First Time Cruise Tips: A Guide To A Great Vacation

Tips for First Time Cruisers, Advice and cruise travel help

Here are some tips to make your first cruise as smooth sailing as possible

Cruising is an exciting way to enjoy the world and travel. Here is our guide to making the most of your cruise experience with our tips for a first-time cruise.

Tips On Booking Your First Cruise

Here are some tips to get the most out of a cruise while booking.

Decide if an itinerary or if a cruise ship experience is more important to you. For many vacationers, being able to see exotic locations and experience a taste of unique cruise ports is the primary reason for booking a cruise whereas some travelers really want the resort-like experience of being on a cruise ship, and the actual ports and locations matter less.

If you are looking to get the most out of being on a specific cruise ship, perhaps one known for dining or entertainment, look at less popular destinations to get the best deals.

If you really crave a certain location or port, worry less about which ship takes you there! If you find a slightly older cruise ship going to some premium locations, you can often save quite a bit of money over booking a shiny new mega-ship.

Consider the experience you’re looking for and choose the best cruise line that aligns with your expectations. That may be difficult for a first-time cruiser, but we’ve made a quick pros and cons overview of each major cruise line to help you decide what company may be best for you.

Inquire About Cruise Fare Discounts From Recognized Organizations

Many people don’t realize that a membership they have to an organization like USAA or AARP has member benefits for cruise vacations and other travel. Additionally, they often offer travel insurance to cover your vacation.

You Might Ask: Should I Use A Travel Agent For a Cruise?

Most experienced travelers who book cruises often choose to be loyal to a travel agent for many reasons. It’s true that sometimes travel agents have access to special rates for their clients or can get offers on added perks from the cruise lines. These perks can often add up in the form of drink packages, wifi access, specialty dining, and sometimes gratuities being paid on your behalf. The question is, how to choose a good travel agent!

First Time Cruise Tips: A Guide To A Great Vacation 1

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Balcony Rooms Are Worth It – And Sometimes Not Much More Expensive

If you can afford a balcony room, it’s often worth the extra bit of money. It’s good to know, however, that on some larger ships and some itineraries, a balcony room may not cost much more than an interior room or outside room with a porthole.

However, it is important to know that often, interior cabins are fine for first-time cruisers. Many experienced cruisers prefer interior cabins due to the fact they are pitch black at night and easier to get rest until later in the morning.

Do the Math Before Booking the “All You Can Drink” Packages

Not all drink packages are created equal! Each cruise line has its version of drink packages that could save even a moderate drinker a ton of money, though some cruise lines have no drink package offerings at all.

A drink package may sound like a great deal, but there are some essential things to consider before booking one of these packages.

You have to consider how much alcohol you plan on consuming. If you are the type of person who doesn’t drink at all, then this is obviously a good deal for you. But you may have no choice! If one person in your cabin likes to drink and wants a package, it’s often required that all passengers in the cabin sign up for the same package.

Considering the prices of some drink packages, if you simply are a beer person that likes to have a few by the pool and a couple of beers at dinner, it rarely works out in your favor to have a package. Much beyond that, however, the packages are usually worth considering.

It’s also important to note that some cruise lines such as NCL and Celebrity Cruises don’t implement a daily drink limit for customers with drink packages, but other companies such as Carnival limit the number of beverages you can have in a day (15). So if you’re drinking 15 martinis in a day it translates to a bargain (though I fear for your liver) … and if you typically have a few beers at lunch and dinner, the packages rarely make sense.

Consider Cruise-Specific Travel Insurance

Travel insurance has never been more important than today given the global pandemic and how it is impacting travel for so many people. But it is important to get coverage that includes cruises, cancellations due to COVID, etc. It’s also important to shop your cruise insurance and compare it to what the actual cruise line is offering.

Don’t book a cabin near an elevator

Elevator vestibules may seem convenient to be near on a cruise, but they are often noisy with the gathering of people and the bells of the elevators. If you’re a light sleeper, a cabin near an elevator is not a good choice.

Pre-Cruise tips. A few things to help make your arrival and pre-departure stress-free!

Don’t overpack for a cruise!

It’s tempting to pack multiple outfits for every day. Most people end up going home with a lot of unused clothing after a cruise. Pack wisely and light. See our Ultimate Cruise Packing List here.

Arrive at your departure port a day ahead of schedule

If you have to fly to your departure port, most experienced cruisers will tell you to arrive the day before. This is more important now than ever given the airline shortages and record number of cancellations and delays in recent months.

Flying to your destination a day early, or even the night before helps avoid delays that could cause you to miss your cruise! It’s important to know that the ship will not wait for you!

Some Hotels Offer Free or Discounted Cruise Parking

If you’re driving to your departure port, the cost to park can add up quickly. Some cruise terminals charge 15-20 dollars per day! However, if you research hotels near cruise ports, many will allow you to park your car for the duration of a cruise if you stay with them for a night before the cruise. It’s always worth asking and comparing prices.

Time your arrival to avoid crowds at the port on embarkation day

If you want to avoid the crowds at the port on embarkation day, then make sure you arrive a little later than you would expect. Most cruises won’t allow passengers to board early in the morning, as they are disembarking the previous passengers and readying the cabins. Expect the earliest you’d be able to board would be around 11 am. At that point, many people rush to be first on board to start their holiday, but waiting just 2 hours could make your experience much smoother. Trying to be the first group to board could mean waiting in a cruise terminal for a couple of hours while everyone is checked in. Waiting until the initial rush of passengers gets to the cruise port will mean you can usually get checked in and boarded with minimal waiting time.

Be aware of the embarkation/boarding rules for your cruise line. Some lines are now implementing time slots to arrive for more orderly process check-ins. If the cruise line has implemented check-in times and you’ve been assigned a specific arrival time, don’t show up when it’s not your time.

Be prepared in case motion sickness strikes

While it’s not incredibly common to get seasick, you should be prepared just in case. If you’ve never cruised before, it’s a good idea to carry over-the-counter motion sickness pills (Dramamine). If medication is not your thing, some cruisers recommend chewable ginger gummy candy to settle seasickness (a lot of people swear by this!)

Another way to control motion sickness is the “Sea-Band” – an elastic device that goes on your wrist. I would have never believed it worked until I witnessed it with a dear friend on her first cruise that normally gets horribly ill on boats and didn’t suffer one bit on her cruise.

Pack your bathing suit in your carry-on

First-time cruisers don’t realize that it can take up to several hours for luggage to arrive in their cabin. So we always recommend packing essentials and a bathing suit in a carry-on bag so you can make use of the outdoor facilities and pool immediately.

Also – don’t forget other essentials like medication, a phone charger, a hat, sunscreen, and other items that will let you head straight to the pool deck to start the fun.

Research ports in advance

I can’t emphasize enough that if you are going on a cruise to experience the port cities or destinations, research in advance! There is nothing like arriving on your cruise and being overwhelmed by the choices of excursions or even discovering the one thing you want to see in a given port isn’t on an excursion offered by the cruise line. Knowing in advance will allow you to choose to do a self-guided wander to your choice of interests or hire a third-party excursion company.

Join a Facebook group for your cruise line

Another great place to get ideas for what to do in ports and on ships — and what to bring on a cruise, for that matter — are the many private Facebook groups dedicated to particular lines. You’ll find thousands of cruise fans on these pages who often are more than willing to answer questions about their favorite line, its ships, its itineraries, and the destinations on the itineraries.

Information For While On Board Your Cruise Vacation 

Here are some great tips to help make your trip more enjoyable, all by seasoned cruisers who’ve experienced it all!

Order Multiples in the Main Dining Room

Most new or first-time cruisers don’t realize they can order from the main dining room menu in any order and any quantity! They assume that they have to order everything at once and can’t just order one dish. You may also want to try ordering a few different dishes so you can sample a variety of foods from the menu. No one will think twice when you order that second or third round of appetizers (other than your travel companions… they might judge you!)

You Can Bring Snacks on Board

If there are sweet treats and snacks you can’t live without, be sure to bring some with you. While the onboard gift shops and sundry shops have a selection of candy, it’s generally limited and quite expensive. So if you love things like Trader Joe’s Mango Jalapeño Apple Fruit Snacks, take as many on board as you want! Just know that the snacks and other food must be retail packaged and sealed. Snacks brought onboard can’t be of a homemade variety (sorry grandma, I can’t take your famous cookies!).

Yes, You Can (Usually) Bring (Some) Alcohol on Board a Cruise Ship

Depending on the cruise line, you can often bring a limited amount of wine on during embarkation. We’ve put together a full list of alcohol rules here (PAGE). No cruise lines allow liquor anymore and many are even limiting soft drinks brought on board. So, take advantage of drink policies if you have something specific you want to consume!

While they may charge a small “corkage fee” – it is often far less than the cost of buying wine on board. Some may not even charge a corkage fee if the wine is consumed in the stateroom and only charge the fee in restaurants.

There’s No Bill to Sign (or Tip to Leave) in the Dining Room

When taking advantage of the main dining rooms on a cruise, all the food is normally included and there is no bill to sign or tip to leave. While tipping is a contentious topic and we’ll cover it in-depth, if you find at the end of the cruise you’ve had a particular service person or waiter provide exceptional service, a small tip is always appreciated.

The Main Dining Room Serves Breakfast and Lunch

Sit-down restaurants sometimes are open for lunch on embarkation day and typically are much less crowded than buffet eateries.

It may be tempting to go to the buffet for lunch and breakfast, but why fight the crowds? Get table service in the main dining room for these meals – often with daily specials, all included at no extra charge!

While in Port, a Few Tips

So many ports, never enough time! That is what most cruise passengers complain about. So here are a few things to help you get the most out of your port visits.

Sign up for private tours

If you don’t find what you’re looking for with a ship-sponsored tour – or the excursions are too expensive that are offered by the Cruise line, consider trying private tours through reputable agencies like Viator.

Don’t feel like you have to do it all

It’s tempting to want to try it all. Instead, embrace the time you have to try as much as you can without feeling rushed. Take a little time to review the daily schedules provided by the ship and plant the activities that interest you the most. Review the various ports and excursions before your cruise and prioritize your activities. But never feel like you have to do it all. Remember, this is a vacation!

Always carry the ship’s contact information with you

When out and about in a port or on an excursion, it’s important to carry the ship information with you in case of emergency. Many passengers don’t realize that ships have a phone number for contacting them for emergencies, usually published in the daily activity guide.

Aim to Arrive at Least 30 Minutes Before The Ships “All Aboard”

There is something freakishly fun about watching “pier runners”, the folks who are running to catch the ship before it departs from a port. It’s honestly one of my favorite things to do on a cruise. But DON’T BE ONE OF THOSE RUNNERS! Aim to arrive 30 minutes before the ship’s “All Aboard” time. Avoid missing the ship, they will NOT wait for you.

Tipping On A Cruise

Tipping is always a hot topic when it comes to a cruise. Most cruise lines automatically add gratuities for everything from beverage purchases, to specialty dining, and daily cabin service. This largely covers every scenario that would require a tip on a cruise, however many passengers insist on additional gratuities for their favorite bartender, cabin steward, etc. It’s a topic that always ignites a firestorm on social media with a range of opinions. Our personal experience and opinion on the matter can be read in detail in our guide to tipping on a cruise ship here. But generally speaking, we leave something a little extra for the cabin steward if they’ve met or exceeded expectations and on occasion a bartender mid-cruise and a waiter at the end of a cruise if they’ve been exceptional (and your regular waiter throughout the cruise). But never forget, services like in the Spa will add automatic gratuities – and it’s easy to miss and tip additional amounts you wouldn’t normally have.

See our complete guide to tipping on a cruise ship that we’ve created just for first-time cruisers!

Don’t tip twice for drinks and spa treatments

It’s customary on cruise ships that a default percentage is charged for gratuity on services, meals, and beverages. Normally this ranges from 15%-18% depending on the cruise line. So be sure you look at every receipt and confirm whether or not gratuity has been automatically charged. There are plenty of times I’ve

Get your final bill / folio before disembarking

Unfortunately, mistakes are frequent when it comes to billing on a cruise. Bartenders mix up drink tickets, things get added to your account by accident, etc. While it’s possible to correct this after you get off your trip and get a surprise bill, it can be time-consuming and frustrating. So save yourself the frustration and get a copy of your final cabin statement the night before you disembark and settle any discrepancies at the customer service desk while still on board the ship.

Do you have any first-time cruiser tips to add?

Did we miss something? Do you want to add an idea? Just submit a comment below!

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