Arcadia at sea during sunset

Booking your first cruise can be perplexing, as there's so much choice and so much information out there. Here's our Brit-friendly guide to getting it right, both before you sail and on the high seas.

1. Book through a specialist

It's easy to be seduced by cheap cruise offers online but if this is your first voyage, it will really pay off to consult a specialist travel agent and make sure you end up on the right ship for you. A list of agents affiliated to the Cruise Lines Industry Association (CLIA) is available on the Web site Cruise Experts. Large, chain travel agencies may push certain cruise lines with which they have commission agreements; always ask for a range of recommendations. Agencies that sell nothing but cruising are, by nature, likely to have the greatest knowledge. A good agent will question you extensively about your tastes, age range and the kind of holidays you have taken in the past. Of course, you can do your research online first; read the member reviews on Cruise Critic and don't be shy about posting questions on the message boards; there's even a special section for first time cruisers.

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2. Know your fellow passengers

To a first-time cruiser, all cruise lines can look the same. They're not, of course, and different lines (and ships) attract completely different people. For example, on Hapag-Lloyd, many of the passengers will be German. On Ponant's ships, more than half will be French. Italians flock to Costa and MSC Cruises, especially in the Mediterranean. P&O Cruises, Thomson Cruises and Fred. Olsen are almost exclusively British. On cruises in Alaska, you're likely to be a tiny minority among a mainly American crowd. River cruises with Scenic Tours, Emerald Waterways and APT attract a lot of Australians (these are all Australian-owned companies).

Think about the age group you want to travel with, too. A long voyage in winter with Fred. Olsen is likely to attract much older passengers, while Saga caters for the over-50's. A Royal Caribbean ship sailing out of Southampton in August will be crammed with young families. If you want to avoid children, don't cruise in school holidays, or choose an adults-only ship. For example, P&O Cruises' Adonia, Arcadia and Oriana are mostly child-free, whereas lines like Voyages to Antiquity discourage children under the age of 11 or 12. If you're in your 20's, 30's or 40's and like to party, there's usually a mixed-age crowd on Princess, Carnival, Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean ships.

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Man walking down the gangway at the Amsterdam cruise terminal

3. Try a mini-cruise

Dip a toe in the water with a short 'taster' cruise. Cunard, Royal Caribbean and P&O Cruises offer these out of Southampton; expect two or three nights onboard - and a short hop across the Channel or the North Sea to ports like Zeebrugge (for Bruges) and Le Havre (for Paris). Fred. Olsen has short breaks from Dover, Southampton, Tilbury, Harwich, Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow to France, Belgium, Ireland and The Netherlands, while Cruise & Maritime Voyages sail from Cardiff, Dundee, Greenock, Harwich, Tilbury, Bristol, Liverpool, Hull, Newcastle, Poole, Portsmouth and Rosyth to ports including the Faroe Islands, Cobh, Amsterdam and St Peter Port in the Channel Islands.

In the Mediterranean, Celestyal Cruises offers a wide range of short itineraries; in a four-night break from Piraeus, you'll call at Mykonos, Kusadasi, Patmos, Rhodes, Heraklion and Santorini.

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4. Get organised

Have a rough idea of what you want to do on your cruise. If it's a port-intensive week in the Med, don't exhaust yourself by booking onto one tour after another. A lot of ports are easy to explore independently, at your own pace -- Venice, for example, or Portofino, or St Tropez. Throw in the occasional beach day; cruise lines often provide shuttle buses (for a fee) to nearby beaches, or do your own research and take a taxi or local transport. A lot of cruise lines allow tours and spa treatments to be booked online before departure but keep your options open for part of the cruise, at least. If you already know a port well and it's unbearably hot, don't feel guilty if you choose to stay onboard while everybody goes off on tour. The pools and decks will be empty and you can pretend that you're on a private yacht.

Plan your evenings, too. If there's a particular show you want to see, don't make that the evening that you opt for a long dinner in one of the speciality restaurants (which have to be booked in advance). If there's a restaurant that allows dining on deck, time your booking carefully, perhaps for a night when there's a late sailaway from a particularly beautiful port. Don't book a spa treatment that ends ten minutes before the Captain's cocktail party on formal night.

Some cruise lines offer special tours of the ship on the first day, aimed at 'cruise virgins' (newbies). It's a good idea to join one of these; you'll get to know the ship and a bit about how it functions.

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5. Play the currency game

All cruise lines operate a cashless system onboard; you register a card when you check in and then charge everything to your cruise account. On any cruise that isn't all-inclusive (and some that are), you're likely to spend a fair bit of money during your holiday -- extras might include your bar bill, spa treatments, any excursions booked onboard, anything you buy in the shops, speciality restaurant fees and money changed for casino chips.

Although the onboard currency probably won't be the deciding factor for your cruise, check what it is. On P&O, Cruise & Maritime Voyages, Thomson Cruises, Saga and Fred. Olsen, it's sterling. But on lines like Royal Caribbean, Cunard, Celebrity and Princess, it's the U.S. dollar. When the pound is strong, spending dollars on holiday suddenly becomes very attractive -- but right now, with a weak pound, you'll spend more onboard unless you opt for a line operating in British pounds. You may be asked when you check in whether you'd like your onboard account converted to sterling but there's almost always a charge for doing this.

A couple of lines (MSC and Costa, for example), have Euros as their onboard currency for cruises in Europe and sadly, Brits almost always lose on the exchange rate here.

Carnival waiter carrying tropical cruise drinks on a tray

6. Drinks packages

Some cruise lines offer drinks packages. These may seem attractive but think before you buy; they're a minefield and there are endless variations; P&O Cruises, for example, offers packages for soft drinks, Costa coffee and wine by four, six, nine or 12 bottles in two package variations.

Some are quite restrictive, only including certain drinks, or drinks up to a certain value. Others mean you have to prop up the bar for a significant chunk of the day to drink your money's worth. Take your itinerary into consideration before investing. You may, for example, be spending a lot of time in port, enjoying long, boozy lunches ashore, in which case, a drinks package can be wasted.

Many of the American-owned ships, which charge 15 percent service for every drink, also add this 15 percent to the cost of the drinks package.

You can't have one person in the party sign up for a package and provide drinks for the rest – the cruise lines have got wise to that. A lot of lines won't let you take your own booze onboard, either, although you can bring soft drinks. Bottled water, for example, is always cheaper ashore than onboard, so stock up as you get back onboard in every port -- the heavily chlorinated tap water on cruise ships is drinkable but pretty vile.

Bottoms up! A guide to cruise line all-you-can-drink packages

7. Stormy weather

If you've never sailed before, you may have concerns about seasickness (for which there is excellent over-the-counter medication, by the way). Nervous sailors might want to minimise the 'sea days' (when the ship sails all day and doesn't stop in port) by flying straight to the sun, so for a Mediterranean cruise, starting in Barcelona, Venice, Athens or Rome, or in the Baltic, picking a voyage that begins in Copenhagen.

Sailing from a British port does have big advantages, not least no flying and an almost unlimited luggage allowance, but if you're headed south to the Med or the Canaries, you will have at least two days at sea on the way there and again on the way back. Outside the summer months, the Bay of Biscay can be choppy.

Worst case, head straight for the ship's medical centre, where an injection of Phenergan (for a fee) can put you out of your misery instantly.

Hurricane season cruising guide

8. Don't be afraid to complain

Brits are notoriously bad at complaining. But if you get onboard and you're not happy with something, for example, your cabin's location, or your table arrangement at dinner (if you are on fixed seating dining), don't suffer in silence. Most things can be fixed. For dining room problems, have a quiet word with the maitre d'. It happens all the time and they're used to dealing with tricky situations, including people who don't get on with their dining companions. For anything else, the crew behind the reception desk are there to help. If there's something missing in your cabin, ask your cabin steward.

Assorted teas, an electric kettle and two teacups on Adonia

9. Take your own tea bags

Cruise lines have a tendency to stock Lipton's Yellow Label tea bags, which are a long way from strong builder's tea or classy Twinings. There is no shame in taking your own. Either way, don't expect a decent cuppa on a cruise ship; the hot water dispensed at the buffet is never boiling. Some lines have a kettle in the cabin, Fred. Olsen Cruises and P&O Cruises being two of them. Worth knowing about is the afternoon tea served on some ships (Cunard, Thomson and P&O Cruises, for example); often, the quality tea is brought out for this and served in proper teapots, although sadly, the water is still unlikely to be boiling.

10. The tipping minefield

The thorny subject of tips on cruise ships seems to be a permanent issue for British cruisers, unenthusiastic tipping culture that we are. To make it more confusing, no two cruise lines have the same tipping policy.

This is how it works. First, there are cruise lines that do not ask for or expect tips; it's built into the price. These include Thomson Cruises, Saga Cruises, Azamara Club Cruises, Crystal Cruises, Hapag-Lloyd, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Seabourn, SeaDream Yacht Club and Silversea Cruises. Some of these (Azamara and Crystal, for example) allow you to tip extra in cash if you want to. Some of them charge a gratuity, or service charge, or whatever you want to call it, on extra facilities like spa treatments. This is automatically added to your bill but can be removed if you are unhappy with the service. If you use the services of a private butler, or get someone to organise, say, a private cocktail party in your suite, it is appropriate to tip.

Other cruise lines add an amount per passenger per day to your account for tips, or 'service', as some of them now call it. This is a fixed amount and will either appear daily on your onboard account (which can usually be checked on the interactive TV in your cabin) or will be added towards the end of the cruise. If you don't want to pay it, or want to pay less (or more), see the purser. They should adjust the amount (sometimes rather grudgingly) but might put you on the spot by asking what it is you're unhappy with. It's not a good idea to do this on the final day of the voyage, when the purser's office is at its busiest.

A few cruise lines, Star Clippers, for example, still use the old-fashioned cash-in-envelopes method of tipping. Fred. Olsen also provides envelopes for anybody wanting to reward an individual crew member.

Beware a little trick used by the large American-run cruise lines regarding drinks bills. All of the large lines (Royal Caribbean, NCL, Princess, Holland America, Cunard, Celebrity and Carnival) add a gratuity to every drink you sign for, usually 15 percent or 18 percent. But there's an empty space on every bill for adding a tip, so if you scribble a couple of dollars here, you've effectively tipped twice.

The ultimate guide to cruise ship tipping