Updated August 29, 2018
If you're worried that you'll be bored on a cruise ship, banish that idea right away. Cruise ships schedule so many activities that a day at sea can be almost as much fun (and as exhausting) as a full day of sightseeing. From ropes courses to rock climbing, trivia contests to cooking classes, wine-tasting to water slides, there's truly something for everyone.
Want to lie in the sun or take a dip in the pool? No problem. Want to spend time shopping for souvenirs, indulging in a massage or gambling in the casino? You can do it. Want to boogie board, drive a race car (at least a simulated version of one) or ice skate? Aha -- even these exotic activities can be done onboard select ships. And with Royal Caribbean's Quantum of the Seas, Ovation of the Seas and Anthem of the Seas, cruisers even have access to vertical wind tunnel skydiving.
Regardless of your activity levels and preferences, you can't help but find a way to keep yourself entertained on a cruise ship. Here's our breakdown of the types of programs and amenities you're likely to find to keep you busy and happy during your time onboard.
The Daily Bulletin
How do you find out what's going on each day? A daily newsletter is delivered to your cabin each evening. One will also be waiting for you when you arrive. In it, you'll find the schedule for the next day's activities and entertainment offerings, as well as opening hours for the spa, restaurants, onboard shops and bars. You might also find listings for onboard or in-cabin movies, information on scheduled ports of call, debarkation and embarkation information, and sunrise and sunset times. Children registered with the onboard kids' club (see below) will receive their own daily schedules of age-appropriate activities, as well.
More recently, cruise lines have been developing phone-friendly apps as a 21st-century alternative to the printed program. Look out for apps like Carnival Hub (by Carnival Cruise Line), iConcierge (by Norwegian Cruise Line), Royal iQ (by Royal Caribbean) or Navigator (by Disney Cruise Line).
Ships try to appeal to all types of passengers, and dozens of organized programs will offer a wide range of activities, covering an array of interests -- especially on sea days. If you want to get active, you might participate in pool games, compete in basketball and volleyball tournaments, improve your golf swing or take dance classes. Indoors, you might prefer a history lecture, playing cards (bridge is especially popular) or bingo (for an extra fee), learning napkin-folding or flower-arranging, bidding on items at an art auction, playing trivia, watching a cooking demonstration or sipping wine at a wine-tasting (usually for an extra fee).
Entertainment during the day can range from musical performances by the pool to afternoon shows (such as comedy on Norwegian Cruise Line, small acts like singers and dancers in Princess' Piazza or a high-diving and acrobatic show in the pool on Royal Caribbean) and movies (in an indoor cinema -- perhaps even a 3D one -- or poolside).
You are, of course, free to skip all organized activities and lounge at the pool with an icy cocktail. Also open throughout the day are the ships' boutiques, casinos (at sea only) and libraries -- not to mention the many venues for eating and drinking round-the-clock. Norwegian even has Wii video games hooked up to giant screens in its ships' atriums for passenger use. Outdoors, you'll find Ping-Pong, shuffleboard, basketball courts and -- on several ships -- mini-golf, rock climbing walls, rope courses and even onboard surfing. And, you can always retreat to your cabin to enjoy the view from the balcony or indulge in a mid-day nap.
For more on onboard activities, read our feature on Best Ships for Sea Days.
The Gym and Spa
You'll be hard-pressed to find a modern cruise ship without a fitness center and spa complex onboard. While some offer just the basics, the newest models are often multi-deck, spacious areas with floor-to-ceiling ocean views and state-of-the-art equipment.
Onboard fitness centers provide a range of cardio and strength-training equipment, and many have separate rooms for exercise classes. Classes tend to be offered in the morning and again in the early evening. You will find listings in daily bulletins, but if you stop by the gym, you can pick up a separate sheet that details times for all classes, as well. Be aware that, while some classes are free, ships tend to charge $10 to $15 for specialty offerings like yoga, Pilates and spinning, which you'll usually have to sign up for in advance. Some ships offer other unique fitness options, such as boxing rings and TRX suspension training.
The spa is the place to indulge in massages, facials and other pampering treatments; most ships also have salons, where you can have your hair cut and styled and get manicures and pedicures -- all for additional fees. You might also find steam and sauna rooms or a thalassotherapy pool -- a combination whirlpool and mineral bath. Some cruise lines have expanded the spa's appeal with special treatments for men (like old-fashioned shaves) and teens (including mother-daughter packages). More nontraditional spa offerings include acupuncture, teeth-whitening and Ionithermie detox. Check the daily bulletin or the spa for special offers and spa packages -- you can often save money by booking your spa treatments on port days rather than sea days.
For more on cruise ship spas, read our feature on Best Cruise Ship Spas.
For the under-18 crowd, many mass-market cruise ships have separate kids' areas. While you won't find expansive facilities on luxury lines or ships that cater to older passengers, more family-oriented ships have huge facilities that often include multiple play areas for the youngest cruisers, teen hangouts and discos, kiddie pools, water slides, arcades and kid-focused deck space.
Parents can sign children up for these onboard "camps," and trained youth counselors will lead them in various organized games, contests, scavenger hunts, arts and crafts projects, pajama and dance parties or simply supervised play. Some lines have partnered with outside sources to offer unique programs, such as acting and juggling classes, hands-on science experiments and DJ training. Children can spend as much or as little time as they want in the kids' clubs, either participating in activities or just hanging out. (The amount of freedom allowed varies by age group.)
Youth lounges often close during meal times so families can dine together; some cruise lines offer the opportunity for kids to dine together, so parents can enjoy a leisurely, adult-oriented meal. Free programming for the younger kids tends to end around 10 p.m.; after this time, parents can choose to pay an hourly fee for group babysitting (often referred to as late-night parties) in the kids club until midnight or 1 a.m.
Babies and toddlers younger than age 3 (and who aren't potty trained) are generally not allowed in the drop-off camps. However, families with very small children might be allowed to use youth facilities for parent-child playtime at designated times. Certain lines -- like Disney, Royal Caribbean and Cunard -- have nurseries where parents can put their little ones in the care of nannies for a few hours, usually for an hourly fee.
After dark, most ships take on a Vegas aura. Casinos might be open during the day, too, but at night, they're packed with people playing the slot machines or trying their luck at poker or blackjack. Lounges feature live bands and cabaret singers for your dancing or listening pleasure, while piano bars, complete with sing-alongs, are popular hotspots on many ships. And, especially late at night, the disco will be hopping.
On several nights during your cruise, the ship's theater will feature big production shows with high-tech effects like lasers and videos, as well as elaborately costumed singers and dancers performing popular rock hits and tunes from Broadway shows. On other nights, look for featured singers, comedians, magicians and sometimes even performers you've heard of or seen on TV. For those passengers with performance skills, many ships feature karaoke, and a few even have a passenger talent show. Even small ships will have some sort of entertainment -- a local visiting dance troupe, a duo with a keyboard or a crewmember with a guitar.
Outdoor movies on the pool deck are another favorite evening activity on lines like Princess, Carnival, Disney, Costa and MSC Cruises. Passengers can cuddle up on lounge chairs with blankets and popcorn and watch new releases on giant LED screens. It's like being at a drive-in movie -- just on a cruise ship in the middle of the ocean.