Updated November 14, 2018
Planning to take a cruise with friends seems like an absolute no-brainer. After all, as they say, while you can't choose your family, you can certainly choose your compadres. But the truth is, cruising with friends can be deceivingly complicated and you'll need to answer a lot of questions before your cruise to ensure everyone has a good time: Have you cruised with this group before? Does everyone have the same travel style? Do you know how you'll communicate while out at sea? Have you already agreed upon the excursions you will take and are you all going together?
There's almost no worse feeling than arguing on vacation. Consider the following seven tips to ensure smooth sailing with friends on a cruise, and we can just about guarantee good vibes for voyages to come.
1. Know Your Group's Dynamic
If you've already traveled with this group before, chances are you know what to expect and how to avoid conflict. If you are part of a posse with a few outliers -- new partner or a friend-of-a-friend thrown into the mix -- it might help to get together as a group before you board your cruise ship. With busy schedules and an impending vacation, it might seem overexaggerated to test the waters, so to speak, with your cruise friends. But a ship can feel awfully small if there's someone you don't entirely gel with. It's helpful to know if someone is a heavy drinker or tends to exhibit unsavory behavior in public before you don your matching T-shirts and associate yourself with them; you don't want to be known as "the friend of that belligerent guy" for an entire cruise. Try to discuss any of these possibilities with the rest of the group before the sailing, or prepare to keep your distance once onboard. On the flip side, if you get to know everyone's interests ahead of the voyage, you'll know which friend to grab for an afternoon at the spa or a race down the water slides.
2. Account for Conflicting Travel Styles
It might be fine if you have a friend who's always late meeting you for coffee, but making it back to the ship on time is a completely different thing. The quirks that make your friends unique the rest of the time could manifest themselves as a wholly different travel style than your own. The benefits of various travel styles might mean one person encourages a little organization where there is none, or someone else pushes for a little flexibility in a tight trip agenda. However, it's important to nail down some ground rules before the cruise begins, so you can all maintain fair expectations of one another. Being on time is one quality that people don't equally share -- on a sea day it doesn't matter as much as on embarkation day or when you're heading to the airport. It might be tempting to party the night before your cruise, but if your group is going to be tired, cranky and hungover getting to the ship, it might be better to save the fiesta for onboard. It's like two people in a relationship who have never lived together -- there's an adjustment period. If you have a tight-knit group of friends, but you've never cruised together before, prepare to uncover some potentially ugly travel truths.
3. Go All In
Once your cruise group is all on the same page and you're ready for your friendcation, there's nothing holding you back from going a little overboard (we mean crazy). A hallmark of group cruising is matching T-shirts. This works best for a larger friend group -- to spot one another across the Lido Deck -- but it's also a fun way to mark an occasion (birthday, reunion, wedding) regardless if there is one or not. If you're not up for flashy shirts, consider coordinated lanyards for your cruise card, luggage tags or tote bags. Swag aside, the "go all in" mentality translates to attitude as well. Try something new with your friends by your side, organize a pub crawl or splurge on a suite or connecting cabins so you can have twice the balcony space. Remember, you might not be onboard with your kids or spouse -- take advantage of cruising with friends and revel in the freedom. That upcharge cheese plate isn't going to eat itself.
4. Have a Plan to Keep in Touch
Many cruisers remember what it was like to plan a get-together before the age of instant messaging and mobile phones. For others, not being in constant communication is a distant memory, and not having that ability could throw some friend groups for a loop. Have a plan for getting in touch with your cruising amigos while you're sailing at sea or in a foreign port of call; waiting until you're already onboard to develop a system could get frustrating. One useful idea includes a whiteboard with a marker for your door so you can write where you're headed, when you'll be back or a time and place to meet. Other cruisers swear by walkie-talkies. Sure, you can always dial your friends' cabin number on your room phone, but unless they're there at the same time (and not in the middle of a nap!), it could get tricky to track them down. Many cruise lines offer a free app and charge just a few additional dollars for anytime messaging capabilities. (The key with cruise ship apps is to download them before you board.) The app should work without paying for onboard Wi-Fi, but functionality varies by cruise line. Disney, for example, offers free in-app messaging and even free use of onboard mobile phones. Whatever you decide to do, being able to touch base with friends on a cruise allows for time on your own and with the group.
5. Maintain Some Space
Time on your own is important. We know you booked this cruise to be with your besties, but being together 24/7 is not always as relaxing as it might seem. Again, reference your cruise group dynamic: Are there a bunch of singles, couples, a mix of both? Even if the majority of your time is spent interacting as a friend unit, schedule in some time for a solo walk on deck or a private dinner with your significant other. This time apart allows the group to breathe a little, and for any slight annoyances to wash away with the wake. If you have a lot planned in port, maybe book one shore tour as a couple or as a family (if you're cruising with other families), just to sneak in some one-on-one time. This is especially true if you're sharing a cabin with your travel companions. However you budget those "friend breaks," they could end up being a lifesaver. Then, you have something new to talk about the next time you get together.
6. Settle the Bill Beforehand
Money makes cruising possible, but don't let money matters interfere with your friendships. To avoid the awkward question of who is paying for this round of drinks or how you're going to split dinner or tip the tour guides, address budgeting and booking before you board. We assume you managed to book transportation and cruise fare, so consider prepaying for packages that include onboard amenities like drinks, tips and even specialty dining meals. That way, you know what's included and it's already covered. This also goes for booking any shore excursions. If you're going to spend a day in port playing it by ear, make sure everyone is OK with that. Don't expect to book a pricy tour last-minute and expect your buddies to cough up the same expenses. Being sensitive to different travel budgets is absolutely key in having a hassle-free friends cruise. That's why we also recommend linking a separate credit card to each room key. Even if you're sharing a cabin, unless you're sharing a bank account, splitting onboard charges after the fact could become a headache that leads to heartache. It's much simpler to know what you -- and you only -- are accountable for up front.
7. Find Strength in Numbers
Everything is better with friends. Despite the red flags we have raised about the potential for tardiness or tactlessness, friends are proof that someone else actually gets us, and they serve as a delightful buffer for making fools of ourselves on a cruise. They're there to share when you order everything on the main dining menu at dinner, they are an accomplice when taking silly portraits on formal night, they make instant teams for trivia or other onboard games, they're your cheering section for the hairy chest contest, and they can be built-in backup singers or dancers during your karaoke debut (or third or fourth performance). Friends have our backs and hopefully remind us about what's fun in life. Cruising with friends is not just the basis for an amazing getaway, it's integral in creating a total escape from reality; friends keep us in the cruise vacation mindset and advocate for making questionable but memorable choices. There might be tens, hundreds or likely thousands of other people on your cruise ship, but all you need are a few friends to make your sailing come alive.