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11 Cruise Mistakes You're Still Making

Erica Silverstein
Fran Golden

Last updated
Sep 7, 2022

You've been on a couple of cruises -- maybe scores of cruises -- and guess what? You're still doing it wrong.

We don't mean to offend, but there are certain cruise mistakes that even experienced sailors continue to make. Often it's because you simply don't have time to figure out how to maximize every cruise opportunity. Or perhaps there are cruise hacks you're still learning.

Cruise Critic always wants you to have the best cruise ever, so we're presenting you with a list of cruise mistakes you're still making -- and tips on how to stop, so you can have a perfect vacation.

1. Overpacking

A day outfit, a dinner outfit, a gym outfit, a swim outfit -- and shoes to match each. And that's just one day of your seven-day sailing! It's so easy for the savviest of travelers to end up overpacking for a cruise, especially one with an evening dress code. But then you're stuck paying checked bag fees at the airport, lugging huge bags around on embarkation day, overloading tiny cruise ship closets -- and not wearing half the things you brought.

Tip 1: Color coordinate your outfits, so you can re-wear bottoms or eveningwear. For variety, jazz up your outfits with different accessories, which take less room than entirely different outfits. And even if you have a "Sex and the City"-worthy shoe collection, try to limit yourself to one casual pair or sneakers, flip-flops or sandals, and one pair of dress shoes.

Tip 2: While some cruise ships are providing the new pandemic-related cabin amenity of disposable masks, you still may want to pack your comfortable favorites from home (you’ll also need a mask in your carry-on to wear at the airport, on your fight and at the cruise ship pier). Some ships are requiring masks in all indoor public areas, at least when you are not eating or drinking. Others have loser regulations. The same is try at ports of call.

Related: How Not to Overpack for Your Cruise

2. Flying in the Day of Your Cruise

Your cruise departs at 5 p.m., so you schedule your flight to arrive at noon. What could possibly go wrong? Everything! A little bad weather or mechanical issues and your flight could get delayed for hours. Some traffic between the airport and the cruise port, and check-in could close by the time you run breathless into the terminal.

Tip: Don't risk missing the ship! Fly into your homeport city the night before you set sail. Enjoy a nice dinner or the hotel facilities, sleep in the next morning and have a nice leisurely start to your vacation. This is especially key when flying overseas when there's even more room for flight delays; some time to sleep off jet lag is a good thing, too.

Related: When to Fly In for a Cruise

3. Eating at the Buffet on Embarkation Day

You don't even think about it: Board the ship, go to the pool deck, head to the buffet for lunch. It's your embarkation day routine. But then you're waiting in long lines, and trying to juggle your tray and your carry-on, while searching for the elusive empty table. It's a mess.

Be aware, though, that as a pandemic precaution it may not be self-serve anymore, instead having crew dishing out your choices (Carnival is an exception, still offering self-serve options).

Tip: Do a bit of research to determine if your ship has other venues open for lunch on embarkation day. Sometimes the pool grill or a casual cafe is also serving a midday meal, and you'll find a more peaceful dining experience to jump-start your vacation.

Related: 22 Do's and Don'ts for Your First Day Onboard a Cruise Ship

4. Taking the Elevator

If you're an able-bodied cruiser, one who can manage a few flights of stairs, you are a fool if you're wasting your cruise waiting for the elevator. You always have to wait for the lift to travel from the 15th deck to yours, they're often crowded and inevitably, it stops at every floor, taking forever.

As ships restart sailings post-pandemic, elevators are an area where ships are setting rules for social distancing – there may be limits on how many people can board at one time and even marks on the floor telling you where you should stand. This makes the wait even longer.

Tip: Walk! Not only will you get where you're going faster in many instances, walking cruise ship stairs is the perfect way to burn off yesterday's pina colada and chocolate ice cream without actually having to sweat it out in the gym. Plus, you've left the elevator free for shipmates with strollers or wheelchairs who really need to use it.

Related: What to Expect on a Cruise: Getting Around on a Cruise Ship

5. Booking Only Cruise Line Shore Excursions

We agree -- cruise ships offer awesome shore excursions. But you're making a mistake if you only book the cruise line's excursions and don't look at independent options. You might be paying more for an experience than if you booked on your own, or you might visit attractions you don't want to see (or spend too much time in souvenir shops) in order to see the one sight you're keen on.

Still, if you are cruising post-pandemic you may find you are only allowed to go onshore on ship-sponsored shore excursions and will not be allowed to tour on your own. The rules vary by cruise line and country. If you are unvaccinated, you should assume you will have to book shore excursions.

Tip: Do your homework! You might find the same tour for less online. Plus, a reputable tour company will get you back to the ship in plenty of time for sail-away, or arrange to get you back to the ship if something goes wrong. If you're a large group, it's often more economical to book a private tour guide and see and do only the things you want. If you have special interests (cooking, hiking, history, etc.), you might find a privately operated tour focused on exploring a destination through a specific lens. And if you have little kids, cruise line tours aren't always a great fit; putting together your own day in port might suit everyone's needs better.

Related: Ship-Sponsored or Independent Shore Excursions: Which Is Right for You?

6. Buying Wine by the Glass

When you've dressed up and headed to a banquet-style dining room or intimate specialty restaurant for dinner onboard, it seems right to toast your evening with a glass of wine. If you're a couple sharing a table for two, you might order by the glass -- either because you don't think you can kill a bottle in one evening or because one of you likes red and the other white. But ordering by the glass every night will result in you overpaying for your adult beverages.

Tip: Buy that bottle! The secret cruise lines don't tell you is that if you don't finish a bottle, you can ask the waiter to recork it and save it for you for the next evening. You can even order a bottle in a specialty restaurant and have the leftovers served to you the following night in the main dining room (or vice versa). You can also bring your own wine onboard and pay a minimal corkage fee -- which also might be more economical than ordering by the glass. (And it's often free to drink your own wine in your cabin.)

Related: What to Expect: Wine on Cruise Ships

7. Only Eating at the Buffet

We get it -- some folks don't like to dress up. Or sit with people they don't know. Or come to dinner at the same time every night. It's easy to dine in the buffet every night. You can access a variety of dishes and desserts, you don't need to linger and your kids don't get so fidgety. But if you only eat at the buffet, you're really missing out on some of the culinary highlights of your cruise ship -- not to mention the surprising joys of dressing up in nice clothes and enjoying a waiter-served dinner.

Tip: If you're a buffet regular, try the main dining room for dinner at least once on your next cruise. You might find that dinner feels like a special event when your sweetie is all dolled up. You might meet some fun shipmates and have a great conversation -- or you might snag a coveted table for two to yourselves. You might really enjoy the food.

Related: 6 Best Cruise Ship Main Dining Rooms

8. Not Booking in Advance

You like to play things by ear, so you bank on figuring out your spa treatments, dining reservations, drink packages, shore tours and internet plans once you're onboard. There are two problems with your plan. First, popular dining venues and spa times sell out quickly -- as do limited-participant shore excursions, such as cabana rentals. If you wait to book until you board, you might be left on a waitlist or with undesirable times. Second, many lines offer discounted rates to those who book tours, drink packages, Wi-Fi plans and shore excursions online.

Tip: Book early and save money! If you absolutely want to secure a coveted shore excursion or cabana, find out how many days in advance of sailings you can book and make sure you go online that day to make a reservation.

Related: How to Pre-Book Cruise Ship Activities Online

9. Overpaying for Phone Calls and Texts

It's so easy to make a mistake when it comes to cell phones and cruises. Forget to set your phone to airplane mode, and you'll get crazy roaming charges for incoming texts and outgoing calls. Or maybe you're paying an upcharge for a cruise or international calling plan, when you could be using Wi-Fi calling for free.

Tip: Don't wing this one! Talk to other cruisers (or post a question on the Cruise Critic Message Boards) to figure out the best and most economical way to stay in touch while you're cruising. And remember -- the world won't end if you disconnect and don't check email or post to social media on sea days.

Related: Quick Tips for Using Your Phone on a Cruise Ship

10. Not Budgeting for Onboard Spending

When it comes to deal hunting, you're the champ. But then you get onboard and get suckered into buying a drinks package, a spa special, five family photos, a wine tasting, that cute necklace, three bingo cards and a night of poker … and your bank account says, "Big mistake!"

Tip: Make a budget for onboard expenses and stick to it. You can give everyone a daily spending allowance, or determine in advance if you'll be taking advantage of the spa, booking shore tours onboard or playing the slots. You might have to choose between that cute embarkation day photo and a manicure, but you won't ruin your vacation memories with the shock of that final cruise bill.

Related: Cruise Ship Upcharges: Should You Skip or Splurge on Onboard Extras?

11. Forgetting Your Sunscreen

If you're cruising to a warm weather destination don't forget sunscreen. Buying sunscreen on some ships can be difficult or impossible once embarkation is complete and we've been on private islands that don't sell sunscreen.

Tip: If you do forget your sunscreen, buy some when you board the ship. Many shops close once you set sail and won't open back up until return to port.

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