Finding reliable cruise tips for first timers can be a tricky business. If you are taking your first trip afloat, there seem to be so many suggestions about what to do, pack and wear, and it can be confusing. I’ve tried to narrow this down to the things that really matter to help you have your best trip afloat.
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- 1 What I’ve Learned About Cruise Tips For First Timers
- 2 First Time At Sea? Tips To Consider When Booking
- 3 Cabin Choice: Tips For First Time Cruisers
- 4 Cruise Tips For First Timers: What To Pack
- 5 Managing The Motion Of The Ocean
- 6 Tips For First Time Cruisers About Life On Board
- 7 Cruise Tips For First Timers: Dining
- 8 Cruise Tips for First Timers: Entertainment
- 9 Fitness Cruise Tips For First Timers
- 10 Cruise Tips For First Timers: Going Ashore
- 11 Bon Voyage
What I’ve Learned About Cruise Tips For First Timers
As a former cruise agent, veteran of many ship visits and training programmes plus numerous days at sea, I’ve come to realise that nobody’s cruise is exactly like another person’s trip. You can be in next door cabins and have a completely different experience. So you’ll need to sift these tips to find the ones that work for you. And that’s the secret to a happy cruise experience: working out what will make you happy.
First Time At Sea? Tips To Consider When Booking
The first time we ever took a cruise, we started out at a cruise fair. The idea was to find out a lot in a short time, and work out what was best for us. Two hours later, we emerged with a load of free stationery, several brochures and our first cruise booking for two nights on the Queen Mary 2. That wasn’t entirely what we expected, but it set a passage for many, many nights at sea.
What To Consider When Making Your First Booking
Providing you are not throwing too much money at it, I think there is merit in being opportunistic about your first booking, and picking a bargain if you find it. Normally I would encourage you to do plenty of research before making travel arrangements. But for cruising, a short voyage will give you the opportunity to experience life on a ship, which will then help you work out your preferences for future sailings. Until you sail, it’s difficult to work out what aspects of life at sea you’ll love, and what will be less important to you – or even what to avoid.
Ideally, I’d recommend that you try a first cruise of between two and four nights at sea. That’s long enough to see if you love it, and to give you a chance to experience all the components of cruise life. The next trip is about finessing what you love and which cruise lines are best placed to provide it. It’s very easy to start doing research and to get into a state of complete overload. You choose your cruise line, your ship, your type of cabin, your deck and location, your dining arrangements, your shore trips and a myriad of other things. It’s a lot to have to consider first time up.
Read More: Mini Cruise To Antwerp and Amsterdam
Recommendations for That First Booking
Choose a bargain short cruise if you can. Don’t fret too much about the choice of cabin; we’ll discuss that more later. Also be open minded about the ship and cruise line; it’s surprising how different aspects of cruising can capture your heart, even if you think they won’t matter to you at all.
Cabin Choice: Tips For First Time Cruisers
The earlier you book your cruise, the wider your choice of cabin. Cabins come in a number of different types:
- Inside – with no exterior window, but usually with a large mirror and curtains to create the illusion of natural light. You can often “see outside” in an inside cabin by turning on the bridge cam channel on the television.
- Outside – a cabin with a porthole or external window
- Balcony – a cabin with French windows and outside space. At minimum there will be enough room for two chairs and a table. We’ve also had balconies where you could hold a modest party, and you have room for loungers as well as chairs
- Suite – from junior to master, suites have plenty of living space, and can come with many opulent extras from private jacuzzis on deck to a fully fitted gym (yes, I was deep in envy visiting that one, Oceania)
You’ll find that there are lots of variations on a theme. Large new ships now have what I call outside insides: inside cabins that have a window onto an atrium. Look out for the Ben and Jerry’s cabin on RCI ships – all decked out in cow prints, and with a window partly obscured by Ben and Jerry’s bovine characters.
Which Cabin To Choose?
If you are likely to be maximising your time in the ship’s restaurants, bars, lounges, theatres, gyms and pools, then I’d suggest that you consider every bed on the ship to be similar and choose the best price you can.
If you’re thinking of lazy days, reclining in the privacy of your balcony and watching the world slip slowly by, then your choice is clear.
Spend any time on a cruise forum, and you’ll realise that people can have quite set views on the type of cabin they want. There are even lists of the pros and cons of individual cabins on each ship. If you are very conscious of your surroundings, this may matter, and you will need to do your research.
However, if you are happy just to be heading out on your first cruise, then a bargain is to be had with a guarantee cabin. This means that you are guaranteed a cabin of a certain minimum specification, and you will be allocated a cabin of at least this standard. But you won’t be told which is your cabin until shortly before you depart. There are some possible disadvantages to this, including being near the bow when you may hear the sounds of docking in the morning. Or it might be a reasonably long walk to dinner. If those things don’t matter greatly, a guarantee cabin can be a bargain.
Cruise Tips For First Timers: What To Pack
Levels of formality and dress codes for the evening vary from ship to ship, with some cruise lines being very informal indeed, to others requiring suits and dresses. We’ve sailed with a variety of different dress codes, and found the cruise line documents and websites a good resource to work out what to bring. There seems to be a trend for cruising to require less formal attire. In some ways, that’s a shame; dressing very formally for dinner and the evening ahead brings out a sense of occasion that most of us don’t experience often. On the other hand, flying carry on only is best accomplished without suits, long dresses and high heels.
What I choose to wear on ship is very much what I would wear on holiday in a similar climate. Just remember that it can get very breezy on deck, and women are probably best advised to beware of very floaty dresses. Similarly, if you have long hair like me, a clip or hair bobble will stop you eating stray strands regularly. Even by the pool, you might need an extra layer for lounging on your lounger.
Cruise Specific Items
Online you can find lengthy lists of all kinds of additional items to take on a cruise. Very few of these items have ever made their way into our bags. The one extra item I take is a tiny wallet for my cruise card, meaning it’s less likely to fall out of my pocket. That’s usually all I need to take with me while I’m on the ship, unless I’m headed to the pool or deck with suncream and a book. You’ll find towels provided on the ship.
WiFi on ships is generally expensive but not fast. So don’t expect to use too much tech on board. But you’ll want to charge your gear ready for time in port, and here’s where it’s useful to research what type of sockets will be in your cabin. (And I’m sorry to say you’re unlikely to find more than two.) Some ships have a European socket and a US socket, so travel adaptors can maximise your charging opportunities. Bonus points for extra USB ports in your adaptors.
Read More: How To Pack For Your First Cruise
Managing The Motion Of The Ocean
If you’ve already traveled on a large ferry, you’ll have some idea of what to expect at sea. But most large cruise ships offer very little sensation of motion at all. There have been times when I’ve looked up from my book on the top deck to find we’d left port some time ago, and I just hadn’t noticed.
That’s not to say that it’s all smooth sailing. Some parts of the ocean have a reputation for being less calm. One example is the Bay of Biscay, where the Captain of the QM2 once suggested that this was not a night to wear heels to dinner. Surprisingly, we were also the only people in Todd English restaurant that night. We saw all the precautions for a less stable dining experience, including dampened table cloths and glasses only filled half way. It made for a memorable experience, even if the crew decided to try to feed us the whole restaurant’s food.
More seriously, if you know you are likely to suffer from mal de mer, stock up on remedies before you board. Ask for a cabin in the middle of the ship, where the motion is less – that’s the middle from bow to stern and also the middle from top deck to bottom deck. And be heartened by a woman I met at sea, who had her sea bands and her medication, but loved cruising so much she was willing to be medicated to enjoy it to the full.
Finally, don’t be surprised to experience a different mal – mal de debarkment. That’s when you leave the ship, but think you are still moving with it. It has a habit of catching up with me in unlikely places when I get home – supermarkets, the office, even the library. It will go away on its own.
Tips For First Time Cruisers About Life On Board
Your first Day
You may find the initial boarding of the ship a bit offputting. There will be lots of people boarding at around the same time, leading to queues, crowded entryways (where you need to juggle your paperwork, hand sanitiser and probably a welcome drink at the same time). Then there are massive crowds at the elevators, and seemingly the world queuing at the buffet.
All this can be managed by the following measures:
- Minimise the luggage you take onto the ship, leaving the rest to be delivered to your cabin. Take only what you need up until dinner time.
- Head straight to the top of the ship, and slowly walk around the main decks getting your bearings.
- Ask staff where is open for lunch apart from the buffet. Sometimes there are smaller or more formal dining spaces where you can eat a more relaxed lunch on your first day. (Celebrity, for example, has a small healthy dining cafe next to the pool.)
- When you work your way down to your cabin, have a browse through the ship’s newsletter which will be delivered to you each day. It will tell you all the activities that are scheduled. You’ll also find a card telling you where to go for dinner, your table number and the sitting (early or late) if applicable. The main shows run twice each evening, meaning you can attend the one that doesn’t conflict with your dinner sitting.
Daily Life On Board
Expect your cabin steward to drop by and introduce themselves on your first day. You will probably pass them in the corridor often, but they will clean and tidy your room by stealth when you are least expecting it.
Your ship’s newsletter will tell you everything that is happening each day, including port times. You will normally receive an extra sheet with information about the port call.
I’d advise you to do the big ship walk on the first day, so you can get orientated. Although the ship’s corridors all look alike, they can have subtle differences to help you find your way around; some will use different colour carpeting for port and starboard corridors. At every stairwell, you’ll find an outline diagram of the ship, set out so you can see exactly where you are. Normally it will be restaurants to the stern and entertainment to the bow, with bars, libraries, casinos, shops and other public spaces in between.
Want to read more about your ship? Check out Cruise Critic’s forums to see what other cruisers thought.
Cruise Tips For First Timers: Dining
Cruise ship dining can seem pretty complicated, but it’s very easy once you get your head around the options. There is normally at least one – and sometimes more – main dining room. Here you will be allocated a table for dinner. Tables normally range from 2-10 seats, and you will be asked for your preference when you book. On older ships, there aren’t many tables for two, so you are likely to be seated with others. Some thought goes into guest mix, so hopefully you will have things in common with your dining companions.
Some ships offer freestyle dining, meaning you can book the restaurant of your choice each day. This can work really well, but sometimes your choices may not be available at the time you desire.
The main restaurant will also offer a full service breakfast, including a buffet and some items delivered by waiters. You may find brunch here on Sundays with a variety of cooking stations offering everything from omelettes to waffles.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner will also be available in the buffet restaurant, normally located on the top deck or close by. The buffet has a range of stations, some offering freshly cooked items, along with hot and cold counters. The buffet can be a useful alternative to main dining if you are worn out from a day ashore and just want to eat quickly and without ceremony.
Many ships also offer additional restaurants, specialising in a particular cuisine. Some are chargeable, others are free but require booking (on NCL ships, for example). These restaurants can offer particularly fine experiences; the picture that heads up this piece was taken from Tuscan Grill, the Italian steakhouse on Celebrity Eclipse. With a view over the stern, we spent a memorable dinner lingering over great food while Stockholm’s archipelago slipped slowly past. We saw people heading for weekend cabins complete with their dogs and bags of provisions. It took more than three wonderful hours to pass these spectacular islands, and it was an experience I will always remember.
Read More: Scandinavia and the Baltics Cruise
Cruise Tips for First Timers: Entertainment
Choices for entertainment vary tremendously across ships. This is really a matter of personal preference, so my good time may well not be yours. Ships tend to know their audience, so on some cruise lines you’ll get extravagant production shows along the lines of Cirque de Soleil, while on others you’ll find tribute bands.
In addition to the big productions, ships often have what I would call bands of travelling minstrels. You could find a guitarist, a duo or a string quartet making their way around the smaller venues of the ship. Check your newsletter to see what’s happening where. You could find a piano bar, a Spanish guitarist, or an in-house blues and soul band (try Fat Cats on NCL).
Strange And Wonderful Happenings
Entertainment also stretches to plenty more choices. One of the most surreal experiences I’ve ever had is moving effortlessly between the Queen’s Room on the Queen Mary 2 to next door’s G32 nightclub. The former has elegant tea dances to a live orchestra with gentleman hosts to dance with those who have no partner. While G32 (named after the hanger in which the QM2 was built) has your best guilty pleasures school disco night. Very, very odd, and strangely compelling. This is why I say you will find yourself doing things at sea that you would never imagine enjoying and finding them magnificent.
Day Time Entertainment
From quizzes to crafting and from talks to learning to dance, there’s a lot to be packed into a day on board. We’ve learned about things from the workings of MI5 to the types of chocolate produced in South America. A lot of sampling came with the latter.
Then there are the chances to entertain yourself. There are deck games on most ships. Some family oriented ships have a lot of deck fun, including zip wires, water slides and wave machines. There are libraries, games rooms for cards and jigsaws, in short whether you want lively or sedate you’ll find it there. Don’t miss out because it’s your first cruise; check what is available, and don’t hesitate to get involved.
Fitness Cruise Tips For First Timers
Running and Walking
Time on the ship will also give you plenty of opportunities to balance that excellent dining with staying fit. Most ships have a running track or deck walk. They are often the same route, with running being banned during the hours while guests below your feet are sleeping in their cabins. You can easily add to your step count while enjoying a beautiful view.
Gym and Pool
Nearly every ship will have a gym. It has your normal range of fitness machinery and I’ve usually found it not to be crowded. Then you have the pools. Depending on your ship, destination and season, you can often manage what I would call “proper lengths”. Pool opening times don’t always work for those of us who like a swim before breakfast.
There is also a spa on nearly every ship. Treatments can be wonderful but expensive. You’ll find offer prices on embarkation day, and also on days when the ship is in port and many people are off the ship. Sometimes you can get free mini-treatments on embarkation day.
Cruise lines such as Celebrity offer special spa cabins – Aqua Spa – which offer access to spa lounges, the Persian Gardens and steam rooms. There’s also a restaurant – Blu – for aqua cabin guests, which offers a more intimate dining experience with healthier food choices.
Cruise Tips For First Timers: Going Ashore
We were fortunate in that our first cruises docked in places we had already visited. We therefore had some idea of how to fend for ourselves. Once you have booked your first cruise, I recommend you do a little research to help you make the most of your time ashore.
Different Arrangements At Ports
Some places where ships berth are intended entirely for cruise ships. You can saunter down the gangway, wander through the terminal building, and find yourself in the centre of a major city.
Other spots are less immediately accommodating. Arrive at a port largely designed for commercial shipping – like Zeebrugge for example – and you’ll find that the port is a sterile area. You can only move around by port bus for safety reasons. An important part of our cruise tips for first timers is to advise you that a secure port area does not limit you to a ship’s excursion. You are entitled to take the port bus to the security perimeter of the port. You can then make your own onward travel arrangements.
Decide where you Want to Be
So make some investigations beforehand. At Amsterdam you could find yourself berthed beside Central Station or some miles out, depending on the size of the ship you sailed. In Antwerp and Lisbon you walk out of the terminal and straight into the city. Sometimes your port will be in another place entirely – think Livorno for Florence or Civitavecchia for Rome. You might even fall in love with the port, rather than the intended destination.
Going Ashore Alone
There are many choices as to whether you make your own way ashore, or book an excursion. Part of this depends on your ease and familiarity with the destination. Are you happy to catch a train independently and go exploring? I’d advise that you take the ship’s port information and the newsletter with you. It will confirm the time that you need to be back on board. Cruise tips for first timers must include the important advice that this is the real time you need to be back. The ship will absolutely sail without you if you are late. Those stern words aside, we normally head off by ourselves. We do tend to allow ourselves plenty of time to get back to the ship.
The choice of whether or not to take shore excursions is an important addition to cruise tips for first timers, You can book excursions to take you to the sights, either with the ship or with a local tour company. Both will give you chances to see a lot in a short time, and with guides who know the area well. Ships will always wait for their own excursions to return, which may be a good reason to rely on them in cities with unreliable transport. An excursion is also a good choice if you want to pack the day with experiences. They are often a way of dealing with queues and may offer additional entry times to some attractions.
I hope you’ve found these cruise tips for first timers useful. Before I sailed for the first time, I had the impression that cruising might be a very structured holiday. Actually, it’s as flexible as you want it to be. Cruising offers lots of choice for what to do and when. It’s a great way of visiting places briefly to decide if and when you want to return. Would I recommend it? Absolutely. Go with an open mind and a promise to be true to your travel self and you should have a great time.
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