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Oasis of the Seas (Image: Royal Caribbean)

15 First Time Cruise Tips

Oasis of the Seas (Image: Royal Caribbean)
Carolina Pirola

Feb 5, 2024

Read time
12 min read

Congratulations on choosing to go on your first cruise. Now comes the fun part: Figuring out everything you want to see, do, taste and experience both on and off of your ship throughout your cruise vacation. And there's no better way to do this just right than to first consult expert-crafted first time cruise tips.

The planning stage will likely pose numerous questions, relating to shore excursions, cabin types, cabin location, drinks packages, tipping and more. In order to have the most seamless first cruise, it's helpful to gather a few cruise tips before you embark on your maiden voyage.

That's why we've compiled our decades of cruising experience to make sure that you have the first-time cruise tips you need to ace your adventure. Read on for 15 tips for travelers on their first cruise to make the most of your vacation.

1. Research Your Cruise Ports in Advance for Your First-Time Cruise

CocoCay's Thrill Waterpark (Photo: Royal Caribbean Intenational)

Everything you'll need on a cruise -- food, fun and cabins -- is neatly arranged in apps, maps on the ships and daily programming flyers delivered to your room. And while cruise lines are more than eager to market their shore excursions to you, they don't always do the best job of telling you exactly what to see or do in ports of call.

That doesn't mean you should board your ship without doing some research on your own ahead of time.

Cruise lines rarely go beyond handing out a map of the port town jewelry stores (with which they often have special business agreements). With limited time in port, it pays to hit the books before you go.

Have a rough idea of what you want to do on your cruise. If it's a port-intensive week in the Mediterranean, don't exhaust yourself by booking one tour after another.

2. But Don’t Pick a Cruise for Just One Port of Call

Cozumel Island in Riviera Maya of Mayan Mexico (Photo: Tono Balaguer/Shutterstock)

While cruise ships have set itineraries at the time you book, those are not entirely set in stone. Hurricanes, other storms and an array of other factors can mean that one or more ports on your cruise could change.

With that in mind, don’t pick a cruise based on only one port of call. Instead, find a cruise that travels across a region that you find appealing. Trust us: We’ve spent three separate voyages bobbing around Santorini when weather conditions have been too ugly to tender ashore.

3. It Pays Off to Do Your Research When It Comes to Weather on Your Cruise

Cruise ship in stormy weather (Photo: Dennis van de Water/Shutterstock.com)

In this era of ever-increasing extremes it pays to do a little weather recon before you embark on your cruise. For example, if you’re cruising in the Caribbean or the U.S. East Coast, make sure you know all about hurricane season.

Wet seasons and dry seasons are changing in parts of the world where cruises frequently travel, like Mexico, and extreme temperatures are becoming the norm especially in summer months.

You'll also want to check the weather in several ports on your trip. Just because you're cruising the Caribbean doesn't mean you'll have the same weather from one island to the next. Same goes for cruises to Alaska, the Baltics and other destinations around the world.

4. Pack With Dress Codes and Space in Mind (and Consider Only a Carry-On)

Whether you can fit clothing for an entire cruise itinerary into one carry-on bag is a source of fierce debate. But it's absolutely possible and, until airlines stop losing luggage, may be your safest bet to making sure you have clothing for the duration of your cruise. Check out our tips on packing before you try to cram your life into a small suitcase.

Travel logistics aside, though, cruise ship rooms (and even cruise ship bathrooms) aren't known for having tons of floor space or storage space. You'll want to think twice about overpacking, especially if you're maxing out the capacity of a standard room.

Every cruise line has a specified dress code for evenings (daywear is always casual), which can change daily. Traditionally, there's formal, which means a tuxedo or dark suit for men, and an evening gown or cocktail dress for women (although we're finding that fewer people dress to the nines these days).

Informal means jacket and slacks for men, and a dress or pantsuit for women. Resort casual (khakis for men, no jacket or tie, and nice pants outfits or relaxed skirts or dresses for women) is the dress code for most nights on many lines nowadays. And some nights are truly casual, with jeans and even shorts permitted in dining venues.

Be sure to check your cruise documents closely and take note of the dress codes, then pack appropriately with that in mind.

5. Pick a Cruise Cabin That Works for Your Personal Needs

The Penthouse Suite on Celebrity Edge

Sure, everyone wants a suite, but the best cabin onboard is the one that fits your budget and your vacation needs.

If you can afford it, don’t pick an inside cabin with no window just because it’s the cheapest; consider where you’re headed and the length of your cruise, and let that be your guide.

If you’re headed for a warm-weather destination, a balcony cabin is great for sun-worshippers -- and probably useless for those who prefer to stay away from the heat of the day. If you haven't booked your cruise yet, it's worth checking out our complete guide to choosing a cruise ship room.

6. Research Cruise Line Drink Packages and Buy Before You Set Sail

The Land Of Hop and Glory drink at the Commodore Club on Queen Mary 2 (Photo: Aaron Saunders/Cruise Critic)

A drink package can save you money and hassle when you’re sailing, so if you're looking to really get into vacation mode it pays to buy a drink package before setting foot on the ship. You’ll likely save money, as cruise lines often discount those packages ahead of time.

Do your research when purchasing a cruise line drinks package, though. There are often several options, some just including soft drinks, some are for kids and others include everything from specialty tea and coffee to wines, beers and spirits. Some are more restrictive, too, only including certain drinks, brands or varieties.

If this is your first cruise, you will want to know that you can't have one person in your party sign up for a package and provide drinks for the rest. If there are two adults sharing a cabin, you’ll both need to purchase the same package.

7. Understand Service Charges on Your Cruise Ship to Avoid Tipping Double on Alcohol

Tropical drink on the pool deck (Photo: Cruise Critic)

It’s easy to get lost when trying to understand tipping policies if it’s your first time on a cruise. Most big-ship lines -- Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian and others -- automatically add a service charge onto bar bills. Unless the service was spectacular, there's no need to add another tip on top.

For more detailed information about cruise line tipping policies, peruse our guide to cruise line tipping policies on the most popular big-ship lines.

8. Book Flights with Times that Anticipate Delays

If you haven't booked the cruise line's flight-inclusive air/sea package, you'll need to book your own air transportation unless you intend to drive to the port.

When flying in, plan to arrive as early in the morning as possible on embarkation day. The day before is even better. The reason: You need to factor in possible flight delays and other transportation glitches that could keep you from getting to the pier on time.

The same advice goes for the flight home -- book flights in the afternoon, just in case your ship is delayed clearing customs and you disembark late.

If your flight is delayed, let airline personnel know immediately that you're a cruise passenger scheduled to set sail that day so they can try to accommodate you on another flight.

Then be sure to contact your cruise line as soon as possible and let them know about the delay. Cruise lines offer a toll-free emergency number to call on the day of travel, so make sure you have it on hand.

In some cases, though not many, when several passengers are delayed, a ship's departure might be postponed. In other cases, you might have to arrange ground transportation or fly to the next port and meet the ship, almost certainly at your own expense if you've booked your flights independently of the cruise line.

9. Choose Your Shore Excursions Carefully, Either Through the Cruise Line or Not

Kayaker in Alaska (Photo: Holland America)

Cruise ships offer shore excursions, essentially tours that take place in each port. An updated list of available shore excursions is typically available at least six months before your scheduled departure; some cruise lines make shore excursions available immediately upon booking, even if the sailing date is further out still.

If so, you might want to book your top two to three (if not all of your) shore tour picks in advance (online or by phone) since many popular ones do sell out. Shore excursions can also be booked onboard through the ship's shore excursion desk and, in some cases, via the cabin TV or cruise line app.

With most cruise lines, you’ll pay extra for these. While purchasing these tours through the cruise line means everything will be handled for you, costs can be steep.

If you want to save a little money, book independent shore excursions. Just make sure your excursion fits with your time in port. If you’ve joined a Cruise Critic Roll Call, passengers often book independent tours together. Just note, if you are delayed returning to the ship on a cruise-purchased shore excursion, the ship will wait. If you booked independently, it won’t.

10. Board Your Ship As Soon As You Can on Embarkation Day and Take a Ship Tour

Eri Vincent, Sasha Sydnor, Carlos Martinez and Micah Ramos relax on a catamaran. (Photo: Naima Green/AIPP)

Book your boarding time online as soon as you’re able to before your cruise. You’ve paid for that first day on your ship, so aiming at the earliest boarding time means you can maximize your vacation time. The ship is up and running on embarkation day, with the pool deck in full swing. Grab lunch in a quiet spot, sit by the pool and order a drink of the day.

You won’t have access to your room right away, so pack your swimsuit in your carry-on, and change in one of the public restrooms.

It can also be helpful to get a lay of the land shortly after you board so that you can truly understand where your cabin is located relative to public venues.

Some cruise lines offer special ship tours on the first day. It's a good idea to join one of these; you'll get to know the ship and a bit about how it functions. This will allow you to navigate from pool to cabin to restaurant to theater via other venues with ease during your cruise holiday.

If joining a ship tour is not your cup of tea, head to the highest deck that speaks to you and work your way down the ship, walking the main public areas on all decks.

If you have already figured out how to plan a cruise and are now worried about not finding your way around the ship, sift through Cruise Critic's ship reviews, which offer expert cruise tips on how deck plans are arranged.

11. Do the Muster Drill, Don't Go to the Buffet on Embarkation Day

Garden Cafe on Norwegian Bliss

Cruise ship safety drills -- called muster drills -- are the adult cruise version of school fire drills, where passengers and crew practice the steps they'd take in an emergency situation, such as putting on life jackets and assembling in assigned areas.

The drills usually take place just before the ship sets sail. Your attendance is mandatory, and you should take it seriously. Be forewarned, crew members do come around to check that people are not still in the cabin.

After completing your muster drill, you'll likely notice how hungry you are because of how long embarkation day is -- but so have others. This means throngs of hungry people make a mad dash to the cruise ship buffet.

On many ships you'll find the main dining room or other dining venues open during the day on embarkation day. Check your app for opening hours or head to guest services to find out your options for embarkation day dining if you're seeking a little peace and quiet.

12. Join a Roll Call on Cruise Critic to Meet Fellow Travelers

Friends share drinks at a nightclub on a Cunard cruise ship. (Photo: Cunard)

Cruise Critic's Roll Calls are the perfect place for cruisers to meet ahead of their cruise.

Sign up for your specific cruise, and we guarantee you’ll make friends with your fellow travelers and learn tips from seasoned cruisers. We hear stories all the time about lifelong friendships that started on our Roll Call pages.

If you’re traveling alone or want to meet people during your trip, check out our guide to making friends on a cruise.

13. Gander at Your Cruise Daily Planner, Who's Your Best Friend for All Things Fun

Costa Fascinosa Balcony Cabin (Photo: Costa Cruises)

Cruise lines put out a calendar each day -- either a paper that's left in your cabin in the evening or electronically via their app (or both). This is your all-important guide on how to spend your day. Daily planners are loaded with onboard activities and things to keep you busy, from dance classes to trivia and theater shows.

Many apps allow you to save items to your calendar and will even push a reminder to your phone. If you have a paper planner, a good old-fashioned highlighter will help you keep it straight.

Evening shows are often offered twice each day, so you can attend the one that fits your schedule best.

14. Make Sure You Understand the Hidden Costs Outside Your Cruise Base Fare

The Spa on Celebrity Edge (Image: Celebrity Cruises)

On any cruise that isn't all-inclusive (and some that are), you're likely to spend a fair bit of money during your holiday. Extras might include your bar bill, spa treatments, any excursions booked onboard, anything you buy in the shops and specialty restaurant fees.

While surcharges such as spa treatments and items purchased at the onboard shops may be obvious to some, other hidden extra fees may be more difficult to imagine when it’s your first time on a cruise. These could include fitness classes, access to adult-only sun decks, corkage fees and gratuities. Make sure you know what your base fare includes before you book.

15. Cruise Internet May Be Expensive, but It's also Likely Slow

Connecting at Sea: Internet and Phone Use Onboard (ID: 45) (Photo: tolotola/Shutterstock)

If you’ve purchased an internet package to use on your cruise (which was undoubtedly pricey), don’t be surprised if your surfing is slow, especially on older ships. While some cruise lines have invested heavily in giving you a land-fast internet experience, others have not.

If you find you're experiencing slow internet, look for routers strategically placed throughout your ship, then sit yourself near them. These will usually be on the ceiling, often in hallways or near entrances of big public spaces. You’ll often get a better signal when you are closer to the routers. Read our guide to cruise ship Wi-Fi for more details on internet at sea.

Updated February 05, 2024
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