Taking your first cruise is always exciting, but can also mean that you wonder exactly what you should be doing. How are you going to get the best out of your trip? There’s so much information out there it can be overwhelming. And there are packing lists so extensive that Passepartout might flinch. So let us help you get ready for that first stay at sea without any unnecessary dramas or information overload. Here are the things we think it’s important to know before taking your first cruise.
Our experience taking cruises
Our first cruise was two short nights on the Queen Mary 2, doing a quick round trip to Cherbourg. Since then we’ve clocked up a lot of nights on board ship. We’ve sailed to ports from Gibraltar and the Canaries to St Petersburg and Stockholm, cruised rivers, seas and oceans, and traveled on many different cruise lines and ships. I’ve completed travel agent training for the major cruise lines, so I have a fair amount of information still in my head. I’ve also spent plenty of time chatting to fellow passengers, some of whom were first time cruisers. What I’m sharing here is what I’ve learned during those days at sea.
Do I need To Pack All those Things I’ve Read I need?
In brief, no. In practice, you might want to consider your packing list very much as you would if going on a land-based, all inclusive holiday. You’ll need the standard things you would for the climate you expect to encounter, plus swimwear and gym gear if you wish, and something suitable for dinner.
But all those extras that some people say you need to cruise? Not vital in my experience. There’s always been plenty of room in the cabin bathroom for all our toiletries and the cabin hairdryer has worked fine, if a bit slowly (even for my long hair). We haven’t needed all kinds of extra storage like over the door hangers.
There is just one thing I take for a cruise that I don’t for a land-based holiday, and that’s a tiny card holder in which to keep my ship card. This is just to stop the card itself sliding out of my pocket by giving it a bit more ballast.
Keeping your cruise card – which is used instead of cash or credit on board – safe is important
Did I Choose The Right Cabin?
By the time you get on board for your first cruise, it will normally be the case that there’s no option to change unless your cabin has some sort of major functional defect. But I’d say all cabins have pros and cons, and whatever you have chosen will be fine. If you’ve opted for an inside cabin (no windows), you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised at how light and airy it feels. There’s usually a channel on the tv showing the view from deck, so you can get a sense of the weather before you head out. There will always be a quiet spot to be found on deck, where you can chill and enjoy those sea views.
There’s always a quiet corner on deck to enjoy the sea air if you’ve booked an inside cabin
If you booked a balcony, don’t forget to set aside time to make the most of your outdoor space. Book a cabin breakfast, or bring back a glass of wine after dinner to watch the sunset. Enjoy seeing the port fade away into the distance, and go island spotting.
Top Tip: There are advantages and disadvantages to most cabins. Focus on what works for you with the cabin you’ve booked.
How Will I know where to go and what there is to do on my first cruise?
Each night you’ll get a copy of the ship’s newsletter for the next day. It will set out all the activities available on the ship and opening times for bars and restaurants. On so-called “sea days”, there’s usually more to do during the day. What’s on offer varies by ship and cruise line, but you can expect a mix of talks (MI6 or chocolate-tasting maybe), crafting, fitness-related activities, dance, films and shows. It’ll all be listed in the programme, so you can decide what, if anything, you’d like to do.
There may be special offers for some of the speciality (with cover charge) restaurants on board, and these will be listed in the programme
It’s worth making a note of things you want to do, and taking the programme with you around the ship. It’s frustrating to forget what was happening and miss it. It’s also a great opportunity to try out the kind of things you’d never normally do at home, whether that’s learning to dance, a 10 minute beauty treatment in the salon as part of a taster session or seeing a cookery demonstration. A first cruise can be full of new and exciting experiences.
If it’s a port day, you’ll normally get an extra sheet with some information about the port call, including arrangements to go ashore and return to the ship. Some ports are “closed ports”, meaning that you can’t just wander from the ship to the port gate. At these ports – often ones with container traffic, and therefore a lot of heavy equipment moving around – you’ll be able to take a free bus to the gates or possibly into the nearest town.
Top tip: take the port call page ashore with you to remind you of the time you need to be back on board, and also your port location
Expect to get a bit lost on board
It’s surprising how difficult it can be to find your way around a ship, whether it’s your first cruise or your fiftieth. Bear in mind that on a large ship you’ll have at least ten decks filled with all kinds of different facilities as well as cabins.
When in doubt, head for the nearest stairwell. There you’ll find a plan of the ship, orientated so it’s in the direction you are facing. There you can see if you need to go forward or aft, and you can work out the position of the place you’re trying to reach relative to the stairwells. Some ships also have a cunning device of a different colour stripe in the carpet to port or starboard so you know which side of the ship you’re on.
Finally, a word on stairs and lifts. If you are ok with stairs, it’s often a lot quicker to use them instead of the lifts. This is especially true at dinner as half of the passengers (there are usually two dinner sittings: early and late) will be on the same journey. So don’t underestimate the time it might take you to get to the restaurant for dinner.
Top Tip: Take the stairs where possible. It’s quicker and will give you an appetite for dinner.
Do I need to Book the ship’s excursions?
Not unless you want to. There may be other choices too. In St Petersburg, we didn’t take the ship’s excursion, but found a tour company whose reviews we liked. They sorted our visas, and had an arrangement to meet us at the port from the ship, ready to whisk us away in their minibus.
There will often be a briefing on the ports of call that await you. Although this will include interesting information, it will have some amount of sales talk for the cruise line’s excursions. One company, who will remain nameless, seemed to imply that it was dangerous to travel independently in what we know to be a pretty safe area requiring only your normal common sense.
So be prepared and do a bit of research upfront. Sometimes you’ll find there’s a free shuttle bus into the nearest town, where you can make your own arrangements to travel onwards if you wish. Ships will wait for their own excursions if they are running late, but not passengers who have done their own thing. So plan to return in good time before this ship sails if you are exploring independently.
Top tip: Do your research up front, and do your own thing unless an excursion really appeals.
What do I do If it’s Stormy?
In all the times we’ve sailed, I can only remember a couple of occasions where the sea was a bit lively. A ship’s crew will navigate around really rough weather, as no one wants to give passengers a bad experience. I’m probably a bit sad in that I love to feel the motion of the ocean, but most of the time you won’t even be very aware that you’re moving.
If you are nervous on your first cruise that you might not be the world’s best sailor, I would suggest you stock up on those pressure bands or some medication before you leave, than try to put it out of your mind. I’ve mentioned that the ship will try and travel around bad weather, and the stabilisers used by these large vessels are very effective. Should you feel really rotten, then the onboard medical centre is available to help. And if you know you’re motion sensitive, book a cabin lower in the ship and midships (in the centre).
One rather lovely night on the Queen Mary 2 crossing the Bay of Biscay, the captain made an announcement that passengers might consider no high heels at dinner. We were booked into the posh restaurant Todd English that night, and it made for a memorable experience. We had the room to ourselves for much of the evening, were plied with way too many extras and tasting plates by the team, and saw first hand how well the crew cope with delicate table service in bouncy conditions. So do get out of your cabin and enjoy the experience. But expect theatre shows to be adjusted for sea conditions.
Top Tip: It’s very rare to feel the ship move much at all.
How do I make the most of everything on my first cruise?
Trying to do everything could put you under a lot of pressure, and make you feel that this is a challenge rather than a holiday. If you are on a longer cruise with a lot of port days, don’t underestimate how tiring it can be to pack in a full day of activities in each port and then an equally packed evening of entertainment and dining on the ship.
It’s ok to decide to have an evening of down time. Call up room service and order a cheese toastie. Choose a film to watch while crashed out in bed, or just head for the top deck, grab a quick meal from the cafe and chill. One night we’d done just that, and were rewarded by the sight of a pod of dolphins moving alongside us in the Mediterranean. In the main dining room, we’d have missed it completely.
If you’re heading to a place you’ve already visited, then it’s also ok (and I’ll whisper this) to stay on the ship for the day. The ship’s a very different beast when most of the passengers are ashore. There’s more time to talk to the crew, chill out in the pool or get your endorphins on in the fitness centre. You can find a sunny corner and finish off a good book, or get that afternoon tea that’s been at the end of a very long queue on sea days. Pacing yourself can make all the difference.
Top tip: It’s easy to get into overload. Chill out some of the time to enjoy the whole experience more.
Don’t let being all-inclusive hold you back from shore experiences
Your cruise price includes more food than you could conceivably eat and plenty of shows and activities too. But we met people who were “just popping back to the ship for lunch” or who were curtailing their visits to ports just to be back in time for dinner. If you have an evening in a fabulous destination, try and make the most of it. We’ve enjoyed great times in Copenhagen and Amsterdam when the ship sailed late.
Top tip: If you’re on a smaller ship, you might be docked very close to the centre of a city, so you can wander on and off ship. Amsterdam and Antwerp are both good for this.
It’s not as Formal as you might have read
Go to any cruise forum, and you’ll find some cruisers bitterly complaining about changes in sartorial standards and the loss of cruising traditions. Like many travel experiences, cruising is evolving, and what was commonplace twenty years ago may have changed. This is really dependent on the cruise line you’ve chosen, as some are way more traditional than others.
If you’re worried about having to dress up, don’t be. During the day, most people wear – shock horror – pretty much what we all wear in that climate. At night, some cruise lines will go for formal nights requiring suits and the equivalent. But if you don’t feel comfortable in that sort of gear, there will always be a restaurant open for casual dining and you don’t have to dress up to get dinner. Many ships are now far more informal than they were even ten years ago.
Top tip: Don’t agonize about what you wear. Choose something respectable, and you’ll be fine.
So many Places, so little time
Cruising can be a tantalising experience. You might see many ports, but you’re not there for long, and you might wonder if that’s going to be infuriating. I’ve found three different strategies for dealing with that which suit us: total immersion, broad and shallow, and getting the vibe.
If you’re going for total immersion, then I’d suggest finding something you’d really love to see, and focusing your time in port around that. When we sailed at Christmas, people on our table were focused on their trip to Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam. We’ve spent a day in Toulon enjoying a Provencal market. You might not see everything, but you’ll see what you really want in depth.
Broad and shallow’s the other side of that choice. Here you might take a tour that moves at breakneck speed where you get to see many of the city’s attractions, but none of them for very long. A three day guided tour in St Petersburg would be a good example. This can give you a great flavour of a destination and help you decide whether it’s a place you want to return to explore more fully.
And finally, there’s the concept of enjoying the vibe. We tried this out in Gibraltar, wandering the town, chatting to people in cafes, watching the cheeky birds in the main square. You’d be surprised how much you learn about a place just by observing its daily business. And I was wowed to meet the lovely woman who chatted to me at length about three generations of Gibraltar life.
Top Tip: Don’t try and do everything. Focus on what would make you happy that day.
Don’t be in a hurry to leave Your First Cruise
In our experience, the last day of a cruise can wreck some of the chill factor you’ve enjoyed throughout if you let it. My first piece of advice is to have something nice planned for the last evening on board. Pick a show you want to see or head to that restaurant you wanted to try. The ship’s in transition mode ready for changeover, and things can feel a little flat if you’re not ready for that.
On the final morning, people can be very eager to depart. Think of that queue in the aisle of a plane that’s reached its gate, and multiply that by many more passengers. If it’s a short cruise, you’ll taking your own bags off the ship. My advice is to find a quiet spot, park yourselves up with something to do, and wait for your deck to be called for departure. Definitely don’t get into a long queue unless you enjoy seeing packed lifts zip by, or balancing your bags in the stairwell. For longer cruises, you’ll be picking your bags up in the port, so again just find a nice spot and chill. If it’s warm, a final bit of time on deck is a great choice.
Most cruise lines will have you on your way by around 10am at the latest (so they can have the next cruise on board by noon). Plan something nice for later that day. It helps to avoid a feeling of the post-cruise blues. If you feel that the ship is still moving a couple of days after you return, that’s completely normal. It’s called mal de debarkment, and it will pass.
Top tip: Don’t be that person blocking the stairwell with your bags on the last morning. Find a corner, find something to do, and wait for your call.
Enjoy your first cruise
It’s an experience like no other. And if you love being on the water, it can be truly magical.
You can find a lot of detailed reviews about ships and cruise lines here. There’s plenty of help in finding out more about ports and the dress codes for each cruise line too.
If you’d like to find out more about the practicalities of cruising, we’ve got some help in choosing your cabin here. We can also give you an idea of some of the experiences you might find on board. And if you want to read about what it’s like on a cruise, we’ve taken a short, bargainous and last minute cruise here, and also shared our two week trip to the Baltics.
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