Planning your first cruise?
There is a lot to like about cruise vacations. The ports are exotic, the food is delicious, the service is excellent and the price is right. Cruise ships are big enough to keep everyone entertained, but small enough that it's easy to meet up often. This means that they are a great option for:
- romantic getaways
- family vacations
- family reunions and other multi-family trips
There are a lot of things about cruising that are different than other types of vacations. Here are my top tips for first-time cruisers.
Enlist a travel agent
We usually plan our own trips, but when we cruise, we turn to the pros. Travel agents can usually offer personalized cruise advice and customer service for the same price or less than a DIY internet cruise.
Those of us who live nowhere near a port must also book flights, hotel and transportation. A travel agent can help you with all of the details, and may still save you money.
Need a travel agent? We use Get Away Today Vacations. They have the best prices and top notch customer service. Get $25 onboard credit when you tell them Tips for Family Trips sent you! Learn more at www.getawaytoday.com.
Research shore excursions in advance
The last thing you want to do is walk off the ship without a plan. Your time is too short and you'll be bombarded by tour guides and offers at the dock. It pays to learn about your options and make decisions in advance.
Here are the questions you should answer in advance about each port of call:
- How do you want to spend your time? Touring, relaxing, adventuring, shopping… or a combination?
- Will you need transportation? If so, will you book a tour in advance or hire transportation at the dock?
- How much will your activities cost? Figure that and then bring extra. Many places take credit cards, but you may still need more cash than you expect. Most international cruise ports in Mexico and the Caribbean accept U.S. dollars, but do your homework on this before you leave home.
Related: 15 Tips for Perfect Shore Excursions
What to wear
Cruises remind me of a time when people dressed for dinner and had a regular occasion to wear formal attire. I like to dress up, but I rarely need formal wear at home. Does that mean I had to buy a lot of clothes to go on a cruise? No.
On most major cruise lines, almost anything goes at the buffet – which is separate from the dining room. Shorts, hats and swimwear are appropriate in most areas of the ship throughout the day, but most people dress up for the dining room.
Here is the dress code for most nights in the dining room.
- slacks or chinos
- shirts with collars (like dress shirts or polos)
- casual skirts and dresses
- dress shoes or sandals
I've noticed on our most recent Royal Caribbean and Carnival cruises that the dress code is not enforced. Plenty of people wore shorts and tees in the dining room. I like to dress up, but on many ships, you can wear whatever is comfortable for you.
I worried about formal night on my first cruise, but it isn't a big deal. Whatever “formal dress” means to you is OK for formal night. I've seen everything from beaded gowns and full suits to casual dresses and shirts without ties. We usually aim for somewhere in between.
Cruise “staterooms” are tiny. They are so tiny that when I went on my first cruise, we all burst into laughter when we saw the room. The whole bathroom is not much bigger than a standard bathtub.
It can be challenging to pack light when you need swimwear, casual wear, evening wear and formal wear for a week. Here are a few tips for cruise packing:
- Wear everything except underwear at least twice
- Pack two swimsuits. Wearing yesterday's damp swimsuit is the worst.
- Avoid denim, especially in the tropics. It's bulky and uncomfortable.
- Don't pack a beach towel. The ship will provide it.
- Do pack a sweater or light jacket, even in the tropics.
Some ships offer self-service laundry and most ships provide laundry service. You will probably not find an iron or ironing board in your state room. For this reason, I recommend packing clothing that doesn't wrinkle easily, and hanging it up as soon as you can. After that, nobody will notice a few wrinkles because you're (literally) all in the same boat.
Related: How to Pack for a Caribbean Cruise
You'll typically want to arrive at the cruise terminal by late morning or early afternoon.
Unless it's a short flight or drive, I recommend that you book your flight for the day before your cruise and book a hotel for the night. Cruise ship schedules are merciless. If your flight is late, you'll have to figure out how to meet the ship at its next port at your own expense.
You should be safe to book an afternoon flight if your ship docks first thing in the morning at the end of your cruise. Most passengers will be off the ship by around 10 AM.
We have used the official cruise line shuttles to get to and from the airport, but now prefer to just use a taxi or Uber. It's more convenient, and the price is competitive.
Driving to your cruise? Long term parking is available at cruise terminals.
You'll be provided with luggage tags with your room number prior to the cruise. Most passengers leave their luggage with a porter and have it delivered to their stateroom later. This is convenient if you arrive before your room is available, but it can take hours for your luggage to arrive.
I recommend that you either walk on with your luggage, or at least bring a bag with swimsuits, sunscreen and other essentials that will allow you to get right to the fun.
We live out of our suitcases on many vacations, but on a cruise, I unpack everything. Stateroom closets have hangers, shelves and drawers. You'll have a lot more space to move around if you use the closets and tuck suitcases under the bed.
At the end of your cruise, you can leave your luggage outside your room on the last night. You'll pick it up just before you go through customs. However, I don't recommend this option.
I recommend that you keep your luggage and walk off with it. You'll get off the ship a lot faster, with less risk of lost or misplaced bags. This is one more reason to pack light!
I have a whole separate article full of cruise dining tips, but here are the basics.
You can eat all day, every day on a cruise and it's all included. It's one of the best things about a cruise – except for the extra pounds afterward! These are some of the dining options available on most major cruise ships.
- Fast Food – Pizza, burgers and soft serve ice cream are usually available all day
- Buffet – Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. There are usually a lot of international options that change every day.
- Dining Room – Full service, formal dining. The three-course menu changes every night. Always open for dinner. Sometimes open for breakfast or brunch.
- Room Service – Meals and snacks are delivered to your room. Some are included, other items cost extra.
- Premium Dining – Fine dining or famous restaurants. There is typically a per-person charge.
- Drinks – Water, juice and lemonade are included. Soft drinks, specialty drinks and alcohol are not. If you want these, you can buy by the drink or purchase a drink package.
You'll probably be invited to choose early or late seating in the Dining Room, where you get the same table and same wait staff every day. We prefer the early seating – around 6 pm. If you don't want to commit, most cruise lines also offer a flexible dining option where you can arrive any time.
Sea Days used to be my least favorite part of a cruise because I was excited to see as many new ports as I could. Now that I'm cruising with older kids, we look for itineraries with more sea days because they are my kids' favorite days.
Sea Days offer the kind of relaxation we don't get on most vacations. My kids (ages 12 and 14) love sea days because they can do what they want, when they want, with or without Mom and Dad.
Just in case you want to do more than sleep in and then spend the rest of the day in a deck chair with a good book and a cold beverage… You can choose from a long list of on-board activities, which may include:
- Fitness classes
- Mini Golf
- Musical entertainment
- Spa Treatments
- Kids Club Activities
- And so many more
My sister is prone to seasickness and feels ill on sea days. Modern ships are large and stable, but you'll feel the movement. Choose an itinerary with only one sea day if you're not sure how you'll do. Consult with a doctor or pharmacist about motion sickness treatment options before your trip.
Most major cruise lines offer kids clubs for kids and teens. They are grouped by age in separate spaces, so your children will hopefully meet new friends in a safe, supervised environment and find activities they'll enjoy. Bonus: Kids Clubs allow Mom and Dad to enjoy a little time off too.
Kids Club activities may include group games, scavenger hunts, video games and more.
Kids Clubs are included in the price of your cruise, so register your kids before your cruise or on the first day. If you have older kids, you'll have the option to let them check themselves in and out of their club.
I would like to say that my kids loved their Kids Clubs, but honestly, they never gave it a chance. They were happy to hang out with each other or do their own thing. I was still glad the Kids Club was an option, just in case.
Cruises are different than most other vacations, and it takes a certain amount of planning to make it happen. It's all worth it once you get there, because then you get to relax your way, explore new destinations and try new things.
Do you have questions about cruising? Ask it in the comments, or contact me at [email protected] I'll do my best to help!