The more you cruise, the more you pick up on cruise tips and secrets the cruise lines don't always tell you. Even seasoned cruisers can sometimes miss out on the little cruise secrets that save money, make life in a cruise cabin comfier or even lead to the best food options onboard.
To help you find more cruise tips and secrets, we trawled through the advice on Cruise Critic's Member Boards. Whether you're a first-time cruiser or a cruise regular, our list just might help you find secret food and drinks, tips on Carnival and Royal Caribbean, and shore excursion hacks you didn't know.
1. Unlimited Main Dining Room Meals: There are literally no limits on what you can order from the main dining room menu. It’s okay to go rogue and order only appetizers or three desserts. Oh, and it’s also okay to take your dessert to go if eating under the stars on the pool deck is your thing.
2. Cheap or Free Room Service: Room service on a ship is one of the small joys you'll find on a cruise. Fancy a donut with your morning coffee before heading up to your real breakfast? Go for it, but pay attention to those room service menus. Some lines charge for certain room service menu items, others charge during peak dining times. However, no matter how you cut it, room service fees on cruises are far and away cheaper than at hotels and resorts on dry land.
3. Breakfast Options Are Often Numerous: You just might have more breakfast options on your than you think (read: The buffet often isn't the only place to dine in the morning). Free breakfast at Johnny Rockets is one of Royal Caribbean’s yummiest cruise secrets, though there are fees to eat here at other times of day. And free all-day breakfast at Big Chicken is a late sleeper’s best cruise secret on Carnival. Check your daily program or the cruise line’s app to see which restaurants are open in the morning.
4. Don't Limit Yourself During Lunch: You may be surprised to find free pasta bars at your ship’s Italian specialty restaurant or sliders at your favorite lounge. These are sometimes posted in the daily program, but it never hurts to do a little lunch reconnaissance in the early days of your cruise to help you break away from the standard fare -- and the crowds.
Related: Where Can You Get Your Starbucks Fix on Royal Caribbean? We Spill the Beans
5. Free Light Bites Throughout the Day: Specialty coffee at the 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 will have a charge, don't assume all the small bites do. And don’t forget to check the bars. Aboard Celebrity ships, the Martini Bar offers complimentary snacks -- all you have to do is ask. Princess’ Vines wine bar serves complimentary tapas and antipasti with the purchase of a glass of wine (even on the drink package). You'll also find all-day pastry and small-plate options at all-day mini-buffets on ships like Norwegian Bliss.
6. Look Beyond the Buffet on Embarkation Day: Upon boarding the ship on day one, 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. Also be sure to check counter service eateries like Guy’s Burger Joint on Carnival. Ask a crew member or check your daily program to find an alternative for a calmer first meal.
7. Plan Your Main Dining Room Nights By Checking Out the Week's Menu: Don't know which night to make specialty dinner reservations? Main dining room menus are planned for the week, and you can often find the full menus in the cruise line’s app, sometimes as early as a week before boarding. A sneak peek allows you to decide which nights you don't want to miss and which nights should be for specialty dining.
8. Open Containers Are Allowed on Cruises: Unlike many destinations on dry land, there's no open container ban onboard cruise ships. You're free to roam around the ship with any beverage from any venue. It’s perfectly normal to walk into the dining room carrying your pre-dinner cocktail or to take your unfinished glass of wine from the dinner table to the theater for the evening’s show.
9. Keep Your Unfinished Dinner Wine for Another Night: It's often cheaper to buy a bottle of wine than a few glasses at dinner -- 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, or even for dinner in another onboard venue.
10. Buckets of Beer Save You Cash: Beer drinkers can save on their cruise drink of choice by ordering buckets of beer. Holland America’s bucket of five 12-ounce Coronas is 25% cheaper than buying bottles individually. Oh, and nobody ever said you have to drink those five beers all at once or at the location where you purchased it. Feel free to take your bucket of beer anywhere, including back to your balcony to drink at your leisure.
11. Check Out Wine Packages for a Money-Saving Addition to Your Meals: Some cruise lines offer wine packages with a set price. You then choose four to eight bottles from a list of selected wines to carry you through dinners during your cruise. Be sure to ask the sommelier in the main dining room upon embarkation or during your first dinner if wine packages are available.
12. Bring Your Own Water Bottle: You aren’t locked into buying bottled water, whether for drinking onboard or carrying with you on excursions. All water on a cruise ship is drinkable.
13. Souvenir Cup Drink Perks: You can refill your eye-catching souvenir cups 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.
14. They're Magnetic: Most cruise cabins are made of metal. Bring along some magnets (or buy some as souvenirs) and you can keep all your cocktail party invites, dining reservation notices, excursion tickets and daily planner printouts hung up on the walls and doors. And magnetic hooks are perfect for hanging swimwear, jackets, and hats. Look for hooks designed to hang barbecue utensils – they’ll usually hold more than 20 pounds.
15. Use Your TV as a Nightlight in Inside Cabins: Inside cabins often get 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.
16. Consider Saving on Spa Access by Booking a Spa Cabin: It can pay to do the math on spa cabins if you're seeking a pampering, wellness escape on your cruise. For example, Carnival's Cloud 9 Spa balcony cabins include access to the thalassotherapy pool, steam room and sauna, plus discounts on treatments and classes. The extra you'd pay for the cabin might be less than what you'd pay at the spa a la carte.
Related: A Guide to Cruise Ship Spa Cabins, from Carnival to Seabourn
17. Plan for Limited Electrical Outlets in Your Cruise Cabin: Most people find cruise ship outlets and USB ports to be insufficient for their gear. You can usually bring your own charging station or power strip -- as long as they aren’t surge protectors (which will be confiscated if found).
18. Up the Comfort of Your Bed to Your Liking: Some lines will supply egg crate mattress toppers, top sheets and alternative pillow types by special request.
19. Ask for Seasickness Aids from the Ship Staff: If you're feeling queasy, 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.
20. Score Onboard Perks in the Casino: Gamblers rack up points that can earn free play, future discounts, free drinks and even free cruises in the casino. Ask the casino host for details, who have all the casino information from tournaments and prize drawings and earning loyalty benefits.
21. Use Your Cruise Loyalty Status for Free or Discounted Wi-Fi: Wi-Fi is often cheaper by signing up online before your cruise. But loyalty programs can also bring down that Wi-Fi bill, including free days and more. If you're a loyalty club member on a specific cruise line, you might do better waiting to sign up onboard so you can take full advantage of those perks.
22. Showers, Saunas and Steam Rooms in Cruise Gyms Are Free: Use of the showers, saunas and steam rooms in the spa locker rooms (as opposed to inside fancy thermal suites) is free. If you expect shower sharing issues with your cabin mates, book a room with easy access to the spa entrance and nobody will ever know your secret.
23. Carnival Cruise Secret Tip: Carnival allows you to join the VIFP loyalty program before you cruise with them. The VIFP perks are a bit skimpy with zero cruises under your belt, but it’s the key to special VIFP cruise offers you wouldn’t otherwise see. The secret, then, is to join ahead of booking your first Carnival cruise and always sign in before you shop for subsequent cruises.
23. Celebrity Cruise Secret Tip: Depending on the ship and itinerary, Celebrity's dining secrets include delicious ship-made hard-serve ice cream (for free) in the buffet and made-to-order waffles with a choice of toppings.
24. Disney Cruise Secret Tip: Room service milk and cookies (and almost everything else you’d want to eat) is free on Disney. Plus, Disney Cruise ships have the best self-serve laundry facilities at sea. You can swipe your card and charge the cost of the washer or dryer to your stateroom. No cash needed.
Related: Disney Cruise Concierge: 5 Tips That Make it Worth the Cost
25. Holland America Cruise Secret Tip: On Holland America, lunch is discounted at Pinnacle Grill, which is a great way to score a meal at what is otherwise a pricey dinner spot.
26. Royal Caribbean Secret Tip: For coffee drinkers who don’t drink enough other beverages to make any drink package a good value, there’s a coffee punch card that will save you money on specialty espresso-based coffees. Ask for it at any non-Starbucks onboard coffee shop.
Updated August 16, 2022