Cruise-Ship Employee Shares What to Know Before Booking a Cruise

  • After working on cruises for six years, I know the main things you should keep in mind when booking.
  • Some items, like alcoholic drinks, aren’t included in the original price of your cruise.
  • The arrival time listed for each port isn’t actually when you’ll be allowed off of the boat.

Although sailing blue waters, eating endless amounts of food, and seeing world-class entertainment may sound like a dream getaway, cruising is a very unique experience with several moving parts to consider.

I’ve worked on board cruise ships for six years, so here are 10 things you should know before booking your vacation:

Not everything is included in your original fare

It’s a common misconception that cruises are all-inclusive.

Although most cruise lines include your room accommodations and unlimited food from the buffet and dining room, there are some common things that are an additional cost.

For example, alcoholic beverages are usually not included, so you’ll have to purchase a package deal or buy drinks à la carte, which can tag on a hefty bill to your getaway.

Other things such as WiFi, shore excursions, specialty dining, and photos are also typically extra expenses, so make sure to consider what you’ll want to add to your experience.

There are certain times of the year when the waters are rockier

A view of the side of a cruise ship — railing and a flat blue ocean


There may be choppier waves during winter in the Atlantic Ocean.


With ships out there longer than the Eiffel Tower is tall, you’ll almost never notice that you’re on a boat.

However, times like hurricane season in the Caribbean or winter in the Atlantic Ocean are known for having rougher seas.

If you’re prone to seasickness, plan your trip around those seasons.

There is usually a curfew for children

If you’re planning to party all night and leave your kids out and about enjoying the ship, you’ll have to wrap up in time to adhere to the youth curfew.

However, the curfew is often later than expected — typically around 1 a.m — so you’ll still have time to hit the midnight buffet.

Many youth clubs on board are free until the late evening, and then you’ll have to pay a small hourly fee for your kids to stay until closing. Just keep in mind that all of these rules and guidelines can vary by ship.

Some port stops are shorter than guests expect

The writer and two other people sitting on the truck of a pink old-fashioned car in a city with palm trees


Although a typical port stop is eight hours, some will be shorter.

Erica DePascale

Port stops are an awesome way to explore multiple countries in one trip.

Typically, a port stop will be around eight hours, but there are a few instances that ships will only stay for only half a day. This is usually due to port rules or the set itinerary since the boat needs to make it to the next stop in time.

Make sure to check the itinerary times before booking your cruise if you’re hoping to spend more time in a specific port.

You may have to sit with other guests at dinner

Although this tradition is becoming outdated, there are still instances where you may have to share a large table at dinner with other guests.

This assignment is sometimes given to you before the cruise.

Although many guests enjoy the experience of getting to know other passengers, don’t worry if you want to keep your group separate — just talk to maître d’ once you board for a new table assignment.

The port arrival time listed on the itinerary is not when you’ll be able to exit the ship

a view of mountains and water off the front of a ship


Some passengers have mistakenly booked outside excursions for the arrival time.

Erica DePascale

I’ve seen many disappointed passengers book their tours with outside operators and assume the arrival time listed is when they’ll be allowed to go ashore.

The arrival time is merely when the ship officially docks at the port. The vessel must then undergo an inspection from local authorities and receive clearance before letting passengers off, which can take anywhere between 20 minutes to an hour or more.

This “gangway clearance estimation” time will be listed in your cruise-activities guide.

You can’t keep the alcohol that you buy in ports with you on the ship

Your plan to buy 14 bottles of Mexico’s finest tequila and do shots in your stateroom later likely won’t be possible.

Any alcohol purchased onshore will have to go through the X-ray scanner upon reentry to the ship and will be checked in with security until the end of the cruise.

Typically, it will be delivered to your stateroom on the last evening.

There may be formal and themed nights, so you should pack accordingly

Although these dress codes are optional, I can’t tell you how many guests have told me they wish they knew there was a formal or themed evening, like 1970s night.

All of the entertainment information is usually listed on the company’s app or website prior to the cruise, so make sure to check it out before you pack.

Your cabin may not look like what you expect

A room on a cruise ship with two beds with white sheets, a white sofa, mainly blue striped carpet, and vanity


Some cabins are larger than others.


Cabins on cruises range from small, inside rooms with no windows to suites as big as a condo apartment.

So make sure you see physical pictures of the type (or class) of cabin you book — especially if you do it through a travel agency — so you know what you’re getting.

It’s a much different experience to book a room with two sets of bunk beds and no window versus one with a picturesque balcony and individual beds.

Gratuity is automatically added for each passenger, but you can change it

Guests usually check their bill on the last day of the cruise and panic when they see gratuity charges under each person’s name.

Gratuity is automatically calculated at a per-person, per-day rate for your servers and housekeeping crew, but you can change the amount by talking to the guest-services desk.

Just be sure to consider the crew before changing it — they are very hardworking.

Click to read more of my advice on cruising and stories from on board the ship.

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