Updated January 8, 2020
Congratulations on booking your first cruise. If you're looking for some advice and tips to make the experience that much better, who's more qualified than first-time cruise travelers who've just returned from their first voyages?
What they didn't know -- and learned about the hard way -- about packing, cocktails, ports and dining are all top of mind. But just as valuable are the insights offered by the long-time cruiser, a grizzled ocean vet who knows the decks bow to stern. We've gathered top tips from both parties -- three from first-timers and three from stalwart seagoers.
1. Research Ports in Advance
On a cruise, everything you'll need -- food, fun, cabins, ports -- is neatly arranged. Your only job is to fork over the credit card, right? Well, not exactly. Andy, an experienced cruiser, cautioned about "cruising blind," especially when it comes to the destination. Said Andy: "Read as much as you possibly can before your cruise ... otherwise you might end up in a decent-sized port [especially in Europe], overwhelmed and without the slightest clue of what to do for the next eight hours." In terms of port info, lines rarely go beyond handing out a map of the town jewelry stores (with which they often have special business agreements). So with limited time in port, it pays to hit the books before you go. And even if you've booked an excursion, after that three-hour snorkel trip, you might find yourself with several hours to kill.
2. Don't Tip Double on Alcohol
Bruce, "a former Navy guy who can't swim," and his wife, Cindy, learned this on their first cruise, which was a honeymoon trip for the Sarasota-based couple: "You're already automatically paying gratuities when you buy a drink at the bar. Now I don't mind tipping ... but I was handing out an extra dollar for drinks without even knowing it!"
Indeed, most big-ship lines -- Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian and others -- automatically tack a 15 percent service charge on to bar bills. Unless the service was spectacular, there's no need to add another tip on top. Learn more about gratuities in our piece on cruise line tipping policies.
3. Be a Smart Packer
Meg, sailing on her first cruise, made a few important discoveries during her introduction to cruise travel, one of which involved a heavy downpour during a port call in Roatan, Honduras. Unless things get particularly dicey, shore excursions will run, rain or shine. Back on the ship, it was clear to see that Meg wasn't alone in getting soaked to the bone (or being forced to improvise with garbage bag ponchos, as other cruisers did). The tropical Caribbean climate is mercurial, so high on our list -- and now hers -- of must-pack items is a lightweight, waterproof jacket or poncho.
For a broader look at what to pack on your upcoming cruise, check out Cruise Critic's Cruise Packing 101 story.
4. Work Off the All-You-Can-Eat Buffet
Being an independent traveler type who's visited six continents, Rich only recently went on his first cruise. Like many first-timers, he had heard about passengers staying well fed. But how can cruisers balance the intake -- multiple lobster tails, cream sauces, molten chocolate cake -- with health concerns? "Take the stairs instead of the elevator for a little exercise," says Rich. We definitely concur. Considering the flights of stairs on a 15-deck cruise ship, all that climbing will help to keep off the extra pounds. If exercise is your thing, hit the ship's gym or sign up for a cycling or Boot Camp class to more quickly burn off those extra-large buffet meals.
Don't like to exercise? We've got more tips on how not to gain weight on a cruise.
5. Avoid the Buffet on Embarkation Day
While debarkation day certainly ranks as the worst day of the cruise, embarkation day is a close second. For many, it starts with an early morning jolt out of bed, continues with a lengthy sojourn to the port, and concludes with lots of thumb-twiddling in a bleak, amenity-free terminal. All this pre-cruise time makes the soon-to-cruise hungry. And once onboard, the mad dash to the buffet begins. Ottawa native Sheila, a cruise vet, offers a solid tip for those looking to avoid the famished throngs during embarkation day: Bypass the buffet or pool grill, where the masses gather, and head to a dining room for some peace. One note: Not every line opens its dining rooms for lunch on embarkation day.
6. Design a Ship Tour for Embarkation Day
For a first-timer, the prospect of navigating a 3,100-passenger, 15-deck mega-ship can be daunting. Kathy, a California resident who's been on seven cruises, has a novel solution. A few days before embarkation, she creates her own ship tour, gathering information on the whereabouts of lounges and alternative restaurants from cruise ship deck plans, message boards and ship reviews. So, while others wander aimlessly on their first day aboard, Kathy, husband in tow, tours the ship like an old pro.