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First Time Cruise Guide – Tips for first-time cruisers.

Welcome to an ultimate guide for going on a first time cruise. For easier navigation, you can use the table of content at the top of the page. I know planning for your first cruise can be overwhelming, I’ve been there before. That is why this whole website is dedicated to giving you the best cruise advice to make your cruising experience easier. Aside from this guide, you can download many cruise planning printable resources to make your planning easier. When you are ready make sure you connect with a travel agent that will help you on your cruising journey.

Planning your Cruise

Why go on a cruise?

There are many ways to spend your vacation. You can go on a road trip, or even to a resort. For me, cruising is my favorite form of travel. There is something magical about boarding a huge floating resort and being whisked away to see other countries. Each morning you wake up and go out into the new port to explore a new place and in the evening you get to go to fantastic shows (something that you would only see on Broadway) and eat amazing food. For me, nothing compares to cruise travel.

Boats business city cruise

How do I choose my first cruise?

I know, there are so many cruise lines and so many itineraries, and picking one out can seem very overwhelming, especially for those booking cruise first time. First, you need to decide what kind of vacation you would want? If you are into sandy beaches, you should pick a Caribbean cruise. If you are more into nature and want to explore Alaska, an Alaska cruise might be the right answer for you. If you love Europe and exploring cities, a Mediterranean cruise may be a great fit. Looking for a very slow-paced cruise with fewer people on board, a river cruise would be a great option.

If this is your first time cruising, I would recommend a 7 day Caribbean cruise to start your cruising adventure(for US citizens). The simple reason for that is you will be going out of the port in United States. If you have never traveled outside of United States before, this may be the easiest way to introduce yourself to international travel. Remember all of the cruises departing from U.S. port will be visiting other countries, so make sure you have a passport (you can sail with other documents, but that may be a bit more complicated).

Second, pick a cruise line. If you are traveling with kids, my 4 top choices would be Royal Caribbean Cruise Line, Disney Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, or Carnival Cruise Line. Those are great for a family cruise. Many cruise lines that cater to families often have a kids club that has a lot of activities for kids during the day.

Royal Caribbean is my favorite cruise company, they offer a great variety of ships and sailings. They are geared toward family cruising and have many activities for families, kids, and adults. They tend to be more expensive than Carnival and cheaper than Disney. If you are on a budget I would recommend the Carnival cruise line as they tend to be a bit cheaper. They do have many things for families to do as well. I’ve sailed with them in the past (my first cruise ever) and really enjoyed the experience. Finally, Disney is a great choice if you have a bigger budget, as they tend to be the most expensive out of the three. This cruise line has an amazing reputation and caters to families with kids. Well, who doesn’t love Disney? If you are looking for a cruise with less kids on board, luxury lines (Princess cruise, Celebrity, Crystal, and Cunard) tend to have less families on board as they are way more expensive. On many higher-priced cruises drink package is often included in your cruise fare. I am sure whichever cruise company you choose, you will definitely enjoy the cruise, as all the cruise companies, work very hard to make your cruise vacation amazing.

Third, pick ports of call you are interested in and the ship you want to cruise on. We will discuss those two topics next.

We do have a full article about picking your first cruise

What itinerary is best for your first Caribbean cruise?

The itineraries will vary based on the port that you choose. The best variety can be found in Florida ports. Each port of call offers something different. I’ve been to many ports in the Caribbean and Mexico, and here are a few of my favorites-Costa Maya, Mexico (a smaller port that offers lower prices, it also has a few great beaches). Roatan, Honduras (another small port where you have a chance to have a sloth encounter, also has few nice beaches). San Juan Puerto Rico (an amazing little city with many attractions to visit and things to see), St Thomas (lovely beaches and shopping). Cozumel, Mexico (Great for snorkeling with easy access to mainland Mexico). Lastly, the cruise line’s own private islands offer great beach relaxation with a free lunch right on the beach. While many cruises stop in Nassau, Bahamas I usually try to avoid that port. However, if you are booking a cruise for the first time, you might actually enjoy it.

What size of the cruise ship is best for first time cruise?

Every cruise line typically has a lot of ships to choose from. Often the larger and newer the ship is, the more expensive it will be to book. However, larger cruise ships do have more amenities and entertainment options. I loved sailing on Oasis-class ships (Oasis of the Seas, Allure of the Seas, Symphony of the Seas, and Harmony of the Seas); there are tons of things to do. Those ships have zip lines, an aqua theater in the back of the cruise ships for water shows, an ice-skating rink, and few other things not usually found on smaller ships. I love Oasis class, but they can seem overwhelming. One drawback of Oasis ships is they cannot visit ports that require tendering (not docking in the port but getting passengers to the port by boat).

For the Royal Caribbean cruise line, my favorite cruise ship size is the Freedom-class ships (Freedom of the Seas, Independence of the Seas, Liberty of the Seas). These ships are large enough to have many activities (including an ice skating rink and Broadway shows) but not so huge where you start getting lost. They also tend to be a bit cheaper.

Smaller ships tend to have fewer activities onboard. If you are looking for a 3 or 4-day cruise, usually those are done on the smaller cruise ships.

My advice is, start with your budget first. Choose an itinerary that you like, and lastly, pick the largest cruise ship that fits within your budget.

cruise, ship, shipping

What cabin is best for your first cruise?

There are so many choices of staterooms on the cruise ships. The cheapest category is inside cabins. If this is your first cruise, this would be my recommendation. Cruise ships have so many activities and so many things to explore that you will likely only use your cruise cabin (or stateroom) to sleep and take showers. If your budget allows it, you can upgrade to the balcony or a suite cabin as well. Balcony cabins can be perfect on 7 day Caribbean cruises as this will enable you to have extra space to relax in the privacy of your own balcony. I do have a separate article for those who are wondering if the balcony cabin is worth it.

How much will a cruise cost?

The cheapest cruises start at around $500 to $600 for the two-person cruise, including taxes, fees, and port expenses (most cruise lines require you to buy cabins with double occupancy).  But those cruises may not be the best value. For example, a two-day Bahamas cruise from Miami advertised by Carnival for 149/per person will cost you $539.48. Which is around $135/day/passenger.  Another example is a 7-day cruise on the Royal Caribbean out of Texas. Visiting three ports in the Caribbean will set you back  $1,350.00 for two passengers.  Which is a better value at around  $96/day/passenger. Plus, you will be on a much larger ship with more amenities. Cruise costs will vary depending on the time of cruising and the accommodations that you choose.  Aside from cruise fare, you will also need to consider other costs that you will

100 us dollar bill

Other costs you need to consider when planning a cruise

Aside from cruise fare and port fees, there few things that you should account for. First, getting to a cruise port. Airfare can be the second largest expense and should be taken into account when choosing a cruise port. You should also look into travel insurance costs, including medical insurance (you will be traveling to foreign countries where your health insurance may not work). Do you like to drink? You may want to consider getting a drinks package. If you plan on enjoying room service, it does come with an extra charge on most cruise lines. You need to check the amount to set aside for gratuities (this will depend on the cruise line). Cruise gratuities go to your dining room staff and your cabin steward. Also, the cost of excursion and port activities. Also, spa treatments on the cruise ship can add additional costs to your cruise holiday. And finally, the cost of accommodations before and after the cruise. I do have an article about budgeting for a cruise that you should check out.

ways to save on cruise fare

Ways to save when booking a cruise

Cruising can be a bit expensive. Here are few tips for finding the cheapest cruise fare. If you are looking for the best fares, you will need to look for off-peak cruises. The most expensive cruises are during summer, spring breaks. For Caribbean cruises, you will find the best fares in September and October (Hurricane season), the early weeks of December, and the end of February/beginning of March. With many cruise lines, your full payment is due 90 days before sailing, and if prices do drop, you can lock in a lower rate. Especially if you are looking for peak season sailing (high season), booking as soon as cruises are available can lock in the best savings. And if the cruise prices drop, you can always get a cheaper fare. Picking older and smaller ships can also result in savings. Cruise lines usually charge a premium when kids are out of school (as this is where demand for family travel increases). Also, if you are considering an Alaska cruise, get ready to pay a lot. The cheapest fares for Alaska cruise can usually be found at the beginning of the season (spring) or the end of the season (fall) as it starts getting cold. Sometimes you can find good deals on last-minute cruises, but if you are looking for a particular itinerary, that is not something I would count on. My best advice is to monitor cruise prices and to request for your travel agent to adjust prices when cruise fare drops.

Cruise Insurance – Do you need insurance for your cruise vacation?

A cruise vacation can be a great way to see the world, but the expense of a cruise can add up fast. But what if you need to cancel? or get sick? or have an accident? Travel insurance can help with the unexpected, and may even allow you to extend your trip.

When booking your cruise, you will be offered travel insurance. For example, Royal Caribbean calls it “Royal Caribbean Travel Protection Program“, and Carnival calls it “Carnival Vacation Protection“. Here are few things you need to consider when making a decision about travel insurance:

  • Find out what your health insurance covers on international trips and on a cruise? Will you have health insurance coverage with your health insurance?
  • Does your credit card offer travel protection benefits?

You should buy travel insurance before going on a cruise, but it’s not always the best deal to get it from the cruise line. First, check to see if your credit card offers travel benefits. I have a Chase Sapphire Preferred card, and while it does have an annual fee, it does travel/trip protection as long as you pay for the cruise using your card. Make sure that the insurance you choose will cover you fully.

Summer in Paphos

Planning excursions – what to do in the ports of call?

So you booked your cruise, now let’s talk about what to do in the ports of call. And no, I am not talking about cruise line shore excursion. If you want to have a great vacation, the best thing is to plan your port visit before you board the ship. You can look at the shore excursions your cruise line is offering, however, you might get a better deal booking the tour outside of the cruise line for your port day. Many ports in the Caribbean do have free beaches near the port. There are always taxis lined up right outside the port to take you wherever you want to go. I do suggest that you research ports of call to make sure you get the most out of your day. I do have a separate article about planning your port excursions and suggestions for some of the ports.

Pre-cruise packages and deals from the

After you book your cruise, the cruise line will start sending you emails with offers to purchase pre-cruise packages. Typically, you can get deals on specialty restaurant dining, discounts on shore excursions, discounted internet package, or spa treatment. While it may seem like these pre-cruise packages are the best value you can get, there are also important things you should know before purchasing one. First, decide if this is something you need. If this is your first cruise, you may not need specialty restaurant dining. I can guarantee that the meals in the main dining room are excellent and cruise lines have many free dining options. Before booking any shore excursions through the cruise line, make sure you research ports of call to see if you can save money booking excursions for your port day independently. Finally, you should consider unplugging from the internet for a week. Spend time bonding as a family instead.

Planning your flight

Before booking your flight, you need to decide if you want to spend a few extra days before or after the cruise exploring the departure port. It is recommended to fly in at least one day before your cruise, just in case there any delays with air travel (that saved me in the past). I usually prefer to fly in 3 or 4 days before the cruise and explorer departure port before I board the cruise ship. This is especially true if I am taking a cruise in Europe as I know I won’t be back in that city soon. Typically you can get the best deal on the flights 4 months to 3 weeks before your flight. I tend to monitor flight prices at least twice a week and book when I feel the flight’s cost is correct.

If you decide to arrive on the cruise departure day, make sure you book your flight at the earliest time in the morning. Depending on the cruise, you might need to be on board by 2 PM. When booking your flight, make sure it arrives way before the deadlines for boarding cruiseship. It’s best to book your return flight late in the afternoon, so you are not rushed trying to get off the ship.

whgite United plane on park
Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

Before and/or after cruise accommodations

It’s time to look at the hotel or other accommodations. If you arrive a day or a few days before your cruise, you will need a place to stay. When choosing your hotel or accommodation, try to get something not too far from the port. If you are staying after the cruise, look for something that has on-site laundry.

Getting Ready

Work and Sleep

Booking entertainment

This will not apply to everyone. However, if you are sailing on Oasis-class ships with Royal Caribbean, you may want to log in and book all of your shows and dining around 90 days before the sail date. In my experience, you need to keep checking your cruise planner (online cruise reservation area) until you are able to book. Once reservations are open, they do tend to fill up pretty quickly. So, check often to make sure you don’t miss the showtime you want. This might also be a good time to make reservations for regular or specialty dining and to book excursions if you choose to do so.

Checking into the cruise

Two or three months before your cruise, you will need to check-in with your cruise line. Typically checking in consists of providing a cruise line with your passport numbers, credit card information for your onboard spending account, and designate spending privileges (to make sure kids don’t go on a spending spree). Providing needing information will speed up your check-in process at the port. You will also be asked to pick check-in time. If you arrive a day before, my suggestion is to choose the earliest check in time so you can enjoy ship for most of the day. If you flying in on the day cruise, pick the earliest time you will be able to make it to the ship.

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Packing for your cruise vacation

It’s time to start packing your luggage. Before choosing the amount of bags you need, We have a great article about packing for a cruise. Depending on the airline, I usually try to pack one carry-on bag per family member; however, you may need a few more bags depending on your preferences. The main goal is to pack the least amount of things. Make sure you don’t forget any documents or prescription medications. Pack a travel-size sunscreen (unless you arrive a few days early and able to buy it before boarding a ship); it will be way more expensive in the ports of call. Ensure all the documents, medications, valuables, and electronics are in a separate bag that you will carry onto the ship. Since your main bags won’t be delivered to your stateroom until later in the day you may want to pack swimsuits if you want to enjoy the pool deck.

Few things you should consider packing

We have a separate article about this. However, here are 9 things you may consider packing:

  • Outlet adapter – Cruise lines are notorious for having only very few outlets in a cruise cabin. This cheap accessory can save you a lot of headaches. We tend to travel with a laptop, camera, couple of phones, and couple of tablets. Being able to extend the number of outlets is a big help for us.
  • Travel wipes– Having disinfecting wipes helps make sure we stay safe. Especially on the plane, wiping down your seat and anything you or your kids will touch. You can also use those to wipe down surfaces in your cabin
  • Wine bottle protector – Cruises do allow you to bring wine onboard. I do recommend arriving a day early and getting wine before boarding a ship. However, you may be the kind of person that really loves the particular wine that you want to bring along in your luggage. Also, you can save a lot of money getting liquor bottles on the ship during sailing to bring home (if you do, make sure you know you are not allowed to bring liquids in the carry-on bag). In either case, you may want to invest in wine bags to make sure your bottles arrive safely, and if they don’t at least your clothing won’t be soaked in wine.
  • Poo-Pourri – Let’s talk about an awkward topic. Bathrooms on the cruise ship don’t have great ventilation. Poo-Pourri can help mask bathroom odors and save your marriage. This is not a spray that mixes into the smell; you spray this into the toilet before going. It creates a seal, so odors don’t get out.
  • Over the door organizer – No, this is not for your shoes. Cruise cabins are relatively small. You can hang this on the bathroom door to keep all the small accessories you have and keep your room organized. We usually put sunscreen bottles, deodorants, lotions, hair products, makeup, and other small things. Well and obviously shoes, this is a shoe organizer after all.
  • Charge Station– Do you have a ton of devices you need to charge (if you have kids you for sure do). Having a charging station is the most effective way to charge all your phones and tablets at the same time, just make sure you have enough charging cables. Charging many modern devices have either USB-CMicro USB or Apple lighting type connection.
  • Luggage tags and ID holders – You should consider getting luggage tags and ID holders. While the printed luggage tags can usually be stapled around your luggage, they tend to get lost at times, resulting in your luggage not being delivered. Each line has different luggage tags, so make sure you get the correct ones. You can check out tags for Royal Caribbean and Celebrity or Carnival
  • Waterproof cell phone pouch – If you are going on a Caribbean cruise, you will be visiting many beaches. Consider buying a waterproof case for your cell phone to keep water and sand away from your cell phone.
  • Water shoes – One of my favorite purchases was water shoes. When you go into the water, you can encounter sharp rocks and pebbles. It’s a lot easier walking in water shoes. Plus, they dry very quickly after you leave the ocean.

We do have more articles about cool things to take you’re your cruise, don’t forget to check them out.

What not to bring on a cruise

Cruise lines have different rules about things that you can and cannot bring on the cruise ship.

Don’t bring iron, candles, power strips, or any other prohibited items.  Make sure you visit your cruise lines website for a list of those items.  If items are found, they will be confiscated and usually returned to you after the cruise.  As it’s often updated, it’s best to check with them directly:

Print and collect all the documents

It’s time to print and collect all the documents. I know that you can pull a lot of documents on the phone, however, I prefer to at least print boarding docs to make it easier to get through the port security. Make sure you don’t forget passports either. I do prefer to have everything in one place and always use a travel document organizer.  

getting house ready for the trip

Getting your house ready for the trip

A few days before the trip, you may consider doing a few things to make sure you are ready to leave. You probably thought of this before. However here are few things that I usually do:

  • Put a hold on the mail or ask your friends/neighbors to pick it up – Go to the USPS website to request a hold for delivery. This will make sure your house doesn’t appear empty
  • If you have pets, make sure they are looked after – make sure you make arrangements with friends or service to ensure your pets are taken care of.
  • Talk to your local police station, so they are aware you are not home. Some police departments will make sure to send patrol cars down your street a couple of times a day to check on your property.
  • Ensure your family or friends know policy numbers and contact information for travel insurance in case of emergency.
  • Let your friends/family know emergency numbers for the cruise line in case they need to relay an urgent message to you, especially if you don’t plan on getting internet onboard your cruise ship.

Traveling to destination port and boarding your cruise ship

Airplane travel tips

Airplane travel tips

It’s time to travel. If you are heading to the airport, here are few tips:

  • Make sure strangers don’t know you are traveling – Suppose I am using ridesharing service or taxi to take us to the airport. In that case, I usually pretend that we are returning home (so the driver doesn’t think the house will be empty). I know it may be silly, but I don’t like to advertise that I am on vacation.
  • Get an empty water bottle – I usually clip an empty water bottle into my bag. Water bottles are so expensive at the airport, and you cannot carry one through security.  Having an empty bottle might save you a few dollars.
  • Wipe down your tray table – Trays rarely get disinfected. Make sure you wipe them down to avoid getting sick on your cruise.
  • Make sure you arrive on time – The last thing you want to do is miss your flight because of traffic. I usually arrive an hour or an hour and a half before the flight’s departure to make sure we don’t miss our cruise.
  • If the plane is late, don’t’ stay in line. CALL – Sometimes planes break and are late. If you know you are missing a connection, call the airline right after you land. Many people will run to the customer service desk; calling might save you from missing your sailing.

Boarding and setting sail

After you finally arrive at the port, it’s now time to board your cruise ship. You want to make sure you check your bag with a cruise line.  Typically when you arrive a porter is waiting to take your bag.  Tipping a porter is optional, while some recommend tipping $1 or $2 a bag, typically all they do is just load your bag inside a metal cage.  So, for me I usually would rather spend that money tipping my room steward.  When departing a ship, they will do a lot more work, so if you choose to use a porter upon departure, a tip is warranted. You have to take your bag to a specific door in some ports if you don’t want a porter’s assistance (and don’t want to tip).  Just remember, even if you are traveling with only carry-on bags, you still should check them in as you won’t have access to your cruise cabin until later that day.  It would be a pain to carry those bags around.  Make sure that luggage tags are attached to the bag to ensure it is delivered to your stateroom.   Also, make sure all your valuables, electronics, and documents are in a separate bag. After taking care of the luggage, you will typically be greeted by security at the door and go through TSA style security check.  After that, it’s time to check-in. Ensure you are in the correct line as cruise lines have separate lines for new cruisers, loyalty program members, and suite guests. After checking in, you will visit the picture-taking station and will be able to board your ship. 

Most people will head to the buffet (typically located on each ship’s pool deck). Depending on when you check-in, it may be hard to find a place to sit.  I suggest you arrive early so you can enjoy the buffet before most of the others come.  After lunch, take time to walk around the ship—Check-in with the head waiter to get a table assigned (if you need it).  If you are planning on cruising again, this is an excellent time to visit the cruise sales desk as many cruise ships have specials on the first day of the cruise (for example, many give free champaign bottle if you book the next cruise on the first day).  Grab a daily planner (provided by the cruise line) to check out all that is happening on the first day.  Keep in mind that many events/seminars on a cruise ship are sales presentations.  Usually, on the first day, you will have a port shopping show.  You can skip that. However, this is an opportunity to win some prizes as well.

After everyone is on board, the cruise ship will have a muster drill to ensure everyone knows what to do in case of emergency.  They do take attendance at those drills, so make sure you check-in.

Cruise ships usually have a sail away party on the top deck. However, suppose you are not into loud music and dancing. In that case, you may enjoy watching cruise ship sail either from another deck or from your own balcony.

Tips for the first day onboard

Here are few things to remember on your first day on board:

  • Look at the cruise ship's daily schedule newsletter – Each cruise line has a different name for it (Carnival calls it “Carnival Fun Times” and Royal Caribbean calls it “Cruise Compass). Regardless of the name, this paper contains everything that is going on during the ship on the day. Make sure you note things you want to attend before and after the muster drill
  • Book dining – Looking for a specific dining time or table for 2 or 4? A great time to check in with a restaurant is on the first day of your cruise. On the first-day restaurant, the crew is still finalizing everything, so It is a lot easier to grant your special request. During my travel, we always try to book our travel party together at one table and book that table for the same time for the duration of the cruise?
  • Book daycare and babysitting service- If you have toddlers or babies another stop you should make is at the daycare center. If you plan on using their service, keep in mind that spots for daycare care fill up fast and the sooner you come and book the easier it will be to get your desired time.
  • Visit daycare/teen center– The day camp program is usually included in the cost of the cruise. You may want to visit it with your kids. See where it is located and get wristbands for your kids (that have your muster station in case of emergency).
  • Make sure you visit the show on the first day – On one of the cruises we met a family during an excursion. What shocked me is they didn't know that there was a nightly show.