20 Tips for first time cruisers
Are you interested in taking a cruise but dont know where to start? Or have you booked your first cruise (or first one in a very long time), and you want to know what to expect? Here are my top 20 tips and things you should know about cruising!
1. Pick your cruise line carefully
All cruise lines are not the same. When choosing to cruise you must look into more details than just the dates and the destinations. Are you comfortable in a mega ship or a smaller yacht environment? Do you want to party hard or would you prefer a zen-like retreat? What is the average age range of the guests on this cruise? These are all important details needed to narrow down the perfect cruise that fits YOU.
2. Download the cruise ship app
As soon as you have your confirmation number, download the cruise line's app. This is your gateway to everything your cruise has to offer. You can view ship maps, book reservations and other add-ons, view the daily itinerary, set up chat functions with the rest of your sailing party (because roaming at sea is expensive) and so much more. Don't wait until you are onboard to download it! You'll be surrounded by metal onboard and your cell service may be too spotty to download it then.
3. Purchase wifi, drink packages and excursions early
Typically, there are pre-sail discounts that are available if you purchase before you get onboard, specifically wifi, drinks and photo packages. You can save roughly 15% off of these prices by paying in advance. Excursions are usually NOT discounted, but they do have capacity limits. The popular ones will sell out fast so if you see something you like, book it!
4. Plan to arrive a day before departure
If your departure point is a plane ride away, I highly suggest that you book your flights to arrive at least a day in advance. Same day flight delays and missed connections have caused so many cruisers to miss the boat. There are a lot of options for one night hotel stays near airports / ports and various shuttle options to the cruise ships.
5. Choose the earliest embarcation time slot
During your online check-in process you will likely need to choose an embarcation time slot. This is to control the traffic at the cruise terminal and spread out the number of guests showing up at the same time. I suggest selecting the earliest time slot available. The time it takes to arrive at the terminal, check your bags, clear security and finally get to your cabin could be an hour or more. Getting an early time slot allows you to get settled, grab lunch and check out the ship before it sets sail.
6. Have all your documents in order
I'm slightly OCD so it is important for me to have my family's documents all nice and neat in a manila envelope in my carry on backpack! Just like TSA at the airport, if you dont have the proper documents you will not be able to board. Passports / Passport cards, birth certificates & state issued IDs, Vaccination cards if needed, boarding passes, luggage tags....... whatever is required, PRINT IT OUT. Some cruise lines do not accept screenshots on your phone. Having everything ready and in one place will help expedite your boarding process.
7. Bringing drinks/alcohol on board
This may vary per cruise line, so always check the most current rules for your sailing. But in general, the majority allow you to bring two - 750ml bottles of wine or champagne per cabin as a carry on.... no hard liquor my friends! And the majority also allow you to bring one 12 pack of 12oz cans/cartons of water, juice or soda per person as a carry-on. Do not bring 12 packs of glass or plastic bottles as those will be confiscated during the security check. And dont put your beverages in your checked bag - you must carry it on so it can be inspected. After you set sail, you may purchase bottles of liquor while you are in a port or at duty free shops, however the ship will need to store it for you and return it at the end of the cruise.
8. Your Carry-on vs Checked bag
It is not mandatory for you to check bags, you can carry everything on yourself if you'd like. But if you opt to have bags checked - what will happen is the porters will take your luggage to the ship and then have it delivered to your cabin sometime that afternoon/evening. This could be HOURS after you arrive. Do not put your travel documents, medication or other important items in a checked bag. Carry those on with your drinks. If you want to be able to go to the pool, freshen up, etc before your check bag arrives, put whatever you need in your carry-on as well.
9. Tour the ship before you set sail
YAY, you are onboard - now what!? I suggest you take a bottom to top, front to back tour of the ENTIRE ship! I do it everytime I am on a new ship. Every ship has different amenities - movie theaters, ice skating rinks, comedy clubs, adults only areas, arcades, waterparks..... you dont want to find out on the last day that there was an amenity you didnt know about.
10. Let's talk about the kid clubs
You will find an age appropriate club for your little ones and you can usually take a tour of the clubs on embarcation day. However once you set sail and kids are in there, random adults roaming around is a NO NO! They can be broken out into little tots, middle school age and high school age. These are usually free for middle/high schoolers and stay open late at night (ex. Carnival's teen clubs go to 1 am). Their clubs are supervised and offer organized fun, crafts, video games and more. For the little tots - their club is usually free in the day, but there may be a small hourly rate at night. On our last sailing I believe we paid $6 an hour after 10pm when we wanted to catch a late show or go to the nightclub for a bit.
11. The dreaded Muster Drill
Before the ship can be cleared to sail - EVERYONE must participate in the Muster Drill safety briefing. In the past, every single guest had to put on their life vest and meet at their designated Muster Station at the same time. Then we'd sit through the safety demonstration (similar to how flight attendants do their safety drill) and then go through roll call to prove you were there. Since Covid, a lot of cruise lines let you watch the briefing on the tv in your cabin or on the app, then at will you can drop in to your muster station (no life vest needed lol) and sign off.
12. What are the dining options?
Most cruise lines offer 3 set dining options for dinner:
Early dining (sometimes called "Main") which is usually around 5pm. You have an assigned table in a specific restaurant at the exact same time every night. The menu does change nightly.
Late dining which is the same concept as Early except dinner is around 8pm
Your Time dining which has an open window during dinner time where you can make a reservation to have dinner when you are good and ready to eat.
There are exceptions to this like Disney which does a rotation, so although you have a set time you're at a different restaurant each night. Or Virgin Voyages - which does not have a set dining room or time, instead you make reservations at one of the many restaurants on board as you see fit. Regardless of dinner time just remember that it is all inclusive, so try something you've never had before! Cant decide between the steak or chicken - order both! Just dont be wasteful lol. **side note: If you'd like to bring your bottle of wine to dinner be prepared to pay a corkage fee (around $20) for them to pour your bottle. Or you can do like me and pour your drink in the cabin and bring your glass with you for free ;)
In addition to your dinner - there will be breakfast and lunch buffet options, probably late night pizza, ice cream, room service and other included eateries. Some of the other eateries may be specialty restaurants (ex Sushi restaurant) that would be an additional charge. In these cases the additional pricing will be clear on the menu.
13. Paying for things onboard
Cruises operate on cashless systems. You will need to add a credit / debit card to your sail account and then you will either scan your card or tap your wearable (ex Virgin Voyages give you a wrist band) to make purchases. If you use a debit card the cruise line may process a hold, usually $100 or so on the first day. The hold will be released at the end of the cruise and you will only be billed for what you purchased. For those with kids, you can also set a limit on how much money (if any) they are able to charge to your account. I suggest that you check your statement each night. It's easy to swipe away for days and not realize how much money you're spending.
14. Gratuities and how they work
There are 2 ways to handle gratuities. You can choose to prepay them as part of your cruise fare or gratuities will automatically be added to your sail account on the last day. Gratuities are calculated at a set dollar amount per person per day (let's say $12 per person a day as an example). They are not mandatory - but they are appreciated as it goes directly to the hard working staff that is serving you like your cabin steward, dining room staff and others. If you choose to have gratuities added on the last day, you may adjust the dollar amount up or down at that time.
15. Mind the ship time and put your phone on airplane mode
Many sailings cross over time zones. To make things easy and consistant all activities will be on "ship time". This is usually the time zone from where you originally departed. This is very important because when you are docked at port and the return to ship time is 5pm - you'd better be on the right time zone! Dont get left behind cause you were an hour off. It's a good idea to go on airplane mode to prevent your phones from automatically changing the time. Or you can change your clock settings to manual instead of automatic. But if you are ever in doubt of what time it is, check your cruise app - that will be on ship time.
16. Excursions, IDs and cash
Make sure to bring your sail card as well as your passport/ID and credit card when you exit the ship to go on your port excursions. Not only will you need them to identify yourself when you return to the ship, but in the rare case that you miss the back onboard time, you do not want to be stuck in another country with no means of being able to get back home. This is why I highly suggest all cruisers have passports eventhough they are not required for most closed loop sailings (sailings where you depart from and return back to the same U.S. port). Also I suggest bringing small bills like $1 and $5 to purchase souvenirs from the local street merchants if that is your thing.
17. Attire for Theme nights
Disney has a Pirate night. Virgin Voyages has a Pajama Party and a Scarlet night. Nile river cruises have Galabeya night. You may have 1 or more formal nights..... If you're like me and actually like to participate in these shenanigans then you want to know what theme nights are going on during your sailing so you can prepare accordingly.
These are great opportunities to coordinate outfits and get some really good family photos from the various photo booths onboard. You can contact me or your preferred travel agent to get attire recommendations for your specific sailing.
18. Choose to enjoy yourself however you see fit!
Many sailings will have a jammed pack itinerary with multiple things going on at the same time. Don't feel pressured to try to go to everything. And dont feel pressured to have everyone with you at all times. For example, I can happily go to the Harry Potter trivia party, while my guy is watching the football game in the sports bar and while the kids are in their clubs. There's something for everyone so do what makes you happy.
19. Suggested things to bring (and not!)
TOWEL CLIPS - Pool decks can be a little windy, the clips will keep towels in place. Also it's clear to others that your pool chair is still in use.
DOOR DECORATIONS - Cabin doors and walls are basically metal. All you need is a printer, self laminating sheets and magnetic tape and you can make your own like I did (above) for our last Disney cruise. Google "cabin door decorations" for ideas!
BEACH BAG - You will need it to carry your sunscreen, towels and other toiletries to the pool or on excursions.
LANYARD - Not needed if your cruise uses wearables, but essential if you have key cards. Wearing it around your neck is easier than trying to carry a wallet or purse to keep track of it.
DRAMAMINE - You want this just in case. Most sailings are super smooth, but if there happens to be a patch of rough waters you will be glad that you had this!
LIGHT JACKET OR SWEATER- Even if you are sailing on the hottest day of the year. Sometimes the theaters and inside venues may be chilly with the air going full blast.
DO NOT BRING:
CBD/THC - Yea I know it's legal where you come from, but we're talking international waters and foreign countries. Leave your stash at home!
CANDLES - One of the last things a ship needs is for a fire to break out. Dont bring them!
IRONS - Same as the candle situation, irons pose a fire hazard. On each deck there are laundry rooms where you may iron clothes if needed.
FIREARMS - You wouldnt think this needs to be said, but it does. Firearms, fireworks and explosives are not allowed onboard
EXTRA FOOD - Unless you have a specific dietary restriction, you will not need it. There is a ton of food onboard at all times so you wont go hungry in the middle of the night, and snacks are already in abundance.
20. Lastly, it's Disembarcation Day
No one wants to say goodbye but we all have to at some point. On this day you can have breakfast, collect any stored liquor and sort out any last minute billing concerns that you may have. You can chose to take your luggage off the ship with you (we always do). Or you may have the porters do it for you. In the latter, you will need to set your luggage outside your door the night before at a designated time and it will be waiting for you at the terminal. Then you have one last custom's clearance (have your passports or birth certificates ready) and then you are on your way back home. Hope you enjoyed your cruise, and see you next time!