1. Home
  2. Planning
  3. Cruise Tips and Advice
  4. Secrets the Cruise Lines Don't Tell You
Secrets the Cruise Lines Don't Tell You (Photo: Cruise Critic)

Secrets the Cruise Lines Don't Tell You

Updated September 21, 2017

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.


Booked? Find your Roll Call to see who's sailing with you.

Food Secrets

Carnival Freedom - Posh Dining Room

  • You are not limited to one of each appetizer, entree and dessert in the main dining room. You can order two entrees or three desserts if you choose. You can also order appetizer-sized portions of entrees as starters or order a few appetizers for your main meal. It's a great way to try new foods you're not sure you'll like (escargot, anyone?).
  • Room service is generally free, except for service charges on certain lines. Celebrity's late-night orders bear a $3.95 fee, while all orders on Royal Caribbean (excluding Continental breakfast) and Norwegian (excluding morning coffee, Continental breakfast and orders placed by Haven Suite passengers) cost $7.95. Meanwhile, Carnival and Holland America offer for-fee room service menus in addition to their complimentary menus. It's recommended you tip your delivery person, but in-room dining is not the splurge it is at a hotel.
  • Speaking of breakfast, you may have more options than just the buffet and main dining room. On Norwegian, it's no secret that O'Sheehan's offers tasty made-to-order omelets and corned beef hash, yet many cruisers still don't know about it. Carnival's BlueIguana Cantina and Royal Caribbean's Johnny Rockets (on Oasis-class ships) are other alternative breakfast venues. Check your daily newsletter to see which restaurants are open in the morning.
  • Most people dine in the main dining room or buffet on the first night of the cruise, and 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. Carnival Cruise Line passengers who dine in the steakhouse on the first night get a free bottle of wine.
  • 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 reconnaissance -- Cruise Critic members report that soft-serve machines on either side of the deck can have different flavors.
  • 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 room 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, soda is not free -- but iced tea in the dining room usually is. Save on soda by buying a soda 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 nonalcoholic drinks onboard -- which helps save on pricy shipboard sodas and bottled waters. Royal Caribbean and Norwegian passengers are prohibited from bringing any nonalcoholic beverages onboard, while Carnival only allows limited amounts of soda and juice as long as the drinks are in cans or cartons (and not glass containers).
  • Enticed by all those special drinks in a souvenir glass? You can refill those glasses at a discount -- or ask to have the drink of the day in a regular glass to save money. Also watch your daily program for drink specials or happy hours with reduced-price beverages.

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. For example, Carnival's Cloud 9 Spa balcony cabins include access to the thalassotherapy pool, steam room and sauna. The extra you'd pay for the cabin (above a regular balcony room) is often less than what you'd pay for a cruise-length spa pass.
  • 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 couch, 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 can bring you green apples and bland crackers (crew members swear by the apple remedy), and often you can get seasickness meds from the purser's desk for free.
Find a Cruise

Entertainment Secrets

Rock of Ages

  • Casino frequenters can get a hole punched in their room card and a free lanyard from the casino staff for easy play without forgetting your card in the slot machines.
  • 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 stream 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.
  • 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.
Find a Cruise

Popular on Cruise Critic

6 Cruise Ship Cabins to Avoid
You might expect loud noises, close quarters and crazy maneuvers in the dance club onboard your cruise ship -- but not in your cabin. Even if you don't plan to spend much time there, it should be a restful and private place so you can maintain that much-needed vacation stamina. To help you do so, we've compiled a list of cabins you'll want to avoid booking if closet-like dimensions or scraping chair sounds overhead aren't appealing to you. Heed our advice, and you might be feeling a bit less claustrophobic and a tad more refreshed come disembarkation.
8 Best Luxury Cruise Ships
The moment you step aboard a luxury cruise ship, a hostess is at your arm proffering a glass of bubbly while a capable room steward offers to heft your carry-on as he escorts you to what will be your home-away-from-home for the next few days. You stow your things (likely in a walk-in closet) and then emerge from your suite to get the lay of the ship. As you walk the decks, friendly crew members greet you ... by name. How can that be? You just set foot onboard! First-class, personalized service is just one of the hallmarks of luxury cruise lines. You can also expect exotic itineraries, varying degrees of inclusivity in pricing, fine wines and gourmet cuisine as well as universally high crew-to-passenger ratios. That being the case, you might think any old luxury cruise ship will do, but that's not quite true. Like people, cruise ships have their own unique personalities -- and some will be more suited to your vacation style than others. Lines like SeaDream might not offer the most spacious suites, but their intimate yachts can stealthily visit ports that large ships can't manage. Regent Seven Seas and Oceania Cruises are owned by the same parent company but Regent offers a completely inclusive vacation experience, while Oceania draws travelers with a more independent streak. Take a look at Cruise Critic's list of best luxury cruise lines and ships to see which one resonates with you.
Cruise Packing 101
There once was a not-so-savvy seafarer who didn't feel right unless she took two steamer trunks crammed with outfits on every cruise. This, she learned, was not a good idea. Besides incurring the wrath of her male traveling companion, who pointed out that he would have to wrestle with excess baggage through airport terminals and beyond, she quickly tired of cramming her belongings into tiny closets and bureaus. The now savvy seafarer follows her own packing 101 rule: Thou shalt put into one's suitcase only that which will fit neatly in the allocated storage space without hogging every available nook and cranny for thyself. Following that advice is getting easier these days because, for the most part, cruising has become a much more casual vacation -- even on luxury and traditional lines. Plus, with airlines charging to check bags and imposing extra fees for overweight luggage), it's just plain economical to pack light. To do so, you need to have a good sense of what you’re going to wear on a cruise so you don't pack your entire closet. If you're wondering what to bring on your next cruise, here are our guidelines for what you'll need to pack.