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40 Cruise Hacks for the First-Time Cruiser

Planning a first-time cruise on Royal Caribbean, Carnival, or Norwegian soon? This post has cruise hacks and tips that show how to save money, optimize alcohol and dining prices, and ideas for packing organizational tools to make your cruise vacation easy and fun!

Planning a first-time cruise on Royal Caribbean, Carnival, or Norwegian soon? This post has cruise hacks and tips that show how to save money, optimize alcohol and dining prices, and ideas for packing organizational tools to make your cruise vacation easy and fun!

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On Tuesday I discussed all things cruise packing – and today, I'm back to talk about ways to get the most bang for your buck (and for your time) on a cruise!

Every once in awhile, my husband chips in on a post for the blog. Most of the content here on Lamberts Lately is written and researched by me; however, I know when I'm not the expert in the family. Travel (particularly cruising) is definitely one of those categories.

This man is a travel researching fool. This is seriously what he does in his free time; he absolutely loves making a vacation as efficient and fun (and inexpensive) as possible. So, when it came time to sit down and write about some of the very easy ways to plan the best cruise, there was no doubt that I needed his expertise! He rattled what you'll see below off to me in about 15 minutes one night – I'm telling you, he's good! He missed his calling as a travel agent. ๐Ÿ˜‰

The first list is a collection of just general cruise hacks – these can be used on most any line. They're kind of randomly ordered, but could benefit any first-time cruiser!

1. Use Rakuten to book your cruise.

Want to save an easy chunk of change off of your total cruise price? Use Rakuten (formerly Ebates) to click through to one of the popular travel websites to book your cruise. As of this publish date, Travelocity was giving up to 10% cash back for a booking and Expedia was giving 3.5% cash back to book through their site. It's an incredibly easy way to save!

2. Use magnets to store/display things in your stateroom.

Most all walls in staterooms on cruise ships are magnetic; so use magnets to hang things. We hang our cruise guides, kids' artwork from the kids' club, hats/sunglasses, etc. on the walls. We love this little set from Dollar Tree (but they are available everywhere).

3. Order more than one dish at the restaurants.

Guys – don't be afraid to try more than one thing when you eat at one of the on-board restaurants! I often order more than one appetizer because I simply want to try more than one thing. Some of the upgraded restaurants won't allow this, but just the basic dining room allows for unlimited appetizers, main course dishes, or desserts.

4. Not all cabins are right for every guest.

Picking the kind of cabin you'll need is totally a personal preference. If you don't think you'll be in the room a lot, go inside cabin. There's no need to pay for a window/balcony you won't use! If you're a little more claustrophobic (or just want a view of the water) but don't want to pay an arm and a leg for your room, consider an ocean view.

My family personally chooses to get a balcony most of the time we travel. Having the extra space is crucial when we're trying to get the kids to sleep at night; we usually just go outside (which is like having another room) and wait for the kids to wind down.

Of course, there are larger rooms available, but they come at a price! Many families I know who travel in large groups elect to have one member get a suite that allows everyone to hang out and interior/ocean view rooms for the rest. There's a reason there are so many different types of staterooms on board; there are lots of different needs.

5. Turn on airplane mode as soon as you board.

This can be a SUPER costly mistake if you don't know to do it! As soon as the boat starts moving, turn on Airplane mode, even if you're planning on using an internet package on your devices. You don't want to see “Cellular at SEA” on your phone; that means you're going to be paying super high data rates.

6. Check with cell phone company if international roaming is free.

We like to FaceTime family when we're in ports because, with our plan, International roaming is included in our package. If not, make sure your phone stays on Airplane mode even while you're in port. If you do need access to the internet in port, we usually try to find a Starbucks – they're guaranteed to have free Wifi!

7. Tip your cabin steward on day 1 and explain what you like.ย 

You will learn to love your cabin steward. This is the person that's in charge of making sure all things stateroom are taken care of for the week. Not only do they clean your room, but they make sure you have all of your convenience items.

When you meet your steward, introduce yourself (it's always nice to add a little bit of a tip on day 1). You can also request things like ice, towel animals, or even a fan for the room. A little bit of kindness goes a long way – start building a good relationship and you'll be surprised how far it gets you!

8. Tip your maitre de on day 1 and explain what you like.

This is the same idea as #7 – if we have any particular requests for the dining room, one of the first things we do is find the maitre de in the dining room, give them a small tip (remember, they'll get their full tip automatically taken out of your cruise account after the cruise), and request any tables or food. We've been able to get private tables anytime we need them with the one.

9. Check to see if a tip has been automatically applied before you tip on purchases.

This also kind of rolls into the last hacks – many times, your tip is included (or will be taken out of your account later) on a cruise. Your cabin steward, waiters, staff, and maitre de will receive a tip from you after the cruise, so unless you want to, there's no need for an additional tip at dinners. Sometimes add-ons have the tip included as well. We just got back from a cruise where we purchased the deluxe drink package; this included tips on drinks from the bar (up to a certain amount), so there was no need to provide an additional tip on most drinks. Again, definitely tip if you feel compelled to for exceptional service!

10. Book your spa events on port days.

You'll usually find the cheapest rates on spa services (massages, manicure/pedicures, facials, etc.) when you're in port. Check with your ship to see if there are any specials available.

11. Go to the pool on port days.

Same idea; if there is a port we're not loving, we always choose to go to the pool on that port day! It is gloriously empty and you'll get choice of pretty much any chair/pool you'd like.

12. Buy your drink/dinner packages before you cruise.

You're typically going to pay more for upgraded drink/dining packages once you get on board. If you think this is something you're going to want, check your cruise account often for specials. By doing this, we were able to save about $40/day off of our drink package between the two of us! (We also paid more to upgrade our dining on board…lesson learned.)

13. Join your cruise's Facebook group.

This one is fairly new (but so helpful). Most cruises now have a member make a Facebook page for their particular sailing. It's a wonderful way to get to know people before your cruise, stay up-to-date on any dining or excursion specials, and even find out about get-togethers on the cruise. Just look up your particular ship and the sail date (for example, my recent one was “Liberty of the Seas May 5, 2019”).

14. Join your cruise's rewards program.

Most cruise lines have a rewards program for past guests. This includes little perks on the boat (a cocktail hour, an appetizer here and there, etc.) and usually involves pretty good discounts for future sailings.

15. Try the drink of the day.

Each day on most cruises, you'll find a drink special. These are usually fruity, pool-side kind of drinks that you can get for a few dollars off of normal prices. I know Carnival and Royal Caribbean have one of these each day at most bars on board.

16. Look for art auctions for free champagne/appetizers.

Apparently art is a big profiter on cruise ships, because there are always art auctions that involve free champagne and/or appetizers. You don't have to bid on anything to attend these auctions!

17. Go to the shopping welcome event.

You won't see a ton of people do this (because it's basically a big infomercial), but the welcome event that introduces you to all of the shopping on board and in ports might be worth it. I won a beautiful sapphire necklace at one of these years ago! There are lots of door prizes and many people in the audience win (especially when few attend).

18. Use an over the door shoe organizer to organize your room.

I mentioned this in my packing post Tuesday – by far the best organizing tool we used in our room was this shoe organizer. It kept all of our shoes off of the floor and we were able to use the remaining pockets to organize medicine, cleaning supplies, toiletries, etc. They're only a few dollars and totally worth every penny!

19. Email your cruise company at least 30 days out for any dietary restrictions/preferences.

Nine times out of ten, the cruise lines will bend over backwards to accommodate any requests you have. Especially if you have any allergies or food restrictions, let them know! You have to give them some advance notice, but they are usually great about trying to accommodate your requests.

20. Your cruise director is there to make your trip an experience; let them know if you're doing something special.

The cruise lines are also amazing about helping you celebrate special events. Birthdays, anniversaries, honeymoons, weddings are something to be celebrated! Tell the people that are helping you on your cruise (directors, cabin stewards, waiters) about your event and they will usually always do something special to help you celebrate.

The following cruise hacks are specific to Royal Caribbean (as of publish time)…

1. The helipad is available but unmentioned on almost all the ships.

Want to have your “Titanic” moment? You can do it on Royal Caribbean! It's really cool to take your kids to the helipad when touring the ship, but you won't find it mentioned in most cruise directories. On Liberty of the Seas, the helipad is at the front of the ship (so you can access the bow of the ship and do your best Rose.)

2. Continental breakfast is still free room service (the rest is not).

This one is kind of a bummer – I'm used to free room service on ships, but that's typically a thing of the past. The one exception to this is continental breakfast – you can get free cereal, yogurt, pastries (the usual lighter breakfast options) delivered free to your room each morning. Even upgraded breakfast foods (like eggs, bacon, sausage) are going to cost you though. There is a flat $7.95 charge to deliver any other room service to your room (regardless of order size).

3. Two 750ml bottles of wine are allowed per stateroom, no matter how many adults.

You can bring alcohol on board – but your options are pretty limited! Only 2 standard-sized bottles of wine are allowed per stateroom, whether you have 1 adult or 4. No liquor or beer is permitted. And, another bummer – no soft drinks are allowed.

4. Download the app ahead of time and you can view current cruising calendars.

I really liked the Royal Caribbean app! It's a super easy way to see what's going on during the cruise. Some ships have a texting feature through the app that is so convenient (Liberty of the Seas did not). Once you book your cruise, you can go on and download the app and put in your order number to see everything going on during your cruise week.

5. Book your dinner reservations up to 30 days in advance.

If you do have the app already, take the opportunity to book any dining that isn't already scheduled for you. If you're doing My Time Dining, you'll need to book your chosen time each night (or stand in kind of a “will call” line once you get there…it honestly didn't take too long). Any upgraded dining experiences need to be reserved as well.

6. You can book, cancel, and rebook drink, dining, and excursions if the price drops; it won't automatically update for you.

If you are planning on booking any upgraded dining or excursions, don't be concerned that you're going to miss a good deal. Go on and book and simply rebook & cancel if you find a better deal later on. This is a great way to make sure you're getting the best deal! But you must check this often; the price won't be automatically updated for you. You must rebook and cancel the original reservation.

7. Make sure to bring extra hangers and wrinkle release spray because there are not iron or laundry facilities.

Wrinkle release spray was a lifesaver for us! You can't bring any kind of iron on board and irons aren't available, so bring a little bottle of spray if needed. We brought extra hangers and honestly didn't use them; but, if you have lots of hanging clothes, put a cheap pack of hangers in your luggage. There were probably 10 hangers in our room already.

8. The unlimited dining plan allows you to book as many dinners per day as is available. Specialty lunches are available at sea day.

Now, let me go on and get this out there – this would be a ton of food! But, if you're stomach is a little larger than mine, you can eat as many upgraded dinners that your heart desires with the unlimited dining plan. I honestly think this would be more useful to divide up your dining for a particular meal; you could have appetizers at one restaurant and a main course at the other. We did upgraded dining a few times on this past cruise and I honestly don't think I could have eaten more than one meal at a time. ๐Ÿ˜‰ But is is possible if you want it.

Another bonus of the unlimited dining – specialty lunches!

9. Unlike other cruise lines, the deluxe drink package does not have a maximum number of drinks per day. Only covers drinks up to $12 ($13 on oasis class ships), and you're responsible for the difference plus tip.

Again, I'm not totally sure how somebody would drink this much in a day, but you can technically have as many alcoholic drinks as you want under the deluxe drink package (for example, Carnival maxes out at 15 drinks). This also includes specialty coffees, bottles of water, and sodas too…those really add up!

I would most definitely say that the drink package is worth it, especially if you can get it at a discount. Noah and I both got our money's worth every day, and it definitely wasn't in just alcoholic drinks – we both had specialty coffees, a few water bottles (that are normally $3 a pop), and sodas too. We were even able to get the kids a few virgin drinks now and then. I know it sounds expensive, but it's worth considering!

But – make sure you stay below $12 unless the drink is really something you want. If you get to $13, you're going to be responsible for that extra dollar and the full tip (not just on the overage), so it's going to cost you way more than a dollar to upgrade. This usually wasn't an issue for us – most drinks (even with high-end alcohol) are $12 and under.

10. Each Royal Caribbean ship has multiple themed bars; each of these bars specialize in certain types of drinks.

I thought the bars on the ship were so much fun! Our personal favorites were Hoof & Claw (the beer bar) and Vintages (the wine bar), located in the promenade. We also liked the Juice bar up on the pool deck – it was right next to the kids' Splash pad and made yummy fruity drinks. Other ships have cool themed bars like a robo-bar (your drinks are completely made by a robot!), the latin-themed Boleros, and R bar, which makes really funky, unique drinks. Check your particular ship for their line-up…every ship is different.

11. On Oasis class ships, Johnny Rockets serves free breakfast every day.

On a select group of Royal Caribbean ships (Oasis, Allure, Symphony, and Harmony), you can stop in at Johnny Rockets for very diner-style breakfasts (like fried eggs, bacon, French toast) at no charge. These restaurants are on lots of ships (and are an upcharge but very worth it for a delicious burger), but the included breakfast is only on those four ships.

12. For speciality experiences (like the rock climber, ice skating, or FlowRider), private lessons are available.

These lessons are for a fee, but can be arranged. The actual experiences are included with your cruise, but are first come, first-served. The lines get long quickly, so pick a time (like a port day or when the experience first opens) to get in line!

13. On Oasis class ships, you can use the Royal Caribbean app to reserve seating for your shows at night.

This is another cool feature of the app! On Oasis, Allure, Symphony, or Harmony of the Seas, use your app to make sure you've got a great spot.

14. The Key is an upgraded all-in-one experience.

The Key is an upcharge that gives you access to internet, reserved seating at shows, access to private hours at experiences like the FlowRider and the rock climbing wall, lunch at Chops Grille on embarkation day, priority embarkation/debarkation/tenders, carry-on luggage storage on embarkation.ย It starts at $24.99/person/day for all the guests 6 and older in your cabin. This must be booked before boarding, so plan ahead!

15. Dining and drink packages are most beneficial when booked before boarding; however, specials can be found on board like drink packages for the last 4 days only or a 10 drink prepaid card at a reduced price.

16. Make your own pizza at Sorrento's.

The popular Sorrento's pizza (located in the promenade of most ships) has your basic pepperoni and cheese pizzas, but you can also make your own! There are several different toppings available and you can even request a gluten-free crust.

17. The deluxe drink package does have some limits.

Even though most of the $12 and under drinks on board are covered, there are exceptions. Drinks in hollowed-out coconuts or pineapples and protein smoothies at the juice bar aren't covered. However, it does include milkshakes at Johnny Rockets (when dining there; can't be purchased separately).

18. Drink package applies at Perfect Day at Coco Cay and Labadee.

These are private destinations just for Royal Caribbean guests. Since you're still technically on their property, you can use their drink packages there!

19. Cabanas at Labadee and Coco Cay sell out early; book them first.

20. Look into booking your excursions privately (at your own risk).

There are pros and cons to booking your own excursions (not through Royal Caribbean). Group sizes are usually much smaller and fees are less. However, this is definitely something you do at your own risk. If it runs long, the ship could leave you behind. In addition, there is no guarantee of service – there are lots of scams out there, so do your research! (If you need a good one, our favorite excursion of all time is Salsa and Salsa in Cozumel. You learn to make salsas and margaritas and have salsa lessons. It is so fun!)

I'd love to hear about your own cruise hacks in the comments!

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7 Comments

  1. Don Gallagher says:

    In regards to #6, you DO NOT have to can c.d el your reservation to take advantage of reduced rates. We call as often as once a week to discover reduced rates and Royal Caribbean will simply apply discount to your existing reservations. We usually save hundreds of dollars on every cruise and we take 6 cruises on Royal Caribbean each year.

    1. That’s great to know, thanks for the info!

  2. David Shiman says:

    One money saver that I just discovered is to buy 100 shares of the cruise linesโ€™ stock before the cruise. You will receive $50 online credit for a short cruise (3-5 days), $100 for an average length cruise (6-13 days, and $250 online credit for a long cruise.
    Free money and you can sell the stock the day after the cruise if you want.

    1. This is interesting, never heard of that!

  3. Carnival’s drink package does not include non alcoholic drinks in its 15 per day limit.

    1. You’re absolutely right – thanks for including that! I loved getting specialty coffees with mine on my last Carnival cruise. They also have some energy drinks and bottled drinks too.

  4. Just cruised on the Allure (5.28 – 6.5.2022, and we each brought a 12-pack of canned soda. Highly recommend the Water dive show!!!! 5๐ŸŒŸ๐ŸŒŸ๐ŸŒŸ๐ŸŒŸ๐ŸŒŸ