Congratulations on booking your first cruise!
Cruising is one of the best ways to travel. For starters, you will be visiting multiple places while only having to unpack once.
With the excitement and simplicity of cruising, it can still be overwhelming for a first-timer.
What should you bring? What happens in port? How do you book a cruise?
We get these kinds of questions all the time.
We’ve compiled our list of the 59 best first time cruise tips to provide you with tips and tricks to make the most of your first cruise vacation.
Table of Contents
Planning & Booking a Cruise
The planning stages of your first cruise are one of your trip’s most exciting and vital times. Having a plan, and following our first-time cruise tips, can be the difference between the cruise of a lifetime and finding yourself on an unfulfilling vacation.
Book Early in Advance to Save Money
Book as early as possible if you’re looking for the best deal on the cruise fare. Contrary to popular belief, cruise lines will often have their lowest rates when tickets first go on sale. As more people book cabins on the ship, the prices tend to rise.
Another reason to book early is the added price protection if prices drop after you book.
Most cruise lines will provide price protection to early bookings. You can take advantage of this by keeping an eye on your cruise’s price; when prices drop, the cruise line will provide you with a discount. We’ve personally saved thousands of dollars through price protection and almost always find that the earlier prices are also the lowest.
Bottom line: Book well before the sailing date if you want to save money on your cruise fare.
Although there are some exclusions, most cruises are not all-inclusive. When planning your vacation, make sure you budget for extra expenses such as alcohol, specialty restaurants, gratuities, spa treatments, internet packages, port excursions, and shopping. The cruise fare is often just the starting point for how much you will spend.
Interior Cabins Aren’t Bad
When you book your first cruise, you may be stuck wondering which cabin choice is right for you. It may seem like a big decision between the interior, oceanview, balcony, or suites.
But don’t overthink it!
Most cruise ships are full of activities and entertainment options that will keep you busy most of the day. If you pick the correct cruise ship, you won’t spend much time in your room. Choosing an interior stateroom is fine for first-time cruisers.
There’s so much to do and see. You don’t want to spend your entire vacation sitting in your room!
Check out this article if you want to know which cabins to avoid on a cruise ship.
Balcony Rooms Can be Worth the Upgrade
Even though interior and oceanview cabins aren’t bad choices, upgrading to a balcony cabin can be worth the price.
Balcony cabins are especially worth it when you cruise to scenic destinations, such as Alaska. The ability to enjoy breakfast and sip coffee from your private balcony is well worth the upgrade.
Sail During Peak Cruise Season for Younger Crowds
The time of year plays an essential role in the cruise ship demographic. You’ll find younger crowds and families when school is out.
If you want to hang out with a younger crowd, you will want to sail during spring break, summer break, or the Christmas holidays.
Sail During Off-Season for Older and Quieter Crowds
Alternatively, sailing during the off-peak season is when you will find quieter cruises and an older demographic.
If that’s what you are looking for, you may want to book a cruise from January through February or September through October. As a bonus, cruise prices are typically lower during these months, and you can save hundreds of dollars on your vacation.
Save Hundreds By Sailing Off-Season
As you might expect, cruise fares are highest during the busiest times of the year.
The busiest months are when school is out; summer, Christmas, and spring break.
These months tend to be the busiest times of the year for cruising as kids are free to travel with their parents, and adults are usually able to take more time off work.
Book a cruise when school is in session if you want to save money and have flexibility with your vacation time. Not only will you save money on your vacation, but you’ll also find the ship quieter with fewer kids running around.
Shorter Cruises Have a Party-Like Atmosphere
The duration of your cruise plays a factor in the price. Shorter cruises tend to be cheaper, attracting college students and young adult cruisers.
If you’re looking for a party at sea, you’ll want to stick with shorter cruises of less than five nights.
We’re not saying it will be 24/7 partying, but you will find younger travelers and a more vibrant nightlife – especially when school is out.
Prebook Activities and Excursions Before you Leave Home
Book shore excursions and activities in advance if you have your heart set on a tour, activity, spa services, or specialty restaurant. Reservations book quickly once on board, especially during holidays and peak-cruise season. As a bonus, you can easily budget for your vacation when you book early. You will better understand the total cost of your holiday and won’t be making as many spur-of-the-moment purchases onboard.
Arrive The Night Before Your Cruise Sets Sail
Even though your ship may leave in the late afternoon, it is always a good idea to arrive at your departure city at least one day before departure.
Flight delays, unexpected traffic, and not to mention the added stress of worrying about whether you will make it on time are good reasons to arrive the day before. And yes, the cruise ship will leave without you if you are late.
Cruise lines don’t charge fees on luggage or restrict the number of bags you can bring on board the ship.
But that doesn’t mean you should go crazy with packing.
It’s important to remember that you won’t have a whole lot of room to unpack in your cabin. And, you’ll have to lug all those bags too and from the ship. You’ve overpacked if you’re bringing more than one suitcase and a carry-on.
Every sailing destination is different, and it is essential to pack for the weather. Packing for an Alaskan Cruise is much different than packing for the Caribbean. Research the weather ahead of time, so you aren’t bringing too many items you’ll never wear.
And remember, every cruise line has restrictions on what you can bring onboard (e.x. alcohol), so be sure to ask ahead of time.
Pack a Carry On Bag
Typically, you will board the cruise well before your luggage reaches your cabin. The ship’s staff has to inspect and deliver the luggage of thousands of passengers, which takes a long time. When you step foot on the boat, you may want to begin taking advantage of all the ship has to offer… and you should.
We recommend you pack a small carry-on bag with swimsuits, sunblock, medication, a change of clothes, and other essentials so your cruise can begin the moment you set foot on board.
Many Hotels Offer Free Cruise Parking and Shuttles
If you’re flying in from out of town, we recommend arriving the day before – reducing the chance of missing your ship.
Of course, you’ll need a hotel to stay at and transportation to the dock.
Fortunately, many hotels in port cities offer free parking and shuttle service.
You can save hundreds of dollars in parking fees, and you won’t need to worry about getting lost on your drive to the dock.
Expedia is our preferred choice for booking hotels, flights, and car rentals.
Cruise Insurance? It’s Always Good to Have
Although we always hope for the best, preparing for the worst-case scenario is always best.
You should purchase cruise-specific travel insurance to protect yourself in the case of a disaster.
Travel insurance can compensate for travel delays, theft, lost baggage, sickness, injuries, and unexpected and unwanted expenses. There are many plans to choose from, so research which is best for you.
We suggest everyone get travel insurance and hope you never need to use it.
VisitorsCoverage is our preferred choice for cruise travel insurance. VisitorsCoverage offers cruise-specific plans to protect you and your loved ones while sailing.
Research Your Ship; Not Just The Cruise Line
Every cruise ship is unique, and just because one cruise line might be your favorite, it doesn’t mean that you will love sailing on every vessel they operate. Even though most ships get refurbished every few years, you may not find all of the activities and features on some older ships. If you want a high-thrill vacation, it might be worth springing for a newer, larger ship. But if you are looking for a quiet vacation, an older vessel may be perfect for you and save you hundreds of dollars.
Cruise on Older Ships to Save Money
Cruise lines love to promote their newest and largest cruise ships. The new vessels typically feature the latest activities and thrills and can be worth the additional cost.
But, if you want to cruise on a budget, look for vacations on older cruise ships. Most ships get some kind of refurbishment every five years or so to keep them up-to-date and looking fresh. You can often find great deals on old vessels and not miss out on the latest cruise ship thrills and entertainment.
Make a Copy of Your Passport Photo Page to Carry at Port
Your most valuable item when you’re on vacation is your passport.
It doesn’t happen often, but you may find yourself in a situation where you’ll need to present a photo ID.
For safety, we always leave our passports in our cabin safe. But, when we’re at port, it’s a good idea to keep a copy of the passport photo page on hand when we need it. Keeping a photocopy on us means we don’t need to worry about potential thieves.
Embarkation & Disembarkation
So you’ve booked your trip, made a packing list, and told everyone how excited you are for your first cruise. But have you thought about the in-between?
Cruise lines do their best to make embarking and disembarking simple and relatively painless. However, if not done correctly, you could find yourself waiting in line. Here are some tips for embarking and disembarking on your first cruise.
Board Early or Late
When it comes to embarkation day, you generally want to be one of the first or last to board the ship. These groups tend to experience shorter lines and a less stressful experience. Which option you choose is up to you.
We love being one of the first groups to board. It allows us to have lunch and explore the ship before the cruise ship sets sail.
Disembark Late if You Can
The funny thing about cruising is everyone can’t wait to get on the ship, but on the final day, everyone can’t wait to return home. Many opt to leave the ship as early as possible, resulting in long lines once disembarkation begins. If you don’t have an excursion or flight to catch, take advantage of not waiting in line.
Instead, enjoy breakfast on the ship and depart at your scheduled time. It is a far more relaxing and enjoyable experience than waking up early and standing in line.
Take Advantage of Drink Policies to Bring Things On
Cruise lines charge a high price for the drinks they serve onboard. If you want to save some money on drinks, check with your cruise line… they may allow you to bring some alcohol or soft drinks aboard.
The list of drinks you can bring on the ship is usually restrictive, typically only a bottle or two. But, we recommend taking advantage of the drink policy to save money from the exorbitant cruise ship drink prices.
What to Expect on the Ship
From embarkation to disembarkation, your time on the cruise will be far different than any vacation you’ve experienced. The dining, the cabins, the shore excursions, and the entertainment are all that make cruising so uniquely addicting. But when it is your first time on a cruise, it can be challenging to know what to expect. The following section has everything you need to expect on your first cruise.
The Ship Will be Bigger than you Can Imagine
It’s one thing to hear about the size of today’s mega-cruise ships and another to witness the scale of these massive ships. No matter how you envision it, the sheer size of the cruise ship will leave an impression you will never forget.
Switch Your Cellphone to Airplane Mode
International roaming rates can cost hundreds of dollars, even if you don’t make a phone call or send a text message. There are many horror stories of people returning from their cruise to find unexpected cell phone bills in the hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of dollars. Do yourself a favor, and put your phone on airplane mode before stepping on your cruise.
If your cruise line has a free app, you may want to turn on your wi-fi to take advantage of it.
Don’t Assume the Cruise is All-Inclusive
Your cruise fare typically covers the cabin, meals, onboard entertainment, and ship activities. Although there are some exceptions, most cruises are not all-inclusive. You should expect to pay extra for drink packages, gratuities, spa treatments, shore excursions, onboard internet, and premium dining options and activities. These added costs could add up to hundreds of dollars more than your base fare.
Before you set sail, it can be a good idea to contact your cruise line to determine which restaurants and activities are included in your base fare and which you may need to pay extra.
Each night you will receive a copy of the ship’s newsletter, full of the next day’s scheduled activities and events. The options can be overwhelming and exciting. You may wonder how you can fit it all in between shows, contests, live entertainment, movies, and more.
So, how do you fit it all in?
The answer… you can’t and shouldn’t!
Remember, you are on vacation and deserve the chance to relax. The last thing you need is to return from your cruise feeling like you need a break.
So mark down your top choices, and if you miss an event or two, that’s ok. On a cruise ship, there is plenty to do, so pace yourself and have fun!
How Fast do Cruise Ships Go?
While onboard the ship, you may be wondering how fast cruise ships go. While cruise ships rarely reach their top speed, the average cruising speed is around 18 to 22 knots (20 to 25 miles per hour).
You Won’t Need Cash on Board
Before you set foot on the ship, you will receive a key to your room. But it is much more than a room key. Your cruise line will link your cruise pass to your account, and once you are on board, you will use your just like a credit card to charge purchases to your account.
Whether purchasing alcohol or shopping at one of the onboard stores, you’ll use your card to pay. It is convenient and eliminates the need to carry a wallet, purse, or cash.
But, be careful. It is easy to lose track of how much you have spent with all that swiping. And at the end of the cruise, the bill might be far higher than you anticipated.
So keep your card close, and if you lose it, visit guest services immediately. You don’t want someone using your card to shop on your account.
Note: You will still need to use cash when you are off the ship at the port
Understand the Automatic Gratuity System
Most cruise lines now use an automatic gratuity system (also called a daily service charge) added to your onboard account during your trip. The system pools your gratuities and distributes them among the staff who worked hard pampering you during your vacation. Bar staff and spa members rarely share in the automatic gratuities, so expect a 15 to 18 percent gratuity on the cost of drinks and spa treatments.
Watch the Clock
It can be easy to lose track of time when on vacation. But keep an eye on the clock!
While sailing, the ship may enter a new time zone different from your ship’s clock. Your ship will give you notice of the change, so make sure you double-check the times for your shore excursions and ship departure times. Most passenger vessels require passengers to be back on board 30 minutes before the ship’s departure. And with a tight sailing schedule, the ship won’t wait if you are late.
Talk to the Crew
One of the best parts of cruising is meeting new people from all over the world. The ship’s staff is no different. They come from all over the world, and hearing their stories and experiencing their journeys can be the highlight of any trip. The ship’s staff are almost always friendly and personable and love to converse with guests. Many of them spend months at sea away from their family, and taking the time to speak with them can help put a smile on their face and alleviate homesickness.
As a bonus, making friends with the staff can result in better service.
Skip the Elevators; The Stairs are Usually Faster
Some cruise ships have nearly two dozen decks. Unfortunately, the number of elevators on the ship is limited.
With thousands of passengers moving their way around the vessel, it’s common to wait several minutes before the elevator arrives.
If you’re only going up or down a few decks, you’ll find it’s much quicker to take the stairs. As a bonus, taking the stairs makes us feel less guilty when indulging at the all-you-can-eat buffet.
Don’t Forget Elevator Courtesy
If you decide to take the elevator, follow common courtesy by allowing people to exit before you enter the elevator. You may be excited to rush to the next event or frustrated by the wait, but a bit of patience and common courtesy goes a long way to making the trip more enjoyable for you and your fellow passengers.
Find a Quiet Hideout
When you are on a cruise, you may want some time away from the crowds, especially on days at sea. Most ships have little nooks and crannies where you can sneak in a few hours of relaxation and quiet, away from the noise and crowds. The lounging areas around the ship’s bow and away from the main pools and attractions tend to be much quieter and more relaxing if you need a little getaway.
Cabins Get Very Dark; Bring a Night Light
The cabins can get very dark at night, especially if you stay in an interior stateroom.
While it can be great for sleep, you may want to bring night light for those times when you need to get up at night.
There’s nothing worse than sleeping in an unfamiliar room and stubbing your toe in the middle of the night. Save yourself from the pain, and bring a simple plug-in nightlight to find your way around in the middle of the night. If you forget the nightlight, another option is to leave the light on in the bathroom with the door open slightly.
Use the Cabin Safe
When you get access to your stateroom, you will want to place your valuables in the cabin safe.
The safe isn’t big, but there is plenty of room to store cash, jewelry, passports, wallets, and phones. It’s not the best security in the world. But it is an excellent deterrent for would-be thieves, and it’s one less thing you need to worry about on your cruise.
Your Balcony Isn’t as Private as You Think
Although your balcony may feel private, with the opaque walls separating you from your neighbors, there isn’t much privacy.
The previously mentioned walls don’t go from floor to ceiling. And if someone wanted to, they could take a peek around the side and into your balcony. Moreover, most cruise ships employ heavy surveillance, and there is a good chance your balcony is on camera.
Yes, You Can Hear Through the Walls
Your cabin walls aren’t paper-thin, but you might be able to hear through them (and so will your neighbors).
You won’t hear the cabin next to you when they are watching tv, moving around, or talking. But if you are thinking about making a lot of noise with a partner, you should consider your fellow passengers.
You will also be able to hear people passing by in the hallways, so do your part, and keep the noise to a minimum if you happen to be walking the halls in the early hours.
Avoid Lines By Visiting Guest Services Late at Night or Early in the Morning
You’ll likely visit Guest Services at least once during your cruise.
Guest Services can help with anything from booking dinner reservations, directions, billing questions, or anything else cruise-related.
With a cruise ship full of passengers looking for help, the lineups can make for long waits. In our experience, lines tend to be the longest just before dinner time. If your question isn’t urgent, you may want to visit Guest Services later at night or early the following day to avoid the long lines.
The Casino Payouts Are Not Great
Most large ships, even smaller ones, will have an onboard casino (except for Disney Cruise Line). If you are in the mood to gamble, there is one thing you must know… payouts are almost always worse. For example, on most cruise lines, the blackjack pays 6-to-5 instead of the usual 3-to-2, and the rake at the poker table can be double or more. If you want a good time gambling with friends, the onboard casino may be for you, but don’t expect to get a good deal.
Onboard Internet is Expensive
Whether you need internet for work, to check your emails, surf the web, or want to connect back home, be prepared to pay a high internet fee.
When the ship is at sea, the only way to communicate is via satellite. Cruise lines offer internet plans that allow you to stay connected at sea. But, be prepared to pay around $20 per day.
The internet service on a cruise ship isn’t great, but it is fast enough for basic web browsing, email, and social media. Many cruise ships have fast enough speeds to stream music and movies.
Another option some people try is finding an international plan that will allow you to use your cell phone in specific ports.
For most people, most of the time, it’s just better and easier to turn off your devices and enjoy your vacation, free from distractions.
Time Flies When You Are Having Fun
Short cruise itineraries (3-5 days) are great if you are looking for a quick getaway or saving money. But if you’ve never set foot on a cruise ship before, you may need a whole week to enjoy everything the ship offers. Even then, you may not feel like you’ve had the chance to do everything you wanted.
Relax and Enjoy
Above all else, you are on vacation. So relax and enjoy the journey.
Order Multiples in the Main Dining Room
One of the first-time cruisers’ most significant mistakes is thinking they can only order one of each dinner course in the main dining room. The main dining room is one of the amenities included in your cruise fare, so take advantage of it by trying as many dishes as you wish.
The dinner menu often features a diverse selection of food from around the world and can change daily. So if you see something you want to try, go for it, and if you don’t like it, you can always order something else.
Tip: Check out our article on how to eat healthy on a cruise ship.
Do the Math Before Booking the “All You Can Drink” Packages
If you plan to purchase the drink package, it’s best to do the math before buying it.
The drink packages seem like a good deal, but the rules can make them quite pricy. In most cases, it may be cheaper to pay for individual drinks.
For instance, many cruise lines require everyone sharing a cabin to purchase the package if one passenger makes the purchase. Cruise lines implement this measure to stop passengers from sharing their drink packages with their cabin mates, but it can mean paying double or more if your travel partner doesn’t drink alcohol.
Further, there is usually a price limit for drinks covered by the package. Be prepared to pay the difference if you purchase a beverage above the limit.
Finally, even with the high prices that ships charge for drinks, you will often need to purchase 7-10 drinks per day to break even. We aren’t judging if you do!
Note: Some ships now include drink packages with an upgraded cruise fare. The upgraded fare provides a discount on the package and is a great way to save money.
There’s No Bill to Sign in the Dining Room
Your first few meals in the main dining room or buffet may feel a bit strange.
After finishing your meal, there’s no bill to pay. You can simply get up and enjoy your time on the cruise ship. Even after several cruises, the first few nights in the main dining room always feel a little strange when there’s no bill to pay.
Note: Your cruise fare doesn’t cover specialty restaurants and may not include room service or mini bar purchases.
The Main Dining Room Serves Breakfast and Lunch
Most passengers will spend dinner in the main dining room but opt for the buffet for breakfast, lunch, and mid-day snacks. If buffets aren’t your style, you can visit the dining room, which also serves breakfast and lunch.
The food in the main dining room is typically the same as the buffet; however, you will receive excellent service fresher tasting food. However, the dining room has fewer options than the buffet.
Formal Night Isn’t a Big Deal
Many first-time cruisers worry about what to wear on a formal night. Do you need to purchase a new three-piece suite? A formal evening gown?
The answer is… you don’t need to do any of that, and you won’t be out of place either. Yes, there will be many passengers dressed like it’s a red carpet event, but most cruisers will choose to wear a nice pair of pants and a button-down shirt.
If you are worried about the dress code, you can always check with the cruise line to find out what they consider acceptable formal attire. Still, in our experience, business casual is fine.
And if you don’t want to dress up, don’t worry. You don’t be allowed won’t in the main dining room, but the buffet is always open!
Don’t Expect to Drink the Alcohol Bought in Port
When you wander through the ports, there is no shortage of activities and shopping. You may have found a perfect bottle of tequila in Costa Maya, but don’t expect to drink it when you return to the ship. The ship will hold anything bought at the port and return to you the night before you disembark. So, you may need to wait a little longer to enjoy that tequila.
Ports & Excursions
Research Ports in Advance
The first step to a successful port day is research. Trust me; you don’t want to find yourself in a large port without any clues about what you should do. And at the end of the day, the last thing you’ll want to hear about is the fantastic excursions your fellow cruise passengers enjoyed. Tours that you didn’t know were an option.
You’ll only have a limited amount of time in port. If you want to make the most of your time, it’s best to have a plan.
It is usually too late to learn about the ports when you are on the ship. Most of the best excursions will be fully booked by gear passengers before you step foot onboard. And many cruise lines rarely give out more information than a map of the jewelry stores in port.
Even if you’ve booked your excursion, you may have several hours before departure after your tour finishes. Knowing the port and having a plan will ensure you aren’t left wandering throw the town.
Don’t Take Food Off of the Ship
When you arrive at a port, don’t plan on taking the ship’s food for a picnic lunch. The food served on board is not allowed to leave the ship. Security guards, bag scanners, and sniffing dogs will ensure it! Do yourself a favor, stick with pre-sealed snacks like granola bars, or experience one of the local restaurants.
Splurge on Shore Excursions
At first look, shore excursions may seem pricy, and they can be. It’s not uncommon to see a 2-hour shore excursion that costs over $100 per person. But that doesn’t mean you should avoid them.
Excursions allow you to try new adventures you won’t find anywhere else in the world. And it is an excellent opportunity to explore the islands and continents you are sailing around.
Trust us, in the coming years, you won’t be thinking about the money you spent, but the beautiful adventures and experiences you had!
It Doesn’t Hurt to Wander for a Bit
If you’ve taken a look at the list of excursions and can’t find one that you love, don’t worry. You don’t need to take part in a fancy shore excursion at every port. There are many things to do at the port that doesn’t require advanced booking.
For example, most ports have reasonably priced bus tours to learn more about the country or town you visit. Or you can take a shuttle to the center of town for some shopping. Sometimes, it is just great to spend a few hours off the ship, stretching your legs and re-adjusting to walking on land.
You Don’t Need to See Every Port
What if you don’t want to get off the ship on port days?
That’s easy. There’s no rule that you have to leave the ship at every port. Port days are some of the quietest times on the cruise ship. If you need a little time to relax, port days are great for lounging by the pool or exploring the onboard art gallery while the ship is quieter.
Bargaining is Completely Acceptable
If you see something you love at one of the port vendors but aren’t satisfied with the price, it is entirely acceptable to haggle with the vendors. If you are vacationing from America, it may feel inappropriate to negotiate a necklace’s price. But remember that most vendors in the Caribbean and Europe rarely expect you to pay the listed price.
So go ahead, and try your hand at negotiating.
Don’t Worry About Exchanging Money in Port
If you are traveling to the Caribbean, you will likely have stops in several countries during your trip. Luckily, the ports do their best to make the shopping experience easy for international visitors. Almost every vendor will gladly accept U.S. dollars, and many have begun to accept credit cards.
Don’t Be Late To The Ship
If you take one thing away from this article, it’s this, your departure times for port days are NOT suggestions. We recommend always being at least 30 minutes early because if you are late, as we previously said, the ship will not wait for you.
Trust us; you don’t want to be one of the people you see in the video below.
Be Ready for Itinerary Changes
If you have your heart set on a particular destination, it’s essential to know that your cruise itinerary can change at any time.
Weather, mechanical issues, or something else entirely can force the cruise line to alter the itinerary. These changes may happen before your cruise or even mid-sailing.
Itinerary changes are a rare occurrence, but they do happen.
If a cruise line must cancel a port visit, they will do their best to schedule another port of call. However, it is possible to find yourself with more sea days than you wish.
Drink in Port to Save Money
Drinking and partying is what cruising is all about. And it’s no secret that cruise ships charge a bit more for alcohol and soft drinks than you might find back home. If you are looking to save some money, the restaurants and bars at your ship’s ports are ships cheaper than the ship’s poolside bar.
But don’t go too crazy drinking in port. You still need to find your way back to the ship when the partying is over.
Invest in a Good Dry-Bag For Beach Days
If you sail to a tropical destination, you may be excited about a day at the beach. While you might be dreaming about crystal clear water and white sand beaches, you’ll need a place to keep your valuables.
Sure, you can leave your wallet and phone on the beach while you go for a swim, but there’s a chance it could get wet or stolen. A good dry bag is cheap, compact, and keeps your personal belongings safe while you go for a swim at the beach.