Approaching your first cruise may seem daunting and challenging. But fear not! Somehow, 23 million people a year take cruises, so it's not that hard to do.
Below is a series of tips that I have for travelers to ensure your initial cruise is the best and right one for you, and that you have the greatest chance of experiencing a memorable vacation.
Use a travel agent who's an expert in cruises
Booking a cruise can be daunting if you haven't done it lots of times before. With thousands of possible cruises to choose from, it can seem overwhelming to choose from a multitude of cruise lines, cabin types and fares. You should use a travel professional to guide and advise you rather than trying to book direct. You'd be surprised at how much you might be able to save and, more important, at how they can help match you with the right line in the most suitable cabin at the best price — and it doesn't cost you a thing. They're often able to provide additional benefits like onboard credits (spending money) and use their inside knowledge to help you get upgrades. (See 10 reasons why a travel advisor can get you a better travel deal.)
If you have a travel agent who knows cruises, that's good. If not, Cruiseable's team of travel advocates has a combined total of more than 200 years of experience working with the cruise lines, so give us a call.
Pick a cruise ship and cruise line carefully
Cruise lines are different, and selecting the right one is essential for ensuring a great vacation. Two mega-companies — Carnival Corp. and Royal Caribbean — operate most of the ships offering ocean cruises. Carnival Corp., based in Doral, Florida, is the parent company of Holland America, Princess, Cunard, Seabourn, Costa Cruises and Carnival Cruises; its 100-plus ships make up 49% of the global cruise market. Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. operates its fleet of Royal Caribbean ships, Celebrity Cruises and Azamara, accounting for 17% of the world cruise market. Each has a portfolio of brands so they can offer different experiences, service levels and features. River cruises are more diverse, with Viking, AmaWaterways, Tauck and Uniworld among the leaders.
Your experience will vary greatly, depending on the kind of ship you choose, so it's important to understand the differences so you'll end up on a ship that suits your tastes. Use the Bliss filters at the top of the Cruiseable website and select a ship size that seems like the best fit for your personal style.
Go on a 'taster' cruise
Many cruise lines run short cruises lasting two to four nights. These usually sail from and return to the same port, so they're perfect for first-time cruisers to feel out if a cruise and brand is for you. For example, Mariner of the Seas features three- to four-day dash-and-splash sailings to the Bahamas. I recommend you do one of these before you commit to a longer cruise.
These shorter cruises are usually well priced and give you a good feel for the experience and what the particular cruise line is like. Then, if you love it, you're ready to take the next step and book a longer vacation. But if you're not crazy about it, you haven't wasted a lot of time and money.
Don’t worry about getting seasick
For added reassurance, buy anti-seasickness pills from your pharmacy before you go. Ships have medical centers where you can pay for an injection that makes you sleep for a few hours, but you will wake up ready to take on the roughest of seas. I can vouch for this: On my first long cruise, we did a winter crossing of the Atlantic on Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth 2 with 50- and 60-foot waves. I had the jab and then had no issues at all.
Get onto the ship as early as you can
Most cruise lines will try and stagger arrival times at the ship to reduce lines and waiting times. However, first-time cruisers and people traveling on a new ship should aim to get on board as early as they can. It allows time to explore the ship and find your way around before it gets busy. It also means that if anything is troubling you or unsuitable, such as your stateroom or your assigned table (if you have one) in the dining room, you are first in line to request a change.
Understand and watch the extras
Extra costs on your cruise can add up. Fares used to be more all inclusive, but over the years, this has started to evolve, especially as the starting price of cruises have been discounted to attract new passengers.
The cruise lines try to induce passengers to spend more by offering amenities such as specialty restaurants, onboard courses, gym classes, shopping, shore excursions, photos, Internet access, drinks and tipping You should plan for these and set a budget that you monitor during your trip. Of course, if you can afford to pony up for an all-inclusive cruise on Crystal, Uniworld, Silversea or the like, all of extras are already included up front.
Research your stops
Before you go on your cruise, review the excursions offered by the cruise line at each destination. Compare these with the option of exploring on your own, using a hop-on hop-off bus tour, an independent tour company or a private guide. You may discover that these offer more interesting options and save you money. (See 3 reasons to consider an independent shore excursion.)
You can get good information about ports through well-known travel guides in your local library or bookstore, Cruiseable's Travel & port guides and independent travel blogs written by experienced cruisers. With a little bit of preparation, you should get more from your cruise by building in a few of your own tours and explorations.
If the ship docks a distance from the town center or main attractions, the cruise line will often provide a shuttle bus. There may be a charge for this service.
Understand the gratuities process
Check to see if your fare includes or excludes these. If the latter, learn whether they'll be added to your onboard account — which is most often the case — or if you'll be expected to pay them directly to crew members in cash. Factor in these costs (and don't skip out without tipping).
Most cruise lines have moved to adding them automatically to your bill. You can request that they be removed at the front desk if you prefer to pay directly. Crew members are sometimes notified about who has taken this option. Some travelers recommend giving your cabin steward a tip when you first meet them for added sparkle in service!
Plan your next day before going to bed
There is so much to do on a cruise, and most lines leave a daily program for the next day’s activities in your cabin for when you return from dinner. It's worth spending time digesting and planning the next day to make the best use of your time. Just remember, you're on vacation! So don’t get too wrapped up in exploring every option.
Keep doing research
Stay up to date with latest developments and advice on getting the most from your cruise. An excellent source is through the discussions and community here on Cruiseable.com and cruise blogs.
Those are the tidbits of advice I've built up from years of cruising. What tips would you offer cruise newcomers?
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In our New to Cruising series
- What embarkation day is like
- 10 tips to make your first cruise go super smooth
- What to expect from your first cruise
- 10 cruise tips every beginner should know
- How to find a cruise ship size that's right for you
- 5 cruise myths busted
- 5 tips on how to make the most of your time on a cruise
- What kind of people go on a cruise?
- What is there to do on a cruise ship?
- What you can do in port during a cruise