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Tips for Taking Your First Cruise
A Week on a Cruise Ship
Is a cruise right for you?
I wasn't sure if I would enjoy our vacation when my husband and I were invited to go on a cruise with his parents. I'd never considered taking a cruise before because I had many concerns and was afraid I wouldn't like it.
We'd been on vacations with my in-laws before to Hawaii, Belize and numerous camping trips and always had a great time. They'd taken several previous cruise vacations and because of their recommendations I was convinced to give it a try. After considering several options, we booked a 7 night cruise to the Mexican Riviera on the Norwegian Star with ports of call including Acapulco, Zihuatenejo/Ixtapa, Puerto Vallerta and Cabo San Lucas.
If you are considering taking a cruise for the first time, on this page you will find out what to expect from someone who reluctantly took a cruise vacation for the first time. Come along and see what it was like to take a cruise to the Mexican Riviera on the Norwegian Star.
All photos by the author, Vicki Green - PNW Travels, unless credited to others.
What's Your Experience?
Have you ever been on a cruise?
A Cruise Ship in Port
Top 10 Reasons I was NOT interested in taking a cruise! - My concerns about taking a cruise
1. I thought it would be too expensive!
2. I was afraid I'd be bored
3. I was worried I would feel confined
4. I thought it would be crowded with over 2000 other people on the ship
5. I was concerned that I wouldn't get enough exercise
6. I was afraid of gaining 20 pounds from the dietary temptations
7. I couldn't identify with the shuffleboard demographic group
8. I like to have fun, but I don't really enjoy loud, obnoxious, inebriated people
9. I didn't want to shop for special clothes for "formal night" or take up the limited space in my luggage with formal clothes and shoes
10. I wasn't thrilled with the idea of cheesy tourist trap shore excursions
101 Things I Wish I Knew Before My First Cruise
72 pages full of great information to have before taking your first cruise including tips for: budgeting, health and medical concerns, dining, entertainment, packing, ports of call and safety.
Do your homework before you go!
There are many books that you can borrow or buy that have tips for first-time cruisers, information about cruise lines, individual ships and things to see and do at ports of call. I read several books and I thought one of the best books for general information about cruising is "101 Things I Wish I Knew Before My First Cruise" by Seth Lieber.
Cruise Boarding Day in San Pedro, California
Do You Have a Valid Passport?
Apply for a new passport or renew your passport
If you are thinking of taking a cruise with a destination or stops in a foreign country, remember to apply for a passport or passport renewal 4 to 6 weeks before departure to allow adequate time for processing. Although a passport may not be required for some cruises that stop in foreign ports, if you have any type of emergency or issues that require you to fly home from a foreign country, you will need a passport, so it is a good idea to have one. If you've booked a cruise that departs in less than six weeks, you can use an expedited passport service like Rush My Passport which can have your passport delivered to you within just a few days.
Spinner 21 Expandable Bag
This suitcase is small enough to meet size restrictions as carry-on luggage for many airlines, but is expandable.
Got Luggage? - Choosing luggage for your cruise
The cruise ship companies try to make the process as easy as possible, but you will still need to drag your luggage around somewhat when getting to and from the ship, so pick luggage that is sturdy and easy to pull around. Be sure to take along a larger piece of luggage than you need for your clothes, so you have some extra room when you pack to go home for souvenirs and other purchases. A garment bag is nice if you want to dress up for "Formal Nights".
Cruise Boarding Day Tips
- Arrive at the dock 3 to 4 hours before the scheduled departure
- Wear comfortable clothing and shoes
- Tag your luggage with your name and the cabin number you've been assigned
- Be sure to keep your passport and copy of your cruise reservation with you
- Bring a carry-on bag or backpack to keep with you that contains a change of clothes, travel-size toiletries, prescription medications and some water or other beverage - once you check your luggage you may not see it again for several hours
Our Boarding Day Photo
The Cruise Ship Boarding Process
- When you arrive at the dock you'll have your luggage loaded onto a cart
- You will be directed to a line to check in
- You will have your picture taken for the ship's ID system
- You will also have an opportunity to have a "Boarding Picture" taken
- The boarding process will take 1-2 hours
- After you board your stateroom may not be ready for another hour or two
- Your luggage will be delivered to your door, but it may not arrive until later in the evening
- Use the time while you wait for your stateroom to explore the ship and relax!
My Favorite Rolling Backpack
I bought this rolling backpack for travel and it is the perfect size for carrying a change of clothes, a snack, water, medications, my laptop computer and other valuables.
Bring a Backpack for the Cruise Boarding Process
Don't forget a backpack to have someplace to store some items with you while you wait in line to board. A backpack provides you with a place to keep some beverages, snacks, your medications, laptop computer, cameras and other valuables while waiting to board. It also comes in handy to have a backpack to take along on shore excursions. It keeps your hands free if you need to grab on to railings to board a tender boat and a handy way to carry all of your souvenirs when you return to the ship!
Waiting for Your Cabin to be Ready
A Cruise Ship Stateroom
The Cruise Ship Lifeboat Drill
After everyone is on board there will be a lifeboat drill. Yes, it is reminiscent of fire drills when you were in school, but don't skip it. In the unlikely event that your ship needs to be evacuated for any reason, you'll want to know what to do!
Know What to do if the Ship Sinks!
Day #1 & #2- At Sea
Here are some of the things we did on the "At Sea" days
I was concerned that the "at sea" days would be boring, but there was much more to do than I had imagined.
- Explored the ship - it's huge!
- Enjoyed reading a book I hadn't found time to read
- Worked on a suntan
- Ran around the running track
- Watched for seabirds and other wildlife while eating breakfast and lunch
- Watched some of the surprisingly hilarious poolside contests and shenanigans
- Attended a wine-tasting class
- Shopped in the gift shops
- Searched through the photo gallery to find our pictures from the previous day
- Attended a beer tasting class
- Talked to the staff at the Excursion Desk for more information about one of our shore excursions
- Watched some shipboard entertainment, including a band, a magician, a comedian and the "Not So Newlywed Show
Take a Tour of the Norwegian Star - Explore the NCL Star in this Video
More Photos of Relaxing Days at Sea on the NCL StarClick thumbnail to view full-size
Day #3 - Acapulco - A Day and an Evening in Acapulco
Acapulco was our first port of call. We opted to do a tour that we booked on our own instead of something through the cruise line.
The vistas from the hills surrounding the harbor were unbelievably beautiful. This photo of me taken from one of the hills shows Acapulco Bay with the Norwegian Star at the dock.
We saw many of the city's historical and cultural sights, the diamond district, did some shopping, had a fantastic dinner and topped off our day by watching a night dive by the famous cliff divers.
The Sights of AcapulcoClick thumbnail to view full-size
A Catamaran Snorkeling Trip on the Picante
Ports of Call on the Mexican Riviera
I found this book to be very useful when planning our time in each port of call. It provides some valuable tips on what to see and do as well as some cautions about places to avoid.
Day #4 - Zihuatanejo/Ixtapa
Our second port of call was Zihuatanejo. This time we purchased a shore excursion through the cruise line.
We were instructed to meet in the theater on the ship at a specified hour in the morning. The name of our excursion was called and we were told where to go to disembark. The ship stayed anchored out in the bay instead of docking. (This is called "tendered" in cruise ship lingo)
The passengers were brought into shore by the ship's lifeboats and other small boats based in Zihuatanejo.
We arrived at the pier and found a sign for our excursion and jumped onto another small boat for a snorkel trip with Captain Tony and his friendly crew on the catamaran Picante.
We motored out of the bay to another cove to snorkel. Unfortunately the snorkeling was of shorter duration than planned because the seas became too rough.
After getting back on board the Picante we were treated to a great buffet of fresh fruit, muffins and pastries followed by tequila and other assorted beverages.
Captain Tony pointed out points of interest on our way back in to port.
We had a little time to walk around town and do some shopping and it was time to catch a boat back to the ship.
Zihuatenejo/Ixtapa - Photos from our trip on the PicanteClick thumbnail to view full-size
Day #5 - Puerto Vallarta
A Jungle Zip Line Adventure in Puerto Vallarta
Our next port was Puerto Vallarta. For this port we booked a jungle canopy zip line excursion through the cruise line. Probably not my best idea! I thought perhaps I would use this experience to help me overcome my fear of heights.
I did manage to complete the zip line tour, but there were a few moments of terror. I didn't have a problem while zipping on the line through the trees, but I was not prepared for the absence of railings between zips!
Our Zip Line Adventure - Quite an experience!Click thumbnail to view full-size
Ziplining in Mexico
Tips About Booking Shore Excursions
Although we booked our zip line adventure as a shore excursion through the ship, some ship passengers prefer to book their own shore excursions. Booking a shore excursion directly with a tour operator is usually less expensive than booking through the cruise line. It is a good idea to be careful about booking a tour independent of the ship. When you book a port activity through the ship, if something happens that delays your return to the ship, the ship will wait for you. If you book on your own and are late getting back to the ship, it will leave without you making you responsible for finding and paying for transportation to either catch up with the ship at the next port or going back to the original departure port. There are reputable tour companies like Viator that will guarantee that you will be returned to your ship on time. If a zipline isn't what interests you, there were numerous other Puerto Vallarta Shore Excursions to choose from.
Cabo San Lucas, Mexico
The Moon Travel Guide to Cabo
If you are looking for things to see an do in Cabo, this is the travel guide that I liked the best.
Day #6 - Cabo San Lucas
Since I usually prefer visiting places that have history, cultural significance and unique local flavor I didn't really expect Cabo to be one of my favorite stops.
What put it at or near the top of my list was the amazing natural beauty and abundant wildlife.
Since Cabo is at the tip of Baha California where it joins the Sea of Cortez we were hoping we might see some of the many whales who winter and give birth in the area. We were not disappointed! We could see many whales from the ship as we approached Cabo.
Amazing, beautiful Cabo San LucasClick thumbnail to view full-size
Don't Forget to Pack a Swimsuit or Two
Be sure to take two swimsuits on your cruise
Between taking a swim in the pool and going on snorkeling trips, I was glad I took 2 swimsuits. One was always ready to go while the other was drying. If you are going to somewhere warm and sunny for a winter vacation it can sometimes be hard to find a swimsuit in local clothing stores in winter. Remember there are companies online like SwimSpot that specialize in swimsuits year round.
Compact Snorkeling Set
This snorkeling set is inexpensive and compact for travel, but includes many of the features that I prefer in my snorkeling gear.
Bringing Your Own Snorkeling Gear
If you plan on doing some shore excursion that include snorkeling you can rent or use gear provided by the excursion vendor. If I have room in my luggage, I prefer to bring my own equipment to make sure the mask, fins and snorkel are comfortable, fit me well and are the types I prefer. Since I tend to get cold easily, even in tropical waters, I like to bring along my rash shirt which provides just the right amount of warmth.
Sunset on the Pacific Ocean
Day #7 - At Sea
Our last full day and night on the ship
Our last full day on the ship was spent making our final duty free purchases in the gift shop, finding the rest of our pictures in the photo gallery and deciding which ones we wanted, packing, seeing all of the things on the ship we hadn't seen yet, another beer tasting class, completing our customs forms, relaxing and enjoying in some of the evening entertainment after dinner.
All luggage is to be set outside your cabin door the night before disembarkation, so you need to plan what clothes and toiletries you'll need in the morning and keep them with you.
Norwegian Star Dining Room
So what do I think after taking my first cruise?
Were my concerns valid?
1. Was it expensive?
NO - it was a bargain!
I admit I shopped around and got a good deal, but it's not that difficult to find a cruise that will cost approximately $100 per day per person or less! That includes meals, your stateroom and diffferent scenery every day. (You do pay extra for drinks and shore excursions)
2. Was I bored?
No, I can honestly say I wasn't. The days we were in port we went ashore and the days at sea were filled with all sorts of activities to choose from.
3. Did I feel confined?
No - actually our stateroom was comfortable and wasn't as small as I'd expected. I didn't feel confined at all! We got a cabin with a balcony (I highly recommend) and it was fantastic to sit on our balcony and watch the sunsets.
4. Was it crowded?
Amazingly enough even during our days at sea with everyone on board it didn't seem crowded at all
5. Did I get enough exercise?
I didn't go to the gym once and I still got plenty! I got up early and ran around the jogging track on the days we were at sea and took the stairs instead of the elevator.
6. So did I gain 20 pounds?
Actually I did gain one pound. Although there were many temptations, there were lots of healthy choices available like fresh fruits and vegetables.
7. What about the "Shuffleboard Demographic Group?
There were people of all ages from all over the world on the ship. We met many interesting people on the ship and on our shore excursions.
8. Cocktail party/casino atmosphere?
I suppose there might have been if you stayed up late to party or went into the casino. I did neither. I enjoyed sampling the "drink of the day" on some days and we had wine with our dinner, but I never saw any loud, obnoxious drunken behavior.
9. What about Formal wear for dinner?
I didn't need to worry about buying a new wardrobe for "Formal Night" - it was completely optional! You can be as casual or formal as you like.
10. Cheesy Tourist Trap Excursions
You can always find them if that's what you want, but there were lots of shore excursions choices. There was something for every taste and budget.
More Information about Cruises
Taking a cruise vacation has some definite advantages. Passengers on a cruise ship can explore several destinations in one trip with the transportation between each provided by the ship and without the hassle of finding lodging at each destination. There are cruises to thousands of destinations around the world with something to fit anyone's budget or time period. Travel websites make it easy to find the perfect cruise!
A Personalized Memento of our Cruise
Souvenirs and Mementos
I admit I did buy a few souvenirs at several of the ports where we stopped, but I also lots of photos and used them to create my own personalized mementos on Zazzle after I returned home. Every time I use my phone it brings back one of my favorite memories of a large school of dolphins that swam and jumped alongside our Zodiac near Cabo San Lucas.
An Alaska Cruise Adventure
Cruising to Alaska
I enjoyed my first cruise so much, that I have subsequently taken others. One of my favorites was a recent 7 night cruise to Glacier Bay Alaska. If your travel bucket list includes an Alaska cruise, you can read all about it on my blog, Pacific Northwest Travels and Tails.
© 2008 Vicki Green