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The 10 commandments of a great cruise ship vacation

01 Feb 2023
Matt Hochberg

There's a lot of cruise ship tips and tricks, but what are the most repeated bits of cruise advice I give to readers every week?

Wonder of the Seas in Port Canaveral

I host question and answer sessions on our YouTube and Facebook channels every week, and there's all sorts of questions about going on a cruise that are asked.  Over the years, I've definitely developed a few tenants of cruising that I think are critical.

To be fair, a lot of the advice I give out are opinions based on my own experience that I think will benefit others.  But there are also some pieces of advice that I think are hard and fast rules everyone should follow because the consequences of skipping them could result in a dramatically worse experience.

While cruises are designed to be very easy going and require very little pre-planning, anyone that's cruised a lot will tell you the more effort you put in in advance, the higher dividends you see later in overall experience and avoiding problems.

Promenade Deck

In reflecting on the cruise tips and advice I dole out each week, I wanted to come up with the 10 most important pieces of cruise advice I would give to just about anyone.  These are universal truths that I think are imperative to having a great cruise and skipping them could lead to problems later on.

You might be able to skip all of them and still have a fun time, but you only stand to benefit and protect yourself against pitfalls by following these "commandments". My hope is they'll save you time, money, or both.

1. Never fly the same day your cruise departs

Houston Hobby airport

There are places in you vacation cut corners, but your flight to your cruise ship isn't one of them.

Flying in the same day your cruise ship departs is playing with fire when it comes to being able to make the cruise.  Flights get delayed and cancelled all the time, no matter which time of year it is.

What you want to do is fly in at least one day before your cruise begins.

Miami downtown night

Sure, an extra night before the cruise sails means the added cost of a hotel room, vacation day from work, dog sitter, and a variety of other expenses.  But it will cost you much more if you miss your cruise because your flight prevents you from getting to the ship before it departs.

It doesn't take a nationwide airline problem to be the reason your flight gets cancelled. Everyday flights get delayed and cancelled, and there's no reason to chance your entire vacation on the connecting flight being on time or a snow storm in Milwaukee shutting things down.

I've seen too many people miss their cruise because they flew the same day of the cruise, so add an extra day before and start your vacation sooner.

2. Pre-purchase add-ons and re-price later. Don't wait to book

Soda cup

A lot of people will try to time Royal Caribbean's sale in the same way they would time a sale on jeans at the mall.  Unlike retail stores, you can reprice purchases much easier before the cruise.

First and foremost, the price for that Royal Caribbean drink package, wifi, or shore excursion will cost less if you buy it before the cruise.

What you want to do is buy it in the Cruise Planner as soon as you think you know you want to get it. Lock in the price and then you're good.

However, if the price goes down at any point before your cruise, you can cancel and rebook it quite easily in the Cruise Planner website.

This may lead some to wonder why not just wait to see if there's a price drop, and if there isn't, book it in those last few days. The reason why that's a bad idea is because prices can go up.

Booking these things before the cruise locks in the price and protects you against a price increase, while still allowing you to re-price if the price goes down.

3. Book your cruise as early as you can for the lowest price

Deck view of Symphony of the Seas

If your cruise vacation is that big trip you're going to take, be sure to book the cruise as soon as you can for the lowest price.

Generally speaking, the best prices for cruises are when they first go on sale. In the months leading up to your cruise, more people book up cabins on a given sailing and that drives up prices.

The best strategy for locking in the cruise ship cabin you want at the price you can afford is to book it as early as you can. Booking six, twelve, or even 18 months in advance will likely get you a better price than if you wait longer.

Mariner of the Seas sailing away

Moreover, booking early gets you the cabin category and location you really want.

While last-minute cruise deals do exist, they're few and far between and it may not line up with the time of year you want to sail.  Or the cabin selections could be extremely limited.

Book early and if you're in certain countries, re-price up to final payment date if there is a lower price.

4. Always buy travel insurance

Symphony back view

I used to consider travel insurance as a discretionary purchase that some people could skip, but it seems like the benefits greatly outweigh the cost.

Like all insurance, it's a waste of money until you need it.

Most people think of travel insurance in terms of health benefits if you were to get sick or hurt in a foreign country, but I think it's far more likely to come in handy in the course of regular travel.

Airplane cabin

Did you know travel insurance covers trip interruption and cancellations? It protects you when unforeseen events occur that would otherwise leave you high and dry financially.

Considering basic travel insurance is likely going to cost you much less than a drink package, it's an investment worth taking every time, just in case.

5. Complete the entire online check-in before the cruise

I hate wasting time on my vacation, and the biggest waste of time on a cruise is standing around in the cruise terminal doing things you could have done at home.

Royal Caribbean's check-in process is super simple and it behooves you to complete all the steps before the cruise so that you can breeze through the cruise terminal.

The goal of the online check-in is to get passengers from curb to ship as quickly as possible. 

If you upload all your documentation, take a photo, and enter your billing information, you'll find it takes you longer to walk through the terminal than actually checking-in. It's time saved so you can do more onboard.

6. All ships are great, but look at what it has and doesn't have

Liberty of the Seas

I get asked all the time if a certain Royal Caribbean cruise ship is good, or what is the worst ship in the fleet.

There isn't any ship I don't recommend and no ship is so bad everyone should avoid it. But there are ships that might not be a good fit for you and your family.

Not all Royal Caribbean cruise ships are the same, and that means they all don't have the same restaurants, activities, amenities, or features you might want in a ship.

The primary reason someone may not like a ship is because it lacks something they personally value as important. Water slides, specialty dining, public venues, or even types of cabins could be reasons why a particular ship isn't great for you.

What you want to do is compare the ship you are considering to other ships to figure out what it has and what it doesn't have, and then decide which you would prefer.

Managing expectations is key to having a great cruise, so don't get onboard and be surprised when something you assumed was going to be there isn't there.

7. Use a travel agent

Aft balcony

I'm still shocked how many people don't use a travel agent when booking their cruise, but you only stand to benefit by using a good one.

Many are unaware travel agents still exist, or that they can be beneficial when it comes to cruises.

A travel agent's value is more than just booking a cruise. Anyone can book a cruise. 

Hump room

Travel agents' value is saving you time and money, as well as being your answer hotline along the way.

They may have special group rates or discounts you hadn't considered, but they're also the ones that sit on hold with Royal Caribbean instead of you when there's a problem or discrepancy.

If you used a travel agent and didn't like them, that's fine, find one that is awesome. They exist, you just haven't found them yet. 

Promenade deck

Just like how you can't rely on one restaurant, lawyer, or park as the basis for judging all other restaurants, lawyers, or parks, there are all sorts of travel agents out there. Get a personal recommendation from someone you know and trust and you'll be surprised how helpful a travel agent can be.

Oh, and a travel agent should never cost you anything extra. The cruise line pays them a commission and the price is the same whether you book directly with them or with the agent.

8. Book dining reservations as soon as you get onboard

Izumi hibachi on Mariner of the Seas

Specialty dining packages have never been as popular as they are today, so if you buy one, be sure to make reservations as soon as you get onboard.

Dining packages can save you a lot of money compared to going to the same number of restaurants and paying the normal cover charge.  The "trade off" is you have to wait to book a reservation for a specific restaurant at a specific time until you get on the ship.

As soon as you board the ship, go to any specialty restaurant and ask them to make reservations for you.  They can book any other specialty restaurant.

By making reservations on the first day as soon as you board, you'll likely get a time and location you really want.

9. Research ports in advance

Puerto Plata

Shore excursions can often be very "hit or miss" due to how many options there are and the variety of vendors.

The ports of call you visit are a major component to any cruise vacation, and you have just a few hours to make the most of your time there. It greatly benefits you to have a plan in place before you arrive to save you time, money, or sanity.

Once you book the cruise, look into which tours and things to do there are in each port you are visiting.  Book tours through reputable providers and have a plan.

Odyssey of the Seas in Curacao

All too often people report back they had a disappointing time in port because the tour wasn't what they expected, they were unaware of what there was to do, or they simply chose poorly.

Read as much as you can about the places you'll visit and pick the right activity for you.

10. Sign up for activities before the cruise or once onboard

There's limited capacity for shows and signature activities, so make a reservation whenever you can, as soon as you can.

Royal Caribbean allows guests to book activities and shows up to a month before the cruise on Oasis and Quantum Class ships.  Other ships may have reservations available once you get onboard and connect to the wifi to book it via the Royal Caribbean app.

Regardless of which way is available, book things up to assure yourself of a spot.

 It’s not uncommon with some ships to find that some shows, tours and activities book up in advance.