If you’ve never been on a cruise before, it’s an astounding experience. The gigantic ship, the vast ocean, exotic ports.
Although taking a cruise is exciting, it’s also expensive. The base price ranges from $100 to $185 or more a day per person plus $300 to $500 or more each for additional expenses.
The last week of March I took my first cruise to the Caribbean. We stopped in Jamaica, Grand Cayman Island, Costa Maya, Mexico, and Cozumel, Mexico.
I enjoyed the cruise tremendously, but it took me a while to figure things out.
Here are my tips for the first-time cruise goer to help make your first cruise smooth:
Make a cruise file.
It’s important to make a cruise file right away. As you gather information, you’ll have a place to put it. Then, when you get your confirmation, it goes right into the file. When you leave to catch your plane, every thing’s ready. You must have your confirmation and identification to get on the ship. When you embark, you’ll get a plastic card like a credit card. You’ll use this card when you get on and off the ship, open your cabin door, and buy things on the ship. Most people wear a lanyard around their neck to put the card in. If you don’t have one, you can buy one on the ship.
Be informed about cabin choices.
Interior rooms are the cheapest with outside rooms more expensive and balcony rooms even more.
You’ll usually pay double the basic rate if you’re a traveling by yourself because the cost is based on two in a room. However, look for ships in a cruise line may reduce the rate for singles and smaller cruise lines that cater to single travelers and offer them fare reductions.
If you’re worried about getting seasick, the middle of the ship on the lower decks will have the least roll.
It usually doesn’t matter if you choose the port or starboard – left or right — side of the ship for your cabin unless you’re taking a cruise to someplace like Alaska where the view is on one side.
Cabins aft, at the back of the ship, may be noisier because you may hear engine noise or noise from the dining room.
Look up the diagram of the ship on the cruise line website. Get familiar with where your cabin is and other important areas such as the dining room, theater, and swimming pools. After I got on the ship, I went to the customer service desk and asked for a map of my deck. I kept making wrong turns and the map fixed the problem.
Figure out whether to sign up for third-party excursions or ones offered by the cruise line.
Study the cities where you’ll be visiting thoroughly. After you’ve figured out what you want to see, check the excursions the cruise line offers. While these excursions are usually more expensive and more crowded than those offered by third party operators, they have an advantage in that the ship will wait for you if you miss the sailing time.
For my seven-day Caribbean cruise, I picked an excursion for every port we stopped in — Jamaica, Grand Cayman Island, Costa Maya, Mexico, and Cozumel, Mexico. I picked the excursions offered through my travel agent, Perx.com. All were good. In Jamaica, the “garden” turned out to be a just a piece of the tropical forest, but the waterfalls and pools for wading were what was promised. In Cozumel, it was hard to find the tour company outside the port, and it was very hot. Once we got in the air conditioned minibus, things improved.
Decide how many excursions to take.
Excursions can be tiring. I’m a photojournalist so one of my main goals for the cruise was to get as many great photos as I could. Although doing four excursions on a seven-day cruise was tiring, I’d do it again the same way. My photos are fabulous.
Sign up in advance for packages, if you think you’ll save money.
Figure out whether it will be worth it to buy the alcohol package. Estimate how many drinks you might have a day. The cost for individual drinks on a cruise is about what you’d pay when you go out at home to a restaurant: about $5 for a bottle of beer and about $7 for a glass of wine.
Only water by the glass, coffee, tea, milk, and lemonade are usually free. Even soft drinks cost money.
Since I’m drinking less these days because alcohol can bother my stomach and I reported on the World Health Organization’s decision that even small amounts of alcohol are carcinogens, I decided I’d limit my drinking. I did well. I only had two glasses of wine that I paid for like I’d planned for the first and last nights plus a third glass. I also had two rum and cokes as part of an excursion, two flutes of champagne at a galley tour, samples of tequila and rum at two different distilleries as part of excursions, and whiskey samples at the General Store on the ship.
Don’t buy the water bottle package of 12 bottles per box. First of all, the bottles were a liter in size, too heavy for many people to take on excursions. The ship offered free bottles of water when we left the ship for the first excursion. I just put my one liter bottle in the bin and took a smaller bottle.
Don’t get too excited about having wifi on board.
I paid to use one device at a time, wanting to use both my computer and my phone. You had to exit out of one to use the other. The process was cumbersome. After four days, I couldn’t load my Comcast email, which I need to get information for writing my blogs. The guy at the Voom station made it work by logging into a different email company. I got it to work once, then I couldn’t get my email anymore. On day 5, the wifi didn’t work at all. Customer Service said they didn’t know why it wasn’t working. Everyone received a refund for that day. I just went to bed early because I couldn’t write and post an article.
Skip getting to the rail early to take photos of leaving port.
When we were getting ready to leave Fort Lauderdale, I rushed to the upper deck to get photos of sailing out of the harbor. There were lots of spaces by the rail and the sailing off isn’t that dramatic. Just the building and land getting smaller and smaller.
Take your own photos.
The photos taken by the cruise line photographers are outrageously expensive — around $20 for an 8 x 10, the only size available, plus another $5 for a digital copy. Select only a few, and make a plan to get your own photos.
If you don’t have a good camera, get one and practice before the cruise. Check Consumer Reports for a reasonably priced point-and-shoot style camera. While cell phone cameras can do a good job outdoors, they usually under perform in low-light situations.
Decide what you want to do about dining.
Traditional dining on a cruise ship is a first and second seating where seats are assigned. However, open seating, where you can dine any time in a certain time period, is becoming more common.
Casual dining opportunities also are offered for no additional cost as are speciality restaurants that are expensive.
Take a variety of clothes.
Many ships have formal dining, with dressy clothes for women and jackets and ties for men. I packed a long black skirt and a pair of dress pants to wear with five fancy tops. I didn’t need that many outfits. Formal dining wasn’t scheduled every night, for example, the first night or nights when we left port late.
Take layers — t-shirts, a long-sleeved shirt, a sweater, a sweatshirt, and a warm jacket or a raincoat. Even if you’re headed somewhere sunny, such as the Caribbean, it can get cold at night and it may be rainy.
Sturdy walking shoes are a must as are socks and sandals. And shorts, of course, if you’re headed somewhere warm.
If you’re going on an Alaskan cruise, check the recommendations on clothes you’ll need for the month you’ll be sailing.
I suggest taking a pair of convertible pants on your cruise. If you’re going on warm weather excursions and don’t want to wear your bathing suit under your clothes, just zip off your pant legs and wade. I did it a couple of times in the Caribbean, and it was fun.
Speaking of bathing suits, start shopping early. I haven’t had a new bathing suit in years, so I was surprised about how bad the new skimpy styles looked on me. I took my first choice back and bought a different bathing suit that covered my backside more.
Be patient and polite.
With an average of 3,000 people on board and up to 6,500 on the biggest ships plus about 1,500 crew members, you’re in a small city. The elevators get crowded after boarding and other busy times during the day. People will race to get in front of you. And you’ll occasionally get jostled in the crowds. Try to keep your cool with other passengers and crew members. In addition, be polite to family members or those you’re traveling with. It’s not the time to get into arguments.
Try not to overeat.
The food is fabulous and there’s lots of it. Just because you can eat delicious food all day, doesn’t mean you should.
Be prepared for additional expenses.
While a cruise is expensive, you’ll find that there will be many more costs once you’re underway. For example, photos for $20 each, $6.50 to get money from the cash machine, and charges for some activities such as $15 for wine tasting and $25 for a tour of the galley.
Watch out for bait and switch in the programs offered on the cruise.
We signed up for a session on posture in the spa area. Posture was discussed briefly, then people’s footprints were taken. The sales pitch was for expensive shoe inserts, $199. What a disappointment.
Be aware that the cruise line rents out space to vendors who badger you to buy.
When I bought something, the sales associate asked me if I wanted a diamond bracelet, which she dangled in front of me, reduced to only $100. She quickly lost interest in me when another sales associate said there was a woman who liked the bracelet, but wanted one in brown diamonds.
Watch out when you leave the ship for people hawking their wares.
All the ports had dozens of shops as you had to go through it to the street. As I was walking by, one man asked if I was Canadian. He said he liked my style. What? Convertible pants, a black blouse with white thread outlining boxes, and a big black-and-white sunhat with a black band?
Be aware of what’s expected in terms of tipping on the ship.
On Royal Caribbean, I paid $14.50 a day for tips to the company in advance. However, that wasn’t the end of the story on tipping. We were told if we wanted to tip our cabin stewards and waiters more, we could do so.
Raymond, our waiter, was fantastic. He knew all our names and when someone didn’t come for dinner, he’d ask about them. At breakfast when he wasn’t assigned to our table, he’d come over and ask how we were doing and if we needed anything. My niece said she had asked the waiter at breakfast the last day for catchup and wasn’t getting any. Raymond went and got it for her right away. He also suggested I go on a galley tour because he noticed I like to take photos. The tour ended with a champagne brunch. It was fantastic.
I’m sure the waiters are trained in giving that personal customer service. They did such a good job. I so appreciate good customer service. I missed it when we left the ship.
Be prepared to tip people on the excursions.
Have cash ready. The tour guides and bus drivers all expect a tip. One driver asked for $1 from everyone.
I hope your first cruise is great. I loved mine, but I’ll be better informed for my next one.