I recently returned from my first cruise and I’m pretty sure I did more research for this trip than I did for my doctorate degree! I combed numerous websites, subscribed to multiple YouTube channels, talked to several different cruise line employees, and polled almost every friend (and stranger) that I encountered looking for tips for first-time cruisers.
Embarking on your first cruise is exciting but can be a bit overwhelming. There’s so much information out there. To ensure you make the most of your cruise, here are some essential tips to help you navigate the seas and create memories that will last a lifetime.
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How do I prepare for my first cruise?
So, you’ve decided to take a cruise vacation. Now what? Here are my top tips for planning to cruise for the very first time.
1. Do Your Research
Before booking your cruise, take the time to research different cruise lines, itineraries, and ships. Consider the atmosphere, amenities, and activities offered by each cruise line to find one that aligns with your preferences. Reading reviews from fellow travelers can provide valuable insights and help you make an informed decision.
The Points Guy has a comparison of several popular cruise lines.
Here’s a quick comparison of several top cruise lines, each known for its unique offerings and distinct cruise experiences:
Royal Caribbean International:
- Known For: Innovation and Adventure
- Highlights: Quantum and Oasis-class ships, rock climbing, Broadway-style entertainment, diverse dining options, and high-energy activities like FlowRider and zip-lining.
Carnival Cruise Line:
- Known For: Fun and Lively Atmosphere
- Highlights: “Fun Ships” with vibrant décor, extensive entertainment, WaterWorks water park, casual dining options, and themed cruise events.
Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL):
- Known For: Freestyle Cruising
- Highlights: Freestyle dining with no set dining times, Broadway-caliber entertainment, The Haven luxury suites, and a variety of specialty restaurants.
Disney Cruise Line:
- Known For: Family-Friendly Magic
- Highlights: Themed cruises for families, classic Disney characters, Broadway-style shows, rotational dining, and private island Castaway Cay.
- Known For: European Elegance
- Highlights: Modern and elegant ships, diverse international cuisine, partnerships with celebrity chefs, and a variety of entertainment options.
Holland America Line:
- Known For: Classic Cruising Experience
- Highlights: Premium service, classic décor, extensive art collections onboard, Culinary Council featuring renowned chefs, and in-depth destination experiences.
- Known For: Relaxation and Romance
- Highlights: The “Movies Under the Stars” experience, traditional dining, diverse itineraries, and the Royal-class ships with innovative amenities.
- Known For: Modern Luxury
- Highlights: Modern and stylish ships, gourmet dining, Canyon Ranch Spa, premium accommodations, and diverse entertainment options.
- Known For: Italian Flair
- Highlights: Italian-themed cruises, diverse dining options, extensive spa facilities, and themed parties.
Viking Ocean Cruises:
- Known For: Destination-Focused Cruising
- Highlights: Small and intimate ships, inclusive excursions, enrichment programs, and a focus on cultural experiences.
Remember, the “best” cruise line depends on individual preferences, interests, and the type of experience you’re seeking. Whether you crave adventure, family fun, luxury, or cultural exploration, there’s a cruise line tailored to your needs.
2. Plan and Book in Advance
Cruises are popular vacation choices, and activities and dining reservations can fill up quickly. To avoid disappointment, it’s a good idea to plan and book as much as possible in advance. This includes shore excursions, specialty dining, and spa treatments. Early planning ensures you secure the experiences you desire and allows for a more relaxed and enjoyable cruise.
3. Pack Wisely
Packing for a cruise requires a balance between preparation and simplicity. Be sure to pack comfortable clothing, swimwear, and formal attire for special evenings. Don’t forget essentials like sunscreen, medications, and travel adapters. Most cruise lines provide detailed packing lists to guide you, so take advantage of these resources.
First-time cruisers, in the excitement of planning their voyage, may occasionally overlook essential items that can enhance their cruise experience. Here’s a sample list of items often forgotten by cruise newcomers:
Power Strip or Extension Cord:
- Cruise cabins may have limited power outlets, so bringing a power strip or extension cord can be invaluable for charging multiple devices.
Travel-Sized Laundry Detergent:
- A small amount of laundry detergent can be useful for washing swimwear and other garments in the cabin sink.
- Bring a highlighter to mark important activities and events on the daily cruise schedule provided in your cabin.
Reusable Water Bottle:
- Staying hydrated is crucial. Bring a reusable water bottle to fill up at water stations on the ship and take with you on excursions.
Sunscreen and Aloe Vera:
- Protect your skin from the sun’s rays with sunscreen and have a soothing aloe vera gel on hand for any sunburns.
Motion Sickness Medication:
- Even if you don’t typically experience motion sickness, it’s wise to have medication or remedies just in case the seas get rough.
Over-the-Door Shoe Organizer:
- This can be a handy way to keep small items organized in your cabin, as cruise cabins often have limited counter space.
Small First Aid Kit:
- Include basics like pain relievers, band-aids, seasickness medication, and any prescription medications you may need.
Waterproof Phone Case:
- Protect your phone during water-based activities and shore excursions with a waterproof case.
- If your cruise includes snorkeling destinations and you have your own gear, bringing it along can save you rental fees and ensure a better fit.
Travel Alarm Clock:
- While most cruise cabins have alarm clocks, having your own can be reassuring, especially if you’re exploring different time zones.
Formal Night Attire:
- Check the dress code for formal nights and bring appropriate attire if you plan to participate in these special evenings.
- If your cruise visits different countries, ensure you have the right travel adapters to charge your electronic devices.
Lanyard or Passport Holder:
- Keep your cruise card, ID, and key documents secure and easily accessible with a lanyard or passport holder.
Backpack or Day Bag:
- Useful for carrying essentials during shore excursions, such as water, sunscreen, a camera, and any purchased souvenirs.
- Though I highly recommend unplugging while you’re on your cruise, you will need your phone to capture pictures and videos to look back on after the cruise.
4. Budget for Extras
While cruises often include meals and entertainment, there are additional expenses you should budget for, such as gratuities, room service, excursions and onboard purchases. Plan ahead and allocate funds for these extras to avoid any unexpected financial stress during your cruise. (It’s also recommended to use a credit card rather than a debit card while you’re traveling.)
Here are some common examples of “extras” on a cruise:
- While some cruise lines automatically include gratuities in the overall fare, others add them as a daily charge. Be aware of the tipping policy and budget accordingly for tips to service staff.
- Most cruise lines charge for alcoholic beverages. Some offer a drink package, but these are often separate from the initial cruise fare.
- Cruise ships typically include dining options in the main dining room and buffet. But many also offer specialty restaurants that come with an additional fee.
- Shore excursions, while a fantastic way to explore the ports of call, are usually not included in the cruise fare. Budget for guided tours, water activities, and other excursions you may be interested in.
Internet and Communication:
- Internet access on cruise ships is often an extra cost. While some cruise lines offer packages, the internet speed may be limited, and additional charges can apply for premium plans.
Spa and Fitness Services:
- Spa treatments, fitness classes, and personal training sessions are often available onboard for an extra fee.
- Professional photos taken by the ship’s photographers during formal nights and other events come with a price tag. Be prepared for the cost if you choose to purchase them.
Casino and Gambling:
- Casinos on cruise ships are popular, but gambling comes at an additional cost. Set a budget if you plan to try your luck in the onboard casino.
- Onboard shops offer a variety of merchandise, from clothing to souvenirs. Budget for any onboard shopping you may want to do.
- Some cruise lines host art auctions onboard. While attendance is free, purchasing artwork can add up.
Special Events and Shows:
- While many entertainment options are included, some cruise lines have premium shows or events that come with an extra charge.
Laundry and Dry Cleaning:
- Laundry services are typically available, but they come with a cost. Consider bringing travel-sized detergent to do some handwashing in your cabin.
- Medical services provided by the ship’s medical staff, including medications and consultations, may come with an extra charge.
Arcade and Video Games:
- If the ship has an arcade or video game area, playing games usually incurs additional fees.
Port Fees and Taxes:
- While not an onboard expense, it’s essential to be aware of any port fees and taxes that may not be included in the initial cruise fare.
By planning ahead and budgeting for these potential extra expenses, cruisers can ensure a more enjoyable and stress-free experience.
5. Stay Healthy and Safe
Cruises are generally safe, but it’s important to prioritize your health and safety. Wash your hands regularly, use hand sanitizer, and follow any health guidelines provided by the cruise line. Familiarize yourself with the ship’s layout and emergency procedures to ensure you’re prepared for any situation.
6. Embrace the Ship’s Culture
Each cruise ship has its own unique atmosphere and culture. Whether you’re on a family-friendly cruise, a luxury liner, or an adventure-focused vessel, embrace the ship’s culture and participate in onboard activities. From themed parties to Broadway-style shows, there’s always something exciting happening on a cruise ship.
7. Disconnect and Reconnect
While many modern cruise ships offer Wi-Fi and connectivity, consider taking this opportunity to disconnect from the digital world and immerse yourself in the cruise experience. Spend quality time with travel companions, engage in onboard activities, and savor the breathtaking views without the distraction of constant notifications.
Embarking on your first cruise is a journey filled with anticipation and wonder. By doing your research, planning in advance, packing wisely, budgeting for extras, prioritizing health and safety, embracing the ship’s culture, and disconnecting to reconnect, you’ll set the stage for a memorable and enjoyable cruise experience. So, pack your bags, leave your worries behind, and get ready to sail into the adventure of a lifetime!
What are some frequently asked questions for first-time cruisers?
What’s the best way to book my first cruise?
Consider reaching out to a travel agent. They can guide first-time cruisers through the process, helping them select the best cruise liner, cabin type, and itinerary.
What happens on embarkation day?
On embarkation day, arrive at the cruise terminal with your documents, passport, and cruise planner. It’s the first day of your exciting journey!
How much time should I allow for embarkation?
Plan to arrive early to avoid long lines. Most cruise companies have specific check-in times, and being punctual ensures a smooth boarding process.
What’s the muster drill?
The muster drill is a mandatory safety exercise on the first day. Pay attention to crew members’ instructions and know the location of your life jacket.
Can I bring my own drinks onboard?
Check the cruise company’s policy. Some allow limited quantities of soft drinks or wine, while others offer drink packages for purchase.
What’s a good place to explore on the first day?
Start by familiarizing yourself with the ship. The lido deck, buffet restaurant, and gift shops are great places to begin your cruise adventure.
Do I need travel insurance for my first cruise?
Yes, it’s a great thing to have. Travel insurance can cover unforeseen circumstances and provide peace of mind during your journey.
Any tips for port days?
Plan shore excursions in advance, wear comfortable clothing, and carry essentials like your cruise card, ID, and a small backpack.
What’s the last thing I should do before disembarking?
Settle any outstanding service charges, review your final bill, and make sure you haven’t left anything behind in your cabin.
Are there fitness centers on cruise ships?
Yes, most cruise liners have fitness centers. Pack workout gear and take advantage of the facilities during your cruise.
Can I stay connected on the high seas?
Check if your cruise company offers Wi-Fi. Be cautious of roaming charges, and consider disconnecting to fully enjoy the cruise experience.
Are smaller or larger ships better for first-time cruisers?
Smaller ships offer a more intimate experience, while larger ships provide a broader range of amenities. Consider your preferences and choose accordingly.
How do I find the best stateroom for my first trip?
Research deck plans and cabin types. Interior cabins are budget-friendly, while luxury lines offer more spacious and upscale accommodations.
Can I explore the cruise terminal before boarding?
Yes, some cruise terminals have shops, restaurants, and ship tours. It’s a good time to get excited about your upcoming adventure.
What’s the best way to stay informed about the cruise itinerary?
Regularly check the cruise planner, attend port talks, and stay connected with fellow passengers or cruise critic reviews.
How do I prepare for gala evenings?
Pack formal attire for gala evenings. Check the cruise company’s dress code and enjoy the special atmosphere.
Any tips for European cruises?
Research the ports of call, learn basic local phrases, and appreciate the diverse cultures you’ll encounter during your European cruise.
What should I know about wine tastings onboard?
Participate in wine tastings to explore new flavors. Be mindful of additional charges, and enjoy a relaxing experience on the high seas.
Remember, cruising is a unique and delightful way to travel. Be sure to read the fine print, follow these first-time cruise tips, and embark on your voyage with the confidence to make the most of every moment. Bon voyage!