of folks like the older ships as they are typically smaller and more calm. That’s up to you, but just know that cruise lines don’t brag about the differences between ships in the fleet, so it’s up to you to know the difference.

Missed Dinner Time? You’ll Be Seated Anyway

Assigned a dinner time? That can actually be a pain. For one, it seems like there are three options — 5:30, 8:30, or anytime dining. If you made us wait until 8:30 every night before dinner, let’s just say we wouldn’t be very fun to cruise with. Other times there may be events happening in the evening that conflict with your assigned time, such as a show in the theater that you want to see.

One tip is that no matter what time you select or the cruise line assigns, you can go eat in the dining room whenever you want. All you have to do is show up and ask to be seated. It’s essentially anytime dining even if you are assigned a time.

Now, it may not be as easy as eating at your assigned time. When we do it, sometimes we have to stand by while others are seated first, but you aren’t going to be turned away. And it may be that the cruise lines would rather you stick to your time to keep things more orderly. For us, we prefer the flexibility.

Interior Cabins Are Perfectly Fine for Short Trips

One way the cruise lines make more money is by loading up the ship with balcony cabins. These rooms have a small outdoor space that’s relatively private. Passengers like them because they offer light, a view, and fresh air. Cruise lines love them because they fetch much higher rates.

Our tip is that yes, balconies are nice. By all means if you want it, get it. But if you’re on a short cruise then it’s just not worth it. Overall, the vast majority of people spend way less time on the balcony than they think they will. Most people just step outside for a few minutes here and there.

On a short cruise of four days or fewer, however, that time is going to be even less as you’re more likely to be out exploring the ship and ports of call trying to pack in as much as you can. Five days is a middle ground where you could go either way. Six days or more, then yes, spring for the balcony as you’ll have more downtime.

But while the cruise lines might not like it, we’d tell you to save the money on shorter cruises.

Use Private Island Days for Free

Are you headed on a cruise to a private destination? Every line has these spots and they seem to dominate itineraries, especially from Florida.

These areas all have a few things in common. For one, they have beautiful beaches where you can spend the day. For another, the cruise lines use them as an opportunity to generate more revenue. CocoCay is the big one with beach clubs, a waterpark, cabanas, and more. And they charge a premium for these items. We are not singling out CocoCay as you see it in lots of places.

One tip is to use these private island days as free days. You could spend a fortune here if you wanted. Instead, we think they serve as a great way to enjoy the beach and water without spending a ton. Then, you can save your money and instead use that for excursions in non-private ports like Nassau where it’s not near as easy and cheap to spend the day unless you book a tour.

Do Not Worry About ‘Sales’

Head to any cruise line website, and you’ll find that — surprise! — they are running a sale right now. You better take advantage. After all, there’s a countdown timer, so it’s only for a limited time, right?

The cruise lines can’t like people pointing it out, but these sales run constantly. Sure, after the timer hits zero the offer may be tweaked slightly and reintroduced but it’s essentially the same deal.

In fact, sometimes the offer isn’t even tweaked, it’s just announced as “extended.”

Don’t worry about having to hurry up and book due to a sale. Even if it ends, a new one will take its place.

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