What I wish I’d known before my first cruise

Posted By Allison on Dec 6, 2017

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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

However, there are a lot of things about cruising that may be different than other types of vacation. Here are my top tips for first-time cruisers.

Cruise like a pro the first time! What I wish I'd known before my first cruise | tipsforfamilytrips.com | family cruise | cruise tips | cruise advice

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.

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Research your shore excursions in advance

Plan ahead to make the most of your limited time in each destination. Check Amazon.com, your local library or bookstore to read up on your ports of call. 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 these activities cost? Figure that and then bring extra. Many places do take credit cards, but you may still need more cash than you expect. Many international cruise ports – particularly in the Caribbean – accept U.S. dollars, but do your homework on this before you leave home.

Shore excursions are my favorite part of the cruise, but the costs can add up quickly! Sometimes it’s smart to book through the cruise line. But most of the time, you’ll spend more than you have to. Find out when to book through the cruise line and when to plan your own excursion in this post: 15 Tips for Perfect Shore Excursions.

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What to wear

The cruise experience is reminiscent of a time and social class where 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 run out and buy a lot of clothes to go on a cruise? No.

On most major cruise lines, you never need to change out of your shorts and t-shirt, as long as you prefer eating at the buffet. Shorts, t-shirts and swimwear are appropriate in most areas of the ship throughout the day, but they are generally not allowed in the dining room.

Get more cruise tips on my Cruise page | cruise advice | cruise dining

Dinner in the dining room is one of my favorite parts of the cruise, so I pack evening wear. Most evenings, women and girls wear slacks or skirts with dressy tops, or dresses. Dressy sandals are OK. Flip-flops are not. Slacks with a polo or button-down shirt, and perhaps a sport jacket are appropriate for men and boys.

I worried about formal night on my first cruises, but it really isn’t a big deal. If you own a tuxedo or formal gown, this is your chance to wear it. If you don’t have one, and don’t want to buy one, don’t sweat it. My husband looks great in his suit and tie on formal night and I wear a dress that looks nice alongside the suit. Whatever “nice dress” means to you is probably OK for formal night.

What I wish I'd known before my first cruise | tipsforfamilytrips.com | cruise advice

Don’t overpack

Cruise “staterooms” are tiny. They are so tiny that when I went on my first cruise as a single with friends, we all burst into laughter the first time 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 my tips for cruise packing:

  • Wear everything except underwear at least twice
  • Mix and match by packing around a single color scheme.
  • Avoid denim, especially in the tropics. It’s bulky and uncomfortable.
  • Rayon and polyester-blend knits are good fabrics. They take little space and don’t wrinkle easily.
  • Don’t pack a beach towel. The ship will loan them for shore visits.
  • Do pack a sweater or light jacket, even in the tropics.

A friend of mine recently returned from her first cruise. They had a good time, but she expects to enjoy her next cruise even more because she will know what to expect. Now you will too!

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What’s next?

I have lots more tips for your cruise, and many ports of call. Click here to see them all on my Cruise page.

Here’s our checklist for planning a great cruise!

  1. Book your cruise – If you haven’t yet found your perfect cruise, we recommend Get Away Today Vacations. They are a family-owned business with 25 years of experience and a commitment to customer service. They’ll help you choose the best cruise for the right price, plus book your airfare, hotels and transportation, if needed. Read more about our partnership with Get Away Today here.
  2. Do you need passports? Adults probably do. For children, not always. Find advice and tips in this post: Does Your Child Need a Passport?
  3. Purchase travel insurance – It is nearly impossible to get a refund on your cruise if you have to cancel, and anything from illness to jury duty could happen before now and then. Protect yourself with travel insurance. Check rates at RoamRight.
  4. Plan your shore excursions – Start by reading our post 15 Tips for Perfect Shore Excursions. Then check out our Cruises page to see the activities we recommend for your ports of call.
  5. Guide Books – We love guide books! Buy one especially for your cruise, or check your local library. Check out these reputable guides for popular cruise itineraries
    1. Fodor’s Caribbean Cruise Ports of Call
    2. Fodor’s The Complete Guide to Alaska Cruises
    3. Rick Steves’ Mediterranean Cruise Ports
    4. Rick Steves’ Northern European Cruise Ports
    5. The Unofficial Guide to the Disney Cruise Line 2017
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Hi there! I am the founder of Tips for Family Trips. I am a married mom of two children, ages 10 and 12, living near Salt Lake City, Utah. We took our first child on a two-week road trip when she was four weeks old and we have been traveling as a family ever since. We love to get out of the house to see and do fun things, both far away and in our own neighborhood.


  1. 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.

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  2. 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.

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  3. 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.

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  4. 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.

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    • 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!!! ????

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      • I’m excited for you! Have a great trip!

  5. This is refreshing info. I welcome any advise.

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  6. 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

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  7. So many great tips!! I always tend to overpack… Gets me every time!

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    • 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!

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    • Pack all you think you’ll need, then take half of it out!

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      • That’s about right! The question is which half…

  8. Great tips, but that crowded deck around the pool looks ridiculous! I think I’ll pass on a cruise.

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    • 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.

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    • 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!!!

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      • 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.

  9. 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.

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    • It was a special scheduled event on the last day at sea, so the pool was especially crowded for this photo.

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  10. This is so helpful. We are planning a cruise in the near future and these tips are great! I love getting your newsletter too.

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  11. 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

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    • 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.

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  12. 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!!

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  13. 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.

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    • Great tips. Thanks for sharing your experience, Sandy! I 100% agree with your recommendation to plan and book excursions before your trip.

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  14. 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.

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    • We are happy to post dissenting comments as long as they are respectful. We have not researched these claims and advise readers with concerns to investigate and verify or discredit them for themselves.

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  15. 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.

    Thanks again
    Jen Liby…small town country kansas girl!😊

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