So you want to take a cruise. And you have all kinds of questions. I’d say you are pretty normal. Cruising is different from a regular vacation, so it’s perfectly acceptable to be a little nervous when planning a cruise. But, have no fear as this post is for YOU – it will hopefully give you great information to be empowered when choosing a ship, an itinerary, budgeting, using your cell phone and so much more! I have tried my best to include everything in this post of super important tips for first-time cruisers.
So many folks cruise today because of the vacation value they find when looking at cruise prices. It’s hard to beat when you consider the all-inclusive nature of a cruise: accommodations, food, entertainment and so much more.
When you determine your actual budget for the ENTIRE trip, remember these things that you’ll need to factor in: transportation to and from the cruise terminal, the cost of the cruise, how much are gratuities (most cruise lines will tell you on their website what the tipping procedure and amounts are), alcohol, upscale restaurants (you do NOT have to eat in these restaurants – they are fabulous and in my opinion great for celebratory situations, but main dining rooms are also very good), spa treatments, port excursions, souvenirs, and casino money. You may want all of these things or only a few.
Alcohol is not included in the cruise price and typically sodas are not either. I strongly suggest deciding in advance and if it’s something you are sure you’ll want, purchase a soda pass or a beverage package. You can save a few bucks by purchasing online in advance of your sailing. Each cruise line is different, but you can get an idea of what that costs by looking at Carnival’s Cheers! Beverage Program. If you only want a drink or two a day, or less, I’d stick with ordering individual drinks. (NOTE: Alcohol is where most people blow their budgets. They underestimate what they’ll drink and forget to keep up with receipts, making that night before debarkation a rude awakening when the final bill arrives. Set your budget in advance and stick to it.)
Port excursions vary greatly in price and by port of call. You can look on the cruise line’s website to get a feel for what you might like to do and how much you should budget for it. If you are sure of what you’d like to do, you can book in advance online. If you don’t decide until you arrive, book early or you might be facing a sold out excursion. This comes from experience folks.
Port shopping is something all cruisers look forward to. There are specific things that each port of call is typically known for and knowing these things is pertinent to finding the best deals on the best purchases of these different ports. Frommer’s has a great list of what and where to buy items in the Caribbean that may be of help to you. Also, you’ll find that price haggling is an accepted practice. Islanders know that this is going to happen and therefore set their prices high to begin with. Bring along small bills as they often will either not have change or give you change in their currency. It is best to have lots of small bills. (NOTE: Beware of knock off items that are illegal to sell and purchase. Common items include purses, wallets and sunglasses.)
Most ships will have shopping talks the night before a heavy shopping port of call. There is some good information to be shared there so it never hurts to sit in on that and take in the knowledge. You can ask questions too!
Keep in mind that when the ship is in port, you’ll often find bargains on the ship itself like massages and other spa services. Oftentimes, if I’m not enamored with the port of call, I’ll stay on the ship and take advantage of having all of the amenities to myself, enjoying a poolside lounge with a frosty concoction.
Don’t get overwhelmed. Know your budget and stick to it. Also, keep in mind, ships operate on a cashless system. When you check-in, you’ll need to either give them a cash deposit or a credit card to draw against for your on board purchases. If you aren’t good with money, I strongly suggest a cash deposit. When it’s gone, they’ll cut you off and you can either add more or simply know that your spending is finished. No surprises. To me, this is one of the best tips for first-time cruisers.
Passport or Birth Certificate – which can I use to cruise
If you are traveling to and from the same domestic port, this is called a closed-loop cruise. As long as the home port is domestic, you can travel with your original birth certificate (with the raised seal) and your drivers license. If you have a passport, definitely use that instead.
I actually recommend a passport because of the limitations you’ll have with a birth certificate should you become sick or injured and need to be flown home. For example: let’s say you decide to zipline through the jungle in Mexico, break your leg and need surgery to repair and set the injury. If you don’t have a passport, you cannot fly home. Simple as that. If you decide to go ahead and get your passport, check out this post on HOW TO OBTAIN A U.S. PASSPORT for an easy online jumpstart on the procedure.
When to sail to get the best bang for the buck
Strange sounding I know, but consider this: if you have a limited budget, you’ll spend more on the cost of the cruise itself if you book during peak season or during the holidays. Basically, if kids are out of school, prices are at a premium. If you are able to cruise in late January through early March (before spring break) or October through mid-November and the first couple of weeks in December, you can get a much less expensive price on your cruise. That leaves money for excursions, specialty restaurants and other things you might have considered to be out of your budget. A travel agent can help navigate the sometimes tricky waters of booking the perfect cruise for first-timers. They are paid on commission from the cruise line, so no worries about additional fees for you to pay! They are awesome!
Research cruise lines and specific ships
Most people spend their time researching cruise lines, but not so much on specific ships. For example, I talked to a couple that had seen current commercials for a cruise line that they were sure they wanted to sail on. The commercials showed super cruiseliners with every amenity imaginable. When they looked online, they chose an older ship in the fleet because of price. They were nonetheless very disappointed once on board and realized this ship was considerably smaller and lacking in amenities that they had set their sights on. If only they had researched the specific ship to see size, amenities, dining options, etc., their trip would have been different.
Length of itinerary
People ask me all the time what length of cruise to take. For first-timers, I always say go for a shorter itinerary. Learning about the operations of the ship (muster station, dining times, daily calendars, etc.) will be fun yet overwhelming for some. And, of course, some folks are worried about whether or not they’ll have sea sickness. Starting with a three- or four-night sailing is ideal and will likely leave you ready to book a longer one before you ever get back home.
I used to think that cabin location wasn’t a big deal until I was stuck under party central for a week. Now, if you are one of those partiers, the 3 a.m. music and doors shutting as folks return to their cabins won’t bother you at all. For those people who might be traveling with small children or lots of structured activities (getting off the ship early for excursions or headed to early morning workouts/spa treatments), you might not be a fan of cabins in close proximity to certain functions. Also, where your cabin is located determines how much motion you feel. Choosing forward, aft or mid-ship placement could make a difference in how you feel if you suffer from mild sea sickness.
Check your daily activities calendar
Each evening while you are out to dinner, your cabin will magically get turndown service and a copy of the events calendar for the next day will be waiting for you. I like to look it over the night before and highlight activities that I don’t want to miss. There are some great activities that I overlooked on early cruises because I didn’t spend much time with my “homework.” Fun things you might miss include: kitchen galley tour, towel folding class (will your family be impressed if you can make a monkey out of bath towels?), cocktail mixing class, dance classes, and one of my favorites was an iPhone photography class! I learned so much from that class that I almost missed.
When you arrive at the cruise terminal, you will most likely leave your luggage with handlers and it will appear in your state room later that evening. For that reason, have a carry-on bag with a swimsuit, pertinent paperwork, medications, and a dinner outfit if you have early dining times. This way you can change and be ready for cruise fun immediately. For more packing tips, visit Packing Tips for Cruises.
Using your cell phone on a cruise
Typically in today’s society, we all have someone we need to keep in touch with back home…the office, kids, parents, someone who’s ill, etc. It used to be taboo to use a cell phone on a cruise ship. But, today cruise ships are tech savvy and offer WiFi packages that are affordable. It’s best to set your phone to airplane mode to avoid carrier charges and turn on the WiFi when you want to use it. I am usually able to communicate via texting or Facetiming over WiFi with my iPhone. Check with your carrier for specifics on your plan. (NOTE: Most ports of call will have somewhere with FREE WiFi. Often it’s a Starbucks and as long as you purchase a coffee or something, they’ll give you the code.)
Extra items I bring from home
As someone who has cruised many, many times, I have my “things” I like to bring with me now. Some are strictly for fun and some are extremely helpful. Here are some of my favorites:
- A power strip. There are never enough outlets in a state room and that always presents a problem when everyone is getting ready for dinner and at night charging laptops, phones and other things.
- I hang wet clothes over the line provided in the bathroom to dry and I can fit more items at once by using clothespins.
- Highlighters for marking up the activities and events calendar.
- A small dry erase board and marker or post it notes. I always like to check in with different family members, but it seems we miss each other often. We use this practice to leave messages for each other.
- A small sewing kit for unexpected rips, tears and buttons that fall off.
- Check the amenity list online for the ship before you leave because older ships (even ones with fantastic renovations) sometimes don’t have a hair dryer in every room.
- Plenty of sunscreen. If you run out, it is expensive in the gift shop and in port. If you do run out and have to purchase in a port, always check the expiration date before purchasing.
- A small spray room freshener because rooms are small and bathrooms are stinky.
- A gallon size ziplock baggie with pain reliever, Dramamine less drowsy formula, Imodium, Pepto, Band-Aids, baby wipes (because let’s face it, we can do anything with baby wipes and they are especially useful in port if there is no toilet paper available), chapstick, cough drops and those little packs of lemonade that you can pour into water. I throw this baggie into my shore bag also in case it’s needed.
- Hats are great for keeping that sun off your scalp (especially helpful if you have had skin cancer like myself).
- A beach bag for going ashore – something big enough to carry sunscreen, beach towels and possibly bring back souvenirs.
- Small baggies are great for sliding your cell phone into around the pool or on excursions.
Items you do NOT need to bring
It took me a while to realize I don’t use half of what I pack. Now that I am a well-seasoned cruiser, I pack what I need and very little that I don’t. You do not need to bring your own beach towels – the cruise lines provide them. Just make sure you don’t leave them ashore or forget to return them as the charges are hefty.
You do not need to bring tons of dress clothes. You don’t know most people on board and it’s not likely that anyone will notice if you wear the same pair of dress pants three nights to dinner with different tops. Don’t bring every pair of shoes you own – a couple of dress shoes, a pair of sandals/flip flops and comfy walking shoes for ports or the fitness center.
Your cruise gratuities will be billed daily to your on board account. What else will you need a tip for? I suggest taking lots of small bills to use for tipping folks like the port handler who will take your luggage from the drop off point at the terminal to your room, anyone on board that you feel made your cruise experience a little more special and for ports of call. You might purchase a drink from a lounge chair on the beach in Grand Turk and you’ll need tip money. Take an excursion in a port of call and you’ll need to tip the guide, driver, etc. Small bills are best so plan on taking several.
I hope you’ll decide to cruise and I hope these tips for first-time cruisers will help you make good choices and be informed during the planning process.
For a look at some cruise options you might like, try these:
- 5 Things To Enjoy On The Newly Renovated Carnival Fantasy
- Now Sailing – Carnival Vista
- 9 Things I Love About Royal Caribbean’s Harmony Of The Seas
- Becky’s Favorites on Norwegian Getaway
- Disney Cruise Ships – Which One Is For You