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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 timer, you’ll probably learn something here, too. These cruise ship tips work for both beginners and veterans alike.
Cruise Tips for Before Your Voyage
Select the Right Cruise
Not all vacations 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.]
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 trips for as much as 80% less than at high season.
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 ship. You’ll have fewer features (like the lack of an ice-skating rink), but you’ll save significant money.
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.
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.
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.
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 trip 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 trip 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.]
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 many boats, 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, the companies don’t like electrical devices, so you need to be discrete.
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 company. 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 companies 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.
We are strong believers in bringing our own snorkel gear with us, 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.
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!
One of the stores on the 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.
Beach Towel Clips
We have a love/hate relationship with beach towel clips. We hate the idea that some passengers 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 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).
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 voyages 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 trip.
Embarkation (Getting on the Ship)
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.
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 ships 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.
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.
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. Follow our cruise tips and hit the hand sanitizer stations frequently. You won’t be able to miss them – they are everywhere on the ship.
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 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!
Cruise Ship Specialty Restaurants
Your 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 trip. 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 voyage, 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.
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.
The companies got hip to this a number of years ago (and actually listened to customer feedback). These days, nearly every 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 our top cruise tips: your very first priority 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 or nights 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.
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.
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.
Alcohol from Port
If you want to buy alcohol on one of your port stops and take it on board, the security officers 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 company 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.
Hitting the Cruise Casino
The 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 companies offer free classes on board and you should leave time in your schedule when planning a cruise for the first time.
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 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 voyage (or some companies will deliver them to your stateroom).
Cruise Ship Crew Gratuities
Tipping the crew for excellent service is both customary and appropriate. Nearly all companies 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.
Disembarkation (Getting off the Ship)
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.
Leaving the Cruise Ship
The 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 companies 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 voyage.
What are your top cruise tips and tricks? What would you tell other first time cruise travelers? Leave a comment below and share your experiences.