Planning to go on your first cruise and not sure where to start? Don’t miss this handy first time cruise guide – packed with tips and advice on what to expect, how to prepare and mistakes to avoid.
So, you’re going on your first cruise? OMG I am so excited for you!
I’ve just come back from my very first cruise on the shakedown voyage of Princess Cruises’ brand-new ship Sky Princess and it was a totally unforgettable experience.
As it was my first cruise, I wasn’t sure what to expect AT ALL.
The week before I left found me was scouring the internet for first time cruise tips, hassling those of my friends who’d been on them (you guys know who you are, I’m endlessly grateful) and generally in a bit of a tizz about whether I’d get something horribly wrong and reveal myself as the cruise-y newbie I absolutely was.
Can you relate even just the tiniest bit? Bet so.
Settle in folks, here are the first time cruise tips to get you set up for your time on board the ship.
First Time Cruise Tips
Which is the Best Cruise to Book For Your First-Time?
Location vs Duration
Location-wise, I don’t think there’s a better or a worse destination for your first time cruise, but what I would say is that you should book a relatively short cruise so that you can make up your mind about whether cruising is for you before you commit to a longer trip. Also, check out this post on cruise destinations for families if you are travelling with children.
Don’t get me wrong, I have a sneaky suspicion that you are going to love being on a cruise (did someone say delicious food, sunbathing on deck and musical performances?) but you just don’t know until you go.
I went on Princess Cruises’ shakedown cruise of the new Sky Princess, which was a five day trip starting in Trieste, Italy and finishing in Athens, Greece. We had one port day in Kotor and two sea days.
While I was totally sad to leave, when we got to Athens, I’m glad that my first cruise trip was relatively short because now I’m totally confident enough to book a longer one.
I would also take a moment to say that I really enjoyed cruising with Princess – I think their new OceanMedallion technology makes every aspect of cruising so much easier than it would otherwise be. It does away with long waits to get on or off the ship and helps them provide a stellar level of service. Overall, I couldn’t have been happier that my first cruise was onboard their new ship.
The Right Type of Cruise
A lot of whether you enjoy your time on board a cruise starts and ends with whether you’ve booked the right cruise.
Some cruises are very family-focused, others are for the party animals, while some have a super-luxury focus. Be sure to look at what type of cruise you should expect and that you’re comfortable with it before you book.
What to Do Before a Cruise?
Be Sure That You Understand What’s Covered
Understanding what’s covered by your cruise is crucial for helping you to feel comfortable during your cruise experience.
You should be sure you know exactly what your money is (and isn’t) paying for before you book, but if you have already booked and you’re not sure, do some homework before you get on the ship.
What’s included really does vary from ship to ship and company to company but I was hugely surprised by what was included in my Princess Cruises experience.
I’d assumed that only the buffet restaurant would be included and all others would incur a surcharge – wrong. I’d also thought that room service would all be chargeable – wrong. That I’d have to pay for eating at the ship’s snack bars (you could get pizza by the slice om nom nom) – you guessed it… wrong.
On the other hand, many cruises don’t include unlimited alcohol, and charge for wifi access, so you could be in for a nasty surprise if you thought otherwise.
Follow the Instructions Sent by the Cruise Company Prior to Embarkation
Different cruise companies have different systems in place for getting passengers ready for their time onboard – so be sure to check the instructions that they send you to make your cruise experience as easy as possible.
Princess Cruises use nifty technology on board their ships called an OceanMedallion – essentially it meant that you could use your personal medallion to pay for items, embark and disembark from the ship, book entertainment and much more.
It was brilliant, made even more so by the fact that I could fill in all the required forms on Princess’ website and the special MedallionClass App before the cruise, then simply pick up the OceanMedallion as I embarked. No queueing, no filling out forms, no complicated baggage instructions, it was all done ahead of time.
Lesson? Pay close attention to the emails and information that the cruise company tell you as it will make your life a lot easier in the long run.
Pick The Location of Your Cabin
You’re given a number of options when you book your cruise – one of them being what kind of cabin you want (interior / exterior with balcony etc). That’s the one that people pay the most attention to, but choosing where your cabin is located is just as (if not more) important, particularly if you get sea sick easily.
You want to be aiming for the middle of the ship and on a middle deck for the smoothest ride – this is the location where you’re least likely to feel the ship movements. Make sure you check out this post on how to avoid seasickness.
Try and avoid cabins next to high-traffic areas like lifts or bars too as they can be noisy.
Check Whether Your Travel Insurance Includes Cruise Cover
It took me by surprise that my annual travel insurance didn’t include cruises as standard and I had to pay a supplement to add it to my policy. Don’t get caught out by the same issue.
Cruise-specific insurance covers things like missing re-embarkation at a port or helping you join a cruise if you miss embarkation because of flight delays or bad weather.
If you have annual travel insurance, check whether you are covered for cruises. If you don’t have insurance, be sure to buy a policy that covers cruises and for the whole duration of the trip.
Plan Your Port Days
One of the things that I find most appealing about cruises is the opportunity to get a taste of several different destinations during the course of one trip – it would be a shame not to make the most of that during your holiday.
Your cruise company will provide you with a detailed itinerary covering which ports you will be stopping in, on which days and for how long – then you can either plan your time to explore independently or book a shore excursion with the cruise company.
Shore Excursions vs Independent Port Days
There are advantages and disadvantages to both and really, it will ultimately come down to personal preference.
With shore excursions you don’t have to do any planning – simply meet at the predesignated time and they’ll make sure that you get back on board in time for re-embarkation.
The downside to this is that they’re generally relatively expensive, plus you’re limited in terms of what you cover, where you eat etc to whatever is included in that particular excursion, with very little scope to explore on your own.
Obviously, going independently means it’s completely up to you what you do while the ship’s in port but you will need to spend some time planning this and also it’s your responsibility to make sure that you’re back on the ship in time.
You can also take the middle road and book a private guided tour with an independent operator or a private tour shore excursion from the cruise ship company. If you do it independently, you’ll need to be very clear about what time you need to get back into port to be sure you don’t miss the ship.
Check With Your Mobile Phone Provider to Find Out Roaming Charges for Port Days (and Turn Off Roaming the Rest of the Time)
I would recommend turning off roaming while you are on-board the ship and only using wifi so you don’t get charged for accidentally using mobile data while you’re at sea.
You will also want to check roaming charges for the different ports with your mobile phone provider.
Obviously, this will totally depend on whether you are planning to use mobile internet when you’re in port but if you are, make sure you know the roaming charges before you start using up data or making phone calls like it’s going out of fashion. You’re likely to be moving between several countries during the course of a cruise and the fees can add up.
What to Pack for Your First Cruise?
I’m not going to go into a huge amount of detail here as, in true Barnaby style, I’m planning on writing a specific cruise ship packing list that will go through everything you need step-by-step (you might have noticed that detail is my jam and this piece is long enough already).
Here are a couple of pointers to get started with though.
Bring Everything You Need for the First Couple of Hours in Your Carry On
When you get onto a cruise, you will check in your luggage separately. Ours turned up really quickly (it was already waiting for me in my stateroom when I got back from the intro at the muster station) but it can take a little while.
Make sure you have what you need for the first couple of hours with you in a carry on, as well as any essentials like medication and passport (doh)… maybe a swimsuit too? Heaven forbid you have to wait for your luggage to turn up before you can get into the pool.
Pack Sea-Sickness Tablets
There are few things that will put a damper on your first cruise like suffering from sea-sickness. Although cruise ships are well-equipped to deal with choppy waters, if it gets bad even the most seasoned cruise passengers can get seasick.
You should certainly bring sea sickness tablets if you’re generally sensitive to motion but to be honest, I’d advise bringing them even if you have a stomach of steel. Better safe than sorry.
Formal Attire for Formal Night
Many cruise ships have formal night – when guests are encouraged to dress up for dinner (some of these are mandatory). Don’t be a rookie and leave your formal clothes at home. At least check whether there will be a formal night before you start packing.
Different ships use different voltages for their power outlets, in addition to using different plug sockets. Check whether you’ll need to bring an adapter with you – they’ll sell them on the ship but they’ll be more expensive.
Cruise Advice for First Time Cruisers – Tips to Help You Ace Your Time Onboard the Ship
Most Ships Don’t Use Cash Onboard
I mentioned that I used Princess Cruises’ cool OceanMedallion during our trip aboard the Sky Princess. While the medallion had several uses, one of them was enabling me to pay for items onboard the ship.
Paying for drinks, spa treatments and (in my case) a new lipstick was simply a matter of tapping the medallion and being charged for the final bill at the end of the cruise.
While different cruise companies use different technology, most of them are cashless. It makes life a lot easier but you should make sure you understand when they will charge you, what to do if you dispute any charges on your account and generally how it will work on your specific cruise.
Attend the Sail Away Party
Attending the sail away party is one of my sneakiest first time cruise recommendations… Why?
Well, first of all, the sail away party is brilliant – partying on deck as the ship pulls out of harbour is the perfect way to start your cruise experience.
Even better, the sail away party often features some of the different acts and entertainment you’ll find onboard the ship throughout the rest of the cruise, so gives you an idea of what you should 100% be making time for in your calendar.
Skip a Port Day if You Want Some Quiet Time on the Ship
Everyone troops offboard on days when the ship is in port, so if you really want to feel like you have the ship to yourself, snag that difficult to book a spa treatment or just have some quiet time, consider skipping a port day and staying onboard instead.
Explore the Ship!
Cruise ships often have countless restaurants and bars, so don’t just keep going to the same old restaurant because you tasted a dish you really liked. When else are you going to get the chance to try loads of different restaurants at little to no extra cost? Point taken.
I’ll admit I don’t always take my own advice, I went to Sky Princess’s Ocean Terrace sushi restaurant about 3 times in five days because the sushi was so good. Do as I say, not as I do peeps.
First Time Cruise Mistakes You Should Avoid
Not Making the Most of the Onboard Activities
There are generally lots of activities going on each day on a cruise ship and, while I wouldn’t advise you run yourself ragged trying to cover them all, it would also be a shame not to give a couple a try.
Case in point? I reluctantly went along to Princess’ Rock Opera thinking that as I’m not a huge fan of musicals it wouldn’t be for me. Well, either I hadn’t been paying enough attention to the info, or I just have no concept of my own likes and dislikes but safe to say, Rock Opera ended up being one of the highlights of my trip, and it was included in the fare too!
Forgetting to Manually Change The Time on Your Phone
This is a first time cruise mistake I personally got caught out by so I’m speaking from experience here. You pass through different time zones on a cruise, but it’s not necessarily done in tandem with the natural alignment of the time zone.
Don’t worry about it, the cruise liner will tell you about it in advance and you’ll generally receive a couple of reminders the night before but it’s really important to manually set your phone to the correct time.
What you totally shouldn’t do is what I did and leave your phone to auto-update as chances are it will change at the wrong time and you could end up missing your spa treatment as you blithely read a book *yes, this totally happened to me*.
Missing the Re-Embarkation Time on a Port Day
We’ve all seen those videos of people running after the ship, a look of sheer terror and mortification on their face as it slowly pulls out of the harbour.
Don’t be one of those people – double, then triple-check what time you need to be in port and then get there even earlier 🙂
Leaving it Until the Last Minute to Book Shore Excursions
Cruise ships are big y’all and shore excursions can book up quickly. If you’re set on going on a particular shore excursion then book it as soon as possible (preferably before you get onto the ship) to avoid disappointment.
This doesn’t just apply to shore excursions either – book spa treatments, experiences and anything where there’s a limited number of slots as far in advance as possible.
Park in the Port
It’s almost guaranteed to be more expensive to park in the port than it will be elsewhere. Check whether there’s a (secure) parking spot within a comfortable distance (you might want to consider an Uber or taxi) and park there instead.
Booking Your Flight to Arrive too Close to Sailaway
I totally understand the temptation to book your flight to arrive as close to sailaway as possible – you don’t want to have to pay for a hotel room, you don’t want to waste a day’s precious holiday… all good reasons right?
Flip it around though – are they good enough reasons to make you want to deal with the stress of missing your cruise because your flight was delayed. Guessing the answer is no. Leave plenty of time between your scheduled arrival time and sail away – I’d advise arriving the day before but I know that’s not always an option – but I cannot emphasise the plenty enough.
Always remember the video of that man running after the cruise and use it to guide you through your cruise-taking decisions like a jedi tapping into the force.
First Time Cruise – Frequently Asked Questions
How Much Should I Tip on a Cruise?
Generally it’s recommended you tip 15-20% on cruises but be aware that many cruise liners automatically add tips to your bill to save you the hassle of working it out. You’re always welcome to tip more but there’s no need to “double tip” if they’ve already added it to your bill.
Can I Bring Alcohol Onboard a Cruise Ship?
This is one that will totally depend on the cruise company and the destination you are embarking in. Check on the FAQs section of the company’s website or in your onboarding documents – it will be in both.
Are Cruises All-Inclusive?
Generally the answer to this is no – you will have to pay for your alcohol, meals in speciality restaurants, spa treatments, certain activities and shore excursions at the very least.
There are some luxury cruise lines that offer all-inclusive options, but make sure you check exactly what’s covered and what you will need to pay for before you book.
Handy Lingo to Help You Onboard the Ship
- Bow – Front of the ship
- Stern – Back of the ship
- Port – Left side of the ship when you’re facing the front (bow)
- Starboard – Right side of the ship when your facing the front (bow)
- Muster Station – The location you will need to assemble in in case of an emergency. You are shown your muster station and given a demonstration what to do in an emergency before the cruise sets off.
- Deck Plan – a plan of the ship. On Princess you could find the deck plan on each level by the lifts and also in our Princess MedallionClass app.
- Sea Day – Days when the ship is fully at sea and you don’t stop in a port.
There we are – a handy guide packed with information for first time cruisers. I hope that this covers off any questions you had – all that’s left for me to say is enjoy your trip and have a fabulous time.
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I was hosted by Princess Cruises on the Sky Princess shakedown cruise. As ever, all thoughts and opinions are all mine – like Gollum and the ring.