32 First Time Cruise Tips and Tricks for a Better Voyage - Travel Addicts

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32 Cruise Tips for a Better Voyage

18 Cruise Tips and Tricks for a Better Voyage.

Cruises are different from other kinds of travel. While there is a focus on exploring and relaxation, you’re seeing different places nearly every day. To get the most out of your cruise trip, we recommend doing your homework. Here are our first time cruise tips and tricks. At first, cruising can seem complicated, but these first cruise tips will have you make the most of the experience.

Even if you are not a first time cruiser, you’ll probably learn something here, too. These cruise ship tips work for both beginners and veterans alike.

Cruise vacation tips: One of our first time cruise recommendations is to focus on the type of cruise you want.  There aren't any official cruise do’s and don’ts - you should have the exactly the cruise you want.

Active or Relaxing? Plan the cruise you want.

Cruise Tips for Before Your Voyage

Select the Right Cruise

Not all cruises are alike, so do your homework. We focus first on selecting ports and the overall itinerary. There are usually a couple of cruise companies that will visit those ports (a cruise comparison site makes this easy). Each cruise line has a different atmosphere, so pick one that matches your travel style.

We don’t spend a lot of time in our room, so we’re perfectly happy with an inside cabin. If you are prone to motion sickness (like Laura), you should consider a stateroom on a lower deck in the middle of the ship. [Our motion sickness guide has a few other suggestions to help with this common problem.]

One of our money-saving tips and tricks for cruises is to book an inside stateroom, which costs less money.

Money-Saving Advice on Cruises: There Is a Season

There are two cruise seasons in the Caribbean and one in Europe. The summer is peak cruising season in both the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, and Alaska. In the Caribbean, there is a second season running from mid-November to early-January that covers the holidays. Prices are significantly higher and there are fewer available options at those times.

If you want to save money, wait for when kids head back to school and book your cruise for the shoulder season. You can get cruises for as much as 80% less than at high season.

One secret tip for traveling cruises is to go in the off-season or shoulder season.  You'll find better prices and fewer ships in port, meaning less competition for activities.  Some ports, like Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas can be particularly busy.

During peak season, prices will be higher and there will be more ships in ports

Go Old School to Save Money

One of the big cruise secrets is that not all boats are equal. Older cruise ships will be significantly cheaper (like as much as 50% cheaper) than the latest and greatest cruise ship. You’ll have fewer features (like the lack of an ice-skating rink), but you’ll save significant money.

The steps in the main foyer of the Celebrity Summit, an older cruise ship.  If you're wondering what to know about going a cruise, you'll be able to save significant money by booking on an older ship.

Research Activities in Ports

Sure you can rely on ship-organized shore excursions, but it is much more rewarding and more cost-efficient to explore independently. The ship’s official shore excursion offerings can give you ideas to research. You should research each port and what there is to do there.

One of our top first time cruise tips and tricks is to independently arrange your own shore activities. You’ll get more time doing the activity and at a significantly cheaper price. Viator is a great site to check for independent tours and options.

The number and type of cruise shore excursions vary wildly.  One of our cruise tips and tricks is to plan your own shore excursions.

Check Logistics for the Ports

Each port is different, so spend some time researching the logistical information. Some ports are walkable, while others require transportation (a rental car, taxi, etc.) to get into the city center. In nearly every port, you can find a taxi (or more likely a shared service) for a price.

Every port is different, but taxis and car services can always be found.

Every port is different

Focus on the Paperwork

Cruising generally involves foreign ports, so make sure your passports and visas (if necessary) are up to date. But don’t overlook cruise paperwork. Those pesky self-printed luggage tags will save you hassle once you get to the cruise ship terminal.

Also, many cruises now require you to check-in online and print out documentation. Review the information from your cruise company carefully. A key first time cruise tip is to have all your paperwork in order before you get to the cruise ship terminal.

One of our most important cruising tips for first time cruisers is to have travel insurance.  It is critical if you should have an accident at sea.  Your cruise ship will have an infirmary that will treat you, but your insurance from home won't be valid.

If you have an accident, you’ll be grateful for travel insurance

Have a Plan B

Nobody plans to get sick on a cruise, but sometimes things happen. It’s a really good plan to have travel insurance. Your health insurance back home isn’t valid in other countries or an a cruise ship. My parents learned this the hard way when they were on a cruise a few years ago and got sick. They didn’t have travel insurance and needed to pay out-of-pocket for medical coverage. Their ailments were minor, but if anything serious happens, you’ll be glad you have it.

This is exactly what happened to us on our Bermuda cruise. We rented a scooter, crashed, and needed significant medical care. Lance ended up with broken toes and spent the rest of the cruise alternating between crutches and a wheelchair. Laura had severe “road rash,” which became infected and required IV antibiotics. Our bill was in the thousands, but we had travel insurance! [We provide specific recommendations in our travel insurance guide.]

Some cruise activities are more adventurous (and dangerous).  One of our best tips for going on a cruise is:  Don't overlook travel insurance for your cruise vacation.

What to Pack for a Cruise

Adapters and Power Strips

Electrical outlets in public places (if you can find any) are likely to be the European two-pin kind. This is because most cruise ships are built in Europe. In your room, you’ll likely have a North American plug along with a European plug (many boats spend at least part of the year in Europe). On cruises, electrical outlets are going to be at a premium. You’ll probably only have one or maybe two outlets in your room, so if you’re running lots of devices, that can be a little bit of a challenge.

Consider bringing a European two-pin adapter and also a small power strip or extension device (such as this one) to extend your number of outlets. Now, cruises don’t like electrical devices, so you need to be discrete.

One of the cruise ship tips and secrets is that you can bring your own wine onboard.  In doing so, you'll save some significant money by only paying the cruise corkage fee.

Bringing wine from home can help you save money

Wine

Many cruise lines will allow you to bring your own alcohol on board—usually two bottles of wine per stateroom—but may charge a corkage fee in the dining room. The fee is typically about $25, depending on the cruise line. Bringing your own wine makes sense if you want to bring a really nice bottle of wine, or if you want to save money.

For instance, a cheap bottle of wine – (less than $10) plus the corkage fee will be cheaper than the cheapest bottle of wine on the dining room menu. Some cruise lines don’t charge a corkage at all. If so, you’re in luck and can save a ton of money on your wine bill. Note that we’ve never encountered a cruise line that allows you to bring on spirits or fortified wine, like port.

Top cruise tips and tricks:  always pack light.  We almost always bring our own snorkel gear.

Snorkel Gear

We are strong believers in bringing our own snorkel gear on cruises, particularly Caribbean cruises or Mediterranean cruises. It makes every port with a beach a chance for snorkeling. The idea of renting snorkel gear (and putting your mouth on an unsanitized piece of rubber used by thousands of other people) makes us a little nervous. When you get to a beach, just put on your gear and go! If you are interested in snorkeling, be sure to check our special snorkel equipment guide for more information.

Water Bottle

At $4 for a bottle of water, the cost adds up fast. One of our best tips for cruises is to bring your own water bottle. All cruise lines have large dispensers for ice and water (and also free lemonade and iced tea). Just bring your own watter bottle and you can fill up for free. The water tastes great and using your own bottle saves on the environment. Plus, it works great for ports too!

Sunscreen

One of the stores on the cruise ship will sell basic supplies (toothbrush, toothpaste, etc.) if you forget anything. They will also have sunscreen and aloe available – at a significant mark-up. On our most recent cruise, we noticed that sunscreen was going for $22 a bottle. The exact same brand at home costs less than $8. Stock up on sunscreen at home and then you won’t have to hit the cruise ship store.

Two cruiseship tips we like to share:  bring extra sunscreen and also beach towel clips for lounging by the pool on cruise ship sea days.

Being lazy on the deck during cruise sea days

Beach Towel Clips

We have a love/hate relationship with beach towel clips. We hate the idea that some cruisers lay out beach towels, try to mark their territory, and then leave for the whole day – essentially depriving other guests the chance to use the chair for the time they are gone. Don’t be those people. A cruise ship isn’t the Jersey Shore.

With that said, beach towel clips can be very helpful. The pool and upper decks on a cruise ship can be very windy on sea days. Having clips will keep the towels from blowing all over the place, or into the ocean (which is something we’ve actually seen).

Pack Light

Most first time cruise travelers tend to significantly over pack for their cruise. If possible, try to pack with a carry-on only. It will let you focus on exactly what you need. For Caribbean cruises, you’re going to spend most of your time in swimsuits and flip flops, which don’t take up a lot of space. Take less than you think you’ll need.

Most cruises will require you wear nicer clothes in the main dining room. Some cruises have formal nights, which require even more formal dress attire. Research your cruise documentation and, it will tell you how many formal nights you’ll have on your cruise.

There can be long lines for embarkation (getting on the cruise) in port.  One of our travel tips for cruising is to make sure you have all paperwork printed out in advance.

Embarkation (Getting on the Ship)

Luggage

You have two options: if you’re traveling with a carry-on, you can take your own luggage on-board. You can roll right on, drop the bag in your room and have access to everything you might need. If you have bigger bags, you’ll need to leave your bags with the porters at the port.

Note that the porters are employees of the port, NOT the cruise line and they tend to operate on their own schedule. This means you may not have access to your checked luggage for several hours. Put anything of value and anything you might need right away (a swimsuit, sunscreen, etc.) in your hand luggage or a small bag to take with you.

Our best cruise advice is to look for behind the scenes tours, which are available with some cruise lines.  These experiences are a fascinating opportunity for first time cruise guests.

Look for behind the scenes tours, which are available with some cruise lines.

Learn the Cruise Ship

The good news is that all vessels are generally the same. Across the cruise companies, there’s a common layout: A pool on the top deck in the center next to the buffet style restaurant (usually called the Lido) with a pool bar; the multi-level theater is in the front of the ship on the main decks; the main decks (usually decks 4-6) have an open lobby/atrium with several bars around the atrium; the guest services desk is on the lower floor of the open atrium; the primary dining room will be at the very rear of the ship on the main decks; the infirmary or medical facility will be on the lowest level of the boat; etc.

Some cruises will have a rock climbing wall, a cooking class, etc., but generally they are all the same floorplan/layout. One of our top cruise tips is to spend about 30 minutes walking around to familiarize yourself with the overall layout once you get onboard.

Make the most of your sea days by doing exactly what you want.  One of our cruise tips for beginners is to have fun on your cruise ship.  This is your vacation!

Get Lunch

You’ll probably be hungry. We recommend avoiding the buffet or Lido on the first day. This is a good strategy for avoiding stomach viruses at the beginning of a trip and has the benefit of helping you avoiding the crowds because the buffet is always mobbed with people on the first day.

Instead, heed this top cruise tip and head to the main dining room where you’ll get better food, better service, and less hassle.

Top Cruise Tips:  The buffet can have long lines on the first day.

The buffet can have long lines on the first day

Coast Guard Lifeboat Drill

Under international maritime law, all cruises are required to conduct a safety drill. In the U.S. and for Caribbean cruises, the U.S. Coast Guard conducts this drill. It’s required. They will do a rollcall. It will take about 40 minutes. It’s boring, but it’s important.

Hit the Alcohol

No, we’re not talking about drinking. We’re talking about hand sanitizers. For the first 24-48 hours, hit the hand sanitizer stations frequently. You won’t be able to miss them – they are everywhere on the ship.

One of our top cruise tips is to use the hand sanitizer stations frequently.

Best Cruise Tips for During the Voyage

Do What You Want

Each evening, you’ll get a detailed schedule for the following day and a briefing on each port. The port briefing is usually nothing more than a list of stores that have a financial relationship with the cruise company, but it does contain a map, which is very useful. Novice cruisers tend to over-program their trip trying to make the bellyflop competition and bingo and the sailaway cocktail hour and karaoke and the midnight buffet and…the list goes on…

One of our key first time cruise tips is to relax and do just what you want (this applies to solo cruisers too!). You’ll never be able to do everything on the cruise ship, so don’t try. If it is your first time on a cruise, you should do what you want when you want. It’s your vacation!

First time cruise visitors are often surprised by the number of things to do.  One of our top cruise tips is to not put too many activities in your day.  One of our top tips for first time cruisers is to do nothing at all.  Plan lots of time for relaxation.

Cruise Ship Specialty Restaurants

Your cruise ship will have several specialty restaurants on board. All of them will require you to lay out additional money. These can either be with a specialty restaurant upcharge or via a la carte pricing (just like a restaurant).

Whether these specialty restaurants are good value to you depends on your priorities. We always visit a specialty restaurant at least once per cruise. We enjoy the special experience and always love the food. They tend to be our favorite meals each trip.

However, you need to be extremely planful for when you book your specialty restaurant experience. Not every night is the same in the main dining room. Usually twice per cruise, there will be formal nights…and the main dinging room serves better meals (lobster, filet mignon, etc.). If you are a foodie or dining is important to you, consider eating in the main dining room on formal nights and doing your specialty restaurant experience on another evening.

Some tips for first cruise:  Consider dining at one of the cruise specialty restaurants.  Yes, you will need to pay extra money, however, these can be unique dining experiences.  This is one of our top tips for cruisers.

Specialty restaurants, such as Qsine on Celebrity Cruises, offer unique dining experiences

Main Dining Room Reservation Strategies

Nothing about cruising is more confusing or generates more frustration than seating for meals in the main dining room. In the past, most cruise lines used set seatings. You had either early seating or late seating, were generally seated at larger tables (four, eight, or ten people) that you didn’t know, and you mingled. It was all kind of stodgy.

Cruise lines got hip to this a number of years ago. These days, nearly every cruise company uses a more flexible system. They now operate the main dining room like a restaurant. Yes, you can still sometimes be paired at a group table (and meeting other people has been a real highlight of our cruising experiences), but you aren’t stuck to rigid times or inflexible options.

One of the things to know for first time cruisers is that you have options! One of your very first priorities when you get on board is to visit the main dining room and make your reservations for the week. You should have a plan in mind for what night you’ll do specialty dining and then plan around that. Even better, some cruise lines now let you make your main dining room reservations online in advance or via a specialty app on your smartphone before you even board the ship.

First time cruise guide:  One of our best cruise hints and tips is to make your main dining room reservations as early as possible.

Eat Exactly What You Want

On a cruise ship, you can eat exactly what you want. Don’t like the dining room? Go to the lido. Don’t like any of it? Order room service.

But if you see see several things you like, such as not being able to chose between the lobster or the filet mignon, why not get both? In the dining room (or anywhere else on the ship), you’re not limited to one appetizer and one entree. Also, appetizer and entree sizes may be smaller than you’re accustomed to. So go nuts – order several appetizers or entrees. You’re on vacation.

Drinks

Cruise ships are essentially floating bars. There’s a tendency to get drinks each time the bartender or pool waiter comes by. Those drink costs add up…a lot. Many first time cruise travelers get caught off-guard by the bill they rack up.

The cruise companies are wise to this and offer beverage packages. You pay a fixed price for sodas or beer or wine or mixed cocktails and you know your costs for the trip. We’ve often found that the alcohol packages aren’t a great value for the simple fact that you’re often not on the boat during the day because you’re in port (and you are paying for the beverage package every single day of the trip). Think carefully about your drinking habits and whether this is a value to you.

Cruise Travel Tips:  If you want to save money on a cruise, moderate your alcohol consumption.  While drinks are not expensive, they do add up quickly.

Alcohol from Port

If you want to buy alcohol on one of your port stops and take it on board, the cruise ship will likely confiscate it and hold it until the end of the trip. From experience, this is likely a disorganized system and you can bring the bottle back to your room about 50% of the time. Each cruise line handles this differently, so research carefully and then closely observe how strict that policy is actually enforced.

Make Friends with the Crew

Crew members are a tremendous resource. They’ve been the ports dozens of times, know all the best spots when you get ashore, know the ship intimately, and have great travel insights. Pick their brains for ideas and cruise tricks.

We have also found that individual crew members have a great deal of latitude in determining whether you will be charged. We’re not suggesting bribing them, however, making friends and being kind can get you free soda, free specialty coffee, and even a miscount in the number of drinks ordered in your favor. The crew members are actually awesome and socializing with them will be one of the highlights of your trip.

One of the cruise secrets we learned is that individual crew members have lots of discretion in whether you will be charged for things like specialty desserts or drinks.  One of our best tips for cruise travel is to make make friends with the crew.

Hitting the Cruise Casino

The cruise casino is a place of action, particularly on sea days. You’ll find the casino packed with people at almost any hour of the day. However, when you take a cruise for the first time, you’ll learn that the odds are really stacked against you. Cruise ship casino odds are significantly worse than odds at home.

Cruise ship payouts on blackjack are 6-to-5 (3-2 to is standard in most casinos). That increases the houses take by an immediate 1.4%. And imagine playing roulette on a moving boat! On most cruises, you’re best odds of winning are actually at the cruise ship bingo.

If you have an interest in blackjack, poker, or roulette, many of the cruise lines offer free classes on board and you should leave time in your schedule when planning a cruise for the first time.

Some cruise information and tips from expert cruisers:  odds in the casino are worse than they are in traditional casinos.  Enjoy the cruise casino for fun, but don't expect to make any money here.  You'll do better at cruise bingo!

The cruise casino will be packed on sea days

Onboard Shopping

Most cruise ships have significantly expanded their onboard shopping offerings in recent years. Gone are the days of a single on-board shop selling t-shirts and sundries. These days, most cruise ships offer mini-malls with numerous boutique stores, including ladies and men’s stores, a technology store, a jewelry store, a watch store, and usual an alcohol & tobacco store.

From our our experience, clothing and luxury items (handbags, watches, jewelry, and women’s apparel) are significantly over-priced compared to home. While the ubiquitous “gold-by-the-inch” displays seem like a good value, this is “gold plated” and therefore a poor deal.

However, we’ve found that the duty-free alcohol can be a really great deal. The ship will sell full liter bottles (compared to 750ml at home) for a price 30% less. So, you’re getting 25% more for 30% less. It works out to be a really good deal. You’ll pick up your purchase on the last day of the cruise (or some cruise lines will deliver them to your stateroom).

Many ships have boutique shops.  One of our top cruise travel tips and tricks is to save your shopping until the end of the cruise when the ship runs sales.

Many ships have boutique shops

Cruise Ship Crew Gratuities

Tipping the crew for excellent service is both customary and appropriate. Nearly all cruise lines will allow you to pre-pay gratuities (usually at a set rate of $15 o $20 per day). We usually do this because it makes things a lot easier than running all around the ship for the last two days trying to find the crew members to tip them. However, in addition to prepaying gratuities we also usually give certain crew members who go above and beyond a little something extra.

Check your receipts carefully, an extra gratuity is usually included in your bar receipts, room service delivery, or for some on-board services, so you would not give an extra tip in addition to that.

One of the travel tips for cruises is to focus on the cruise ports you want to visit.

Disembarkation (Getting off the Ship)

Breakfast

On the final morning, the Lido buffet is likely to be mobbed and chaotic, and room service won’t be available. Our tip for first time cruisers is to go to the main dining room. You’ll get a high-quality breakfast without the madness.

Top Cruise Tips:  On the final morning, head to the formal dining room for breakfast.

On the final morning, head to the dining room for breakfast.

Leaving the Cruise Ship

The cruise company will provide you with detailed, fool-proof instructions on how to do this. All cruises employ a group system based on the time of departure/flight information you provided when you checked in. Just go with the flow and follow the instructions, and you’ll be fine. If you notice that the cruise line has not allowed enough time to get off the vessel and make your flight, speak to someone at the guest services desk.

Be Prepared for Lines

No matter what tips for taking a cruise you might read or hear about, there is just no real solution for the disembarkation process and arrival back in your home port. It is always a chaotic process. And there are usually long immigration lines. The cruise ships have been working with the government to make the process better/faster/simpler, but those changes have been slow in coming. Be prepared to wait in lines when you return from a cruise.

What are your top cruise tips? What would you tell other first time cruise travelers? Leave a comment below and share your experiences.

Follow these first time cruising tips and tricks for a magical experience in paradise!  Going on a cruise for the first time is a magical experience.

Cruising to paradise

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What do you think about 32 Cruise Tips for a Better Voyage?

  1. Paula McInerney April 1, 2017 at 6:44 pm #

    Thanks Lance, this is a really helpful guide for us, about to embark on our first cruise ..ever. I will be coming back to this to check it often.

  2. Kim Pace June 26, 2017 at 8:36 pm #

    Great tips. We will be leaving soon on our first cruise. This will definitely help.

    • Laura Longwell June 27, 2017 at 3:58 am #

      So glad to hear it, Kim. Have a great time!

  3. Chacha Thayer December 18, 2017 at 3:44 pm #

    Thank you for sharing. I went on my1st Cruise just recently Oct, 10-13 I was so excited and happy. Sure enough fri, night when the ship started moving, I had motion sickness only the motion not the nausea all thru my trip. My son bought the bands and the pills, and we never made it to coco cay. I was so sad due to bad weather. We plan to go again soon thanks for the tips.

  4. Patti December 29, 2017 at 9:25 am #

    Great tips. One thing we have learned is when in port, if you are going on your own, set the timer on your phone. If you are in port for 8 hours plan to be back to the ship an hour before the ship leaves and set your timer for six hours so you will have plenty of time to get back. This way you don’t have to worry about the time on the ship being different. Once your timer gets off you can start moving towards the ship but won’t be rushed

    • Laura Longwell December 29, 2017 at 11:24 pm #

      That’s a great tip. Few things are more anxiety-inducing than the idea of not making it back on time.

  5. Mark February 22, 2019 at 11:15 am #

    I really appreciate your tip to print off all of your documentation before you leave for your cruise to avoid any hassle. My wife and I have been thinking of going on a cruise this weekend so we can celebrate our anniversary, and we are concerned that we won’t be able to get all of our papers in order. I will be sure to tell my wife that we won’t have to worry if we print them off!

  6. Joshua June 25, 2019 at 3:22 pm #

    As a 15 year Senior Officer aboard 22 different cruise ships, your points are very valid… but you lost all credibility when you called them “boats.” Just sayin’…………

    • Lance Longwell June 27, 2019 at 11:33 am #

      Thanks Joshua. In the article, we used the terms ship, vessel, and boat interchangeably (and largely for variety). Being an industry insider, you’re probably more acutely aware of public perceptions. In technical terms and using the taxonomy, any water-going vessel is a boat. So while all cruise ships are boats, not all boats are cruise ships. But yes, we may want to vary the language a bit more. Thanks for the suggestion.

  7. Jackson Bush July 25, 2019 at 11:43 am #

    Its good to know that you should try to only pack a carry-on when going on a cruise. My wife and I are planning on going on a cruise this summer and she was wondering how much she should pack for our vacation. I’ll be sure to tell her to pack light for our trip.

    • Lance Longwell July 25, 2019 at 11:23 pm #

      We ALWAYS pack too much. I think on our last cruise I didn’t even use half the shirts I took with me. However, if going tropical, consider packing 1 more swimsuit than you’ll think you might need.

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