12 Cruise Tips That Feel Wrong (But Are 100% Right)

After years of sailing and dozens of cruises, you learn a few things about how to make the most of your vacation. And you also start to notice that some tips you learn go completely against the grain of what you might think.

That’s why I like these specific tips. They are all ones that, well, they just don’t feel right. They go against the conventional wisdom, but when you know them, you’ll be a smarter cruiser and have a better vacation.

No Last-Minute Cruise Deals

Carnival Jubilee in Galveston
Think you can book a ticket last-minute for cheap? That’s not the case.

Just like you, when I am reading online occasionally ads pop up for last-minute cruise deals. Or advertisements that talk about empty cabins sailing for dirt cheap. They used to catch my attention, now they just make me laugh.

On the surface it makes sense, right? If a cruise ship is about to sail empty then why not slash the cruise fare to get people on the ship and spending money during the trip?

Well, it may not feel right, but the idea of getting a last-minute cruise fare — especially these days — is pretty much nonsense. Don’t bother. (The one exception is Holland America, which has unveiled Standby Fares.)

For one, cruise ships sail at occupancies over 100% on average. That means each cabin has at least two people and some have three or more. Second, imagine if cruise lines did cut prices right before the ship sails. They would train passengers just to wait to book for the best price, which would cause mayhem in planning.

Bottom line, if you think you’re going to find a last-minute deal, think again.

Join AARP…. Even if You Aren’t 55+

AARP Membership card
As a card-carrying member of AARP, you can get some serious discounts on cruise line gift cards.

I am not retired. I’m not over 55 years old. But I am a card-carrying member of AARP. It may seem wrong, but in fact anyone can be an AARP member — it doesn’t matter your age.

And if you join, you can save some serious money on cruises. As a perk for members, AARP has discounts on a lot of gift cards, including a number of cruise lines. This includes Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Princess, and Celebrity.

The discounts can vary, but generally, it’s 10% off the headline price. So you can buy a $500 gift card for your cruise for only $450. Considering that cruises run thousands of dollars, you can use this perk to save literally hundreds on your vacation.

All it takes is being a member. It’s $12 for a year and yes, you can even get a nice tote bag.

Spend Extra for the Top-Tier Wi-Fi

Wi-fi speed test on a Princess cruise
I’ve found that wi-fi cruise speeds can vary widely. However, in general the lower-tier connections are so slow they are unusable.

Anybody that knows me knows that I am all about saving money. That’s why it feels wrong for me to say, but if you’re going to spend the money on wi-fi on the ship, then bite the bullet and pony up for the highest — and most expensive — tier.

I’ve sailed a lot and while connections seem like they are getting better and faster, it’s still very much hit and miss. The last cruise I took had a blazing-fast connection. The one before that was in the normal range where it’s 3-5 Mbps and just feels sluggish, even on the highest-tier plan.

I’ve tried the cheaper basic connections that are offered, and they’ve always been nearly unusable. Not only are there more restrictions such as no streaming, but the speeds can be abysmal. Internet in the middle of the ocean is hard enough. There’s no sense in trying to save a little money here because the experience can be a whole lot worse.

Take Advantage of Cheap Third Passengers

It’s really weird how cruise cabins are sold. If you sail solo, you pay for double occupancy. So a person sailing alone pays the same price as two people sailing together, except for the port fees.

Add a third or fourth passenger in the same cabin? They can sail for peanuts. I guess the room is sailing with passengers anyway, so it’s not like they take up another cabin, but some of the prices can be so low that I’m not sure how it covers the cost of food.

Now, cabins are small, so I don’t blame you if you wouldn’t want to sail with a third person in the room, but if you do, you can save some serious cash when the cost is spread across three passengers.

Show Up Late to (Some) Things

Personally, I’m one of those people that if I’m not 10 minutes early, I feel late. On a cruise, I’ve found that’s actually a bit of a bad thing.

Let me be clear about this one — never show up late when it comes to the ship’s departure time. As in, don’t even cut it close. If the ship has all aboard at 5:00 p.m., don’t casually come walking up at 5:30.

But for things around the ship, showing up later can be better. For instance, when the ship docks and says passengers can go ashore, there’s typically a big rush. Instead, giving it 20-30 minutes to let all the first passengers off can be better.

For meals in the dining room, I try to arrive a little later to let the line die down as well. And if you want a good seat, show up to the theater early, but sometimes I like to just show up a few minutes after it starts and grab a chair in the back once everyone is already seated. It’s less time just sitting around waiting for the show to start.

Take Food & Drinks Anywhere on the Ship

Most seasoned cruise passengers likely know, but if you’ve never sailed before, what I’m about to tell you can feel very wrong.

Drinks and food — you can take them anywhere on the ship. On land, we have all sorts of rules — especially about where you can drink alcohol. On a cruise ship, it’s the complete opposite. You can order a drink and sip it while you walk around, and everyone does.

Hungry? There’s no law that you have to eat in a restaurant. Lots of people grab something from the buffet and take it back to the room or sit on the balcony. Just know that your room might have food smells afterward, so don’t get anything too smelly.

The first time you do it, it can feel a little foreign. I’ll tell you from experience that feeling goes away in about 10 seconds.

“Wait For You” Excursions Policies Rarely Matter

Jet ski excursion on a cruise
Truth is that most excursions stay near the ship and/or only last a few hours. Unless going on a late or all-day outing, there’s little need for the “wait for you” policy.

If you read about shore excursions, one of the big pitches for them is that if you are on an excursion that’s sold through the cruise line, then if it’s late returning to the dock the the ship will wait for you.

For people that have a fear of the ship leaving without them, it can be a major selling point. So it might sound funny, but for the vast majority of excursions, don’t let this influence your decision at all.

Now, if you are on an all-day excursion, or one that leaves late in the day, or ventures hours away, then sure, it’s nice to have that extra security. Most of the time, however, excursions are actually just a few hours long and stay relatively close to the ship. So you might leave at 9:00 a.m., go explore for a few hours, have lunch, and return to the ship at 1:00 p.m. Meanwhile, the ship doesn’t leave until 5:00 p.m.

In other words, you normally have a massive amount of time even if you are delayed getting back. Add to that the fact that many ports in the Caribbean are relatively small, meaning most times you aren’t even that far from the ship.

This doesn’t go for every excursion, but most times you can ignore the “ship will wait for you” pitch.

You Can Often Show Up to Eat Without a Reservation

I swear no matter what I do, it seems like by the time I’m able to access reservations at places around the ship like specialty restaurants, all the good spots are already full. It’s frustrating.

That’s how I know firsthand that one thing you can do is just show up without a reservation. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s always worth a shot.

I recently took a trip aboard Virgin Voyages where this happened. I wanted to eat at the Mexican restaurant the entire trip and could never find a time. So I went down right when it opened, stood in line, and then told them I didn’t have a reservation and asked if they could seat me anyway.

To my surprise, despite all the reservations being taken, the restaurant was largely empty. I was seated right away and had a great meal. I’ve tried this one other cruises too with success.

Use the Rule of 2.5 to Price Cruises (Why Isn’t the Price… the Price?)

Anyone that’s shopped for cruise knows the frustration that comes with seeing some tiny headline fare… then you add in a second passenger… then you add in taxes and fees. The final cost is way more than it seemed right at the beginning.

Honestly, I think it’s weird that cruises are priced this way. The law changed a few years ago where airlines had to included taxes and fees into the cost, but for some reason cruise lines don’t have this.

That’s why I use what I call the rule of two-and-a-half. Put simply, take whatever headline price you see and immediately multiply it by two and a half. So a $1,000 cruise fare will actually be closer to $2,500 for the trip. If you want to include onboard spending and gratuities, then just multiply by three.

This gives you a much better sense of the cost when shopping around so you don’t get sticker shock when seeing the final cost.

You Can Leave Your Kids and Head to Port

Cruise ships all have kids areas where you can drop the kids to play supervised. At least some ships allow you to leave kids even if you are getting off the ship in port.

I’m a dad and this is a weird one that I just can’t go along with personally. In fact, I was amazed when I learned it.

Every major cruise line has a kids area. Here, you can drop your kids off and they can have fun while you go out and enjoy the ship. It’s a nice break for parents and the kids like having their own space too.

But what many people don’t realize is that at least some cruise lines allow you to drop the kids off here, even while you go off the ship and explore the port. For instance, Carnival says that “if parent/guardian decide to leave their children in the care of Youth Staff while in port, they can!”

I guess there’s not a big difference whether parents are on the ship or in port, but the idea of leaving my kid while heading into port on my own just doesn’t feel right.

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