The more we do something, the more we learn. Each experience allows us to be a little bit more savvy and able to avoid the mistakes of the past.
The same goes for cruising. The more you go, the more equipped you are with the details and experiences to know your likes and dislikes. You can better refine your preparation, packing and onboard practices so that you have an even more amazing cruise each time out.
With that in mind, here are the 10 things that I wish I knew before I took my first cruise.
Before My First Cruise
You Don’t Need to Pack So Much
We were genuine excited for my first cruise – sailing on Carnival Inspiration out of New Orleans almost two decades ago – so we packed a lot. Much more than we needed, really, for a weeklong trip to the Caribbean.
The main culprits were the extra casual clothes and shoes. Sure, we needed some fancy items for dinners, but we found that we spent most of our time during the days in our swimsuits and sandals. So, we had too much casual wear. Also, a lot of the extras, like books and magazines, went untouched as we had so much else to do during the week. We now pack much lighter, and if we have to wear the same shirt or shorts a couple times, that works just fine and greatly lightens our load.
We now can typically do carry-on only for our flights.
Drinks Packages Are the Way to Go
Cruise lines offer all-you-can-drink plans. Note: Carnival Cruise Line’s Cheers! Beverage program allows a maximum of 15 alcoholic drinks per day (that should be enough, I would think).
If you plan to have plenty of cocktails, beers, sodas, premium coffees and fresh-squeezed juices daily, your cruise line’s beverage plan is a great option. It also is a hassle-free way to go without worrying about signing for a drink each time you place an order. Plus, with alcoholic drinks typically priced from $6 to $11 each, the program price of about $55 to $60 daily might work out to be a bargain for you.
Order the beverage plan online ahead of your cruise, and you often can get an even better price.
Skip the Buffet on Embarkation Day
Most passengers board during the same window of time on the first day of the cruise, and this tends to be right around lunch time. This means that most people head straight to the buffet area on the upper decks.
It can be incredibly frustrating to deal with the crowds. Food lines are long, people are wandering and weaving throughout the facility, and it’s often difficult to find a table. Ask a crew member whether the ship has any other venues open that are serving lunch. Sometimes the main dining room could be open, or a smaller specialty restaurant might be serving food.
Main Dining Room for Breakfasts and Lunches
In that same vein, look at your daily cruise schedule to find the breakfast and lunch offerings available in the main dining room on your ship. I enjoy the variety available at the buffet, and sometimes I’m in the mood to “get in and get out” for a quick meal. For those times, the buffet is great.
However, I occasionally enjoy a slower paced meal, with table service, and the main dining room is a nice option. I usually choose this venue on sea days when I have more time to relax and enjoy a meal ordered from a menu and while joining others at a table. This is a great way to meet people who might very well become your new friends.
Use a Travel Agent
Perhaps the best advice for first-time cruisers: Get a good travel professional who specializes in cruises to help you with you booking. A travel agent won’t cost you anything but can offer great services such as monitoring your reservation for price drops ensuring that you will pay the best price possible for your voyage. They often will include a few added goodies for you, too, as a way to show their appreciation for your business.
This could mean a welcome-aboard gift like a bottle of wine and chocolate-covered strawberries, specialty dining vouchers or onboard credit. They also can help you book shore excursions, and travel agents have intimate knowledge of the ships to help you pick out just the right, ship, itinerary and cabin so you have the best experience possible.
Book Excursions on Your Own
Cruise ships offer an array of shore excursions for each port they visit. These are typically fun or culturally enriching activities. But they often cost up to twice as much as the same experience you can get by booking the experience on your own after doing a little bit of online research. These cruise ship tours often are larger groups of people, so you only move as quickly as the slowest member of the group.
If you prefer a more intimate and customized tour experience, you could be better off booking on your own. Read reviews to learn about the experience, and you can find reputable tours through sites such as TripAdvisor or Viator.
You can also often find tours offered once you arrive in port if you want to keep your schedule open and flexible. You can check at the kiosks with vendors at the pier area and negotiate a price on many of the tours.
It must be noted that cruise ship excursions are the only way to get a guarantee that the ship won’t leave you behind if your tour runs behind schedule and can’t get you back to the cruise ship at the scheduled “all aboard” time.
Swimsuit at the Ready
Back a small day bag, beach bag or backpack with the essentials you will need while you wait for your stateroom to be prepared on embarkation day. Rooms typically will be ready for you after 2 p.m.
If you get on the ship around noon for lunch and to enjoy the amenities – and you should make the most of your cruise by getting on to start your vacation ASAP – you will need things like phone chargers, a magazine or book, sunscreen and your swim trunks so you can get the fun started. Plus, if you drop off a large suitcase with the porters before you board, it might not arrive to your room for several hours.
Food, Food and More Food
I knew that there would be a lot of food to choose from. I just hadn’t realized how much and how often I would be enticed to indulge. The buffet, multi-course dinners, ice cream stations, poolside grills and pizza eateries are always beckoning.
Late-night snacking will be part of your cruise, even if it’s not your habit back home. Go ahead, and enjoy it. I always do. But I also do a little pre-cruise dieting to prep myself and also make sure to stay active and hit the gym regularly while onboard.
You Can’t Do It All
That daily cruise program is filled with all kinds of things to take part in, from trivia contests to dance lessons, karaoke events and late-night themes parties. Plus, your ship might offer features like water slides, rock-climbing walls, skating rinks, ziplines, ropes courses and basketball courts. Don’t forget the pool time, beach visits and other shore excursions, time at the bar, watching shows in the main theater, getting a massage and … (deep breath).
OK, it’s a lot.
That’s what makes these voyages so attractive to so many people. You will never be bored.
They Are Addictive
Which all leads me to this. A cruise vacation can be addictive. Once you’ve immersed yourself in all the fun, food and meeting new friends, you’re going to want to do it all over again soon. Since that first cruise, I’ve now been on dozens.
They even tempt you to book your next cruise while onboard at the ship’s Future Cruise desk. Check it out. You can find special deals (lower deposits and onboard credit enticements) only available for cruisers who book a future cruise while on their current sailing.
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