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. In this article, I'm sharing my best cruise advice for first-timers.
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
Wondering what to expect on a cruise? Here are my top cruise tips to help you do it “right” the first time.
Enlist a Travel Agent
We turn to the pros when we cruise, even though we are usually DIY travel planners.
Travel agents can usually can offer personalized cruise advice and customer service for the same price or less than a DIY internet cruise. Plus, travel agents tend to go on cruises regularly, so their cruise tips come from personal experience.
Those of us who don't live 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 recommend 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
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's smart to research your options and make decisions in advance.
Find cruise guides for your ports at Amazon.com or your local library. Look up your cruise ship's list of excursions. Search my Destinations page or TripAdvisor for more tips and ideas.
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 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. However, I rarely need formal wear at home. Does that mean I had to buy a lot of clothes to go on a cruise? No.
Shorts, hats and swimwear are appropriate in most areas of the ship – including the buffet, but most people dress up for dinner in 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.
Related: What to Pack for a Caribbean Cruise
Cruise “staterooms” are often tiny. They are so small 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. Putting on yesterday's damp swimsuit is no fun.
- Avoid denim, especially in the tropics. It's bulky and uncomfortable.
- Don't pack a beach towel. The ship will loan them to you.
- 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: 8 Tips for Cruising With a Large Family
You'll typically want to arrive at the cruise terminal by late morning or early afternoon. Your cruise documents will give you all the information you need about arrival times. Expect lines and crowds at the cruise port.
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.
Related: Tips for Using Uber and Lyft with Kids
You'll be provided with luggage tags with your room number prior to the cruise. Many passengers leave their luggage with a porter and have it delivered to their stateroom later. This is convenient, but it may take hours for your luggage to arrive.
I recommend that you hang on to at least one bag with swimsuits, sunscreen and other essentials that will allow you to get right to the fun. You can walk on with all your luggage, but the lunch buffet will probably open before your room is available. Wrangling kids AND suitcases in a crowded buffet is a hassle.
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 prefer to keep my bags with me.
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!
Related: Tips for Your First Disney Cruise
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.
Related: Everything You Need to Know About Cruise Dining
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 do 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.
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!
Great tips! We’ve been on 5 cruises now and I think that I learn a little more each time. We travel quite a bit and the only time that I ever use a travel agent is when booking a cruise. The agents just know so much more about the ships, specific rooms etc. – details that I just can’t seem to find myself when researching online.
These are great tips. I agree that travel agents are the way to go. Cruises are so fun but people don’t realize how much money they rack up every time they order a cocktail or a glass of wine at dinner. Every cruise I’ve been on I always see someone at the end freaking out about their tab.
Thanks Lisa and Hilarye! This will be my fifth cruise, and though we have considered booking through the internet, we always go back to a travel agent because we value the insider knowledge and service. Knowing that savvy travelers like yourselves also use travel agents for cruises makes me feel even better about that decision.
I’ve never seen anyone freak out over their bill, but I can imagine it. I’m not saying you shouldn’t buy the extras if you want them. Budget for those things in advance, keep close track and ensure that everyone on your account knows the rules.
These are all GREAT tips. I love it. I just got back from my first cruise that was a charter and still have my sea legs. We went on Royal Caribbean’s Liberty of the Seas and we did good on not spending too much extra. I’m excited about going out on another cruise again soon.
Thank you, Jay. I’m so glad you had fun!
Going on my first cruise next week. Liberty of the Seas. I’m so excited! Glad to hear someone else enjoyed it. I can not wait!!! ????
I’m excited for you! Have a great trip!
This is refreshing info. I welcome any advise.
Yvonne D. Baskerville
Hello: This is my fifth Cruise; my first on Royal Carribean “Legend of the Seas” and my first 15 day trip. I, too, will try to keep luggage light and appreciate tips on packing lite!!
Senior, hoping to leave “Arthritis” in Panama Canal as I return from San Diego via Ft. Lauderdale, FL. Thanks
That sounds like a wonderful cruise. Have a great trip!
So many great tips!! I always tend to overpack… Gets me every time!
Me too! I have to consciously weed out the things I don’t really need and remind myself that I can buy almost anything when I get there. Thanks, Missi!
Pack all you think you’ll need, then take half of it out!
That’s about right! The question is which half…
Great tips, but that crowded deck around the pool looks ridiculous! I think I’ll pass on a cruise.
The pool can be pretty crowded on At Sea days. Whether it’s fun and festive, or just too crowded depends on the traveler, and both are correct.
Yes Theresa, that is the first thing I saw and though I love swimming, that is the first thing that turned me off. Always wanted to go on a cruise but never did get there, loved reading the info and tips though and I know there is a lot of other stuff to do on a cruise besides swimming 🙂 Happy cruising everyone!!!
Went on my first cruise this year. Nevrr went in the pool, too crowded and noisy. Still had a wo derful time, lots to do or just relax in the quiet zone. Will definitely cruise again. Packed everything I needed for two weeks in carryon. Nobody pays attention to what you are wearing.
in the photo the staff are also outside near the pool, people are all looking at something. Maybe it is a crossing the equator ceremony as someone is in the pool who seems to be the center of attention and cameras.
It was a special scheduled event on the last day at sea, so the pool was especially crowded for this photo.
This is so helpful. We are planning a cruise in the near future and these tips are great! I love getting your newsletter too.
Great tips thank you. Is it better value to take out the drinks packages or just buy as you go along..We are cruising with RCI in June and not sure which would be better for us. There are 4 adults going but only 3 alcohol drinkers, I’m the soft drink one.
Any advice on this would be great thanks
It depends. Individual drinks are resort-priced and I understand that some people can rack up an alcohol tab for hundreds of dollars. If you’re only planning for one or so per day then you probably won’t want the package. If you want to enjoy drinks with meals, relaxing on deck, socializing with friends, etc without worrying about losing track of your tab, then the package may be the way to go. You can purchase the package after you board. Your travel agent or an onboard representative can probably give you more specifics so you can do the math and choose the option that is best for you.
Thank you Allison
Going on my first cruise in April and to say I am uncomfortable with the whole idea is an understatement. Reading your tips has helped a little……my only thought is the relief when it is over. Wish me luck!!
Good luck! What are you most nervous about?
We went through a travel agent the first time we went on a cruise for our honeymoon. It was nice because we had enough to worry about with planning the wedding. More recently I booked our Carnival Cruise myself through their website. I think there are advantages for doing it either way. For me I like to study everything ahead of time. I booked our shore excursions ahead of time instead of having to scramble on the cruise to book excursions. Which is good because the para-sailing was sold out months before the cruise. Also I was able to pick exactly which rooms we had. We had one for us and one for our teenagers next door. The only thing I would do differently is NOT buy their Bottomless Bubbles drink program. We ended up not drinking as much pop, alcohol, etc as we expected. We were all happy with the free drinks. We actually would have saved money by sticking with the free lemonade, water, juice, milk, etc. and having one special drink a day. Friends of ours however drink lots of pop so they saved money using Bottomless Bubbles. Also if you plan ahead what you are going to wear each day you can pack a lot in a suitcase. We had one suitcase for us, and one for our kids. For the formal nights my husband wore the same pants and jacket we just changed the shirt and tie.
Great tips. Thanks for sharing your experience, Sandy! I 100% agree with your recommendation to plan and book excursions before your trip.
Great tips, you’re a gifted and focused writer. What your readers may also want to know, is that cruise companies dump one billion, that’s correct a billion tons of human sewage, raw human sewage into our beautiful, priceless oceans a year. Even worse, is the dirty wastewater from dishwashing, photo processing and other chemical hazards incurred on these luxury cruises. Are you or any of your commenters interested in this horrific crime against the ocean and the creatures that live in it?
Here’s a quick link: http://qz.com/308970/cruise-ships-dump-1-billion-tons-of-sewage-into-the-ocean-every-year/ There are many more articles for those interested.
By the way, wastewater treatment facilities are readily available and easily installed on ships; but of course, these for profit companies will never do anything like this unless we compel them to. I hope you have the integrity to post this comment, as this beautiful planet is more than just a dumping ground for our luxury and pleasure, and deserves far more humble, thoughtful and decent treatment. Thank you.
Thank you. This is definitely food for thought. I have not investigated these claims and and cannot verify or discredit them. I advise readers to do their own research, using a variety of credible sources.
Thanks for the 1st time cruisers. We are taking our 4 adult children their spouses and our 3 grandkids. I love the looks of Jamaica montego Bay n hope to spend at least a few days there. We will not go until August of this year in hopes to allow time to gather useful information as yours.
Jen Liby…small town country kansas girl!😊
I enjoyed your article and took mental notes for a future 3rd cruise. What I wish I had known for my first cruise with kids (Princess) was that I would regret not bringing a puddle jumper vest for my 3 year old. The big pool was 5’ deep throughout, I believe, which meant I couldn’t even stand in the pool while holding her. I believe there was a small family pool that was very far removed from the pizza and fun.
Thanks Em! That is a great tip. Our most recent cruise had swim vests available near the pool, but ship layouts can vary greatly within the same cruise line. It’s also nice to have a vest you know will fit your child.
Is pass ports needed for the Cozumel cruise from Mobile Alabama?
Hi! Everyone over the age of 16 will need a passport. I recommend that you check your cruise documents or travel.state.gov for details. At this time, children under age 16 who are U.S. citizens can travel on a cruise ship to/from Mexico with a birth certificate.
So many great tips!! I always tend to over-package… get me every time!
We do have this tendency, but it is not really necessary. Of all the tips that Allison shared, I believe that’s the most important.
It is also necessary to remember that check-in/check-out can be very long – especially in countries like Brazil (where I live).
Have you ever traveled North on a cruise like New England or Canada . No clue how to pack for this trip. Any tips would be helpful thank you
Hi Wilma! I have taken an Alaskan cruise, and I have visited New England and Nova Scotia. You’ll want more layers for this cruise than for the tropics. If you’re cruising in the summer, it could be hot one day and cool the next. Pack a jacket (preferably rain and wind resistant) and at least one pair of long pants. You’ll likely want a good pair of walking shoes with socks, rather than sandals for most of your activities.
You’ll want some of the same things you would pack for a warm-weather cruise – like a sun hat, sunscreen, swimsuit for the hot tub and dress/formal clothes for dinner. Check the weather forecast and read up on your shore excursions before your trip. It’s possible that you’ll even want to pack a coat, gloves or special gear, depending on the forecast and your activities. If the forecast is extra warm, you won’t want to pack as many cool weather options.
Thanks for your question. Hope that helps!
I’ll have my first cruise on September which is my honeymoon as well 🙂 My only concern is my hair, I just don’t want to look crazy. Is it better to braid them? I know this is gonna be a funniest question on this page :))
Congratulations on your upcoming wedding! I live in a dry climate, and my hair is definitely frizzier and curlier on a tropical cruise. You can pack any hair care products or appliances you need to. Just remember that your bathroom will be small. A hair dryer will likely be provided, but it won’t be very good. You may want to bring one with you, if styling is a priority. On a cruise, I find that the best time of day to shower and style is right before dinner. Earlier in the day is pool time, beach time, tour time, etc… activities that will likely mess up my hair anyway. You will find that the wind blows almost any time you are on deck.
At many tropical ports, you can find professional hair braiders who can help you with some corn rows that will stay put for the length of your cruise. There will likely be a salon on board if you want a little extra help on formal night. I hope I answered your hair question. If I missed anything, let me know! 🙂
I like how you mentioned that there is a flexible dining option where you can arrive at any time. I have four kids and getting them to a set dinner time is a challenge. I will make sure to inquire with the correct people about having a flexible dining option.
Why a spouse would go on a 9 day cruise without the other one?