In our third and final part of Your First Cruise, we look at the various Entertainment onboard, including the casinos, your cabin steward and a quick disembarkation overview.
Most of the entertainment onboard is free. Most ships will have a main theater with Broadway style shows and comedians, plus multiple smaller venues and sometimes specialty venues such as a dinner theater. Some of these specialty venues can have an upcharge, especially if it’s a dinner theater.
The main theater will generally feature two performances per night allowing early and late diners the opportunity to catch the show before or after dinner. Some of the shows require advance reservations, even for the free shows. For example the Royal Caribbean water and ice skating shows on the ships that feature them. Seating is limited for these shows so advance reservations are required.
Some ships have piano bars, jazz clubs, dueling piano bars or comedy clubs. Most of them will feature musicians and bands throughout the ship. You’ll find most of these folks quite entertaining and friendly. We’ve met quite a few of them on our journeys.
YOUR CABIN STEWARD
In most cases, the stateroom steward will come in twice a day. Once in the morning to clean the room, make the bed and give you fresh towels. In the evening, they will tidy up, turn down the bed and leave any pertinent information on the bed if necessary. If you want, you can also make other requests such as asking for a bucket of ice daily, they can take your laundry for cleaning and help with any other requests.
These are incredibly hard working people who generally know your names before the first night is out. They’re great folks who can give you all sorts of advice on getting around the ship and helping you to navigate your first cruise.
ROOM KEY / ONBOARD CHARGING
You will get a cruise card (on some lines, you will also be able to get a medallion or the small Sea Bands from Virgin). This card (or band) will be your room key and will let you charge things back to your account. It is also the way they keep track of whether you have left the ship and if you have returned. You will not be able to leave the ship without your room key, so always keep it with you.
Usually there is a dress code for the evenings although it is not always strictly enforced. Generally, there are "smart casual" days which for men would mean jeans or slacks and a polo or casual button up shirt and for women either the same or skirt/sundress.
There will also likely be two "formal" nights on 7 night or longer cruises, though these have gotten less formal through the years. Virgin Voyages has "Scarlet Night" which is a big deck party.
Depending on the ship and the cruise line, you may find people will be wearing gowns and tuxes, but most will not. Men will wear slacks and a long sleeve button up shirt (maybe with just a tie or maybe with a jacket, but sometimes just the shirt). On many ships now, men can wear dress jeans (no stains or holes) with a button down shirt. Women will generally wear a dress or nice pants and a sparkly top.
During the day, it is extremely casual. Generally the only rule is no bathing suits in the dining areas including the buffet.
The elevators can get very busy, especially after the Muster Drill and when the big show lets out. If you are able, take the stairs. They are generally less crowded and you get around the ship faster.
If you are unable to use the stairs, stay back for about 15 minutes or so to allow the first rush of folks to get through the elevators, then come through. Or, go past the first set of elevators to the next set. There are usually 2 or 3 banks of elevators in ships, so if the one at the theater is crazy busy, keep going through the ship to the next set of elevators, they will probably be less crowded.
DAILY SERVICE CHARGE / AUTOMATIC TIPS
There will be a daily service charge (called different things on different lines) added to your account. This will cover tips for the dining staff and the room stewards. It is generally around $12 - $15 per person per day. You are not required to tip more, but if a crew member gives you exceptional service on your cruise, feel free to tip them extra at the end of your trip. We generally do.
Note that drink purchases and spa treatments already have a tip included in the fee. You are welcome to add an additional tip.
The internet is not included in most cruise line base fees. Most cruise lines now offer two types of internet packages, a slower package for checking email and a faster package that allows video streaming and better use of social services. The packages are usually priced per device, meaning a one device package will only work on a single device at a time. To use another device requires logging off the first device.
These packages are much more expensive than your home based internet with fees of over $200 for a single device on a 7 night cruise not uncommon.
The one mainstream cruise line exception is Virgin Voyages which includes WiFi in their base cabin fees. NCL includes WiF in their "Free at Sea" program, Celebrity, Princess and Holland America all have packages that can be rolled into their cruise fares to include WiFi.
SWITCH ALL MOBILE DEVICES TO AIRPLANE MODE AT SEA.
Most all cruise lines have “Cellular At Sea” services which essentially allows you to use the ship’s communications system to make calls from your mobile device and retrieve data while at sea. The cost for this service is generally $2.50 - $5.00 per minute and up. It’s not cheap.
If you don’t switch your cellular device to Airplane Mode, you could end up connecting to this Cellular at Sea service. Your mobile device will then be using this service to receive calls, retrieve emails, text messages and so on... at $2.50 per minute that’s $150 per hour. This fee will show up on your phone bill (or possibly your room account.)
While at port, you can often find shops with “Free WiFi” and depending on the cellular service you use, you can get free or discounted services on land. If you want to know where the free WiFi is at port, just ask the crew members who are exiting the ship. They know all the good spots.
RELATED: Can I Use My Mobile Phone At Sea?
There are always many items that are prohibited on cruises. Two obvious items are weapons and anything with an open flame. That means no candles or anything else with an open flame.
One of the less obvious prohibited items is a power strip if it has a surge protector.
In general, many cruise cabins have only one or two standard outlets. So plugging in all of your electronics that need charging can be a challenge. If a power strip is in use in your room, it will be removed and you can reclaim it at the end of your cruise. After our last cruise, we witnessed about 100 people in line to retrieve their power cords and power strips during disembarkation.
Fortunately the newer ships and those that have gone in for recent dry dock renovations are getting more power outlets and USB outlets making the need for a power strip unnecessary. For the latest on the power situation inside a particular ship’s cabin, check out the Boards on Cruise Critic where you can find first hand information and ask questions on pretty much any ship that sails.
You cannot bring your own beer or hard liquor onboard. Most lines have gotten savvy about putting liquor into 2 liter soda bottles so that trick most likely won’t work either. For the most part you can bring a bottle or two of wine onboard, but the rules for how much varies with each cruise line.
If you purchase bottles of alcohol in a port, they will be held until the end of the cruise.
You will not be permitted to take the alcohol to your cabin. It will be held by the ship when you go through security upon your return to the ship. The alcohol will be delivered to your cabin the final evening of your cruise.
CHANGE OF ITINERARY
The cruise line and the captain has the right to change the itinerary at their discretion. With or without advance notice.
Your cruise may skip stops altogether or swap out one port for another. Generally, this is done for weather related reasons but not always. For instance if the port requires the use of tenders, small boats to get to shore, and the weather is too rough to do this safely, the ship will skip the port. During hurricane season changes happen often due to the ever changing weather conditions.
We sailed during Hurricane Irma a few years ago and the itinerary completely changed as the storm was headed directly into the path of our planned cruise. We still had an 11-day sailing as planned, but the route changed.
You have to ‘roll with the flow’ when cruising. Cruise lines will refund any excursions reserved through the cruise line.
INDEPENDENT vs. CRUISE LINE EXCURSIONS
Cruise Lines offer excursions for all ports of call that can be booked directly through their websites or once onboard. You can also find dozens of independent tours and excursions at each port that you pay for directly.
There is one major difference between booking with the cruise line vs. booking an independent tour. The cruise line is responsible for getting you back to the ship.
That means if you book an excursion through the cruise line and it is late getting back to port, the ship will either wait for you (if it has time in the schedule) or the cruise line will get you to the next port on the itinerary. Yes, the ship might leave due to schedule restrictions, but the cruise line will drive, fly or send you on a boat to meet the ship at the next scheduled port.
If you book an independent tour and you are late getting back to port, and the ship leaves without you… you are on your own. You will have to figure out how to get back to the ship or get back home. Yes, this does happen.
In general, a ship will wait 30 to 60 minutes past the scheduled departure time to allow late guests a chance to get back onboard, but not always.
Booking through a cruise line is always more expensive than booking independent because the cruise line just marks up the costs. If you plan to book an independent tour, do your research on sites like TripAdvisor and Cruise Critic. You can find plenty of information and reviews on pretty much any destination you’ll sail to.
One piece of advice is to take a tour that’s at least 2 hours shorter than your planned time in port and take the first tour if there are multiple tour times. This gives you the most flexibility to find alternative methods back to the ship if necessary.
Most of the Caribbean islands accept US dollars. A notable exception is Martinique which currently accepts Euros.
ONBOARD SHOPPING AND CASINOS
The casino and shops will be closed while the ship is in port. This is often a surprise to first time cruisers.
On most ships the casinos allow smoking. If you’re not a fan of smoking, you can generally avoid the casinos by going through an upper or lower deck.
DISEMBARKATION / LEAVING THE SHIP
There are two different ways to do the disembarkation.
Most commonly, you will get luggage tags which will indicate both your departure group number and what section of the terminal you will be able to find your checked bags. You will set these bags outside your cabin by a certain time on the final night of the cruise. Your app or your final daily newsletter should give you the time.
You’ll generally have to vacate the cabin by 8am but the buffet and some dining areas will be open that morning for breakfast. You will then either wait in a designated area for your disembarkation number or make one final tour of the ship.
As you exit the ship, your room key will be scanned for the very last time, then you head into the terminal to retrieve your luggage. Every port has a slightly different procedure for then going through customs. It can be as simple as a walk through a facial recognition system or you may have to wait to actually talk to a customs official. Usually, they will just ask you if you have anything to declare and look at your passport.
The other option is self-disembarkation. In this option, you take ALL of your bags off the ship yourself. This is generally only a good idea if you don't have too much luggage and need to get off really early such as you booked an early flight.
Generally you don’t want to book a flight much earlier than 11am on disembarkation day. While most ships arrive between 6 and 7am, if there are any weather or mechanical delays, it could set back the arrival time which can mess with your early flights. We had one cruise come back to port close to 11am due to a bad propeller which greatly slowed our progress back to port.
What To Know For Your First Cruise, main category
Your First Cruise Part 1: Getting Your Cabin
Your First Cruise Part 2: Meals, Drinks and On-Board Credit
First Cruise Guide: Tips for Booking Your First Cruise
First Cruise Guide: Excursions, Dining & Drink Packages
First Cruise Guide: Selecting Your Cruise Ship Cabin
Cruise Critic: (membership is free, sign up to participate in the cruise boards)