A great cruise can be the vacation of a lifetime cruise ships are the state of the art vacation machines of the seas, delivering great food, fun shows and exciting destinations in one convenient package. Millions of cruisers embark on voyages each year, and there are always people taking a cruise for the first time. If you are about to set sail on your very first cruise, you may have some questions and concerns.
30 things to know before going on a cruise
I used to work for a major cruise line, and I have been on literally hundreds of cruises. Researching this article gave me the opportunity to reach out to old shipmates, to get their advice on the top things you need to know before going on your first cruise.
Don’t let a lack of planning and preparedness lead to disaster! Take a few minutes to read over these good ideas; they will help to make sure you are ready for your first cruise.
1. Book the cruise that’s right for you. Most cruise ships have a mixture of families, couples and singles, so they make sure that there’s something for everyone. But there are also themed cruises, which could feature special music (disco, Soul Train, KISS), interests (Star Trek, zombies, Harry Potter), or activities (knitting, scrapbooking, genealogy). There are LBGTQ cruises and nude cruises. If you are a retiree looking for some peace and quiet, here are some things to know before going on a Carnival cruise: they cater to a younger crowd, and have a distinct “party” vibe. If you’re a young family looking for an affordable getaway, some things to know before going on a Disney cruise are that they are a lot of fun, but also they are not cheap. So do your research. Talk to a travel agent. There is a cruise that’s right for you.
2. Choose the right destination. Where do you want to go? What would you like to do? Does your family like beaches and hot weather? Then you should think about Mexico or the Caribbean. Or do you prefer cooler climes and more civilized amenities? In that case you should consider Alaska, Canada and northern Europe.
3. Will little kids enjoy a cruise? They sure will. All major cruise lines offer kids clubs and babysitting services. The ship itself acts as a sort of a gigantic rocker, rocking all of the passengers gently to sleep each night.
4. Buy trip insurance. You probably booked your cruise in advance to find the best prices, but plans can change. If you booked a fully-paid, non-refundable cruise, be advised that good trip insurance is the only way to cover the cost of a last-minute cancelation. It can also cover the cost of lost luggage, a sudden illness at sea or other disaster. Highly recommended. Your travel agent can tell you more.
5. Book your shore excursions in advance. Many people wait until they’re aboard the ship to book shore excursions, and the ShoreEx staff is friendly, knowledgeable and helpful. If your excursions are beach breaks and some shopping, for sure you can wait until the last minute to book. But popular shore excursions sell out quickly. If you want to see the Blue Grotto in Capri or go swimming with dolphins or take a helicopter ride to a glacier, you need to book early.
6. Pack light. Don’t put off packing until the last minute! Start packing a week in advance if you can. Think hard and think twice about everything you want to pack. If you can do without it, leave it. To pack the right clothes, consider that everything you wear may need to do double duty and also be worn multiple times. Bring a nice pair of shorts for beach excursions and casual dining aboard ship. A pair of nice jeans for the evenings. If you know you’ll be buying souvenir tee shirts, don’t bring too many tee shirts of your own. More difficult than the right clothes is bringing the right shoes. Bring sandals for the pool and the beach, and comfortable shoes for walking. You can leave your cute cowboy boots at home, but if you have any hiking trips planned then you might need some hiking boots.
7. What is the dress code? Unless you’re booked on a nude cruise, most normal forms of attire are acceptable: shorts, tee shirts and flip flops for casual spaces, jeans and pullover tops or button-up shirts in the main dining room. Formal nights may still be offered on some luxury lines, so you may want to bring an evening gown or tuxedo.
8. Can I get laundry done? Yes! Cruise ships offer wash & fold services. It costs a little extra, but for longer cruises or bigger families it can definitely be worth it.
9. Get vaccinated for overseas travel. Check with the State Department to see what vaccines are needed for your destinations. In this day and age, the COVID-19 coronavirus vaccination is the most common requirement. You might also want a flu shot and maybe even a tetanus shot.
10. Get tested for COVID. Check with your cruise line to see if they require a negative test result for COVID before embarking. Many of them do, even if you have been fully vaccinated.
11. Bring all necessary documents. Vaccination records are now part of the “new normal” and you may need to bring those, especially for COVID. Your tickets and your itineraries, of course. Keep the originals in your bag of essentials, and keep photocopies in your luggage. Don’t forget your identity cards and travel visas (if required), and most of all remember to bring your passport. You have to have a passport to visit other countries, including Mexico and Canada. Since most Alaskan cruises also stop in Canadian ports, you will need a passport to get to Alaska. Passports are held by the ship’s purser, and returned at the end of the cruise. While Americans can travel visa free to over 140 different countries, you need a Cuban visa (called a Cuban tourist card) in order to enter Cuba; check with your travel agent about things to know before going to Cuba on a cruise ship.
12. What about norovirus? Before the coronavirus came along, the norovirus was the most widely feared communicable disease of the high seas, and it is still quite common. In fact, it is second only to the common cold as a transmissible disease. It’s usually not as bad as having the flu; it’s kind of like a real bad cold, only with a side of diarrhea.
13. Use the hand sanitizer! Your ship will have hand sanitizing stations set up in many places, especially at embarkation points and dining areas. They are there for your health and safety. Use them!
14. Make sure you have your meds. If you need prescription drugs, be sure you bring them. Keep at least one day’s supply on your person, or in a purse, pocket or pouch. If your luggage is lost or just late in arriving at your stateroom, you will still have what you need to get through the day.
15. Bring your own seasickness medicine. You can buy some from the ship’s stores, but it’s cheaper to buy it on land. Or try eating ginger and drinking apple juice this can help alleviate motion sickness, and kids like it.
16. Bring another small bag just for your essentials. I’ve already mentioned your essential documents and a day’s worth of medications, but here are a few other items to bring: a phone charger this is the #1 lost item in all hotels. Sunglasses and reading glasses better get a spare pair of each as backup. An electric plug converter lots of cruise ships have power outlets for some other country, and you may need to adapt.
17. Can I bring liquor aboard? Speaking of bringing aboard your own meds, most cruise lines do not allow outside liquor to be brought aboard ship. Check with your cruise line, though, because they may allow a bottle of wine or two to come aboard with you. But if you were thinking about bringing along a 1.5 liter bottle of whiskey and nursing it for the entire voyage, forget about it.
18. Checking in. The embarkation process is as efficient and painless as the cruise lines can possibly make it, but patience is required. The lines can be long and slow moving. You will have to stand. It might be hot. Have some bottled water, and some way of keeping the youngsters occupied. Keep your embarkation documents (tickets and passports) handy. Follow all instructions from the cruise staff.
19. Heed all PA announcements and safety drills. The captain and the cruise director will sometimes have important announcements. Listen up! You will need to follow the instructions for any lifeboat and safety drills (and hopefully it is only a drill). Emergencies do sometimes happen at sea, and you will need to follow instructions from the crew.
20. Don’t get lost! Once aboard, orient yourself as best you can: which way is forward, which way is aft? Learn the port side from the starboard side. Memorize your stateroom number. Know where the nearest stairs are. Pick up a map of the ship and figure out how to get to the dining areas, the pool and the theater.
21. Is the cruise all inclusive, or does alcohol cost separately? This is one of those things you absolutely must know before you go. While all inclusive cruises are becoming more popular, it is still more common to have to pay for drinks at the bars. The bartenders can mix up any drink, no matter how exotic, but the prices are likely to be steep. They bill it to your stateroom, and you will get a shockingly high bar bill at the end of your voyage.
22. How much alcohol can I bring back with me? Cheap, duty free liquor is a big attraction, and there are gourmet rums and tequilas available in the islands and in Mexico which are available nowhere else. But US Customs only allows a maximum of five liters per person, and you may have to pay some taxes. It depends on your itinerary, and the cruise director can tell you more.
23. Is there cable TV? Do they have the internet? As a broadcast manager aboard ships I was sometimes asked if my ship had cable TV; I would always reply, “Yes and it’s a very long cable!” Actually, cruise ships usually have some satellite TV (like CNN or ESPN) but no HBO or Showtime. Most of what you see on shipboard TV is recorded content. The internet is available, but it’s delivered via satellite so it comes at a high price. Switch off the data on your phone or you will get hit with monster roaming fees.
24. Don’t miss the boat! Some travel experts recommend being among the last passengers to embark, in order to avoid the crowd. But the ship will not wait for you! It is up to you to come aboard in a timely manner. If you are enjoying a drink in a dockside bar and you hear the ship’s whistle blow, settle your tab and make your way to the vessel. If you hear the whistle blow a second time, just throw some money on the table and run as fast as you can. If you hear the whistle blow a third time, relax and order another drink: you’ve missed the boat.
25. Try not to overeat or drink too much. The food is pretty good, and it’s limitless. It’s tempting to think that if you eat enough, you will save so much money on groceries that you can pay for the trip! And those fruity rum drinks are so drinkable that it’s super easy to drink a few too many. Know your limits and try not to over do it.
26. Check the daily program for activities and entertainment options. There is so much to see and do aboard a modern cruise ship that the only way to keep track of it all is through the daily program. Sign up for dance classes. Movies, mixology and poolside jousting contests are common. If you’re on a theme cruise, you don’t want to miss the concerts, lectures and meet&greet events.
27. Get to know your crew. The waiters, bartenders and housekeepers are all friendly hospitality professionals. They’ve been on the ship a long time and visited these ports often, so they will have insider information including tips on where to go, what to see and what to do. Maybe what to avoid, too. Strike up a conversation and get to know them.
28. How much do I have to tip? Find out in advance if gratuities are included in the cost of the cruise you don’t want to be surprised. If tipping is suggested, and it usually is, remember that the crew depend on their tips and don’t be a cheapskate. The cruise director will have this information for you. Tipping is done at the end of the cruise on a “per person, per day” basis. So if the recommended amount for someone is $5 per person per day and you are a party of two on a ten-day sailing, that’s a hundred dollar bill. Cash is always welcome.
29. Relax and take it easy. This should go without saying, yet it’s easy to get stressed out about travel. Shepherding the whole family to the airport, flying to the cruise port, suffering through the embarkation process, waiting (and waiting) for your luggage to be delivered to your stateroom these things take energy and discipline, and they can test your nerves. But when the ship finally sets sail, try to leave your cares and worries back on shore.
30. Give yourself plenty of time to get to the airport on the way home. Disembarking is as big a chore as embarkation, and it takes all morning. Yes, you might be the lucky one who gets off the ship first but what are the odds? Save yourself some aggravation and book a later flight home. You’ll be glad you did.
Most cruisers are returning customers, and cruise lines love to welcome back returning guests. If you are planning on setting sail on your first cruise soon, I hope you have a wonderful time. It probably will not be your last cruise, and the next one will be even better.