What to Expect on a Cruise: Things to Know About Cruise Ships

 

I know that my ship will have places to sleep, places to eat and a swimming pool. What other fun places can I check out?

rock climbing wall

Cruise ships are designed to keep passengers entertained, so fun abounds. Virtually every cruise ship, large or small, will have bars as well as a theater or lounge with live music, theater, and magic or comedy shows. Bigger and newer ships generally offer much more onboard in terms of venues than their smaller counterparts. Those big ships should have spas, fitness centers, jogging tracks, casinos, basketball courts, libraries, kids and family spaces for play and learning, card rooms, meeting rooms for accommodating large group functions, photo and art galleries, and shops selling anything from tchotchkes to high-end goods. Some ships might offer video arcades, waterslides, mini-golf, putting greens or driving ranges, as well as poolside movie screens.

Some cruise lines go over the top with onboard activities that are exclusive to just a few ships. For example, Royal Caribbean pioneered a surfing simulator at sea (called the FlowRider), and some of the line’s ships also feature bungee trampolines, ice skating rinks, rock climbing walls, bumper cars and simulated sky diving. Carnival Cruise Line and Norwegian Cruise Line have ships with expansive ropes courses, while Holland America and Oceania feature spaces designed for hands-on cooking classes and demos on some of their ships.

If you want to know more, find out what to expect with onboard activities on your cruise ship.

How do I get around a cruise ship?

Some cruise ships are simply huge; think of them as floating, multistory resorts. On ships, «floors» are called «decks,» and getting from a low one to a high one might require use of an elevator. Most cruise ships will have several elevator banks located strategically at the front (forward), middle (midship) and back (aft) of the ship. Midship elevators might incorporate more decorative touches, like glass walls that give a glimpse of the busy lobby area below as you rise and descend. Usually, where there are elevators, you’ll find staircases, too. Most are simply functional, but — as with elevators — the midship set in the central lobby, or atrium, tends to be a scenic, curving staircase, perfect for formal photos as well as useful for heading to the next deck. Certain behind-closed-doors elevators and staircases are reserved for the ship’s crew; in emergencies, passengers would have access to these stairways as well. 

Hotels have front desk clerks and concierges. Do ships have the same thing?

reception desk

Yes and no. Cruise lines have «guest services» desks, which provide a service similar to what you’ll get from a front desk clerk at a hotel. For the most part, there’s no true concierge available to all passengers (exceptions are some high-end cruise lines and river ships). Otherwise, many suite passengers have access to private concierges, who can assist with dinner and spa reservations and the like. Shore excursions desks are often located near the guest services desks. Here, passengers can choose from ship-sponsored activities available onshore at the various ports. Some lines, such as Celebrity Cruises, offer shore excursion concierges, who help passengers book special excursions if the standard options don’t appeal.

Are there ATMs on my cruise ship?

Yes, most big cruise ships have ATMs onboard — generally located somewhere near the atrium/lobby areas or casinos. Keep in mind that cruising is a virtually cashless experience; you’ll charge most everything to your onboard account by swiping your cabin keycard. Cash can be used onshore, in the casino and to tip crewmembers. Many ships also allow you to exchange cash into foreign currencies onboard, through guest services; often, you can find places to exchange money near ports as well. If you’re cruising the Caribbean, chances are you’ll be able to spend your U.S. dollars in port. For other countries, your best bet is exchanging cash at a bank before you even board the ship.

Can I access the Internet onboard?

It seems a funny question to ask in this age of constant connectivity, but it’s legitimately still an issue onboard cruise ships, where Internet is generally slower than you’ll find on land. On most cruise ships, you’ll have to pay for Internet access, and it isn’t cheap. Most ships have public Internet cafes, where you can pop in, pay for a plan and use the ship’s computers to surf and even print out documents. (The latter will incur an additional cost.) Despite the name, it’s not a true cafe where you can buy scones or coffee; it’s really just a computer room. Of course, if you brought your own devices, you can use them via the ship’s Wi-Fi (at the same high rates and slow speed). You can pay for your package at the Internet cafe or directly on your device; charges go to your onboard bill.

For more on surfing the Web at sea, read about what to expect with onboard Internet.

Can I access the Internet onboard?

It seems a funny question to ask in this age of constant connectivity, but it’s legitimately still an issue onboard cruise ships, where Internet is generally slower than you’ll find on land. On most cruise ships, you’ll have to pay for Internet access, and it isn’t cheap. Most ships have public Internet cafes, where you can pop in, pay for a plan and use the ship’s computers to surf and even print out documents. (The latter will incur an additional cost.) Despite the name, it’s not a true cafe where you can buy scones or coffee; it’s really just a computer room. Of course, if you brought your own devices, you can use them via the ship’s Wi-Fi (at the same high rates and slow speed). You can pay for your package at the Internet cafe or directly on your device; charges go to your onboard bill.

For more on surfing the Web at sea, read about what to expect with onboard Internet.

Is there a doctor onboard?

Most cruise ships have medical centers with doctors and nurses onboard. You can visit the medical center if you get sick or injured during your cruise vacation, or to obtain things like bandages and seasickness medication. Be prepared to pay for items and services at the medical center; private insurance is not accepted. If you just need over-the-counter meds, cruise ship shops sell items such as aspirin and antacid. Learn more in our story on getting sick on a cruise.

Can I go shopping onboard?

cruise ship retailer

Even the smallest ships usually have some kind of store where you can shop for ship/cruise line logo items as well as necessities like toothbrushes and sunscreen. But shopping is big business, and bigger ships will have multiple stores where you can purchase items such as clothing, jewelry, duty-free liquor and cigarettes, and high-end handbags, makeup and perfume. Some ships also have specialty shops, such as chocolate or candy stores. Learn more about shopping on your cruise.

Are there vending and ice machines onboard?

For the most part, no, though some river cruise ships (Viking, for example) do have ice machines. Don’t worry, though: Your room steward — a person assigned to clean your room and care for you during your trip — will fill your ice bucket. Just ask. You also won’t find vending machines onboard your ship, but you can hit up some of the shops for a junk food fix. Or bring along your favorite salty or sweet snacks from home to keep in your cabin.

Can I do laundry on the ship?

You can always send out your dirty duds for laundry and pressing; the clothes come back quickly, but you have to pay for the privilege. Some ships (but not all) feature onboard launderettes, where you can buy detergent and fabric softener, do your laundry and even iron your clothes. (Clothes irons are otherwise prohibited on cruise ships.) On some ships, you’ll need coins; others will allow you to pay using your room keycard, which you’ll use to pay for virtually everything you purchase onboard.

Find out what your cruise line offers in the way of laundry services.

Can I get married on a ship?

wedding cruise

It depends on the ship, but many large ships have wedding chapels where marriage ceremonies are performed. Usually, the spaces are small but private, and decor is decidedly non-denominational. Chairs, rather than pews, are used for seating, and decorations (flowers, for example) can be added, usually for a fee. Otherwise, onboard weddings are often held in a bar or lounge. Find out which lines are best for weddings.

If your cruise ship offers worship services, they’ll likely take place in the chapel or in an unused conference room. Services are extremely casual on cruise ships; most are loosely organized and often passenger-led, though clergy is often invited onboard for holidays like Christmas. Other devotionals might be led by crewmembers who share a common spiritual background and invite passengers to join in

 

Are there public bathrooms on the ship or do I have to go back to my cabin?

Cruise ships do offer public bathrooms; generally, they’re located near big public spaces, such as the theater, main dining room and pool. Most will be able to accommodate passengers in wheelchairs; if not, chances are you’ll find specific bathrooms for those with mobility issues nearby.

How can I find all the cool stuff on my ship?

A number of newer cruise ships have touchscreen kiosks that allow you to find out where you are and the best route for getting to where you want to go; they also might allow you to make dinner reservations or book spa appointments. Typically, these kiosks are located near elevators and stairwells. Some big cruise lines have created apps you can use (without taking up precious Wi-Fi minutes) to help you navigate the ship; most of the apps have full deck plans showing locations of various venues. Of course, you can always go the old-fashioned route: Swing by the guest services desk and pick up a paper version of the deck plans; most are pocket-sized. In addition, static signs by the elevators and stairs will show a layout of the deck you’re on, or list which main attractions are on which decks.

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What to Expect on a Cruise: Drink Packages on Cruises

I want to buy drinks on my cruise. Is there a way I can prepay for all my drinks so I pay one price instead of per drink?

bar cocktails

Yes, you can buy a beverage package. These all-you-can-drink packages allow passengers to pay a set fee up front for unlimited drinks (of a certain type, as outlined by the package’s fine print), rather than pay per drink once onboard the cruise ship. They are offered because many cruise lines, with the exception of the most expensive luxury lines, charge extra for most beverages (including soda and alcohol) onboard. These beverage packages can be a good deal, depending on how often you plan to buy drinks on your vacation.

 

What types of beverage packages can I buy?

Packages run the gamut from bottled water and soda packages to all-inclusive packages that cover cocktails, wine, beer, soda and coffee. Some lines offer coffee cards for a set number of drinks from the for-fee coffee bars, or wine packages that vary in number of bottles and vintages. Packages can either be a set number of drinks for a discounted price (for example, six bottles of water or five bottles of wine) or a set per-day fee for a range of drinks orders.

For more details, see our story on all-you-can-drink packages.

How much do drink packages cost?

Soda packages (sometimes referred to as soda cards) can costs from $4.50 to $8 per person, per day, and might include a souvenir travel mug. Water package prices vary greatly, depending on what’s included, but Celebrity’s, for example, costs $14 per person, per day, for unlimited, brand-name still and sparkling water (such as Evian, Pellegrino and Perrier).

Some lines have nonalcoholic drink packages that include soda, bottled water, juice, for-fee coffee and tea, smoothies and/or nonalcoholic cocktails. Prices range from $8 to $20, per person, per day, depending on the cruise line and which drinks are included.

Alcohol packages typically cost $40 to $65 per person, per day, and the price varies both by cruise line and which kinds of drinks are included. Cruise lines that offer two or three tiers of packages will often have a limited selections of brands included in their cheapest package, with a maximum per-drink price (think beers priced up to $5 or wine and cocktails under $10). The more expensive packages will include more drink options, such as more premium brands of liquor and more exotic cocktails, as well as a higher maximum price for included beverages.

Some lines offer a discount on the packages if you purchase them before your cruise rather than once on the ship. Also, most add a 15 to 18 percent gratuity and taxes on top of the cost of the package.

How do I know which drinks are included?

Most cruise lines post lists of the included drink types and brands on their websites, or you can ask for a list when onboard. However, some travelers report discrepancies between the website lists and the ones onboard, and they say it’s often tricky to determine exactly which cocktails are included. The package fine print will usually list price maximums for included beers, wine and cocktails, where applicable

How do I know which drinks are included?

Most cruise lines post lists of the included drink types and brands on their websites, or you can ask for a list when onboard. However, some travelers report discrepancies between the website lists and the ones onboard, and they say it’s often tricky to determine exactly which cocktails are included. The package fine print will usually list price maximums for included beers, wine and cocktails, where applicable.

Are beverage packages worth the money?

banana split milkshake

It can be a bit tricky to determine if a beverage package is a good value for you or not. If you might only have a drink or two on any given day, and intend to stick with free beverages (water, iced tea, plain coffee), you likely will be better off paying a la carte. However, if you drink soda all the time, love to frequent cruise ship bars, or intend to consume a wide variety of nonalcoholic and alcoholic drinks on your vacation, you should do the math to see if a packages makes sense. Or, if you just like the idea of all-inclusive beverages, it might be worth it to opt for the package, even if you’ll pay a premium for it.

If you want to make sure you’re getting your money’s worth, then it’s best to figure out how many drinks (soda, coffee, water, wine, cocktails) you might drink each day — keeping in mind that you’ll have fewer opportunities on port days — and add up the costs to see if you would spend close to or more than the package daily rates. For this, you’ll need to look up drink prices online; cruise lines don’t always post bar menus, and the ones you find online may be out of date. Don’t forget that some packages include discounts on wines by the bottle when you’re working out the sums.

When can I buy a drink package?

Many lines let you prepay for beverage packages ahead of your cruise, occasionally at a slight discount. You can book the packages through the cruise line’s website or get your travel agent to assist you. Otherwise, you can purchase them onboard, either at the beginning of your cruise or within a day or two of sailing. (Prices are prorated based on number of days.) Crewmembers will be advertising them onboard, especially on the first day, so it’s easy to sign up. Cruise lines vary in their policies as to whether you can purchase packages throughout the cruise or only on select days.

Who can purchase a drink package?

Anyone can purchase a drink package, though alcohol packages are restricted to passengers who meet drinking age restrictions (typically 18 or 21, depending on the cruise line). However, some lines will only sell you a beverage package if every adult or everyone in the same cabin purchases a package (meaning kids would need to opt for a nonalcoholic package if their parents are buying an alcoholic one).

In addition, some cruise lines do not offer package sales on select ships or sailings. For example, Norwegian does not sell its packages on one- and two-night sailings or on any Pride of America cruises; it also does not sell them to passengers ages 25 and younger on sailings out of U.S. ports during the spring break period of March 1 to April 15.

Can I upgrade, downgrade or cancel my drink package after I’ve bought it?

Most cruise lines are happy to upgrade you to a higher-tier package (if one exists). You can do so onboard. Some lines do not allow you to downgrade to a cheaper package; those that let you change or cancel packages often refund your money in onboard credit, which you must spend onboard (rather than crediting your credit card for the difference).

Do I really get unlimited drinks?

Check your package’s fine print. Some packages do have a drink maximum on certain types of drinks. For example, Carnival limits you to 15 alcoholic drinks per day, with unlimited nonalcoholic drinks.

If I buy a package, can I get free drinks anywhere onboard?

drinks line up

In general, you can obtain drinks in any onboard bar, lounge or restaurant and often at a cruise line’s private island (where its staff is operating the bars and you pay with your cruise card rather than in cash). You might not be able to use your package when ordering drinks via room service and almost certainly can’t use the package for taking items from the minibar or buying bottles in an onboard gift shop.

Can I buy a drink for someone else or multiple drinks at once?

No, you cannot order multiple drinks at once (including buckets of beer) or purchase a drink for another passenger when using your beverage package.

What to Expect on a Cruise: Internet Onboard

Will I be able to connect to the Internet on my cruise ship?

 

Most cruise ships, with the exception of a handful of very basic expedition ships in off-the-beaten-track locales, provide Internet connectivity for things like checking email, posting to Facebook and checking in for your flight. The Internet is provided primarily by way of satellites, though some cruise ships have technology onboard that allows them to switch to land-based signal towers when sailing within a certain distance from land. Because satellite service can be spotty, cruise ships do not guarantee that you will have connectivity at all times.

Is the Internet as fast on my cruise ship as it is on land?

Generally speaking, no, the Internet you’ll find at sea is not as fast as what you get at home. It can be painfully slow, in fact, depending on where you’re sailing and on which ship. Cruise ships sailing in the Caribbean tend to have the fastest Internet at sea because that area of the world has the most satellite coverage. Certain parts of Europe, like the Mediterranean, similarly have a lot of satellite coverage. In those areas, you’ll find you can check email, update Facebook, upload photos and do general Web searches without much difficulty.

Additionally, newer ships typically have fast Internet because they were built with high-speed connectivity in mind. Most of the major cruise lines are rolling out technology to older ships to significantly speed up the Internet onboard, but it’s a ship-by-ship process and could take several years to complete.

If Internet connectivity is important to you, here are a few cruise ships that have been outfitted with technology that enables high-speed Internet: Royal Caribbean’s Anthem of the Seas, Quantum of the Seas, Allure of the Seas and Oasis of the Seas; Carnival Cruise Line’s Carnival Breeze, Carnival Freedom and Carnival Sunshine; Princess Cruises’ Royal Princess and Regal Princess; and Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Breakaway and Norwegian Getaway.

Internet on riverboats, at least in the United States and Europe, is slightly different, as most boats are connecting to land-based signals. These tend to be of average speed but can be blocked by landmarks like shipping locks and high towers or landscape features like hills and mountains.

With varying Internet speeds, will I still be able to stream movies or music or use programs like Skype and FaceTime?

You cannot stream multimedia content or use Skype or FaceTime (or similar applications) on most cruise ships, as these types of applications require too much bandwidth. Only on ships that offer high-bandwidth packages — like the Royal Caribbean ships listed above, as well as Carnival Breeze, Sunshine and Freedom — will you be able to access these applications.

Is Internet connectivity available everywhere on the ship?

On most modern cruise ships, as well as new riverboats, Internet is available via Wi-Fi from front to back. That doesn’t mean there won’t be some areas on the ship where the signal is weak; usually the farther inside the ship you are, the weaker the signal. However, cruise lines are working on fixing this by installing technology throughout the ship to boost weak signals. On older ships, as well as on some riverboats and expedition ships, Internet is only available in specified locations, such as a lounge or an Internet cafe. If you’re booking an older ship or an expedition ship and you want the most coverage available, ask your travel agent or the cruise line if the ship has bow-to-stern Wi-Fi.

 

Is Internet available 24/7?

Yes … and no. Whether your ship’s Internet is working at any given moment depends primarily on satellite availability. Are you far out to sea in stormy weather? If yes, you might not have any Internet. Are you in the middle of the Alaskan or Norwegian fjords? Again, probably no connectivity. Excepting these occasional circumstances, ships generally provide Internet connectivity 24/7.

Do I need to bring my own laptop or tablet with me to connect?

Almost all cruise ships and riverboats provide an Internet center of some sort (usually just a space off to the side of a hallway or lounge with a small number of computers), so you don’t need to bring your own device with you. Because most public Internet lounges have limited space, you might find yourself waiting for an open terminal. Some might limit the amount of time you can be online. If you think you’ll be spending lots of time online, plan to bring your own laptop or tablet.

Can I connect to the Internet on my cell phone?

Yes, you can use the Wi-Fi connectivity on your mobile phone to connect to your cruise ship’s Internet. Make sure you’re in airplane mode, though, or you might end up being charged for data by your phone carrier. If you’re getting Internet on your phone and you didn’t pay the cruise line for it, you’re likely using data from your carrier — usually at very expensive rates for at-sea service.

How much will it cost to use the Internet onboard?

Man using a tablet

Most cruise ships charge for Internet, though a rare few provide it for free, sometimes only to select passengers. Regent Seven Seas Cruises, for instance, gives those in Concierge-level suites or higher up to 500 free minutes of Internet per sailing, while Crystal Cruises provides members of its loyalty program up to 60 minutes of free Internet per day. Princess Cruises also offers select members of its loyalty program some free Internet time. River cruises typically include Internet in their pricing for all passengers.

On most cruise ships, you have several choices for purchasing Internet service. The per-minute rate is the most expensive and can run anywhere from $0.50 to $0.99 per minute. Your best bet is to buy a package, which brings the per-minute pricing down. The larger the package, the cheaper the per-minute pricing. On some ships, packages are the only way to buy Internet.  

As an example of typical prices, Princess offers four time plans: 100 minutes for $69, 200 minutes for $99, 400 minutes for $159 and 600 minutes for $199. Royal Caribbean offers similar packages; on its ships with high-speed Internet, it’s also experimenting with different pricing plans, including per day, per cruise and by bandwidth. Likewise, Carnival is experimenting with per-cruise and social-media-only pricing on its ships with high-speed Internet. Disney Cruise Line, unlike most other lines, only charges by bandwidth, with a $0.25-per-MB baseline and three packages (small, medium and large, ranging from $19 for 100 MB to $89 for 1,000 MB).

Many cruise lines will offer a last-day special on a small package for people who want to check in to flights or make other travel arrangements.

 

 

For cruise lines that charge by the megabyte (MB), what does that mean for me?

To give you an idea of how much bandwidth you might need to purchase, here’s a list of what you can do with 10 MB of data: spend 30 minutes on Facebook, Skype for four minutes, upload three photos or five minutes of video, listen to 20 minutes of music, send 33 emails with attachments, send 1,000 text-only emails or visit 30 websites.

Is there a best time to use the onboard Wi-Fi?

For the fastest Internet possible on your particular ship, try to use the Internet when others aren’t. Early mornings and port days are good times, as are late nights. You’ll find the slowest speeds during the day, especially when the ship is at sea.

How can I keep track of how many minutes (or megabytes) I’ve used?

Sinfonia Internet Cafe

Unless you have purchased an unlimited plan, you will need to make sure you log out of the Internet when you’re done using it. When logging out or back in, the system will tell you how many minutes you’ve used and how many you have left. You can keep this tracker open in the background while on the Internet so you can keep tabs on your time at any given moment.

 

Where can I keep my laptop, tablet, e-reader or cell phone safe onboard?

On most ships, you can fit a tablet, e-reader or cell phone in your in-cabin safe when not using it — though there might not be room for everyone to store all their electronics inside at once. If you’ve brought a laptop, it will not fit in the safe, so you’ll need to leave it packed away in a suitcase or drawer if you don’t want to leave it out in the open.

6 Cruise Line Private Islands

Cruise line private islands offer uncomplicated beach days for cruisers. Though you’re on land, the experience is an extension of the onboard one; it’s more of a private, white-washed resort than a regular island visit where you can experience local culture.

These slivers of land, either owned or leased by major cruise lines, offer certain staples across the board, from BBQ buffet lunches to water-based shore excursions. But beyond their cookie-cutter similarities, they have evolved over the years to include playgrounds, water parks, bars, shopping areas, nature trails and even tram systems that shuttle visitors to and fro. What can you expect from a private island day? Here’s what you need to know.

 

You don’t need to spend money. Beach access, lounge chair and hammock use, a buffet lunch and basic beverages (water, iced tea) are included in your cruise fare. Volleyball and Ping-Pong are often free, as are kid play areas.

But if you do, you can use your cruise card. Buying booze, souvenirs and other extra-fee items? In most cases, there’s no need to bring cash. Private islands are an outpost of your cruise ship and charge nearly everything to your cruise card. Exceptions are purchases made in the markets in Half Moon Cay and Labadee, from Princess Cay’s local vendors and at the post office on Castaway Cay.

Beach toys cost extra. If you want pool noodles, inflatable rafts, snorkel gear or even clamshell shades for your lounge chair, you’ll need to pull out the aforementioned cruise card. Consider bringing your own beach toys and snorkel gear to save money.

Private islands offer shore excursions. They vary by island but might include snorkeling trips, zip-line rides, horseback rides, kayak trips and parasailing. Buying access to over-the-top water play areas and waterslides also counts a «tour.» All cost extra.

You can rent a private cabana. If you want an exclusive retreat with comfy lounge furniture and extra perks, you can reserve a private cabana. Fees and locations vary — some sit above the water while others are right on the beach — but the rentals typically include the services of a cabana steward, free floats or snorkel gear and a shaded indoor/outdoor space to relax, stow your stuff and use as a home base throughout your day. Book as far in advance as possible, as cabanas sell out; some are reserved for VIP passengers (those in suites and high-level loyalty program members) but offer a waitlist for average Joes if they don’t book out completely. Check the Private Islands boards to find out which cabanas are ideally situated and best for your family’s needs.

Many islands have more than one beach. If the first beach you see looks crowded, keep walking. There are a variety of spots for sunbathing; some lines even designate family, teen, kid and adult beaches and play areas.

You might not be the only ship in port. You might have to share your exclusive beach with cruisers on a sister ship. It will certainly be more crowded with double the number of passengers in port, but Cruise Critic members report there’s usually plenty of sand space, though lines at lunch do get excessive.

You can come and go. Just like in other ports, you can come and go to and from the ship as you please, so you could head back for lunch or spend the morning onboard and the afternoon on the beach. Just note that many private islands require tender service, though the ride should be quick.

Whether you’re itching to know which line offers the biggest and best or you’re just wondering what to expect on your next private port call, read on to check out our six private island port reports.

Castaway Cay

The Line: Disney Cruise Line

The Lowdown: Castaway Cay is an ultra-tidy, 1,000-acre splash of sun and sand located in the northern Bahamas. Owned by the Walt Disney Company, the island is used exclusively for Disney passengers — though alert cinephiles might also remember it as the spot where Tom Hanks finds his mermaid (Daryl Hannah) in «Splash.» Read the full Castaway Cay cruise guide.

 

CocoCay

The Line: Royal Caribbean

The Lowdown: CocoCay, formerly Little Stirrup Cay, is a Bahamian island located between the popular cruise ports of Freeport and Nassau. In 1990, Royal Caribbean started leasing the 140-acre plot of land, which features beaches, shopping venues and activities exclusively for passengers sailing with RCI or sister line Celebrity Cruises. Read the full CocoCay cruise guide.


Great Stirrup Cay

The Line: Norwegian Cruise Line

The Lowdown: Norwegian Cruise Line’s Great Stirrup Cay — located in the Bahamas’ Berry Island chain, 130 nautical miles due east of Fort Lauderdale — is a 250-acre island. The cay features dining and bar areas, private beachfront cabanas, a straw market, a kid-friendly Aqua Park and more. Read the full Great Stirrup Cay cruise guide.

 


Princess Cays

The Line: Princess Cruises

The Lowdown: Exclusive to Princess Cruises passengers on Eastern and Western Caribbean itineraries since 1992, Princess Cays — located 70 miles east of Nassau, on the southern tip of the island of Eleuthera — comprises 40 acres that offer more than 1.5 miles of white-sand beaches, food, water sports and even shopping. Read the full guide to the Princess Cays cruise port.

Half Moon Cay

The Line: Holland America

The Lowdown: In 1997, Holland America Line purchased Little San Salvador from its previous owners for $6 million. Today, the 2,400-acre island is known as Half Moon Cay and serves as a private retreat for passengers on the line’s Caribbean and Panama Canal sailings. Carnival ships also make use of the port. Read the full guide to the Half Moon Cay cruise port.

 


Labadee

The Line: Royal Caribbean

The Lowdown: Royal Caribbean’s Labadee is a 260-acre private beach resort carved out of Haiti’s rolling, densely forested north coast. A typical day in port might include snorkeling, filling up a plate or two at the all-you-can eat BBQ, zipping across the water on the 2,600-foot-long Dragon’s Breath Flight Line or snoozing soundly in a beach chair. Read the full guide to the Labadee cruise port.

Best Cruise Ship Alternative Restaurants

Middelhavskysten

Eating well at a great restaurant is one of life’s finest indulgences, whether it’s leave-you-speechless haute cuisine or greasy, salty guilty pleasures. The good news for cruisers is you don’t have to leave dining choices behind on dry land when you set sail. Cruise ships are continually upping the ante with specialty restaurants that feature international dishes, celebrity chefs, intimate venues, innovative menus and all-round delicious food.

Partnerships with such storied chefs as Jacques Pepin, Jamie Oliver and Nobu have certainly raised the food bar at sea, but even in-house culinary teams are turning out novel cruise ship fare. Look for onboard venues embracing the gastropub movement, advanced cooking technologies and even molecular gastronomy.

 

Many, but not all, of these dining venues come at a price, but the extra fees are often worth it. If you’re an avid foodie, a couple looking for a romantic splurge or to celebrate a special occasion, or anyone wishing to cap a vacation day with an especially memorable dinner, you will relish this list of our favorite onboard alternative restaurants.

1. Azamara Club Cruises

Restaurant: Aqualina

At the Helm: Executive Chef Robert van Rijsbergen

Why We Love It: Rotating menus mean passengers can have two different dining experiences in the same space.

The Dish: Aqualina offers two menus, its original Mediterranean bill of fare and an Italian menu that was introduced in 2014. The newer menu — which includes gnocchi, prosciutto with melon and limoncello souffle — is swapped with Mediterranean offerings (such as osso buco, lobster thermidor and filet mignon) every few days.

Ships: Azamara Quest and Azamara Journey

Cost: A surcharge of $30 per person applies; there’s no charge for suite passengers. Reservations are recommended but not required

2. Carnival Cruise Lines

Restaurant: Guy’s Burger Joint

At the Helm: Restaurateur and Food Network personality Guy Fieri

Why We Love It: Carnival proves you don’t need fancy clothes or lap napkins to enjoy a high-quality meal.

The Dish: Found on a number of ships after Fun Ship 2.0 upgrades, Guy’s Burger Joint serves fresh-off-the-grill burgers and hand-cut fries in a fun, laid-back poolside setting. Diners can order prepared menu items or head to the toppings bar to customize their burgers.

Ships: Carnival Breeze, Carnival Conquest, Carnival Freedom, Carnival Glory, Carnival Liberty, Carnival Sunshine and Carnival Triumph

Cost: It’s free. To grab some grub, you’ll need to wait in line

Menu item at Tuscan Grille

3. Celebrity Cruises

Restaurant: Tuscan Grille

At the Helm: Celebrity’s culinary team

Why We Love It: In addition to scrumptious fare, the venue offers the best views of any restaurant onboard each ship, thanks to an entire wall of glass.

The Dish: The line’s Italian steakhouse serves up traditional regional fare with a contemporary flair. The menu features steaks, seafood and pasta, all with corn-fed USDA Choice beef. Diners can start off with plates of antipasto and top their meals off with chocolate fondue and limoncello. Lunch is served at least once per cruise.

Ships: Celebrity Eclipse, Celebrity Solstice, Celebrity Silhouette, Celebrity Constellation, Celebrity Equinox, Celebrity Reflection

Cost: You’ll pay $45 per person. Reservations are required.

4. Crystal Cruises

Restaurant: Silk Road and the Sushi Bar

At the Helm: World-renowned master chef Nobuyuki «Nobu» Matsuhisa

Why We Love It: The onboard chefs were all personally trained by the master himself — and it shows.

The Dish: Nobu’s menu is a blend of classic Japanese, Peruvian and European cuisines. Some of his popular entrees include lobster with truffle-yuzu sauce and the Nobu Box, a sampler of his famous beef, cod and rock shrimp dishes. Don’t miss the sushi and sashimi at the sushi bar.

Ships: Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity

Cost: The first reservation is complimentary and can be booked pre-cruise; additional reservations are $30 per person, based on availability, and they must be made onboard.


The Verandah

5. Cunard

Restaurant: The Verandah

At the Helm: Cunard Global Culinary Ambassador and Michelin-starred chef Jean-Marie Zimmermann

Why We Love It: The Verandah restaurant pays homage to the exclusive Verandah Grills found on the original Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary. A meal there will upgrade any cruise into a luxury one — at least until the last crumb of dessert has been devoured.

The Dish: The dishes represent France’s culinary heritage, with options from various regions: the Pyrenees, Alsace, Burgundy, etc. Dishes might include a crab meat starter with tomato caviar, monkfish and rascas fish bouillabaisse, magret duck served with baked brie, and hot vanilla souffle infused with Edmond Briottet peach liqueur. The menus on each ship vary slightly.

Ships: Queen Elizabeth, Queen Victoria and Queen Mary 2.

Cost: Fees on Queen Elizabeth are $25 at lunch and $35 at dinner; while on Queen Mary 2 and Queen Victoria lunch is $20 and dinner is $49.95.


6. Disney Cruise Line

Restaurant: Remy

At the Helm: Chef Arnaud Lallement from l’Assiette Champenoise — a Michelin two-star restaurant in France — and Chef Scott Hunnel from the award-winning Victoria & Albert’s at Walt Disney World Resort

Why We Love It: Exquisite service, rich French fare and luxury touches will wow even the toughest food critics.

The Dish: Remy takes its name from the lovable rat, who stars as a chef in the hit Disney Pixar film «Ratatouille.» Start out with a Taittinger Champagne cocktail made tableside. Then choose from dishes that include smoked bison with melted fennel and leeks, Alaskan king crab cannelloni and Tanzanian chocolate timbale.

Ships: Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy

Cost: At $95 per person, it’s the most expensive restaurant at sea. Even more of a splurge, diners may choose the Wine Experience for an additional $105 ($200 total), during which the sommelier selects wines to pair with the tasting menus. Reservations can be made online in advance or onboard. Certain sailings offer a Champagne Brunch at Remy for $60 per person, where diners may also opt for the Champagne pairing (an additional $30 per person).

Steak Dinner at the Pinnacle Grill on Noordam

7. Holland America Line

Restaurant: Pinnacle Grille

At the Helm: Rudi Sodamin, master chef and culinary consultant for Holland America Line, and member of the Academy Culinaire de France, Master Chef Society and Club des Chefs des Chefs

Why We Love It: Combine a gorgeous setting and fantastic food, and you’ve got a go-to destination for romantic dates and special-occasion dinners.

The Dish: The Pacific Northwest-inspired Pinnacle Grill boasts creative menus prepared with regional ingredients and hand-selected aged Sterling Silver beef and fresh seafood. Try the spicy chicken coconut soup or filet mignon with a choice of complementary sauces. It also has an extensive wine list, featuring wines from the Pacific Northwest, where the line’s headquarters are located. Once per cruise (or once per week on longer sailings), the Pinnacle Grill transforms into An Evening at Le Cirque, featuring dishes and wine selections from Sirio Maccioni’s famous New York restaurant of the same name.

Ships: Fleetwide

Cost: There’s a $10 per-person cover charge for lunch; it’s $29 for dinner ($12.50 for children ages 13 to 18). The surcharge for An Evening at Le Cirque is $49 per person. Dinner reservations are required in advance, while lunch can be reserved onboard.


8. Norwegian Cruise Line

Restaurant: Ocean Blue

At the Helm: New York-based Iron Chef Geoffrey Zakarian

Why We Love It: Considering Ocean Blue’s high-quality food and upscale ambience, dining there is a steal. The cover charge alone is less than Zakarian’s famed Dover sole, sold at his NYC establishment for $68.

The Dish: Ocean Blue is Norwegian’s most upscale dining venue. Its emphasis is on seafood; diners can choose from eight starters and eight main choices that include a daily special, black sea bass, monkfish, salmon, crab risotto and scallops. The restaurant also has an adjacent raw bar, which features primarily crustaceans and wine by the glass, as well as a la carte pricing.

Ships: Norwegian Breakaway and Norwegian Getaway

Cost: The surcharge there is $39 per person. Reservations are not required but are recommended.

9. Oceania Cruises

Restaurant: Red Ginger

At the Helm: Master Chef Jacques Pepin, personal chef to three French heads of state, including Charles de Gaulle

Why We Love It: The Feng Shui-inspired decor, which includes three glowing Buddha heads adorning each table, sets the stage for a memorable Asian-fusion meal.

The Dish: Red Ginger offers contemporary interpretations of Asian classics, such as claypot caramelized chicken and miso-glazed seabass. Extensive tea, wine, sake and dessert menus add to the experience.

Ships: Marina and Riviera

Cost: It’s complimentary. Reservations are not required but are strongly recommended, as the venue tends to fill up quickly.


10. P&O Cruises

Restaurant: The Epicurean

At the Helm: There’s no celebrity chef associated with this; just P&O Cruises’ in-house team of executive chefs. However, master patissier Eric Lanlard does oversee the Afternoon Tea.

Why We Love It: Britannia’s fine dining restaurant offers classic British dishes with a modern twist, using the principles of molecular gastronomy and techniques such as precision temperature cooking, freeze drying and liquid nitrogen. Cynics might dismiss this as style over substance, but the dishes justify the theatrics.

The Dish: Appetizers might include chicken liver parfait, brought to your table with wood smoke pouring out; or Spanish cured ham (jamon pata negra), sliced from the leg with Manchego cheese and olives, or a duo of cured smoked salmons. The mains are equally interesting, all sourced from British farms: Double Gloucester Old Spot pork fillet, loin of wild boar, butter-poached lobster tail and salt marsh rack of lamb.

Eric Lanlard’s Afternoon Tea is equally fun: expect such delights as smoked salmon on spinach bread and cherry tomato and baby mozzarella tarts.

Ships: Britannia, Ventura and Azura

Cost: £28. Reservations are essential. For Eric Lanlard’s Afternoon Tea (sea days only) it is £15 per person.


Sabatini's on Caribbean Princess

11. Princess Cruises

Restaurant: Sabatini’s

At the Helm: Princess’ culinary team

Why We Love It: Sabatini’s offers some of the best dining value for your money at sea.

The Dish: Sabatini’s serves up Italian and Mediterranean fare with an emphasis on seafood. Choose from antipasti like hand-formed cow’s milk burrata cheese on tomato carpaccio or crisp buttermilk soft-shell crab over baby arugula. Second courses include baked striped bass in zucchini crust and a roasted veal rack with mushroom ragout. There’s also a variety of pastas.

Ships: The venue is found on all Princess ships, except for Sun Princess, Sea Princess and Dawn Princess.

Cost: The fee is $25 per person for adults and $12.50 for children ages 3 to 12. There’s no charge for children younger than 2. The venue books up quickly, so reservations are encouraged.


12. Regent Seven Seas

Restaurant: Prime 7

At the Helm: Regent’s culinary team

Why We Love It: Prime 7 epitomizes a classic steakhouse, and its U.S.D.A.-approved beef has all been dry-aged at least 28 days. While meat-lovers will pay hefty surcharges for this kind of fare on other lines, Regent’s best beef is complimentary.

The Dish: Like any steakhouse, the menu features steaks and seafood. We recommend the ahi tuna tartare or jumbo lump crab cake starters, huge entrees like prime porterhouse (carved tableside), whole Maine lobster or surf and turf (6 oz. filet mignon with your choice of lobster tail or Alaskan king crab legs). For dessert, treat yourself to Regent Seven Seas’ famous 14-layer Valrhona chocolate cake with roasted pistachio sauce.

Ships: Fleetwide

Cost: It’s gratis, but reservations might be limited to once per cruise so every passenger gets to try the venue.

Jamie's Italian on Anthem of the Seas

13. Royal Caribbean International

Restaurant: Jamie’s Italian

At the Helm: Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, one of Britain’s most acclaimed chefs

Why We Love It: Unique twists or traditional fare, indoor or alfresco seating — you decide how you want to dine at Jamie’s Italian. Either way, you can’t go wrong with high-quality ingredients and delicious dishes.

The Dish: Debuting on Royal Caribbean’s first Quantum Class ship, Jamie’s Italian serves up dishes like Oliver’s famous wood plank with cured meats, pickles and cheese; pumpkin panzerotti; and zingy prawn linguine, as well as a variety of small plates.

Ships: Quantum of the Seas, Anthem of the Seas, Harmony of the Seas

Cost: You’ll shell out $30 for dinner and $15 for lunch, per person. Reservations are not required, although we recommend them, especially if you plan to dine during peak hours.

14. Viking Ocean Cruises

Restaurant: Manfredi’s

At the Helm: Executive Chef Anthony Mauboussin, with some help from Manfredi Lefebvre — Silversea Cruises’ head honcho, Italy native and pal of Viking’s CEO Torstein Hagen — who helped develop the menu from his favorite childhood dishes.

Why We Love It: Even with just one menu at Manfredi’s, it’s rich enough with options that you could visit numerous times and never run out of new dishes to try.

The Dish: The rustic Tuscan menu offers hearty fare, traditionally prepared, in a trattoria-style setting. Highlights of the starters include a caprese salad, octopus carpaccio, asparagus and polenta, pasta e fagioli soup and a surprisingly light fried calamari. An entirely separate section of the menu details the pasta offerings like gnocchi alla romana, fettuccine carbonara and mushroom risotto; you can order these (and others) as a main course or as a smaller appetizer. For mains, a melange of fish and meat options, the bistecca Florentine, veal scaloppini and osso bucco are standouts. For dessert, the tiramisu is, as expected, a cornerstone offering, but don’t miss the decadently delicious Nutella panna cotta.

In addition to the menu’s regular offerings, the restaurant features entree and pasta specials each night. And don’t miss the cured meats and cheeses station at the entrance to Manfredi’s — the chefs there whip up a marvelous antipasti.

Ships: Viking Star and Viking Sea

Cost: No extra surcharge is levied for Manfredi’s. Reservations are highly recommended.


15. Silversea Cruises

Restaurant: Le Champagne

At the Helm: Silversea’s culinary team

Why We Love It: It’s the only restaurant at sea belonging to Relais & Chateaux (a network of more than 500 luxury hotels and restaurants around the world).

The Dish: Le Champagne is upscale, even by Silversea’s luxury standards. The small French-inspired restaurant, which can host only a limited number of diners per night, offers six-course meals inspired by wine regions around the world. While menus change continuously to reflect itineraries, dishes might include meat-filled pastries and foie gras, shellfish with asparagus sorbet and roasted Bresse chicken.

Ships: Silver Cloud, Silver Wind, Silver Spirit, Silver Shadow, Silver Whisper

Cost: It’ll set you back $40 per person. Reservations are required.

Booking a Cruise Onboard: How to Score Extras and Discounts

If you’re like us, you’ve inevitably breezed past your cruise ship’s onboard sales office, ignoring the colorful brochures and promises of booking incentives. Why waste time planning your next cruise when you only have about a week onboard to spend time at the pool, play trivia for silly prizes and try your luck at the casino? Heck, you might never have even noticed your cruise ship has a sales desk, being too busy enjoying this vacation to think about the next one.

The thing is, if you’re going to go on another cruise someday — and, face it, we all know you are — then, you’ll really want to check in at the sales desk to see the kinds of deals featured. That’s because your cruise line is likely to be offering onboard credit, reduced deposits or an attractive discount when you book a future cruise onboard your current sailing. All the cruise lines mentioned in this story let you transfer your booking to your travel agent, so you can reap any perks they offer, too. Many also let you change your cruise dates or ship or even cancel by a certain date with no penalty or fees. In most cases, you have nothing to lose if your travel plans change and everything to gain if you’re going to take another cruise with that line.

We stopped by the sales desk on a recent Celebrity cruise because we’re planning for an upcoming trip. We were pleasantly surprised to find we could reserve a booking with a range of flexible benefits and essentially no risk if we decided to cancel. Plus, our sadness when that trip ended was somewhat assuaged by the knowledge that we had a future cruise already lined up at a great price.

A host of lines from mainstream to luxury offer onboard booking perks, though each line’s offerings and booking parameters are slightly different. Here’s a look at some of the key benefits the major lines offer when you book a future cruise during a sailing on their ships. Unless specifically outlined below, deposits and cancellation policies for onboard bookings don’t differ from those that apply to the lines’ other methods of booking a sailing.


  Azamara Club Cruises features a Passages program in which cruisers can book their next trips while onboard. With an Open Passage booking, you can reserve a sailing with a 50 percent reduced deposit but don’t have to pick your date right away; the deposit is nonrefundable, but there is no expiration. The Reserved Passage deal also offers half off the typical deposit (based on length of sailing), and you pick your ship, sail date or cabin category at the time of booking. That deposit is refundable. Each program gives two certificates, allowing friends or family to take advantage of the offer, too. The certificates will also give them up to $600 in onazamara-journey-cruiseboard credit per stateroom, based on length of sailing and cabin category.

 

carnival-dream-lido-pool Carnival Cruise Lines offers a Future Carnival Vacations desk on all ships, except Imagination, Inspiration, Sensation, Spirit, Valor and Legend. Cruisers can pick their sailing dates and ships and receive an onboard credit of up to $200 per stateroom. The reservation can be combined with other promotions, except interline discounts, and you get two vouchers for the same onboard credit that you can give to friends or family who will be joining the sailing. There is no deposit discount. (Deposits typically are about $200 or more, depending on length of sailing.) You can cancel for no charge up to 90 days before the scheduled sailing.

 

 


celebrity-solstice-sunset-bar Celebrity Cruises‘ Future Cruise Vacations program offers discounted deposits. Passengers pay $100 each, instead of $600, to reserve a cabin for a future cruise. You can book up to three future cruises at one time (or reserve trips for friends or family), and you can combine the booking deal with one other offer (such as the «1-2-3 go!» sale, for example). Choose either the Cruise Now or Cruise Later option when reserving a cruise. The Cruise Now plan offers up to $500 in onboard cabin credit (based on the length of the sailing and the cabin category) for passengers who know which ship and sail date they want. You can cancel your booking up to 90 days before your sailing date without penalty. You also can change your cruise date or ship, and, if the price drops for your cruise, you can get the better deal. The Cruise Later option is best if you know you want to cruise but haven’t yet picked a ship or date. There is no expiration date on your reservation, and you’re eligible for up to $200 in onboard credit.
costa-fascinosa-cruise Costa Cruises offers cruise consultants on its ships to discuss its current promotions. If you reserve a cruise, you get a 5 percent discount that becomes guaranteed once you finalize the booking through Costa or your travel agent. The line also runs promotions on top of the 5 percent discount, such as a 100 euro voucher to use toward that future cruise; you also would get a voucher to give to a family member or friend in such a case.

 


crystal-pool-at-dusk Crystal Cruises offers a simple percentage-off discount as part of its program. Crystal gives a 2.5 percent discount to passengers who book while onboard. For select sailings, the line features «Triple Onboard Booking Savings,» giving 3 x 2.5 percent, or a 7.5 percent total discount.
disney-dream-aquaduck Disney Cruise Line‘s Future Cruise desk offers a chance to book your next sailing by putting down half the typical deposit amount, which is based on cabin category. You’ll also get 10 percent off the prevailing rate for the cruise and an onboard credit of $100 per stateroom for sailings of six days or fewer and $200 for longer cruises. You must travel within 18 months of the booking but can change or cancel your sailing at any time before your final payment is due and receive a full refund. You can reserve two cabins, though one must be for you.
hal-eurodam-deluxe-cabin Holland America Line‘s Future Cruise Consultant desk offers up to $200 per cabin in onboard credit (based on length of sailing and stateroom category) with a deposit of $100 per person. You can choose an itinerary on your current sailing or make a future cruise deposit and take up to four years to pick your cruise. Fees generally apply if you cancel your reservation within 90 days of your sailing.


msc-divina-cruise MSC Cruises‘ Future Cruise Consultant program, only on MSC Divina, which is homeported in Miami, allows passengers who book onboard to receive up to $200 per cabin in onboard credit, based on ship, sail date and cabin category. Deposits are $100 per person. Cruisers can book specific cruises while onboard or decide up to four years later. You can combine the reservation with certain other promotions.
cruise-like-a-norwegian Norwegian Cruise Line allows passengers to make a $250 Freestyle Cruise Rewards deposit to reserve a cabin on a sailing of six days or longer and gives them each $100 in instant onboard credit, meaning you use the credit on your current sailing. While onboard, you can make up to four deposits toward future cruises, and you have four years to pick your sailing date before the deposit expires. You can even charge the deposit to your onboard account. Deposits, minus the $100 in instant onboard credit, are refundable within 30 days.
oceania-dining-al-fresco Oceania Cruises features a future cruise sales desk that offers promotions for booking while onboard. Passengers can save between $200 to $9,000 per booking when they book onboard, and they’ll also get $100 in shipboard credit to use on their current voyage. Required deposits are reduced by 50 percent, and savings can be transferred to another sailing if the planned cruise date changes. The onboard deals are also combinable with the best available promotional offer, items such as free airfare, two-for-one reduced deposits and early-booking savings.


royal-princess-cruise Princess Cruises offers future cruise sales consultants on each of its ships. You pay $100 per person to reserve a future sailing, and you can claim onboard credit of up to $150 per passenger (based on cruise length and cabin class). You can book a specific cruise onboard or get an open reservation to sail that’s good for up to four years. Your deposit is refundable if you choose not to use your reservation.
luxury-regent-pool-bar Regent Seven Seas Cruises touts exclusive savings for passengers who book onboard. Cruisers get 50 percent off deposits and savings of up to $8,000 per suite, based on sailing date and suite category. You have up to 30 days to cancel for a full refund and are able to change your selected sailing date one time for no fee. If you don’t know when you want to sail, you can buy a «Future Cruise Certificate» for a $3,000 deposit. The certificate is redeemable for up to two years, and the sailing date can be outside of the two-year window.
oasis-aerial-money-shot Royal Caribbean International features a NextCruise booking program. You get up to $200 per cabin in onboard credit (based on length of sailing) and pay a reduced deposit of $100 per person for your reservation. Cruisers don’t have to pick their ships or sailing dates at the time of the reservation; there is no expiration date. You’ll get two NextCruise certificates for friends or family who can sail with you and also receive onboard credit. Royal Caribbean’s standard cancellation policies apply to onboard bookings. Shareholder onboard credits and other onboard credit or dollars-off promotions are not combinable with the onboard credit for booking a NextCruise onboard.

 


seabourn-couples-mingling-ondeckSeabourn features a simple discount formula for onboard bookings. Passengers get a 5 percent discount when purchasing a sailing. If you’re unsure of which cruise you want, you can buy a «Future Cruise Deposit» onboard and receive the 5 percent savings to apply to the cruise when it’s eventually booked. The deposit expires four years from the date of purchase, and you must apply it to a sailing that embarks prior to the expiration date. If not, it will be automatically canceled on that date, and the amount paid will be credited back to the credit card used to purchase the deposit. The deposit can also be canceled and credited back at any time at your request.
la-terrazza-siverwind Silversea gives a 5 percent discount when booking a specific sailing or putting down a deposit on any future cruise. If you book a future voyage while onboard, you can put down a floating deposit of $1,000 per person, which secures the 5 percent savings if you convert it to an actual voyage within 6 months of initiating the booking. If you do not apply the deposit to an actual voyage, you can request to have it refunded in full.

Best Cruise Ship Spas

As you lie on a massage table, legs tucked into a soft sheet, hot stones soothing the tired muscles of your back and arms, you will most certainly not be thinking about cruise ship spa ratings. And while you relax on a heated tile lounger or in a steamy sauna, eyes drooping, thoughts of work and bills scurrying far away, you’re probably not wondering about your cruise line’s philosophy on its spa product.

But when you sit down at your computer to research your next cruise vacation, you might very well want to know where to find the best spas at sea — and we’ll be there to help.

Cruise ships take several different approaches to their onboard spas. The traditional approach, found on lines like Royal Caribbean and Princess, is to simply place a spa, salon and fitness center onboard. These facilities might be outstanding, with high-tech cardio machines and creative spa treatments inspired by an array of Eastern traditions, but they are simply another amenity to enjoy on a cruise vacation — along with swimming pools, energetic musical productions and fine dining. These spas are best for travelers who want an all-around cruise vacation with the spa as one component of the getaway.

The newer approach, innovated by Costa, is to turn part of the cruise ship into a «destination spa,» where passengers can immerse themselves in the spa experience, as in a land-based spa resort. On Costa’s and Celebrity‘s newer ships, specially designed spa cabins create a more Zen in-cabin experience with easy access to the spa facilities. Spa restaurants serve light and healthy cuisine in keeping with the wellness theme. Special packages for these passengers give them free access to thermal suites, first dibs on appointments and exclusive in-cabin treats. If you want, you can spend nearly your entire cruise wrapped in the relaxing spa atmosphere, so these offerings are best for the dedicated spa enthusiast.

 

Then there are hybrids, like the newer Carnival and made-over Holland America ships, which have spa cabins and lovely spa facilities, but not quite the same level of complete spa immersion that’s offered by their competitors.

So whether you want to live and breathe the spa life on your next cruise, just want a lovely place to relax for a few hours or need a fully tricked-out gym and healthy cuisine to be happy on your vacation, we can tell you which spas are the best in the business. In a way you can’t go wrong; all cruise lines seem to be enlarging their spa facilities, adding offerings like acupuncture and Botox, as well as Rasul rooms and new treatments. Many also offer popular group fitness classes like spinning and yoga.

If you’re looking for the best spas in cruising, here’s where to find them.

Canyon Ranch Spa

Celebrity’s Canyon Ranch SpaClub at Sea

Found On: Celebrity Solstice, Equinox, Eclipse, Silhouette and Reflection

Standout Features: The Canyon Ranch SpaClub on Celebrity’s Solstice-class ships is a superb complex that extends beyond the physical spa to include AquaClass spa cabins, the AquaSpa Cafe and Blu (two dining venues dedicated to healthy fare like smoothies, salads, lean meats and fish). You can truly have a spa-focused getaway onboard one of these cruise ships by eating, sleeping and relaxing in spa-associated locales. The AquaSpa cabins come with spa-oriented bath products and multi-headed spa showers; upgraded linens and a choose-your-own-pillow menu; complimentary bottled water and flavored iced tea; and access to a room service menu of salads, whole grains and healthy dining choices. Plus these passengers get exclusive access to the specialty restaurant, Blu, and complimentary use of the SpaClub Relaxation Room and Persian Garden steam room. A «spa concierge» books treatments, provides product information and offers recommendations for AquaClass cruisers, as well.

Inside the Spa: The spa itself offers more than 20 exclusive facial and body treatments, such as the Environ Enhancing Vitamin Therapy, which is a powerful treatment created to purify, micro-exfoliate and rehydrate your skin. The Persian Garden is a coed sauna and steam room, with a tropical rain shower and heated relaxation chairs that offer views of the ocean. The spa’s Solarium is the most gorgeous at sea, with two pools and whirlpools, soaring glass ceilings and whimsical light and water shows. A fully stocked and staffed gym sports all the newest fitness machines, as well as a jogging track to get your heart rate up before or after a blissful session in the spa.

Caveat: Blu might well be exclusive to spa passengers, but the menu is not as exciting as we feel it could be.

Samsara Spa

Costa’s Samsara Spa

Found On: Costa Serena, Costa Pacifica, Costa Luminosa, Costa neoRomantica, Costa Fascinosa, Costa Favolosa, Costa Deliziosa and Costa Diadema

Standout Features: Costa’s beautiful Samsara Spa cabins and suites feature bamboo-effect doors and calming color schemes, along with sumptuous bedding, eco-cotton bathrobes, herbal teas, Elemis bath products and a special scent diffusor. Samsara cruisers may dine at the exclusive Samsara Restaurant — with its focus on a la carte and light menus — at breakfast, lunch and dinner. They also receive unlimited access to the spa areas and free visits to the thalassotherapy pool (plus the Solarium on Costa Diadema), the Japanese Tea Room, Tridosha Shrine (like a Turkish bath) and Temple of Peace meditation room. Spa treatments, specialty fitness classes and meditation sessions cost extra.

Inside the Spa: The two-level Samsara Spa — four levels on Costa Diadema — sports an Asian-inspired design, complete with rice paper walls, bonsais, wind chimes, teak Buddhas, lantern lighting and dragons. The facility offers a huge variety of treatments, including proper ayurvedic therapies — using oils, herbs, salts — by a qualified practitioner and treatments tailored to men and couples. A Japanese tea ritual ends each spa visit — not a sales pitch. Cruisers also have access to steam and sauna rooms, sun beds and rainforest showers. Next to the spa, a large gym and fitness area sports machines, weights and fitness balls.

Caveat: Our one gripe is the location of the spa restaurant, which is on a lower deck and nowhere near the spa.


Vitality@Sea Fitness Center

Royal Caribbean’s Vitality@Sea

Found On: Freedom, Independence and Liberty of the Seas

Standout Features: The spas on Royal Caribbean’s Freedom-class ships stand out for their enormous gym complexes. These are among the largest of any cruise ship fitness center. The ships offer cruising’s first-ever boxing ring; it’s used as much as an advanced aerobics style workout as it is for boxing (though lessons are offered). Beyond that, the ships’ workout areas feature a breathtaking range of machines and free weights, with a separate room for fitness classes like yoga, Pilates, Tai Chi, cycling and boot camp. All cardio machines sport personal LED screens, and windows surround the gym so passengers can gaze at the serene sea while building up a sweat. Kudos, too, to the line for offering physical activities for kids. (Note: While the gyms on the line’s newer ships — Quantum of the Seas, Anthem of the Seas, Allure of the Seas and Oasis of the Seas — are also quite large, they lack a spacious spa and offer limited treatment rooms. That’s why we prefer Freedom-class spas.)

Inside the Spa: The spa offers pretty much the usual range of Steiner Leisure treatments: massages (Swedish, hot stone and couples), reflexology, facials and body wraps. Acupuncture is also now available. The salon, tucked off to one side, features hair cutting and styling, manicures, pedicures and teeth whitening. With the teen-geared YSPA program, kids ages 13 to 17 can book treatments, such as «acne attack» and «surfer scrub.» More standard massages, facials, manicures and pedicures are also available for teens.

Caveat: Ambience-wise, the spa possesses the charm and character of a big-city bus station.

 

Seabourn's Spa Villa

Seabourn’s The Spa at Seabourn

Found On: Seabourn Odyssey, Sojourn and Quest

Standout Features: As the first new luxury ships to be designed in a decade — debuting in 2009, 2010 and 2011, respectively — Seabourn Odyssey, Sojourn and Quest boosted the luxury ship spa concept to new levels. The sprawling two-deck spa facility is surprisingly large for a small ship and offers everything from a Kinesis wall to Finnish sauna. Also intriguing are Spa Villas, each featuring an oversized bathtub, balcony, living area and daybed. Each 2.5-hour session in the private villas also includes a spa treatment.

Inside the Spa: The Spa at Seabourn features an impressive hydrotherapy pool. The spacious fitness room is a step up from smaller gyms on luxury ships, but the yoga room really impresses with a Kinesis Wall for gentle exercise (group classes are free) and a screened-off area for a Thai floor massage. Spa treatments tend to be lavish. You can pay for access to the spa’s «serene» area, which offers two herbal saunas, a relaxation room with heated loungers, showers and a private open-air deck. Pricing is dependent on your itinerary, but generally it runs about $300 per couple for the entire voyage.

Caveat: Prices are overly high, especially for the use of the spa villa, hydropool and thermal suite.

 

Canyon Ranch Spa

Cunard’s Canyon Ranch SpaClub

Found On: Queen Mary 2

Standout Features: As a result of its affiliation with Canyon Ranch, this spa genuinely feels like a land-based destination in terms of knowledge and expertise. The treatments are quite distinctive compared to the usual cruise ship offerings. Ashiatsu is the ultimate deep-tissue massage. The therapist hangs from a bar on the ceiling and uses her/his feet! A surprising favorite is the Thai Massage. It’s basically a series of stretches (you wear loose-fitting clothing) and it is completely relaxing. In addition, they have massages for seasickness, aching bones, arthritis and chronic pain. Reiki, acupuncture, Ayurvedic treatments and even an Ice Cream pedicure round out the offerings. But don’t worry — if you’re not adventurous, you can still get more traditional massages, manicures, pedicures and hair styling.

Inside the Spa: The facility is huge but well laid out. A boutique sells Canyon Ranch products, and the thalassotherapy/steam room/sauna area is the ultimate in peaceful relaxation. A dedicated «waiting room» has big, cushy lounge chairs that face floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking a promenade and the seascape. It’s so comfortable that passengers have been know to fall asleep there. We also like that the fitness facility is completely separate; working out and going to the spa have two different vibes. Even better: You can pre-book spa treatments up to three weeks before your sailing.

The spa also offers SpaClub Passport daily passes that allow entry to the Aqua Therapy Center, relaxation lounge and locker room. It’s $40 for one day (discounts available for multi-day passes), valid from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. The SpaClub Passport is complimentary with any paid treatment.

Caveat: There’s a lot of space around the facility that’s ill used, particularly in the corridor opposite and in the quiet Winter Garden lounge, which is next door. If the spa could add a cafe of sorts, that would be a much better use of space.

 

Crystal Spa and Salon

Crystal’s Crystal Spa and Salon

Found On: Crystal Symphony and Serenity

Standout Features: The spas on both Crystal ships are peaceful, exotic areas, with features like a private, canopied teak sun deck and a luxurious dry float bed suite (for couples or singles). The spas have been designed with the feng shui (balance and harmony) philosophy in mind, and the Zen theme really works to create a calming atmosphere.

Inside the Spa: Treatments, which range from a fantastic salt and ginger scrub to a couples massage and acupuncture, are outstanding. The staffers are exceptional and won’t try to sell you anything. The salon offers the full gamut of services: haircuts, styling, pedicures and manicures. The gym is amply outfitted with state-of-the-art equipment and flat-screen televisions to amuse while exercising. Even the locker rooms are upscale, featuring multi-head showers, a sauna, Elemis toiletries and a minifridge stocked with complimentary water.

Caveat: The only problem with Crystal’s spas is the fact that appointments book up quickly. Reserve your treatments as soon as possible, and know that the salon will be particularly busy on formal nights.

Viking Ocean Cruises' Liv Nordic Spa

Viking Ocean Cruises’ Liv Nordic Spa

Found On: Viking Star and Viking Sea

Standout Features: The Liv Nordic spa, operated by Oslo-based Reason D’etre, is the most gorgeous and serene spa we’ve seen at sea. The spa is inspired by Nordic traditions, which offer a balance between hot and cold therapies. The pretty thermal suite features a beautifully designed thallasotherapy pool with adjacent hot tub. They’re backed by a fireplace, which uses flame-like water vapor and is the first we’ve seen in a cruise ship spa. In keeping with hot and cold traditions, other features include warmed tile loungers, a rustic Norwegian-style shower that features a bucket that dumps cold water on your head, a steamy sauna and a snow grotto. Men’s and women’s locker rooms abut the thermal suite and they’re well thought out, with cold plunge pools, a dry sauna and a relaxation area contained within. Best of all: Counter to tradition on most cruise ship spas, the thermal suite areas are free to use by all passengers at all times.

Inside the Spa: LivNordic features nail treatments, facials and massages, but keeps choices simple. For instance, there are just three types of Swedish massage (mindful, detox and deep tissue), and two facials, the idea being to reduce complexity and enhance performance.

Caveat: Treatment prices are resort-style expensive, though the high quality (and lack of sales pitch you might find on other cruise line spas) is a big plus. Also, on port days, keep an eye out for occasional specials and volume discounts.

Is a Cruise Line Credit Card for You?

Most consumers, especially those who travel frequently, are familiar with airline-affiliated credit cards, through which you earn free mileage based on how much you charge to your card. But if you’re an avid cruiser, especially one who prefers to drive or take the train to the cruise port, a card that earns you points toward cruise-related awards might be a better fit. So do such cards exist?

They do, but only a few cruise lines offer them. In fact, cruise line-affiliated credit cards are only an option among the biggest names in mainstream cruising. Of the 18 lines surveyed, only six had co-branded credit cards: Carnival Cruise Lines, Disney Cruise Line, NCL, Princess Cruises, Holland America and Royal Caribbean.

Unlike hotel- and airline-affiliated credit cards, cruise credit cards are not linked to the cruise operators’ loyalty programs. That’s likely because cruise loyalty programs are themselves quite different from the frequent traveler programs run by the airlines and hotel companies. Spending more with your credit card won’t bump you up to platinum status, but it could get you a free cruise. Here’s how:

How Affiliated Credit Cards Work

The cards offered by these six lines are more alike than they are different. Five out of six award two points for every dollar spent on cruise services and products, and one point for every dollar spent on other charges. The outlier, the Disney Premier Visa card, awards two points per dollar for charges at gas stations, grocery stores and restaurants, in addition to Disney services and merchandise.

On the redemption side of the ledger, you can exchange your points for free or discounted cruises, onboard credit, upgrades, onboard amenities and cruise line merchandise. Points have a value of 1 cent apiece when cashed in for most rewards. So, for example, a $100 credit toward onboard purchases can be had for 10,000 points. If those points were earned at the rate of one point per dollar in charges (as they will be in the great majority of cases) that $100 credit would amount to getting a 1 percent rebate on $10,000 in charges.

Another feature common to all six cards: Points expire after five years. Five of the six carry no annual fee; again, the exception is Disney’s Premier card ($49).

Should You Choose a Cruise Card?

If you’re a frequent cruiser on any of these six lines, you might be tempted to apply for a card. But does it make sense to get a cruise credit card versus a different type of rewards card?

Maybe. Maybe not. It depends on your goals.

If you want to get the best return on investment from a credit card, cruise credit cards aren’t the way to go. With most charges yielding just a 1 percent effective rebate on a limited catalog of awards, cruise credit cards aren’t top-of-the-class in terms of value or rewards flexibility.

For comparison, look at airline credit cards. While the average value of a frequent flyer mile is around 1.2 cents — which amounts to getting a 1.2 percent rebate when earning one mile per dollar charged — that per-mile value can be increased considerably by cashing in miles for higher-priced award flights. Some cash-back credit cards rebate 1 to 2 percent or more for select categories. And your reward is cash, which can be used to pay for anything, from a cruise to other travel expenses (pre-cruise air or hotel, for example) or even a new wardrobe for your upcoming sailing.

In other words, if your choice of credit cards is based strictly on bottom-line considerations, the value of a cruise card is readily trumped by that of other types of cards.

On the other hand, maybe a free or discounted cruise is such a high priority that the value and flexibility tradeoffs are incidental. Your eye is on the prize, and you’re going to charge, charge, charge until you get that free cruise (or other cruise-related award). In that case, a cruise credit card might suit your goals just fine.

Just make sure you do the math first. Depending on your monthly credit card purchases, the five-year points-expiration policy could mean that some of the most expensive awards will simply remain out of reach because you won’t be able to earn enough in that time period. If you intend to use your card for all of your day-to-day purchases and pay off the balance each month, you will likely be able to accrue enough points for a free cruise every couple of years. But otherwise, you may not, and those points will go to waste.

Editor’s Note: We have a few friends who have lost all of their reward points on cruise line credit cards when the bank/cruise line affiliation was discontinued and the type of card they had ceased to exist. If you do choose a cruise line card, keep in mind that these things sometimes happen with less popular/lucrative credit programs.

Don’t forget to factor in the double points for purchases with the cruise line. You’ll rack up award points more quickly if you’re booking two cruises a year with the same line than if you sail every other year or try out different cruise companies.

If you think a cruise card is right for you, here’s a more detailed summary of the cards’ features and benefits:

Carnival Cruise Lines

Credit card: Carnival World MasterCard, issued by Barclays Bank

Earning points: Cardholders earn two FunPoints for every dollar spent with Carnival and one FunPoint for other charges. You’ll receive a signup bonus of 5,000 FunPoints after the first use. There are no maximum earnings, but points expire after five years.

Getting rewards: Points may be redeemed for a statement credit toward cruises on the World’s Leading Cruise Lines (Carnival Cruise Lines, Costa Cruises, Cunard Line, Holland America Line, Princess Cruises and Yachts of Seabourn) or an airline or hotel charge, onboard amenities, gift cards, gift certificates or merchandise. For most rewards, the point value is around 1 cent apiece — a 1 percent rebate.

Fine print: An additional bonus of 5,000 FunPoints is available for balance transfers made within thirty days of opening your account. (Balance transfers each incur a small fee.) The card does not carry an annual fee. The annual percentage rate on charges is 13.99 to 20.99 percent, depending on creditworthiness.

Disney Cruise Line

Credit card: Disney Premier Visa or Disney Rewards Visa, issued by Chase

Earning points: Cardholders earn 2 percent in reward dollars for every dollar spent with Disney or at gas stations, grocery stores and restaurants, and 1 percent for other charges with the Premier card and 1 percent on all purchases with the Rewards card. You’ll receive a bonus of a $100 Disney gift card if you charge $500 on the Premier card within the first three months or a $50 Disney gift card after the first use of the Rewards card.

Getting rewards: Reward dollars may be redeemed for Disney cruise vacations, merchandise, spa treatments and shore excursions, as well as Disney theme park tickets, other Disney products and a statement credit toward airfare. Reward dollars, as the name implies, are worth $1 a piece and can be redeemed for goods and services at that rate, which amounts to a 1 to 2 percent rebate, depending on how they’re earned. There are no maximum earnings, but reward dollars expire after five years. Additional year-round perks are available for all card members, including onboard credit offers and discounts for onboard services and discounts at Disney stores, theme parks and resorts.

Fine print: The Rewards card has no annual fee, and the Premier card carries an annual fee of $49. Both cards offer a 0 percent annual percentage rate on charges for the first six months, which will then increase to is 15.24 percent.

Holland America Line

Credit card: Holland America Line Rewards Visa, issued by Barclays Bank

Earning points: Cardholders earn two points for every dollar spent with Holland America and one point for other charges. You’ll receive a signup bonus of 5,000 points after the first use.

Getting rewards: Points may be redeemed for cruises, cruise discounts, onboard credits, onboard experiences, merchandise and other onboard for-fee amenities. For most awards, the point value is around 1 cent apiece, which amounts to a 1 percent rebate for most charges. There are no maximum earnings, but points expire after five years.

Fine print: The card does not carry an annual fee. The annual percentage rate on charges is 13.99 to 20.99 percent, depending on creditworthiness.

Norwegian Cruise Line

Credit card: Norwegian Cruise Line MasterCard, issued by Bank of America

Earning points: Cardholders earn two WorldPoints for every dollar spent with Norwegian Cruise Line and one WorldPoint for other charges. You’ll receive a signup bonus of 10,000 WorldPoints after the first qualifying purchase.

Getting rewards: Points may be redeemed for cruises, stateroom upgrades, cruise discounts, onboard credits and onboard experiences, car rentals, hotel stays, merchandise and gift certificates. For most awards, points value hovers around 1 cent apiece — a 1 percent rebate for most charges. There are no maximum earnings, but points expire after five years.

Fine print: The card does not carry an annual fee. The annual percentage rate on charges is 12.99 to 20.99 percent, depending on creditworthiness.

Princess Cruises

Credit card: Princess Cruises Rewards Visa, issued by Barclays Bank

Earning points: Cardholders earn two Princess Points for every dollar spent with Princess Cruises and 1 Princess Point for other charges. You’ll receive a signup bonus of 5,000 Princess Points after the first use. There are no maximum earnings, but points expire after five years.

Getting rewards: Points may be redeemed for free cruises and cruise discounts, onboard merchandise and services, and airfare discounts. Points are worth 1 cent apiece when redeemed for most awards. However, there’s better value to be had when using points for free cruises and discounted cruises. A $3,000 cruise discount, for example, costs 200,000 points, yielding a value of 1.5 cents per point.

Fine print: The card does not carry an annual fee. The annual percentage rate on charges is 13.99 to 20.99 percent, depending on creditworthiness.

Royal Caribbean International

Credit card: Royal Caribbean Visa Signature, issued by Bank of America

Earning points: Cardholders earn two MyCruise Points for every dollar spent with Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises and Azamara Club Cruises and one MyCruise Point for other charges. You’ll receive a signup bonus of 10,000 points after the first transaction. If you charge $3,500 within the first 90 days of membership, you’ll receive «buy one, get one free» airfare.

Getting rewards: Points can be redeemed for onboard amenities, onboard credits, selected merchandise, charitable donations, discounts against the purchase price of any eligible cruise vacation and cabin upgrades. For most awards, points have a value of 1 cent apiece, which amounts to a 1 percent rebate for most charges. There’s a maximum earning of 540,000 points per calendar year, and points expire after five years.

Fine print: The card does not carry an annual fee. The annual percentage rate on charges is 12.99 to 20.99 percent, depending on creditworthiness.

Best Cruise Ship Bars

Middelhavskysten

Jupina Amour

Opinions about cruising’s best bars vary like the color of cocktails. One passenger’s top-shelf piano lounge might be another’s to-be-avoided dive. We all have our favorites: levitating lounges, pubs with delicious fish and chips, and alfresco bars where you can watch a spectacular sunset as you nurse an Ocean Breeze.

What makes a bar stand out for us? Often, it’s originality and innovation, a new twist on the ol’ purveyor of gin and tonics and buckets of beer. You might find an ice bar gimmicky, but it’s certainly different. In other cases, we applaud onboard establishments for offering unique drinks or pairing food and booze; sometimes, these bars are simply places where, time and again, we’ve spent an enjoyable evening.

So, whether you’re a beer connoisseur or a purveyor of fine wines, we invite you to enjoy our list of best bars at sea.

 

Celebrity Reflection Martini Bar & Crush

Shaken, Not Stirred: Martini Bars

Celebrity’s Martini Bar & Crush

Ships: Fleetwide (minus Celebrity Xpedition)

What’s Cool: Order a martini flight and try out six colorful beverages, poured from a tower of martini shakers into a pyramid of glasses. The bartenders here have watched Cocktail too many times, and they put on an impressive display of bottle-tossing and -twirling as they mix your drinks. An ice-topped bar and a central location add to the appeal.

Cunard’s Commodore Club

Ships: Fleetwide

What’s Cool: While not just a martini bar, Commodore Club’s menu includes the line’s most extensive selection of martinis. You’ll feel like a million dollars sipping yours straight up or with a twist while taking in the 270-degree views. Chairs, many tucked into windowed nooks, are deep and comfortable and, as befits Cunard, the more formal evening dress code means everyone’s dressed to impress

Carnival Freedom alchemy bar

With a Splash: Cocktail Bars

Carnival’s Alchemy Bar

Ships: Carnival Conquest, Carnival Glory, Carnival Liberty, Carnival Sunshine, Carnival Freedom, Carnival Victory, Carnival Pride, Carnival Miracle, Carnival Triumph and Carnival Vista

What’s Cool: Carnival’s Alchemy Bar takes cocktails to the drugstore with an «Olde Apothecary» theme, featuring bartenders in lab coats and a dark wood bar decorated with apothecary jars. They’ll write you a prescription for Passion Potions (like a Martini Seduction), Energizing Elixirs (Spicy Chipotle Pineapple Martini) or Cocktail Therapy (Curative Peach Cosmopolitan). Despite its old-timey feel regarding your concoction, menus are illuminated e-readers (on some ships).

Norwegian’s Sugarcane Mojito Bar

Ships: Norwegian Getaway and Norwegian Escape, being rolled out fleetwide

What’s Cool: A mojito flight will get you in the mood to fiesta with your choice of six sweet and savory combinations such as pineapple coconut or Sriracha. Take yours out to the Waterfront if you’re on the Breakaway- or Breakaway Plus-class ships; sea breezes and live music (piped in from the interior half of the bar during the evening) complement the Cuban cocktail perfectly.


 

Regal Princess Vines selection

Start Wining: Wine and Champagne Bars

Vines on Princess Cruises

Ships: Caribbean Princess, Crown Princess, Emerald Princess, Golden Princess, Grand Princess, Royal Princess, Regal Princess, Ruby Princess, Sapphire Princess and Star Princess

What’s Cool: Princess’ wine bar, found in the bustling Piazza area, serves up wine flights and a selection of new- and old-world vintages in a faux wine-cellar setting. (Think dim lighting and wooden barrels.) But it’s more than just a bar; along with your vino, you can order sushi and tapas for a light, sophisticated meal (free with beverage purchase on select ships). As you sip, don’t forget to check out the performers who entertain in the Piazza. (Note that sushi and tapas are not served on Grand and Sapphire Princess.)

MSC’s Wine Bars

Ships: Divina, Preziosa, Splendida, Fantasia, Poesia, Orchestra and Musica

What’s Cool: Although the wine bars on these ships all have different names, they offer a hefty list of wines from provinces across Italy. The bars’ light leather upholstery seems, at first, counterintuitive; wine bars, after all, are generally very dark and rich in tone. But, ultimately, the decor creates an atmosphere that’s open and chic. Knowledgeable sommeliers on each sailing offer tastings that include information about the various vintages, their regions and the processes that go into making the wines. The tastings fee includes a plate of tasty cheeses and meats to accompany each glass of vino. A partnership with Blend Craft Wines of California brings winemaking classes, dinners and experiences onboard, also for an additional fee.

Oceania’s La Reserve by Wine Spectator

Ships: Marina and Riviera

What’s Cool: La Reserve isn’t just an ordinary wine bar; it’s a venue for wine tastings and gourmet wine-themed dinners. Tastings, developed by Wine Spectator, might focus on wines from your cruise region or show how different types of wine glasses affect your enjoyment of the vintage. Multicourse dinners pair fine cuisine with premium wines, and are a collaboration between the executive chef and Wine Spectator’s wine aficionados. La Reserve’s elegant setting, with upper-deck views, simply adds to the experience.

Disney’s Pink

Ships: Disney Dream

What’s Cool: It’s pink. Really pink. It’s decorated with pink Champagne bottles, pink plush chairs, pink bubble lights and pink Champagne glasses. Yet it’s not overbearing; in fact, it’s downright charming. Lighted glass bubbles adorn the walls, and savvy cruisers might catch a glimpse of Dumbo dancing sporadically in them. Champagne and Champagne cocktails are, of course, the drinks of choice. Champagne cocktail options include standbys, such as bellinis, as well as more inventive drinks that include Elderberry cocktails.

Royal Caribbean’s Vintages

Ships: Quantum-class ships, Oasis-class ships, Freedom-class ships, Mariner of the Seas, Serenade of the Seas and Navigator of the Seas

What’s Cool: Atmosphere is everything at this cool and collected wine bar onboard select Royal Caribbean ships. Taste the bar’s namesake from vineyards around the world, with some varietals exclusive to the cruise line. Onboard Quantum-class ships with Jamie’s Italian, a limited menu is available for $5 per appetizer.


Humidor interior

Burning Issues: Cigar Bars

Silversea Cruises’ Humidor

Ships: Fleetwide, except Silver Galapagos and Silver Discoverer

What’s Cool: The Humidor feels like a traditional smoking room in an old British country house, where you can relax in deep, lush chairs and couches set on rich wooden floors, accented with handsome rugs and prints on the walls. It’s well ventilated, but it still retains that delicious, rich cigar aroma that has permeated into the furniture. There’s a bar adjoining it, and it has excellent waiter service. All cigar bars should be like this.

MSC’s Cigar Bars

Ships: Divina, Splendida, Fantasia, Magnifica, Poesia, Orchestra, Musica, Sinfonia and Armonia

What’s Cool: Although smoking is more prevalent on MSC’s ships than it is on mainstream U.S. lines, we often found the cigar bars, which vary in name from ship to ship, uncrowded and quiet. With rich woods and cushy leather seating, they offer elegant places to escape the general population onboard, whether it’s to read, write, nap or have a smoke. Some — like the Hitchcock Lounge on Poesia, which features silhouettes of Alfred Hitchcock — even have fun themes. (Surprisingly, the ones we visited didn’t smell anything like smoke, so nonsmokers shouldn’t worry about stepping inside.)

Disney’s Meridian

Ships: Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy

What’s Cool: The view from Meridian — located on Deck 12, aft — is spectacular, with huge windows and vast outdoor spaces that ensure passengers will never miss the passing scenery. A large granite bar runs the length of the lounge, which is decorated with lots of high-backed leather chairs and travel-themed decor. Cigars are available for purchase at the outside bar. Meridian is nestled between restaurants Palo and Remy, so aficionados don’t have far to go for an after-dinner stogie.


Carnival Sunshine sports bar

Got Game: Sports Bars

Disney’s Diversions, 687 and O’Gill’s

Ships: Diversions (Disney Wonder); O’Gill’s Pub (Disney Magic, Disney Fantasy); 687 (Disney Dream)

What’s Cool: Disney’s association with ESPN means sports fans won’t miss a game (including NFL) while sailing. The line’s sports bars — all adults-only at night — have numerous flat-screen, high-def TVs with digital surround sound and cozy spaces that allow for quiet conversation, even when the bar is packed and the big game is on.

Carnival’s Sports Bars

Ships: Fleetwide

What’s Cool: One reviewer described Carnival’s Sports Bar as the man-cave to end all man-caves. It’s chock full of flat-screen TVs that can show individual games or combine to show a single game across several screens. The bar is stocked with a selection of beer and bar snacks. Despite the line ending its partnership with EA Sports, a handful of ships still feature the collaboration at the EA Sports Bar where you can play free EA video games.

MSC’s The Sports Bar

Ships: Divina, Preziosa, Splendida, Fantasia and Magnifica

What’s Cool: Called The Sports Bar on all ships (except Magnifica, where it’s known as L’Olimpiade), these venues are more than just a place to watch the game with a beer. With a relaxed and colorful atmosphere, each features a bar, a pair of mini-bowling lanes, sports memorabilia, plenty of tables and chairs in various alcoves, and, of course, an astounding number of flat-screen TVs for watching live competitions.


O'Sheehans on Norwegian Getaway

Pub Reporter: The English Saloon

Cunard’s Golden Lion Pub

Ships: Fleetwide

What’s Cool: Cunard’s Golden Lion Pub reeks of authenticity with its fine lagers, ales on tap and classic pub fare like fish ‘n’ chips. Entertainment is also pub-worthy with pub quizzes, live music and sporting events on the telly.

Norwegian’s O’Sheehans & District Brew House

Ships: O’Sheehans (Norwegian Epic, Norwegian Breakaway, Norwegian Getaway); District Brew House (Norwegian Escape)

What’s Cool: At O’Sheehans, passengers can bowl, throw darts and play pool or foosball before enjoying dinner and drinks. The 24-hour venue serves up complimentary breakfast and pub fare, and it’s the best spot for draft beer. Miami-based Wynwood Brewing Company partnered with Norwegian to introduce its first brewpub at sea on Norwegian Escape, and while no beer is made on premises, a selection of 24 beers on tap — including La Rubia Blonde Ale, a craft beer made exclusively by Wynwood for Escape — accompanies 50 bottled choices and a gastropub-style menu supplied by onboard small-plate outlet Food Republic. Don’t forget to take a quick pic with new friends at the onsite photo booth — this place is a hangout for cruisers and crew alike.

Michael’s Genuine Pub on Royal Caribbean

Ships: Quantum of the Seas and Anthem of the Seas

What’s Cool: Chef Michael Schwartz serves up a gastropub-style menu for lunch and dinner (and snacking, of course) along with craft beer at this Quantum-class outfit. Settle into the dark and comfy atmosphere with a Michael’s Genuine Home Brew (Schwartz’s own recipe) or a number of other IPAs and ales. Bourbon flights and cheese plates make this a desired drinking and dining spot for anyone onboard.

Carnival’s RedFrog Pub

Ships: Carnival Magic, Carnival Breeze, Carnival Freedom, Carnival Pride, Carnival Legend, Carnival Miracle, Carnival Sunshine and Carnival Vista

What’s Cool: Eschewing the «British» in British pub is Carnival’s RedFrog Pub, a Caribbean/Key West-themed space featuring for-fee appetizers (conch fritters, roti and the like) on Breeze, Magic and Vista; plus chill live music, games including ring toss and table shuffleboard, and an exclusive brew on draft. Carnival’s ThirstyFrog Red Ale can be ordered by the pint or by the 100-ounce beer tube. Taking it to the next level on Vista, Carnival will install an onboard brewery — a first for the industry — that will brew craft beer from tanks in full view of pub-goers.  Additionally, a partnership with Tampa-based craft brewery Cigar City will bring local craft beers to 13 ships sailing from Florida.


Piano man bar panoramic

Tickle the Ivories: Piano Bars

Carnival’s Piano Bars

Ships: Fleetwide

What’s Cool: Carnival earns top honors in this category, with piano bars on all its ships. Though no two look the same, you can expect a nearly identical rollicking atmosphere with plenty of sing-alongs, group toasts and some adult-themed tunes after midnight. The most coveted spots are the stools surrounding the pianos, which revolve slowly so everyone gets a good view of the ivories. But arrive early to snag a choice spot — some of Carnival’s pianists have nearly cult-like followings!

Norwegian’s Howl at the Moon

Ships: Norwegian Epic, Norwegian Breakaway, Norwegian Getaway and Norwegian Escape

What’s Cool: Sipping is almost secondary to the singalongs at this popular dueling pianos bar. Request songs by bringing up a slip of paper (and a tip never hurts to get it played), then sit back and watch the two pianists work their magic on the keys. Both the classics and songs currently on the radio are fair game, and depending on the crowd on any given evenings, the joint can get rowdy.

Royal Caribbean’s Schooner Bar

Ships: Fleetwide

What’s Cool: Royal Caribbean’s nautical-themed bar and trivia basecamp also turns into a piano bar at night. The individual pianists really affect the after-hours atmosphere; some host lively sing-alongs, complete with props, while others provide background music to a packed house of post-dinner merrymakers. If the piano player’s not playing your song, feel free to make a request.

Rising Tide bar on Oasis at night

Photo Op: Cool Bars You Gotta Try Once

Royal Caribbean’s Rising Tide

Ships: Allure of the Seas and Oasis of the Seas

What’s Cool: It levitates. This Oasis-class novelty bar, evocative of a space pod, floats up and down three decks between the Royal Promenade and the foliage-filled Central Park. Take-offs typically occur every 30 minutes during designated hours. The ride is about 20 minutes, but the «driver» can adjust the speed up and down. While the bar is one-of-a-kind, don’t expect the same from the menu; you’ll find a standard selection of cocktails and beers.

Norwegian’s Svedka & Inniskillin Ice Bar

Ships: Norwegian Epic, Norwegian Breakaway and Norwegian Getaway

What’s Cool: It’s not just cool, it’s freezing. The air in this spine-tingler is kept at a constant 17 degrees, all the better to keep the cocktail glasses, bar and ice sculptures from getting all wishy-washy. (Yep, they’re all made of ice.) Just don a parka at the door, take a deep breath, and enter the enchanting little cavern with multihued ice walls mimicking the aurora borealis. You can stay in there for up to 45 minutes, but trust us … you won’t. The cover charge includes a toasty, warm parka and two drinks — all of which are made with Svedka vodka or Inniskillin ice wine.

Royal Caribbean’s Bionic Bar

Ships: Quantum of the Seas and Anthem of the Seas

What’s Cool: Robots! Makr Shakr is a robotic bartending system that serves up cocktails to thirsty and amused customers who enter their order via a tablet. Just be specific when ordering drinks; robots are pretty literal. If you fear that witty banter has been removed from the bartender-patron relationship, watch for sly comments that sometimes appear on the waiting list screen.

Anthem's North Star Bar lounge area

A Room with View: Panorama Bars

Royal Caribbean’s Viking Crown Lounge

Ships: Fleetwide except Oasis-class and Quantum-class ships

What’s Cool: The round, UFO-esque tower in the middle of many Royal Caribbean ships houses the line’s signature Viking Crown Lounge. While some are more expansive, they all offer sloping windows and great views over the outer decks and out to sea. Head there for sunset or sailaway — it’s an ideal place to snuggle into a comfy couch, order a drink and watch the world go by.

Crystal’s Palm Court

Ships: Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity

What’s Cool: One of the best places for a great view at sea is the Palm Court on Crystal’s two ships (Deck 11, forward). The highlight of the sleekly modern lounge, located just over the bridge, is the 5.5-foot high windows along the sides and the 10-foot windows toward the front, providing stunning 300-degree views. Stand right at the front when docking to see exactly what the captain is seeing. Aside from the view, Palm Court is a wonderfully quiet place during the day to curl up on a comfy chair with a good book. In the late afternoon and evening, the space comes alive with high tea and jazz, respectively.

Celebrity’s Sunset Bar

Ships: Celebrity Eclipse, Celebrity Equinox, Celebrity Reflection, Celebrity Silhouette and Celebrity Solstice

What’s Cool: Sunset Bar’s unimpeded aft views are particularly breathtaking. Celebrity paid careful attention to the scenery in designing the bar, where railings are barely noticeable and glass spans as far as the eye can see. The proximity to the ships’ unique Lawn Clubs provides a breezy backyard feel and makes for the perfect location for a sunset cocktail.

Royal Caribbeans’s North Star Bar

Ships: Quantum of the Seas and Anthem of the Seas

What’s Cool: Located at the base of North Star, the ships’ jewel-shaped glass pod that rises 300 feet into the air, this bar provides great views over the pool deck. Sit at the bar or spread out on a lounger with a selection of cocktails, beer and Champagne as you plan your evening or reflect on your day in port.

Cruise Line Loyalty Programs

Love cruising? Did you know that if you sail multiple times with the same cruise line, you can be rewarded for your loyalty with complimentary drinks, specialty dining, internet and spa services? All you need to do is join a cruise line loyalty program.

Cruise loyalty programs are the ocean equivalent of airline frequent flyer programs, where repeated business earns loyal customers extra perks and rewards. Generally structured on a point system — in which points are determined by length of cruise or cumulative number of sailings — cruise line loyalty programs can save you big bucks down the line (and maybe even earn you a free cruise). Enrollment is generally free, and perks can include booking discounts, members-only events, free Internet and complimentary dining at specialty restaurants.

While occasional cruisers will get some benefits, the best rewards are saved for the most avid and highest spending cruisers. For some cruise lines, these benefits add up to hundreds — if not, thousands — of dollars saved. On others, the savings aren’t as great, but they help make your cruise vacation a special experience. Find out what benefits you’ll receive if you keep cruising with your favorite line.

Azamara Le Club Voyage Cruise Loyalty Program

Azamara’s Le Club Voyage is a five-tier cruise loyalty program, in which past passengers earn points based on prior cruise length and cabin category. Members earn points for each cruise night sailed, with inside cabins starting at two points per night. Solo travelers earn double the points, and perks include free internet, VIP member parties, free cruise nights and discounted upgrades.

Go to our page on Azamara’s Le Club Voyage for full program details.

 

Carnival’s Very Important Fun Person (VIFP) Club

The Very Important Fun Person Club — also known as the «VIFP» Club — is Carnival’s five-tier cruise line loyalty program. Structured on a point system, the club offers members one VIFP point for each day cruised with Carnival. Perks range from members-only deals and a free bottle of water to a complimentary meal in a specialty dining venue and a free one-time cabin upgrade.

Check out our page on Carnival’s Very Important Fun Person (VIFP) Club for more program details.

Persian Garden on Celebrity Solstice

Celebrity Cruises Captain’s Club Cruise Loyalty Program

Based on a point system, the Captain’s Club — Celebrity’s six-tier cruise loyalty program — awards past passengers points for each night sailed, with double the points for solo travelers. Points start at two per night for an inside cabin, and go all the way up to 18 for a Royal Suite or Penthouse Suite. Captain’s Club members are eligible for booking discounts, cabin upgrades, complimentary seminars and, at the highest level, a free seven-night sailing.

Visit our page on Celebrity’s Captain’s Club for full program details.

 

Costa Cruises’ CostaClub Cruise Loyalty Program

All Costa passengers — including those who have just booked their first cruise with the line — are eligible for the six-tier CostaClub loyalty program. Points are earned with each day sailed, and start at 100 points per day for an inside cabin. However, higher cabin bookings earn additional points, and premium cabin bookings earn double the points. Perks include booking discounts, access to exclusive CostaClub sailings and events, free upgrades and complimentary dining.

For full program details, visit our page on Costa Cruises’ CostaClub loyalty program.

Crystal Cruises’ Crystal Society Cruise Loyalty Program

Crystal Cruises’ Crystal Society is a multi-level loyalty program split into «milestones,» in which past passengers earn credits based on cruises sailed with Crystal. Enrollment is automatic, following your first Crystal cruise of five days or longer. Perks include a private dinner, access to member parties, discounts and a complimentary cruise of up to 12 nights in a Penthouse-category cabin.

Visit our page on Crystal Cruises’ Crystal Society loyalty program for more details.  

 

Cunard Line’s Cunard World Club Cruise Loyalty Program

Cunard World Club is a four-tiered loyalty program available to all passengers who have completed a Cunard cruise. Achieving higher levels depends on the number of Cunard cruises taken, or the number of cruise nights completed on the line — whichever is greater. Perks range from member discounts and exclusive member parties, to free internet and complimentary meals.

Go to our page on Cunard Line’s Cunard World Club for full program details.

 

Disney’s Castaway Club Cruise Loyalty Program

Based on the number of cruises sailed, Disney’s Castaway Club is a three-level loyalty program for past passengers. While it doesn’t offer as many perks as other cruise line loyalty programs, Castaway Club does offer special member booking offers, merchandise discounts and in-cabin amenities. Enrollment is automatic, following your first completed cruise.

For more program details, visit our page on Disney’s Castaway Club loyalty program.

 

 

 

Fred. Olsen Oceans Cruise Loyalty Club

Fred. Olsen’s cruise loyalty club — called Oceans — is a multi-tiered program for the line’s past passengers. The program is structured on a point system, in which members earn one point per night. Members are automatically enrolled following their first sailing, and perks include shore excursion discounts, priority boarding and special member events.

Check out our Fred. Olsen Oceans loyalty club page for full program details.

Holland America's Eurodam

Holland America Mariner Society Cruise Loyalty Program

Holland America’s multi-tiered Mariner Society loyalty program awards «Cruise Day» credits based on days sailed. Suite passengers earn double points, and all passengers are eligible for one bonus credit for every $300 spent onboard. Perks include an exclusive member reception, onboard discounts and reduced rates for third and fourth passengers in the same cabin.

For more program details, visit our page on Holland America’s Mariner Society.

 

Hurtigruten 1893 Ambassador Program Cruise Loyalty Club

Hurtigruten’s 1893 Ambassador Program is unlike other cruise lines’ loyalty clubs, in that it has no tiers. Past passengers are eligible after they’ve sailed at least three consecutive nights onboard Hurtigruten, after which they receive all available benefits. Perks include booking discounts, complimentary bike rentals and an in-cabin welcome basket with every sailing.

Go to our page on Hurtigruten’s 1893 Ambassador Program for additional program details.


MSC Voyagers Club Cruise Loyalty Program

The MSC Voyagers Club is a multi-level loyalty program for MSC Cruises’ past passengers. Points are determined by your chosen cruise «experience» (Bella, Fantastica, Wellness, Aurea or Yacht Club), plus length of cruise. Bonus points are also awarded to passengers who spend €/$150 on onboard extras like spa treatments, shore excursions and shop purchases. Other perks include a members-only cocktail party, discounts and onboard freebies.

Visit our page on the MSC Voyagers Club for more loyalty program details.

 

Norwegian Latitudes Rewards Cruise Loyalty Program

Structured on a point system, Latitudes Rewards — Norwegian Cruise Line’s four-tier cruise loyalty program — offers one point for each night cruised with the line. Members are automatically enrolled following their first sailing, and receive perks like concierge service, complimentary dinner and wine at specialty restaurants and an exclusive ship tour. Extra points are also offered to suite or Haven bookings, sailings booked nine or more months in advance and trips booked using a Latitudes offer.

Check out our page on Norwegian’s Latitudes Rewards for full program details.


Oceania Club Cruise Loyalty Program

Past passengers are automatically enrolled in Oceania Club — Oceania Cruises’ multi-tiered loyalty program — following their first cruise. Points are determined by the length of each cruise, and perks include onboard credit, shore excursion discounts and complimentary cruises of up to 14 nights.

Visit our page on Oceania’s Oceania Club for more program details.


P&O Peninsular Club Cruise Loyalty Program

The Peninsular Club is P&O’s six-tiered cruise loyalty program for past passengers. Structured on a point system, cruisers are eligible for membership once they’ve accumulated 150 points, where each cruise night on P&O counts for 10 points. Member perks include discounts on cruise bookings and onboard purchases, exclusive member events and complimentary drinks and services.

For full program details, check out our page on P&O’s Peninsular Club.

The Terrace Pool on Crown Princess

Princess Captain’s Circle Cruise Loyalty Program

Captain’s Circle is the four-tier loyalty program for Princess Cruises’ past passengers, in which members receive one credit for each cruise taken and double credits for suite and solo bookings. Enrollment is not automatic, so passengers must register on Princess Cruises’ website following their first cruise. Benefits include members-only events, complimentary services and amenities as well as free internet credits.

Check out our Captain’s Circle page for more program details.


Regent’s Seven Seas Society Loyalty Program

Based on the number of nights sailed, Regent’s Seven Seas Society is a multi-tier loyalty program. Passengers are automatically enrolled after their first completed Regent cruise of seven nights or longer. Member perks include private member events, discounts and complimentary onboard services.

Visit our page on Regent’s Seven Seas Society for full program details.

Royal Caribbean Crown and Anchor Society Cruise Loyalty Program

The Crown & Anchor Society is a complimentary loyalty program available to passengers after their first three-night cruise or longer. The program is structured on a point system, where members receive one cruise point for every night sailed onboard a Royal Caribbean ship, with double the points for suite bookings.

Visit our page on Royal Caribbean Crown and Anchor Society for full program details.


Seabourn Cruises’ Seabourn Club Loyalty Program

Seabourn Club is the five-tier cruise loyalty program for Seabourn Cruises’ past passengers. Like most loyalty programs, Seabourn Club is structured on a point system, in which points correlate with cruise days. The opportunity for extra points is also available on penthouse and premium suite bookings, on «Seabourn Journey» sailings and for members who spend more than $500 on onboard or pre-cruise purchases. Perks include discounts, members-only events and complimentary services.

For full program details, visit our page on Seabourn’s Seabourn Club.

 

Silversea Venetian Society Cruise Loyalty Program

Silversea Cruises’ loyalty program — called The Venetian Society — is a one-size-fits-all loyalty program for past passengers. Members are automatically enrolled following their first sailing, and all enjoy the same set of perks, including booking discounts, member parties and, at the highest level, complimentary cruises.

Go to our page on Silversea’s Venetian Society program for full program details.

 

The Aft Deck on Wind Spirit

Windstar Cruises’ Windstar Yacht Club Loyalty Program

Once you’ve completed your first cruise, you are automatically enrolled in the Windstar Yacht Club, Windstar Cruises’ single-level loyalty program. Member benefits include discounted upgrades and amenities, exclusive cocktail parties and dinner with the captain or officers.

Visit our page on Windstar Cruises’ Windstar Yacht Club for more program details.