Essential tips for a first-time cruise

You have decided to discover the world of cruising. But how do you choose between the many fantastic destinations and the vast options of cruise ships?

Start by looking at the regions where travelers have found the most success with their first-time cruise experience. One that makes them want to cruise time and time again!

This list will help you find your perfect destination as a first-time cruiser, from family-friendly Caribbean cruises to adventure-filled Alaska cruises.

If you want to make your first cruise experience more memorable, consider these tried and tested destinations.

The biggest cruising regions in the world, with more cruise ships visiting these areas than any other region are the Caribbean, Alaska and the Mediterranean. You will, without a doubt, find an itinerary and a cruise ship to suit you and your family amongst the many cruise lines sailing these well-navigated waters.

All the ports on these itineraries have the most popular shore excursions to major tourist destinations. As first-time cruisers, you will undoubtedly have these places on your bucket list.


Cruise ship in Charlotte Amalie bay on Caribbean cruise vacation

If you’ve never been on a cruise, the Caribbean is one of the most popular regions. It’s easy to understand why when you see picturesque beaches and crystal clear water. The region includes many different islands, so there is something for everyone!

The people of the Caribbean islands are warm and friendly. There’s plenty to do on land and at sea – go snorkeling in shallow waters, enjoy some fantastic beaches, or be adventurous and join a hiking tour. First-time cruisers may never want to leave this magical place.

The region is an excellent choice because it offers year-round cruises on board some of the newest cruise ships at sea. Itineraries are packed full of exciting ports.

If you want to reach the Southern Caribbean, you will likely have a more extended cruise from Miami with a couple more days at sea. You’ll need this due to the distance and time the cruise ship takes to reach the southern islands such as Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao.


Breath-taking, pristine scenery, thrilling excursions  and much more on an Alaskan cruise

Many people say that their first cruise experience gets them hooked; this has been true for many first-time cruisers who have been on a cruise from Vancouver or Seattle to Alaska.

Whether you’re looking for an adventurous vacation for your first cruise or want to kick back and relax with your loved one, Alaska has something for everyone. All the major cruise lines offer fantastic cruises in this region, including Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, and Princess Cruises, which have super itineraries.

Experience breathtaking, pristine scenery, thrilling excursions, and plenty of relaxation all at the same time. With so much to offer, Alaska is an excellent destination for first-timers. One of the reasons it’s so popular is because there are tried and tested excursions that allow you to experience the best of what Alaska has to offer. Imagine whale watching, glacier tours, dog sledding, and much more.


A Mediterranean cruise takes the first time cruiser to some of Europe's most popular countries

A first cruise will be unforgettable in the Mediterranean with its ancient history and culture, charming towns, and picturesque villas.

Visiting the most popular Mediterranean countries is an exciting choice for a first-time cruise. Once on board, you can relax and enjoy your floating resort as it takes you from country to country to experience many different cultures on the same trip.

The Mediterranean cruise season generally runs from April to October, with a wide range of itineraries that visit ports in countries such as Italy, France, Monaco, Spain, Turkey, Greece, and Malta. It’s a beautiful region for first-time cruisers.

To make the most of your precious vacation time, stay in the departure city for a few nights. Not only will this ensure that you reach your cruise port in good time (never fly on the same day your cruise departs), it will allow you to explore a new city or revisit an old favorite.

Rome, for example, is worth many visits, and there is always something new to see and do before you cruise from Rome, or to be more correct, from Civitavecchia, the closest port to Rome. Suppose your journey to the Mediterranean starts in northern Europe with a cruise from Southampton, England. In that case, there is plenty to see and do on the beautiful south coast of England or by spending a couple of days in the exciting capital before you start your cruise from London.

How to choose the right cruise line

As first-time cruisers, one of the most challenging decisions is deciding which cruise line suits you.

Ask yourself the following: What kind of traveler are you? How old are you and the friends or family you are traveling with? What do you want out of your vacation?

Cruise lines offer different itineraries and levels of service at various price points. If you have a strict budget to stick to, there are ways you can cruise for less.

Think about what kind of cruise you are looking for. If you are a first-time cruiser and a couple over 60, you will most likely want a completely different type of cruise compared to a family with children looking for the best cruise ships for families.

Perhaps you want to focus on health and well-being and use a cruise vacation for total relaxation, with good fitness facilities, room service, and spa treatments.

You could be a single traveler looking for a calmer, smaller ship to meet other passengers who choose to cruise solo.

Or an adventurous couple is looking for as much action and a party atmosphere as possible. Perhaps you will choose the cruise company with one of the world’s largest cruise ships, Royal Caribbean, with its mega-ship Icon of the Seas.

Different cruise lines offer very different experiences on board. And for a first-time cruise, you must get it right.

First-time cruisers looking for variety, action & entertainment

  • Royal Caribbean International
  • Norwegian Cruise Line
  • MSC Cruises
  • P&O Cruises
  • Carnival Cruise Line

All the above cruise lines have ships that are resort-style floating hotels. Especially if you want to cruise on one of the cruise line’s newer mega ships, they are jam-packed with every conceivable form of entertainment at sea you can imagine.

From go-kart tracks to zip lining, movie theaters to bowling alleys, and ice skating rinks to surf riders. If you are looking for action, entertainment, an enormous variety of restaurants, an extensive shopping mall, and large gym and fitness centers, these ships are for you.

The dress code for these cruise lines is smart-casual for the main dining rooms and specialty restaurants but casual everywhere else onboard. But some guests like to dress up – think an evening gown or a dinner suit, as you certainly should if you want to!

Many ships do not allow you to bring your alcohol onboard, but some exceptions exist. Check the FAQ section on the cruise line’s website or ring the cruise line directly to be sure. It is popular to purchase a drink package but see if you can add this to your cruise booking without extra cost; often, you find such promotions with the cruise lines.

Many of the newer ships these cruise lines offer have well over 3500 guests, some reaching up to 6700. They are busy, unique, and great fun. Does this suit what you are looking for?

A classic cruise is an excellent choice for a first-time cruise

Classic cruise lines like those listed below offer wonderful cruises with fewer facilities than the tremendous big resort-style cruise ships. You will still enjoy a party, just on a smaller scale. By small, we still mean that many of these ships can accommodate up to 4000 guests.

Enjoy classic cruise activities like the pool, sports, gym facilities, and casino. You can also find culinary and musical programs and live music venues.

Except for Disney Cruise Line, the others on this list generally have a slightly older average age on board.

  • Cunard
  • Celebrity Cruises
  • Princess Cruises
  • Disney Cruise Line
  • Holland America

Cunard, in particular, has a formal, more elegant cruise, which is ideal if you are a couple or friends traveling together who want to avoid families with children. This cruise line offers a nostalgic cruise experience, with formal evenings, black tie dinners, and gala evenings.

Small, exclusive cruise lines for a memorable first-time cruise experience.

Our first-time cruise tips include luxury cruise lines that have smaller ships.

These are more exclusive, have a higher price tag, and have a more traditional cruising experience. There is less choice regarding facilities and entertainment, but you will undoubtedly find excellent service with attention to detail.

You will feel like you are on a more personal, more exclusive cruise with these cruise lines:

  • Viking
  • Azamara
  • Explorer
  • Oceania

Ultra-luxury cruise lines

These cruise lines often offer an all-inclusive experience at a high-end price. That means everything from your beverages to your shore excursions is included in the price.

We include this category of ultra-luxury cruise lines in our first-time cruise tips if you want personal service and a sophisticated atmosphere. And all cabins on board are balcony cabins or suites.

You will sail into the most exclusive destinations in the world, into ports that the larger cruise ships cannot use due to their sheer size.

Onboard activities are calmer – think of exciting lectures and cocktail evenings. The dress code is elegant and casual; everything around you is classy and tasteful.

It’s a unique, ultra-luxury 7-star experience on board ships that carry fewer guests – from 100 to around 1000. Enjoy the good life from when you board your ship on embarkation day to when you leave.

  • Seabourn
  • Silver Seas
  • Ritz Carlton Yacht
  • Regent Seven Seas

The best cruise ship to suit you

So now you know which cruise lines will be right for you. Try to narrow your choice down to around three cruise lines that you think will suit you.

From there, you can start thinking about your itinerary and see which cruise line is sailing in the region at the time of year you want to travel.

Cruise ships within each cruise line vary drastically in size to facilities on board. Many first-time cruise guests choose to sail with the newest cruise ships. However, some of the older ships are firm favorites with long-time cruisers, too, as they have undergone an extensive renovation program over the years.

We encourage you to read about cruise ships as much as possible on websites such as this one or the cruise line’s website. And to compare cruise ships and itineraries before deciding on websites such as Cruise Direct.

Cruise Critic also has an excellent forum where you can see what guests looking for similar experiences are saying and choosing.

The importance of choosing the right cabin

Choosing the right cabin in the right location on board may be more important than you think.

You may be looking to save money and book in the best-priced category to keep to your travel budget. But do pay attention to where your cabin is located. This is one of our most essential tips for first-time cruise guests.

First, you start by choosing the type of cabin you want. This will determine the price category. From least expensive to most expensive, here are your choices:

  • Inside cabin without a window
  • Exterior cabin with a window
  • Balcony cabin (a private balcony either with an ocean view or, on some of the mega-ships, a view of the boardwalk facing the ship internally)
  • Suite

For more information about choosing a cabin in the right location on board the cruise ship and where to avoid staying, see our expert tips here. Then study the deck plan of your chosen ship. These are available by searching the name of your cruise ship in the search field on the cruise line’s website.

Additional costs to expect after you have paid for your cruise

There are two significant expenses you should expect over and above the price you pay for your cruise:

1. Transfers, hotels, and flights to match your cruise booking

Decide how you are going to tackle your flight and hotel package. And transport to and from the cruise terminal.

Do you want to book flights and hotel yourself to get the best possible price? Or do you want the cruise line to handle your ground arrangements with your cruise booking?

When booking your flights, we recommend you fly into your city of origin at least 2 to 3 days before your cruise start date. Book a hotel and enjoy some days in the town before embarkation day. That way, you will be sure not to miss your boarding due to a canceled or delayed flight.

Before choosing your flight time for your homebound journey after your cruise, check when your ship arrives at the port on the last day.

Then, allow extra time for delays. Bad weather, for example, can delay a boat anchoring in the harbor. If your ship arrives in port at 7 am on the schedule, choose a flight that leaves early afternoon to allow yourself plenty of time to get to the airport without stress.

However, booking a flight and cruise package with the cruise line has benefits.

When the cruise line books, you will most likely pay more. But they guarantee you get to the cruise ship at the terminal on time for your departure and get to your flight home in good time too. The cruise line is responsible for logistics and ensuring you get on a flight, even with flight delays.

This is a good option if you are not interested in exploring your origin city before you sail, as most flights booked by the cruise line arrive the same day your ship leaves port. You will get a flight and transfer package matching your sailing time.

2. Onboard expenses

Extra costs on board, such as drink packages, internet packages, spa treatments, room service, specialty restaurants, and some special activities such as zip lining or go-karting, are in addition to your basic cruise fare.

Many first-time cruise guests choose to book and pay for these in advance before the cruise starts. That way, you don’t have to worry about these costs on board, and you can better see your total spending budget for your cruise vacation before you even leave home.

When booking, ensure you have all the information to book your cruise package, including any optional extras you want to book before your cruise to get a better price. Often, extras are more expensive once you are on board.

If you decide to purchase extras once you are on board, you can monitor your spending with your onboard account displayed on your cabin TV.

How to choose and book shore excursions

Many guests save money when they book shore excursions by booking independent tours with trusted suppliers such as ItalyTours EU or Viator.

After all, shore excursions can add up and increase the total cost of your cruise vacation by quite a bit. Generally speaking, you get more for your money when booking independently.

There are also benefits when booking shore excursions through the cruise line. This includes getting you back to the cruise ship on time before departure from the port. With a cruise ship shore excursion, you are guaranteed not to miss your cruise ship.

It comes down to what you want to do in a port of call. If you are close to the city center, exploring yourself is doable as there should be plenty of transport options, often including a cruise shuttle, and you are not far from the port to get yourselves back in time.

But if you are going further afield, for example, up into the mountains for a hike or traveling to a wine district with a long transfer time, then booking with the cruise line is an intelligent choice.

Pack a carry-on bag

Once you board your cruise ship and set sail, your luggage may take a little time to reach your cabin. Cruise personnel takes care of your cruise luggage once you check-in. You do not need to take it to your cabin yourself.

But it would be best to keep your carry-on bag with you. Not only should it contain your valuables and travel documents, but also any essential medicines and a change of clothing. Pack swimwear to use the cruise ship’s pool facilities.

All this will ensure that even if you are waiting for luggage to reach your cabin, you can use the cruise ship facilities immediately, even before the ship leaves port and is ready to set sail.

Read our essential packing guide for more tips on what to include when packing for a cruise.

Monitor the price of your cruise

Be sure to track the price of your cruise even after booking and paying your deposit. This is amongst the best tips for first-time cruisers, as you may not know that getting a better price is possible even after booking and paying your cruise deposit.

Regularly check the cruise line’s website. If you see that the price of your cruise has decreased before you make your final payment, call the cruise line directly and have them apply a credit for the difference to your booking. They will do this for you.

You can also sign up for a price tracker with Cruisecritic or Cruisewatch. You can get price information and alerts directly into your inbox.

And if you are working with a travel agent, they should price-watch your cruise for you and inform you of any price reduction. A good travel agent will do this – talk to them. Be sure you do not miss out.

Read your cruise contract before you pay

Read the small print and check your cancellation terms and conditions. It is essential to understand what you are purchasing.

There are some significant areas to be aware of that the cruise line has the right to do without offering compensation if you are unhappy. These can include:

  • The cruise line can change the itinerary. So you may see that some of your original ports of call are no longer included in the sailing.
  • Cruise lines have the right to change the length of time they are in port. So you may find that a port of call where you thought you could enjoy the city until 8 pm has been shortened, so the ship leaves at 4 pm instead.
  • You may find your cabin choice is changed. And although the cruise line will give you an equivalent category cabin or higher, it’s essential to know where your new cabin is. If you are unhappy, discuss this with the cruise line and get your cabin changed, especially if you have paid extra for a specific location.

The importance of cruise travel insurance

You must have suitable travel insurance booked and paid for before you begin your first cruise vacation.

Travel insurance should cover you for all eventualities, from lost luggage to complete medical treatment and getting home in an emergency. It should also include cancellation insurance.

Contact your insurance provider long before your travel date and find the best travel insurance policy to suit you and your family.

So, what itinerary will you choose for your next cruise? Start planning and search your perfect cruise, and don’t forget to read our top tips for a cruise vacation before you book your booking!

Meet the author: Sarah has created and booked hundreds of travel itineraries for thousands of customers during a career in the travel industry that spans 20 years. Having worked hand in hand with cruise lines, hotels, airlines and tour operators worldwide, she offers inspiring & detailed insights in the world of travel and tourism.

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1 thought on “Essential tips for a first-time cruise”

  1. My wife and I want to take our three kids on a cruise this summer once they finish school. I thought you made a good point when you mentioned that it is a good idea to pick from at least three different cruise lines so that you can find one that is best for you. It seems like it could be a good idea for us to find a cruise ship that caters to families that have younger children.


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