Boats · Travel

30 Tips for First Time Cruisers

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I’ll be honest, we never thought cruising would be for us. We had misconceptions that were quickly squashed as we embarked on our first sea adventure. Cruising is a very different kind of trip from our previous holidays, and it was a steep learning curve. Now, we are hooked! To help you have the best time on your first cruise vacation, here are our top tips for first time cruisers.

Virgin Voyages Scarlett lady crusie ship from the stern, moored alongside Grandeur of the Seas cruise ship

Booking Tips for First Time Cruisers

1.) Remember that Cruising is For Everybody

You may have the idea that cruising is only for the older generations or super niche groups. However, you’ll be surprised at just what a broad spectrum of people you’ll see. Keep an open mind and you can meet people from all walks of life of life.

As a general rule, you can try and estimate your fellow sailors by considering these things:

  • School Holidays – If you sail during school vacations, there is likely to be a greater percentage of families with children.
  • The Usual Suspects – Do a little research on each cruise line’s usual customer. Virgin Voyages is adults-only so you won’t find anyone under 18. Cunard tends to attract an older crowd that are a little more placid. Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian can bring the party, whereas Celebrity, Silversea and Princess cruise lines tend to be a little quieter. Crystal, Windstar, Regent Seven Stars and Azamara have well-travelled, well-off passengers who like a bit of luxury and excellent food,. Disney Cruise Line will of course have many families with young children…and a fair few Disney adults.
  • Cruise Length – Shorter cruises tend to attract a younger crowd.
  • Cruise Countries – Picking a European cruise line like Costa, MSC or Celestyal to sail the Med, you will find many more Europeans speaking a variety of languages.

2.) Try a Travel Agent

Being a fiercely independent traveller, my usual travel style steers well clear of package holidays and travel agents. However, when it comes to cruising, they are often the best way to go. Check out their prices as sometimes they can get a better rate for your cruise. Even if the prices are the same, they often have access to fun freebies and add ons that us mere mortals can’t add to our bookings for free.

3.) Consider the Full Itinerary

Cruise itineraries can change right up until the day you are due to dock in a certain port. We have had one cruise that changed from Dominican Republic to Mexico, and one that tried to dock for Rome but had to abort and then totally skipped Malta all thanks to rough seas.

If you have your heart set on one particular stop and things go wrong, it could ruin your whole vacation. Instead, choose a cruise that has lots of stops that sound interesting, you can always go to your bucket list destination on another trip. (You will probably want longer than a port day there anyway).

4.) Research Your Ports Beforehand

On port days, it is best to have a plan. Your time on land is short and you don’t want to waste half of it planning what to do. Have a few ideas up your sleeve on what to see, where to eat or activities you’d like to do. This gives a chance to figure out a good itinerary, or book a tour, rather than either dashing from pillar to post or staring blankly at a tourist map. We create google map pins and then devise a route between them. Then we can use the map to guide us once we are on land.

Planning Tips for First Time Cruisers

5.) Join a Facebook Group


Facebook is the place to go if you are booked on a cruise. It is almost guaranteed that there will be a group for that specific sailing. Even if there isn’t, there will definitely be a general fans page of each cruise line that you can join. This is wonderful for meeting your fellow cruisers and to ask questions of more experienced sailors.

5.) Learn the Lingo

Cruising seems to have its own language and getting a handle on some of the terminology makes things a little easier. Some cruise terms you’ll need for first cruise:

  • Port – Left (left as you look towards the front of the ship).
  • Starboard – Right (right as you look towards the front of the ship).
  • Aft/ Stern – The back of the ship.
  • Fore/Bow – The front of the ship.
  • Midship – The middle of the ship…maybe that one is obvious?
  • The Wake – The churned up water that the ship leaves as it moves through the water.
  • Stateroom – Your room.
  • Cabin Steward – The person responsible for keeping your room clean and tidy. You will have the same person the whole time.
  • Lido – The pool deck where you will find the pool and relaxation area around.
  • Main Dining – The buffet or main a la carte restaurant.
  • Speciality Dining – Smaller restaurants serving a specific cuisine or style of cooking. It’s usually better quality than main dining.
  • Drinks Package – Usually a prepaid amount of money per day which allows you a certain kind of drink.
  • All Aboard – This is time everyone needs to be back on the ship. After this time, the doors will be hut and you will be left behind.
  • Ship Time – The time used by the ship. This may not corelate to the destination it is docked.
  • Sail Away – When the ship leaves a port.
  • Port of Call – One of the places your ship will stop during the cruise.
  • Embarkation – The first time you get on board.
  • Disembarkation The final time you get off the ship.
  • Shore Excursion – An organised tour on land in one of your ports of call.
  • Tender – A small boat which will run between the ship and the port (if the ship cannt dock).
  • Formal/Gala Night A night where everyone gets dressed up in their fanciest gear and you may have a few extra events.
  • Cruise Ship – I know you know what this is, but remember, it is a SHIP…not a boat.

Some cruise lines do have their own terms for these things but this is a good basis. – Photo by zaurrahimov

6.) Battle With Cruise Line Technology

Most cruise lines these days have some form of app. These can usually be used to book shows, reserve dining and more. We say battle because they are often a little glitchy or a little too simple. Before you travel, download the app and get used to it. App usage varies wildly but you can usually make dining, show and activity reservations, see you on board charges and sometimes you can watch your muster video ahead of time…which is nice.

As you board, you will be given a cruise card, or a wearable RFID piece of tech. This is normally used for all purchases on board, as your stateroom key and to leave or rejoin the ship on port days. Don’t lose it! Usually, your credit card will be linked to the cruise card and all charges will be taken automatically so you will be cash free. – Picture by Kenterville

The TV in your room is more than likely a smart TV. Depending on the cruise line, it can show you menus in the restaurants, the daily schedule and will hopefully have some decent films included. On Windstar, they even have live cameras so we could check how busy the pool was.

7.) Compare the Shore Excursions

As a general rule, tours on shore, led by the cruise line aren’t super cheap. In plenty of ports, it is easy enough to do your own thing and have a lovely day out for far less money. However, there are some advantages of booking with your cruise line:

  • The ship will wait for its own tours. If they are missing a coach load of passengers and they are with their own tour guide, they will delay departure.
  • Tours that go further afield are usually worth the expense when compared with getting a taxi or a private tour by yourself.
  • They sometimes include food or wine stops that are laid on especially for the cruise, meaning you won’t find them if you going independently.

8.) Book Things Early

When it comes to cruising, it pays to be an early bird.

  • Excursions – Book as soon as you have chosen to avoid your choices selling out. All of the tours have a limited capacity and one the spots are gone, they are gone.
  • Packages – Drinks packages take a bit of consideration. Will you get your money’s worth? Well, if you decide to go with it, book it before you travel. Packages are often more expensive once you have boarded. The same goes for speciality dining packages and sometimes the WIFI too.
  • Shows – Book your choice as soon as you can to ensure you see what you want, when you want. Not only that, be early to the theatre. If you want the pick of the seats, you need to turn up embarrassingly early. Grab a drink or a snack from the bar and relax as you queue.

Packing Tips for First Time Cruisers

9.) Check the Weather

Of course you will be hoping for perfect blue skies and calm seas but it might not be the case. Check the weather a couple of days before you leave and adjust your packing accordingly.

  • Chuck in an umbrella or rain mac if it looks like it might be showery. You may only have one day to explore a city and it is good to have the right gear.
  • If you are sailing off season, you might get lucky and get more sun than you are expecting. Remember your sunnies, a hat and sunscreen (these all cost a lot on the ship and sun cream can be hard to source in winter in Europe).
  • Don’t forget to check the wind. If you get seasick at all, the wind can make the waves worse so you might need to pick up some seasickness pills. You may also want to consider whether a big flowy skirt is going to work on a gale and whether or not to invest in some chunky towel clips for the pool deck.

10.) What to Pack in Your Hand Luggage

On the embarkation day of your cruise, you will arrive at the port and pass your big bags over to the porters. You may be asked to tag your own bags, or they may do it for you. Some cruise lines even send you baggage tags ahead of time to make this even easier.

Well, there are a few things you will want to take with you as you board. You may not get those big bags until later in the day. This is out list of things to bring with you:

For the full list and explanations of everything, click on any of the list links or check out our blog post. – Photo by belchonock

11.) What to Pack in Your Big Bags


What you pack clothing wise depends very much on the kind of cruise line you are sailing with.

  • Day Clothes – Day time on the ship and exploring in port require casual clothing. We advise a mix and match items (a capsule wardrobe).
  • Evening Clothes – Cunard is a very formal affair with one or two gala/formal nights where women wear fancy dresses and the gents don a tux. Then there’s Virgin Voyages with their Scarlet Night, wear everyone is encouraged to have a splash of red and their PJ night (which is self explanatory).
  • Good Sandals – Decent sandals with some tread. Cheap flip flops with flat soles can turn into skis when they hit puddles on the pool deck so find something a bit more grippy.
  • Warm Gear – Temperatures can dip in the evening, especially on European cruises, so bring a couple of evening layers. You may also find some fierce air conditioning on board so having a little something to throw around your shoulders at dinner or in the theatre is a good plan.
  • Active Wear – If you plan to hit the gym during your sailing, remember to bring your gear. Even if you aren’t going to be on the running machine, you might want some “easy to move in” clothes to try the ropes course or climbing wall on board or active pursuits in port.
  • Sensible Heels – Tottering around on thin, lofty heels on a cruise ship can lead to an accident. Carports, slippery pool decks and the swaying of the ship make it a bit dangerous. If you are bringing heels, make sure they are secure on your feet and a little lower than your average.

So that is clothing taken care of. Then there a few accessories you will want to bring too:

  • Ear Plugs – The walls on a cruise ship aren’t quite as soundproof as you might want. Whether you have noisy neighbours, are near lifts full of rowdy passengers or are a little too close to evening entertainment, you can block it all out when you are ready for bed.
  • Plugs – The most common issue with plugs on cruise ships is that there aren’t enough. This is especially true of older ships. You can bring a multiplug as long as it is not surge protected and doesn’t have an extension cord. Check out the plugs on reviews or videos to see if you will need any kind of adaptor.
  • Magnetic Hooks – Cruise ship walls are made of metal so you can hang a few magnetic hooks up. This is a handy place to put hats, lanyards other bits that are awkward to store but needed quickly.
  • A Bottle – A refillable bottle can be taken around the ship with you and refilled at the water or soft drink stations. You can also take water off with you when you go ashore. You’ll be saving pennies and plastic waste all at once.
  • A Watch – If you want a phone free time, or your phone automatically updates to local time, it is a good idea to have an old fashioned watch with you. Set it to ship time and make sure you don’t miss your ship leaving!
  • Toiletries – Your stateroom will probably have all the toiletries you’ll need (soap, shower gel and hair care). However, if you have a favourite then bring it with you. Don’t forget sun cream as this can cost a fortune on board.
  • Air Freshener – Bringing a little loo spray can help keep the unpleasant odours at bay in the confined space. Some people also bring reed diffusers for the room.
  • First Aid Kit – Cruise ships have a medical room but they aren’t free to use. Bring a little kit with all the essentials to tide you over.
  • Waterproof Bag – Keeping your swimming gear from dripping everywhere when travelling back from the beach or down from the pool is a good plan.
  • Waterproof Phone Case – One of these little water tight bags means that you can keep your phone and other small valuables with you when you are at the beach, and that you can use your phone in the water if you want.
  • A Day Bag – Bring a bag for port days. I like a little rucksack but a crossbody works just as well. – Photo by AllaSerebrina

12.) Avoid Overpacking

All that being said, try to keep your packing to a sensible level. There might not much of a restriction on the luggage you can bring, but you have to get it to the ship and home again. Incurring baggage fees with your airline, or cramming your car full of stuff isn’t fun. Remember, you can usually utilise laundry on board, whether that is a service or, like Disney, they have a laundrette you can use.

Two people for six days…not too bad

13.) Leave Banned Items at Home

Cruises lines have a substantial list of things that you cannot bring onboard with you. These items will be removed from your bags and if caught with them later in the cruise, you could be kicked off. Check the FAQs for any specifics, but as a general list, avoid brining; – Photo by [email protected]
  • Irons and Steamers – It would be nice to have these for your clothes but as they both produce heat, they are not allowed. Instead, you can get the laundry service to do Mel pieces, or pack clothes that don’t wrinkle much. Oh, and don’t forget the old “hang it in the bathroom while you shower” trick.
  • Hot Hair Tools – This can vary but curling tongs and hot rollers are normally banned.
  • Food – Usually, you cannot bring your own food on board but if you have specific dietary requirements, contact the cruise line ahead of time and some arrangements can be made.
  • Kitchen Appliances – You can’t bring your own coffee or waffle makers. If you are desperate for espresso, some people have gotten away with little camping espresso makers but there’s no guarantee
  • Drones – If you need one for content creation, special arrangements can sometimes be made .
  • Weapons – Come on now, why would you need one. Of course you can’t bring a knife or gun, but don’t forget that pepper spray also counts and is also banned.
  • Drugs – Illegal drugs should be left at home. Bear in mind that something that is legal where you live might not where you are going. Stick to cocktails!
  • Flames – Leave the candles, incense and matches at home. Stick to battery candles if you really want some.
  • Alcohol – Some cruise lines allow you to bring a bottle of wine each on your first day. However, any alcohol you buy during your cruise (unusual Caribbean rum, fancy tequila or incredible French wine) will be taken away as you arrive back to the ship. Sometimes you can buy bottles on board and these are also taken away from you. All of these drinks are kept in booze jail until the end of the cruise.

14.) Leave Your Camo at Home

This is not a cruise rule specifically but as it applies to many countries around the world, including the Caribbean we thought it was worth mentioning. 18 countries (including Antigua, Barbados and Jamaica) it is illegal to wear army print or camouflage clothing. Even if it a cute pink variety, it is not allowed. Leave any and all camo gear at home. – Picture by Voyagerix

15.) Don’t Forget Your Travel Documents

Many closed loop cruises (cruises that depart from the same port the end at) allow you to sail just using your birth certificate and a photo ID. However, we think it is best to have a passport for two reasons:

1 – Many cruise ports use facial recognition machines, linked to your passport photos. Things so much quicker than waiting for the manned desks.

2 – If there is an emergency and you need to get home, making travel arrangements will be so, so much easier with a passport.

Jet2 boarding pass inside a red UK Passport

16.) Bring Dollars and Fee Free Cards


You won’t be using cash on board for purchases but you may want it for your port days. If you are sticking to the port areas, especially in the Caribbean, you will see that many places take dollars. If you are cruising in the Mediterranean, make sure you check whether every port you are going to is within the Euro Zone. There are still plenty of countries with their own currencies and when they accept euros, it usually comes with a significant mark up.

You may also want ready cash to tip any staff that have gone above and beyond, or your housekeeping staff at the end of the cruise.

Fee Free Cards

If you are planning to use your card in other countries then make sure it doesn’t charge fees. Even for on board charges, if you don’t have a bank account in dollars, it could cost you extra in fees. We love prepaid cards like Revolut and Monzo for everyday purchases and a nice points-heavy card for the final bill. Oh, and always pay in local currency. Paying in your home currency means they can charge whatever terrible exchange rate they fancy….and it is never going to be good.

Tips for Getting to Your Cruise

17.) Arrive at the Port a Day Early (at Least)

Travel disruption is not that unusual. Give yourself a little extra time to get to your destination. It would be pretty terrible to miss your cruises’ departure. Travelling domestically in the USA, there are lots of flights so a day in advance is fine.

If you are going across the pond or further afield though, two or three days is the best plan. You can explore your origin port city, something people often forget to do. It will also give you a little more time to tackle jet lag.

18.) Stick to Your Embarkation Time

At some point before you travel, you will be allotted an embarkation time. You may be given the chance to pick it yourself too, which is nice. Our advice for arriving on the day is don’t turn up too early…and definitely don’t be late. Aim for around 15-20 minutes before your listed time (to build in some contingency). Do remember that you could be lining up in the heat/cold/sun/rain as you wait for your turn and won’t always have cover.

On Board Tips for First Time Cruisers

19.) Skip the Buffet on Day One

As soon as they board, everyone goes straight to the buffet. It will be super busy and could set your cruise off on the wrong foot. Instead, explore the ship. Maybe you could head to the pool and have it all to yourself. For food, there may be sit down restaurants that are open for lunch but just not really advertised. You’ll have a much nicer start if you avoid the crowd.

Virgin Voyages Pool surrounded by blue sun loungers
The Virgin Voyages pool on day one

20.) Slow Down or Speed Up There is So Much to Do

You will have to make a choice. Are you taking your cruise to do everything, eat everything and experience everything the ship has to offer or are you taking it to completely chill out?

Try Everything

If your ship has a go karting ring, a ropes course, a waterpark and fun classes etc, we advise you to do the fun things earlier in the cruise. These things tend to be less busy as many people think “Ah, we have time to get to those later”, or they might not discover them until later in the sailing. Plus, you never know what the weather will do. I skipped the ropes course on my first day on MSC and then the waves meant it was shut for the whole week after that. Doh!

For the daily activities, you will get a schedule either on paper or on the app. Pick two activities you really want to do and make sure you can get to those. Then, if you find yourself twiddling your thumbs, pick it up again and see what else is going on. You’ll be exhausted if you try and fill every day.

Chill Out

If you are just here to chill, don’t bother with the daily schedule. Let the info bomb pass you by, find a nice spot on the ship and relaaaaaax.

21) Keep the Ships Contact

Have a way to contact the ship just incase you find yourself in any trouble in port. We take a business card and pop the phone number in our phones. We aren’t saying the ship will wait for you, but they can help arrange things if the unexpected occurs.

22.) Keep Your Phone in Airplane Mode

When you are on the ship, remember to turn off your data roaming. Phones can connect to marine roaming data and that costs a small fortune. You could also accidentally connect to different country’s networks which you have no roaming agreement with.

I feel foul of this on my Celestyal Cruise. Thinking, “Oh, we are just bouncing between Greek Islands so we will be fine”, I left my roaming on. Well, we sailed a little too close to the Turkish coast overnight. My phone continued to download emails and other things and I zoomed right up to my spending cap as I slept.

23.) Watch Out for Extra Charges

With some cruise lines, the price you see ifs the price you pay. However, plenty of others will be nickle and diming you enthusiastically and adding harges to your room as you travel. Here are some of the costs you need to consider as you sail:

  • Tips – Many cruise lines add a daily gratuity of $15-20 per day for housekeeping and 15-20% on each alcoholic drink purchased.
  • Tax – Some drinks and food purchases have tax added yo the price in the menu. This can be up to 20% so ask before you buy.
  • Room Service – Most cruise lines tack on a charge if you order things to your room. Consider this before you order your breakfast in bed.
  • Fitness Classes – Usualy, not all your gym classes are included. Before you book on to try one of the most fun sounding options, check if there is a charge.
  • Onboard Amenities – The ropes course, go karts, spa facilities and other cool amenities may incur an fee. Check this out before you get overexcited about using them.
  • Internet – It is rare to see free internet on cruise ships. Even with lines that offer it, you may want to pay to upgrade to a faster package. If you want to stay connected to the outside world, this is a cost you will need to factor in.
  • Corkage Fees – Sometimes you are able to bring your on bottles of wine on board. However if you plan on drinking them outside of your cabin (in the dining room for instance) they may charge a corkage fee for the privilege. Instead, sip it on your balcony or as you get ready for dinner.
  • Dinner – When you are perusing the dinner menus, avoid the upcharge items. Usually, some giant steak or fancy seafood is has an extra charge. You are also probably going to pay to eat in the speciality restaurants or grab ice creams or cookies etc from dessert shops elsewhere on board. Don’t just assume all of the food is included.
  • Port Fees – It would be unusual not to have port fees included in your cruise fare but do check, especially if you find a crazy cheap price. – Picture by monkeybusiness

24.) Don’t Forget to Muster

On day one, you will be just getting into the swing of things when it all comes to screeching halt. It is muster time. You may be required to watch a video in your cabin, or on the cruise’s app, and then make your way to your must station for a quick familiarisation. On old school lines, you may have a full talk and demo so it all takes a while longer.

Muster drills are a requirement for all passengers and the ship cannot get underway until it is done so whatever you do, don’t skip it and avoid getting to drunk before muster time.

25.) Try Some Brave Dining Options

One of the best things about dining on a cruise ship is that you can usually eat as much as you like. If you can’t choose between two starters, you can have both. This means you can order all sorts of things you may have never tried with impunity. First taste of sushi? Never nibbled on an enchilada? Give them a go! On a recent sailing, I got my first ever taste of beef wellington. It costs so much in restaurants that i was always reluctant to order it, just in case it wasn’t to my taste. Well, I got it and it was delicious.

One caveat to this: Please don’t order more than you can eat and waste food. Don’t pile a buffet plate and leave half of it whilst going to get another plate full. If you don’t like it, then fine but other than that; if you order it, you should eat it!

26.) Leave Time to Get Around the Ship

Big ships mean long walks. Not only that, but there can be long waits for lifts/elevators. Leave plenty of time to move from place to place or you may find yourself being constantly late and feeling like you are playing catch up. A good fifteen minute gap between dining and activities i a good start. If you want to pick up a beverage en route, make it 30.

27.) Visit Guest Services at Odd Hours

Guest services is the hub of the ship in so many ways. They deal with financial matters, complaints, bookings and more. Avoid peak times or you could be stood in an unmoving queue. People tend to visit on their way to dinner or in midafternoon of sea days. To have it a little quieter, pop by first thing in the morning, late at night, or during port days. Your query will be dealt with in a more timely manner, and the crew will be feeling a little less harassed.

28.) Tips for Cruising with Kids

  • Clubs – If you are cruising with children, you may well have access to a kid’s club of sorts. These guys will keep the little ones (and bigger ones) entertained as you relax and do your own thing. Register with the club on day one to familiarise them with both the location and the staff. The more comfortable they are, the easier it will be to drop them off during the cruise.
  • Buggies – Cruises can sometimes provide pushchairs/buggies/strollers which saves you the hassle of binging them with you. These can be used both on board and in port to save little legs and tired adult shoulders.
  • Snacks – Grab prepacked snacks when you spot them around the ship. If you have a small person that is hungry at night, this is the best way to solve the problem.
  • Over Pack – There is one exception to my overpacking warning. Bring more nappies, wipes and other childcare essentials that you think you will need. You can’t just pop to a shop if you run out at sea.
  • Dining – Pick the early dining time if thee are fixed dinner sittings. You can always grab a dessert at the buffet later if everyone is still up and getting peckish.
  • Organisation – A tip that we haven’t used but is a great idea is to bring an over the door hanging organiser. You can pop toys, loose items and essentials into the plastic slots and keep the cabin tidy.
  • Babies – A few baby things to consider: Many cruise lines don’t allow babies younger than six months so don’t rush straight off to sail once you are out of labour. Check whether you can use swim nappies in the pools. Talking of nappies, ask for extra bin bags to dispose of used nappies/diapers. Apparently Disney Cruise Line has Daiper Genies that you can request, which is nice.

30.) Stick to Ship Time

All aboard is based on ship time. Remember, this It is not always the same as local time so when they say “All aboard is 4 o’clock ship time” it could be a totally different time on land. You don’t want to be a “Pier Runner”.” That’s another piece of cruise jargon for you. A “Pier Runner” is someone that is going to miss their sai laway, or has done. I live in fear of this after watching far too many Youtube videos like this:

Final Thoughts on our Tips for First Time Cruisers

We hope you have the best time on your first cruise and that these tips help you out. If you think we have missed anything, let us know in the comments!

Rosie xx

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