Are you going on your first cruise, and you are new to cruising? Cruising can be overwhelming and confusing if you are not prepared. There are many things that you may not know or expect as a first time cruiser, and learning these first time cruise advice can make your cruise experience much better. Below, I will share with you some of the things that I wish I had known as a cruise rookie.
Things I Wished I Had Known as a First Time Cruiser
1. Board the ship early and enjoy lunch
Cruising is more fun when you are early. You should get to the port a few hours before the ship leaves (some cruise ships will let you choose an arrival time, and I recommend the earliest one).
This way, you can avoid stress and enjoy lunch on the ship. But don’t skip breakfast before you go, because lunch will be late and you don’t want to be hungry and grumpy.
2. Avoid the buffet rush
On the first day of the cruise, you may be tempted to head straight to the buffet for lunch. However, you may find it very crowded and chaotic, as many other passengers will have the same idea.
Instead, you can opt for the dining rooms, which are usually open and calmer, or some other smaller lobby cafes or restaurants that might be open on embarkation day. You can enjoy a more relaxed and less hectic meal, and save the buffet for another day.
3. Pack a carry-on roller bag for the first day and last day
On the first day of the cruise, you will not have access to your checked luggage until later in the afternoon to early evening. Instead of waiting for your checked luggage to be delivered to your stateroom, you should pack essentials in your carry-on bag. I suggest using a small roller bag as your carry on bag.
Make sure you pack essentials, such as toiletries, medication, toys/devices (entertainment for kids), and a change of clothes in your carry on bag. If you’re going on a warm weather cruise (Caribbean, Mexico), you may also want to pack your bathing suit, goggles, and sunscreen, so you can swim or lounge poolside as soon as you board the ship!
The carry on bag will also come in handy on the last day because you will need to check in your main luggage the night before you leave the ship. You will need that carry on bag to pack your overnight items that you will take with you off the ship.
4. Explore the ship
After lunch, the first thing you should do is to explore it. Get familiar with the layout, the amenities, and the activities. Find out where your cabin, the dining venues, the entertainment options, and the service desks are.
5. Book your activities early
Some of the most popular activities on board, such as spa treatments, specialty dining, shows, and excursions, can sell out quickly. If you want to enjoy them, you should book them as soon as possible, either online before you sail or on the first day of the cruise. You can also check for any discounts or deals that the cruise line offers.
6. Consider the cruise drinks packages
The cruise line will try to sell you beverage packages on the first day of the cruise, and it can be tempting to ignore it. However, you should learn more about it, as it could be a great deal for you.
A drinks package can save you money on alcoholic beverages and specialty coffee, which can be expensive on board. Some drinks packages can also include extras, such as free photos, free internet, and gratuity. Depending on how much you drink, a drinks package may be worth considering.
7. Consider alternative ways to explore the ports
You don’t have to book a shore excursion with the cruise line at every port. This can be very costly, especially for a large group. Sometimes, you can find cheaper or better options on your own, but you have to do your research.
For example, you can negotiate with a taxi driver to take you around for the day, or look for booths that sell discounted tours and excursions at the port (not every port have booths!)
You can also use public transportation, such as trains or buses, to visit nearby attractions. I did this when I took a British Isles cruise and went to Dublin by train from the port.
However, booking with the cruise line has its advantages, such as safety and reliability. They will make sure you get back to the ship on time, and they will provide transportation if needed.
I learned this the hard way when I visited the Blarney Castle by taxi and had trouble finding a ride back. Uber was scarce and I almost missed the ship.
So, you have to weigh the pros and cons of each option and do your homework before you decide how to explore the ports.
8. Bring 1 bottle of wine or champagne per adult on embarkation day
Many cruise lines, such as Carnival, will allow you to bring 1 bottle of wine or champagne (750 ml) per adult on embarkation day only.
If you buy wine, liquor, or beer in the ports, they will confiscate your alcohol and store it for you during the duration of the cruise and give it back to you when you leave the ship.
Most people don’t know you can bring 1 bottle of wine per adult, and this will save you some money since alcohol purchases can add up.
Do bring a corkscrew, but make sure you don’t bring one with a knife, as some cruise lines may not allow it. You can enjoy your own drink in your stateroom.
Do know they typically charge a corkage fee if you bring your wine to dinner.
9. Bring your own refillable water bottle
Bringing your own refillable water bottle will save you money. You can refill it at the buffet or ask for water from the bar tenders on the ship. It comes in handy to have a refillable water bottle because you can bring water to your stateroom and on shore excursions.
It will save you money because you don’t have to buy the ship’s expensive bottled water. Plus, you don’t have to keep going back to the buffet for water (which is a hassle if your stateroom is far from the buffet!)
I like this water bottle because it is insulated and does not have a straw (so I don’t have to deal with washing straws in my cabin!)
10. Avoid cell service and plan your internet use
Cell service on the ship can be very costly, so you should switch your phone to airplane mode when you get onboard the ship. You don’t want to pay a fortune for a phone call or text.
If you need a lot of data, you can buy the internet package from the cruise line. Otherwise, I suggest you prepare your devices before you leave home by downloading ebooks and movies that you can enjoy offline.
You should also check if your cell phone plan has international coverage. For example, I have T-Mobile and I get free international texting and data. I typically don’t buy the cruise internet package, I just wait until I’m in port to check my email and go online.
11. Order as much as you want in the dining rooms
You may not know this, but you can order more than one of anything in the sit down dinner and lunches. For example, if you love the shrimp cocktail, you can order another one. You don’t have to stick to a 3 course meal.
If you are indecisive about the appetizers, you can sample a few of them. My husband and I sometimes order 3 entrees and share one.
The food is unlimited in the dining rooms, not just in the buffet. The portions are usually small, so you can try a few dishes.
12. Trust the cruise line with food allergies
From my personal experience, the cruise lines are very careful about food allergies. My son has a peanut and tree nut allergy, and they make special food for him to avoid any cross contamination.
The maitre’d usually shows us the menu for the next day (yes, you get a sneak peek) and asks my son to pre-order his food. This way, they can prepare his food safely and in advance.
The buffet is more risky because of cross contamination, but the servers are helpful and can check the ingredients for us. My son has been fine with the buffet, but if you want to be extra safe, you can eat in the dining rooms for all 3 meals and get your food specially made.
I’ve taken my son on several cruises, from Princess to Carnival to Holland America to Norwegian, and they all have similar food allergy policies.
13. Scope out the different food options on the ship
Don’t assume that all the dining rooms and buffets serve the same food. The buffets and restaurants on the ship offer different kinds of food. The buffets may have different sections or sides that serve different dishes, and they may change their theme every day.
You should check the buffet menu and walk around the buffet area to see what’s available. You don’t want to miss out on any special food.
And don’t assume that the restaurants on the ship are all specialty restaurants that charge extra fees. There are also free restaurants that serve different food than the main dining room.
For example, you may find an Italian pizzeria or a grill that serves burgers or steaks. You should explore all the food options on the ship and enjoy the variety.
14. Customize your bed arrangement
You can ask your room steward to change the configuration of your bed if you are not satisfied with it. For example, you can ask for two separate beds instead of a king bed, or you can rearrange the bunk beds to make it comfortable for you.
Your room steward is there to help you and will work with you to find the best solution for your room. Just ask him or her!
15. Use the cruise ship laundromat
Some cruise ships have coin-operated laundromats that you can use to wash your clothes. This can be useful if you have kids or if you are on a long cruise (more than 10 days).
Instead of paying for the expensive laundry service, you can save money by doing your own laundry. I suggest you check if your ship has a laundromat and find out where it is located. Unfortunately, not all cruise ships have laundromats.
If the ship doesn’t have a laundromat, you can still wash some clothes in your cabin. You just need some detergent and clothes pins. I like to bring these travel laundry packets that are convenient and easy to use.
Check out my cruise packing lists with free printables