15 Cruise Ship Mistakes That Could Wreck Your Vacation

Cruises can be a world of fun — if you know what you’re doing.

woman is sailing on a cruise ship
Updated May 28, 2024
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Cruises are often thought of as the pinnacle of luxury travel. You’ve got excitement, relaxation, and exploration right at your fingertips. However, vacations at sea are easy to mess up if you’re not careful.

To avoid wasting money on a cruise, chart a course for smoother sailing by steering clear of these 15 mistakes.

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Misunderstanding what’s included

Debbie Ann Powell/Adobe empty sun deck on Norwegian (NCL) Joy Cruise Ship

Your cruise fare grants you access to a plethora of ship amenities. It’s not, however, an all-expenses-paid pass.

Some restaurants, activities, and excursions come with additional fees, and you need to step up your travel game by budgeting for those things ahead of time.

If you don’t, you’ll run into one of two problems: Either you’ll miss out on all the fun, or you’ll overextend your finances and have to do damage control when you return.

Packing too much

moodboard/Adobe open suitcase on bed

A dead giveaway you’re a cruise-ship rookie is overstuffing your suitcase.

Yes, you’ll be out at sea for several days, but it’s not like you’re moving into the lost city of Atlantis. Pack just what you need, and leave room for souvenirs.

If you later realize that you forgot something, you can likely buy it on the ship.

Packing all the wrong things

deagreez/Adobe man packing clothes

Another amateur move? Filling your luggage with everything you don’t need and none of what you do.

Before you go, check the cruise line’s dress code and bring any required finery. Then, let your destinations guide the rest of your packing.

You’ll want to consider the climates and cultures of your ports of call, as well as any activities you have planned.

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Arriving too close to your sail date

jovannig/Adobe cruise ships docked in Miami port

If you’re traveling to your port of departure, the last thing you want to do is get into town the day you set sail. All it would take is a long line at baggage claim or a spot of bad traffic, and you could miss the boat.

Give yourself a time buffer, and arrive at your departure port at least a day or two beforehand. That way, you won’t have to rush the day your cruise embarks.

Not familiarizing yourself with the ship

Andy Dean/Adobe adult woman wearing face mask

Cruise ships are like floating towns. Since you'll be living there for a few days, you should get to know your town — and early.

Scan the deck plan well before boarding, and on day one, explore the ship from bow to stern (front to back) and starboard to port (right to left). Find the restaurants, attractions, and other features you plan to visit, as well as locating the medical facility.

Orienting yourself and your cabin to these landmarks can spare you the agony of rushing to a reservation — in the wrong direction.

Not booking your own shore excursions

Stéphane Bidouze/Adobe woman walking on jungle bridge

At every port of call, you’ll have opportunities to take guided tours, go on adventures, and get a taste of the local lifestyle. Don’t limit yourself to just what the cruise ship offers, though.

Do some research on your own, and see what’s available in each city. You’ll likely find a wider variety of tourist activities, possibly at a better price and often more suited to your personal interests.

Booking your cruise during the wrong season

Scott/Adobe Alaska Whale

With cruises, timing is everything. When you go is just as important as where you go, so account for seasonal weather and travel patterns in your planning.

If you’re set on whale-watching in Alaska, take an August cruise. To avoid hurricanes and large crowds, visit the Caribbean in the winter months. 

Rather than choosing dates at random, try to schedule your cruise intentionally so you can make the most of your time at each destination at keep more cash in your wallet.

Thinking you don’t need reservations

EWY Media/Adobe Spirit Cruise Ship interior

Cruise liners are as luxurious as they are enormous, with Michelin-star restaurants, live entertainment, and lavish spas. You’ll have no shortage of amenities to indulge in — as long as you plan ahead.

Reservations are a must on cruises. Popular or limited-space venues and events sell out quickly, and you might miss out if you don’t save a seat before departure.

Booking at the last minute

Phuong/Adobe aerial view of Spectrum of the Sea cruise

There’s nothing quite like a spontaneous vacation. But as far as cruises go, unplanned equals uneconomical.

Some cruises accept reservations a year or two in advance. The longer you wait to book, the less likely you are to snag a good deal. 

And since excursions, restaurant seating, and cabins go quickly, you could be stuck with what’s left over rather than getting first dibs on what you want.

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Foregoing travel insurance

photobyphotoboy/Adobe travel insurance documents

Assuming you don’t need travel insurance might be one of the riskiest cruise mistakes. Not only can cruise travel insurance reimburse you for canceled flights or lost luggage, it can also cover medical expenses — including medical evacuation — during your cruise.

If you’re concerned about upfront costs, shop around for affordable travel insurance policies. Should the unexpected happen, you’ll be glad you bought a backup plan in advance.

Choosing the wrong cabin

Mikhail Markovskiy/Adobe interior of cabin of a cruise ferry

Cruise ship accommodations are about as varied as the cruise liners themselves. To make the most of your cruise, consider not only what amenities you hope to have, but also where you prefer to be. 

A claustrophobic passenger may want to avoid booking a windowless cabin, for example, while a traveler with limited mobility may prefer a room closer to the elevators.

Staying in your comfort zone

Tropical studio/Adobe Family snorkeling

Going on a cruise and not embracing adventure is like wearing a wetsuit to a water park: It’s just not that satisfying.

We’re not saying you have to race through a treetop zipline at breakneck speeds, but you should make a point to try something new. 

Explore an unfamiliar cuisine or hit the dance floor with reckless abandon. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at the memories you’ll make on the other side of comfortability.

Overindulging on board

Solarisys/Adobe dining room buffet aboard the luxury abstract cruise ship

While we absolutely recommend making the most of your cruise, it’s equally important that you respect your limits. Eating or drinking too much, too often can leave you feeling groggy or nauseous — two surefire ways to ruin a cruise.

You’ll also want to leave breathing room in your itinerary. Commit to a few must-see attractions, but resist the urge to plan every minute of your trip. Give yourself permission to relax and go with the flow so you can truly unwind.

Never disconnecting

Max Topchii/Adobe man with laptop computer on sailboat

Your cruise is the perfect opportunity for a phone fast. This is not the time to check work emails or stay in touch with your social media followers.

Not only will this water down your experience, but you could also rack up some serious roaming charges. Besides, you didn’t board a ship and sail into the ocean just to scroll Facebook at sea. Put that phone in airplane mode, and enjoy your vacation.

Choosing the wrong cruise line

jovannig/Adobe Disney Cruise Ship sailing at sunset

Not all cruise lines are created equal. Each one caters to a different type of audience and has a different ambiance. The cruise line you pick can make or break your vacation, so choose wisely.

A Disney cruise might be perfect if your little ones are tagging along. But if you’re celebrating your first kid-free vacation in nine years, something like Royal Caribbean’s 80s-themed cruise might be more your jam.

Pro tip: Many people dream of taking a cruise, but the trip can turn into a nightmare if it leaves your credit cards maxed out. So, try to crush your debts before booking a cruise. That way, you will have a clean slate prior to your travels.

Bottom line

NAN/Adobe Cruise ship

To reduce the odds that you commit a grievous cruise ship faux pas, keep a running to-do list for your trip and mark important dates on your calendar.

And if you’re organizing a large travel party, consider sharing this information in a viewable (but not editable) electronic document.

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Sarah Sheehan

Sarah Sheehan is a writer, educator, and analyst who focuses on the impact of health, gender, and geography on financial equity. Her ultimate goal? To live beyond the confines of chasing the next dollar — and to teach everyone else how to do the same.