Glossy brochure photos may tell you all you care to know about what’ll happen on your cruise.
There will be massive quantities of food and drink. There’ll be rock climbing, ice skating and first-run movies shown on a two-story LCD screen. And somewhere on the ship, a wellness professional will be waiting to place hot black stones up and down your back.
But is that really all there is?
Without much effort you’ll stumble upon good stuff, just as you would in any city; and make no mistake, you’ll be aboard a floating city. But as you navigate all the decks, activities, shows, restaurants, shops and other enticements, consider these tips from some cruise pros.
Don’t pay for what may be free or less pricey elsewhere on board.
“Many cruise lines have ice cream bars that charge you,” says Sheila Sargent, a 15-year cruise travel agent who has sailed on about 70 ships. “But in the buffet area, they usual have a free custard stand that’s available all the time.”
Same goes for coffee — your cappuccino may or may not be free depending on where you are on the ship.
If wine’s your thing, Sargent says, you can pay a flat fee to have a bottle of wine brought to your dining room table every night, versus paying for bottles separately. Likewise, if you avail yourself of increasingly common on-board wine tasting seminars, you could get lots of bang for your buck.
The flat fee for these tastings is “usually around $20, very well priced for what you receive,” says Karen Bauer, frequent cruise passenger and with her sister, owner and operator for 15 years of travel agency Interliner.com. “At a recent cruise tasting we had [premium wine] Opus One that was selling for $45 a glass in the bar.”
Don’t be afraid to ask for food.
By simply gorging on what’s there — the generous entrees and buffets and the warm tea-time cookies — you can easily gain a pound a day, which I discovered first-hand on an 8-day voyage.
If you’re planning to indulge, take a moment to decide if what’s there is really what you want to eat. Do you want steak, shrimp cocktail or an omelet brought to your table every night instead of what’s on the menu? If not, just ask.
Larry, a traveler I spoke to who has been on 22 cruises, once asked his waiter if the kitchen was serving a special Greek dish and was told it wasn’t being served until Thursday, and it was Monday. The waiter brought it to him anyway.
Check out the gym.
Even if you’re not a two-fisted eater, you might be missing out on a memorable workout and free services if you don’t swing by your ship’s gym.
The brochures highlight a lot of the state-of-the art equipment and the killer ocean views you’ll get while on the elliptical machine, but there’s more. Bauer says that on-board personal trainers are usually happy to offer free workout tips.
She also notes that “many of the classes are also free or at such a low cost [$10 or so] that it’s a great time to try your hand at Pilates or yoga."
The pool, sauna and steam room part of the spa are almost always free, she adds, which gives you part of the pricey spa experience for nothing.
Or, just take a nap.
A comfy lounge chair in a good spot might be more your speed, but before you start jockeying for one by the pool, consider that there are several decks, all with chairs.
Danna, a former staffer on a major cruise line, said she wasn’t surprised that passengers seldom jogged around her ship’s track, but wondered why more people didn’t discover all the empty deck chairs near the track, where you got the same sun and more quiet than on the other decks.
And if you want to nap with a book on your stomach, more ship libraries are operating on the honor-system and are staying open all the time, Bauer says, noting that “on a recent cruise we saw lots of recent hardcover best-sellers, several copies each. It beats spending $30 in the airport bookstore.”
Do right by your kids and your wallet.
Parents who often pay through the nose for instructor-led sessions and lessons on land should keep in mind that free on-board activities like rock climbing and skating are very well staffed. And many kids programs are free, Sargent notes, with small counselor-to-child ratios and very generous hours.
In the evenings, for nominal fees, you might be able to drop your children at a pajama party or leave kids as young as 16 months to 18 months with a babysitter.
And if your kids are like mine and often refuse to be left with a babysitter, counselor, or anyone other than you, you can be a hero parent if you’re stuck in your cabin with kids: Almost all ships offer room service 24/7. The food is free, just pay the tip.
If you don’t have kids around and want to keep it that way.
Bauer says that many ships now are offering cabanas or sanctuaries (read: kid-free). At $20 a day for a major cruise line’s sanctuary, “we found this a steal,” she says. “The chaise lounges were almost better than our stateroom beds, you have the use of a personal headsets for the day, and the lap pool and whirlpool are integrated into the area."
Other lines also offer cabanas with a slightly higher cost, she says, but may include amenities like a mimosa or bloody mary bar. “Depending on how much you drink,” she notes, “you could still come out ahead.”