Cruise ship life can be a little mysterious. Your choices aren't always spelled out in black and white. The more you cruise, the more you pick up on the unofficial secrets the cruise lines don't tell you -- which give you more options, let you save money and generally allow you to have a better time onboard.
Maybe it's knowing what your cabin steward is able to bring you or what the off-the-menu items are at the bar or dining room. Or perhaps it's a tip to getting a good deal on an onboard purchase.
But why wait to figure these things out the hard way -- possibly after you've missed your chance? We trawled through all the great advice on Cruise Critic's Message Boards to bring you some of the worst-kept cruise secrets ... at least among our readers who love to share. But whether you're a first-time cruiser or an old sea dog, you might find there's something here you didn't already know.
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Unlimited main dining: You are not limited to one of each entree, main course and dessert in the main dining room. You can order two entrees or three desserts if you choose. You can also order entree-sized portions of mains as starters or order a few entrees for your main meal. It's a great way to try new foods you're not sure you'll like (escargot, anyone?).
Cheap or free room service: Room service is generally free, except for service charges on certain lines. Celebrity's late-night orders bear a $4.95 fee, while all orders on Royal Caribbean (excluding Continental breakfast) and Norwegian (excluding morning coffee, Continental breakfast and orders placed by Haven Suite passengers) cost $7.95. Carnival also charges fees for room service in Australia, with items at individual prices. Breakfast items, for example, can cost around $3 for cereal. Meanwhile, Holland America offers for-fee room service menus in addition to its complimentary menus. It's recommended you tip your delivery person, but in-room dining is not the splurge it is at a hotel.
Breakfast options: Speaking of breakfast, you may have more options than just the buffet and main dining room. On Norwegian, it's no secret that O'Sheehan's offers tasty made-to-order omelettes and corned beef hash, yet many cruisers still don't know about it. Carnival's BlueIguana Cantina and Royal Caribbean's Johnny Rockets (on Oasis-class ships) are other alternative breakfast venues. Check your daily newsletter to see which restaurants are open in the morning.
Specialty dining on the first night: Most people dine in the main dining room or buffet on the first night of the cruise, and many haven't discovered the specialty restaurants yet. If you book an alternative dining venue for the first night of the cruise, you may get a discount on select lines (like Celebrity Cruises) or have an easier time getting a reservation for a popular venue. Carnival Cruise Line passengers who dine in the steakhouse on the first night get a free bottle of wine.
Complimentary bites: Specialty coffee at the designated coffee shops onboard comes with an extra fee, but the pastries, sandwiches and other food at these venues are often free. While some specialty items (like chocolate-covered strawberries) will have a charge, don't assume all the small bites do. Some bars -- such as Celebrity's Martini Bar -- also offer complimentary snacks; all you have to do is ask.
Free ice cream: Like ice cream? Cruise lines will charge for branded licks like Ben & Jerry's and Celebrity's gelato from the specialist gelato bar. However, there's sometimes a free version -- whether soft-serve machines on the Lido Deck or hard-serve stations at the buffet. And do your reconnaissance -- Cruise Critic members report that soft-serve machines on either side of the deck can have different flavours. In Australia, Carnival Spirit and Legend have free poolside soft serve and frozen yogurt machines, dispensing swirls of chocolate, vanilla and strawberry.
Sit-down lunch on embarkation day: On embarkation day, most people head straight to the buffet to have lunch and wait for their cabins to open. It's a mob scene. But many cruise ships have alternative venues open -- the main dining room or a mini-buffet in the solarium or atrium area. Ask a crew member or check your daily newsletter to find an alternative for a calmer first meal. For example, on Princess Cruises, the International Cafe, Pizzeria and Grill also are open; on Royal Caribbean ships, Sorrento's, the Solarium and Park Cafes, Giovanni's Table, Cafe Promenade and Starbucks are open on the afternoon of embarkation.
Menu sneak peek: Don't know which night to make specialty dinner reservations? The main dining room menus are planned for the week, and the purser's desk often has access to those menus. Ask to see them so you can decide which nights are less appealing and which you don't want to miss, and plan your cruise accordingly.
Don't book specialties too early: Depending on how big the cruise ship is and how many people are onboard, sometimes it pays not to book your speciality restaurants straight away. Often they are able to be purchased more cheaply as a package deal, or if sales are slow, these restaurants may be discounted. Wait and see what happens. This is more likely to occur on a port-intensive cruise, where passengers are very busy during the day and may just want casual buffet style dining by night.
Try the Chef's Table: Many cruise lines offer exceptional Chef’s Table degustation meals, but not many people sign up for them. The truth is they can be a real treat. In Australia, P&O Cruises and Carnival Cruise Line have fantastic value-for-money offerings. Both include a tour of the galley (kitchen) too. You can bring your own party, or join others in this small group culinary experience.
Open containers: There's no "open beverage" rule onboard. You can bring drinks from a bar or buffet to your cabin or elsewhere on the ship and no one will bat an eye. (Same goes for food.)
Wine on reserve: It's often cheaper to buy a bottle of wine than a few glasses -- but what do you do if you don't finish the bottle? Cruise ship waiters can mark the bottle with your room number and save it for another night, even for dinner in another onboard venue. (But beware of restaurant corkage fees if you bring your own bottle of wine.)
Buckets of beer: Groups of beer drinkers can save by ordering buckets of beer. You get four or five beers in a souvenir bucket at a per-beer cost slightly cheaper than ordering individual bottles.
Soft drink savings: On most lines, soft drinks are not free -- but iced tea or cordial in the dining room usually is. Save money by buying a soft drinks card, offering a set price for unlimited soft drinks.
BYO limits: Most cruise lines prohibit passengers from bringing beer and liquor onboard, but some do let you bring a bottle or two of wine or Champagne. Some lines (such as Holland America) also let you bring a reasonable amount of nonalcoholic drinks onboard -- which helps save on pricy shipboard soft drinks and bottled waters. Royal Caribbean and Norwegian passengers are prohibited from bringing any nonalcoholic beverages onboard. Princess Cruises allow passengers to bring on one bottle of wine or Champagne on embarkation day, which will not be subject to a corkage fee if consumed in your cabin. Sometimes it also may be worth trying to bring wine onboard from port calls during the cruise -- the crew operating the security scanners are often ‘looking the other way’.
Souvenir cup perks: Enticed by all those special drinks in a souvenir glass? You can refill those glasses at a discount -- or ask to have the drink of the day in a regular glass to save money. Also watch your daily program for drink specials or happy hours with reduced-price beverages.
They're magnetic: Most cabins are made of metal and therefore are magnetic. Bring along some magnets (or buy some as souvenirs) and you can keep all your cocktail party invites, alternative dining reservation notices and daily planners hung up on the walls and doors.
Nightlight substitute: Inside cabins have no natural light. At all. Turn your TV to the bridge cam station, turn off the sound and -- voila! -- you've got an instant nightlight and a way to see if the sun is up.
Spa passes: Spa cabins can often be a smart financial decision for avid spa-goers. For example, Carnival's Cloud 9 Spa balcony cabins include access to the thalassotherapy pool, steam room and sauna. The extra you'd pay for the cabin (above a regular balcony room) is often less than what you'd pay for a cruise-length spa pass.
Limited outlets: With all of the electronics we tote around with us these days, most people find cruise ship outlets to be insufficient, and only the newest have USB ports. You can bring your own charging station or power strip (check to see if these are legal on your cruise line), but you may also want to ask your cabin steward. Sometimes there's an extra outlet hidden behind the TV or under the bed.
Bedding by request: Picky about your bedding? Some lines will provide egg crate mattress toppers, top sheets and alternative pillow types by special request. Feel free to ask, before or during your cruise.
Hidden outlets: Cabin designers are pretty smart about creating as much storage space as possible. Do a little exploring or ask your cabin steward for a tour. You may be surprised to find extra storage under the bed or couch, inside an ottoman or behind a mirror.
Assistance for sea sickness: If you're feeling queasy, don't run out to a pharmacy before making some calls. Room service can bring you green apples and bland crackers (crew members swear by the apple remedy), and often you can get seasickness meds from the purser's desk for free.
Casino hack: Casino frequenters can get a hole punched in their room card and a free lanyard from the casino staff for easy play without forgetting your card in the slot machines.
Bonus internet: Many lines offer free minutes if you sign up for an internet package on the first day of the cruise.
Day one spa discounts: Cruise ship spas often offer discounts for first-day and port-day treatments. Stop by the spa, or check your daily newsletters to find out about deals.
Presentation reruns: If the port talk is at the same time as your massage, don't worry. Presentations and audience-participation shows are often re-broadcast on the ship's channel on your in-room TV. You can still catch the recording if you miss the live show.
Complimentary spa showers: Use of the showers, saunas and stream rooms not located in fancy thermal suites is free. Showering in the spa can often mean access to more clean towels, fancy toiletries and bigger shower stalls -- and prevents fights over who gets cabin bathroom access first. Using the free saunas is also a great remedy for that inevitable holiday head cold that stuffs you up.
Show up to sold-out shows: If you want to see one of the big-name shows on Royal Caribbean or Norwegian (like "Mamma Mia" or "Rock of Ages"), but tickets are sold out, don't fret. Many people reserve the free tickets but don't show up, so if you get in line prior to showtime, cruise ship staff will let you in if seats are available.
Cruise Line-Specific Secrets
Sweet treats on Celebrity: Celebrity's buffet secrets include delicious ship-made hard-serve ice cream (for free) in the buffet and made-to-order waffles with a choice of toppings. You can also order a cup of candy toppings with no ice cream if that's your treat of choice.
Cheap lunch on HAL: On Holland America, lunch is discounted to $10 at the Pinnacle Grill, and free chocolate truffles make an appearance in the Explorer's Lounge each evening.
Royal Caribbean's decent free coffee: Royal Caribbean's Cafe Promenade offers high-quality coffee without the price tag. It’s not a barista-style cup, but it's a step above what you'd find at the buffet.
Getting the best sea views: The North Star on Royal Caribbean's Quantum-class ships offers amazing views any time you go, but you'll get the best views on sea days. That's because the enclosed, glass capsule -- which can rise to 90 metres above sea level -- is often restricted from extending out over the side of the ship while in port.
High tea treats: P&O Cruises Australia offers the best high tea at sea. For only AU$20 there are savoury and sweet treats galore, served on a three-tier cake stand and on beautiful crockery. The high tea is served on sea day in the Salt Grill restaurant.
Eat on Carnival's pool deck: The buffet area can get chaotic at breakfast time. Avoid the crowds on Carnival Cruise Line's Spirit and Legend by eating on the quiet pool deck. The Mexican cantina serves free breakfast burritos and huevos rancheros, and there's a self-service coffee machine nearby. You can also order breakfast pizzas from the counter inside the buffet, wait ten minutes for it to be freshly cooked, and then take it outside to eat at a table at the adults-only Serenity deck.