First time cruise tips - Become an expert cruiser before you even see the ocean!
First time cruise tips - from a (very) veteran cruiser
I really wish I'd known some first time cruise tips before I set sail on my first cruise waaaaay back in the day (exactly how way back is not important - let's just say I was 22...). The first time I stepped on a cruise ship, I was wholly unprepared for this type of wonderful vacation, in fact, I didn't even know I was going on a cruise! How'd that happen you ask? Well, the story of my first cruise is below but, before I get to that story, let me tell you what else you'll find on the "First Time Cruise Tips" article and how it came about.
A dear friend of mine, Bobbi, just booked her first cruise last week. As I am a veteran cruiser of over 20 cruises at this juncture in my life, she turned to me for cruise packing tips and cruise advice. As I went over the ins and outs of cruising, it dawned on me that I knew a lot on the topic so I decided to share the wealth of information on cruising travel vacations. I explained to Bobbi the cashless society of cruises, how tips on cruises work, and, most importantly, how to become one of the people on a cruise that the cruise staff wants to help (and, subsequently, how to get the best service on a cruise, from the dining room staff to the cabin room steward).
So, come along and read some of my first time cruise tips. Even if you're a veteran cruiser, you just might pick up a cruise tip or two.
Note: All pictures were taken by me with my . I took the picture of the lighthouse as the Carnival Pride was coming into Freeport in January, 2013. First time cruisers: keep a camera handy! Nikon D5100 camera
Updated: 06SEP2013 - We're off on another cruise today! Heading to Puerto Rico for a cruise of the southern Caribbean on Royal Caribbean's Jewel of the Seas. Stay tuned for another Squidoo article within the next week or so.
Updated 08JAN2014 - The Puerto Rico cruise was delightful! Royal Caribbean came through again! We just booked another cruise last week. This one is a European cruise so will be a much different experience. Once we've done the cruise (Feb 2014), I'll add a link here to the new article so bookmark this page and check it out in early March 2014.
Updated: 03MAR2014 - John and I are just getting off a Costa cruise in the Mediterranean. The cruise was not good, the ports were fantastic! Here's an article I wrote about a power strip John brought along for the ride - the thing is indispensable: The Monster Outlets To Go Power Strip. I highly recommend buying one of these for your trip.
Freeport in the Bahamas
Lori as a first time cruiser
First time cruise tips would have come in handy!
Knowing absolutely nothing about what my parent had planned (hint: an upcoming cruise), I flew from Maryland to Arizona to visit my folks while I was on spring break back in 1980. Now, I frequently went to see my parents as we were very close, and I knew they loved to travel but I had absolutely no idea what was in store for me.
The very next morning after my arrival, my Mom and Dad decided that we'd drive to Los Angeles to visit my Uncle and his family for a few days. It seemed a bit of an extreme vacation trip to me, considering I'd just flown 6 hours to see my parents but, what the heck - I was always game for a good an adventure! So, off we went to Los Angeles.
When we got to LA, we did, indeed visit my Uncle for a few hours, and then my folks decided they wanted to show me the cruise ships that were in port. I was game to see a beautiful cruise ship - there's way worse ways to spend a day. So, off we went again. I kind of would have preferred to unpack and sit for a spell but my folks were intent on showing me the Royal Caribbean Sovereign of the Seas cruise ship that was about to sail that Sunday - a ship that would become near and dear to my heart and set a high standard for future cruises.
As we approached the cruise port, my Dad pulled into line with the other cars and parked. Now, this was way before security was so strong so it wasn't a big deal for those wishing others a Bon Voyage would be on the dock as the cruise ship pulled away. Yes, that scene from "The Titanic" actually happened back in the day. So, out of the car we got. I started to wander toward the cruise dock when I noticed Dad pulling luggage out of the trunk. WTH?! Yep, that's when my adorable parents told me were were going on a cruise! I was beyond excited. What a wonderful surprise! I was about to be whisked away on a Mexico cruise and I was about to head out in high style with a balcony room!
First time cruise tips to understanding cruise cabins
There are basically 4 types of cruise cabins - teeny weenie, teeny, bigger, and the biggest cruise cabin. I'll detail these cruise cabins below.
- The teeniest-weeniest cruise cabin. The least expensive cruise cabins are inside rooms. These cabins have no windows - at all. So, if you don't mind living without a view, this is, by far, the most economical way to cruise. A benefit to this type of cruise cabin is that you can easily nap any time of the day as you'll be in a blacked out room. People booking an inside cabin on a cruise get all the benefits of any one else on the cruise so, if you're not picky about the room, this is a good choice. Inside rooms are generally around 150 square feet or so.
Note: for family cruisers, inside cabins are great to book for kids. So, you can bring the family along and not break the bank. This will leave you more money for the cruise casino.
- The teeny cruise cabin. The next level up from an inside cabin is a cabin with a porthole. The porthole is usually a round window which at least allows you a view of the ocean as you cruise. This cabin is a bit larger than an inside cabin and usually comes in right around 200 sq feet.
- The bigger cruise cabin. The next step up from the cabin with a porthole is a balcony cabin. Now, not all cruise ships offer this level of cabin but most newer ships do. This room is generally around 250 square feet or so but the benefit to having a balcony cannot be overlooked. Now, the balcony might be teeny (something like 40 sq ft) but it's still giving you the ability to sit outside and enjoy the view, especially on the days when your ship is at sea.
My folks booked a balcony room on that first Royal Caribbean cruise way back in 1980. Sadly, they spoiled me as I now insist on at least a balcony cabin on all future cruises. It sure would have saved me money in the long run if they had booked me to an inside cabin...
- The biggest cruise cabin. Generally, there is an 'Owner's suite' level of cruise cabin which is just plain old gorgeous! These cabins are usually around 500 sq ft and have a separate living room area. We had the Owner's Suite on the last cruise we took with my Mom, just 1 week after her 95th birthday. The Owner's suite balcony is also quite large, generally coming in at around 150 sq feet or so.
An interesting tidbit for first time cruisers
See that little boat down there?
I wondered for a long time what that little boat was that always seems to meet our cruise ship as we came into port and appeared magically when we left. And, WHO exactly was the dude climbing from that little boat to our ship and vise versa when we left port?
It turns out that that little boat is called the 'pilot boat' and here's what its function is:
Cruise ship captains are wizards at steering the cruise ships through open water - that's their expertise. They're schooled in radar, sonar and that kind of thing. But, cruise ports are a bit trickier - there are channels that are dregged out to allow the bigger ships to safely come to shore without running aground. So, to ensure cruise passenger safety, there are special 'Pilots' who are experts in the navigating the tricky waters to their particular port.
The Pilot is brought to the ship on that little boat and boards every cruise ship a few miles outside their port. The Pilot then takes the wheel from the cruise Captain and brings the large cruise ship into dock (or into a deep water mooring where you have to use a smaller ship to get to shore - you then ride a 'tender' to shore). When the cruise ship leaves, the Pilot is on board and guides the ship to deep water where he or she then jumps from the cruise ship back to that small boat. By the way, they always wave and it's polite to wave, cheer, whatever. I always yell a big 'THANKS' - after all, the Pilot just ensured my safety.
Booking a cruise
Just like air travel, cruise prices can vary widely depending on whom you use to book your cruise vacation. I've had the most success with the below cruise booking agencies. I always research the best price and then, I always call to make the reservation. By talking to one of the cruise representatives, I can usually find out the exact cabin number I'm booking and then get online to youtube and see a video (this almost always works). It's saved me on more than one occasion from paying too much or having an obstructed balcony. I strongly suggest using the below folks.
- CruisesOnly.com. This is my favorite cruise booking agency. I usually manage to get at least one free upgrade when I call and talk to a cruise booking agent.
- LastMinuteCruises.com. Lastminutecruises.com is an excellent place to go if you are cruising in the very near future. They always have the best prices on cruise cabins as they are the clearing house for rooms that were not booked previously.
- Carnival Cruise Lines. I'll be honest; our last cruise in Jan 2013 was a Carnival Cruise on one of their smaller ships. It was not our favorite cruise, and we're not sure we'll cruise with Carnival again. It is one of the cheaper cruise lines though.
- RoyalCaribbean.com. Royal Caribbean is the cruise line I generally select to cruise. They're mid-price (between Carnival and Celebrity). I like their ships, and the service on their cruise ships seems to be better than that on the Carnival cruise we were on.
- CelebrityCruises.com. Celebrity Cruises is a more upscale cruise line. Their ships are gorgeous and service is impeccable.
- HollandAmerica.com. Holland America caters to an older crowd so you might not have the variety of nightlife you would with Royal Caribbean or Celebrity cruises. Holland America is a very nice line though too.
One of the MOST IMPORTANT first time cruise tips
Your cell phone can be expensive!
I learned this lesson the very hard and very expensive way. Make sure to set your cell phone to 'airline' mode when you're at sea - otherwise, each time your mobile phone downloads a text, message or you answer a call, you'll be charged an astronomical fee. I do have a solution for you if you need to keep in touch with others in your cruise party...
When we took my elderly parents on their last cruise, we all agreed that someone in our party should stay with them when they weren't in the cabin. This was necessary since Dad couldn't carry his tray at the Lido deck and maneuver his cane at the same time. Plus, I just plain old loved to be around them. So, we used small walkie-talkies (set to low volume...) to get in touch with other family members who wanted to find out where we were. Walkie talkies don't have any cost to us, besides the batteries they use to run. When my folks were in their cabin, we'd leave them one of the walkie talkies so they could 'call me in' to help them get out after their nap. Worked like a charm. I do suggest though that you set the volume to as low as it will go so as not to disturb other (ie, me...) cruise passengers.
Note: we were always able to use the walkie talkies in my parent's balcony room because there was a better range since they had a window. I'm not 100% sure this method will work for inside cabins.
Incident at Sea and Illness reports - Must check links for first time cruisers
Every cruise line is required by law to report any and all incidents that occur at sea. These incidents include people going overboard, listing ships, and outbreaks of illness. I always check the ship's record on these Incident at sea links before I book a cruise. And, it's no secret that illnesses (especially viral) can run rampant within the tight confines of a cruise ship.
You can click the link 'Cruise Junkie' and find all incidents at sea. You can even find the exact incidents based on the ship you're booked for your cruise.
Make your first time cruise a healthy one with hand sanitizers
Cruises are notorious breeding grounds for bacteria - every surface you touch has the potential to affect your immune system. I always keep a pocket sized hand sanitizer on my purse during all cruises and shore excursions. I also like the full sized hand sanitizers for the cabin. And, finally, my favorite hand sanitizers are the individually packaged ones that are easy to carry anywhere.
This photo made the Carnival cruise so worthwhile - Dolphins right in front of me!
Waterproof Cases: Keep the most important things safe if you do a snorkeling or beach excursion
A very valuable first time cruise tip
John and I never go on a cruise without one of these waterproof containers, especially if we're planning on hitting one of the beach excursions. It you're on shore at a port, you're going to have money and ID with you - there are thieves everywhere who are watching everything you do.
The safest thing to do, if you're at a beach, is to load up a waterproof container with your shipboard pass (you cannot get back on ship without this!), any money you have, and any other important documents and, here's the very important part KEEP IT ON YOU!. Then, leave your beach bag OPEN so anyone wandering by can see that there's nothing of importance in it.
Heed my advice, first time cruisers. I've known a lot of people who have come back on board with stories about losing most of their possessions.
You can see more waterproof phone, camera and wallet cases on this article on my website: Good Gifts For Boat Owners - Waterproof Cases.
The sea and sand are not friends to a Kindle or any eReader so make sure to buy one of these great waterproof cases for your next cruise.
Another good first time cruise tip - Bring along water shoes
A lot of the pictures people show you from cruises include beautiful sandy beaches, but, what you don't know is that those sandy beaches are usually attached to coral reefs which mean cuts on your feet. It's always a good idea to wear water shoes even if the ocean is a sandy bottom as there are fish that can sting or bite when you step on them. Here's some decent water shoes and, if you buy a cheap pair, why not give them to a local island inhabitant when you're done with them?
Motion sickness can ruin your first cruise
Even if you've never gotten sea sick (like I hadn't), don't discount what going through a storm at sea can do to you. The cruise we took with my elderly Mom had to come straight through the not-so-remnants of a hurricane as we came back to Baltimore. As a result, we crossed through 28 foot seas (you read that right) 28 foot seas. I grew up on boats and, in later life, have cruised all around the world. I also spend most of the summer on boyfriend John's boat and had never gotten sea sick. Not until that cruise. Along with most of my party, I was sick as a dog. Luckily, my Mom was not affected by the high seas.
The below items are a good thing to have in any first time cruiser's bag. Stock up with more of these anti seasickness items than you think you might need...
The view at dawn from our cruise balcony
I like this little travel clock as it folds flat. It has a nice alarm which I like.
Bring along a travel clock - There are NONE in the cruise cabins
Your cell phone will be off and you'll have no idea what time of day (or night) it might be unless you wear a watch 24/7. I always bring a small travel clock aboard. I also make a note in my cell phone to remember to collect it (and other assorted items I tend to forget in my cabin when I leave - like those battery candles...).
LED Battery Operated Candles
I've been a fan of battery candles for a long time now but never have they come in handier than on a cruise. Since open flames are definitely not allowed, buy a few nice battery candles and put them around the room. The ones with a remote are particularly nice as all you'll have to do is set 'em and forget em. Punch a button and, voila - instant cruise cabin ambience.
I always take a Luminara candle along on cruises as open flames are no-nos. I particularly like this brand as the moving wick makes this battery candle look way more realistic. And, you can set it to come on at a certain time and off 4 hours later so, when you return from the cruise dining room, your candle will greet you in soft light.
First time cruiser tips - Bring the below items along on your first cruise (and subsequent cruises!).
The below items are things that I bring on every single cruise I go on. I've always found them to be very useful and have even loaned them to other cruise passengers upon occasion.
We use duct tape to secure the surge protector cord to the floor so we don't trip in the cabin.
Most cruise cabins have a small clothes line in the shower but I like to take along these hooks also.
Miscellaneous tips for your first cruise
The below are cruise tips I sort of figured out on my own. I've included them here so you don't have to waste time figuring them out on your first cruise.
The cruise luggage tags are the perfect way to keep the luggage tags visible and safe during your cruise.
- Look under the bed for storage. A suitcase can seem enormous when in the middle of a small cruise cabin and might not even fit in the small closet so look under the bed - some cruise ships have open space under the bed where you can store your suitcases and some don't. It's worth a look.
- If you're traveling with kids, buy the soda package. All soft drinks cost extra on a cruise so your bar bill can climb astronomically if your kids are drinking sodas all day. A soda package is usually under $40 or so and allows for free refills for the duration of the cruise. The only kicker is that your kid has to hang onto their reusable cup - if they lose it, you'll have to buy another cruise soda package.
You can also check with the cruise line to see if you can bring your own canned sodas on board. Carnival cruise line does allow a certain amount per person
- For those of you who prefer limited child interaction on a cruise, head to the adult only pool area. Almost every cruise ship these days has a separate pool for adults only. If it's on the fantail (the back of the ship), you're got a double bonus as your view will be stunning on those days when you're at sea.
- If you don't want to be in a long line getting off the ship when your cruise is over, carry your own bags off ship. You have the option to place your packed bags outside your cabin the night before you disembark from your cruise if you like. In this case, your bags will be collected and will be ferreted off ship where they'll await your arrival. But this means that you have to stick around in a waiting area with 2000 other passengers. Instead, consider rolling your own bag off the ship and you get to leave first. We always do this on cruises.
- You don't have to dress in formal wear on formal nights.No matter what length the cruise, there will be a 'formal' night where people dress up. In days of yore, people dressed up much more but not so much lately. You'll still see a few tuxedos (you can rent these on board) and women will be in long dresses but you don't have to. I do suggest though, that, if you choose to not dress up, don't go to the dining room that night. You'll be more comfortable on the LIdo deck where the cafeteria-style food can be had.
It's a good idea for ladies to have a shawl for cooler dining rooms or nights.You can find some lovely shawls on my website: Good Gifts For Senior Citizens: Warm Shawls
- You can have anything you want delivered to your room cabin. When my Mom and Dad took 17 of us on their 60th anniversary cruise, we arranged to have appetizers delivered to their cabin every day at 4 pm. Whomever was around would participate in happy hour and we had the bellies to prove it.
- If you book the Owner Suite (or above) on a cruise, you might have a special room where you can go for free cocktails and hors d'oeuvres at happy hour. Believe it or not, our room steward came to ask John and me why we hadn't been to the free cocktail room one time. 'WHAT free cocktail room'? was our shocked reply. So, the steward took us over to the special room, used our room key to open the door and, I swear, I heard angels sing! There was not only free cocktails but they were top shelf cocktails. Can't hurt to ask.
- Your room key is also your charge card on board so, if you loose it, immediately report it! You'll need to show your room card so you can purchase cocktails each time. Lose it and you could be in trouble.
- Be prepared for rainy weather,especially if you're on a Bahama or Caribbean cruise. Rain storms come up fast in the Caribbean so I like to bring along a very small, very cheap (!) folding umbrella. In fact, what I usually do is pack the cheapest umbrella I can find and, at the last port, I usually give it to a local. Little things like that mean a lot to people who don't have very much.
Here's an article I wrote about Cheap Umbrellas. You'll find umbrellas from $5 to $25 on this article so buy a few and make a few people happy.
- If you're checking your luggage to be brought onboard to your cruise cabin, you'll want to have a tote bag and have inside it the items you'll need for that first day, after you board and before your luggage arrives - note: I've had my checked luggage show up as late as 8 pm that first day (you can usually get into your cabin at 1 pm). This is one reason that John and I always roll our own luggage aboard - that way, we have everything we need right then. But, if you choose to have your luggage delivered, bring along a tote bag and pack it with a bathing suit (no towel needed - they're at the pool already), suntan lotion, your kindle, medicines, etc.
Tipping tips for first time cruisers
I'm a girl who likes to have things my way and, when on a cruise vacation, I'm even more so! I always tip the cabin steward $20-25 the very first time I see him or her, early in the cruise. This generally ensures that my requests (such as having ice in my cabin at all times, having coffee delivered to my cabin door at 5 am, etc) are met and met happily. Tipping ahead of time will also make you stand out from the rest of the cruisers on board.
Note: on our last Carnival cruise, tips were added right to our shipboard account which was fine, but I still wanted to tip above what was recommended for my cabin steward. We had outstanding service the whole cruise.
Note: Tips for cocktails on your cruise are already added to your individual tab. You can tip above that amount but don't feel like you have to.