First-Time Cruise Tips

Cruise ship at sea

For cruise newcomers, picking the ideal voyage and the right ship is just the start of your seaborne adventure.

You may have exchanged posts on Cruise Critic's First Time Cruisers and Ask a Cruise Question forums, but you still don't know what day-to-day life at sea is really like.

There's much to consider, from what to pack and choosing the right excursions to logging on to the onboard Wi-Fi and picking your dining venue.

If you don't know where to begin, this guide to first time cruising will help you find your sea legs.


Getting Onboard

Ex-U.K. departures

There are more than 15 departure ports around the U.K., where parking is generally available and is best booked in advance. For those arriving by train, cruise lines may provide shuttles from the station or you can take a taxi.

Alternatively, arrive the day before and stay in a hotel nearby; cruise lines sometimes have preferential rates with specific hotels.

Passengers receive guidance on when to arrive on departure day (most ships depart at around 4 p.m. or later) and are sometimes given a specific time window to check-in by.

Fly-cruises

Many cruises departing from an overseas port are packaged with flights from major U.K. airports and some regional ones. Flights tend to be on scheduled carriers, but in some cases cruise lines operate their own charter flights, so all your fellow passengers will be going on the cruise as well.

On arrival at the overseas airport, you will be met by cruise line staff who will direct you to your port transfer where, on arrival at the port, you check-in and get onboard.

Cruise-only

You need to organise your own flights and consider timings carefully. If you arrive too late, the ship will sail without you and you will have to find your own way to the next port. So arrive early or, to be extra safe, arrive the day before and book a hotel for the night.

On the return, make sure your flight doesn't depart too early. If the ship is late arriving or there are customs/immigration delays, you won't make it to the airport in time. Aim to book flights which depart after midday.

Transfers are not included on cruise-only fares, but you may be able to buy them from the cruise line. Alternatively, take a taxi to the airport as there are always plenty available from cruise terminals.

Flight delays

If your flight is delayed, tell the airline immediately that you are joining a cruise ship scheduled to sail that day, in case they can accommodate you on another flight.

Contact the cruise line as soon as possible (if your cruise line has a special emergency number, make sure you have it with you). If several passengers are delayed, the ship may wait.

However, if it departs before you arrive, as long as you are on a fly-cruise arranged and offered by the cruise line, the cruise company is obliged to transport you to the next port of call to meet your ship.

If you've booked a cruise-only deal and arranged your own flights, you will generally have to get to the next port at your own expense.

Cruise documents

Check you have been sent or have printed off your cruise tickets and read through everything carefully, and immediately notify your cruise line if you spot any mistakes.  The majority of cruise lines offer online check-in facilities which you can complete in advance. Fill in any relevant forms and ensure your luggage is tagged with tags sent by the cruise line either through the post or on email. Make sure visas needed for any ports of call are arranged when you book the cruise -- and don't forget your passport.

Drinks package

If you plan to purchase a drinks package, rather than pay as you go for onboard drinks, it is worth booking this well ahead of your cruise as packages are always marked up when you get onboard -- sometimes by as much as 20 percent (see Bottoms Up!). Note: You are extremely limited in the amount of alcohol you are allowed to bring onboard (see A Guide to Cruise Line Alcohol Policies).


open suitcase

What to Pack

In your carry-on bags

Take whatever you will need for the rest of the day as your suitcases may not be delivered to your cabin until after you've set sail. This can include medication, electronic devices, cameras, swimwear, toiletries -- and, if you've enough room, a change of clothing and sandals. For families with young children, ensure you have enough nappies and wipes to get through the day.

Dress codes

On all cruise lines daywear is casual, but each line has specified evening dress codes, so check the daily listing in your cruise documents. They are generally:

Formal nights: Dinner jacket or dark suit for men and evening gown or cocktail dress for ladies.

Smart/semi-formal: Informal shirt and trousers for men, with optional jacket, and tailored trousers, separates or a dress for ladies.

Smart casual: Open-neck polo shirts and casual trousers for men and casual trousers or dresses for ladies.

Some lines have a blanket dress code. On Norwegian Cruise Line, for instance, its relaxed "freestyle" ambience means there are no dress codes, while on SeaDream Yacht Club its "resort casual" dress code is more yacht-style.

Sports equipment

For snorkelling, golf or tennis, check if equipment can be hired and what the rates are. Alternatively, bring your own. For ex-U.K. round-trip cruises, this is straightforward as there are no airline-style luggage restrictions on ships. As long as it fits into your cabin, you can take it onboard.

Baby equipment

Family-friendly ships offer a good choice of equipment for hire. Check with your line before travelling.

Bring Your Own

If you want to take your own alcohol onboard, check with your cruise line in advance as they have different policies (all strictly enforced). Check our line-by-line roundup of alcohol policies.

Laundry

Nearly all ships offer a laundry service via laundry bags in your stateroom and some have self-service laundry rooms with coin-operated washers and dryers, plus detergent vending machines. Irons and ironing boards are also available here as passengers are requested not to use them in their staterooms due to safety reasons. Some ships also offer a dry-cleaning service.

Cabin information

Power points: On U.K. lines, they will be British, while U.S. lines have  American and sometimes European points. It's advisable to bring your own adaptor, but they are also sold onboard or you can ask at reception.

Mini-safes: Available in all grades of cabin.

TVs: Flat-screens on newer ships. Channel selections vary. DVD players and recorders are generally found in higher-grade suites.

Travel alarm: Widely available on newer ships, though wake-up calls can be arranged too.

Here's our Guide to Packing Tips.

Note: Many lines ban taking on any items with a heating element, for example travel kettles, hair straighteners etc.


Embarkation Day

Getting your bearings/getting organised

Use the first few hours to explore the ship and book spa treatments, speciality dining and popular shore excursions as these can get booked up early. Most cruise lines also offer pre-booking online. It's worth noting that if the ship has speciality restaurants they will often throw in something free (like a bottle of wine) on the first night of the cruise; same with the spa, which will have special offers.

Lifeboat drill/muster

This is compulsory and held just before the ship sails. When the signal is sounded, go to your pre-assigned meeting point (detailed on your key card or the back of your cabin door). The crew check off everyone's name and run through the safety drill.

Port visitors

Family and friends can come and see you off, but will not be permitted on ships for security reasons.

Ship newsletter

This daily publication will be in your cabin when you arrive. It is delivered each evening of your cruise, giving information about the following day's port call, entertainment, activities and classes along with any special spa promotions or retail offers.


Woman Sightseeing Holding Map

Shore Excursions

Booking shore tours

Cruise lines release the list of shore excursions a few months before the sailing and with many companies it is possible to reserve them in advance on the website. To avoid disappointment you may want to book your favourites, as popular tours sell out quickly.

Once onboard, shore excursions can be booked at the ship's shore excursion desk and sometimes via the in-cabin TV.

Doing your own thing

Independent shore excursion companies offer standard tours or they can tailor arrangements accordingly, especially if you're travelling as a family group or party of friends. They also claim to be cheaper than cruise lines, and will pick you up and drop you back to your ship. These tours need to be booked in advance.

Alternatively, wait until you arrive at the destination as local taxi drivers or tour organisers gather at some ports, offering tours that you can sign up to there and then.

Note: It is your obligation to get back onto the ship if you are doing your own thing -- the ship will not wait for you.

Cruise tours versus independent exploring

Cruise tours can be pricey, but they may offer exclusive experiences you would not be able to replicate elsewhere. They also offer peace of mind as the ship will not sail until all its organised tours have returned. So if you're delayed the ship will wait. It won't wait for independent tours.

It's best to mix and match your options. Plan ahead and look at what works best in each port of call. Check out our Port of Call message boards as you will see what other cruisers say about excursions they have taken in each destination.


Keeping in Touch

Phones

Most cabins have phones for ship-to-shore calls, but per minute costs can be high. Mobile phones generally work aboard. If you're sailing close to land, you'll pick up terrestrial networks (and pay their normal overseas rates). If you're at sea, you'll pick up the ship's own satellite network, which can be significantly more expensive. More and more lines have installed good onboard Wi-Fi so it is worth buying a package and staying in touch via free messaging apps such as WhatsApp or iMessage.

In an emergency

Leave details with your next of kin of the itinerary, cruise line name, plus name and phone number of your ship (listed in cruise documents, on the website, or available from the reservations department).

Online services

Most cruise ships have Internet cafes and Wi-Fi is available either ship-wide or in public areas so you can log on with your own device. Fees are around 60p a minute, but internet packages provide the best value and these are often offered with bonus minutes if you sign up within 24 hours of getting aboard. But the cheapest option is in the cruise terminal, internet cafe ashore or restaurants and cafes in ports of call that provide customers with free Wi-Fi. Ask the crew where they go; that's always a good indicator.

Keeping tabs onboard

If you're travelling with children or friends, you may want to bring walkie talkies so you can track each other down. Especially useful if there's no phone signal and you can't text or WhatsApp each other.


Money Matters

It's a cashless system on ships. On check-in you'll receive a swipe card (which nearly always doubles as your room key) and this is your onboard charge card for drinks, retail purchases, spa treatments etc. that are automatically added to your onboard account. This is settled at the end of your trip by credit card or cash.

Cash and currency

Some cruise ships have an onboard ATM and selected ones will cash traveller's cheques at the purser's desk. Some ships also offer currency exchange services, though rates tend to be more favourable ashore. Some terminal buildings at ports will have exchange desks and ATMs.


Medical Information

Onboard doctors

Medical services typically comprise a doctor and nurse who are trained to cope with emergency situations along with more routine matters. There is a fee for treatment, starting from around £50/£60, which passengers generally have to pay before disembarking and claim from their travel insurer afterwards.

Commonly-used medications are available and can be prescribed by the ship's doctor (and basics such as branded painkillers  are generally sold in the onboard shop).

However, it is usually cheaper to buy over-the-counter medicines in port, or bring them with you, along with other basic first aid items.

If you are on prescribed medication, bring a copy of your prescription in case your medicine is lost or stolen.

Seasickness

Some lines provide complimentary medicine for this through their infirmary, purser's desk or room service. Onboard shops will generally stock seasickness tablets and acupressure wristbands, though these may also be available from reception and the medical centre. Other treatments include patches, which are placed behind the ear and release medicine through the skin, seasickness injections and special acupuncture treatments in the spa.

Pregnancy

Restrictions vary, but most lines do not allow pregnant women to sail if they will be past 24 weeks when the cruise ends. A doctor's letter is sometimes required, confirming the due date.


Gourmet Dining

Dining

Seating arrangements

Fixed dining:If your chosen ship has different sittings, you'll receive details of which one you've been allocated to in advance. This can be before setting sail or in your stateroom on arrival. If you are unhappy with your allocation, see the maitre d' as soon as possible to request a change.

Open dining:Once dining arrangements have been confirmed, simply turn up when you want to dine at the assigned restaurant. If there are no available tables, you'll be given a pager and contacted when one becomes available.

Other options

Remember that you're not tied to the dining room every evening as there are generally alternatives, from the ship's buffet to speciality restaurants and casual dining venues.

Special dietary needs

Most dietary requirements can be accommodated, but you should let the cruise line know either upon booking or four to six weeks before departure. Vegetarian, dairy-free, low salt/low cholesterol food requests can typically be accommodated onboard. There are also healthy options, highlighted on menus, containing less fat or salt, for example.


Religious Services/Special Occasions

Religious services

Some lines have clergy onboard for significant religious holidays, including Christmas, Easter, Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Some offer weekly services, usually led by the captain or another officer.

Special occasions

Cruise lines like to push the boat out for passengers celebrating a special occasion, whether it's a birthday, honeymoon or anniversary. Offerings range from cabins decorated with balloons and streamers to celebratory cakes and canapes. Some lines offer renewal of vows and wedding packages, and some larger ships have their own wedding chapels. Notify your cruise line upon booking and check for prices and booking deadlines as these vary from three to six weeks prior to departure. Couples wanting to marry onboard or at sea should start planning as early as possible and check what each line offers as details can vary.


Tips for Parents

Cabin service

If your little ones are in the routine of taking a nap each afternoon, liaise with your cabin steward on the first day to ensure the cabin is cleaned either before or after that time.

Babysitting

Not all cruise lines offer in-cabin babysitting, so check to see which ones offer this and what options there are for group babysitting in the children's centre. See Fun Facts: Family Cruising for details on cruising with kids.


Disembarkation

Tips/Gratuities

Policies differ from line to line, although most companies add a per person, per day charge to each passenger's onboard account from embarkation day onwards. U.S. lines charge an average of $13 to $14 per person, per day, the exception being Norwegian Cruise Line which has become all-inclusive in the U.K. U.K. lines average at around £6 per person per day. Thomson Cruises and Saga do not charge for gratuities, as these are included in the overall fare. It is the same for cultural cruise lines such as Voyages to Antiquity. Luxury "six-star" lines such as Crystal Cruises, Seabourn, Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Silversea also include gratuities in their upfront price, as does premium line Azamara Club Cruises. Many mass market lines now give passengers the opportunity to pre-pay gratuities before setting sail.

However, passengers preferring to tip crew directly, rather than paying the daily charge, or wanting to alter the amount can visit the ship information desk or purser's desk and have their onboard account altered accordingly.

Settling your account

On the last evening, the itemised bill of your charges will be delivered to your cabin. Make sure you check it and query any discrepancies with the purser or hotel desk. If it all seems fine, you don't need to do anything as the balance will automatically be charged to the credit card you provided. Some lines will let you settle your account in cash. It's a good idea to keep tabs on your account during the cruise, via the in-cabin interactive TV system or ask at reception. This prevents any nasty surprises and gives you early warning of any mistakes.

Packing to disembark

Most cruise lines require you to pack your bags on the final night before disembarking and put them outside your cabin to be collected. You will need to keep a carry-on bag your toiletries, any medication and anything else you want for the night and morning. And don't forget to put aside a change of clothes otherwise you'll be disembarking in your pyjamas!

If you have a specific question that has not been answered here, go on to Cruise Critic's message boards, which offer a wealth of information from cruise experts who are usually quick to respond to any queries from first-time cruisers. The boards also contain information about your chosen line, ship and destinations and it is easy to post your own questions.

Bon voyage!

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