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20 Quintessential Cruise Experiences You Must Try at Least Once

Ashley Kosciolek

Last updated
Jan 8, 2020
Water Slide on Carnival Triumph
Water Slide on Carnival Triumph (Photo: Cruise Critic)

Despite modern cruising's best efforts to add flashy, adventurous and jaw-dropping attractions to ships, some of the best cruise experiences are the tried and true activities that have been popular for decades. Sure, they might be more stereotypical and less high-tech, but there's a reason they have such staying power. From bridge tours to belly flop contests, check out these 20 classic cruise pastimes you've just got to try.

1. Meeting the Captain

There's something about a captain that commands respect and leaves you in awe. Maybe it's the uniform. Maybe it's the accent (likely Italian). Maybe it's the fact that he (or she) is in charge of keeping you and 4,000 others safe while flawlessly maneuvering 100,000 tons of steel through the ocean. If you have a chance to meet him (or her), take it. You can ask questions and, if you're lucky, maybe hear a few fun stories about life on the bridge.

2. Playing Bingo or Trivia

Two don't-miss activities on any sailing are bingo and trivia. For the first, you'll have to pay a per-card fee, while the second is free, but the stakes are also much higher for the former when it comes to prizes. If cash or free cruises sound enticing, bingo is the way to go. Trivia swag is generally less coveted, often consisting of cruise line branded items like key chains, but that doesn't make showing off your knowledge of useless topics any less fun.

3. Checking Out an Art Auction

Art isn't everyone's cup of tea, but whether you're a serious collector, curious about how the art auction process works or just plan to grab a glass of free Champagne and leave, it's a fun way to spend some time. Plus you never know: You might just snag a deal on the perfect masterpiece.

4. Dressing Up on Formal Night

If you're like most people, it's not often you get to don sequins or a bow tie for a night "out." Sure, dressing to the nines isn't for everyone, but it's a great opportunity to strut your stuff a la senior prom and feel like royalty while tucking into that fancy shrimp cocktail. Above all, don't stress about what to wear. Dig out the dusty old gowns and leisure suits, and make formal night fun.

Sail-away on Carnival Ecstasy
Sail-away on Carnival Ecstasy (Photo: Cruise Critic)

5. Attending a Deck Party

There's nothing that will get you into the vacation mindset quite like a deck party. Usually held on a couple of evenings throughout each voyage -- the first being the sail-away party on embarkation day as your ship pulls away from the dock -- this type of shindig is likely to have you dancing on the pool deck or doing the limbo with a cocktail in hand.

6. Booking a Balcony Cabin

Choosing a cruise ship cabin can be hard. It might be tempting to reserve yourself an inside stateroom, particularly if you're on a budget or if you don't spend much time in your cabin, but we promise a balcony is worth the splurge. It's a great place to sit as you pull away from port, enjoy a morning cup of coffee or hear the sounds of the ocean as you get ready for dinner or drift off to sleep. (Just don't forget to close the door before leaving the room.)

7. Doing a Behind-the-Scenes Tour

If you've ever wondered what goes into running a ship and all of its moving parts, you'll want to sign up for a behind-the-scenes tour of the bridge, galley, storage facilities and/or backstage area. Some lines offer these types of tours for free, but many charge for the experience, and it's not always cheap. Still, seeing just how many chefs work to prepare your dinner or witnessing the sheer amount of machinery used by the ship's officers is something you won't forget.

8. Going to the Piano Bar

Live music can generally be found in several areas on each ship, particularly at night. But if you're looking for a more intimate venue, check out your vessel's piano bar. In many cases, the person tickling the ivories will take your requests as you sip a drink or two.

9. Asking for Seconds

Can't decide between two entrees or desserts you've spotted on the main dining room menu? Not a problem. Order them both; waiters are generally happy to oblige. Having a meal at the buffet? Who says you can't go back for seconds? Or thirds? That's right -- nobody. (But do make an effort to observe proper buffet etiquette.)

Fruity drink on Oasis of the Seas
Fruity drink on Oasis of the Seas (Photo: Cruise Critic)

10. Buying a Fruity Drink

Most mainstream cruise lines offer a "drink of the day" on their ships, and many even allow you to keep the glass as a souvenir. The majority of these libations are fruity in nature and will make you feel like you're on a tropical island, even if you haven't yet set foot in a single port. If you're not a big fan of alcohol, don't worry: The bartender can make you a delicious virgin concoction.

11. Posing for Photos

Prepare to have your photos snapped in several key locations on your sailing. The first is at embarkation, just before you leave the terminal to board the ship; a tacky backdrop will probably be involved. The second is at dinner. Several dinners, actually -- whether you've finished chewing your food or not. The third is in port. Just as you're leaving the ship and trying to figure out where to put your darn keycard, a photographer will materialize out of nowhere with a fellow crew member dressed as some sort of character. Even if you want the photographer to leave you alone, be a good sport, and say "cheese!" Even if you don't buy the photos, you'll have fun trying to find them in the gallery later and laughing at how ridiculous you look. (On a more serious note, onboard photographers also schedule sessions for family portraits, which make nice mementos that involve better lighting ... and slightly less kitschy backdrops.)

12. Witnessing (or Participating in) a Top-Deck Contest

Your daily schedule of activities is likely to include variations of stalwart outdoor cruise favorites like belly flop contests and hairy chest competitions. Go! Even if all you do is watch from the sidelines, we dare you not to at least crack a smile. Bonus points if you sign up to get in on the action. Remember: What happens on the top deck stays on the top deck. (OK, not really.)

13. Singing Karaoke

The beautiful thing about this Japanese-inspired spectacle is that horrible singers and stellar ones are equally appreciated. If you're truly awful or truly great, people will remember you, so karaoke is a perfect way to make friends and feel like a total rock star.

14. Looking for Pier Runners

If your vessel's port departure time has come and gone, and repeated announcements ask Mr. and Mrs. Jones to "please contact guest services," chances are some of your fellow passengers are late returning to the ship after a particularly intense visit to Senor Frogs. Do what all good cruisers do, and find a decent vantage point from which to watch the latecomers sprint back onboard (if the ship waits that long). Place bets on whether the pier runners will be juggling beach gear, an excessive haul of souvenirs or both. For added fun, be sure to cheer, clap and get it all on video.

Aerialist show on Norwegian Dawn
Aerialist show on Norwegian Dawn (Photo: Cruise Critic)

15. Watching a Production Show

Nighttime entertainment in the theater varies widely from ship to ship, some employing the most cutting-edge technology and special effects, and others boring passengers to tears with acts that were hot in Vegas 30 years ago. You simply haven't had the full cruise experience until you've seen at least one of each type, so pick a show and go. (If you're skeptical, pick a seat near the back so you can make like a ninja and vanish if you find yourself nodding off after the first number.)

16. Staying Onboard During a Port Call

While we certainly don't advise skipping a port if it's your first time there, the onboard experience on a port day is downright relaxing for those who've visited the same region more than once. While everyone else is ashore, you'll have no trouble finding a deck chair, booking discounted spa treatments or enjoying lunch for free (although with limited choices).

17. Adopting a Towel Animal

Towel animals come standard with turn-down service on many ships. One day it's a monkey or a dog; the next it turns into an elephant or a swan. It's all up to the whims of your room steward, who may or may not decide to dress up your new friend with hats, sunglasses or even scraps of old daily schedules -- whatever is conveniently lying around. If you're really lucky, he or she might add to the collection each day (instead of reusing the same towels) so that, by the end of your cruise, you've got a towel animal menagerie. Don't forget to snap some photos since you can't take them home with you!

18. Ordering Room Service

One totally underrated cruise experience that's universal across nearly all ships is room service. Although more and more lines are charging extra for this perk, most still offer a free Continental breakfast option. It's absolutely perfect for both leisurely mornings when you want to have a bite on your balcony or hectic ones when you know you won't have time to run up to the buffet before your shore excursion. (Just note that a tip of a dollar or two is customary for the person who delivers your order, even if the food itself is complimentary.)

19. Soaking in the Hot Tub

If you've spent all day in the pool, why not spend all night (or at least part of it) in the hot tub? Relax after a grueling day ashore as you sail under the stars or enjoy a movie on the giant pool deck LED screen.

20. Joining a Cruise Critic Roll Call

Cruising is more fun with friends. Shameless plug: Join one of Cruise Critic's Roll Calls, which allow you to connect with others on your sailing before you even leave home. Be sure to sign up for a Meet & Mingle, too, so you can meet each other in person once you're onboard. These events are often attended by some of the ship's officers, as well.

Publish date January 08, 2020
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