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On Board Your Ship

World Stage main theater aboard Holland America's Nieuw Statendam

On Board Your Ship

Congratulations! You’ve chosen your cruise destination, your ship, and your cabin. Now we’ll explore what you’re likely to find aboard your ship. (In the next article, we’ll look at options for buying your cruise ticket, talk about packing for your cruise, and what’s involved in boarding and disembarking the ship.)

CREW

Most mainstream cruise ships have about one crew member for every two or three passengers. A cruise ship with 3,000 passengers, for example, might have 1,200 crew members who navigate and maintain the ship, cook and serve food, make your cocktails, entertain you, and service your cabin.

Many first-time cruisers are surprised that these crew members work ten to twelve hours every day and seven days every week – with very little time off – for the duration of their contract, which can last from 10 weeks for ship’s officers, to six to nine months for most of the crew. (Most cruise ships are registered in countries such as the Bahamas, Panama and Bermuda which offer business-friendly environments in areas such as taxes and labor laws, and which allow this type of work schedule.)

Unlike some Navy ships, cruise ships don’t have Gold and Blue crews who alternate staffing the ship. Instead, contracts for each crew member start and end at random times. (This creates an interesting challenge for cruise ship managers, as their supervisor and direct reports change constantly.)

Working on a cruise ship is a lifestyle that’s not for everyone. When you talk to crew members, you’ll find that many of them have worked in the cruise industry for ten, 20 or even more years. On the other hand, you’ll also talk to a few who are on their first – and last – cruise.

A ship’s crew can be divided into two broad categories: marine and hotel, both of which ultimately report to the captain.

  • The marine crew members maintain, navigate and operate the ship, and are responsible for the engines, AC, electricity, safety, and getting the ship from port to port. This group often reports to a Staff Captain.
  • The hotel crew members provide guest services such as restaurants, bars, entertainment, shore excursions, and servicing the guest cabins. This group generally reports to the Hotel Director.

Cruise ship’s crews are very international, and you may find more than 60 countries represented on your ship. Some generalities:

  • The ship’s officers are often European.
  • Room stewards and waiters are often from the Philippines, Indonesia, India and Malaysia.
  • Entertainers and the spa teams are often from Europe, Australia and occasionally the U.S.

Most shipboard contracts offer low wages and long hours and generally aren’t attractive to U.S. workers. For crew members from other parts of the world, however, working on cruise ships offers two major benefits. First, they literally get to see the world, and second, the included room and board, along with few out of pocket expenses, allows them to send most of their income home to their families.

Candied bacon served in the Pinnacle Grill specialty restaurant onboard the Holland America's Westerdam
Candied bacon served in the Pinnacle Grill specialty restaurant onboard the Holland America’s Westerdam

FOOD

No one ever leaves a cruise ship hungry. Dining opportunities include the Main Dining Rooms (MDRs), buffets, walk-up snack bars, specialty dining restaurants and room service. Larger ships may have up to 40 restaurants and bars, and some ships have onboard stores that sell snacks if you’re still hungry.

The dining room and specialty restaurants can generally accommodate a very wide range of dietary preferences, including kosher and halal diets, vegetarian, vegan, low or no-fat, low or no-salt, dairy-free, gluten-free, low-cholesterol, diabetic and more.

While most cruise waiters begin each meal by asking about food allergies, it’s best to alert the cruise ship about your dietary needs before or as soon as you board.

Most cruise lines include complimentary coffee, tea, and tap water, along with fruit juices at breakfast. Soft drinks, bottled water and alcoholic beverages are sold individually or may be purchased as part of a package. Some cruise lines have stopped using bottled water for environmental reasons and have changed to boxed or canned water instead.

Most cruise lines have strict limits on the type and quantity of beverages you may bring aboard with you, with some cruise lines prohibiting passengers from bringing any beverages – including bottled water – onto the ship. On most ships, however, you may bring packaged food.

Most cruise ships have at least one bar per deck, while some ships may have several bars per deck, and these will include walk-up and table service.

Main Dining Room

Waiter posing at the front of a restaurant
My great waiter abord the Pacific Princess.

Most cruise ships have one or more Main Dining Rooms, or MDRs, which are included in your fare and which offer multi-course meals with waiter service. The MDRs are open for breakfast and dinner each day, and generally for lunch on sea days. Breakfast and lunches are on a walk-in basis, and reservations are not required.

For dinner, cruise ships traditionally offered only early seating and late seating. You picked one before or when you boarded and were assigned to a table (and a waiter) that you kept for the entire cruise.

Depending on the cruise line, the early seating might have been 5:30 pm while late seating might have been 8 pm. Each cruise line or ship set these specific times so that that passengers dining at the early seating could attend the main theater’s late show and vice versa.

Cruise ships have now introduced “anytime” dining which allows you to show up anytime during the Main Dining Room operating hours, which might be 5:30 to 9 pm, and you are assigned to the first available table when you arrive. Some ships continue to offer early and late dining in addition to anytime dining.

Sharing / Not Sharing

To share or not to share is an interesting question.

When you choose an early / late dinner seating, arrive for breakfast or lunch, or arrive for anytime dinner seating, you’re given the choice of sharing or not sharing.

  • Sharing means you’re assigned to a table which might seat four, six, eight or even ten passengers. If you’ve chosen early/late seating, you’ll be having dinner with the same passengers for the entire cruise. For walk-ins, you’ll be seated with different passengers each time.
  • Not sharing means you and the other members of your party will be seated at a private table.

I’ve sailed on nearly 50 cruises and half the people I’ve met at dinner were incredibly nice and interesting people. The other half, however, were incredibly unpleasant and I couldn’t wait for the meal to end. To be safe, I now usually opt for a private table.

Buffets

Most ships offer buffets which are also included in your fare. The quality and variety of food varies from cruise line to cruise line, and for each cruise line, within classes of ships. In general, larger ships have larger buffets with a greater variety of food. The larger Royal Caribbean ships are so big that they have a main buffet at one end of the ship and a smaller satellite buffet at the other. Most buffets offer daily specials that might be Mexican, Italian or Asian food, and generally have a carving station with prime rib or roast beef, turkey or pig.

Specialty Restaurants

Many ships offer specialty restaurants which may be included in your fare or offered a la carte.

The included specialty restaurants may be dine-in or snack bar type service, and might include a coffee shop experience, burgers, pizza, Asian food, or pub grub.

The a la carte restaurants vary from cruise line to cruise line, and from ship to ship, and include steakhouses, sushi bars, Teppanyaki, Mexican, Italian, and more. The specialty restaurants generally include three or four courses which are different, larger and of higher quality than those offered in the MDRs. Prices start at about $40 per person and go up from there. (Be aware that most cruise lines have been raising the prices for their specialty restaurants.) Other than coffee or tea, beverages are generally not included. Many of the specialty restaurants offer upgraded or additional courses for an additional fee on top of the initial cover charge.

Whether they’re worth the added expense is a great question:

  • Some of the restaurants are located in beautiful, dedicated spaces, while others are just carved out of a corner of the buffet seating area. Princess’s Crown Grill steakhouses, for example, have their own spaces, while their Sterling Steakhouses and Crab Shacks simply use part of the buffet seating.
  • The quality of the food and the service, can range from average to amazing and impeccable.
  • The portions tend to be huge and it’s often hard to finish everything.
  • Prices range from affordable to jaw-dropping.

For these reasons, it’s worth doing some homework before boarding your ship to identify your dining options, get online reviews, and decide which you want to try. You should book your specialty dining well before you board the ship (sometimes months in advance) as the popular dining venues sell out early.

Third-party dining

Some ships include familiar food outlets such as Starbucks and Johhny Rockets. These are generally not included in your cruise fare.

ONBOARD SERVICES

Wi-Fi

Most cruise lines offer wi-fi in your cabin and throughout the ship. Service ranges from intermittent to excellent, especially for the growing number of ships installing the new Starlink service. Service tends to be spottier as you travel further north to Alaska or south around South America.

While some cruise lines offer complimentary wi-fi, most charge for it and offer a variety of speeds and the number of devices you can use simultaneously. You can purchase wi-fi by the day or save money by buying it for the entire cruise. You may save even more by buying before you board, or by buying an all-inclusive package that includes wi-fi and drinks.

Shopping

Shopping opportunities range from a single gift shop to entire malls. Smaller ships may have a single store that sells souvenirs, toiletries, snacks, travel items and some over-the-counter medicines. Larger ships may have dozens of stores selling jewelry, watches, clothing, handbags and much more. Some ships feature retailers such as EFFY, Tiffany & Co., Pandora, Bulgari, and Coach. Due to local tax laws and other issues, retail stores are closed when your ship is in port.

Most ships sell liquor, cigarettes, and sometimes cigars, often at significant saving.

Be aware that you can’t drink your newly purchased liquor on board, and the ship will instead store it and deliver it to you just before you disembark.

Also be aware that most ships allow smoking in very few places – generally outdoors – although some ships do have indoor cigar lounges.

Prices vary, so do some research before making a major purchase aboard the ship. The major price advantage, however, is that your purchases are sales tax free. Whether they’re duty-free depends on your home country’s duty-free allowances.

Photos

From the moment you board the ship, and sometimes before, you’ll encounter the ship’s photographers. They patrol the open decks and restaurants, and set up backdrops and lighting in key locations throughout the ship. Photographers on some cruise lines are fairly discrete, while on other cruise lines are absolutely obnoxious.

If you don’t want your photo taken, you can graciously decline or simply ignore them. If you do have your photo taken, you can preview them in person in the photo shop area or online before deciding to buy. You can either buy individual photos, or packages that include several photos – often with a complimentary thumb drive.

Spas and Salons

Many cruise lines offer world class spas that include thermal suites, hot stone massages and body wraps featuring seaweed or chocolate. Ships also have salons offering hair styling, waxing, manicures, pedicures, and barber services.

Children's pool aboard Royal Caribbean's Harmony of the Seas
Children’s pool aboard Royal Caribbean’s
Harmony of the Seas.

Pools / Hot tubs

Most cruise ships offer at least one “swimming” pool, although it’s probably going to be much smaller than you’d expect. Depending on the cruise line and the ship, the pools may be filled with salt water or fresh water, and some ships offer both. Most ships also offer hot tubs, generally filled with heavily treated fresh water.

The pools and spas are generally open only during certain hours, generally from 8 am until midnight, although some ships keep them open 24 hours per day. Some ships offer adults-only pools and spas. Pools and hot tubs may be closed in rough seas for safety reasons.

Art Auctions

Many cruise ships offer art auctions, many run by Park West Gallery, “the world’s largest art dealer.”  The art auctions offer “affordable art” along with complimentary champagne and educations sessions.

Ships generally do not charge sales tax on onboard purchases, except for drinks purchased while the ship is in port. Once you leave port, drinks are tax-free again.

Casinos

Most cruises lines – with the notable exception of Disney – have casinos. Like their land-based counterparts, cruise ship casinos have slot machines, blackjack, poker, roulette, craps, and a few have Baccarat. Cruises ships often sell scratch-and-win lottery tickets.

Unlike land-based casino, cruise ship casinos:

  • Are closed while in port or within the territorial waters of most countries.
  • May or may not offer complimentary drinks, allow smoking, or report winnings to the U.S. IRS.
  • May have different pay tables.

Cruise ship casinos have their own loyalty programs that allow passengers to earn comps including free play, free drinks and even free or discounted cruises.

AMENITY PACKAGES

Some cruise lines package some of these amenities into extra-cost packages, which start at an additional $50 per person per day.

Here are some examples:

  • Princess Cruise’s “Princess Plus Package” costs $60 per person per day and includes a Plus Beverage Package (covering drinks priced up to $15 each), Wi-Fi on one device per passenger, two meals at casual extra-fee restaurants, free room service delivery and tips for the crew.
  • Holland America’s “Have It All” fare cost $50 per person per day and includes a shore excursion of $100, $200 or $300 per person (based on length of sailing); a Signature Beverage Package covering alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks priced up to $11 per drink; one, two or three comped meals in the line’s specialty dining restaurants (based on length of cruise); and a Wi-Fi Surf Package, HAL’s basic Wi-Fi package.
  • Norwegian Cruise Line’s “Free at Sea” package is included in your fare and includes Open Bar beverage package (covering drinks up to $15 each), one to three free meals for two people in specialty restaurants on board (depending on type of cabin and length of cruise), a $50 shore excursion credit for one person in each port, and 75 to 300 minutes of free Wi-Fi each for two people (based on length of cruise.)  The package does not include bar gratuities.

MEDICAL SERVICES

Most cruise ships have a 24 / 7 medical center that treats both passengers and the crew. These are staffed by at least one doctor and two nurses, and larger ships will have two doctors and five or six nurses, at least one of whom is trained as a paramedic. For ships carrying passengers under 12 years of age, ships must have at least one physician with training in pediatrics or equivalent emergency training.

Typical shipboard facilities include:

  • At least one examination / stabilization room
  • At least one ICU room
  • One hospital bed per 1,000 passengers and crew
  • At least one isolation room or the capability to provide isolation of patients
  • Basic lab facilities
  • X-rays (which is some case can be read by U.S.-based specialists)
  • Pharmacies stocked with common medicines
  • A morgue

Cruise ships don’t provide dental services but will instead refer you to a dentist in an upcoming port. Cruise ships don’t store blood for transfusions but will instead put out a call for passengers to donate blood if needed.

If a passenger requires medical care not available on board, the ship will:

  • Arrange for an ambulance to meet the ship at the next port
  • Arrange for a smaller ship to meet the cruise ship at sea and transfer the patient to the nearest medical facility
  • Arrange for a helicopter to pick up the patient from the ship while it’s underway and transfer the patient to the nearest medical facility
  • Divert to the closest port. (I was once on a cruise halfway between Hawaii and Mexico, and the ship turned around and returned to Hawaii, causing us to miss one port and arrive at our destination one day late

The medical centers are very transparent about their prices, and some cruise lines even provide a printed price list.

Most cruise lines do not accept medical insurance but will instead provide you with receipts and reports that you can submit to your medical insurance or travel insurance carriers.

TIPPING

The subject of cruise tipping is almost worth a separate article. In the early days of cruising, tipping operated the way most of us experience it today: We tip the people, such as servers and hair stylists, who provide us with great service.

Most cruises instead now add a daily gratuity to your final bill that covers most of your onboard services. These daily gratuities start at about $16 per day per person and may be higher depending on the cruise line or the type of cabin you’ve booked. These gratuities are pooled and shared with both the front-of-house workers (waiters and stewards) as well as behind-the-scenes workers. It’s possible for you to increase or decrease the daily gratuities by visiting Guest Services.

Most cruise lines allow you to pre-pay your daily gratuities before the cruise. Cruise lines are increasing the cost of daily gratuities with alarming frequency, so pre-paying the gratuities allows you to lock them in before they go up again.

The daily gratuities do not include bar services, spa treatments, or specialty restaurants, and you’ll often find an 18% service charge added to your bill for each of these services. Giving your bartender an extra $1 per drink will generally get you faster, friendlier service and more generous pours.

Many people also provide cash tips to their waiters, assistant waiters, and room stewards, as they’re the crew with whom you have the most interaction.

It’s worth noting that while tips may represent 60% of a land-based server’s income, tips may represent up to 95% of the income for shipboard waiters and room stewards.

World Stage main theater aboard Holland America's Nieuw Statendam
World Stage main theater aboard
Holland America’s Nieuw Statendam.

ENTERTAINMENT AND ACTIVITIES

It’s hard to get bored on a cruise ship, which offers a wide range of entertainment, educational / enrichment events, movie and TV shows, and other activities. Ships previously delivered to your cabin a printed list of the next day’s activities, but more and more ships now provide the information via their app instead.

Stage Entertainment

Every cruise ship has a main theater – that can seat up to 1,500 passengers – and which offers performers, orchestra, sets, high-def LED backdrops, and lighting and sound equal to what you’d find in a Broadway theater. During the evening, these theaters generally feature a wide variety of live shows, usually offered twice each evening with times coordinated with the early and late seatings in the Main Dining Room. These shows include:

Ice show aboard the Royal Caribbean's Harmony of the Seas
Ice show aboard the Royal Caribbean’s
Harmony of the Seas.
  • Production shows that feature resident singers and dancers along with live orchestras and elaborate costumes, sets and lighting. Some cruise lines offer Broadway productions like Footloose, Grease, Hairspray and Mama Mia, while other cruise lines create their own shows, sometimes in partnership with well-known Broadway producers.
  • Guest performers such as comedians, magicians, and various musical acts
  • Productions based on TV shows, such as Deal or No Deal and The Voice

Larger ships have one or two additional smaller theaters featuring house bands and sometime encore performances by the Main Theater’s comedians and magicians.

Some of the largest cruise ships also offer an ice-skating show (similar to Disney on Ice) and a Cirque-style water show featuring high divers and acrobats.

Cocktail Lounge Entertainment

Every cruise also has at least one cocktail lounge featuring a singer, piano player, trio, or house band. Larger ships might have up to a dozen cocktail lounges offering many different entertainers.

Educational / enrichment events

Cruises with several sea days often use the main theater during the day to offer educational and enrichments presentations. These might include:

  • Presentations by guest lecturers or onboard crew focusing on the region in which the ship is sailing, or on specific ports. The presentations might include history, shopping tips, or sales pitches for shore excursions.
  • Presentations by guest lecturers on subjects including astronomy, DNA, aviation, famous crime cases, astronomy, pickpockets, and just about anything you can think of.
  • Information related to the ship, including presentations by, or Q&A with, ship’s officers and departments. Some ships offer cooking lessons, often followed by a tour of the galley.

(If you’ve ever wanted to be a guest lecturer – and cruise for free – you can find more info here)

TV and Movies

Most cruise lines offer a wide range of TV shows and movies that you can watch in your cabin, generally at no extra cost, although some now offer video on demand.

While you can now download content from streaming services into your devices, it’s worth noting that you generally can’t access the input ports on your cabin TV, or if you can, they won’t accept external content.

Most cruise lines also offer recent movie releases and some live sporting events on big screens either in the Main Theater or on giant LED TV screens next to the pool.

Other Activities

Each ship has a Cruise Director and several Assistant Cruise Directors who offer countless events each day. These might include dance lessons, wine, whiskey or beer tastings, boat making and egg drop contests, arts and crafts, and much more.

PORTS

Docking versus Tender Ports

When your ship arrives in port, you’ll either dock at a pier or anchor offshore where you’ll use tenders to travel ashore.

  • Most of the ports you’ll visit will have plenty of dock space, so you’ll be able to walk off the ship directly onto the dock.
  • In some ports, however, such as Cabo San Lucas, Santa Barbara, Catalina Island, Belize, Grand Cayman and Kona, the ports don’t have any cruise ship docks and tendering is the only option.
Passengers boarding the Grand Princess tenders in Lahaina
Passengers boarding the Grand Princess tenders in Lahaina.
  • Other ports have dock space, but – and especially on busy days – not enough dock space for all the cruise ships that visit on a given day. Some of those ships will end up at anchor and need to tender their passengers ashore.

Tenders, which also serve as the ship’s lifeboats, travel with your cruise ship and hold 100 to 150 passengers. Once you arrive in a port, the tenders are lowered into the water and pull up alongside the ship. “Elite” passengers and those with shore excursions are given priority when disembarking the ship. This is an important consideration if you’ve booked your own shore excursions from a local company as you may find yourself waiting a while to disembark.

Once the passengers have boarded, the tenders then motor to shore, a process which takes 10 – 30 minutes. The good news is that the tenders often dock near the center of the town you’re visiting.

The tenders run back and forth all day, and the wait times are usually pretty short during the day. Be aware that the lines to return to the ship get longer and longer as the all-aboard time approaches. Tenders can be challenging for people with disabilities, but the crew will make every effort to assist you. Last but not least, the water may be rough.

Whether you’re docking or tendering, it’s critical to remember that the ship won’t wait for passengers who are late. It’s not uncommon to see “pier runners” sprinting down the pier in hopes of reaching the gangway before it’s taken away.

As you’re exploring cruises you might take, the itinerary should indicate which ports, if any, are tender ports.

What to do in Port

If you’re a frequent cruiser and you’ve already been to some of the smaller ports, you may decide to just stay on the ship. Shipboard activities are more limited than during sea days, but you can often get great discounts at the spa. Read on for other options.

Walk around the port area

Many cruise terminals are located in the heart of a city, such as Stockholm, San Francisco, Lisbon, and San Diego, so you can step off the ship and start sightseeing. Another option is to venture further away by taking Uber or public transportation.

Take a shore excursion

The easiest option is to buy a shore excursion from the cruise line, either before you board or once you’re aboard. With many cruise ships sailing at capacity, it’s best to reserve your shore excursions as early as possible and ideally well before you board the ship. Quite often, people find that the most popular shore excursions are already sold-out months before the cruise begins.

The advantages of taking a cruise ship excursion are:

  • The ease of making, changing, or cancelling your tour reservations.
  • Your ship will wait for you if your excursion is late returning to the ship.
  • You have priority in disembarking the ship, whether it’s docked or tendering.
  • The other option is to book excursions from local tour operators, either in advance or once you’re on the dock. They often offer smaller group sizes and can be significantly less expensive than those offered by the ship. However, the tours generally won’t wait for you if you’re late getting off the ship (which can happen if you’re tendering) and the ship won’t wait for you if you’re late returning from your tour.

Itinerary Changes

Each cruise promises to visit certain ports on certain dates during certain hours.  Be aware, however, that your cruise contract allows the Captain to change any of that as needed. As an example, here’s the language from Royal Caribbean: In the event of strikes, lockouts, riots, weather conditions or mechanical difficulties, or for any other reason whatsoever, Royal Caribbean® may, at any time and without prior notice, cancel, advance, postpone or deviate from any scheduled sailing or port of call and may, but is not obliged to, substitute another ship or port of call and shall not be liable for any loss whatsoever to guests by reason of such cancellation, advancement, postponement, deviation or substitution. Royal Caribbean® shall not be responsible for any failure to adhere to the arrival and departure times published in this brochure for any of its ports of call.   

Local Currency

I’ve taken nearly 50 cruises and stopped in hundreds of ports, and I’ve seldom needed local currency. Most restaurants and shops in most major cruise ports accept credit cards or U.S. dollars. The exceptions are very small ports or if you’re venturing off the beaten path. In those cases, do some research before you leave to determine the current exchange rate, the best method of exchange, and how much cash you’re likely to need.

You have several ways to exchange dollars for local currency:

  • Exchange your money at a bank or credit union before leaving home. Check first to see if they have the currency you need, as currencies from some Eastern European or African countries can only be exchanged once you arrive in those countries. Also ask the exchange rate, whether they charge fees, have minimum amounts, and if they’ll have to order the currency from a different branch.
  • Exchange your money onboard your cruise ship. Ships carry some but not all currencies and may run out of small bills early in the cruise. As always, confirm the exchange rate and if they charge any fees.
  • Exchange your money once you arrive. This is the least attractive option as foreign currency exchanges in or near the cruise terminal are likely to offer unfavorable exchange rates and/or high fees.
  • Use an ATM. This is always my first choice, but you need to choose your ATM carefully. Generally, an ATM from a well-known bank will offer better exchange rates and lower fees than from a bank you’ve never heard of. In any case, review all the info before you hit “accept” as some ATM’s charge huge fees that only appear on the last screen. While ATMs are my first choice, be aware they’re not always an option. In Vietnam, for example, none of the ATMs I visited would accept US ATM cards, and in Japan, only a very limited number of ATMs would accept non-Japanese ATM cards.

Regardless of which option you choose, be conservative in how much you exchange as the exchange rates to convert back to dollars are going to be much lower.

In the next article, we’ll look at options for buying your cruise ticket, talk about packing for your cruise, and what’s involved in boarding and disembarking the ship.

Dave Archer is a retired business executive who has traveled internationally for business and pleasure for over 40 years and has visited nearly 100 countries in Asia-Pacific, Europe, South America, Australia, and Middle East/Africa. Dave is also an avid cruiser with nearly 50 cruises under his lifejacket, uh, belt.

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