Has the sea been calling you but you haven’t gotten up the nerve to book your first cruise? Don’t worry, I have been on a lot of cruises and I'm here to help you decide what the best cruise may be for you, and also share some tips for your first voyage.
To be honest, cruising has to be one of my favorite ways to travel, and I plan to start visiting ports in Asia, Europe, and Africa within the next few years. What do I love so much about cruising, you may ask? Well it’s simple, you check into your room, unpack once, and see multiple countries without leaving the comfort of your floating resort. There is also so much to do, or not do, on the ship that you really can’t ever get bored. I could really go on and on, but I won’t right now, but feel free to ask me your questions in the comments.
Every Cruise Line is Different
I know you’ve seen the ads that show bigger and grander cruise ships with affordable pricing and enticing deals, and they all may seem the same after a while, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. No two cruise lines are alike. Sure, they may all have all you care to eat buffets, entertainment, and similar room types, but each cruise line has a different ambiance and you have to know what you’re looking for. Want a constant party? I suggest Carnival. Want a relaxing atmosphere with family friendly options and tons of onboard activities? Try Royal Caribbean. Looking for a mixture of relaxation and evening parties? Let’s go with Norwegian. Those are just the most popular lines in the US, there are also luxury cruise lines, cruise lines for foodies, cruise lines for the more adventurous…you get my point. Really do your research on what you’re looking for before you decide on your first cruise, or better yet, use a travel agent! They will take what you tell them you’re looking for and suggest a perfect cruise line and ship for you – and most agents don’t charge you any fees!
Check In Online
This is an important step. Once you have made final payment on your cruise vacation you will want to create an account with the cruise line and start your online check in process. This process will save you valuable time once you arrive at the port (because who wants to stand in long lines before vacation?). You will need your booking number, passport, flight information, and the credit card you want to use to make onboard purchases. Once complete you will print out your boarding documents and your luggage tags (we will get back to these).
There’s and App for That
In the age of smart phones did you really think there wouldn’t be an app for your cruise? Many of the larger major cruise lines have launched apps for their customers to use while on vacation. Each cruise line is different, but most have the daily activities, the ability to make dining reservations, you can check how much you have spent, and some even have a messaging capability for you to message your friends and family on board. I honestly like Carnival’s app the best right now because of the messaging and social media capabilities, but this is all pretty new to the cruise lines, and I expect them all to expand. No matter your cruise line, head over to your app store to see if your cruise line has an app and make sure to download it.
You’ve Arrived, Now What?
You made it! You arrived at the port and you are ready to board the ship, but first you need to take care of a few things. You should have printed your luggage tags and should have them with you, if they're not already on your checked luggage. When you arrive you will give your bags, adorned with your beautiful paper luggage tags, to a porter. The porter, who accepts tips if you want to apologize for having a 65 pound bag for a 7 day voyage, will take your bag and make sure it makes its way onto the ship and to your room. Your bag will arrive in front of your room around dinner time the same night, so be sure to keep anything you need immediately (think: passport, medicine, swimsuit, etc.) in your carry-on baggage. Once you have passed off your bags you will head inside with your boarding documents to check in. You will hand over your boarding documents, take your picture, and set up your onboard account (more on that in a second). Once complete, you’ll head onto the boat! Don’t forget to take a picture as you board.
Show Me the Money!
Money has got to be the number one question I get when booking cruises for my clients. “Wait! What do you mean I can’t use cash?!” It’s true, you can’t use cash, all cruise lines operate on a cashless system. That doesn’t, however, mean that you can’t spend a lot of money while on board. All transactions are added to your onboard account every time you swipe your card at a bar, arcade, restaurant, or shop. And where do those charges go, you may ask? They will be charged to the credit card you place on your account at the time of check in. Some people prefer to use cash, and while that’s a great idea to budget, it also adds unnecessary time on the first and last days of the cruise when you have to go to guest services to add cash to your account or to settle and get your refund. The lines are LOOONNNGGGG and you could be spending that time sipping a drink by the pool. If you really want to stick to a budget, I suggest having a bank account or prepaid card loaded with a set amount of money. Unlike a credit card, with a large amount of available funds, you won’t be tempted to buy the whole Coach store if you only have $50 left for the next 5 days.
Is This A Drill?
Is that the sound of the emergency horns I hear? Don't worry, before every sailing you must go through a muster drill. It is only a drill, but is required by law. About 30 minutes prior to setting sail you will hear the emergency alarms go off, meaning it's time to head to your muster station. Your station is printed on your stateroom door, and is also written largely on your key card. You don't need to bring your life jackets for this drill (they are located in your room), and if you are traveling with kids they will get a nifty bracelet with their muster station to meet up with you in case they are in the children's activities during a real emergency. This is the most tedious part of your cruise vacation, but is a vital one; so take the 15 minutes for the drill, pay attention to the emergency procedures, then head to the bar for a fruity cocktail prior to setting sail. A steel drum band nearby doesn't hurt either.
Where Should I Lay My Head?
I’m sure you’ve heard it before “you won’t even be in your room that much!” While it may be true, you still want to know what you’re getting yourself into with your room selection. To be honest, the rooms aren’t big, the showers aren’t big, and there won’t be much room for your luggage if you’re a heavy packer; but you have everything you need in your room, and have more than enough space to feel comfortable on your vacation. I have been in almost every room type possible, from interior to suite, and the only real difference comes down to view and space. If you don’t like being woken up at sunrise, an interior may be your best bet. If you want a full bathtub, a suite may be for you. But if you suffer from claustrophobia it may be a good idea to get a balcony. Each room comes with at least two beds, and most times those two twin beds can be made into a king/queen. I say most times, but truthfully there are only a very few rooms that don't have this capability, and only one cruise like that I'm aware of. Each line and ship has different room options, so take a look at what there is to offer before deciding on the room that's right for you. Honestly, though, you really aren’t in your room that much.
All You Can Eat? Challenge Accepted!
Since your room, whichever you have chosen, won’t be ready until early afternoon, it is a great time to make your first trip to the buffet! There are a number of different stations in the buffet, but you will always have burgers, fries, salads, and hot dogs for the picky eaters. There are basic drinks available too -- think lemonade, water, and tea. All buffets are a bit different, some have gourmet meat and cheese selections, others have a strong Asian influence, while others tend to sway towards island cuisine. Now is a great time to try something you wouldn't ordinarily try, like escargot! You will never go hungry on your cruise, but why not start your culinary adventure as soon as you board the ship.
Rock the Boat
I can’t tell you how many times people refuse to go on a cruise because they get motion sickness from small boats. While I respect that, and completely understand, cruise ships are MUCH larger than small boats, and have stabilizers to keep them stable at sea. I can’t tell you that you won’t feel the boat move, you are on the water, but most of the time you won’t even know you’re on a floating resort. Also, if you are worried about motion sickness make sure to visit your doctor prior to setting sail to get a motion sickness patch. You'll see tons of people on board with a round bandaid looking dot behind their ears. If you forget, or don’t realize until you arrive, you can always make your way to the medical office to pick up some motion sickness pills (usually for free).
Again, you will never go hungry on a cruise ship, but you still want to know all your dining options to make sure you don't miss something. Some cruise lines have set dining times and locations, while others allow you to eat when and where you want. One thing people don't realize is that you can eat as much as you care to in the main dining room as well. If you can't decide between two appetizers, there entree's, and two desserts you can order them all! I do suggest ordering them all at the same time, though, because your servers will need to go through strict protocol to enter the galley to pick up your order. If you want to dine in one of the specialty restaurants I suggest you make a reservation, especially on some of the larger ships. Keep in mind that some dining options have an additional fee, but others are included in your cruise fare. Make sure to check out your ships dining options prior to sailing or on your first day on the ship, you don't want to miss anything.
I'm So Fancy
Depending on your cruise line you will have one or more formal night. Formal nights are a time for you to dust off your fancy clothes and show off around the ship (don't forget to take pictures, but we'll get there next). While it is highly advised that you wear formal clothes in the main dining room, you don't have to dress up to eat in the dining room on formal nights. Also, everyone's idea of formal is different, so don't get massive anxiety deciding what you should pack for one night's dinner, your maxi dress or polo and khakis will be just fine.
Pose for the Camera
You will notice pretty quickly that there are cameras everywhere as soon as you get your key card at the port. If I can give you any advice it would be...take the pictures! You don't have to buy anything, but so many times on vacation you don't get pictures of everyone in your party. Need new head shots? Try taking a few on the ship. Want to document all the countries you're visiting? Take the cheesy shot with the pirate in The Bahamas. Although you don't have to buy a single picture, you may find a great one you want to bring home. All the images have different price points, but you can usually get deals on photos as it gets closer to the end of the voyage.
To Tip or Not to Tip
The heading for this section is a bit misleading, I would never tell you not to tip (unless you have horrible service), but you do have options on how you do it. Most cruise lines charge you a set amount daily to your onboard account for tips, but you can also pay for the gratuities prior to sailing (or add the charges to balance so you don't need to worry about it and can budget it into your monthly payments). You can also ask the cruise line to take the gratuity off so you can tip in cash. I usually prepay my gratuities then add more in cash for excellent service. Honestly, the employees on cruise ships work really hard, it would be hard to not want to tip them.
Can I Buy You A Drink?
If you're looking for cheap(er) alcohol, or exclusive items like Hennessy White, you are likely going to the right place. The Caribbean has great prices on liquor (in most countries) and you can stock up while off the ship. When you get back to the ship you will have to give your purchases to the staff, since you can't bring bottles back to your room, but don't worry, they will be brought back to you the last night of your voyage so you can pack them in your luggage -- or share one last bottle with friends before you head home (I don't advise that though with your early morning departure the next day). Also, before you exit the ship, see if their onboard liquor store offers price matching. This may come in handy if you purchase all the Hennessy White from Barbados and want to purchase a few more at the same price. If you're looking for discounted drinks you can often find a drink special of the day in your cruise planner delivered to your stateroom nightly. Why not try a new drink AND get a great price for it?!
Let's Go Again!
If you loved your cruise vacation and can't wait to go again make sure to take advantage of the offers to book your next cruise while still onboard. Depending on the cruise line you will place a reduced deposit and get onboard spending money on your next voyage -- and many times you don't need to select the exact cruise while onboard. Booked through a travel agent? Don't worry, your new booking will be managed by them once back on land, just make sure to let your agent know.
Now It's Time to Say Goodbye
Going home has got to be one of the saddest parts of your cruise vacation, or at least it is for me. A few days before your cruise ends you will receive instructions on how to disembark the ship *cue tiny violin*. You will be given a zone, or number, to disembark with, and you will be given luggage tags to add to any items you would like to "check in." These bags will be placed outside your door the night before, and will be taken to the bottom of the ship. Your bags will then be picked up before going through customs as you leave, very similar to the procedures at the airport. If you prefer not to check your bags, you can carry them off the ship with you early morning on the day of arrival. Please be sure to pack extra clothes and any medications you may need in your carry on baggage if you do check your bags. If you have any questions regarding your disembarkation be sure to ask your stateroom attendant, they are happy to help.
I hope all this information has made you excited to book, or sail on, your first cruise. While all cruise lines are different, these tips ring true for most cruise lines, and can really help prepare you before you board.
Most importantly, don't forget to have fun, and tell me about your trip in the comments!