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AARP Smart Guide to Cruises

We’ve got 47 helpful tips for planning, packing and landing the best deal


spinner image big cruise ship on water
Photo Collage: MOA; (Source: Getty Images)

Cruises are one of the fastest-growing tourism sectors. This year, the industry is expected to see some 36 million travelers — up from around 30 million in 2019, according to the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA). Before you book a cruise — whether it’s your first or 50th boating adventure — check out our smart guide filled with helpful tips, resources and strategies for smooth sailing. 

 

spinner image cruise ship and other boats on water
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PLANNING YOUR CRUISE

1. Choose the right sized ship for you

Cruise ship sizes run the gamut, from megaships that host thousands of passengers to small ships with a few dozen travelers. According to Mikkel Woodruff, travel writer and founder of the cruise blog Sometimes Sailing, knowing what you want out of a cruise will help you narrow down the right ship size for you. “Know your personality,” Woodruff says. While she and her husband enjoy a simple dinner and drink before bed — ideal for smaller, lower-key ships — those who prefer a bevy of entertainment options, be it numerous restaurants, onboard casinos or live shows, are better off with larger boats. Another ship-size insight to keep in mind: Larger ships are often less expensive, says Woodruff.

2. Open versus closed loops

Beyond ship size, you’ll also want to consider which type of route best fits your travel goals. On a closed-loop cruise, the journey starts and ends in the same place, says Janene Beane, author of TikTok account She Knows Her Ship. “Open loop is where you start in one place and end in a totally different place.” One advantage of a closed-loop cruise that starts and ends in a U.S. port is you likely don’t need a passport, even if your boat is leaving the country, says Beane. (That said, it’s important to confirm this detail with the cruise line.) Those who want to bookend their cruise with mini adventures may be better off with the open-loop route. That way you can vacation in different cities on either side of your cruise.

3. Find advice in online forums

Woodruff says social media sites like Facebook have numerous cruise groups, including some for specific cruise lines or types of cruise travel, such as expedition cruising. You can also seek out sites like cruisecritic.com, cruiseline.com or cruisehive.com. “People are honest with their opinions,” Woodruff says of these third-party groups. You can search through threads to gather intel on specific cruise lines, or post your specific cruise goals or questions to receive tried-and-true advice from other cruise travelers.

4. When to book

Choosing when to book your cruise depends largely on the destination’s popularity and season. “Alaska [cruises are] really hot, and people are often booking [them] a year or two out,” says Woodruff. This need for early booking stems from not only the destination’s popularity, but its limited travel season — just like Antarctica, which is experiencing a cruise boom of its own. Ships can sail to these far north and south locales only in the warmer months, such as November to February for Antarctica or May to September for Alaska. This short season limits availability. Meanwhile, options abound in year-round escapes like the Caribbean, Woodruff says.

5. Find a cabin with a view

When it comes to getting the most scenic cabin, Woodruff has a rule of thumb: “The higher the deck, the better the view.” The back of the ship offers the best vantage point because the balconies tend to be slightly larger, Woodruff notes. These in-demand rooms typically sell out quickly, so book as early as you can. On some ships, the lower decks only have a porthole with no balcony, she says.

6. Try a solo cruise

According to CLIA, solo travel is growing in popularity. Companies are also making the travel style more feasible by retrofitting ships with additional single cabins. (Historically, booking a solo cruise comes with a single supplement surcharge; many still require this, but the industry is changing.) Beane, who was initially nervous about cruising alone, now enjoys these solo voyages. “You meet new people, or you can just be by yourself and do what you want,” she says. “There’s always somebody to take care of you. There’s so much [in terms of logistics that cruisers] don’t have to worry about.” Read our Smart Guide to Solo Travel for more tips.

7. Consider niche-interest cruises

If you have a special interest — say, birding or classical music — there’s likely a niche cruise for you, says Chris Gray Faust, executive editor of the review site Cruise Critic. “Some of the more well-known [niche cruises] are around music,” says Faust. The options are about as diverse as your cruise’s travel destinations. Themed cruises include a focus on songwriters from the ’60s or ’70s, upcoming Royal Caribbean Taylor Swift–themed sailings in 2024, a specific food- and wine-themed trip, or even Christmas market cruises for cozying up with some holiday cheer.

8. Choosing a cruise destination

Most destinations offer at least some sort of cruise option, whether it’s sailing by ocean, navigating rivers or even crossing massive lakes. According to CLIA, the Caribbean was the top cruise destination for 2022, but other popular options include the Mediterranean, Northern Europe, Alaska, China, Australia and New Zealand. The Great Lakes region in the Midwest has also recently expanded its cruise offerings, while far-flung escapes, such as the Arctic or Antarctica, increasingly attract intrepid cruisers.

9. Book a multigenerational cruise

With a variety of onboard activities and land-based excursions, cruises offer something for nearly all types of travelers. This customization makes cruising perfect for multigenerational family trips, says Faust. “You can do different excursions or different things around the ship, then gather at dinnertime,” she says. Varying budget options, especially when it comes to cabins, ensure everyone can join too. “What we often see is that the retiree may have the suite, their family might have a family cabin, and those just out of college have an inside cabin,” she says. “There are different price points for different budgets.”

10. Crave adventure? Try an expedition

An expedition cruise centers on exploration and adventure. The ships are often smaller, giving travelers the chance to more deeply experience a destination. This is particularly important in places like Antarctica, where international law means strict regulations. According to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, for boats with more than 500 passengers, guests are not allowed to actually land or walk on the continent itself. “A ship of 200 people can get up close and personal,” says Faust. On these boats, the guides will take groups of guests to walk, hike or even camp on the White Continent. In addition to access, expedition ships ensure you travel alongside experts. “They have an expedition staff that’s with you to help you interpret the nature and wildlife,” says Faust. Companies that are known for expedition cruising — particularly to Earth’s farthest-flung regions — include Viking Cruises, Hurtigruten and Lindblad Expeditions.

11. Sail longer

If you want to see it all — and your time allows it — enjoy another cruising trend: longer-term sailings. Cruise lines are pushing the boundaries of trip durations, from Celebrity Cruises’ 52-night trip from Rome to New Zealand to Viking’s Grand Journeys, which span multiple weeks or even months, or Seabourn’s five-month, 72-port itineraries. “What a great way to retire,” says Faust. These extended cruises usually depart in the beginning of the year and sail for a few months or longer — a perfect recipe for those hoping to escape the cold back home, she says. “They are expensive, but a long list of things come with them, and it really forms this community at sea.”

12. How to plan post-trip extensions

Some cruise lines offer post-trip extensions to help travelers make the most of their vacations. While these offerings do make planning more streamlined, with set itineraries and logistics like transportation coordinated, it’s important to read the fine print to understand what’s included, what’s not, and if you could get a better deal on your own or with a travel agent. “Some [post-trip extensions] can be great for the convenience,” Faust says, noting you often won’t have to worry about toting your bag or coordinating transportation. “But really think about what you want after a trip. Do you still want to be in a group environment or do you want more free time?”

13. Turn to a travel agent

If choosing the right cruise stresses you out, or you’re worried about booking the best room and onboard experiences, work with a travel agent. “Travel advisers are consumer advocates whose primary responsibility is matching their client with the right cruise that will meet or exceed their expectations,” says Charles Sylvia, vice president of trade relations for CLIA. A travel adviser will help you navigate the cruise selection process, and sort out any pre- or mid-trip problems. The best perk? They’re free to passengers. “Their commission is automatically built into cruise fares regardless of whether you work with one or not, costing you no additional money,” says Sylvia.

14. Invest in travel insurance

In cruising, like any travel, it’s better to be safe than sorry — and few investments offer more peace of mind than travel insurance. When Beane’s parents had to cancel their cruise due to an unexpected surgery, they were able to get a full refund thanks to their travel insurance policy. Additionally, insurance will ensure you get the right care if there’s an accident or you get sick while on the trip. Companies that offer cruise-specific insurance include World Nomads, Allianz Travel and Travel Guard. Note: Insurance policies vary and not all offer a full refund. Make sure you read all the fine print.

 

spinner image table set with plates, glasses, napkins and silverware next to window overlooking a body of water
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GET A DEAL

15. Save with “wave season”

One of the best ways to grab a great cruise deal is to book during “wave season,” a promotional period that takes place roughly from December through March. “It’s when cruise lines do big pushes to get sales up,” Woodruff says. “A lot of them have deals, whether it’s for free Wi-Fi or free airfare.” In some cases, the lines offer lower-cost cruise deposits, and you can also grab major discounts on some fares.

16. Last-minute sailing deals

Having a flexible schedule that allows for last-minute trips could yield major cost savings, says Woodruff. “There are often last-minute cruise prices because they’re trying to fill the ship.” Additionally, being flexible on dates — and avoiding holidays — can lead to better deals too.

17. Book your next cruise before disembarking

If you know you’ll want to cruise with the company again, reserving your next cruise before leaving the ship could save you upwards of 10 percent. According to Woodruff, you can typically cancel or move dates for these trips free of charge if your selected timing doesn’t work out. “On Disney cruises, for instance, you can click a button on the app and it books another cruise for you. You can move the date around when you’re off the ship.”

18. Join loyalty programs

Most major cruise lines have their own loyalty programs. Enrollment is often free, and they come with benefits like discounts, early access to book dining or excursions, and priority boarding, according to Woodruff. Like most loyalty programs, the more dedicated you are to one cruise line, the more you’ll benefit.

19. Arrange your own air travel

It may be tempting to let the cruise line handle your air travel, but Woodruff says you’re often better off booking your own. “I do not recommend it, unless they’re offering free airfare,” she says. “I hear more negative feedback about [the airfare booking service] than positive.” Some complaints Woodruff hears include bad flight routes or only booking with specific carriers. “I always recommend to book flights on your own or utilize your travel agent and ask for their thoughts,” she says.

20. Research when and how to tip

For most cruises, you can prepay your tips so you don’t have to worry about setting aside money, or figuring out how much to pay, at the end of the trip, says Woodruff. These electronic tips are collected and disseminated among the staff via an automatic gratuity system that charges guests via credit card. Most cruise lines share a recommended per-guest, per-day tipping rate. You can also tip specific crew members extra via cash if they go above and beyond. In many cases, cruise ships will add an extra gratuity of around 15 percent — a tip beyond what you prepaid — directly to your bar or spa bills.

21. Ask the cruise line to honor deals

If your heart’s set on a cruise, you’ll want to book it while supplies last. But what if doing so means you miss out on a major discount? “Once I book a cruise, I continuously look to see if there’s a better deal,” says Beane. “Usually the cruise line will give you that [discount] if there’s a better deal.” Typically, they don’t reimburse you; instead, they apply the money you would have saved toward an onboard credit, Beane says.

22. Share your trip celebration

If you’re traveling for a birthday or anniversary, ask ahead of time about special packages. Many ships offer upgrades for these important moments, such as chocolates, champagne, flowers or birthday balloons. Share this information with the cruise line ahead of time, either in the app, through the customer service team or via your travel agent. This gives the staff time to prepare your surprise ahead of time.

23. Get membership discounts

Being an AARP member can help you obtain major cost savings on your next cruise. Some of the many AARP cruise discounts include Holland America Line, Grand European Travel, Vacations by Rail and Collette Cruise Tours. Even with smaller ships, always ask the cruise line if they offer AARP discounts before booking.

24. Know what’s included

A luxurious trip with drinks and food included may come at a higher price point, but one-off purchases on the seemingly less expensive trips can add up. “Generally speaking, the bigger the ship, the less it’s going to cost per person, but bigger ships tend to nickel-and-dime you for everything,” says Woodruff. “The fare gets you on the ship, but you have to pay for your drinks, or for a drink package, or your excursions. A small ship isn’t going to do that; it’s more all-inclusive. It includes excursions, wine and beer with dinner.”

 

spinner image suitcases lined up
Giada Canu/Stocksy

WHAT TO PACK

25. Know what’s allowed

Every cruise line has different rules for what’s allowed onboard and, equally important, what’s not. Some allow alcohol, while others limit the amount of booze you can bring aboard, and some welcome wine but no beer or spirits. On the plus side, you can almost always bring snacks like breakfast bars (in their original packaging, unopened) to stay full between meals. Other items you typically can’t pack include an iron, a steamer, or anything that’s a fire hazard, says Woodruff.

26. Research luggage restrictions

Most cruise ship cabins are compact, which means accommodations could get tight with oversized luggage. It’s important to research not only your cabin size but the cruise line’s luggage recommendations or restrictions before you jet-set to port. “We’ve been on small ships that say you can’t bring a big bag, or you can only bring one bag and it has to be small because the cabins aren’t big,” Woodruff says. “But plenty of cruise ships, especially the big ones, don’t have restrictions.” As always, it’s best to confirm with your specific operator.

27. Pack motion sickness medicine

If you suffer from motion sickness, be sure to pack your medications, such as over-the-counter Dramamine or prescription options like Scopolamine patches. Nondrug products such as ginger candies or tablets, available at your local health food store, or motion sickness wristbands like those from Sea-Bands, Reliefband or Toulifly may also help. If you’re worried about motion sickness, talk to your doctor ahead of time to determine the best strategy. And if you accidentally forget your medication — or experience unexpected issues — all is not lost. “Usually ships have [motion sickness medicine] at the front desk,” says Woodruff. That said, most cruise lines only offer the drowsy version of these medications. If you want non-drowsy, bring your own.

28. Ask about provided gear

Some cruises, particularly ships traveling to remote or adventurous destinations, provide gear or offer it for rental. “Some provide boots, some provide a parka, which saves you from having to go out and invest in a big parka you’re never going to wear again,” says Faust. Offerings depend on the cruise line, so it’s best to check on provided gear before packing to avoid any unnecessary purchases.

29. Strategize your carry-on

When you arrive for embarkation day, your checked luggage will be toted away to your room. Keep important items, such as your phone, wallet, medications and passport, in your carry-on, but don’t forget other items to enjoy day one activities, such as a swimsuit and sunscreen for the ship pool. “Some cruise lines allow alcohol on board, but [what you can bring] is very specific,” says Woodruff. Most boats will not allow liquor, and even beer and wine cannot go into your checked bag. It needs to fit in your carry-on.

30. Take advantage of laundry service

If you want to pack light and optimize your cabin space, consider doing laundry on the boat. Some boats have a self-service laundry room with washers, dryers, detergent and ironing boards. These operate like a laundromat; if the machines are not complementary, you’ll pay via coins or you can charge it to your room or a credit card. “We always bring dry laundry sheets and a few dryer sheets,” says Woodruff. This method is particularly helpful for those with detergent or scent sensitivities. The higher-end lines offer valet laundry, with washing, dry cleaning and folding. This will optimize your time, but the price can add up. Expect to pay a few dollars per item. To save money, do laundry in your room.

 

spinner image chairs on deck of boat overlooking water
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ON BOARD

31. Getting to and from the cruise ship

Some cruise lines suggest a hotel and provide shuttle transportation to the port. Others tell you where to be when, with the travel from points A to B entirely up to you. If you’re traveling on your own, arrive at the port early to avoid any transit mishaps or delays. If you’re flying to the port city, Faust recommends you plan to arrive a minimum of one day prior to your cruise date to allow for weather-related or other potential travel delays.

32. Know the room options

Cruise rooms vary widely based on the ship and your budget. While some offer spacious private patios, other rooms may only have porthole windows, and the lowest-cost options, such as interior cabins, have no windows at all. The best way to choose your room sight unseen? Look for an online room tour, says Beane, noting that many bloggers, TikTokers and YouTubers post in-depth reviews of not only the ship but their specific cabin. Woodruff also recommends avoiding cabins directly above entertainment venues or restaurants if you like to hit the hay early.

33. Explore the ship

Once you embark, it’s time to explore your new home away from home. According to Woodruff, the larger cruise lines don’t offer a formal boat introduction, but you can come up with a DIY ship tour by using the deck plan in the app or on the cruise line website. (These introductory tours are important, as large boats can feel like a small city — take the new Icon of the Seas, the world’s largest cruise ship, which is 17,000 square feet and 20 decks.) On smaller ships, such as a river cruise, Woodruff says the staff will generally offer ship tours when asked. Some cruise lines also offer themed tours, such as a guided walk through the ship’s artwork or design.

34. What to expect in your room

Cabin size and in-room amenities vary widely. “On a standard ship, [cabins] can be smaller than hotel rooms,” says Faust, noting the rooms are also highly functional, with optimized storage space. The beds are raised for suitcase storage, and cabins have drawers and closets with hangers so guests can unpack. “Most have a vanity, a little desk area, chairs depending on how big it is, and they all have safes,” she says. “Cabins go from being somewhat utilitarian all the way up to being nicer than a house.” Additionally, for in-cabin organization, Woodruff recommends over-the-door shoe organizers for extra storage. (Some cruise lines don’t allow these organizers, so it’s best to check before packing.) “It’s also popular to bring magnetic hooks. The only catch is that the walls have to be magnetic for them to work,” Woodruff says, noting that most cruise ship walls are magnetic.

35. Navigate onboard dining

Some cruise restaurants require reservations; others are more buffet-style, with open seating. Some areas may be set up for family-style or communal dining, where you’re seated with other guests. Specialty or fine-dining restaurants often require reservations, which Beane says you can often make immediately after booking your cruise. If you have not already, you’ll want to make specific dining reservations as soon as you board the ship, because spots book up quickly.

36. Try special dining experiences

Cruise ship restaurants are just the start of many ships’ culinary experiences. To go deeper with your cruise line’s flavors, look for exclusive offerings, like a galley tour of the kitchen or the chef’s table — a special multicourse meal for a more intimate-size gathering with the chef. Attendance is limited for these unique experiences, so it’s important to reserve your spot early, either in advance, if it’s available, or right when you board the ship.

37. Download the cruise line app

Not every cruise line has an app, but if yours does, Faust recommends downloading it before boarding the ship. “It’s so much easier to book things,” she says of the cruise line apps. “You can see the schedule in your pocket, and you don’t have to carry around a piece of paper.”

38. Research Wi-Fi availability before boarding

Many ships offer Wi-Fi, although it often comes at a cost. Research connectivity and plan your check-ins with family back home accordingly. Additionally, avoid international roaming costs by setting your phone to airplane mode before boarding the ship. If you don’t have your phone in airplane mode, you might rack up international charges when a background app refreshes or when you download a file.

39. Strategize entertainment and shows

Larger ships offer plenty of entertainment options. “From Broadway-style shows to comedy clubs to fitness events, learning opportunities and lectures to waterslides and go-kart tracks, entertainment options have significantly increased,” says Sylvia. Prioritize which shows you want to see when, and build your schedule and meals around them.

40. How to meet the crew

As the ship becomes your home away from home, the crew will also become your new at-sea family. Make the most of your stay by getting to know the staff early. “Be friendly and introduce yourself on the first night, because chances are they have the same shift every day,” says Woodruff. This goes for bartenders, dining staff, the cleaning crew and the people who work in entertainment venues like casinos. Whether they’re on a mission to see the world or trying to learn the ins and outs of hospitality, “everybody has a story,” says Woodruff. “Be friendly and say hi!”

41. Stay healthy

Given the close quarters on a ship, viruses, such as the highly contagious norovirus, which causes gastrointestinal issues, can easily spread. (That said, CLIA reports that contracting norovirus on a ship is rare; passengers have a 1 in 5,500 risk.) To stave off germs, wash your hands frequently and use or bring along hand sanitizer that’s at least 60 percent alcohol. Although hand sanitizer doesn’t kill norovirus, it can kill other germs. Be mindful to get enough sleep and drink plenty of water, and don’t overdo it at the buffet if you’re prone to indigestion or heartburn. Many cruises offer fitness rooms or outdoor tracks to help you stay active while on board. You can also get your steps in with land-based walking tours. If you feel ill during your cruise, visit the ship doctor and plan to stick close to your room.

42. Best photo spots on the ship

If the weather cooperates, Woodruff, who’s also a professional photographer, recommends the top deck for snapping photos without obstruction. .A number of cruises have an onboard photographer who knows the vessel well. Watch where they go to photograph, or ask them for tips on the ship’s best photo spots. On some cruises, particularly expedition ships, the cruise photographers run sessions to help guests better photograph their surroundings. 

 

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ON THE GROUND

43. Booking cruise excursions

Excursions are a highlight of any cruise, providing travelers the chance to immerse themselves in the destinations they’ve admired from the deck — such as a food tour, a kayak trip or a guided museum experience. The popular excursions do tend to sell out quickly, so it’s best to book your favorites as soon as possible. “Most cruise lines don’t allow you to book until you’ve paid for your cruise in full,” says Woodruff, noting that many of the smaller ships offer free walking tours in most destinations.

44. Understanding physical activity levels for excursions

Noting physical activity levels will help you choose an excursion that matches your comfort level. To determine what the activity level means — as in, how moderate is a moderate walk? — turn to cruise forums or social media groups, or ask your travel agent. If you’re still unsure, reach out to the cruise line customer service team before booking excursions. Woodruff says that unless it’s an adventurous expedition cruise, most activity levels are easy or moderate. “Sometimes there will be a slow walkers indication,” Woodruff says. If you’ve signed up for an excursion but have second thoughts the day of the tour, you can also ask the onboard activities director. 

45. Plan your own land excursions — but don’t miss the boat

Excursion costs are typically extra and can vary widely, from complimentary walking tours to adventurous treks or paddles that can cost several hundred dollars. If you want to save money, plan your own tours in each destination, but pay close attention to timing. If you’re late, the ship may leave without you, says Woodruff, noting that, while rare, this can happen. “On a ship with thousands of people, if you’re not back from your excursion, they have to leave.” That means coordinating your own transportation to the next stop. To be safe, Woodruff suggests building in at least an hour of wiggle room to be back at port on time. When booking independent tours, also look for guides who understand the cruise scene and timing — something you can find via traveler reviews.

46. Download city maps offline

If you’re planning to explore a port on your own, make sure to download the city or trail maps before you leave the boat — or, even better, before you leave your home’s free Wi-Fi. You can download offline maps through Apple or Google Maps, or via AllTrails Pro if you’re looking for hiking trails. Offline maps will ensure you navigate through town — and back to the boat — without any hiccups or delays. And it’s important to keep track of not only the time, but the local time zone.

47. Don’t overplan — enjoy the journey

While excursions are a signature cruise experience, Sylvia says it’s important not to go overboard with planning. “Some people consider the ship’s daily activities program as a challenge, and they wind up needing another vacation after their vacation,” he says. “A best practice is to choose only the activities that most interest you. Leave yourself some time to enjoy the ship and find a cozy spot to relax and unwind.” Additionally, consider skipping a shore day to enjoy peace and quiet on the boat, says Beane, noting that time alone on the ship provides ultimate relaxation — and the chance to enjoy the amenities with few, if any, crowds.

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