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First-Timers' Guide to Onboard Activities (Photo: Royal Caribbean International)

First-Timers' Guide to Onboard Activities

First-Timers' Guide to Onboard Activities (Photo: Royal Caribbean International)
Elissa Garay
Ming Tappin

Feb 9, 2023

Read time
8 min read

One of the misconceptions about cruising has long been: "I’ll be bored on the ship with nothing to do." Nothing can be farther from the truth! Cruise ships schedule a huge array of activities to keep their guests entertained and occupied. In fact, there are so many inviting options that a day at sea can be almost as much fun (and as exhausting) as a full day of sightseeing.

Here's our breakdown of the programs and amenities you're likely to find to keep you busy and happy during your time onboard.

On This Page

First Of All.. How Do You Find Out What’s Going On?

The Royal Caribbean app (Photo: Royal Caribbean)

Information and a schedule of all entertainment and activities are found in the daily program. It also includes opening hours for the spa, casino, restaurants, shops, and bars. You’ll also find details on the scheduled ports of call, shopping promotions, evening dress code, and nautical information such as distance traveled and sunrise and sunset times. Children registered with the onboard kids' club will receive their own daily activities schedule.

Traditionally, a printed copy of the daily program is delivered to your cabin. But in an effort to reduce waste, many cruise lines have moved to house voyage information on their mobile apps. These apps - downloadable at home before your cruise - not only contain the daily program but also allow guests to make reservations for restaurants, excursions, and the spa, and view their onboard account and any other ship-related information. For those who prefer, paper copies of the daily program can still be requested to be delivered to their cabin every evening.

Be Occupied From Dawn to Dusk

BOLT on Carnival Mardi Gras (Photo: Chris Gray Faust)

Activities onboard ships cover an array of interests, in order to appeal to guests of all ages. On a sea day, you can literally go nonstop from the crack of dawn to dinner. On port days, the activities are scaled back, but there are still things going on for guests who choose to stay onboard.

If you want to be active, you might begin the day with a morning stretch class, jog or walk a mile (or a few) on the deck. There are pool games, Ping-Pong, shuffleboard, and basketball courts - often with scheduled tournaments. On big-ship lines such as Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line, and Carnival Cruise Line, there are rock climbing walls, rope courses, bumper cars, go-karts, surf and skydiving simulators, and even mini roller coasters. Thrilling slides - wet and dry kinds - are also big features on the newest ships, where you can hurl down multiple stories (and some even go over the side of the ship) for an adrenaline rush.

Indoors, you’ll find enrichment lectures, board games, and cards (bridge is especially popular). Duty-free shopping is always a great pastime, and shops always run special promotions and raffles. There is also a wide variety of demonstrations such as chef-led cooking shows, ice carving, cocktail mixology, and the ubiquitous napkin folding. Participatory activities include art auctions, bingo, trivia, and dance classes. Depending on the cruise line, galley kitchen and behind-the-scenes tours may also be offered. While the ship is at sea, the casino is open and often offers gaming lessons and tournaments.

Entertainment during the day can range from musicians by the pool to matinee shows, small acts like singers and dancers or acrobats in the ship’s atrium, and movies in the theater or poolside.

Most activities are complimentary, although there are a few fee-based events such as whiskey, beer, martini, or wine tasting, bingo, yoga, spin, and pilates classes. Video arcades and VR games also carry a charge.

Get Fit At The Gym and Be Pampered At The Spa

A couple relax in the sauna on Celebrity Edge. (Photo: Naima Green/AIPP)

These days, cruise ships of all sizes feature a fitness center and spa onboard. While some offer just the basics, the space dedicated to wellness on the newest large vessels is often multi-deck complexes with floor-to-ceiling ocean views and state-of-the-art equipment.

The onboard fitness center provides a wide range of cardio and strength-training equipment for use at no charge. Many have separate rooms for morning and afternoon exercise classes. Class schedules can be found in the daily program, or you can pick up a copy from the gym. Be aware that most ships have done away with free classes and have moved towards specialty classes such as yoga, Pilates, and spin, which cost $10 to $15 per class. (One exception is Virgin Voyages, where most fitness classes are included in the fare). These have limited participation, and you'll also have to sign up for them in advance. Other unique and fee-based fitness options may include boxing, high-intensity interval training, and TRX suspension training. Services of a personal trainer and nutritionist are also available for an extra charge.

The spa is the place to indulge in massages, facials, and other pampering treatments. You will also find steam and sauna rooms, whirlpools, heated stone loungers, or a thalassotherapy pool -- a combination whirlpool and mineral bath. Most ships also have salons for hair-styling services, manicures, and pedicures. Many spas also offer services for men (like old-fashioned shaves, facials, and manis/pedis) and teens (including mother-daughter packages). Furthermore, medi-spa treatments such as acupuncture, chiropractic, and even botox are available onboard. Look for spa specials on embarkation day and port days, as those are the least busy times. Appointments can also be booked online (sometimes at a reduced rate) before you leave home. Expect prices to be comparable to the high-end spas you find at home.

Kids Have A Ball With Extensive Programming

Stargazing on Princess Cruises (Photo: Princess Cruises)

For the under-18 crowd, all mass-market cruise ships have complimentary kids’ programs. Family-oriented cruise lines such as Carnival, Disney Cruise Line, MSC Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, and Royal Caribbean have extensive facilities that include multiple play areas for young cruisers, kiddie pools, teen hangouts and discos, water parks, and video arcades.

Parents can sign up their children for these onboard "camps," which are divided into three or four age groups (usually 3-5’s, 6-9’s, and 10-12’s). The program is organized by certified youth counselors who will lead them in various age-appropriate games, contests, scavenger hunts, arts and crafts projects, pajama and dance parties, or simply supervised play. 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, with younger children needing to be signed in and out by their parents.)

Youth lounges often close during meal times so families can dine together, but some kids’ clubs do serve meals for kids (charges may apply) so parents can enjoy a leisurely, adult-oriented meal on their own. The free programming tends to end around 10 p.m. After this time, parents can choose to pay an hourly fee for group babysitting in the kids’ club (usually called slumber parties) until midnight or 1 a.m.

The minimum age to participate in the children’s program is three, and all kids must be toilet-trained. Certain lines -- like Disney, Royal Caribbean, and Cunard -- also have nurseries for infants and toddlers where parents can place their little ones in the care of nannies for a few hours.

Evening Entertainment That Makes The Night Sizzle

Titi Kaka show onboard Valiant Lady (Photo by Adam Coulter)

After dark, ships really get hopping. Casinos are packed with people playing slot machines or trying their luck at table games. 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 buzzing.

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. Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line put on full-length Broadway shows (think Cats, Hairspray, Jersey Boys), while others pay tribute to Broadway tunes and specific music genres such as rock and roll, Motown, or disco. On other nights, look for vocalists, comedians, magicians, and jugglers. Performances and shows are scheduled around the dinner hours, and some shows may be repeated during the cruise to ensure everyone has a chance to see them.

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 duo with a keyboard, a guest singer, or local performers.

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 in lounge chairs with blankets and popcorn to watch films (from new releases to classics and recorded concerts) on giant LED screens. It's like being at a drive-in movie, except you are on a cruise ship in the middle of the ocean.

Boredom Be Gone!

With all of these offerings, you can definitely throw boredom out the window. You are, of course, free to do as much or as little as you like, and that’s the beauty of cruising. Want to relax? Skip all organized activities and lounge at the pool with an icy cocktail, or curl up with a good book from the library. And you can always retreat to your cabin to enjoy the view from your balcony or indulge in a mid-day nap. You can do it all (and we’d like to see you try!) or do nothing at all. No matter what you choose to do, you’ll have a wonderful time onboard.

Updated February 09, 2023
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