First Time Cruising Tips

Congratulations on looking into or booking your first cruise. Now comes the fun part: Figuring out everything you want to see, do, taste and experience on and off of your ship during your cruise vacation.

 

Just like any first time adventure, from vacations to jobs…… it’s helpful to gather some tips and tricks before you head off on the new adventure! With that in mind, here are 15 things to consider as a first time cruiser!

1 - Pack with Space in Mind (and Consider Only a Carry-On for 3-4 day cruises)

The one thing we can tell you is most first-time cruisers (us included!) majorly overpack!  Less is more when going on a cruise.  Whether you can fit clothing for an entire cruise into one carry-on bag is a source of fierce debate, but it is absolutely possible and easily achievable for short 3-4 day cruises.  You have to keep in mind that cruise ship rooms (and especially bathrooms) aren't known for having tons of storage space. You'll want to think twice about overpacking, especially if you're maxing out the capacity of a standard room.  Plus you are on vacation…no one will notice if you wear the same outfit 2 times if it is only for dinner.  Need some tips?  Head on over and check out our PACKING LISTS

2 - Research Your Ports in Advance

On a cruise, everything you'll need -- food, fun and cabins -- is neatly arranged in apps, maps on the ships and daily programming flyers. The cruise lines also do a great job offering a variety of shore excursions, however they don't always do the best job of telling you what there is to see or do in ports of call that is unique to the country / culture you are visiting. Therefore, you should do your own research ahead of time because most excursions do not last the whole time you are in port, so you normally have extra time to explore on your own!  There is tons of information on chat boards like CRUISE CRITIC and first hand experiences on YOUTUBE.  (Shameless plug… stop by our YouTube Channel for some port tours and experiences…. like and subscribe as we are always adding adventures!)

3 - Don’t Pick A Cruise For Just ONE Port of Call

While cruise ships have set itineraries at the time you book, those are not set in stone. Hurricanes, other storms and an array of other factors can mean that one or more ports on your cruise could change or be cancelled completely. With that in mind, don’t pick a cruise just for one port of call. Instead, find a cruise that travels across a region that you find appealing. Trust us: We have had an entire cruise switch from a Eastern Caribbean to a Western Caribbean due to a hurricane and missed ports that required you to tender from the ship to the shore due to rough seas.  Just remember, be flexible and you are still on vacation so make the best of it.

4 - Pick a Cabin That Works for Your Cruise Needs

Sure, we know everyone wants a suite -- but the best cabin onboard is the one that fits your budget and your needs. You can still have a great experience even if you stay in an interior on the lowest deck, but with that in mind, don’t pick an inside cabin with no window just because it’s the cheapest; consider where you’re headed, the length of your cruise, and let that guide you. A few things to keep in mind.  If you DO love to have a “blackout” room, then an interior is for you, if you like the interior feel, but also want to see what is outside occasionally, some ships now have rooms with a “virtual balcony.” This is an interior room with an LCD “window” that sends you a live feed of the exterior ship camera.  If you’re headed for a warm-weather destination or heck even a cold destination like Alaska, a balcony cabin is great. You have your own private area to soak up the sun and/or look at the glaciers or other natural beauty around you.  If you are a foodie get a cabin closer to most of the dining options, love to work out or go to the SPA… get a cabin closer to that area (ships even have special SPA cabins that give you SPA perks).  In the end, take your time and consider your room category and location so it best matches your needs.

5 - Research Your Ship Layout and Amenities Ahead of Time.

Let’s face it, these cruise ships are getting bigger and bigger and with that comes a little confusion with the layout.  Gone are the days where all of the entertainment and shops were on 2 or 3 decks now you have a half dozen or more with venues tucked EVERYWHERE!  Make it easier on yourselves (unless you like just wandering around and being surprised at what you find) and do some research on the layout and amenities on the ship.  There are multiple areas to find deck plans, the most common is on the website of the cruise line you will be sailing, but there are other places like Cruise Mapper, Cruise Deck Plans and as always, a large quantity of ship tours on YouTube and other social media platforms!  (We even have ship and room tours on our YouTube Channel).

6 - Purchase a Drink Package / Dining Package Before You Set Sail

A drink package and/or dining package can save you money and hassle when you’re sailing.  We know that when you look at the price of these packages (ESPECIALLY Deluxe Drink Packages) there is a bit of a sticker shock.  Most drink packages are broken down on a per person/per day cost and range in prices usually between $60 to $99 per person per day.   The one drawback: You’ll have to pay up front rather than onboard.  And that is where the shock comes….. it can run between $600-$1200 total for 2 people for the top package and although it seems like a lot (trust us when went over a decade buying one drink at a time) the cost in the end can be much cheaper then buying them on the ship as the top packages will include almost every type of drink….Fresh Juices, Cokes, Milk Shakes, Specialty Coffee, and Alcohol.  The average price for drinks when you look at all prices is about $10 a drink so in the end roughly 6-8 drinks a day covers your cost!  Some fresh juice at breakfast, a few coffees in the morning and through the day mixed in with a few cocktails….. you are golden and trust us… you do save money especially if you are hanging with friends on the cruise!  As for the dining packages some cruise lines, like Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises offer dining packages at a flat prices for the cruise, this grants you access to reserve a time (once on board) and eat at any specialty restaurant without having to pay the per dining cost (Normally $30 - $60 per person depending on the restaurant).  This can save a TON of money if you want to have a more upscaled dining experience.  When all is said and done, if you are looking to get the drink or dining package, you’ll likely save money by booking it early as cruise lines often discount those packages ahead of time.

7 - Don't Tip Double on Alcohol

If you decide not to go the drink package route, then know this….  most big-ship lines like Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, etc… automatically add a service charge onto bar bills. Unless the service was spectacular, there's no need to add an additional tip in the space provided.

8 - Get the Cruise Line APP!

We can’t stress this enough…. GET. THE. APP. … and do it BEFORE you leave port (once you leave port there is no internet to download it unless you buy an internet package.)  With the advancement of modern technology, almost everything is going digital.  The app for the cruise line will give you access to almost everything you need from the daily planner to making reservations for dinner and more!  So even if you normally do not go digital or do the “App Thing”, you need to make an exception this time.

9 - Board Your Ship As Soon As You Can on Embarkation Day

Book your boarding time online as soon as you’re able to before your cruise. Remember you’ve paid for that first day, so aiming at the earliest boarding time means you can maximize your vacation time and get a head start of exploring the ship! Most areas of the ship are up and running such as the pool deck, kids area, spa services and more. Grab lunch from one of the venues (the buffet on day one is normally SUPER busy, but if you get an early boarding time you can get in there when it first opens and prior to it getting packed). You won’t have access to your room right away, so pack your swimsuit in your carry-on, and change in one of the public restrooms. You can also use part of your day to tour the ship.

10 - Your Cruise Daily Planner is the Key to Entertainment

Cruise lines put out a calendar each day -- either a paper flyer that's left in your cabin or electronically via their app (more cruise lines are going digital). This is your golden ticket when it comes to figuring out how to spend your day. The planners are loaded with things to keep you busy, like dance classes, trivia, theater shows, demonstrations (towel/napkin folding), live music, contests… you name it… it’s probably somewhere on the ship!  Many apps allow you to save items to your calendar and will even push a reminder to your phone. If you have a paper planner, a good old-fashioned highlighter will help you keep it straight. Also note: Many shows are often offered twice each day, so you can fit the one that fits your schedule. Lastly, be sure the cruise line doesn't require reservations ahead of time for a particular show.

11 - Don't Be the First To Rush Off the Ship in Port

Unless you have an excursion that leaves as soon as you get in port, don’t rush off the ship.  Much like getting off an airplane, the second your ship pulls into port, it can feel like half of the vessel is already waiting at the gangway and stairwells to get off the ship.  Instead, grab some coffee or have a leisurely breakfast/lunch and give it 30 minutes to an hour.  Then make your way down and you should be able to get off without a large hassle.  Also, consider what time it is: We’ve seen people swarm off ships at seven in the morning only to come back onboard an hour later complaining about how nothing is open. Don’t be that cruiser……

12 - Consider Saving Money on Your Shore Excursions

Cruise ships offer shore excursions which are essentially tours that take place in each port. With most cruise lines these do come at an additional cost. When you purchase these tours through the cruise line everything is handled for you as far as organization and transportation to and from the adventure.  This however does come at a cost as the price can easily be double that of going on your own or through a third party vendor.  If you want to save a little money, book independent shore excursions through a company like Shore Excursions Group or Tripadvisor. Just make sure your excursion fits with your time in port.  Just note though, if you are delayed returning to the ship on a cruise-purchased shore excursion, the ship will wait. If you booked independently or go out on your own, IT WILL NOT.

13 - Keep your phone in airplane mode

Some of the biggest cruise ship horror stories you’ll find on the internet are tales of first time cruisers who racked up thousands of dollars in cellphone charges while on ships. This can happen when you leave your phone connected to the network and stream music, watch videos, browse the internet or take/make phone calls.  Most phone plans — even international plans — DO NOT include talking, texting and data on cruise ships since there are no cell towers at sea, you have to access all that data through “cellular at sea”, and you’ll pay exorbitant roaming rates for such services that will show up weeks later on your phone bill.  We know some people who had a bill that was close to $1000 due to the roaming charges.

There are ways to make calls and access the internet from ships without spending tons of money. You can buy a Wi-Fi package, that will let you make FaceTime calls and use other communication apps like WhatsApp without using phone data. Remember to put your cell phone on airplane mode to avoid this costly mistake.

14 - Leave your phone on ship time and DISABLE the automatic time zone update.

One of the largest issues that results in cruisers missing the ship is when you change time zones and a cruiser leaves the automatic update feature enabled on their phone…..especially if you lose an hour in the time zone change.

15 - Use a Travel Agent to Book

Yes, yes, another shameless plug, but truthfully given the complexity of booking a cruise and excursions — there are a lot of decisions to make during the booking process.  A good travel agent will quiz you about your particular interests, travel style and preferences and steer you to the perfect cruise line, ship, itinerary and cabin for you. The agent also can help you if something goes wrong just before, during or after your voyage.