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10 Cruising Tips for First Timers: Know Before You Go

So, you’ve made a decision and you’re going on your first-ever cruise vacation. Planning a first cruise can feel daunting, so I’ve put together this list of the best cruising tips for first timers.

What to Know Before You Book Your First Cruise

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To date, our family has been on all different types of cruises. Our Windstar Icelandic cruise was epic, and the Emerald Cruise we took through Eastern Europe was unforgettable! We even took a unique Alaskan cruise with UnCruise Adventures (and highly recommend it for families!). Our Disney cruise was one we will always remember too!

Cruises can be the best way to see multiple places on one vacation, eat lots of food, and be constantly entertained all for one affordable price. Think of it as an “all-inclusive resort” at sea!

Whether you are considering a Disney, Royal Caribbean, or one of the other major ships, these tips apply to all cruise lines. Here’s what you need to know before you book a cruise.

10 Best Tips for Planning Your First Cruise

1. Where should I go on a cruise and when?

You can find different cruise lines in almost every body of water in the world! There are cruises on the Baltic Sea, to Australia, South America, through the Panama Canal, to Hawaii, and of course throughout the Caribbean and the Mediterranean.

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Your port of call depends on what you would like to see. It also depends on how much you are willing to spend. You’ll need to drive or fly to most ports, so it’s a good idea to consider airfare.

Spring break and summertime are the most expensive times to cruise, similar to most destinations. However, keep in mind that summertime through October is also hurricane season in the Caribbean. (Cruises may be canceled or rerouted so purchase travel insurance.)

If you’re willing to cruise in the fall or winter, this is the best time to find a lower price and you can still sail through warm weather climates. Plus, avoiding peak season is ideal if you want the best deal and fewer people to fight for a lounge chair near the pool!

2. How long should the cruise be?

If you are new to cruising or suffer from seasickness, I suggest doing a short cruise first. There are many weekend Friday-Monday cruises where you can “test the waters” so to speak.

If you’re ready to jump right in book a 5- or 7-day cruise and if you feel you need extra days to relax, book a 10- or 14-day cruise. If you really want to get away, you might even consider a Transatlantic cruise!

The first thing first-time cruisers should keep in mind when picking a shorter cruise is that while you’ll leave port on your embarkation day, your disembarkation day may not be the same day you return to your port city! Sometimes you will overnight on the ship at your last port of call. You’ll have to decide if you want to spend that much time aboard the ship in port.

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3. Does the age of the ship matter?

Ships come in all shapes and sizes. Newer, fancier ships typically offer more restaurants, shops, larger rooms and baths, and more entertainment. Know that newer ships tend to be more expensive than older ones, so if finances are important, consider traveling on an older ship.

4. Should you sail on a small or big ship?

Many people are afraid to cruise because of their experiences with motion sickness. Another common reason people hesitate has to be the number of passengers on the larger ships.

Thankfully, the newer, larger ships are extremely well made and so steady that you can’t feel the ship moving! There have been many times I had to remind myself that I was even on a ship.

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The larger ships also mean there will be a lot of people, but because it is so large, there are usually places (besides your room) that you can escape to for quiet time. Most ships have adult-only and/or quiet zone areas. And on smaller ships, you’re more likely to feel the waves, but many people enjoy the intimacy of getting to know their cruise mates and the staff.

If cruise fare is a major point of interest for your family on your big cruise vacation, you might want to go with a larger ship. Major cruise lines often have larger ships that offer more dining options than just the main dining room, like specialty restaurants.

Still stumped on whether a big or small ship is right for you? The size of the ship will impact the cabin type that you can choose from. You should be able to find deck plans for your potential ship of choice on the cruise line’s website.

This plan will lay out each level of the ship and give you an idea of the type of cabin available to you. If you want an ocean view instead of an inside cabin, or if you want to avoid rooms near the entertainment venues (avoid these ones!) the deck plan will help guide you. You’ll always have more choices on a larger ship.

5. Which cruise line should I choose?

There are SO many cruise lines to choose from! When you’re planning a first cruise, my best advice is to first check the most accessible port to you. This will narrow down your choices (unless you live in the Fort Lauderdale/Miami area)!

If you have children, the best cruise line for a first-time cruise vacation is Disney. All of the best Disney cruises will have children’s activities and babysitting services but know that Disney is more expensive than other cruise lines.

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Carnival Cruise Line is known to have the most relaxed atmosphere and is popular for spring breakers. Princess Cruise Lines, river cruises, and Holland America tend to have an older clientele. Royal Caribbean and Norwegian have a good mix of adults, seniors, and children with competitive prices. If you don’t want any kids on the ship, consider a trip with Virgin Voyages or Viking (kids must be 18 to sail).

6. Should I book a cruise with a travel agent or directly on the cruise website?

For your first cruise vacation, a safe option is to work with either cruise ship agents or travel agents. Both are great resources for information on the ship, costs, and finding discounted airline prices. A travel advisor can shop around for deals on the various cruise lines versus only knowing about one specific line like the cruise agent.

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Most cruise travel agents also travel on these cruise ships so they can give you an honest opinion about the different ships. They can also arrange for onboard credit which you can use for spa services, shore excursions, onboard activities, or eating in specialty restaurants.

If you decide to book it yourself, consider using a company like Cruise Direct that will offer deals on ships and destinations.

7. Are food and drinks included?

You will have access to food all day and all night on cruise ships, including room service! There will be restaurants and dining rooms that are free of charge on EVERY cruise ship However, most major cruise lines will also have specialty dining options like steakhouses that have a coverage charge and require reservations. Smaller ships typically have one or two restaurants for everyone to enjoy.

For drinks, you can have unlimited water, coffee, tea, milk, and either iced tea or lemonade. Soda, alcoholic beverages, and specialty drinks are NOT included. If you feel you will consume a lot of these then look into a drink package ahead of time.

8. Should I book shore excursions?

If your cruise has port days, you’ll have the option to book tours to explore once you board the ship or dock at the cruise port. These range from private guided tours or group tours through the cruise ship or private tours with a local guide. Private tours are more expensive.

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To find local guides at your scheduled ports of call, check Facebook groups which can be a wealth of information. We’ve also used companies like GetYourGuide and Viator to book trips in advance.

In our experience, some of these tours are less expensive than the cruise ship often. Many will allow you to see non-touristy parts of your cruise destination that are preferred by locals. However, if you’re not on a cruise-sponsored tour, you must make sure you arrive back on the ship on time since they may leave you behind!

9. What kind of activities and entertainment will I find on a cruise?

Expect all kinds of activities and entertainment options on a cruise for all ages! There will be casinos on many ships, bingo, dance classes, parties by the pool, bowling, exercise classes, yoga classes, water slides, rock climbing, zip lining, and miniature golf on several of the newer big ships!

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Nightly entertainment usually includes Broadway-type shows, comedians, and live music. For the more popular acts, be sure to make reservations in advance.

10. Let’s talk about tipping on a cruise

Most cruise ships will ask for a credit card once you check in. While on board, you don’t use cash and don’t have to worry about tipping. You use your room key which is linked to your credit card to pay for items that are not included.

There are usually service charges on items such as alcoholic beverages ordered at a bar or dinner and any spa services. In addition, at the end of the cruise, you’ll be expected to tip a certain amount for the general cruise staff and your cabin stewards.

Most ships now put this amount on the credit card you give at the beginning of the cruise. Visit their websites to find out how it’s calculated.

It’s usually calculated per day, so longer cruises will be a larger amount. Typically it’s over $100, but I have never had bad service, so it’s well worth it! If you have exceptional service from someone on the ship, feel free to give extra!

Have you been on a cruise or considering one? If so I hope you found this blog post helpful! Happy Cruising!