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7 things to know before leaving on a cruise

So you’re going on a cruise (or maybe just thinking about it). People say they choose to cruise because it is so effortless. You only have to unpack once, there’s a clean bathroom every twenty feet and those frozen tropical drinks with towering fruit garnishes are practically handed to you.  But that doesn’t mean a cruise doesn’t take some serious planning and the ease and relaxation you experience while on a cruise is only equal to the work and research you do before it.

Here are 7 things you should do before you leave on a cruise.

Samantha brown's best cruise tips

1. Tendered vs. Docked

Check on your itinerary to see which ports are tendered or docked. Tendered means you need to be ferried to the port and being docked allows you to walk off the cruise ship like it’s your front door. You can imagine which one is more desirable. Getting up early in the morning to fight it out with crowds that make a mall during the holidays look empty is one of my pet peeves of cruising. I try to avoid it. If there’s a tendered day, that’s the one I’ll book my spa treatment (they’re cheaper on port days) or just enjoy a nice calm day on the ship. Or choose to have a long leisurely breakfast and then be tendered after the morning rush hour.

2. Get Cash

Even if crew tips are automatically charged to your bill, you should bring a few hundred bucks for tipping. Crew members are some of the hardest workers I have ever seen. They still manage to make you feel like you’re not one of 3,000 cruisers. They deserve your appreciation, especially if they’ve gone out of their way to help. You also need to tip the luggage handlers at the dock who are not a part of the cruise line. Remember, it’s not their fault you’ve over packed to avoid having to do laundry.

Samantha brown's best cruise tips

3. Join the Cruise Line VIP Club

Yep, just like the airlines, cruise lines offer similar perks for their frequent travelers. Even if this is your first cruise, sign up for your cruise line’s program and start building your points.  It’s never too late to become a VIP. Becoming a member often has its privileges, such as priority check-in and boarding/debarkation, spa deals, access to a dedicated guest services number, and special luggage handling.  You can feel more like a VIP and less like cattle; this is a big plus when everyone wants to get on or off the ship.

4. Pack Like a Pro

Nothing delays a vacation more than waiting for your luggage to be delivered. On a cruise, that might be around 5:30 pm and you’ve been on board since 2pm.  Even if you can fit everything into one large bag, bring a carry-on or personal bag with a change of clothes, swimsuit, medications, essential toiletries and your travel documents. Now go work on your tan!

Samantha brown's best cruise tips

5. Stay Connected At Sea

We’re so demanding as vacationers. We want to completely disconnect from our everyday lives, but not social media. How will you sleep at night if you don’t post the photo of you at the midnight chocolate buffet? The cruise ship will no doubt have an internet plan. It will be expensive and it will be sloooooooooooow. Like 1992 slow.  Keeping up on Facebook is a dumb way to spend your time and money. Instead, plan on waiting till you get to a port and find an internet café so you can keep up with your social life over an iced coffee or small lunch. Important! When you are not using your phone leave it either powered-off or in airplane mode and disconnect from the roaming charges.

Samantha brown's best cruise tips

6. Pssst, a Cruise Isn’t Really All-Inclusive

The price of a cruise includes room and board but it doesn’t include shore excursions, spa treatments, specialty dining, kids clubs or alcohol.  Make sure you create a budget for these richly deserved extra’s BEFORE you go on the cruise.  If you don’t the extras could easily add up to twice what you paid for the trip.

7. Think Ahead: Do Some Emergency Planning

You’ve likely seen the news, cruises are susceptible to so many predicaments, but the biggest threat is weather. Make sure you leave at least one day before if not two. Do some research and jot down a few numbers just in case you find yourself in a port of call longer than expected.  You need to have a file/notebook that has your travel agent’s number, numbers of local hotels, etc.  Pack a few extra days of medicine and food/snacks, just in case. Don’t wait…start calling and using social media to get answers and make plans the minute it becomes obvious you are in a crisis situation.

What’s the best thing you ever did before you left for a cruise?  Share something you were thankful for later that you would add to this list.

People say they choose to cruise because it is so effortless. But that doesn’t mean a cruise doesn’t take some planning. Here are 7 things you should do before you leave on a cruise.

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This Post Has 65 Comments

  1. As a cruiser, I love this post! I think the best thing my family ever did before leaving for a cruise was get travel insurance. We learned after missing part of our first cruise how necessary it is to have!

    1. We also get travel insurance, it has paid off, my husband had medical emergency on the last day of our New Zealand cruise, we ended up staying an extra 11 days in Sydney. Paid the medical, lodging cost, airline fees to change our flight. Also they were willing to help with making any arrangements needed while we were there until we returned home.

  2. Check out Web sites like Cruise Critics. We found a forum thread on “secrets” (cabin storage places, special requests in the main dining room, etc.) that was very useful to us, especially as first-time cruisers on that line.

  3. Thanks for the tips, Samantha. Something else we add to our bag is a power strip. There never seems to be enough plugins in the cabin for camera batteries, phones, ipads, etc.

  4. Great post Samantha! I would encourage cruisers to take some patience with them when they board. We have been on six cruises an I am still amazed at how upset some people get when they have to wait their turn.

  5. thanks for the tips Samantha and all of you. I recently go to a cruise, for that cruise I have your 2 piece printed cabin bag and tote luggage, your square crossbody bag and four piece travel accessory kit. It’s our favorites vacations! Something that I lear is have a power surge for those things electronics and machine that someone need to sleep. The cabin no have many electric receptacles. Always have extra money for purchases. Thank you Samantha I love your gorgeous and amazing luggage and accessories line. It’s the must have.


  7. One thing I would add, is to ask around for a reference for a good travel agent to guide you through the process. Travel agents are paid and trained by the various cruise lines, so you are not paying more, and in most cases, you end up saving, especially your time! Being a travel agent, we are asked to do site inspections and even attend “seminars at sea” to fully experience and embrace the cruise experience to use this experience in guiding our clients on the best cruise line, cabin accommodation, ship or itinerary to suit their family.
    I have had clients tell me many times how valuable my experience is to them, to be able to do an honest comparison of the various cruise lines.

  8. You offer some fantastic advice here. My girlfriend and I took our first cruise this year to the Bahamas and it was awesome. I did a lot of research beforehand and came across an excellent resource guide that helped us save hundreds on our cruise. One of the best savings was a cabin upgrade at no additional cost. Thanks again for the great article!!

      1. Me and 7 of my friends are going on our first cruise in March to the Bahamas / do you recommend the drink package or not? do they charge for water? Michael that posted above in comments , do you know his resource guide?

  9. As soon as you board your cruise ship make a beeline for the spa! They have sample services. Who doesn’t want a hot rock massage demo. Get there before everyone else gets to tour the spa. You’ll also have a view of the gym and a reminder to use it… Before you hit the buffet!

  10. Never arrive the day of the cruise! So much can happen (plane delays, etc). Plan on spending the night at your starting place so you can be relaxed getting on a cruise. One of our cruises started in Venice. Due to bad weather, we ended up spending the night in Houston! We made it to Venice the next day, checked in our luggage with the cruise line and still had time to stroll around Venice! Thankful we had the extra time or we would have missed our ship! Amen to the tip of getting travel insurance and a good travel agent that helped us keep our cool that time! She also always gets us good rooms, discounts, etc.


  12. I never post pictures and comments about my cruise until I return home. Doing so just says, my house is empty so feel free to help yourself to anything we have.

  13. Check out the reviews about excursions BEFORE you book any. Sometimes you can head to a beach by local taxi for less money and much less hassle.

  14. I’m a flight attendant, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people miss their cruise because of weather, mechanical, or some other delay of their flight. Word of advice: Leave at least the day before you disembark, if not, a couple days. Make the initial port part of the adventure!

  15. Bought travel insurance for $95 back in 1996 for a cruise trip to Alaska with my teenage daughter and myself. She got a bad cold and the congestion in her ears would not allow her to fly home safely. For that $95 expense the cruise line made hotel arrangements and an appointment with a doctor when we docked in Vancouver; the airline made flight changes for both of us without penalty until she was cleared to fly. And all this happened over Memorial Day weekend when most offices were closed, but I had no problem getting through to the insurance people. That $95 prevented me from being billed for almost $1200 in unexpected expenses.

  16. I think you should take Walkie Talkies to find your travel mates.
    There is no cell phone service at sea. The ship only provided access to social
    media accounts for $$-not email-which my travel mates did not have.
    They only made one page-when a child was missing at 5 a.m.

  17. Let your credit card company know you will be out of the country. Don’t want to have your account frozen when you try to pay for those nice purchases . Also find a credit card that doesn’t charge exchange fees.

  18. For Internet on an Alaska cruise the Juneau public library is or was in the top floor of a parking garage right next to where the ship docks.

  19. Just got off the RCCL Oasis of the Seas last Saturday. One good tip if you cruise with a light amount of clothing, say no formal wear; carry your luggage on as long as it fits say in an overhead passenger jet area. It will allow you to have your clothes with you when you board.

  20. I found an outdoor café in the Center of Phillipsburg St Martin that offered great WiFi for free. Have a cup of coffee and enjoy your cell phone

  21. Best advice – especially when traveling with others – is to remember that this is YOUR vacation and this is THEIR vacation. If you paid for it, you can do what you want. No need to be pressured into making other people happy with your decisions; and don’t pressure others into going along with what you decide to do. So, before the cruise, you can plan a couple of things you may like to do together but make sure everyone knows that you will want some private solo – or couple – time, and you won’t be joined at the hip. No pressure/expectations = a fabulous vacation!!

  22. I take 2 dollar store air freshners, one for the room and bathroom and a plug in nite lite (bathroom). Also plastic rain covers in case of bad weather. Over the door hooks can be helpful as well.

  23. Just for my own peace of mind, I always take the phone number and address of the local US Embassy office in each foreign country that our cruise ship docks in. We went on a European cruise and visited 7 countries, and it just made me feel a little safer. I always carried several hundred dollars in US currency when we left the ship, just in case we had to pay someone to get us to one of the Embassies. I know I sound paranoid, but “better safe than sorry” is my motto when I am in a foreign land.

  24. I have all of Samantha Brown Luggage AND ALL OF THE INSERTS. My suggestion is to pack using her suitcase inserts. They are phenomenal!

  25. What’s up,I check your blogs named “7 things to know before leaving on a cruise – Samantha Brown” regularly.Your humoristic style is witty, keep up the good work! And you can look our website about .

  26. Go to and join your roll call. You’ll learn about great savings on excursions or special meet and greet with the crew. Check out excursions thoroughly on and other sites. Independent excursions or DIY can save you a lot of money but you must research, review and plan ahead. Independent tour operators depend on tourist dollars so they will make every effort to show you a good time and get you back before all-aboard.

  27. I always scan or take photos of both sides of the credit/debit cards I’m taking with me as well as my passport and insurance cards. I keep a copy with me, give a copy to a friend at home and email a copy to myself so I can access it wherever I may be if I need to.

  28. Used to own a luggage store and over the years helped many folks gear up.
    I’d always recommend simple things (beyond packing folders) that don’t take much room but can prove to be useful:

    Mini flashlight, your own water bottle to stay hydrated, your own coffee to go cup, a plug-in nightlight, a Sharpie, small notebook, extra ziplock bags & if you have never been cruising and/or are prone to motion sickness, ginger chews) ginger tea or Kaiser generic Dramamine (100 for $7)

    Was once redirected and the entire ship spent 2 extra days on board avoiding a major hurricane. Nearly everyone, including crew, complained about the rough waters and nausea. I didn’t need the Dramamine but shared with many who did and it was a game changer.

  29. On an outside pocket of my luggage, I always include a letter which starts off with “If you are reading this you must know I am beside myself with worry that my luggage has been lost”. I include my full itinerary as well as my cell phone number. I close it with “I would appreciate it if you would contact me asap so that I may retrieve my luggage. Know that I would do the same for you”. While in Alaska on a cruise, one of our luggage pieces was put on the wrong bus going to a hotel and this letter brought it back to us safely..

  30. I splurge on a limo to get to port! My vacation starts the minute I step out my front door – More Mimosas please! 🙂

  31. I liked that you pointed out that it would be smart to get cash before getting on a cruise ship. It is good to know that at will also be helpful for shore excursions. My family is planning on going on a cruise sometime soon.

  32. My daughter is getting married soon and she is going on a cruise for her honeymoon and these tips will be great to share with her! You make a great point that you should keep your phone in airplane mode or powered-off because the ship will most likely not have an internet plan and you can also avoid roaming charges. This is a great and simple way for my daughter to save money on the trip!

  33. Going on our 9th cruise in November… I pack a week ahead of departure. And then every day I take something back out of the suitcase and leave it home. No more heavyweight bags for us!

  34. Excellent posts, Samantha! Just bought luggage, so maybe I’ll think about yours in a few years. Heading to Alaska in mid-August on Holland America LInes and can’t wait!!! 🙂 Our first cruise ever! We’re celebrating our 32 wedding anniversary and my husband’s 55th birthday. We’re hoping to do his birthday up right!! Booked a couple’s Swedish Massage for us to share! Counting the days until embarkation day. All aboard!!

  35. Such GREAT tips! Thanks you everone! SAMANTHA U ROCK! We are taking our 1st Mexican Riviera cruise next week and couldn’t be more excited! Lol, already planning Alaska! EEEKKK

    So many people book a cruise 1 year+ ahead so they can save and do their research. We use because you can’t predict a weather problem or health problem and I’d never want to miss a cruise !!!

  37. We cross pack if checking bags. Half of my items in hubbys bag and half of his in mine. We also take one complete change of clothing in our carryon. My suitcase went on a trip around Paris for a week while we went on to Rome and boarded our cruise ship for a 14 day cruise. Really made me realize how little I needed.

  38. I’m both a travel agent and cruiser and your tips are awesome. Perfect! The only tips I would add are: 1. Prebook excursions – I have clients get upset that their “must do” is sold out. I always tell them if you have your mind set on a particular excursion, book before you go because many people have their mind set on the same thing. 2. Make necessary reservations (specialty dinning, spa and shows) as soon as you get on board to ensure you get what you want. This will avoid disappointment. Love your shows and blog! Safe travels.

  39. I research each port so that I am familiar with the history, points of interest, etc. One time found a FREE guided walking tour of Boston….very informative guide for just the cost of a tip.

  40. When younger, I worked on cruise ships (and thank you Samantha for your kind and TRUE words about cruise workers), now they are my favorite vacation, especially when I can board in NYC and never need worry about boarding, being only 15 miles from the piers. One trick from an insider? In a full day port, never book a “full day” excursion – what ever it was that you were interested in, there will be a cheaper half-day version in most cases, and it will leave you the other half day to explore on your own. Otherwise you’ll rush past so many things without getting a real “feel” for them. The half-day also allows you to return to some place that sparked your interest in the morning. Another tip? Make sure you have photo copies of all your credit cards, passport and travel documents, and keep those copies IN YOUR CABIN, just in case – also, make sure SOMEONE at home has a copy of your complete itinerary in case of some emergency. And Samantha is right, join the Cruise Line’s VIP club right away – as a member of my favorite line’s club, we get priority boarding, so we get on the ship at NOON – we’ve been on board with a cocktail in the time it took our ride to get to only 96th Street on his return to Nyack! We then head to the Main Dining Room for a leisurely Lunch (yes, they serve in port, you just have to know that!) with views of Hoboken and Jersey’s gold coast condos and our vacation has already begun before the ship even clears the pier!

  41. I always bring dark colored post-its or a small roll of electrical tape since I like a dark room when I sleep. There are many small LED indicator lights in hotel rooms and cruise ship cabins these days and I love being able to cover them up for a restful night’s sleep.

  42. I miss your TV shows Samantha!

    I agree, everyone needs to chill and relax as soon as they board and treat the staff with respect and not feel entitled.
    And please don’t waste food and use the serving spoons, fork or utensils.

  43. Spend time before going by Reading reviews and cruise tips . There’s so much info out there for you regarding cabin tricks, packing suggestions and excursions. I love bringing magnetic clips to organize the cabin.

  44. I read all the time comments of how awful the internet is on the cruise ships. While I do admit that it was expensive, when I was on my cruise to Alaska on Holland, I had excellent internet service. I was able to check email, get on all social media and stream movies on my Ipad and download books. I had no complaints at all.

  45. Just for our peace of mind we travel the day before to our embarkation port. The cruise ship will want folks to disembark as soon as they are back in port so if you’ve booked a flight on the return date (and it is later in the day), you may end up a LONG time in the airport. Also airports won’t allow you past security until you are within 3-4 hours of your flight. Just think all those folks that got off your cruise are all now trying to get home. So you may want to consider extending your stay in the port city one more day and exploring that city. There are also excursions through the cruise ship that will let you explore the city and will drop you and your luggage at the airport. Just a more pleasant way to end a great vacation.

  46. Something we learned after that we wish we knew before is: at the end of our cruise we disembarked at 9am, but out flight home wasn’t until 11pm. That was a loooonnnggg day sitting around the airport. What we didn’t know was that we could of gone to one of the hotels at the airport and gotten a room for the day. That way we would have had somewhere to put our luggage for the day and we could have gone exploring in town until our flight.

  47. Have to disagree a little with you in regards to the info about staying connected . . . mostly because there have been advances in the last 6 years since this article was written 🙂 One benefit of being self employed is that you can leave your home and travel on cruises, but still keep your business running with the use of your phone, so for some it is necessary to have your phone on at all times. The cruise lines have affordable data plans and the speed is not horrible. . . from time to time, there will be some lag. You can now stream music, check stock market, post your midnight buffet pics on social media, etc at a pretty nice speed. Also for those families like ours who have a military child serving in a country across the world, you never want to miss those precious and few times to communicate-so turning off the phone or putting it in airplane mode is not an option. The social media sites skype and messenger are ways that we can communicate across the world. And lastly, if you have sick elderly parents back home, you also want/need to be able to communicate with them. It is not necessary to put phone in airplane mode which would then not allow calls, texts, etc. . . . .all you need to do is ensure that you have your data roaming turned off. . . . .we’ve been on quite a few cruises and that is what we do. . . . .no ugly surprises when you get back home and get your mobile phone bill. People just need to check with their provider before leaving so they know exactly what the cost will be for calls and texts. Also some cell phone providers also offer cruise packages that will cover your calls, texts, and data for the duration of your cruise. Even if you don’t choose one of those packages, if you are with AT&T, all incoming texts are free. Great article by the way 🙂

  48. I worked for Holland America/Princess Cruise Lines in Alaska the past 3 summers. I want to let folks know that a passport card is NOT good for international travel. Folks bring this card with them, intending to fly out of Vancouver Canada and we are the bearer of bad news that they will need to adjust their arrangements to take a shuttle to SEA TAC and fly home from Seattle. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE be aware. Passport cards are NOT good for international travel!

  49. Do skip the crazy expensive onboard internet, but DO COMPOSE all of your messages onboard, attach your pics.. and save in Drafts folder. WHEN you do get ashore and get a signal just open mail, go to drafts folder and SEND them. Takes a minute. Then get on with the visiting. Don’t spend your time ashore WRITING emails.

  50. Great suggestions, Samantha and commenters!
    1) Spend the time onboard before you leave “getting the lay of the land.” It helps me remember what is where, so I don’t tend to wander around lost quite so much.
    2) A good travel agent is essential. For our honeymoon, we did a cruise in Hawaii. In preparation, we asked what excursion would she recommend. She suggested something that cost a bit more, but that she thought was worth the extra money. She was SO right; that event was one of the most memorable ones we had.
    3) If you are thinking of getting travel insurance through the cruise line, be sure it covers the entire trip. We almost did this and asked our travel agent later. Turns out the price we were quoted only covered the travel before the cruise; the cruise itself and the few days after would add extra cost. Our travel agent said to cover the entire trip, we might want to check online for travel insurance, outside the cruise line’s.

  51. Travel insurance is critical. But I never buy it through the cruise line. At least double the price of independent agencies and the cruise line will not insure your added day(s) or your airfare unless you purchase those items through the cruise line (also much more expensive) Your travel agent can definitely help you with this. If you prefer to work with the cruise line for your cruise because you have some sort of preferred status with them, the other items can still be booked separately. Transfers from airport to ship and back to airport are also much less expensive independently. Try Viator or TripAdvisor or Get Your Guide if you are out of country. Otherwise sometimes Uber will work or Google – transfers, shuttles or cabs for the city of your departure. Maybe if there are only two of you, and you don’t cruise often, it’s not worth the effort. But once you see how easy it is you will never do it all with the cruise line again. We had a party of 13 on our last cruise in Hawaii and I saved SEVERAL THOUSANDS.

  52. I’m an exception to the rule regarding WiFi and being connected. Up until recently, when cruise ships stopped providing a daily activity schedule on paper and now expect you to find whatever information you want on their app, I would turn off my phone and lock it in the stateroom cabin safe. Being TOTALLY disconnected was a holiday in itself. Even now, I only use it for the ship’s app and refuse to check social media, email, the news, or whatever. I find it makes for a far more relaxing cruise.

  53. Another vote for travel insurance that covers you from the time you book your cruise until you are safely back home.

  54. I like to “splurge” for a balcony/veranda cabin. I find it quieter and far more relaxing than the noisy and crowded pool deck or other public areas (crowds suck away my joy and energy). I.break occasionally for food and/or drinks or to attend some activity, but it remains my favorite spot on sea days, in the evenings before dinner, and to view the coast in places like Alaska.

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