First time cruisers naturally have so many first time cruise questions. This is a summary with lots of helpful links to know what to expect when planning and taking your first cruise.
Please note: This information is intended as a guide and overview and is up to date as of 2/8/2022, please consult your airline, the US Department of State, the CDC, your cruise line or resort, or your trusted travel agent, for the most up to date information.
Planning Your First Cruise
Q: What should a first-time cruiser know?
A: The amount of information you want to know before your first cruise is totally your choice. Some cruisers don’t do much learning before hand, others do lots!
Q: Where should I go on my first cruise?
A: Many like to go to the Bahamas or a short Caribbean trip, but it’s worth considering taking something like a Mediterranean cruise if you’ve traveled to the Caribbean a lot and always wanted to see a number of the areas along the sea there. Alaska for adventure, or maybe you want to sail the Hawaiian islands! There are so many options! Read More about “Choose your Cruise Destination” here: Cruise 101: Choosing Your Cruise
Q: I see lots of 3-6 day, 7-9 day, and even longer cruises. How long should my first cruise be?
A: Many first time cruisers do go for the 3-5 day cruise sampler, but cruise veterans would tell you that weekend cruises are not the same as a week long cruise or more, & here’s why: You’ll get more time to explore the better ship (usually short cruises take older ships in a cruise line) and more destinations to see! Read More about “Choose How Long to Cruise” here: Cruise 101: Choosing Your Cruise
Q: Where should we leave from?
A: Most first time cruisers either leave from a port closest to their home, or a major port like New York/New Jersey, or Miami/Ft. Lauderdale. But there are quite a few options! Contact me to learn which may work best for you! Read More about “Choose the Embarkation Location of Your Cruise” here: Cruise 101: Choosing Your Cruise
Q: Which itinerary should I choose?
A: There are so many factors to this, and I went over this in pretty storng detail in this post here you may want to review: “Choose Your Cruise Itinerary” here: Cruise 101: Choosing Your Cruise
Q: What time of year is best to go?
A: The time of year depends on where you’re going. Alaska, for example, only runs a season from spring to fall due to weather. Some may prefer to avoid hurricane season, at its heaviest from August to October (rates are lower though!), and others might like to go after the hustle and bustle of the holiday season when prices are also typically lower – in January. Read More about “Choose the Best Time to Sail” here: Cruise 101: Choosing Your Cruise
Q: What type of room do I want?
A: The type of room you want may vary depending on whether or not you are bothered by certain spaces or views or your budget or just preference. I went over the main points of the interior, ocean view window, balcony, and suite rooms in this article: “Choose Your Cruise Stateroom” here: Cruise 101: Choosing Your Cruise
Q: How do I make the most of my first cruise?
A: You’re going to be on vacation! Relax, enjoy and live in the moment (remember: that’s why they call it “the present”), chat with new friends at dinner, & try new things, like mini golfing on top of hte ship, enjoying a massage at sea, taking fun tours to incredible places! Put your phone away unless you’re snapping photos & put fun at the top of your priority list every day of your cruise!
Q: What travel documents do I need?
A: Most, if not all, international destinations require a passport (book). Even if your cruise and its destinations do not require a passport, I always recommend that you bring one in case you need to return home quickly unexpectedly and need to book a flight to do so.
A great plan of action is to bring your passport book (no passport card), as well as your driver’s license as a backup. Send a trusted friend or your travel agent a photo of your passport just in case you lose yours and your phone, but let’s hope that won’t happen!
If you’re traveling internationally, make usre you have any required travel visa for your trip. If you’ll be renting a car, by some chance, or driving a recreational vehicle for a tour, you’ll more than likely need your driver’s license.
Q: What if my cruise doesn’t require a passport?
A: Even if your destinations don’t require one, I do recommend always travel with a passport book when outside of the country. Let’s say something happens and you have to leave your trip early, you’ll need it to fly internationally. Make sure it won’t expire for at least 6 months beyond the end of your cruise. Many countries require this.
Q: What do I need to print?
A: Times are certainly changing, but before you leave for your cruise, I do suggest printing your luggage tags which you can attach before you get onboard so that you can enjoy the ship’s amenities and start your vacation as soon as possible!
Q: Do I have to be vaccinated to cruise?
A: For most guests on the vast majority of cruise lines, yes. As of January 29, 2021, these lines definitely require it: AmaWaterways, American Queen Voyages, Atlas Ocean Voyages, Avalon Waterways, Azamara, Carnival Cruise Line, Celebrity Cruises, Celestyal Cruises, Crystal Cruises, Cunard Line, Disney Cruise Line, Emerald Cruises, Grand Circle Cruise Line, Hapag-Lloyd Cruises, Holland America, Hurtigruten, Lindblad Expeditions, MSC Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania Cruises, P&O Cruises, Ponant, Princess Cruises, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Riviera River Cruises, Royal Caribbean, Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours, Seabourn, Sea Cloud Cruises, Silversea, Star Clippers, Tauck, UnCruise Adventures, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, Viking, Virgin Voyages, and Windstar Cruises. I found only one cruise line so far that isn’t – American Cruise Lines, which is a US based river cruise company.
Q: Do I need to be tested to cruise?
A: Yes for sure, to keep yourself and everyone onboard safe, I’d say all cruise lines are required to test and you will not be able to board if your test is positive.
Tip: The cruise industry is adjusting continuously to the current situation, so be sure to contact a travel professional to ensure you know what you need to know.
Q: How much cash should I bring on a cruise?
A: This totally depends on how much shopping, eating, and other things you plan to do in port. Most locations accept credit cards like Visa and Mastercard, especially in larger cities, and ATMs are abundant in most ports. It’s never a bad idea to have some cash on hand, in smaller bills, around the equivalent of $50-$100 USD. You can barter and bargain a bit, and you may want some cash for tips for porters (those who take bags at the port and deliver to your room, typically $1 per bag is customary), other staff, etc. Also you can consider researching the destinations you’ll be visiting to find out the local currency and whether U.S. dollars are accepted (or ask your friendly travel agent!). If not, exchange some cash beforehand onboard or at the airport, so you’re not spending precious time in port trying to exchange currency. You’ll want to start exploring right away!
Q: Can I use my debit card in port?
A: I do not recommend using a debit card – ever – in port. While most transactions are totally safe, credit cards do offer more protection in case of any problem.
Q: How do you pay for things on the cruise ship?
A: For first time cruisers, you might think the payment setup on board is similar to a hotel, give your room number & sign a slip of paper, or pay with cash or your credit card.
On a cruise, it’s even better! Your room key is your onboard payment card and also helps you pay for casino charges, specialty dining and more! On the final cruise night, you’ll receive an itemized list of everything you purchased & the credit card on file will be charged that amount but just so you know often times they do place a hold on your card in advance, too. If you have concerns about your bill, you have time to speak with Guest Relations at the main entrance before your card is charged.
Q: Do I need to make any special arrangements financially?
A: International / Foreign Transactions: Many credit card companies charge a percentage for foreign transactions, such as 1-3% in most cases, but others don’t charge anything.
It may not matter when purchasing a few postcards to mail back home, but if your take home goodie is a unique rug, artwork, or a special bottle of aged liquor, that foreign transaction fee can be a bit more noticeable.
Tip: Contact your Bank in advance
Be sure to notify your bank and tell them you’ll be traveling to a different state or country before your cruise, because this type of unexpected change to your pattern can cause unexpected card freezes. Many banks have an online system – sometimes even an app, where you can notify them of your travel destinations and dates, or you can call them.
Tip: Currency Exchange
You might also want to get local currency for each of the countries you visit (if they don’t accept your home country’s currency). Though many Caribbean countries do take US dollars, when you go to Europe and such they may not. That way, you won’t have to spend time in port looking for ATMs or money exchange services.
Q: Should I pre-pay gratuities?
A: That’s really a personal call but personally I like to prepay mine so my onboard bill isn’t as hefty! You can usually add and pay them up to a few days before you sail.
Q: Do I really need travel insurance?
A: This is a huge question. My suggestion, especially now after Covid has come into our world is a huge yes. Read More about “Choose Your Travel Insurance” here: Cruise 101: Choosing Your Cruise
Tip: Set up Your onboard Account in advance online: Unless you like the idea of waiting in line to ask questions about your onboard spending at the lobby desk for service, do this on the cruise line’s website ahead of time. It’s quick and easy and is often part of your online check in (see the Tech section for that). You’ll choose a credit card for all onboard spending (and gratuities if you did not pre-pay them), and you can also set up your excursions, specialty dining, etc. in the same process.
The Clothing & Packing
Q: How do I pack for my first cruise?
A: That’s a pretty loaded question! Keep reading:
First: Create Your Packing List
One of my favorite things about a cruise is that your transportation and accommodation are one, so you only have to unpack once! But you will need a good variety of clothing, and here are some tips and considerations to include on your cruise pack list:
- Pack swimming gear for the ship, even if it’s not warm weather cruising – there are soaking & swimming opportunities on most cruise ships whether hot tubs or pools!
- Don’t overpack. If you are truly in dire straights with your clothing, there is laundry service onboard (for a fee)
- Casual wear is great for around the daytime on most cruises, but you’ll want nice outfits for dinner, which how nice, that varies by cruise line. Usually flip flops, shorts, and jeans are not in the dinner dress code. With some cruise lines, nicer jeans are okay with no tears/rips.
- There will be a few “dress nice nights” and every line calls it something different, but that usually means for ladies, a cocktail dress, nice pants, with an elegant top, but men may wear dress pants with a dress shirt, button-down shirt or a sweater; a sport coat or a blazer is optional. You can definitely go fancier if you want! Your newsletter will tell you which days you want to dress which way.
These may vary a bit by cruise line, but commonly packed items that you can’t bring on most cruises are:
- Curling Irons
- Hair dryers (provided)
- Water (bottled)
- There are many more but check with your cruise line!
Bringing Wine Onboard
While most cruise lines allows 1 regular size bottle of wine per person 21+ in age ( and most likely, a corkage fee will be assessed if you drink it in one of the dining venues), bringing any other alcohol onboard is generally always prohibited.
Destination Based Clothing Considerations
What to pack is one of the most common 1st cruise questions that new cruisers ask. Your cruise packing list depends completely on the destinations you’ll be visiting.
For example, if you’re taking a cruise to tropical, sunny locations, these will have a very different packing list than a cruise along Norway’s fjords or to Alaska. For tropical destinations, essentials include sunglasses, cover-ups, sundresses, comfortable shoes for the beach or pool, & a light sweater or jacket for cooler evenings. Sneakers for working out or walking while exploring cities in port are always a good idea.
Bonus tip on shoes: Leave shoes that hurt your feet at home.
If you’re going to a cooler or winter-type environment, layers are the best approach. Bring things made from wool or heat-trapping clothing (not cotton or linen). Don’t how important a base layer is, & bringing a lighter jacket as well as a heavier coat that you can hike in. A hat and sunglasses never hurt in these types of climates as well – after all, snow and ice reflect the sun big time!
Tip: Don’t overpack.
Maximizing the space in your suitcase & in your room boils down to using items that do double duty. AS one example, a toiletry kit that holds all your personal hygiene & beauty items could occupy your cruise ship’s (most likely) bathroom vanity and take up that precious space, but chooseing one that folds out and hangs by a hook means freeing up that space – and secures the items from falling down, too!
Tip: Throw a few hook magnets into your luggage to use as extra wardrobe hooks in your room, since the doors are metal. They’re also great for hanging your cruise ship card lanyard or a swimsuit cover up.
Q: What should I wear on the first day of my cruise?
A: Comfort is super important, especially on the first day of your cruise, even more so if you’ve been traveling all day. Comfy pants or shorts, and a tee shirt are perfect, especially on the 1st day when all the guests are getting settled. Bring a day bag or backpack with your embarkation day essentials (including any medications you’ll need, sunscreen, etc), an outfit change, or a swimsuit so you can take a dip in the pool – depending on where you board may alter this plan.
Q: Should I bring fancy clothing?
A: Wear the outfits you never wear at home! While too much for everyday living, pull out those more bold looks that are in the back of the closet. A cruise is the perfect time to wear them! Whether heading to a poolside relaxation day, brunch, onboard dining, or a tour on shore, you have many chances to wear different things. So will the other guests, so don’t worry about that.
Q: What type of sun protection should I be prepared for?
A: Protect yourself from the sun – and not just in one way! Obviously you need sunscreen, and lots of it if you’ll be in the sun a lot (trust me, don’t buy it on board – $$$$!) Other items to pack would be UVA and UVB-blocking clothing, UV-blocking sunglasses, swimwear, SPF lip balm, lightweight and sweat-wicking quick drying adventure clothing that also protects your skin from the sun.
Q: What do I need to know about medications, medical needs, & accessibility?
A: If you have special needs such as a diabetic sharps container, refrigeration for medication, tell your travel agent right away at the time of booking so we can assist in getting you what you need. If you need anything accessibility-related, let us know even before we book because special rooms are set aside with wider doors, and modifications and are not always plentiful in quantity.
Medications Tip: Be safe (not sorry) and make sure you pack enough of your over-the-counter & prescription medications to last your whole trip and though there’s a medical center on each ship at sea, the medication you need may or may not be there.
Packing Tip: Pack A Day Bag For Embarkation Day
Very Important – You’ll be separated from your main luggage on embarkation day until at least late afternoon and sometimes into later in the evening. It will arrive at your room sometime in this window of time, so – to prepare, pack a bag with a few essentials (think medications, change of clothing, deodorant , a fragrance for a refresh, glasses, anything you can’t be without – also for the kids – a bag with their favorite items to keep them busy if need be). You can carry on whatever you like, but if you don’t know, you should know that sometimes if you board at noon, you may not get into your room until sometime in the afternoon – this is because the ship turns around completely during one day. The previous guests got off only hours or even minutes before you boarded, so room stewards may still be hard at work on your stateroom cleaning and sanitizing.
Q: What should I do technology wise to prepare for my first cruise?
A: I have several answers to this question:
A #1: Back up your devices – Before your departure, unless you have a great cloud plan or something, go ahead and move extra data (photos are the biggest space suck on phones in most cases) on your phone, computers, & camera memory cards to an external hard drive or, so you’ve got space open for capturing all the memories you are about to make on your first cruise! The worst thing would be to miss the sunset from your veranda because you are scrolling through your device trying to make room from old photos to make room for new ones, especially if it’s your first cruise.
A #2: Double-check your data plan and/or get a Cruise WiFi plan: You may want to share your vacation photos of beautiful Caribbean beaches and selfies snapped at various sites, but you should know that if you are outside of your country & your data plan is restrictive (as many are), that sharing could cost you a lot of money! Before your cruise begins and you leave the country, check with your cell phone company to find out what limitations may apply, and extra fees. Also consider purchasing a WiFi Plan on your cruise, so at least you can upload from the ship!
A #3: Start a group chat – If you’ve booked your sailing early, consider setting up a cruise group chat with your fellow travelers. You’ll all want to be on the same page about activity ideas for each port before you board the ship.
For example, if snorkeling is something everyone wants to do, you can agree on what port you’d like to choose for a snorkel tour, & then book it when reservations open to grab your spots together! Many are available for advance booking, & the most popular choices will fill up, grab them ahead of time. Also if you all get WiFi packages you can use a web based chat onboard to keep in touch!.
A #4: No matter what tech you bring, you’re going to need to keep them charged, so make sure include your chargers on your packlist. Depending on your destinations & power requirements, you might want to bring an adapter that allows you to charge your phone when you go ashore. While packing, throw in a day pack or small bag for carrying items like your camera, water bottle, & sunscreen around the ship or in port.
Q: What online check in?
A: You can check in online or through the cruise line’s app before your cruise – this varies in terms of when it opens up by each cruise line. This expedites the boarding process among other things, so you can get your vacation started more quickly! Then you can explore your ship, unpack, or lounge by the pool. There’s no “?right” way to start your first day on a luxury cruise ship and so much to do!
Q: What’s the first thing I should do on the ship?
A: #1 Once you have your cruise ship room/payment card & complete your check-in, you’ll walk onto the ship after walking through various corridors. You may want to head straight to one of the onboard restaurants for a meal (that’s what I like to do), explore the ship, order a cocktail (another favorite first for me!), or take a break in your stateroom or suite if it’s ready for you. The casino and shopping cannot open until you’re out in international waters.
Q: What can I do on the cruise ship?
A: There is so much to do on a cruise ship. If you’re new and haven’t explored, you may be surprised! Play volleyball in the pool, learn how to cook delicious dishes, do a cocktail tasting, play bingo, enjoy the casino, enjoy evening entertainment and feats of song and dance at the onboard theater, partake in fine dining at one of many onboard restaurants, enjoy a spa treatment, work out at the onboard gym, and so much more!
Q: How do I keep in touch with my fellow group members on board?
A: Agree on a meet-up spot Whether you are traveling with 1 or 50 people, it’s a good idea to agree on one spot where you meet up before shared activities or major meals. Lobby areas or near dining venues is popular!
Q: What if I’m late for the cruise or leaving a port of call?
A: Pay attention to arrival and departure times Of all the cruise tips for 1st time cruisers, this advice is critical to make sure you’re able to sail on your cruise. Read the fine print of your cruise ticket that details ship departure and arrival ports. Is your ship departing from the Port of Miami or Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale? If you’re flying, you’ll want to make sure you fly into the city closest to your cruise departure port or ensure transportation is available from your airport of choice to the correct terminal. (Often I recommend Ft Lauderdale to my Miami cruisers because I know a great company that transports there, and it’s less costly to stay in Ft Lauderdale)
Even when you’ve got your cities situated, there is still the matter of the port terminal. It can be confusing! Many ships can dock at a one port, especially the big ones, and it can be hard to spot your ship. Your cruise ticket will specify the departure terminal, such as Terminal 25 at Port Everglades, which is for example where you’ll find Celebrity Edge homeporting for her Caribbean sailings.
Q: Should I visit the Spa? Should I book early or last minute?
A: Absolutely! Spa treatments fill up quickly, so do consider making an appointment early or even as soon as you book your cruise. You may have limited options if you wait to pencil in your pampering until the last minute.
Tip: Know some Cruise Lingo: I’m not saying get a sailor’s mouth here, but joking aside there are a few words that may help you navigate the ship and know what the heck they are talking about when they use these words:
- Aft: towards the stern/back of ship
- Mid-Ship: the middle section of the ship
- Starboard: the right side of the ship
- Port side: the left side of the ship, facing the front (tip: Port & Left both have 4 letters, to help you remember)
- Also see: Cruise Ship Location Words
- Also see: More Cruise Terminology
Q: Is cruise ship food good?
A: Heck yeah it is! Most cruise lines offer several primary included dining options plus a few optional fee based options. I say try as many as you can! I’ll be honest, food is one of my favorite parts of cruising! You can make reservations for the specialty restaurants, or even get room service & enjoy dining in on your balcony! Dress up for a night out or stay in and cozy. It’s up to you!
Q: Should I book specialty dining?
A: Another huge YES! Onboard, you can choose from a tremendous list of dining options, both complimentary and specialty at a cost. If you are trying to get a seat at the best and most popular specialty restaurants, you’ll want to make a reservation before you sail to make sure you get in!
The Ports of Call
Q: What is a port of call?
A: A port of call is simply the location where ships dock for the day when visiting a city or island.
Q: What are shore excursions?
A: Shore excursions are bookable experiences for when your cruise ship is in port. On my first cruise, we didn’t book any and tried to self-tour in Nassau. We ended up horrifically sweaty, lost, and in an Auto Parts store with a grid-iron door in a bad looking part of town. Since then, I’ve always booked tours and they are amazing experiences!
You can always book shore excursions onboard, but if you know what you want to do, it’s a great idea to book early, even if your cruise is months from the time. The most popular tours can fill up before the cruise even begins!
Examples of Shore Excursions:
- Beach Break Day Tour with included cocktails on the beach
- Cooking lessons from local experts
- Cultural City tours with local guides
- Scuba diving off the coast of Bermuda
- Snorkeling in Mexico’s Reef
- Spotting Alaska’s majestic whales
- Wine tasting in a Tuscan vineyard
Tip: Book Your Tour with the Cruise Line because when you do, your tour is guaranteed back on time or the ship will wait for you.
Q: How do I learn more about the ports we’re visiting?
A: Explore the cruise line’s port guides, which provide helpful information about each port like top sites, attractions, things to do, restaurants, bars, shopping, how to get around, how the culture is, explore history, and even important items like currency and tipping customs.
You can usually see the cruise line’s shore excursions on the same section of their website so you can add a few to your cruise! Whether you’re looking for something private, premium, or even active or family friendly adventures, tours and excursions offer interesting opportunities to experience fun things at each port of call!
Excursions are many and so various – whether your idea of a good time is a tour of historic landmarks, adventures on catamarans, boats, or kayaks, or something else, you many options to choose the vacation activities that interest you the most. Maybe you’d enjoy a farmers’ market tours for foodies who want to live like a local, or go easy and hop-on, hop-off buses if you want to see it all!
Q: How do I plan which shore excursions to take?
A: Research your ports in advance. Personally I believe there’s nothing like the anticipation of a fun, relaxing, and memorable vacation. Why not extend your excitement with a little pre-cruise research about your destinations?
If you’re busy without much time to read up on your destinations ahead of time, there is a shortcut to enjoy the best tours! That is – plan to attend the onboard excursion and destination seminars which are typically given in the morning one day before arriving to that particular port.
The ship’s destination experts (who go there constantly and know a lot about the destinations this ship goes to) will know which foods, tours, shopping, & experiences are absolutely the best, but also will tell you about the history, geography, & even the expected weather of the destination!
Write down what interests you have & the tips you gather from the talk – and then decide what excursions to book!
Embarkation Day Tips (Boarding)
Getting ready to embark on your luxury cruise ship and how to get the most out your first day :
Prepare to make new friends – RW: Being away from home, & especially having the new experience of being at sea can have the delightful effect of broadening your horizons (literally and figuratively).
People are more laid back, and you may find you are surprisingly having a very personal conversation with someone who becomes your new friend. You wouldn’t have met if not for this cruise, but now you are making plans to do it over again next year! Exchanging social media accounts or email addresses is usually the easiest way to connect after the cruise.
Q: How should I plan my first cruise day?
A: Under-schedule your first and last days:
It’s an extremely appealing idea to drop your bags & run to the pool, dining, or join many activities offered. But one of the best cruise tips for 1st time cruisers is get familiar with the ship first and how cruise life works. Treat that 1st day as a time to relax after traveling to your vacation as well as from your life outside of vacation. There’s no need to hurry, because you have the entire sailing ahead of you. There is only one beginning of the voyage, & it is best done in a way that’s relaxing to you, whether strolling on deck looking for dolphins or heading to a yoga class.
During Your Cruise
Tip: Focus on your wellness
Experienced cruisers know that cruising is the perfect time and place for focusing on yourself to return home refocused, centered, and well-rested. Cruise ships are known for fun in the sun and their amazing dining options, but modern ships feature lovely spas and expansive fitness centers that give you the what you need to stretch out and work out, meditate, and re-calibrate. The best way to explore what wellness options your ship has to offer is to tour the spa and wellness center – offered on the first full day – and usually, the spa therapists & personal trainers are there to answer questions and provide or schedule consultations!
Tip: Stay up late and wake up early
A great idea is to plan for 1 pretty late night and 1 very early morning. You might wonder why. Sunrise and Sunset is one reason – the colors of the sky over the open ocean at both times is stunning! Personally, I love sunrise from my balcony room! That’s why I like a balcony room! Nights at sea are really incredible – imagine how bright the stars are in the dark night, and any quiet time is great for reflecting on your life. Also, nightlife! Nightlife on board can be pretty awesome too!
Ready to plan your cruise?
With these cruise tips for 1st time cruisers, you may be ready to book your first unforgettable cruise vacation! Easy Breezy Journeys makes it easy for first-time cruisers to experience the delights of destinations far and wide. Just click HERE to answer a few quick questions and we’ll get started!