How to Get the Best Food and Have the Most Fun on Your Next Cruise (Slideshow)

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Confused by the endless details associated with booking and taking a cruise? Let us help you get the most bang for your buck
How to Get the Best Food and Have the Most Fun on Your Next Cruise

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Pick Your Ship Based on Group Size

Pick Your Ship Based on Group Size

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All rooms are not created equal on cruises, and they come down to more than just inside, oceanview, or balcony choices. Traveling with a large group? Look into booking a cruise with suites, which can be much more affordable to a family of four, for instance, than getting two standard staterooms. This can amount to savings of a few hundred dollars or more. On the flipside, solo travelers shouldn’t be forced to stay in a room made for two or four people. Lines like Norwegian (the first to do so) actually offer 100-square-foot studios, which also include access to the exclusive Studio Lounge. Not only does Norwegian not penalize its single passengers, but it rewards them with a cheaper rate and a shared private area where social solo sojourners can meet, mingle, or just relax. MSC, for its part, allows kids to cruise free on select sailings, which is a huge instant savings and could possibly seal the deal for travelers with the whole clan in tow.

You Deserve a Bonus

You Deserve a Bonus

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Like a stereotypical infomercial (“But wait, call now and you’ll receive…”), cruises often offer added bonuses in order to entice customers to book with them. Norwegian gives guests five bonus offers to choose from: free unlimited beverages, free specialty dining, a shore excursion credit, free Wi-Fi, or getting a stateroom’s third and fourth guests free — with customers able to select multiple bonus offers if they book rooms in a higher class. Other lines, like Royal Caribbean, often run promotions where guests can receive onboard spending credit, with amounts also dictated by stateroom class. Other ships might have complimentary spa credits or room upgrades, so you should always be on the lookout. Many of these offers are only available for a “limited time,” but don’t be the sucker who only gets the bare minimum. Even if you don’t see any bonuses advertised online, call the cruise line directly and ask nicely. Or, better yet, book through a travel agent. He or she might be able to get you a special deal not available to John Q. Cruiser.

Surprised that travel agents are still relevant in 2016? Then you’ll be shocked at these 20 Crazy Facts About Cruise Ships.

Upgrade and Save

Upgrade and Save

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Spending more and saving more might seem like opposing ideas, but bear with us. Even if you don’t get any sort of free upgrades or added packages, it is often worth it to invest in these anyway. Looking to polish off a fair share of umbrella drinks? Cruise lines like Carnival, Celebrity, Costa, Holland America, MSC, Norwegian, Oceania, Princess, and Royal Caribbean all have beverage packages that can be added on to most trips for a daily fee, usually between $40 and $60 (or more for premium drinks). If you plan to have at least six or eight drinks throughout the entire day (including at meals) each day, then this is absolutely worth it. Alternately, you can opt for lines like Crystal and Silversea, which already include beverages in the price of the room.

But upgrades aren’t just limited to booze. Investing in a spa package will save you money in the long run, especially with lines like Carnival, Costa, and Norwegian. These ships include “spa staterooms” where guests will be treated to fancier rooms, convenient access to health and fitness centers, and even special exclusive admission to certain lounges and dining rooms, as well as complimentary treatments and services.

Get to Know Your Ship Ahead of Time

Get to Know Your Ship Ahead of Time

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OK, so you’ve booked your cruise. Now all that’s left is showing up, right? Not quite. Being surprised at all the onboard amenities might seem like a fun idea, but relying on only your daily activity itinerary and the provided ship map might not be enough. And with Wi-Fi generally only available for a (sometimes hefty) fee, you’ll want to do as much research ahead of time. Don’t just look at the restaurant and activity types, but exactly where they are on the ship (cruise vessels are almost always larger than one imagines) and also any associated charges. This pre-planning will save you time once aboard, and will prevent unwanted surprises or fees. The last thing you’d want is to get off the cruise and realize you totally missed out on something you didn’t previously know about. Remember: Failing to plan is planning to fail.

Get to Know Your Ports Ahead of Time, Too

Get to Know Your Ports Ahead of Time, Too

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There are three ways to handle shore excursions. The first and easiest option is to simply book an excursion through the cruise line. This eliminates the hassle of doing the research and work yourself, and almost guarantees you won’t be picked up by some random character who says he’ll take you to the island’s best beach but really just steals one of your kidneys. Also, although you’re frequently reminded that a departing ship waits for no one, the cruise line will actually postpone a departure for tours they booked that haven’t returned. Alternately, you can search for shore excursion options online and book them yourself prior to the trip. This could result in significant savings, as it allows you to compare prices and values yourself, and there’s no cruise-related markup. Plus, you can find activities tailored to your exact wants and needs, instead of going along with whatever someone else has organized. And finally, you can just wing it once you reach dry land. We don’t recommend this option, as you’ll probably end up simply walking around the most touristy part of the port, and will only see locals hawking cheap trinkets and souvenirs. If you still want to check out the scene but not spend money on a full-blown excursion, at least do some research ahead of time to figure out where to go. You might even find that nothing at a particular stop interests you, and opt to stay onboard with the familiar (and generally free) food options and activities.

Don’t Settle

Don’t Settle

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Some of the after-the-fact complaints of cruise customers are downright strange. People complain that a particular dish they were served during an onboard meal wasn’t to their liking — yet they ate it anyway. Don’t be this kind of person. If you don’t like a dish, order something different. If you really like it, order another. Just because you don’t have to pull out your wallet after a meal doesn’t mean you aren’t paying for it; food is included, so get your fill.

Ever hear someone with a beverage package complain that their drinks are too weak? We have. (It’s rare, but it happens.) If you find your cocktails are too weak, try getting an extra shot of the included liquor on the side and add it yourself. I know you’re on vacation, but I don’t think this qualifies as too much work. However, there’s also another way to ensure good service…

If you really want to eat the most food, check out the 8 Best All-You-Can-Eat Cruise Ship Buffets.

Tip the Staff

Tip the Staff

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Never underestimate the power held by those in the service industry (and never overestimate their meager salaries). Want to make sure you get good pours at the bar? Tip your bartender. It doesn’t have to be a lot and it doesn’t have to be every time, but do it early, and do it for the bartenders you think you’ll be seeing the most throughout the trip. They’ll appreciate the money and you’ll appreciate the service. Want a table with a view? Passing a few bucks to the maître d’ might help you land it, possibly on more than one occasion. Tip your cabin steward if you have any special requests, like extra towels or if you want a bucket of ice in your room each night.

It’s worth noting that some lines (like Azamara, Crystal, Seabourn, and Silversea, to name a few) have strict no-tipping policies, and gratuities are already built into the pay. Others have the option to add automatic service charges, which helps if you want your money to be distributed evenly among all of the staff. Still, you should bring a bit of cash and tip whomever you’d like… except maybe the Captain. That might be awkward.

Wondering about tipping during your travels? Click here for our Complete Guide to Tipping Abroad.

Don’t Cut Corners

Don’t Cut Corners

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This one doesn’t have to do with saving money, but it’s absolutely the greatest and easiest way to get the best food and have the most fun: Don’t cut corners. If after trying all these tips, you find you still can’t get exactly what you want without simply doling out more money, just do it. Of course, this doesn’t mean you should blatantly throw money away, but sometimes the finer things are worth paying a little extra for. Want to stay in the nicest cabin (aim for one with a wraparound balcony, if available), eat at the fanciest restaurants (like one of these celebrity chef-associated spots), and get perfectly pampered at the spa? There’s a price tag for everything, and if it means that much to you, it will be worth it. Relax, you’re on vacation.