Though the title is “Valuable Lessons For Your First Cruise”, even cruise vets or those who have only cruised a couple times might find some useful information on this post. All photos courtesy of Best Site To Book A Cruise unless other wise noted.
Planning and Booking
1. Budget properly.
“Be prepared to spend at least 200 on the ship before you get off, not counting gratuity.” — Mrharvey on Carnival Conquest
There are some exceptions (Luxury cruises), but the vast majority of cruises are not all-inclusive. When planning your trip, be sure to budget for extra expenses like alcohol, specialty restaurants, spa treatments, and gratuities. The usual excursion will cost between $80-$140 per person. Also, alcohol purchase could really add up average mix drinks on most cruise comes in around $8-$12. Average beer cost $3.00. Couple drinks 4-5 drinks each in a given day can cost $100 per day. Drink more than that, we suggest checking on the availability of alcohol packages.
Photo of drinks on the Lido deck 2 alcohol drinks, bottled water plus tip $22
2. Timing is everything.
The number of young children and college students onboard increases dramatically at certain times of the year, such as school breaks and holidays. If you prefer not to deal with either age group, choose another date if you can. Same “Timing is everything” applies to cruise pricing. If kids are out of school or holiday season is upon us, the pricing will be higher! Supply and demand. If a ship has just been released, the demand will be higher.
3. Keep the needs of your companions in mind.
“We were first time cruisers, and my husband is in an electric wheelchair, so we had some huge reservations. However, were blown away with the ease of accessibility, the amount of help and consideration we received from the staff & crew. Our room was ready early, and our power chair (we rented one from an accessibility company) was there when we arrived.” — revyates5 on Carnival Breeze
All ships have accessible cabins but in very limited quantities. Example a ship may only have two or three fully accessible balcony cabins on a giving ship. On a specific deck. That ship may not have ocean view accessible cabins at all. Could be only interiors and balconies. For those with food allergies, be sure to let your agent know or if you are booking online at a site like ours or Expedia’s of the world email after booking so the cruise lines can be alerted.
4. Consider your ship, not just the overall cruise line.
“Carnival Fascination seemed like an older boat and didn’t have as many fun amenities as [we were] hoping for. There was one small pool and water slides. It would’ve been better with another larger pool since there were so many people around one area. There was no rock climbing wall, shuffle board, etc.” — sydneyblanch on Carnival Fascination
Like all companies, cruise lines advertise their newest products. Even though most ships get some kind of refurbishment every five years or so, you simply won’t find towering rock-climbing walls or huge water slides on all ships. If you want the best in onboard entertainment, spring for a newer, larger vessel.
However! The newer larger vessels are always doing the longer sailings. So you would not find the new Carnival Vista (Miami) or Royal Caribbean Harmony of the Seas (Ft Lauderdale) doing a 3 days Bahama cruise sailing. The exception to this is the first time the ship arrives in the US, for instance, it could do a short cruise to align the days of the upcoming longer sailing schedules.(Example: Ship will be doing 7-day sailings from Saturday to Saturday but arrives in its new US home port on a Tuesday, after a night or two agent and employee parties, it takes off on a short cruise then starts its regular schedule on Saturday)
Also, that rock wall or that super sized water slide you saw on a cruise commercial, is specific to a certain cruise line and specific ships. Not all lines have a rock wall or even the same water slide on all ships.
Photo taken waiting for the slide on Carnival Vista. You will notice there are no big yellow or orange tubes on the Carnival ship (Triumph) to the far left in the picture or no slide on the Holland America. So manage expectation as you book your cruise. Food, shows, kids program are generally the same on each line, Carnival to Carnival, Royal to Royal, Celebrity to Celebrity etc etc but the physical activities on each ship can be different ship to ship within that lines fleet. With the new vessels having the newest activities.
5. Time flies.
“Five nights was not enough next time at least seven-night stay.” — melvinyork on Carnival Ecstasy
Shorter sailings (3-5 nights) are great for a quick getaway, but it may take more time to fully enjoy everything a cruise has to offer. For some short sailings are all your work or the business you run allows for. That is ok! Now you just have to do a few short ones per year!
Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean, the brand new Harmony of the Seas.
6. Spring for a balcony if you can.
Some guest absolutely prefer an interior because they sleep forever and of course, you pay less with an inside staterooms — but unless you’re certain you won’t spend much time there, start with a balcony cabin if possible. Plus, nothing beats watching the sunrise from the comfort of a private balcony while the ship pulls into port. Mainly psychological but a balcony cabin feels larger when in fact it is not that much bigger than a standard inside stateroom, the window + door lets in so much light it feels larger. Having said all of that if the choice were to not cruise because a balcony is not in the card.. then give us an interior cabin anywhere on the ship and away we go!
Photo courtesy of Cruise Critic, Carnival balcony cabin.
7. Cabin location.
“You would want to book your room on a high floor (like 9 and up) because then you will have easy access to everything on the boat.” — NAC on Norwegian Gem
“Travelers that get sea sick do not book anything at the front of the boat!” — pinporo4 on Navigator of the Seas
First off! Don’t call it a boat. Those are a lot smaller with fewer amenities. If you are concerned about seasickness or anything like that, picking your right stateroom isn’t just about deciding whether you can live without a balcony. If you’re prone to seasickness, booking a cabin midship is usually what “they” say, but it’s really less so in these modern ship building times. These ships are equipped with stabilizers.
Having been on many cruises the toughest part about being on either end is the far walk to the opposite end. For this reason, I would try to be closer to mid ship if I am booking early enough and have a choice. If you book late and there are not midship cabins, tough luck, book what is available or TBA/Guarantee cabin and go have fun. Lastly, if given the choice I prefer to have my cabin on the lido deck or a deck above if possible. Because when onboard I tend to spend a lot of time on the Lido.
8. Know what to pack.
Bring a small power strip if you plan to use more than one outlet. Take your allotted 2 bottles of wine if you drink, a twelve pack of your favorite canned soda if you prefer not to spring for a drink card. Above all things, we would recommend bringing some small cold remedies. Zicam chewable are a favorite, Zicam only works to help you fight off the cold as its coming on, after its the. Emergency packets (Vitamin C packs) nothing sucks more than spending your cruise sick. We would go as far as taking vitamin/immune supplements from the night before the cruise starts and every day while on the cruise.
Always pack your carry one with the items you will need for that afternoon. Example: Pack the kids swim trunks in your carry-on if you think they will be going to the waterslide on embarkation day.
Also, every line has different restrictions as to what you can bring onboard — particularly regarding alcohol — so be sure to ask beforehand.
On the Ship
1. Start exploring your ship before you board.
“Get a layout of the ship ahead of time so as to minimize your hunting for the places you need to go.” — Triumph on Carnival Triumph
Although not all cruise ships are as large as the new floating resorts being commissioned by Royal Caribbean International, Norwegian Cruise Line, Carnival Cruise Lines, and now MSC Cruises, even a medium sized ship takes some time to figure out. Check out our deck plans to get a sense of where venues are in relation to your cabin. Main areas like Lido restaurant, kids club if you have kids. Don’t go crazy researching trying to memorize the ship, because every ship has a map located the elevators. There are also small maps available to guests once you board the vessel. Some now have the maps on the ship apps that available for download. As we would say it is less of a rocket launch, you are not prepping to go out of space, the got the vacation basics/tools, passport, cameras and some preparation like how to get to and from the ship and discover the rest.
Photo of maps at each elevator, so you can never really get lost. Top photo courtesy of jimzim.net, Royal Caribbean Independence of the Seas.
2. Bring a carry-on for the first day.
“Pack a small bag as a carry on with swim suits, sun block, motion medicine and any other essentials as your bags may not get to your room until nearly 6 pm!! We did this, but other families in our group did not and their kids could not swim until 6 pm because their swimsuits were in their suitcases.” — MA6 on Carnival Triumph
The ship’s staff has to deliver the checked bags of thousands of passengers. This process can take a few hours, so be sure you have everything you need for the first afternoon in your carry-on.
3. Board early or late.
“Board the ship early the first day. Even though the cruise didn’t leave Ft. Lauderdale until 5:30 we were on in time to have lunch and get a chance to explore where everything is before the actual cruise began.” — lovingthesun on Independence of the Seas
When it comes to embarkation, it’s generally best to be among the first or last on since both groups miss the bulk of the crowds. Which you choose depends on whether you’d rather spend your day exploring the ship or the port. Pay close attention to your boarding time, though a ship may depart at 5:30 pm your check-in window will likely be between 1pm-3:30 pm. To help offset the crowd on embarkation day, some cruise lines are experimenting with a staggered check-in. Example: different check-in windows for you to choose from when you are doing your online check-in. 12 – 12:30pm window, 12:30 – 1pm window.
Photo of boarding in the Port of Miami. 1 pm, rush hour of check-in.
4. Planning is key.
“Plan your daily activities every morning so you don’t miss anything! So much to do, so little time.” — Trumphsurvivor on Carnival Triumph
In between meals, port stops, evening shows, and relaxing by the pool, you’ll be surprised how little time you have to take advantage of everything else your ship has to offer.
Photo of Carnival “Fun Times” will list the daily activities. Also on the ships app. Same goes for every cruise line. Paper + App or Paper.
5. Skip the elevators when you can.
“To get around the ship use the stairs. It is much quicker as some use the elevators for one deck. At port the elevators become overcrowded and the wait can be long.” — cmarshall103 on Norwegian Breakaway
Not only will taking the stairs save time, but it’s a good way to burn off your four-course dinner from the night before.
6. Find a quiet hideout.
“During the day, the lounging area around the bow of the ship was much quieter and relaxing than around the pool.” — jmatte on Norwegian Dawn
If you need to escape the crowds, most ships have nooks and crannies you can flee to on sea days for some peace and quiet.
Photo courtesy of jimzim.net, Royal Caribbean Independence of the Seas.
7. Know your food options.
“Get to know all the dining venues and when they are open. There is always something available, but you need to know when things open and close.”— juleeroze on Pride of America
Photo of Guys Burger Joint on Carnival. Closes at 6 pm daily.
Different venues have different hours. Learn them quickly so you’re never stuck wandering the ship looking for a bite to eat.
“When dining, make sure you sample plates that may be new to you. Great way to try something new and it is usually delicious.” — arachubajr on Carnival Sunshine
One thing many first-time cruisers are unaware of is, they can order more than a single item at each dinner course. Since dinner in the main dining rooms is one of the amenities included in your cruise fare, take advantage of it by trying as many dishes as you please without worrying about the cost.
Excursions and Ports
1. It doesn’t hurt to wander for a bit.
“Even if you haven’t booked an excursion get off the boat. There are plenty of options for people like us who don’t get around very well. We found excellent 2-3 hour van-bus trips at reasonable rates that were available right on the docks at Juneau and Sitka.” — ecstacy on Westerdam
If the heart of the port city is easily reached from the dock without the need for shuttles or tender boats, take a stroll to stretch your legs and explore the immediate area. Our recommended approach would be to book a tour your first time in a port, then if time permits after your guided tour, take some time to explore the port area. If decide to explore use discretion, if you don’t see much other cruise passenger activity, skip the exploration as not all ports are suitable to explore on foot. The cruise lines in conjunction with the local governments have done a great job over the years to increase security and general walkability around the ports.
Photo of port shopping area in Belize.
2. Disembark late.
“‘Easy walk off’ is not as easy or as walky as advertised if you want to get off the ship early. Highly recommend eating breakfast and enjoying a coffee while watching the long immovable ‘easy walk-off’ lines snake through deck 7.” — legioncommander on Norwegian Breakaway
If you don’t have an excursion in the morning and have decided to explore the port area on your own wait an hour or so after docking to let the crowd get off the ship first.
The gangway is pretty clear to come and go after the initial crowd gets off.
3. Take a port day off to enjoy the ship.
“Do mini-golf [on the ship] when in port, less people.” — lea on Disney Dream
The most popular onboard options are usually crowded on sea days, so if you want to do a certain activity without crowds — like trying to surf on Royal Caribbean’s surf simulator, ride Carnival Vista’s new Sky Ride—skip a day in port and spend it on board.
Photo Carnival Vista Sky Ride. The wait can be over an hour on a normal day. Try going while in port. Closes around 5-5:30.
4. Book excursions in advance if you can help it.
If you already know which tours are a must for you and your family/friends book them before you get to the ship. If you are uncertain, you can wait to book onboard however you will be booking what is still left as all tours have a limited amount that can participate. Though rare, the opposite can happen that a tour can be canceled due to low participated. On most larger ship because there are multiple departure times for a shore excursion, example 8:30 am and an 11 am departure for the same tour, your 11 am tour could be canceled and grouped with the 8:30 departure because they both were still not at full capacity by the day before your tour. So pay close attention to your tour ticket departure times or those letters sent to your cabin.
5. …Or wait and see.
“You can get a better deal, and sometimes a better trip, if you book your off-ship excursions once you exit the ship and come face to face with the hoards of vendors waiting to make you a deal for a day trip.” — SoloCruiserLou on Norwegian Star
This is a popular sentiment shared by many guests who cruise often. Yes, this can work well if you are a party of 10+ and have decided you wanted to save the money and book an independent tour. With more travelers in your party, you would essentially be booking a private tour. We prefer you book with the cruise line because these vendors have been vetted and more importantly if your tour is running late the cruise ship is in communication with the tour operator.
But obviously we can’t stop you from booking independently and it works out just fine for the majority, the best we can do is provide guidance. Do NOT cut your time too close when booking independent tours. Example: You need to back on the ship by 5 pm “ship time”! but you take an independent tour that is “scheduled” to get back at 4:30 pm, any delay and you could be left scrambling to get home from a foreign port or attempting to catch up to the ship in the next port, not an easy task. Considering you may not have brought your passport off the ship, assuming you are even traveling with one.
We don’t want to scare you, just be aware. Book something that is scheduled to get you back a couple hours before ship departure. Keeping in mind it is in the tour operators interest to get you back on time if they want to continue to operate, bad Trip Advisor reviews can sink an independent tour operator but it may not always be in their control. A prime example is taking a trip to the popular Maho Beach in St. Maarten (the one where the plane flies close overhead, sure you’ve seen that picture). Traffic can sometimes be a nightmare in the afternoon coming back to port if your independent tour operator takes the road with the drawbridge that opens around 4 pm, it could take an hour to navigate a couple miles on that road. Be careful.
Photo courtesy unknown. Drawer bridge in St Maarten on the way to/from Maho beach. The cause of many cruise passengers missing their ship in St. Maarten.
7. Don’t delay.
“Don’t wait so late in life to enjoy your first cruise.” — dreutlinger on Carnival Magic
Well said, as avid cruisers here at Best Site To Book A Cruise, we recommend cruising as a great way to vacation. Allows you to sample islands while on your own floating resort and if you really like a particular island, take a trip back and stay at a resort. Sure, we don’t sell land/resort packages but as vacationers, and regular people we understand sometimes the occasional resort vacation isn’t a bad thing. Just come back and book your next cruise with us!