With today the final day of National Plan a Cruise Month, there’s no better time than now for people to book their first cruise. But as fun as cruising is, there are many things to keep in mind when taking one for the first time.
That’s why you should know as much as possible about cruising before hopping on your first one.
As a veteran cruiser, I can say with some confidence that it's not as daunting as it might seem at first blush. So keep these questions and answers in mind when planning your next cruise, and everything should go swimmingly.
Is a cruise right for you?
No matter what kind of personality you have, you’ll be able to find activities that appeal to you and amenities that fit the vacation you’re looking for. Go for an all-inclusive cruise that offers entertainment, relaxation and an array of dining options. That way, if you want to lay low and relax, you can bask in the sun or head to the spa. But when you feel up to live music and going out at night, you’ll have that option, too.
Which room do you choose?
Most first time cruisers spend a minimal amount of time in their stateroom, so you should ask yourself if it would really be worth it to pay extra for a balcony (or veranda) view when you can get that at any time by simply walking to other places on the ship. Consider just how much time you will spend in your cabin to see if that’s an area you can save some money. If you’re someone who likes to spend more time in your room, or if you're on an Alaska cruise with views of passing glaciers, then the extra for the view might just be worth it!
Do I need cruise insurance?
Most cruise lines don’t include insurance with your purchase but often offer it as an option. Ask your travel advisor to make sure you have comprehensive cruise insurance to protect you from unexpected and sometimes expensive fees if anything were to go wrong on your trip.
What does all-inclusive include?
Most all-inclusive plans include the price of alcohol and food with your room bill, so you don’t have to worry about all those extra fees. Typically, spa treatments like massages cost extra. Entertainment is usually free, but not always. And shore excursions may or may not be included in your package, so do your research to see what your cruise line offers.
Do you know the lingo?
Before you embark, there is some cruise-lingo that you should definitely know. Things like stern and bow, cay and sea day are all relevant terms used in the cruise community. You should know that the cruise director is the one running the entertainment/activities, and that an inside stateroom is a cabin with no windows. To avoid looking like a landlubber, here is a full list of cruise lingo for you to read up on.
What do you pack?
Packing essentials include your passport, toiletries, activity-appropriate outfits and possibly medication for any motion sickness you might have. However, remember that you should pack whatever you will need in your first few hours on board in your carry-on. Often your luggage takes longer than you expect to arrive to your room, so pack things like a bathing suit, any electronics and maybe some sunscreen in your carry-on. That way, you can get right to the action once you board instead of waiting all day for your suitcase.
What can I bring onto and off the ship?
In most cases, food and drinks aren’t allowed off the ship when it is docked at a location, with the exception of bottles of water, so it’s important to keep those kind of things on the ship before you run into trouble. When in doubt, ask your cruise director or another staff member on board for advice before you step off the ship at a port.
What kind of outfits will I need?
It is important to pack according to the weather. Find out online what the conditions will be like at each of your destinations, and pack correspondingly. Bring a rain jacket, poncho or possibly an umbrella for wet climates in Central America, the Carribbean or elsewhere and an extra pair of gloves for those cold-weather stops. After all, you wouldn’t want to be stuck on the ship because of a little inclement weather.
What might I forget?
Towel clips are also a small item many people overlook, but they can be vital in making sure your towel doesn’t blow away in the wind while you're on the deck. There is also certain valuable information that commonly gets forgotten on cruise ships. Things like switching your phone to airplane mode to avoid international roaming charges and making sure to keep an eye on the changing time zones as well to avoid being left behind at a port are important for your cruise experience to be the best it can be.
When should you arrive?
10You should plan on getting to the ship at least an hour or so before it departs. That way, you can account for any surprise layovers or delays with your flight or drive to the ship. You'll want to do this because the ship will not wait for you if you’re late. It will always depart when it’s scheduled to, barring any extreme complications. So be sure you’re there and ready to board with ample time.
Where to eat on the first day?
11You should really be open to trying new things as well as avoiding the more common restaurants on the day the ship embarks. Many passengers spend most of their first days in airport terminals and waiting in lines. Those people just want a quick meal after their long day and will rush to the easiest option without a second thought of being more adventurous. Opting for less popular restaurants for the first day will mean less wait and less crowds.
What will you do on the ship?
12On a cruise, the activity possibilities are endless. Many first-timers make the mistake of trying to do absolutely every activity the ship has to offer. Instead, if you pre-book activities or look at the ship’s itinerary newsletter and highlight your favorites, you will be more likely to enjoy those activities rather than being stressed about not being able to do something.
How do I stay fit and healthy?
13Healthy habits shouldn’t be completely lost while you are on vacation. You can, and should, take advantage of the workout facilities, pools or even yoga classes if available. That will also help counteract all those extra calories from the food you’re eating.
Do you have plans for the land?
14Instead of looking like a fish out of water not knowing what to do when your ship docks, make sure you do some research on the areas you’ll be visiting. This will help you avoid any potential culture shocks as well as giving you ideas of what to do while you’re visiting. However, if you have no interest in the current stop, you could skip a port day to enjoy smaller lines and smaller crowds for on-ship amenities like the spa and pool.
How does tipping work?
15Most cruise ships nowadays include an automatic gratuity system, so you don’t need to worry about tipping in the moment. It all gets added to the final bill. The same goes for the bar, so there is no need to double tip. (If you booked a luxury cruise, tipping and drinks are included in your base fare.) Don't skip over a tip even if the ship has this system in place; if a crew member goes out of his way to accommodate your needs, a small tip is a nice gesture.
After it’s all said and done, you should really take some time to reflect. How was your first experience? What do you wish you did differently? Be sure to share your stories in the comments below.
Cheryl McAvoy, a longtime cruiser, wrote this roundup for Cruiseable.