Secrets the Cruise Lines Don't Tell You

Secrets the Cruise Lines Don't Tell You (Photo: Cruise Critic)

Cruise ship life can be a little mysterious. Your choices aren't always spelled out in black and white. The more you cruise, the more you pick up on the unofficial secrets the cruise lines don't tell you -- which give you more options, let you save money and generally allow you to have a better time onboard.

Maybe it's knowing what your cabin steward is able to bring you or what the off-the-menu items are at the bar or dining room. Or perhaps it's a tip to getting a good deal on an onboard purchase.

But why wait to figure these things out the hard way -- possibly after you've missed your chance? We trawled through all the great advice on Cruise Critic's Message Boards to bring you some of the worst-kept cruise secrets ... at least among our readers who love to share. But whether you're a first-time cruiser or an old sea dog, you may find there's something here you didn't already know.


Food Secrets

Carnival Freedom - Posh Dining Room

  • You are not limited to one of each starters, main course and dessert in the main dining room. You can order two entrees or three desserts if you choose. You can order two mains or three desserts if you choose. You can also order starter-sized portions of a main course or order a few starters for your main meal. It's a great way to try new foods you're not sure you'll like (escargot, anyone?).
  • Some lines offer free room service, while others charge. Fred. Olsen's is completely free; whereas P&O Cruises' room service menu features some ideas carrying a small charge (e.g. £1.50 for a chicken and bacon sandwich, £3.95 for a burger and £4.50 for a seafood pie). While Cruise & Maritime's room service menu offers no complimentary dishes. And while some line's don't charge, they may apply a fee, for example Celebrity's late-night orders bear a $3.95 charge.
  • At breakfast time, you may have more options than just the buffet and main dining room. On Cunard's Queen Mary 2, we found the most delicious breakfast dishes available in the Carinthia Lounge, such as eggs benedict, breaded haggis ball and a gooey fried egg over spicy sauteed mushrooms, which are completely free.
  • Most people dine in the main dining room or buffet on the first night of the cruise, as many haven't discovered the specialty restaurants yet. If you book an alternative dining venue for the first night of the cruise, you may get a discount on select lines (like Celebrity Cruises) or have an easier time getting a reservation for a popular venue.
  • Specialty coffee at the designated coffee shops onboard comes with an extra fee, but the pastries, sandwiches and other food at these venues are often free. While some specialty items (like chocolate-covered strawberries) will have a charge, don't assume all the small bites do. Some bars -- such as Celebrity's Martini Bar -- also offer complimentary snacks; all you have to do is ask.
  • Like ice cream? Cruise lines will charge for branded licks like Ben & Jerry's and Celebrity's gelato. However, there's always a free version -- whether soft-serve machines on the Lido Deck or hard-serve stations at the buffet. And do your research -- Cruise Critic members report that soft-serve machines on either side of the deck can have different flavours.
  • On embarkation day, most people head straight to the buffet to have lunch and wait for their cabins to open. It's a mob scene. But many cruise ships have alternative venues open -- the main dining room or a mini-buffet in the solarium or atrium area. Ask a crew member or check your daily newsletter to find an alternative for a calmer first meal. For example, on Princess Cruises, the International Cafe, Pizzeria and Grill also are open; on Royal Caribbean ships, Sorrento's, the Solarium and Park Cafes, Giovanni's Table, Cafe Promenade and Starbucks are open on the afternoon of embarkation.
  • Don't know which night to make specialty dinner reservations? The main dining room menus are planned for the week, and the purser's desk often has access to those menus. Ask to see them so you can decide which nights are less appealing and which you don't want to miss, and plan your cruise accordingly.

Drink Secrets

Pina Colada

  • There's no "open beverage" rule onboard. You can bring drinks from a bar or buffet to your cabin or elsewhere on the ship and no one will bat an eye. (Same goes for food.)
  • It's often cheaper to buy a bottle of wine than a few glasses -- but what do you do if you don't finish the bottle? Cruise ship waiters can mark the bottle with your cabin number and save it for another night, even for dinner in another onboard venue.
  • Groups of beer drinkers can save by ordering buckets of beer. You get four or five beers in a souvenir bucket at a per-beer cost slightly cheaper than ordering individual bottles.
  • On most lines, soft drinks are not free -- but iced tea or a juice variety in the dining room usually is. Save on soft drinks by buying a drinks card, offering a set price for unlimited soft drinks.
  • Most cruise lines prohibit passengers from bringing beer and liquor onboard, but do let you bring a bottle or two of wine or Champagne. Some lines (such as Holland America and Princess) also let you bring a reasonable amount of non-alcoholic drinks onboard -- which helps save on pricy shipboard sodas and bottled waters. Fred. Olsen prohibits you from bringing any alcoholic beverages onboard, while P&O Cruises allow wine and Champagne to be brought onboard, but the line will apply a £15 corkage fee for wine consumed in the restaurants.
  • Our tip is to look out for events onboard, such as boutique or gallery showcases, which often offer a complimentary drink, or the Captain's welcome drinks. Keep an eye on your daily programme for drink specials or happy hours with reduced-price beverages, too..

Cabin Secrets

Carnival Cloud 9 cabin

  • Most cabins are made of metal… and therefore they're magnetic. Bring along some magnets (or buy some as souvenirs) and you can keep all your cocktail party invites, alternative dining reservation notices and daily planners hung up on the walls and doors.
  • Inside cabins have no natural light. At all. Turn your TV to the bridge cam station, turn off the sound and -- voila! -- you've got an instant nightlight and a way to see if the sun is up.
  • Spa cabins can often be a smart financial decision for avid spa-goers. While MSC Cruises does not specifically feature designated spa cabins, its Yacht Club suites offer exclusive spa amenities and services, including direct private access to the MSC Aurea Spa from the Yacht Club. Within the spa are two massage/treatment rooms reserved only for Yacht Club passengers and the first four passengers in a Yacht Club cabin get a free one-off pass to the thermal suite.
  • With all of the electronics we tote around with us these days, most people find cruise ship outlets to be insufficient. You can bring your own charging station or power strip (check to see if these are legal on your cruise line), but you may also want to ask your cabin steward. Sometimes there's an extra outlet hidden behind the TV or under the bed.
  • Picky about your bedding? Some lines will provide egg crate mattress toppers, top sheets and alternative pillow types by special request. Feel free to ask, before or during your cruise.
  • Cabin designers are pretty smart about creating as much storage space as possible. Do a little exploring or ask your cabin steward for a tour. You may be surprised to find extra storage under the bed or sofa, inside an ottoman or behind a mirror.
  • If you're feeling queasy, don't run out to a pharmacy before making some calls. Room service usually deliver green apples and bland crackers (crew members swear by the apple remedy), and often you can get seasickness medication from the purser's desk or medical centre for free.

Entertainment Secrets

Rock of Ages

  • Many lines offer free minutes if you sign up for an internet package on the first day of the cruise.
  • Cruise ship spas often offer discounts for first-day and port-day treatments. Stop by the spa, or check your daily newsletters to find out about deals.
  • If the port talk is at the same time as your massage, don't worry. Presentations and audience-participation shows are often re-broadcast on the ship's channel on your in-room TV. You can still catch the recording if you miss the live show.
  • Use of the showers, saunas and steam rooms not located in fancy thermal suites is free. Showering in the spa can often mean access to more clean towels, fancy toiletries and bigger shower stalls -- and prevents fights over who gets cabin bathroom access first. Using the free saunas is also a great remedy for that inevitable vacation head cold that stuffs you up.
  • Thomson Cruises offers a bundle speciality dining package that works out cheaper if you book it on the first night.
  • If you want to see one of the big-name shows on Royal Caribbean or Norwegian (like "Mamma Mia" or "Rock of Ages"), but tickets are sold out, don't fret. Many people reserve the free tickets but don't show up, so if you get in line prior to showtime, cruise ship staff will let you in if seats are available.

Cruise Line-Specific Secrets

Tamarind on Holland America

  • Celebrity's buffet secrets include delicious ship-made hard-serve ice cream (for free) in the buffet and made-to-order waffles with a choice of toppings. You can also order a cup of candy toppings with no ice cream if that's your treat of choice.
  • On Holland America, lunch is discounted to $10 at the Pinnacle Grill, and free chocolate truffles make an appearance in the Explorer's Lounge each evening.
  • Royal Caribbean's Cafe Promenade offers high-quality coffee without the price tag. It's no Starbuck's, but it's a step above what you'd find at the buffet.
  • The North Star on Royal Caribbean's Quantum-class ships offers amazing views any time you go, but you'll get the best views on sea days. That's because the enclosed, glass capsule -- which can rise to 300 feet above sea level -- is often restricted from extending out over the side of the ship while in port.