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Q&A for first-time cruisers

Are you a first-time cruiser? Do you follow some of the cruise line fan pages on Facebook? (Here's a fan page and closed group for Princess passengers and another for Royal Caribbean.)  If so, you’ll probably have some of the same concerns raised by people ready to take their first cruise.

 
  NEW TO CRUISING
 
Tips & tricks on cruise basics
 
 

As a veteran seafarer with 400 voyages under my nautical belt, I think I'm probably qualified to offer advice about some of the basics. So here goes ... and feel free to ask your own questions in the comments below! 

Passengers at the bow of ms Oosterdam taking in Hubbard Glacier during an Alaska sailing.
JD Lasica / Special to CruiseablePassengers at the bow of ms Oosterdam taking in Hubbard Glacier during an Alaska sailing.

Will I fit in?

Cruiseable was founded on the idea that there's a cruise out there that's right for you. That's why the Bliss Filters (at the right) offer different choices depending on whether you're looking for romance, adventure, cultural immersion, great entertainment or dining. We've run several article on the topic: See What kind of people go on a cruise? or What to expect from your first cruise.

The "Will I fit in?" question pops up a lot on the Facebook pages of Regent Seven Seas and many other cruise lines. (Regent has an especially humongous repeat passenger rate and newbies worry about blending in.) Well, don't worry your sea legs about this. You'll just want to find the cruise line and ship that fits your travel style. 

How much money should I bring?

You don’t need lots of cash on ships because anything you buy on board — such as drinks, spa treatments, boutique shopping — is added to your bill; upon boarding, you must leave a credit card to open your shipboard account. Cash comes in handy on shore for tips or taxis. A couple of hundred dollars in small bills should cover you. Cash is never used to pay for anything on a ship.

Ajeng, our friendly waiter at Canaletto aboard an ms Oosterdam sailing to Alaska.
JD Lasica / Special to CruiseableAjeng, one of the friendly waiters at Canaletto aboard an ms Oosterdam sailing to Alaska.

What's the deal on tipping?

The cruise lines make tipping easy for you — but they don't exactly put it in big boldface type. Each cruise line will add a set amount to your shipboard account to cover gratuities, and you can learn the exact amount in advance on the line's website. For example, Holland America will automatically charge $14.50 per person per day to passengers in interior, ocean-view and balcony cabins and $16 to suite passengers. Gratuities apply to both adults and children. And most lines add an automatic gratuity is added to bar and dining room wine purchases.

If you want to pay less (really?), you can adjust the amount at checkout. If you want to add an extra amount for especially good service, you can do that, too. If you're booked on a luxury ship, it's even simpler: Fares on ships from Crystal, Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn and Silversea are all-inclusive so the gratuities are included in the overall fare.

What do I wear?

It's a big conundrum for newbies. But the answer is fairly simple. Dress for evenings as you would at a fine local restaurant, unless the dress code calls for super casual attire. During the day, wear what you would to any resort on land. When on deck, shorts, jeans, bathing suits with cover-ups, sundresses and the like are acceptable. When indoors during the day, don't wear short shorts or bathing suits.

Colorful tropical drinks ready for quaffing on Holland America's ms Westerdam.
JD Lasica / Special to CruiseableColorful tropical drinks ready for quaffing on Holland America's ms Westerdam.

Should I buy a beverage package?

Depends on how much you intend to drink. If you like cocktails or drink wine with meals, it's possible to purchase a package that will save you a bundle. But if you drink only once or twice a day, it may not be worth your while. 

Will I gain weight?

It's easy to gain weight on a cruise if you overindulge and don't pace yourself. Just eat prudently, exercise if you can, don't go for that second dessert and take a few short excursions — then, chances are you won't gain any weight at all. 

Should I book my air from the cruise line?

It depends. You'll want to check on your own to see what airlines are charging to get to and from your ship. Then ask the cruise line how much extra you would have to pay for them to get your air. Obviously go with the lower price. Sometimes cruise lines’ air fare is lower but not always. Either way, it's smart to use a travel agent who works for you (not the cruise line) and can find you the lowest fare. 

An instructor leads a fitness class on Princess Cruises.
Courtesy of Princess CruisesAn instructor leads a fitness class on Princess Cruises.

Can I work out?

Of course you can. There are fitness rooms, pools, jogging tracks, exercise classes and other ways to burn calories on a cruise ship. Start with using the stairs in lieu of elevators; that will knock off hundreds of calories during a weeklong cruise. 

Should I buy shore excursions if they aren’t included in the fare?

While I prefer exploring on my own most of the time, escorted tours are a good bet when you don’t know the area, want to assure you won’t miss the boat because they are obligated to get you back on board in time, or want to do something that’s hard to do on your own. You can find your own independent shore excursions on the Internet or in port but it’s challenging. Sometimes if my husband and I just want to go snorkeling, we take a cab to the nearest beach. It’s a lot cheaper than a shore excursion and you encounter fewer hassles than riding a bus with a lot of other people. Plus you always get more time at the water.

What kind of entertainment can I expect on board? 

It depends on the cruise ship you choose. Royal Caribbean and MSC Cruises are generally said to have the most impressive production shows. Norwegian, Holland America, Princess, CarnivalCelebrity and Disney come in just behind.  Viking's ocean ships have some nice shows for a midsize vessel. On the luxury lines and Oceania and Azamara, you'll find low-key entertainment such as piano music, classical ensembles, singers, musical revues, modest theatrical productions or karaoke. And the river cruise ships' entertainment comes mostly on land during your port stops. 

A passport.
JD Lasica/Special to CruiseableOn most shore excursions, you can leave your passport on the ship and bring a photocopy (paper or digital) with you.

Do I need a passport?

Yes. You're required to have a passport whenever your ship goes into another country. And yes, if you’re traveling with children, they need them, too. Make sure your passport isn't expiring within six months on your cruise or it may not be valid. (You don't need a passport on a closed-loop cruise originating in a U.S. port, but it's best to bring one even in those cases.) 

In some cases — independent tours in Russia, for example — you'll need a visa in addition to a passport, but if so, your cruise line should let you know in advance. A few years ago, we took an Amazon cruise and didn’t learn until the last minute that we needed a visa for Brazil and we had to pay a lot extra to get an expedited document. 

Is there a limit on luggage?

The cruise lines typically don't impose a limit on the number of bags you can bring, but space in your stateroom isn't infinite and the airlines charge after the first bag. The best recourse is to travel light. You'll need half the clothes you’ll pack the first time; they will just go unused. Trust me.

A chef instructs participants during a cooking demo on Norwegian Jade.
JD Lasica / Special to CruiseableA chef instructs participants during a cooking demo on Norwegian Jade.

Will I be bored?

There's something for everyone on a cruise ship, whether you like to read, swim, soak in the sun, work out, go to shows, learn new skills, play bingo and other games, watch movies, gamble in a casino, get spa treatments, explore ports, meet people, take language lessons or brush up on computer usage. Crystal Cruises offers some of the best enrichment programs at sea, including photography lessons and Computer University as Sea.

Can I drink the tap water on the ship?

Yes, though your mileage may vary. I usually don’t, but the water goes through a filtration system, so it's okay to drink it. I consume only bottled water and buy it if I have to. Sometimes our digestive systems don’t take well to tap water.

Can I bring bottled water on board?

It varies by cruise line. Princess doesn't restrict bringing your drinks along in your carry-on luggage. Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises allow you to bring water on board as carry-on items on boarding day. Carnival and Norwegian no longer allow it. 

 

We will be cruising Italy. How often are bathroom breaks on the excursions?

This was a real question posted on Facebook. And, well, there is no real answer. If you have a bladder problem, you probably don’t want to take a long excursion. There are restrooms but you never know.

Any more questions, pose them right below. Bon voyage!

Patti Pietschmann
I'm the LA Travel Diva and spend time cruising with first mate Richard, traveling the world, reviewing fine restaurants, going to plays, movies and events. It's the good life.

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