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, such as packing, getting to the ship and life onboard. The following first-time cruise tips and cruise 101 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 to your first-ever vacation at sea.
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If you haven't booked the cruise line's flight-inclusive air/sea package, you'll need to book your own air transportation to the port unless you intend to drive. 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 debark 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; 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.
Be sure to read through the information before you leave, attach your luggage tags (either sent to you through the mail or printed out on a computer) to your bags and fill out and print out any online boarding forms prior to departure (usually available up to three days before sailing). It's also your responsibility to ascertain whether you need a passport and any visas 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 round trip from the U.S. when a driver's license and birth certificate will do.
Getting to the pier:
You can purchase round-trip 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. 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. While transfers are an easy option, taxis and shuttles are often cheaper, especially if you're traveling in a group. 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 when you arrive for check-in.
Cruise Packing 101
What to put in your carry-on bag:
Unlike a hotel where people check in on different 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 might 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 -- ID and documentation, wallets, bathing suits, cameras, medications, sandals, sunscreen, a change of clothes and toiletries, and if you're traveling with small children, enough diapers, wipes and diversions 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.
Every cruise line has a specified dress code for evenings (daywear is always casual), which can change daily. (Check your travel documents before you pack; each evening's code is usually listed.) 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.
Some lines will request two or three different evening dress codes per cruise, meaning travelers really have to pay attention to the schedule when packing. Others 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 code requires a bit more fashionable approach. While you can leave the suits and gowns at home, the line asks that you reserve jeans, shorts and flip-flops to daytime hours only; evenings are better suited to slacks and collared shirts for gents and pantsuits, dresses or skirt/blouse combos for the ladies.
Sports and baby equipment:
If you are planning on activities like snorkeling or playing 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, while all family-friendly ships carry portable cribs and high chairs (some also offer stroller rentals), it's best to bring anything you absolutely need such as diapers, baby food (especially if your child has allergies), children's medications, etc.
Lines have a variety of policies regarding how much -- if any -- alcohol you can bring onboard with you; some have even moved to prohibit passengers from bringing nonalcoholic beverages aboard their ships, in an effort to thwart guests from smuggling in alcohol in decoy beverage containers. Some do allow you to bring a bottle or two of wine or Champagne, others (like MSC or Costa) do not. Take a look at our line-by-line roundup of alcohol policies.
Most cruise lines offer laundry and dry cleaning services available via laundry bags in your stateroom; just be forewarned that such services can be pricy. Some even offer self-service laundry rooms, as well, with token- or coin-operated (or on luxury lines, free) washers and dryers (and vending machines that dispense small boxes of detergent). For safety reasons, most ships ask that passengers not iron in their staterooms, and provide irons and ironing boards in a self-service area.
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. Some of the newer ships also outfit their cabins with additional USB outlets. Either way, it's smart to bring a power strip equipped with USB plug-ins, too, since cabin outlets can be limited and those laptops, iPhones and cameras will surely need charging. Most cruise lines include a mini-safe in every cabin. While almost all cruise staterooms have televisions, the channel selection will vary; some lines also offer passengers DVD players or movies on demand. 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: clothespins to keep curtains tightly shut on sunny mornings, magnetic clips and hooks to stick to cabin walls, 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 Ziploc 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). Want more packing tips?.
Making the Most of Embarkation Day
Explore the ship and get organized:
Depending on when you board, you might 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. Most cruise lines also offer pre-booking options online ahead of your voyage, to save you these steps on busy embarkation day. A top-to-bottom tour of the ship can help familiarize you with where things can be found onboard; ask at reception for a pocket-size map of the ship.
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.
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. (The exception is a handful of luxury lines that do have a visitors program.) 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, which dining venues are open when, what lectures are being held or even what the drink of the day is? It's all in the ship's newsletter, which is handed out when you check in (or found in your stateroom) and placed in your cabin each evening going forward for the next day's events. More recently, cruise lines like Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian and Disney have been rolling out phone apps that outline daily programming, too, as an alternative to the traditional printed schedules.
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!"
Booking shore tours:
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.
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 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. Many people will plan a mix of cruise line excursions, private tours and independent wandering.
Tip from the boards:
Ladycaveat suggests, "Check out the Ports 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
Many cabins contain phones equipped for ship-to-shore calls, however the per-minute charges are quite costly. 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; some phone companies even offer special packages for cruise ship travelers. 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 website or call the reservation line for the number.)
Though some cruise ships still have internet cafes, almost all are fully Wi-Fi enabled so you can log on to the internet from your own device. Fees are roughly 75 cents per minute, but can be reduced if you purchase an internet minutes package. (Some lines now charge by data usage.) It's often cheaper to use internet cafes in port. Just be prepared for slow at-sea connections, though some more technologically minded cruise lines have rolled out faster, more land-like high-speed connections; look out for Norwegian's SpeedNet service or Royal Caribbean's VOOM service, available fleetwide.
Keeping tabs onboard:
Unless you have accessible (and affordable) cellphone/texting service set up for your cruise (roaming charges will likely apply at sea, otherwise), you'll have to resort to old-fashioned plan-making -- with set meeting places and times -- to ensure that you rendezvous with your sailing mate(s). If traveling with kids or a group of pals, some passengers 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. Alternately, for smartphone-equipped families or groups, some of the cruise line's newer apps -- like Carnival Hub -- offer instant messaging services between passengers for a nominal fee. (It's $5 for the voyage for the Carnival application, for instance.)
Most people incur some expenses on their cruise, even with some meals and entertainment included in the fare. Alcoholic drinks (unless you're sailing on select luxury lines), shore tours, gift shop purchases, specialty dining, casino and bingo play, and spa services all cost extra. In order to make payments easy, you'll receive a swipe card upon check-in (which 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. Note, too, that some technology-pushing cruise ships now offer passengers RFID wristband alternatives that perform the same functions as the classic swipe card.
Cash and currency:
Many cruise ships have an onboard ATM, though be forewarned: they typically carry high fees (like $6 per transaction on Carnival). Note that U.S. dollars are accepted throughout much of the Caribbean and in some other regions. In select international locales, the ship's front office might provide currency exchange services. Or, check the port facility at ports of call; some have ATM machines that will work with foreign debit cards. (If they don't, banks in town 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."
Medical services typically consist of a physician and nurse to take care of minor temporary illnesses and accidents for a fee. In most cases, those with health and/or travel insurance will need to pay up before debarking -- and submit their claim once they return home. If you have a serious illness or injury, you will likely be sent to a land-based hospital and miss the rest of the cruise. 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.
Some cruise lines will provide complimentary motion sickness medicine (Bonine or something similar) to passengers through the 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. Eating green apples or ginger may also relieve queasiness.
Restrictions vary by cruise line. Most lines do not allow women to sail if they will be past their 24th week of pregnancy 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."
Most cruise lines now offer passengers the option for either flexible/open seating (meaning you dine at whatever time and with whom you want) or more traditional assigned seating (meaning you have a fixed table, dining time and dinner mates for the duration of your sailing) in their main dining rooms. (Note that open seating is common in alternative dining venues.) If you opt in for assigned seating, you'll receive confirmation of your dining time either before you sail or on embarkation day; your table is usually assigned once onboard. If there are any problems, see the maitre d' after boarding to request a change.
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 or low-fee on most ships.
Special dietary needs:
Many special dietary requests can be accommodated; be sure to discuss them with your cruise line when booking; notification requirements can vary by cruise line from anywhere from a few weeks to a couple of months prior to your departure. It's a smart idea to follow up with the dining room maitre d' on embarkation day to ensure there are no hiccups. Vegetarians generally don't need to alert the cruise line in advance (vegans should); kosher meals can be provided on many lines, but will likely be pre-prepared.
Religious Services and Special Occasions
Some cruise lines have clergy onboard for significant holidays like Christmas, Easter, Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Some offer services at other times, too (like for weekly Sabbath or Sunday mass observances), usually when there is a clergy volunteer sailing onboard as a passenger. More of a rarity, lines like Holland America feature a member of the clergy onboard every sailing to lead weekly non-denominational services.
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, as they might close out for booking several 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
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.
While some cruise lines offer in-cabin babysitting, many do not. Be sure to check your cruise line's policies along with the group babysitting options that might be available in the children's center.
Gratuity policies vary somewhat by cruise line. Typically, lines suggest that passengers pay $12 to $14 per person, per day, on mainstream cruise lines, and these gratuities (sometimes called service charges) are either paid in advance when booking or automatically added to your onboard account in one lump sum or in daily increments. Some lines will let you change or remove the auto-gratuities once onboard by asking at the reception desk. On many of the luxury lines, tips 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 of the sailing, 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 necessary. If all looks good, just keep the bill as your receipt; the balance will be charged to the credit card you provided at check-in. 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, through an in-cabin interactive TV system or, in some cases, via the cruise line's app) 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 in-cabin items on the last morning of your stay. 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 (and red cheeks).
Have a specific question not answered here? Cruise Critic's First Time Cruisers section is filled with information, and the 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.