In searching for that "just right" first cruise, you've followed all the rules -- researched cruise lines, examined possible itineraries, and exchanged posts on Cruise Critic's First Time Cruisers and Ask a Cruise Question forums. You've booked your ship, selected a stateroom and picked an itinerary.
So what's next?
You'd be surprised at how many factors -- perhaps less earth-shattering but important nevertheless -- remain to be considered. Consider this "Fun Facts" a sophomore-level primer, tackling topics such as packing, getting to the ship and onboard activities. The following information will help you find the answers to any remaining questions you might have, so that you can get off to a stress-free and fun-filled start.
Booking flights: If you haven't booked the cruise line's air/sea package or, in the U.K., bought a fly-to fare, you'll need to book your own air transportation to the port unless you intend to drive. When flying in, plan to arrive by noon -- at the latest -- 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 no earlier than noon, just in case your ship is delayed clearing customs and you debark late.
Flight delays: 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; 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 may have to arrange to fly to the next port and meet the ship, possibly at your expense.
Cruise documents: Be sure to read through the information before you leave, attach the luggage tags provided to all of your bags and fill out any boarding paperwork prior to departure (some cruise line Web sites now allow you to complete some of the boarding paperwork online via their Web sites). It's also your responsibility to ascertain whether you need a visa or passport for travel, and to acquire the necessary documents prior to cruising. Hint: It's always safest to bring a passport when cruising, even if you're sailing roundtrip from the U.S.
Getting to the pier: You can purchase roundtrip transfers that get you to and from the airport and pier (these are included if you've booked an air/sea package) from most cruise lines. Note: They usually need to be booked at least 14 days in advance. Be sure to read the instructions that accompany the transfers to determine if your bags are checked directly through to the ship, or if you need to claim them at baggage claim. If you decide to drive, or take some other mode of transportation to the pier, porters will be available to help you check your luggage.
Cruise Packing 101
What to put in your carry-on bag: Unlike a hotel where people check in on varying days and at varying times, folks check in to a cruise ship en masse. As such, a ship receives thousands of pieces of luggage in a matter of a few hours, which means your bags may not arrive in your stateroom until a few hours after you've boarded. Carry-ons are key. Pack everything needed to get you and your family through dinner time -- bathing suits, cameras, medications, sandals, sunscreen, a change of clothes and toiletries, and if you're traveling with small children, enough diapers and wipes to get you through a day. This packing strategy will save you should the airline or cruise line lose your bag, as you'll have many necessities on hand.
Dress codes: Every cruise line has a specified dress code for evenings (daywear is also casual), which can change daily (check your travel documents before you pack; each day's code is listed). Typically, there's formal, which means a tuxedo or dark suit for men, and an evening gown or cocktail dress for women. Informal means jacket and slacks for men, and a dress or pant suit for women. There's resort casual (khakis for men and flowing pants outfits or skirts for women) as well as casual. The latter means open necked sport shirts for men and capri pants and summer tops for women.
Some lines have just one blanket dress code. Representing two sides of the spectrum, Norwegian Cruise Line's is so casual (though you can certainly opt to dress up) that you can wear jeans to dinner. On the other hand, SeaDream's resort casual requires a bit more fashionable approach.
Sports and baby equipment: If you are planning to snorkel or play golf or tennis, check out the ship's rental availability and rates to determine if it's worth bringing your own equipment along. In addition, some family-friendly ships now offer stroller and bouncer seat rentals; however, it's best to bring anything you absolutely need such as diapers, baby food (especially if your child has allergies), children's medications, etc.
B.Y.O.B.: Lines have a variety of policies regarding how much alcohol you can bring onboard with you (Carnival a few years back actually put a ban on bringing water onboard; it was such a ridiculous policy it was quickly abandoned). Some do allow you to bring a bottle or two of wine or Champagne, others do not. Take a look at our line-by-line roundup of alcohol policies.
Laundry: Most cruise lines offer laundry and dry cleaning services available via laundry bags in your stateroom. Some even offer self-service laundry rooms as well with coin-operated washers and dryers (and vending machines that dispense small boxes of detergent). For safety reasons, many ships ask that passengers not iron in their staterooms, and provide irons and ironing boards in a self-service area.
Cabin F.Y.I.: The majority of staterooms include standard 110-volt AC electrical outlets and hair dryers (some also have Europe's 220 volt plugs). Check your ship's specifications to determine if you need an adaptor. In all grade cabins, most cruise lines include a mini-safe. While almost all cruise staterooms have televisions, the channel selection will vary and most, save for top suites, do not include a DVD player or VCR. Lastly, a good travel alarm is handy to pack as many cabins are not outfitted with alarm clocks (you can arrange wake-up calls, however).
Tip from the boards: Cruise Critic community users have offered many good packing suggestions for first-time cruisers including: extra hangers, clothespins to keep curtains tightly shut on sunny mornings, a large insulated mug, a nightlight, an extension cord, a highlighter for highlighting the things you want to do on the ship's daily newsletter, and zip-loc bags for storing wet bathing suits and sunscreen. Lastly, be sure to keep your passport and cruise documents with you at all times while traveling (and keep them in your safe while onboard). Click here for more packing tips.
Making the Most of Embarkation Day
Explore the ship and get organized: Depending on when you board, you may not be able to access your cabin right away. Instead, grab lunch in the buffet restaurant, and be sure to book spa services, specialty restaurant reservations and popular shore excursions as soon as possible. Some cruise lines now offer pre-booking options online.
Muster/Safety drill: These drills are the adult cruiser 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 typically 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. I know -- I tried to stay behind once when my toddler son needed a nap.
Visitors at the pier: While friends and family are welcome at most piers to see you off, for security reasons only cruise passengers are allowed to board the ships. This applies at ports of call as well.
Check out the ship's daily newsletter: Want to know about the port you're about to visit, what the show times are, what lectures are being held the next day or even what the drink of the day is? It's all in the ship's newsletter which is typically slipped under your door each evening (for the next day's events). A newsletter detailing embarkation day activities will be in your cabin when you arrive.
Tip from the boards: According to Slam30, "My first two cruises, we missed sail away because we went back to the cabin after muster (drill), saw our luggage there and decided to unpack. Drag the luggage into the cabin and leave it. Get back up on deck quickly and enjoy the sights of them throwing off the lines and leaving port. There's nothing like it!"
Shore Excursions: The 411
Booking shore tours: An updated list of available shore excursions is typically available a few months before your departure. Be sure to visit your cruise line's Web site to see if reservations can be made in advance online or by phone. If so, you might want to book your top two to three shore tours in advance 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 stateroom TV.
Cruise tours vs. going it on your own: The answer largely depends on the port city, and the preference of each passenger. If you want someone else to take care of transportation, meals in many cases, and making sure you're back on the ship in time, go with one of the cruise line's organized tours. Others find they can save money by making plans directly with independent operators or prefer exploring on their own.
Tip from the boards: Ladycaveat suggests, "Check out the Port of Call boards for the islands you will be visiting to see what others say about the excursions they have taken. For the most part, booking on your own is a lot less expensive, and involves fewer people (and in my honest opinion, a lot more fun), however ... for those on a first cruise, you might feel a little more secure on a shore excursion sponsored by the cruise line."
Keeping in Touch
Phone service: Many cabins contain phones for ship-to-shore calls; however, the per-minute charges are quite costly with rates from $6 per minute on up. Most cruise lines have now made their ships cell phone friendly; while phones typically work best within sight of land, you can connect while miles out at sea. Research your carrier's policies, accessibility and roaming fees -- before you depart. Roaming rates can be high but are typically cheaper than using your ship's satellite phone service.
In an emergency: Be sure to leave friends and family the name of your ship, your itinerary and the ship's phone number if you have it (if it isn't in your cruise documents, check the line's Web site or call the reservation line for the number).
Online services: Ships now have Internet cafes enabling passengers to use computer terminals to browse the Web and send and receive e-mails. Fees are roughly 75 cents per minute, but can be greatly reduced if the ship offers a package. For example, Royal Caribbean offers a 150-minute plan for $55. In addition, many ships now offer wireless Internet cabins, either throughout the ship or at specific hotspots. Laptop rentals may be available and those bringing laptops aboard can often purchase a wireless access package. However, it's often cheaper to use Internet cafes in port.
Keeping tabs onboard: If traveling with kids or a group of pals, many passengers highly recommend bringing a supply of walkie talkies, enough for each family member. It's a great way, particularly on the bigger ships, to know that Junior's playing basketball, Dad's in the casino and Mom's in the spa.
Cashless system: Though cruises may be billed as "all inclusive," let's just say that the term is relative. There are several things not covered in your cruise fare. A few examples? Wine, beer and cocktails (unless you're sailing on a luxury line); shore tours; gift shop purchases; and spa services. In order to make payments easy, you'll receive a swipe card upon check-in (which usually doubles as your room key) for charging various items and services to an account that can be settled at the end of your trip with a credit card or cash.
Cash and currency: Many cruise lines will cash traveler's checks at their purser's desks. Note that U.S. dollars are accepted throughout much of the Caribbean and in some other regions. In Europe and Asia the ship's front office may provide currency exchange services or bring the service onboard once the ship is in port. Or, check the port facility at ports of call; some have ATM machines that will work with foreign debit cards (if they don't, a nearby town or village surely will). It is best to carry a small amount of local currency when in foreign ports for taxis and for purchases at small shops and street vendors. However, keep in mind that major credit cards are accepted in numerous places worldwide.
Tip from the boards: JacquieP advises, "With some credit cards, it is wise to notify the credit card company of where you will be going, so if they see, for example, jewelry purchases from the Caribbean, and you live in the middle of nowhere, they won't put a hold on your card."
Onboard doctors:Medical services typically consist of a physician and nurse to take care of temporary illnesses and accidents for a fee. In most cases, those with health insurance will need to pay up before debarking -- and submit their claim once they return home. Many commonly used medications are kept onboard and can be prescribed by the ship's doctor. However, it's generally cheaper to get over-the-counter medicines in port -- or better yet, bring them with you from home. If you take prescription medicine, it's a good idea to carry copies of your prescriptions with you in case your medicine gets lost or stolen.
Seasickness: Some cruise lines will provide complimentary motion sickness medicine (Bonine or something similar) to guests through their infirmary, purser's desk or room service. Cruisers have also had success with patches, which are placed behind the ear and dispense medicine through the skin, and Sea Bands, which are acupressure wristbands that press on a particular point inside the wrist associated with nausea.
Pregnancy: Restrictions vary by cruise line. Most lines do not allow passengers to sail if they will be past their 24th week when the cruise ends. A letter from your doctor is sometimes required specifying your due date.
Tip from the boards: PelicanBill suggests, "Bring all the medicines you might want if you get sick, plus a thermometer and basic first-aid materials. A visit to the nurse or doctor is very expensive."
Seating assignments: If you are sailing on a ship with assigned seating times, you'll receive confirmation of your assignment as early as before you sail to as late as when you arrive in your stateroom. If there are any problems, see the maitre d' after boarding to request a change.
Alternate options: Even if you have assigned seating, you don't have to eat in the dining room every night. There are usually several other places to dine from pizza parlors to the ship's buffet and specialty restaurants. And, of course, there's always room service, which is free on most ships.
More alternate options:
Some lines, like NCL, Princess and Oceania, offer open seating dining in their main restaurants as well as at alternative ones.
Special dietary needs: Many special dietary requests can be accommodated; be sure to discuss them with your cruise line four to six weeks prior to your departure. Note: Low-salt or low-cholesterol food requests can typically be accommodated right onboard.
Religious Services and Special Occasions
Religious services: Most cruise lines have clergy onboard for Christmas, Easter, Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; others have members of the clergy onboard during other times of the year as well. Some even offer weekly services.
Special occasions: Celebrating a birthday, honeymoon or anniversary? Offerings range from rooms decorated with streamers to specialty cakes, canapes and renewal of vows packages. Check with your cruise line for pricing information and for booking deadlines, they vary from three to six weeks prior to departure. On many lines, you can also arrange to get married onboard or in port -- you should begin the planning process for weddings as early as possible.
Of Special Note for Parents
Cabin service: If you have a child that takes a nap each afternoon be sure to speak with your room steward on the first day to make arrangements to have the cabin cleaned either before or after that time. In addition, consider bringing a white-noise or sound machine -- it makes napping a lot easier when folks get boisterous in the hall.
Baby-sitting availability: While several cruise lines offer in-cabin baby-sitting, many do not. Be sure to check your cruise line's policies along with the group baby-sitting options that might be available in the children's center. See Fun Facts: Family Cruising for detailed information on cruising with kids.
Tipping: Gratuity policies vary widely. For example, Carnival adds the suggested gratuities (roughly $10 per person, per day) to your onboard account on embarkation day. After that, you have the ability to increase or decrease the amount based on individual service by visiting the information desk. Other lines provide envelopes toward the end of the cruise for you to put cash in and distribute to the appropriate waiters and room stewards. And, on many of the luxury lines, gratuities are already included in your cruise fare. Bottom line: Be sure to check your line's policy so that you are aware of what is being charged -- and what is expected.
Settling your account: On the last evening you'll receive an itemized bill of your charges. Be sure to look it over and contact the cruise line's purser or hotel desk to dispute any charges. If all looks good, just keep the bill as your receipt; the balance will be charged to the credit card you provided. Some lines will also allow you to settle your account in cash. It's a good idea to check your onboard statement (either at the purser's desk or through an in-cabin interactive TV system) prior to the last night; queues at the purser's desk can be long on debarkation day, so if you can spot a problem and resolve it early, you will be saved the hassle of waiting in a long line.
Packing to disembark: Many cruise lines require you to pack your bags the night before you disembark and place them outside your stateroom to be collected. This procedure expedites the disembarkation process. Utilize your carry-on again for toiletries and any remaining items. And don't forget to leave out a change of clothes for the following morning so you don't have to exit the ship wearing your pajamas.
Have a specific question not answered here? Cruise Critic's message boards offer a cadre of cruise experts who are usually quick to come to the aid of a first-time cruiser. On the boards, you'll find information specific to your chosen line and even ship. Plus you can post a question of your own.
--by Christine Koubek. In addition to her articles for Cruise Critic, Washington D.C.-based Koubek has also written for Modern Bride, Frommer's Budget Travel, The Dallas Morning News, Miami Herald and The Washington Post.