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A lagoon and beach in Anguilla. Beach scenes like this take a little planning.

Chris Werner Photography

A lagoon and beach in Anguilla. Beach scenes like this take a little planning.

5 tips to help first-timers plan a great cruise

How to sidestep the common mistakes that novices often make

My first time on a cruise ship was a bit of a disaster. Granted, I was a tween and sailing on the now departed Big Red Boat, but even though it was my first time at sea and first trip to the Bahamas, it turned into a real vacation letdown.

Tips & tricks on cruise basics

Lots of reasons for that. The ship had no waterslides, kids' center or sports deck and few children's programs. And, frankly, we didn't do a good job of researching what the experience would be like.

To help you avoid making the same mistakes my family made, here are five rules you should follow to avoid a first-time cruise letdown — and to have a great getaway!

Don't rely on a single source or travel agent


Our mistake: While deciding on our cruise vacation, my family had been looking over some print brochures — sadly, that's how a lot of people still make their choice — about six months before the actual trip. So we were doing research, sort of. Problem was, we looked at only one cruise line and got all our information from one source: our travel agent. 

Lesson learned: The brochure made the cruise sound great, but we had nothing to compare it to. 

Suggested strategy: Get information from multiple sources, starting with Cruiseable (which offers both consumer content and expert travel help), the cruise line’s website, forum sites like Cruise Critic and my site at With different viewpoints, most of them independent of the cruise line, you'll get a better sense of the total cruise package, its strengths and shortcomings. 

Cruiseable's Bliss Filters help people find the right cruise match for their travel style and budget.
Cruiseable's Bliss Filters help people find the right cruise match for their travel style and budget.

Research cruise lines & ships for the right fit


Our mistake: The one thing we did do right was pick the region of the world we wanted to explore: the Caribbean. That narrowed the decision-making process a bit. But what we failed to do was to check out all our options or compare other ships departing from Port Canaveral, Fla., the port we were eyeing. Instead, we looked at one cruise line and settled on deciding between two options: a three-day or four-day cruise.

Lesson learned: First-time cruisers would be wise to consider a variety of ships, across cruise lines and even within the same cruise line, because all ships have different features. They also cater to different groups of travelers. Even though all contemporary cruise lines target families, depending on the age of your children, certain ships are better tailored to the task than others. A little more work can really help you find the ideal ship for your cruise vacation.

Suggested strategy: Use Cruiseable's pretty amazing Bliss Filters to narrow down your choice, depending on whether you're looking for a family-friendly getaway, or a cruise ship big on romance, fine dining, entertainment, cultural immersion, wellness or other preferences. Then read up on the cruise lines and ships on independent sites, including CruiseableCruise Critic, CruiseMates (for the forums) and Fodors Travel or Berlitz Cruise Guide (paperback). 

If your little ones ...  can dress up as a fairy princess and boys can transform into a wizard, among other kids' activities, in the Pixie Hollow section of the staff-supervised Oceaneer Club on Disney Magic.
Courtesy of Disney Cruise LineIf you want to keep the little ones occupied, make sure you choose a ship with lots of kid-friendly options, like dressing up as a fairy princess in the Pixie Hollow section of the Oceaneer Club on Disney Magic.

Make the cruise the focal point of the trip


Our mistake: Our family had been to DisneyWorld a few times before, so for this vacation we thought that adding a short cruise to try something new would be a sensible option. Only problem: We started comparing everything on the ship to DisneyWorld. It was a perfect case of the “grass is greener on the other side.” With thoughts of DisneyWorld dancing in our heads, we were distracted and did not give the Big Red Boat a chance.

Lesson learned: If you're not sure if a cruise vacation is right for you, don't sabotage the trip ahead of time by adding a short cruise to some other vacation experience. 

Suggested strategy: If you decide you want to give cruising a go, spend some time deciding on a ship that's the right fit based on your family and budget, then go all in giving the cruise vacation your full attention. Take advantage of everything on board and have fun!

Snorkeling in the reefs near Bonaire in the Caribbean: Make sure you reserve your excursion spot ahead of time.
Courtesy of Tourism Corporation BonaireSnorkeling in the reefs near Bonaire in the Caribbean: Make sure you reserve your excursion ahead of time.

Pre-book events & experiences before boarding


Our mistake: On our voyage, my family had the misfortune of not booking our shore excursions ahead of time, which forced us to make a choice based solely on availability. This resulted in us booking a snorkeling excursion at a non-ideal time — and to make matters worse, it was over-packed and lacking in sea life.

Lesson learned: Booking the cruise is only the first step in planning and executing the ideal cruise vacation. Cruises are great as they give you the opportunity to try new experiences. However, I strongly suggest that you book your shore excursions and any entertainment that is available for pre-booking ahead of time!

Suggested strategy: Go over the itinerary in advance with your group and determine who will be doing what and on which days. Let each person weigh in and take ownership for some part of the action. 

Pull up a hammock on the beach on Little Cayman.
SF Brit / Creative Commons BY-NDRelax a little: Pull up a hammock on the beach on Little Cayman.

Don't try to do everything


Our mistake: Even a short Bahamas cruise can be overdone. On the Big Red Boat, we tried to do and see everything, including going to the buffet for breakfast and lunch, maxing out at dinner, and then hitting the midnight buffet (those were the days). We then did two excursions back to back on our port days, including an evening activity.

Lesson learned: Yes, you are going on vacation! And while it's tempting to pack the next seven days with a schedule brimming with activities and entertainment, slow down! You can definitely burn yourself out and be turned off quickly. If you start this vacation in a full sprint, by the second port of call you may already be tired of the steel drum music, won’t want to see another buffet station for years to come, and you'll be exhausted!

Suggested strategy: While you do need to plan and schedule activities, you should also schedule in some relaxation and downtime to recharge your batteries.

We're here to help

Leave me a note below to let me know what roadblocks you are encountering when planning your first cruise. And for those veterans out there, it would be great to share some tips from your years of cruising experience.

In our New to Cruising series

DB & the Princess
Along with my wife, I'm the co-editor of, helping you sea the world, one port at a time!