10 Tips for First Time Cruisers

We love cruising.  As a family of four we’ve been on more than four cruises together and prior to the kids arrival I had cruised a handful of times already.  The cruise industry is expanding and more and more people are considering taking a cruise vacation in the coming year.  Many people who haven’t cruised before will surely have a lot of questions as they start planning.  Here are a few tips we’ve learned along the way that will help to make sure your first cruise is enjoyable from start to finish.

1) prepare and review your boarding documents early: When we are planning a cruise, even before we actually book the vacation, I like to put my hands on our passports and confirm the expiration dates.  I had to hustle and overnight a passport renewal once many years ago because I didn’t check my documents until two weeks prior to the trip and my passport would have expired during our trip, making it invalid for our travel dates!  Now I review our travel documents early as well as printing and looking over all the documents the cruise line sends us to have completed prior to boarding.  Often the cruise line will send you these documents by email but you can also access them online, via the cruise line website.  Having these documents completed prior to arriving at the cruise terminal will save you a lot of time during the check in process.
2) Arrive the day prior to the cruise:  When I am travel consulting I always recommend to clients that they travel to the port city the day before the cruise departs.  Yes, sail away is usually in early afternoon and there may be enough time to high tail it from the airport on the morning of embarkation but who wants to start their vacation stressing and rushing?  Completing your travel to the port the day before your cruise leaves allows you room for relaxation and even some sightseeing if you’re interested in exploring what the port city has to offer.  Flight delays and adverse weather conditions are also buffered if you complete your travel a day or two before.  Traveling in the day before also allows you to arrive to the port at the earliest time allowed on embarkation day, letting you board sooner and get to the fun faster!
3) board early to enjoy ship all day:  As we just mentioned, sail away is typically later in the day, around 3 or 4 pm depending on the cruise line but boarding usually starts late morning, around 11am. Rules vary by cruise line but generally you will be given a specific boarding time window when you have finalized your booking.  It is best to arrive as close to that time.  In many ways your vacation starts when you board the ship so I would recommend boarding as early as possible.
4) pay attention to daily newsletters: Each day you will receive a daily newsletter that is full of information about events on the ship, the port you are visiting, shore excursions and what is coming up next on your cruise vacation.  DO NOT ignore these.  The newsletters may seem exhaustive but they’re worth perusing.  Many people find it helpful to pack a highlighter or two so they can make note on the items they want to enjoy.  Recently more cruise lines have started to provide phone apps where you can easily access and mark the same information found in the newsletters.  Either way, always take a moment to familiarize yourself with what is happening onboard!  There is always so much to do on a cruise vacation (onboard and ashore) it would be horrible to miss out on something with the information right under your nose!
5) research the ports in advance and plan activities accordingly: Cruises are a very efficient way of traveling and seeing the world.  You can visit a few different countries and cultures in one trip and only have to unpack once!  It is helpful to research the ports you are visiting well in advance and gather together an idea of what you’d like to see and do during the visit.  If you wisely decide to work with a travel agent he or she will be a source of guidance and information to assist you on your planning.  Most cruise lines offer port excursion tour packages but the best options can fill up early if you don’t reserve your spot.  Your travel agent can help you navigate the tour packages and choosing the best activities for your day trips.
6) prepare for medical issues/seasickness: When I’m packing for a trip I always think of the worst case scenarios that could arise on the trip including minor illnesses and scrapes.  There are medical urgent care services available on all cruise ships and each ship has a convenience store with random items you can purchase including over the counter medicines and bandaids, etc.  But the prices are at a high premium.  It is wise to pack your own first aid kit complete with painkillers, seabands/anti-nausea agents, any prescription meds you need and any other OTC meds you frequently use.  I always carry kids and adult ibuprofen and benadryl which are my most frequently used meds at home.  I also pack anti-diarrheal medications; we’ve never contracted Norovirus on a cruise vacation, but these meds are not sold on cruises.  I have a small travel medication kit that I keep stocked at all times, ready for any trip we take.
7) Pack a carryon or day bag for embarkation day– On the first day of your cruise, staterooms are typically available around 1:30pm.  If you board mid morning there will likely be a few hours before you will have access to your room.  Also, your luggage will be delivered to your rooms some time that afternoon but it may take several hours as well.  I highly recommend packing a small carry on or a tote/backpack with any items you may need during your early hours onboard.  Most people will pack their swimsuits or a change of clothes, necessary medications (always recommended), electronics (kindle/ipad/cameras) etc.  This way you can easily spend time at the pool or on the water slides or even just lounging on a chaise reading a book while you wait for your room to become available and your luggage to arrive.
7) budget for tips and gratuities- Gratuities for the cruise staff (room stewards, dining hall servers and hosts)  are always added to your onboard account when you board.  This is an industry standard though the range of gratuity costs vary slightly per cruise line, ranging from $12-$15 per day per person.  You always have the right to adjust this cost at the end of your cruise prior to disembarkation but it is wise to add this cost into your total trip budget.
8) always purchase travel insurance:  You worked hard to save for your vacation and it is only common sense for you to protect your investment!  Life happens.  From flight delays to family emergencies to injuries sustained while on port excursions, travel insurance can protect you from totally losing your vacation funds and more; it also can provide extra coverage of medical fees accrued during a travel related health crisis or accident.  There are a variety of travel insurance options with different coverage levels that you can consider but I urge you, always plan to cover your trip in case of the unexpected.  Trust me, you’ll rest even easier anticipating your trip and while onboard, knowing you have this added level of protection.
9) always book with a travel agent: Prior to becoming a travel agent I would always book travel with Costco or through a site like Expedia.  While the deals were good there were certain limitations to the level of service I received in planning.  If I had any questions about my booking I’d have to call the main customer service line and stay on hold for a few minutes and then I’d have to speak to a person who had no idea who I was or anything about my trip until I provided them with a booking number.  And if I had to call back for another reason, I got a different customer service agent who I’d have to explain everything to all over again.  Booking pre- cruise accommodations and air travel, shore excursions and researching the options on the ship for staterooms, dining and entertainment were all my responsibility.
Using an agent takes all the stress out of planning your vacation and makes it much, much simpler.  You will have ONE person who knows YOU and your vacation plans and can walk with you through the whole process providing guidance and support along the way.  For a simpler vacation planning process always use a travel agent!
I’m sure these 10 tips for new cruisers will come in handy for you if you’re considering your first cruise vacation.  If you do not currently have a travel agent I would absolutely love to help you navigate the process of planning your cruise.  I have experience planning family cruises (with my hubby & kids but also with extended family and friends) as well as girlfriend getaways, couples cruises and group vacations.  Feel free to email me at thepreciousmommy@gmail.com or call me at 407-614-7327 with any questions you may have!
For those of you who have cruised before, what are YOUR top tips and suggestions for newbie cruisers?

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