It’s normal to feel a little jittery before taking off on your big adventure: your first-time cruise! But with just a little bit of pre-planning and these tips, you’ll know what to expect and will be sure to have that perfect dream vacation!
Let’s Talk Budget! You’re probably thinking, “Hey wait! I already paid for the cruise! What do I need MORE money for?” The rule of thumb for a 7-day cruise is to budget at least an addition $200 for onboard spending – not including the gratuity (remember, you can either prepay the gratuity for the ship’s crew BEFORE you sail or the cruise line will add that amount to your onboard account). Unless you’re sailing on an all-inclusive cruise line, you’re going to need money for extra expenses like alcohol, sodas and specialty coffees, spa treatments, shopping in the ship’s store, and specialty restaurants. You’ll also need to budget for off-the-ship activities such as shopping, excursions (if not pre-paid), tips for your cab/shuttle drivers, etc.
Who Will You Sail With? There are certain times of the year where there are more young children and college students who will be joining you on your cruise – school breaks and holidays are perfect examples. The summer months also promise lots of younger cruisers. So, if you’d prefer to avoid dealing with those age groups, consider sailing during the months when school and college is in session. We’ve found the absolute perfect sailing time is September! We’ve had cruises where there were less than 10 children onboard! It just depends on what you’re comfortable with!
Sailing With Special Needs: Cruise Lines today have come a long way in handling special needs requests. The staff and crew are super considerate in helping with ease of accessibility; handicap access staterooms are really designed for ease and comfort and you can even rent accessible equipment to be delivered to your stateroom. If you have certain food allergies, just let your dining room staff know the first night – we recently sailed with a friend who had a severe allergy to fish (even eating something fried in oil that had been used to fry fish would cause a reaction). She let the staff know our first night onboard and they allowed her to select her menu for the following night throughout the cruise so the kitchen staff would be sure to prepare her meals accordingly. I don’t know of any of the major cruise lines who won’t go out of their way to accommodate whatever special need you have. They even have Sensory Packets now for Autistic and ADHD children, as well as special accommodations for the visually impaired.
Check Out The Ship Before You Sail. Some ships are newer than others and others may have been refurbished recently. It’s important to know what you expect while onboard in terms of fun amenities like pools, hot tubs, water slides, etc. Generally, if a ship is newer or has recently been refurnished, it will have all the bells and whistles you’re looking for. But it’s always a good idea to make sure before you book!
How Much Time is Enough Time? Many people opt to start their cruising experience by booking a 3-day cruise. To be honest, 3 days is just not enough! Not enough time to get a real feel for what cruising is all about. Three days is a great week-end getaway and it’s fun to do one now and then. But if you’ve never sailed before, you really do want to at LEAST 5-days and better yet, a full week. Less than 5-7 days and you won’t have the opportunity to enjoy everything the ship has to offer!
What About Cabin Categories? There’s a lot of mixed opinions on this one! If you can spring for it, a balcony is a wonderful way to go – you can sit out on your private balcony and enjoy the ocean air and maybe your morning coffee or a glass of wine in the evening. And, depending on where you’re sailing, having a balcony view of your surroundings can’t be beat. Having said that, there is nothing wrong with an ocean view cabin or even an interior. We sail a LOT – 4 to 6 times a year – so we often opt for an interior cabin. What we save allows us to cruise more often and, quite honestly, slipping between those amazing sheets in a cave-like dark cabin is maybe the most relaxing thing I’ve ever done! You feel like you’re sleeping in a cloud, without any idea of time or what’s happening outside your cabin door. The bottom line is: what can you afford and what do you plan to do in your cabin? If you want to enjoy a breath-taking sunset in private, go for that balcony! You will never regret it!
abin Location IS Important: When we quote a cabin category, we use different numbers (for example, on Carnival, 4 is an interior; 6 is an ocean view; and 8 is a balcony) AND alphabetic letters. Generally, the letters begin with B – and go up to E or above. The letter indicates which deck the cabin is on, with B being in the lower decks. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a 4B interior cabin … it just means you’ll be on a lower deck. An 8E cabin would be a balcony on one of the higher decks, which puts you closer to everything on the ship (pools, water slides, spa, etc.). Try to avoid cabins too far forward or too far aft – although, on the bigger ships these days, it’s very unlikely you’ll feel much ship movement. But you don’t want to be right under the Lido Deck (where the buffet is served at all hours) nor do you want to be next to or under the galley (where the kitchen staff is preparing meals at all hours!). You’ll want to be near, but not next to the elevators and you want to make sure you’re not underneath a dance floor. All in all, midship is your best bet and sometimes, that means booking a D or E category cabin.
The Age-Old Question - What do I Pack? Aside from the basics (and we can provide you a list of what to pack – just comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org) here are several MUST-HAVES that you might not have considered when packing for a cruise. We always bring a power strip – many of the newer or refurbished ships now have two electrical outlets but we need to plug in Dan’s C-Pap machine, as well as chargers for our phones. Better safe than sorry! We also always bring our two allotted bottles of wine (for those cruise lines that permit us to do so) – it’s only a $15-$25 corkage fee in the dining room and we can enjoy a wonderful bottle of wine of our own choosing with dinner. We also recommend bringing the 12-cans of soda that is allowed (one 12-pack per person). Check your cruise line to see if you’re allowed to bring bottles of water – they get to be quite expensive onboard! Some cruise lines allow you to order alcohol to be delivered to your cabin when you arrive – for drinking IN the cabin. It’s always a good idea to check beforehand what is and isn’t allowed. A few other things you might not have thought of: clips for your sunchairs so your towel doesn’t fly away (available on Amazon); clothespins to hang your wet bathing suits on in the shower; cabin door decorations; magnet hooks; and your own stainless steel tumbler (for hot and cold beverages). Again, we have a complete packing list available – just ask!
Once You’re Onboard
Check Out the Ship’s Deck Plan Before You Board: Check out the ship’s deck plan to get a feel for the ship before you depart. Even the smaller ships take some time to find your way around (especially the perfect route to the Main Dining Room! Believe me, you’ll understand once you get on the ship!) It’s easy to miss a lot of great features if you don’t know what you’re looking for or where to find it! Studying the deck plan before your vacation begins will make getting acclimated to the ship so much easier!
Bring a Carry-On For the First Day: Pack a small bag to carry on board the ship with swim suits, sun block, motion sickness medicine and any other medications you might need before evening, as well as anything else you’ll need in case your luggage doesn’t get delivered to room before dinner. Most of the time, your luggage will arrive before 6 pm – but it definitely will not be there in time for you to enjoy the day’s festivities at the pool! We’ve started packing a backpack with the things we’ll want just in case!
Board Early – or Board Late: When you check-in online prior to your departure, you’ll have the opportunity to select your boarding time (based on what’s available at the time you login online!). We like to board as early as possible – that way, we can go up to the buffet and have lunch, then spend the afternoon enjoying one of the ship’s many activities, the Welcome Aboard Party or hanging at the pool! If that’s not your cup of tea, then opt to board late. You’ll want to miss the bulk of the crowds – so always try to be among the first or the last to board the ship.
Make Certain Your Cabin is Good-To-Go! Check that all the lamps/lights, appliances and electrical outlets are working, that you have as many pillows as you need (I always ask for two extra – that’s just me!), and that you have a “SNOOZING” card for your door and a few Room Service Order forms. If you’re likely to send laundry out for cleaning, make sure you have laundry bags (found in the drawer). Another big one: make sure your safe works! We had one experience where we locked our things in the safe, went to dinner and, when we returned at midnight and tried to retrieve our medications, we discovered the safe lock didn’t work! We had to wait quite a while for someone to come fix it – in the middle of the night!
The Staff Is There To Help: The crew is eager to make your cruise one you won’t forget. As I said above, I always ask for two extra pillows and that our Ice Bucket is filled every evening. Those just little touches that we enjoy. But whatever your special request, just let your Steward know and he/she will be happy to accommodate you! Just remember to give positive feedback for your crew when you receive the post-cruise survey when you get home. This applies to all the crew you interact with during your cruise. When they receive by-name recognition in a post-cruise survey, they get bonuses, extra days off, raises and promotions. It really means a lot to them that you cared enough to take that extra few minutes to thank them.
Carlos & Cesar from the Carnival Horizon. We fell in love with these two guys -- we ALL cried on our last evening together! They will be joining the Carnival Fascination, homeported in San Juan, so we've booked Dan's birthday cruise to sail with them again!
Get To Know The Crew: How did I know that crew gets special perks when they receive feedback in those surveys I mentioned above? By taking the time to talk to the crew and get to know them! I love hearing about their homes, their families and their life aboard ship. We’ve met several crew members with whom we’ve become friends – in fact, we’ve booked future cruises on other ships when we know one of our favorite crew members has transferred to a new ship! Believe it or not, they REMEMBER us by name and are thrilled to see us! Dan and I have booked a cruise in October primarily because our Dining Room Server is transferring ships and we absolutely adore him! This will be the third time we’ve booked a cruise in order to spend more time with a favorite crew member!
Plan Your Day The Night Before: All cruise lines have some sort of daily activity calendar (Carnival has both a printed one and one you can access through their online Hub – you don’t need internet to use it but you must upload it prior to sailing). We go through the next day’s calendar and pick all the activities we want to make time for – there’s just so much to do!
Use the Stairs! If you’re able to use the stairs, you’ll find it faster and easier to get from point A to point B. Sometimes the elevators can really jam up and it gets frustrating! (Also a great idea if you’re trying to burn off that Chocolate Melted Cake!)
ind a private hideout: The pool deck can get really crowded, noisy and crazy with activities. Dan and I generally find a private little nook where we can hear ourselves talk, play cards or read a book. Vacations are meant to be relaxing, remember? This gives us a chance for some peaceful, quiet time together!
Where and When To Eat: Every ship has different food options – the buffet, the main dining rooms, pizza shop, the deli, specialty restaurants, seafood and/or sushi shacks, etc. Familiarize yourself with each one you’re interested in. Some are complimentary; some have an additional charge. Check their operating hours so you don’t go looking for a burrito at midnight, only to find the Mexican kiosk closed at 9:00 pm. When eating in the main dining room (and I highly recommend you have your meals there if you don’t like the crowds from the Buffet lines!), don’t limit yourself to just one entrée if there are several that catch your eye! Your servers won’t think less of you, so enjoy! When there’s steak and lobster (two separate entrée’s), I have no problem asking for both! And don’t be afraid to order an appetizer and a salad – or two appetizers and a salad! This is your chance to try new things or feast on favorites!
Take at Least One Excursion! If you haven’t decided on an excursion and booked it online prior to departure, no worries: The Excursion Desk staff are happy to help you when you’re onboard. One of the greatest things about cruising is the opportunity to explore other countries – and there are so many options available! Whether you are a daredevil and want to try an adventure sport, take a tour of your new location, go shopping or try several culinary options, there’s truly something for everyone, and for everyone’s budget! Some locations don’t require a paid excursion – if you just want to hit the beach or go shopping, you can generally take a cab for a minimal amount. Or you can just walk around and see where your feet lead you. The important thing is to get off the ship now and then and enjoy your new destination. Just be sure to be back onboard in plenty of time! Contrary to popular belief: the ship WILL leave you if you miss departure! (The only exception to this is if a ship-sponsored excursion is late returning to port – the ship will wait for you in that case but ONLY in that case!).
Disembark Early or Late: When arriving in port, unless you have a booked excursion with an early departure time, consider taking your time getting off the ship. Have breakfast and chill a little while the rest of the passengers fight their way to the pier. Far less stressful! And you have the bonus of having the buffet or dining room all to yourself – almost! (Others are reading this blog and taking advantage of this tip as well!)
Enjoy the Ship While in Port: Okay, yes. I did say make sure you get OFF the boat at least once during your cruise, so you can explore your destination. But it’s also fun to stay ON the ship now and then and enjoy having it pretty much to yourself! The pool deck and hot tubs are virtually empty, there’s no line at the deli or hamburger joint, and you can get some great in-port deals at the spa!
Bargaining is Totally Acceptable: Are you planning on doing some shopping on your next cruise? Don’t be afraid to haggle with vendors – including the fancy jewelry stores! While bargaining isn’t considered kosher in America, Caribbean and European vendors totally expect it and, in fact, don’t expect you to pay their first asking price! Just remember to remain respectful as you’re wheeling and dealing. Shopping shouldn’t be stressful!
Time to Return Home (UG!) Just like with boarding, you want to get off the ship with as little hustle and bustle as possible – no reason to ruin a perfect vacation by stressing out upon your return! If you don’t have a plane to catch, enjoy breakfast and coffee and be one of the last passengers to disembark. By the time you get off, most of your fellow passengers will have retrieved their luggage and hailed their cabs or shuttles, so you won’t have to fight the crowds! If you have a plane to catch, consider keeping your luggage with you so you’re first to disembark. I’ll let you in on a secret that Dan and I have used for many years of stress-free disembarking: we check our luggage at night, using one of the last disembark codes available (even though we have priority disembarking, we do NOT use it!). We get up in the morning and have a leisurely breakfast, then enjoy a 2nd cup of coffee while everyone else is doing the mad dash to the pier. When we finally do leave (at last call or thereabouts!), we get off the ship and find the first free porter – and pop him a $20 bill. We describe our luggage, he goes and retrieves it, puts it on his cart and walks us through Customs and out to our shuttle. Boat to shuttle: 10 minutes. Try it … you’ll be amazed at how well it works!
And Finally: Don’t Delay! As one guest on the Carnival Magic put it: “Don’t wait so late in life to enjoy your first cruise.” Cruising may not be for everyone – but you’ll never know if you don’t try. And if it turns out you absolutely LOVE it, like we do, then wouldn’t you want many more years to enjoy cruising?
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