If you’re planning a cruise for the first time, but are a bit unsure on how this whole cruising thing works, don’t worry! Our first time cruise tips cover everything from choosing a ship and cabin, what to pack when going on a cruise for the first time and how to budget for all the expenses involved in cruising. This is invaluable cruise information for first time cruisers!
We’ve been on several cruises on different ships, lines and itineraries so we have some great cruise advice for first timers. Read through our cruising tips for first time cruisers before you book or sail on your cruise and you’ll know everything you need to before you set sail!
What You'll Find in This Post
30 First Time Cruise Tips: Everything You Need to Know!
Choose a cruise with more port days
If you’re not sure how you’ll feel about cruising, worried you won’t like the food or think your might feel seasick onboard then choose a cruise with more port days for your first cruise. Having port days with lots of activities lined up or opportunities to get off the ship and feel more independent is a great idea for first time cruisers to ease into cruising.
Pick the best cruise ship for you
Picking the right cruise ship is a big part of deciding on the best cruise for first timers. It depends a bit on your personality, your travel style and the kind of vacation you’re hoping to have.
Going on one of the great big mega cruise ships might not be the best for people who are easily overwhelmed by crowds. Conversely, if you’re worried about what to do on those long sea days a big ship with lots of entertainment options can be a great idea. If you’re traveling as a family, pick a cruise that has a great water park or other fun attractions for kids.
You can do a tonne of research on what each cruise ship has to offer by going over the cruise ship profile on Cruise Critic and watching ship tours on YouTube.
Pick the right cabin onboard
Picking the right cabin for your first cruise is key. One of my top first cruise tips is to watch cabin tours on YouTube. It gives new cruisers an idea of the space available in the cabin, what the different cabin options are like and how much storage you have. Cabin tour videos are a great way to decide on your stateroom on board. Just search “cruise ship name + cabin type” or even “cruise ship name + cabin number” if you’re looking at a specific cabin.
Most cruise lines have options for inside, oceanview, balcony and suites. You can use Cruise Critic to read reviews from cruisers who have sailed in each cabin on board a specific ship.
- Inside staterooms have no windows but are the most affordable option. If you’re an active person who’s out and about all day and night and only in your room to sleep, then this is a great option. Likewise if you’re booking a second room for older kids traveling with you.
- Oceanview staterooms are the next step up. You get a window but it doesn’t open. It can be a small porthole or a picture window. Oceanview staterooms are usually quite affordable. They’re also on low levels on the ship which feel a bit more stable than higher levels.
- Balcony staterooms are great if you can afford them. They’re usually more spacious than inside and oceanview rooms. Sitting out on the balcony while your ship sails is lovely, day or night. On cruises where the scenery is a big part of the cruise, like in Alaska or the Panama Canal, it’s worth the splurge on a balcony.
- With suites, you get a bit more space in your stateroom but you also get extra perks like priority boarding, lounge access, dedicated dining or special receptions. It depends on the the ship you’re on. There are a whole range of suites that go from mini suites which are slightly more spacious than a balcony right up to three bedroom Captain’s suites which can fit the whole family.
Another thing that plays a factor is the location of the stateroom on board the ship. If you’re worried about how you’ll fare at sea, the cabins in the mid-ship cabins are great. There’s less movement in the middle of the ship. Also, the higher up you go, the more you’ll feel the movement of the ship. You can feel a bit more of the ships movement in the forward cabins but unless it’s really rough you won’t suffer. They’re also close to things like the spa so can be handy. Aft cabins at the back of the ship are also sort after because they’re close to amenities and less rough than the forward cabins.
Also look at what is surrounding your cabin and what’s above or below. If you’re a light sleeper you will want to avoid a stateroom below the night club, above the theater or close to the elevators. If you’re cruising with kids then picking a cabin close to the elevators or stairs is smart or near to the access for the kids club which is usually at the aft end of the ship. If you have limited mobility then close to the elevators and on the lido deck or close to the pool and buffet action is a good idea to make things easier on you on a daily basis.
Choose who to book your cruise with strategically
If you’ve never cruised before you might be wondering how to book a cruise for the first time. You’ll find that the price of the cruise does not vary based on who you book with, whether that’s the cruise line direct, an agent or a travel website. It’s more about what perks you can get when booking. Many agents or travel websites offer extras like cashback, onboard credits or prepaid gratuities to get you to book with them.
We like to use CruisesOnly as they usually have some good onboard credits available. VacationstoGo are also another good place to search for a cruise. You can also booking your cruise through travel sites like Expedia, Priceline or CruiseDirect.
If you want to pay for your cruise using Paypal, booking direct with Carnival is the only way we’ve found to do this.
Stretch your cruise dollars further with gift cards and rebates
You can use Ebates if you book your cruise through Expedia, Priceline or CruiseDirect. Ebates is a cash back site that doesn’t cost you anything to use. All you do is create an account, click through to the booking site from Ebates and you’ll get a small percentage of cash back from your purchase usually between 2% to 5%. Depending on the cabin you book that could give you a couple of hundred dollars back! If you’re not already signed up to Ebates you can get $10 for signing up using this link.
You can also buy gift cards for cruises and use them for purchases on board. You can get these gift cards at a discount if you’re a smart shopper and look for deals. If you’re an AARP member you can get a discount on cruise gift cards. Ebay and Paypal are good places to look for discounted cruise gift cards. You can also buy them at the grocery store at a discount during special promotions. Keep your eyes peeled for these deals!
Book your flights with enough of a buffer
If you’re flying in and out of port then you’ll need to allow yourself enough of a buffer for things to go wrong. It’s always best to arrive in town the night before your cruise. You never know if weather or mechanical delays will occur on your flight causing you to be late or if your luggage will go missing. It’s best to give yourself at least a day to spare at the start of your cruise. Think of it as a little bit of an extra vacation!
When it comes to booking flights home after your cruise, you can book them for the day you arrive back in port. Most cruise ships will arrive back first thing in the morning and you can be off the ship quickly, especially if you self-assist at disembarkation (i.e. carry your own luggage off the ship.) For a cruise arriving back in port at 7am, you might be off the ship by 9am and to the airport by 10am or so. That’s if everything goes according to plan! Give yourself a bit of a buffer and don’t book a flight that departs before 1pm. Make sure you check in online to avoid any long check in lines at the airport if your schedule is tight.
Of course you don’t have to get straight off the ship. If your flight isn’t til the late afternoon or evening, you could opt to disembark as late as possible and remain on the ship through breakfast until about 10am. That’s usually the last slot you have to disembark.
Prepare for queues on embarkation day
Prepare yourself for the fact that embarkation day will involve a lot of queuing. There seems to be a queue for every stage – security, check in, border patrol. Make sure you can manage your carry on luggage yourself as you’ll be stuck with it until you are able to access your cabin.
Some cruise lines operate staggered boarding times where you’re given a time slot to arrive between while others allow you to arrive at any time. It’s either better to be first or last in this case to avoid the queues.
Once you’re on board you’ll find there are also long queues for lunch at the buffet. Try and find another restaurant to eat in on board. (Or better yet, look up what your dining options are on embarkation day before you cruise!)
Getting off the ship first or last is always a good idea to avoid the crowds
Remember that you’ll have to go through border patrol on arrival back in port. This can cause lines to be long. Being amongst the first group off the ship will help make this quicker. As will being one of the last groups to get off the ship.
Hiring a porter to get you through the port terminal is also a good idea as they can often get you through lines quicker. Well worth a $10-20 tip if you’re in a rush!
Get travel insurance
One thing you must do before your cruise is purchase travel insurance. You never know what’s going to happen before or during your cruise. Good travel insurance will cover you for things like delayed or cancelled flights, lost luggage, illness and accidents.
Buy a few cruising essentials before your trip
There are a few items that I consider “cruise essentials” that will make your cruise much easier and more enjoyable. Once you buy them, you’ll have them for all future cruises.
- Waterproof phone pouch
- Lanyard for your cruise card
- Cruise luggage tags
- Highlighters for marking up your daily schedule
- Disinfectant spray or wipes for sanitizing your cabin on arrival
- Hand sanitizer
- Conditioner as it’s not provided on board
- Sunscreen for face and waterproof sunscreen spray for body
- After sun gel
- UV swim vest for kids and for adults too
- Powerstrip without surge protector
Get a feel for the cruise dress code
One of my top cruising tips for first time cruisers is to check the dress code for the cruise line you’re traveling on before you start packing. Cruise lines have different dress codes and rules, particularly to do with what you can wear to the main dining room on formal night. It’s easy to Google “cruise line name + dress code” to find this information.
Use a packing list to get organized!
Using a packing list is one of my top tips for going on a cruise for the first time. Using a packing list not only helps you decode what clothes to bring for a cruise, it helps you avoid overpacking and allows you to keep your luggage organized. We have a great first time cruise packing list here.
You can also join our Facebook group on Cruise Packing Tips to ask more questions about what to pack or what to wear on a cruise.
Tag your luggage well and use a distinctive suitcase
You’ll be able to check your suitcase in on arrival at the port. There will be porters available to take it for you. You’ll be given a cruise luggage tag to print off before your trip. While you can just staple or tape it together, it’s much better to use a plastic cruise luggage tag like this.
You won’t see your luggage again until your stateroom so make sure all valuables are packed in your carry on. Also, it’s worth noting that on the final night of your cruise you’ll need to put your luggage out into the corridor of the ship for collection. A luggage lock is a good idea. (If you can self-assist at disembarkation, taking your own luggage off, you won’t need to do this.)
Make sure you label your suitcase inside and out with your name, phone number and address. Pick a distinctive looking suitcase or add a strap or ribbon to it so you can describe it better. If your luggage goes missing you’ll have a better chance of being reunited with it.
Prepare for seasickness (even if it’s unlikely!)
Cruise ships are big, stable vessels. It’s not very likely that you’ll get seasick on a cruise. I’m very prone to motion sickness and find I’m fine on a cruise ship so long as a pick the right cabin. (See the tip above!)
I do come prepared though. My seasickness prevention essentials are Dramamine for adults and kids, Seabands and ginger chews.
Budget for gratuities
When looking at the cost of a cruise, don’t forget to budget in the mandatory gratuities. These are charged by the cruise line to cover tips for all staff on board like your waiters, busboys and cabin attendants. You’ll pay a daily gratuities rate, usually around $12-15 per passenger per day, which can be pre-paid or charged at the end of the trip. For bartenders, baristas and beauty therapists, you’ll be asked to tip them based on their service when you sign your bill.
Expect to make purchases on the ship
While cruising is marketed as an all inclusive experience there are opportunities to make purchases on board. Dining in speciality restaurants instead of the included main dining room, buying speciality coffees from the cafe on board or paying for access to onboard thermal suites in the spa are all purchases that I budget to make on the ship. For kids, you might need to spend extra money on activities like 4D movies, video game arcades, sweet shops or late night babysitting. And let’s not forget that cruise ships have onboard casinos if you’re a bit of a gambler!
To me these extra expenses are worth it because they add to and elevate the experience I have onboard the ship. Budget at least another $250 or so per adult and $100 per child for onboard purchases on a week long cruise.
Link your credit card to your cruise card or top it up with cash
You won’t need to use cash when you’re on board the ship. For services that require an additional charge, you use your cruise card which doubles as your room key and ID when getting on and off the ship.
You can link your cruise card with your credit card so all your additional drinks, spa treatments, speciality meals or casino charges go straight onto your credit card. If you do this, a hold of a certain amount (usually a few hundred dollars) will be placed on your credit card which can take a few days to return post-cruise. The day before disembarkation you’ll receive a list of the charges made to your account to check and any amendments can be made at the guest services desk.
If you’re worried about overspending on board, you can load cash to your cruise card at guest services. This is a good way of managing your spending on board and avoiding a hold being placed on your credit card. On your final day you can go to guest services and receive a refund for any cash you haven’t used.
Pack some cash for extra tipping
You’ll need a bit of extra cash in USD for any additional tipping you’d like to do. We always recommend tipping the porters who help you with you bags generously, especially if you have a lot of luggage or need extra help. It’s also a good idea to bring along some cash and tip your cabin attendant at the beginning or end of your trip. You might also like to tip your waiter on the last night if you’ve had great service throughout your cruise.
It’s nice to take a moment to remember that the people working on cruise ships work for months at a time without a day off and are often far from home and family. A tip, a nice thank you note and a chocolate bar can really make them feel appreciated for the hard work they do.
Calculate if the drinks package is worth it
All cruise lines offer a drinks package to purchase where you get free flowing alcohol for the duration of the cruise. These cost anything from $55 to $99 per person per day. All passengers over 21 in the stateroom must purchase the same drinks package so if only one of your party is a drinker then it make not be worth it. The drink prices on board cruise ships are usually quite reasonable so you have to consume quite a lot of alcohol to hit the daily cost of the drinks package.
If you’re somehow who only likes to have a cocktail or two before dinner then it’s not going to be worth it as this is only going to cost you $20 to purchase onboard. If you want to sit by the pool and drink beers all day then hit the bars and clubs onboard at night for more drinking, then you’re best off getting the package.
You can usually bring your own wine and soda onboard
Most cruise lines allow you to bring one or two bottles of wine per person or cabin on board on the first day. You can either drink these in your room or bring them along to the main dining room where your waitstaff will serve them to you. You are usually charged a corkage fee for this.
Most cruise lines also allow you to bring aboard a 12 pack of soda cans to consume these in your room. If you’re not getting the drinks package but still enjoy the odd can of soda or if you have a specific type you like this is a good idea. (Note that Norwegian doesn’t let you do this!)
It’s worth noting that cruise lines don’t let you bring your own bottled water on board, even a singular plastic bottle. You can pre-order bottled water through the cruise line when managing your cruise booking online. Or bring a refillable water bottle and just fill up your water at the buffet.
You can order as many items as you like when dining
Want two desserts? Or fancy having all appetisers instead of a main course? When you’re dining in the main dining room you can order whatever items you like from the menu. There’s not shortage of food on board so order whatever takes your fancy. If you’re new to cruising you might not realise this!
Room service is available on cruise ships
On many cruise lines you can order simple food from room service and have it delivered to you room for free (or a small delivery charge). Ordering breakfast to have in your room is great if you’re cruising with kids or if you need to get out the door early for a shore excursion.
You can book your own shore excursions
If you’re used to traveling independently, then you might be better off booking your own shore excursions instead of going on the cruise lines excursions. You can do lots of research before your trip on things to do in port, independently run tours to take or the best beaches to go to.
The cruise lines often charge quite a bit more than local tour operators for similar tours. You can book with local tour operators online before your cruise but make sure you check their rules regarding cancellations. Sometimes cruise lines need to do slight itinerary changes because of weather so there’s always a chance you won’t be in port the day of your excursion. Local tour operators will be well aware of this type of issues so check their policy first.
Sometimes just finding a great taxi driver and asking them to take you on a tour is the best idea! You should get an idea of what taxis cost in port for your destinations so you don’t get ripped off as cruise passengers can often be over charged. We have had great island tours in the Caribbean just by grabbing a friendly driver and asking for a tour.
If you do book your own excursions, you’ll need to make sure you are back to the ship in plenty of time before sail away. The ship will not wait for you if you’re late!
You don’t need your passport to get on and off the ship in ports
Keep your passport on the ship, preferably in your in room safe. You don’t need it to get on and off the ship on port days. Your ship card is all you need. If you’re renting a car or buggy on your port day you might need your license but that’s it.
Port days are great times to explore & enjoy the ship
If you’re finding it difficult to enjoy the water parks, pools or restaurants due to crowds, coming back early or skipping a port day is a great option. You’ll get to enjoy the ship with almost no one else on board.
Download the app for your cruise line
Most of the big cruise lines have a great app that you can download and use free while onboard the ship. For navigation around the ship, making reservations or even communicating with your travel party.
Put your phone on airplane mode
To avoid roaming charges on your phone, it’s a good idea to put it into airplane mode at the start of your cruise. If you’ve got a sim card or phone plan that gives you affordable roaming, by all means, use it when you’re off the ship. Google Fi sim cards are great for cruisers because they work in ports at almost every country.
Wifi on the ship is usually quite slow
Even if you do buy a wifi package or have one included in your fare, you’ll find that the wifi on board the ship is quite slow. It’s usually good enough for sending emails and messages on Facebook or Skype. You won’t have fast enough internet to do any streaming, YouTube, Netflix or video chats.
Bonus tip: If you have an iPad or iPhone you can download shows and movies from Netflix to watch offline. Great for kids or if you want to watch a series in bed each night.
Join a roll call or Facebook Group for your sailing and your ship
Join the Facebook group for your specific ship! It’s a great way to ask questions from people who have already been on board. Just type the name of the ship into the search bar on Facebook and look for any groups that pop up. Sometimes they’re ship-specific and sometimes they’re ship class specific. For example, I’m in a Facebook group for the Carnival Breeze and another group for the Jewel-class Norwegian cruise line ships. They’re both super helpful!
Joining a roll call on Cruise Critic or Facebook group for your sailing allows you to connect with other people who are going to be onboard with you. They often organize meet and greet events in the first few days of the cruise so you can get to know your fellow cruises. You can also chat through the different excursion options and find out what others have booked pre-cruise.
Prepare to get addicted to cruising!
Cruising is addictive! Your first cruise definitely won’t be your last! Sign up for the rewards program for your cruise line and look out for future sailing presentations and deals when you’re on board.
I hope you’ve enjoyed our tips for your first cruise! Got a questions about taking a cruise for the first time? If you’ve cruised before what’s your best first time cruise advice for other travelers? Leave us a comment below!
30 First Time Cruise Tips (Video)