No doubt about it: There’s a certain been-there-done-that aspect to many cruises. Unless you’ve booked yourself on outliers such as an expedition ship to the Galapagos or a port-intensive, low-occupancy river cruise in Europe, travelers who board large mass-market ships have largely the same experience: Rush to the port, get on the ship, go crazy with 4,000 new best friends, get off. Nothing wrong with this (hey, you’re on vacation!), but there are a multitude of ways to put a little zip in your next cruise. Here are 7 of them:
1. Get There the Night Before -- and Extend the Fun.
Sounds simple, but hundreds of cruisers literally miss the boat each year because of delayed flights, traffic, bad weather and other unforeseen troubles. Others board by the skin of their teeth, panting and screaming at one another. Who needs that sort of stress? Fly or drive into your port city the night before and you simultaneously bypass pre-departure jitters and add a day to your vacation. Check tourist boards for stay-and-cruise information. Fort Lauderdale’s convention and visitors bureau, for instance, has a top-notch (and in-depth) web page devoted to deals on pre- and post-cruise stays, many of which include parking and free shuttles to your ship.
2. Say 'Bon Voyage' in Style.
Nothing kick-starts a cruise better than a little spurge, and the cruise lines are happy to oblige -- plus you’ll look like a hero to your better half. Most lines offer gift packages that will be waiting for you in your cabin when you check-in. Holland America, for example, offers everything from a champagne-and-balloon package (under $25) to a dozen long-stemmed roses (about $45) to give your cabin a little floral panache.
3. Stay Away From the Pool.
At full capacity, Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas can hold 6,360 passengers -- and many will have their eyes set on the vessel’s pools. Unfortunately, mega-ships only have a fraction of the chairs necessary to accommodate everyone. The result: a mass of humanity sun-burning in tandem on chairs they claim early and won’t give up. Instead, duck the hubbub. Most new vessels have adults-only areas, some with pools, and almost always less crowded (several newer Carnival ships, including Magic, Dream and Breeze, boast a Serenity Deck with bar service, plush loungers and whirlpools). Also, scope out ship deck plans for a place to call your own; Norwegian Epic, for example, has multiple levels of alfresco seating available, many unused because they’re too far from the pools (a nearly hidden warren of loungers on Deck 18 is a particular find).
Many major cruise lines (Norwegian being a notable exception) continue to encourage group dining at a prescribed time. If making small talk with the same strangers every night at the same time is your thing, go for it. But myriad options abound to break up the routine: If the ship is in port late, slip off and have dinner, preferably something native. Order room-service breakfast (it’s included in most cases) and have a picnic on your balcony. Make reservations at an extra-fee specialty restaurant; for instance, tapas at Qsine, a staple on the newer Celebrity ships featuring whimsical presentation and menus on iPads, will set you back about $40 a person (far less than if you paid for a similar meal on dry land).
The ugly little truth about port calls? You barely get to see the place you’re visiting, and you’re paying a high price for the (lack of) privilege if you book an excursion. If you can stand not spending 6 hours crammed on a tour bus, stay onboard. Most facilities are still open, and you’ll have them to yourself -- hit the AquaDuck water flume on Disney Magic and Fantasy as many times as you wish, catch the planetarium show on Cunard’s Queen Mary 2, read a book unencumbered on the Promenade Deck of the Coral Princess. For 8 hours, it’s your ship.
There’s a lot of competition when it comes to at-sea spas these days, but there’s no need to luxe out with a ridiculously overpriced massage if you want to bubble and soak. You often have to ask at the spa’s front desk, but for $25 to $30 a day (and $100-plus for a cruise-length pass), most lines let you use the facilities, which can include steam rooms, thalassotherapy pools, heated tiled loungers … and solitude. On port days, you may be alone.
Yes, dancing the night away is not your thing. But when’s the last time you played bingo or ate at a buffet? Shake it up a little. For the most part, cruise ships start to quiet down by midnight, unless there’s a deck party or some other event. B-o-r-i-n-g. Meet some interesting characters and super-charge your holiday in the ship’s disco -- the London-subway-themed Tube club on Disney Fantasy is an unlikely standout (think Union Jacks, a lighted dance floor and Brit phone booths), and Costa ships are known for their active early-morning scenes. Chances are, you’ll return the next night -- or look at your pictures the next morning and hide the rest of the day.