Editor's note: Certain aspects of this article migh not be as relevant as they were pre-pandemic as cruise lines gradually return to service with new health protocols in place.
First-time cruisers often don't know what questions they should ask about their cruise because it's all so new and they are focusing on the pre-departure checklist and whittling down shore excursion options. Then, at the final hour -- or even after they're onboard --
To save you some headache and stress, we'll tackle a handful of questions from Cruise Critic's 'Ask a Cruise Question' forum and beyond that are par-for-the-course for long-time cruisers but often don't even cross a newbie's mind.
These are the top questions you never even thought to ask about going on a cruise -- and our expert answers, of course.
You bet. You can drink the tap water onboard cruise ships, whether from the sink in your bathroom or drink dispensers in the buffet, and sometimes cruise ships will even offer free bottled water (but if you want the fancy stuff, you'll have to pay extra).
Good to know: Cruise ships have onboard water desalination systems that purify and safely store water. You can request ice from your cabin steward or waiter if you prefer to drink cold water.
It may be tempting to forgo the all-inclusive drink package and smuggle your own alcohol onboard the ship, but you wouldn't be the first to have this idea. Cruise ships are wise to the scheme and those that allow passengers to bring on limited amounts of beverages -- soft or alcoholic -- have strict screening protocols to stop it from ever getting onboard.
If you do manage to sneak anything over the limit (which can be as low as zero) and get caught, you'll be forced to hand it over immediately. And don't expect to get it back at the end of the cruise.
Ask 10 cruisers which deck is their favorite and you'll get 10 different answers. Sun worshippers likely love the Lido Deck; foodies the restaurant deck; gamblers the casino deck; and walkers or joggers, the top deck.
However, if you're talking about the best deck for cabins, typically the higher the deck, the more movement -- a good consideration for anyone prone to seasickness. Lower cabin decks are often noisy or subject to a bit of vibration from the engines, and decks that are right above or below all the action can also get a bit noisy. All this to say, cabins on the middle decks of a ship are usually a good bet for anyone worried about movement or noise.
The luxury of constant connection via our cell phones isn't always a guarantee on a cruise ship. Most passengers keep tabs on each other via the ship's free messaging app (if there even is one) and through regular messaging or emailing through the onboard. The Princess Medallion wearable actually tracks your location on the ship, and you can give permission to share your location with your cruise party through the Medallion app.
However, not all ships have a free messaging or tracking app. (Some charge for this service.) You might need to go old school, agreeing to meet at specific times, using a whiteboard on the cabin door to leave notes for one another or even use walkie-talkie (which, truthfully, don't always work so well onboard).
Although the ability to choose when you dine in the main dining room of a cruise ship is becoming more the norm, several cruise lines still offer -- and many passengers prefer -- the option of eating at the same time, same place every night.
However, there is one caveat to the stability of reserved dining: You'll also likely be eating with the same tablemates each night, often chosen by the cruise line. So, what do you do if they're not quite your cup of tea?
The easiest way out of this situation is to opt-in for flexible dining, if it's available, which allows you to arrive at any time during the dining room's open hours. Otherwise you can choose to eat dinner in the specialty restaurants or at the buffet, or ask the maitre d' to switch you to a new table or dining time, if possible.
No. Like hotels, cruise ships provide towels for use while you're cruising, including beach towels. Pool and beach towels are usually provided in-cabin or somewhere by the pool and can even be taken with you off the ship at port.
There's just one catch: You have to keep track of your towel or pay up. Many cruise ships charge for lost towels. Want a fresh towel? You can trade a wet towel for a fresh one on the pool deck or with your stateroom attendant.
Don't let your dreamy visions of soaking up the sun by a sparkling pool, drink in hand on the lido deck cloud the reality that it can sometimes be hard to find your place in the sun when the pool is packed. For the best odds at snagging a lounger, arrive early or watch the pool deck like a hawk to see if any sun chairs become available.
See a chair with belongings on it but no people? Ask neighboring sunbathers if someone has been using a chair. If no one's been seen, the stuff likely belongs to a chair hog; you're OK to move the items if they haven't been there for a half-hour. (You can also ask a crewmember to do so if you're not comfortable doing it yourself.)
Good to know: If you can't get a spot right by the pool, the upper decks often have loungers free for the claiming. You might have to settle for some loungers forward or aft, out of the eyeshot of the pool deck happenings, but these can also be quieter and more pleasant. Just be aware that shade here can be hard to come by.
This one is going to vary by cruise line because many lines have their own policies when it comes to bringing infants onboard a cruise ship. However, we can tell you it's common for lines to require a child to be at least 6 months old to sail, depending on the destination and line.
Something cruising parents should also keep in mind is what the minimum age at the kids club will be. Though several lines offer baby clubs, some of them do have an age limit, only accept potty-trained children and/or require parents to be present.
Daywear, swimwear, evening wear -- it's hard to pack light for a cruise. But, do you have options if you want to cut down on the bags you carry? Yes -- plan to do laundry onboard.
Oceangoing cruise lines always offer laundry service, though it's often for a (sometimes hefty) fee. This is a key piece of knowledge, especially for longer sailings.
The process is similar to what you'd find in a hotel: You bag up your dirty clothes, hand them off to your room steward (along with an order form) and they are returned to you clean and neatly folded. Select ships offer self-service launderettes, where you can wash, dry and iron your clothes, either for free or for a small fee similar to any launderette.
You'll be hard-pressed to find anyone complaining they didn't get enough to eat on a cruise. While the vibe is a bit more sit-down formal in the main dining room, it's kind of the best of both worlds when it comes to cruise dining experiences -- it's where the traditional aspects of a sit-down specialty dining restaurant meets the all-you-can-eat buffet.
Meals in the main dining room are always included in your cruise fare, and passengers are able to order as many courses and dishes off the menu as they please. It's a great way to taste your way through a menu you can't decide on, or get a replacement dish if the one you thought you wanted wasn't quite what you thought it would be.
The catch? Be mindful of waste and only order what you reasonably think you can eat. It's fine to try out a few dishes and not finish them, but don't order six appetizers and only take a bite out of each.
Once upon a time, formal gala nights on cruises were a fanciful -- and mandatory -- affair full of cocktail dresses and tuxedos or suits. However, over the years, cruise lines have relaxed their dress code rules, and no one is ever forced to dress up (though you might not be permitted into the main dining room if you choose to dress down on a dressy night).
While high-end cruises often still have enforced dress codes, most lines have suggested or optional formal nights. It's not uncommon to see women in sundresses or business casual attire on formal nights and men in slacks and a button down shirt. Some lines do stick firmly rules around no jeans in the dining room.
During your sailing, you'll want to store your passport in the in-cabin safe or its usual spot somewhere safe in your luggage. Though you'll likely need your passport at check-in and when disembarking in a foreign country in order to clear customs, you won't have much use for it otherwise.
Good to know: In most destinations, you don't need to carry it with you when you go ashore, and it's not worth risking your passport getting lost or stolen -- just keep it in your cabin safe during the cruise. There is an exception to the in-cabin safe rule: On some cruises, the purser will hold on to all passenger passports for the duration of the sailing.
But, please, please always check the safe when you're packing at the end of the cruise! It's easier than you think to store it and forget it. It's also a good idea to keep a color photocopy of your passport in a different location, such as your suitcase. Having a digital copy is also a good idea.
The simplest way to keep track of your cruise card -- a plastic, wallet-sized card used as your onboard ID, room key and ship account card -- is to either clip it onto a lanyard or place it in your purse, waist pack or wallet. Lanyards are loved and loathed by cruisers, and many ships will give you a cruise line-branded lanyard or even a mini-wallet when you check-in.
Even better, cruise lines like Princess Cruises and Virgin Voyages have solved the problem by creating wearables that function as your cruise card, cabin room key and identification.
We don't recommend carrying it around in your hand willy-nilly since it's surprisingly easy to set it (down) and forget it, although you can always get a replacement from the guest services. Oh, and it doesn't hurt to pick a dedicated spot in your stateroom to stash your cruise card so you aren't left hunting around for it when you want to leave the cabin.
Unfortunately, there's no straightforward answer for this one. Lines to disembark at popular ports of call can get lengthy with everyone impatiently waiting to delve into the destination. This can be especially troublesome in ports where you have to take a tender -- a small boat that ferries you from the ship to shore. You can usually beat the rush by waiting at least an hour before heading down to the gangway.
Final disembarkation is a fairly smooth process and is usually divided into time slots by different cabin types, VIP levels, muster stations or stateroom location. There's also usually an option to just walk off the cruise -- but it's usually the earliest time slot available.
Trust us when we say that disembarking at the end of a cruise used to be a brutal, lengthy experience. You'd have to vacate your room early in the morning, only to be relocated to your muster station where you'd wait to be called to disembark. Thankfully, it's gotten more efficient over the years.
Updated December 16, 2021