Kevin and I just got home from our first cruise together (and his first cruise ever, shocking, I know). While this was my 3rd cruise overall, it was the longest I’ve ever taken, and my first time on Norwegian Cruise Line. My first was a 4-day Bahamian cruise on Royal Caribbean for my friend Karen’s 30th, and while that trip was a blast simply because of the company (how could you not have a great time with 4 of your friends, especially when all of you are wearing shirts with the birthday girl’s face on them?), I definitely thought NCL was a better choice than my RC experience. I’m not sure what Norwegian cruise ships are like for 4-day trips, but if the shorter trips are anything like the 7-day was, I highly recommend NCL for all your cruising needs. And I’m not even being paid to write this review (although, Norwegian, if you’re reading this, I’ll take payment in the form of a free cruise, thanks).
View from the top: Roatan, Honduras. You can see our ship off to the right, in port.
I would choose Norwegian over any other for the food alone. We only ate at the buffet for breakfast and lunch (when we weren’t eating lunch in port), which was still good as far as buffet food goes. We ate dinner exclusively at the two complimentary restaurants on board, Versailles and Aqua, both of which required resort casual attire, had a nice ambiance, and featured a nightly changing selection of delicious appetizers, entrees, and desserts. Compared to the dining room included on my RC cruise, the atmosphere and food itself was of a higher quality.
The entertainment was also very enjoyable, and there seemed to be plenty of options for everyone on board. But this isn’t a post about how awesome Norwegian Cruise Line is (although it was for us). This is simply a compilation of all my tips on how to cruise, and do it in a way that will save you time, money, and aggravation. In no particular order, here are 12 tips to cruising stress-free:
1. Make sure your room isn’t directly under a high-traffic public space (like a dining room). I didn’t consider this one ahead of time, and we ended up a floor directly below the main buffet room. Which was convenient when we wanted to eat breakfast, but the early risers scraping chairs across the floor while we were trying to sleep in was definitely annoying. There’s always going to be some noise you can’t control while you’re trying to sleep, but this is at least one variable you can research and try to correct.
2. Book excursions & make dinner reservations before you leave for your trip. Most cruise lines will have at least one main dining room with complimentary dinner, and you want to make sure you claim the time slot you want, otherwise you’ll get stuck with a shitty dinner time or worse, there won’t be any more available reservations & you’ll have to eat dinner at the buffet. Which I guess is cool if you’d rather eat food that isn’t as fancy or delicious. It’s also a good idea to book excursions ahead as well to save yourself the hassle of standing in line once on board the ship. This also ensures the excursions you want don’t book up before you get a chance to sign up. Keep in mind this doesn’t guarantee they will happen (we had 3 of our pre-paid excursions canceled & had to re-book once on board), so keep a few backups in mind as well.
3. Book the Ultimate (unlimited) Beverage Package. We got lucky that NCL was running a promo when we booked that gave us the option of booking UBP free (although Kevin is still convinced it was factored into our fees somehow and was never truly free). But if you plan on drinking anything other than juice or water (and this even applies to soda), you’ll want to consider adding this to your booking. It may seem like a lot of money per person per day, but those drinks add up fast on their own. You’ll be glad you did when you’re going up to the bar every half hour for “just one more” delicious drink of the day; I wouldn’t want to see our drink bill if we were paying out of pocket, I might faint.
4. If you get motion sickness, keep a pair of Sea Bands on or nearby at all times. These things saved my life. Not literally, but they definitely made my cruise enjoyable, without the drowsy side effects of medicine.
5. Pack clothing for all occasions. At the risk of over-packing, make sure you have a variety of outfits & footwear. Obviously bathing suits are a must. Beach/pool towels are unnecessary (and will just take up valuable luggage space), as the ship provides them. Bring a few nice outfits for dinner, and a sweatshirt for those cool, windy nights on the top deck. If you plan on doing water excursions, like snorkeling or dolphin encounters, bring a rash guard and board shorts to throw on over your bathing suit. I also recommend water shoes or Teva sandals (or something similar) for these as well. If you plan on hiking or doing tours with a lot of walking, bring sneakers & socks. Bring a small backpack or beach bag for any excursions off the ship. You’ll need a place to stow towels, water, cameras, change of dry clothes, and anything else you might want on shore.
6. Take bottled water with you when you board. You will need plenty of it in each port and on your excursions, and cruise lines allow you to bring your own on with you when you check in. You may feel like a nerd walking in with a case of water, but you’ll be glad you saved yourself the money later. I spent $3 on a case from Walgreens & we drank all 24 over the course of the week. Times that by roughly $2-$5 a bottle you’ll end up paying if you wait & buy as you go, and that’s a lot of dough you’ll save for more important things. Like souvenirs.
7. Bring a waterproof camera or phone for excursions you’ll get wet on. Whether you splurge on an expensive waterproof phone case or buy a $20 disposable water camera, make sure you have some way to capture memories on water excursions. If you want to go above and beyond with your photography, I recommend a Go Pro (especially for things like ziplining & cave tubing).
8. Bring reading material. Whether it’s a few books or magazines, or the novel-length instruction manual for the new gadget you just bought, bring something to occupy the downtime you will have at the pool, on the beach, if it rains, etc.
9. Make sure you have plenty of small bills. While it’s not always necessary to have the local country’s currency (most countries accept USD), it is a good idea to have $1s, $5s and $10s, and not just a stack of bigger bills. Even having a wad of $20s can be inconvenient, because if you plan on doing shore excursions, or need taxi rides, or plan on ordering food/beverages off the ship, you’ll want smaller bills to tip the drivers, tour guides and waiters who provide you their services.
10. If you have a full day at sea, get up early enough to snag a lounge chair by the pool. We had two full days at sea, and wanted nothing more than to lay by the pool, soak up the sun and some fruity drinks and relax. Cruise ships ask guests not to reserve pool chairs for more than an hour (as a courtesy to other guests), but no one follows this rule, which ends up screwing over good people like us who try to play by the rules. The first sea day, we barely found chairs that were together, and they were off on the side, away from the pool and near the basketball court (not the ideal deck location for sunbathing). So on our last day on board, our second sea day, we got up a little earlier and dropped our things off before heading to breakfast. This way, we were able to get a good spot on the top deck above the pool and away from the chaos, but still close enough to feel apart of the action and take a dip when it got too hot. We also only left our things unattended for about an hour while we ate breakfast and went back to our room to freshen up, so we were still able to “follow the rules” and be courteous to the other guests. Nothing more annoying than trying to find a place to lay out only to have them all covered with towels that no one ever comes to claim. People can be quite selfish, so keep this in mind and find a happy medium when it comes to claiming your chairs.
11. Whatever your budget, add an extra $100-$200 per person. When you book your cruise, the cruise line will let you know (at the end of all your paperwork, in very small print) that there will be a daily service fee per person charged to your account once on board. This helps take care of the housekeeping and waitstaff that will take care of you once on board, so I’m totally fine with it. However, it isn’t paid up front, so be prepared to provide a credit card for these fees as well as any other on-board charges that you may find yourself spending. All ship purchases that aren’t included (like souvenirs, extra drinks, taxes, etc.) will be charged to this card, so make sure you budget for this when saving for your trip. It’s also customary to leave an additional tip for your cabin steward (as you have the same person the whole trip who makes up your room and provides daily ship info and leaves you fun towel animals), but this can be given directly to that individual, and in cash.
12. Be prepared to gain 5-10 lbs. With the amount of food and drink you will consume (and it’s all so delicious, you will want to try it all), it’s not uncommon to gain extra weight while on a cruise. Unless you are one of those super health-conscious people who makes use of the ship’s fitness center, don’t worry about the few pounds you’ll walk off the ship with. If you’re really that concerned about it, try to cut back on the extras you usually eat or drink before you go, as well as when you return home again. As well, take the stairs on the ship as often as possible, and only use the elevators when absolutely necessary, such as boarding and disembarking (with all your luggage). Once your body recovers from the overload of food and drink that it’s not used to and goes back to it’s normal diet, you should be fine.
Whether you’ve been on a cruise before or if this is your first time, these tips will all help when booking and planning, and when it comes time to actually set sail, you’ll be cruising stress-free and at ease.