My first cruise was a consecutive Eastern and Western Caribbean cruise back in 2014. Before I went, I had an idea in my head of what a cruise holiday was going to be like. I’ll let you in a secret: it largely consisted of bingo and afternoon naps. Well, let me tell you just how wrong I was! It was the most incredible holiday I’ve ever been on and has largely become my favourite way to travel. Why go in a floating aluminium tin can, when you could sail whilst eating luxury three-course meals, rock climbing with a fantastic view, or watching a live showing of Grease?!
Since then, we’ve been on 8 cruises with two different cruise lines and have learnt a lot of cruise hacks along the way. For those of you who are about to embark on your first ever cruise holiday, I wanted to share some of my best first-time cruise tips for before you book, before you board and after you get there. From bringing booze on board to packing a shawl to shield yourself from the AC, here are some cruise ship tips for you.
- 1 First-time cruise tips for before you book
- 2 First-time cruise tips for planning your holiday
- 3 First-time cruise tips for after you board the ship
- 3.1 Don’t be afraid to take a port day off to enjoy the ship
- 3.2 Check out the spa on the first day
- 3.3 Skip the elevators where you can
- 3.4 Know where you can eat
- 3.5 Find a quiet hideaway
- 3.6 Know the costs and be prepared
- 3.7 Chat with the crew
- 3.8 Get to the entertainment early
- 3.9 Catch a sunrise or a sunset at sea
- 3.10 Shop my photography
First-time cruise tips for before you book
Know the cruise line
Each cruise line is targeted towards different demographics. Knowing the key differences between each will make it a lot easier for you to decide between them. One of my best cruise tricks and tips is to think about what you’re looking for in the holiday. Whether that be something relaxing, family-friendly, fun or fancy, match this up with what the cruise line offers.
I personally tend towards Royal Caribbean because, while they charge a more premium price, the entertainment is incredible. There’s so much to do on board and, as they’re focused towards being more ‘family friendly’, there really is something of all ages. I can learn to surf while my sisters watch an ice skating show and my parents attend an art auction – it’s perfect!
Know the ship
Although all ships get a refurb every 6-7 years, you won’t find the latest technology and the most entertaining activities on board an old one. In general, the newer ships will have the coolest and most exciting things, and they’re where you can really get the most for your money. One of my cruise tips is, if you’re looking for towering water slides, ice skating rinks and surf simulators, steer yourself towards the newest ships.
Know the itinerary
In general, people pick the cruise for the itinerary and the ship. That means the demographic you’re surrounded with will change depending on when you go, where you go and what ship you’re on. Both our cruises to the Caribbean have been filled with a wide range of ages, though a higher than average amount of honeymooners and young couples. Our Scandinavian & Russian cruise, however, was a very different story. The staff work hard to personalise each cruise’s experiences to the population on board – the entertainment and the food etc will all change based on who you’re travelling with. One of my best tips for first-time cruisers is to make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into!
If you can book early, do it!
Whether it be the cruise itself, your excursions, or the internet package you wanted to purchase, book as early as possible. If you’re new to cruising, advice I always give is that excursions, drink packages and internet are always more expensive once you’re on board. Pre-book by calling the helpdesk or online, and you’ll save yourself a decent chunk of money. Don’t forget to keep an eye out for offers to get the best deal!
First-time cruise tips for planning your holiday
Stateroom location is key
Picking the perfect cabin is more than just deciding between an interior stateroom and one with an ocean view. In fact, what’s more important is your cabin location. In fact, stateroom location is one of the first things we decide when we’re booking!
Go for a room near the elevators to save yourselves (what feels like) 3 hours of walking every morning. This is particularly true on larger, flagship ships.
If you’re seasick, I’d recommend booking mid-ship where you’re least likely to feel the rocking of the ship.
Are you a party animal or do you like an early night? Keep an eye on the biggest entertainment spots on board – the clubs, theatres and atriums – they can get loud.
If you’re a proper gym-goer and are hoping to go every morning, book a room nearby so you’re encouraged to go.
Request a large table for dinner seating
A larger table means more people to chat to – it’s an easy choice. Remember: you’ll spend all day, every day, with your SO and sometimes it’s nice to meet other people to get holiday stories and tips from. Saying that, if you’re travelling in a big group or with your family, request a large table to yourselves as soon as you book (they fill up quickly!) It’s nice having family dinners together, and the food in the main dining rooms is always incredible – it feels like a nice treat every evening!
Arrive early on your first day
Just like at an airport, you’ll need to go through security at the cruise terminal and then check in. It’s not exactly the most glamorous start to a holiday and it’s pretty sucky when the queue gets long. We once arrived at peak time (1pm) and queued for over an hour before being able to board! The earlier to you arrive, the quicker you can get on the boat. The other positive to this is that it’ll be empty and pristine – it’s the perfect time to explore the boat, see what’s around, and take photos with no one in the background!
Know what to pack
Obviously, pack for your destination, but don’t forget about your time onboard. Here are some of my best cruise packing tricks and tips:
Pack a shawl / scarf. The ship’s air conditioning can often be quite high, and it can get very chilly in the innermost areas, particularly the formal dining rooms and the theatre.
Research the recommended evening attire for your cruise. As a general rule of thumb, a 7 day cruise will have 2 formal nights, 2 semi-formal nights and 3 casuals, but this can change depending on the itinerary and the cruise line. Cunard and P&O will be fancier than, for example, Royal Caribbean, and formal evening attire will be expected. However, the newer cruise lines and the more family-friendly ones tend to be more relaxed in their expectations.
Don’t bother packing a hair dryer – they’ll give you one in your cabin.
Unless you’re flying into the port, remember that most cruise lines don’t have a maximum luggage allowance. No need to worry about being overweight! Bring that extra pair of shoes .. or two.
Bring a hanging laundry rack that you can put in the shower. There are laundry services onboard, but they’re often not cheap, and washing a few clothes in your stateroom sink will be much more budget-friendly.
Know the alcohol tolerances for your cruise line. Depending on who you’re travelling with, you may be able to bring a few bottles of wine on board with you. This is definitely my best cruise hack; it’s much cheaper than buying some when you’re there. It can also be nice to have a small glass while getting ready for dinner. You’re not supposed to take it outside your stateroom, but we frequently ask our room attendants to bring us glasses so we can fill one and then leave. They don’t ask questions (or maybe they don’t care) and no one else is any the wiser!
Check to see if you can bring soft drinks on board the ship. Use the saved money for your next cruise!
Pack ALL the toiletries, medication and others that you might need. Whilst shopping on board is well-priced and duty free, this doesn’t include the essentials such as medication and toiletries. These tend to be ridiculously expensive. Bring everything you think you’ll need whilst on board, particularly if you’re doing a transatlantic cruise with no ports. Don’t be like me and end up having to pay $10 for tampons!
A water bottle. The bigger the ship, the further you’ll likely need to walk to get some tap water. Bring a water bottle that you can refill
Bring your swimwear in your hand luggage
When you arrive, the crew at the dock will kindly take your suitcases off you and drop them to your cabin by late afternoon / evening. This service has definitely spoilt me, because I never want to have to lug my stuff around again! I recommend bringing some swimwear in your hand luggage so, while the boat is empty, you can enjoy the pools / jacuzzis / spas. This is probably one of my cruise hacks – you’ll never fall more in love with a ship than when you enjoy it whilst it’s empty.
Plan your own excursions
Pre-planned excursions are great – they’re less effort, you get picked up and dropped back to port, and you never have to worry about the ship leaving without you. For those few luxuries, you tend to pay a largely inflated price. It’s worth doing some research before you board to find out what you want to do at each port. If you’re planning a long excursion, like scuba diving or island hopping, then it’s worth booking one through your cruise line. If you’re looking for a relaxing day and want to explore the town, do so yourself! You’ll find plenty of taxi stands at the port, and you’ll get an even better deal if you walk a little further away and find one outside the harbour. Put your cost savings towards buying souvenirs for your friends and family instead… Just make sure the ship doesn’t leave without you.
First-time cruise tips for after you board the ship
Don’t be afraid to take a port day off to enjoy the ship
When there’s so much to do, sometimes you need a whole day to make the most of it! On port days, the ship is almost empty as everyone gets off to enjoy the port. That’s usually my favourite time to enjoy an empty pool deck, take part in some of the popular sports activities or relax in an empty jacuzzi.
Check out the spa on the first day
If you like having an entire sauna to yourself (we all do, let’s not lie) then be sure to check it out on your fist day. All the other guests will be too busy soaking in the ship and learning their way around, and won’t have had a chance to check out the spa. But, of course, you’ll have followed these tips so will already have done all of that!
Skip the elevators where you can
They’re busy, they stop at every floor on your journey from deck 2 to deck 16, and it feels like being on the London Underground. If you’re able to use the stairs instead, I definitely recommend it. Builds an appetite for your next meal, too!
Know where you can eat
There are so many places on the ship where you can find food. Learn them! Know where they are, what times they’re open and which ones are free. You’ll never go hungry again! I recommend doing some pre-cruise research on where people suggest eating – you might discover something new. For example, on Royal Caribbean’s Harmony of the Seas, I highly recommend the Park Café if you want a quiet, healthy lunch. They have an incredible salad bar and the ingredients change daily.
Find a quiet hideaway
On a big ship, you’ll be travelling with up to 7,000 other passengers. The popular areas on the ship can get busy – and I mean busy! Find yourself an undiscovered hideaway that you can relax in for some quiet time. For you first time cruisers, my favourites are:
The adult solarium. Particularly on the larger Royal Caribbean ships, where they no longer have their own pool, I’ve only ever seen it 30% full.
The library. As it’s indoors, I don’t use it on a warm cruise, but it’s a great relaxing spot when the weather outside isn’t so great.
The sports court. Can’t find a sun lounger by the pool? You’ll almost always find one here!
Know the costs and be prepared
There can be a lot of added costs on a cruise ship, but most are avoidable. Between tipping the staff (mandatory on American cruise lines), buying alcohol / drinks, dining at the specialty restaurants and enjoying the added-cost entertainment (indoor skydiving or an IMAX movie, anyone?), the costs can really add up. If you’re new to cruising, my advice is to do your research before you board. Know what’s included in your cruise booking and what’s not to save yourself some unnecessary costs.
Chat with the crew
A cruise ship will often do the same itinerary every week for a few months, meaning the crew become very accustomed with each port. That means they’ll likely know the best places to go and are often my go-to for port advice. Make friends with them and you never know what you’ll find out. From cruise hacks to learning what life’s like as a crew member, you’ll learn the best cruise secrets and tips from the staff.
Get to the entertainment early
Seats get full quickly – especially for the headliners of the week (musicals, aqua shows, game shows etc). I recommend trying to be seated at least 15-20 minutes before the show’s about to start.
Catch a sunrise or a sunset at sea
It might not feel worth it when you’re waking up at 5am, but I promise it will be. The sunrises on board the ship are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen! Grab a coffee and hit the sun decks for a beautiful view. We took advantage of our early start by hitting an empty gym and jacuzzi after the sun was up – definitely worth it!