First Timers' Guide to Cruise Activities

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You'll be hard-pressed to find a modern cruise ship without a fitness center and spa complex onboard. While some offer just the basics, the newest models are often multi-deck, spacious areas with floor-to-ceiling ocean views and state-of-the-art equipment.

Onboard fitness centers provide a range of cardio and strength-training equipment, and many have separate rooms for exercise classes. Classes tend to be offered in the morning and again in the early evening. You'll find listings in daily bulletins, but if you stop by the gym, you can pick up a separate sheet that details times for classes, as well. Be aware that, while most classes are free, some ships charge $10 to $15 for specialty offerings like yoga and spinning, which you'll have to sign up for in advance. Some of the largest and newest ships offer unique fitness options, such as boxing rings, punching bags, pilates equipment and kinesis walls.

The spa is the place to indulge in massages, facials and other pampering treatments; most ships also have salons, where you can have your hair cut and styled and get manicures and pedicures -- all for additional fees. You may also find steam and sauna rooms or a thalassotherapy pool -- a combination whirlpool and mineral bath. Cruise lines are expanding the spa's appeal with special treatments for men, like old-fashioned shaves, and teens, including mother-daughter packages. More out-there spa offerings include acupuncture, teeth-whitening and Ionithermie detox. Check the daily bulletin or the spa for special offers and spa packages. You can often save money by booking your spa treatments on port days rather than sea days.

For more on cruise ship spas, read our feature on Best Cruise Ship Spas.

Kids' Programming

For the under-18 crowd, many mass-market cruise ships have separate kids' areas. While you won't find expansive facilities on luxury lines or ships that cater to older passengers, more family-oriented ships have huge facilities that often include multiple play areas for the youngest cruisers, teen hangouts and discos, kiddie pools, waterslides, arcades and kids-only deck space.

Parents can sign children up for these onboard "camps," and trained youth counselors will lead them in various organized games, contests, scavenger hunts, arts and crafts projects, pajama and dance parties or simply supervised play. Some lines have partnered with outside sources to offer unique programs, such as acting classes, hands-on science experiments and deejay training. Children can spend as much or as little time as they want in the kids' clubs, either participating in activities or just hanging out. The amount of freedom allowed varies by age group. But, the lounges are often closed during meal times and late at night. Families with very small children may also be able to use the youth facilities for parent-child playtime.

For more on kids' activities, read Cruise Critic's Onboard Activities for Kids & Parents and Best Family Ships features.

Evening Entertainment

After dark, most ships take on a Vegas aura. Casinos may be open during the day too, but at night, they're packed with people playing the slot machines or trying their luck at poker or blackjack. Lounges feature live bands and cabaret singers for your dancing or listening pleasure; piano bars, complete with sing-alongs, are becoming popular hotspots on modern ships. And, especially late at night, the disco will be hopping.

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