Cruising is a customizable experience -- while you're sunbathing at the pool, your fellow cruisers might be rock climbing, learning to salsa dance, getting a massage, playing mini-golf or screaming down a waterslide. Depending on the ship's size, it might take you more than a week to try out all the onboard activities and attractions.
So where to begin? We've rounded up 10 can't-miss cruise experiences available on nearly every cruise ship; so whether you think you've seen and done it all, or you're taking your very first cruise, keep this checklist handy to ensure you hit all of the classics.
Even modern cruise ships with tons of specialty restaurants still offer complimentary main dining rooms. The joy of dining in one of these venues is unlimited choice -- waiters are more likely to encourage you to sample more than one dish than question your appetite. We're not promoting overeating, we're simply saying that if indecision is the pitfall of rounding out your meal, solve the problem by getting both.
Not sure about escargot? Here is the place to try it. Share a few plates family style or split a ton of appetizers -- it's really up to you, and ordering more than one plate per course is accepted as a norm on a cruise (especially when it comes to dessert).
A cruise ship signature, towel animals are more or less the mascot of the cruise industry. Swans, frogs and monkeys are created by room stewards who employ origami-like folding techniques (and maybe a few borrowed props from the room) to turn typical towels into a welcome party in your cabin. If photographing your towel animal isn't satisfying enough, create your own towel pet; many cruise lines host towel-folding demos as part of their daytime schedule of activities.
It might seem, well, trivial to play a round of trivia or bingo if your ship has amusements like a sprawling water park or you consider yourself too sophisticated for tired card games. But humor us and give the old standards a try. You might be surprised by the thrill of knowing the name of every actress in the"Golden Girls" or taking the crown for the biggest cannonball.
Better yet, these interactive events are some of the best ways to meet new people and make friends onboard -- as well as generate some great stories to laugh about with your travel companions post-trip. Sea days, when every other passenger is also looking for something to do, are the best times to participate in an age-old cruise tradition.
Related: Top 10 Things to Do on Sea Days
Not determined to make it a booze cruise? Not a problem. There's more to a cruise getaway than fruity coladas, but they are part of what makes a cruise vacation great. If you're a fan of trying new concoctions, take advantage of shipwide daily drink specials. Typically inspired by your ports of call, these bright umbrella- and fruit slice-wielding cocktails will bring a bit of the tropics (or wherever you might be) to your palate, for a discounted price. Upgrade to a souvenir cup or ask to cut out the alcohol for a friendlier (and cheaper) version.
Even if neon bracelets and house music under the stars aren't your thing, deck parties are a good time for anyone -- even families -- to get some air and enjoy a little alfresco nightlife. From wearing all white to throwbacks of decades past (anyone miss disco?), party dress codes vary from line to line and themes incorporate everything from crepes prepared by the hotel director to swashbuckling pirate parades. There's no mandate to attend these hallmark cruise ship events, but there's also no reason not to stop by -- you might be surprised by the infectious energy of the crowd.
Related: 6 Craziest Cruise Ship Parties
Sure, you want to pick up some authentic wares in port and there's plenty of time to grab discounted rum on your four-hour layover, but doing a little shopping on the ship is a perfectly excusable way to pass time. Beyond the souvenir and logowear shops sporting branded sweatshirts, shot glasses and all the toiletries you forgot at home, cruise lines are branching out their offerings into mall-like complexes of designer stores, luxury jewelers and art galleries. Fill a bag with gourmet candy or buy a Coach purse to put it in; Michael Kors, Carolina Herrera and even Tiffany's are other household names you can find at sea.
Best part? Prices might even be cheaper than you'd find on land.
Related: Duty-Free Shopping on Cruises
What better time to stop by the onboard spa and salon than on formal night, when you want to look primped and proper for dinner or evening photo ops? Incorporate two must-do cruise ship activities -- getting a treatment and puttin' on the ritz for your chic evening -- and visit the spa for a manicure, blowout or a hot shave just in time for your sailing's version of a dressy dinner.
You are not required to get fancy unless you decide to dine in certain venues that evening; most lines offer casual dining in the buffet or other venue. But a one-time portrait (photographers will be all around the ship) in your most glam garb could be a sweet memento from your cruise.
Related: Cruise Line Dress Codes
Will you ever be back in Moscow -- who knows? What you do know is that you have a cruise coming up, and although cruise fare and dining and drinks might begin to take up every last cent of your budget, you can't forget about the excursions. As much as there is to do onboard, part of the appeal of cruising is spending time ashore in different ports. As part of a ship-sponsored tour, transportation, entrance into major attractions, knowledgeable guides and getting back to the ship on time are covered.
If you're on the fence about pricey tickets to the ballet at the Bolshoi, don't think too hard. When in doubt, book the excursion -- the experiences will be what you remember most from your vacation. (Budgeting in advance will help avoid financial shock at the end of your sailing.)
If you have the opportunity -- and it's not always available -- to tour the captain's control room (bridge) or the cruise ship kitchens (galley), seize the chance. Bridge tours are sometimes offered as a loyalty program perk, but more often than not, you will pay a pretty penny to be part of the small group allowed in the ship's navigational quarters. The tour isn't just for engineering nerds; seeing how a vessel of such size is maneuvered along docks and past other ships is an impressive education for any cruiser.
Likewise, galley tours (offered on their own or as part of chef's table dinners) are an eye-opening glimpse into intricate cruise food prep -- sometimes on a scale that means thousands of portions per meal.
Related: 6 Best Cruise Suite Perks
Trust us: Watching the sun slip through the sky before sinking into the sea is not just for romantics. If you do nothing else -- skip all the games, forfeit formal night, stay put in a lounger and shun your tiny elephant made of towels -- be sure not to miss the sun going down on another relaxing day, no matter which ocean you might be sailing. There's something so peaceful about taking the time to watch the sky turn -- from your balcony in your bathrobe, on deck over a meal or at the very bow of the ship with a loved one; it's what separates the charms of a cruise from any other vacation there is.
Related: 13 Most Photo-Worthy Cruise Ports
Updated January 14, 2020