So my first cruise -- a weeklong Bermuda cruise sailing on Norwegian Dawn -- wasn't perfect (credit the rain, a couple lackluster shows and several canceled activities), but it was pretty great. It took me a couple days to figure out how to make the most of my time onboard. As the days progressed and I learned the lay of the ship, my experience improved exponentially. I might have thought I knew a lot about cruising, but until you actually experience a cruise … well, you experienced cruisers know what I mean. So what did this first-time cruiser learn?
Don't overdo it your first day onboard. Most mainstream cruise ships are bigger than you think -- even if they're not among the largest afloat. Most modern ships are composed of deck upon deck of cabins and public spaces and can accommodate thousands of people. The last thing you want to do is wear yourself out trying to unearth every nook and cranny of the ship before your vacation is even underway. It's easy to want to see and do it all on the first day, but avoid the temptation.
Don't try to eat at every specialty restaurant. Most major cruise lines have made a habit of building multiple for-fee specialty restaurants into newer ships, and while these restaurants can be fantastic, you could end up shelling out a fistful of cash by the time your cruise commences. Plus, you risk missing some of the special items found in the ship's main dining room. During my cruise, I was in such a hurry to start trying out the specialty restaurants that I neglected to realize that Night No. 1 was lobster night in the MDR. I was so sad to miss it -- and those passengers raving about the quality didn't help.
Don't think you're too cool to participate in corny cruise activities. Sure you can sit in your cabin all day or loaf about on the pool deck, but the real fun comes when you dip your toe in the cheesy cruise waters. No, I won't sing karaoke, and bingo is not really my thing, but I found that even playing spectator at some of these events resulted in gut-busting good times. And don't forget, cruising's much better when you meet new people -- and these cruise line organized activities are the best way to do so.
Don't stay in your cabin for hours at a time. While a few short naps are nice (especially if you have a balcony to veg on), if you spend too long of a stretch in your cabin, you're sure to miss some fun onboard activities. It took me a couple days to realize I was missing things like movies on the big screen, trivia sessions and game shows like "Battle of the Sexes." When cruising, there's something going on every hour of the day, and the only way you're going to have the best time possible is to venture out of your cabin and get involved.
Don't forget to be nice to the crew. These guys and gals work hard for your enjoyment. Remember to smile at them and thank them for their hard work. You'll be rewarded with personalized service and great conversation. It was awesome to have crew members addressing me by name and stopping in the halls to chat me up at every turn. Be sure to set the right tone from the beginning, and your effort will surely be reflected in your experience.
• Want more tips? Check out Cruise Critic's 13 mistakes to avoid on your first cruise.
--By Shayne Rodriguez Thompson, Cruise Critic Contributor