Cruising 101: What You MUST Know Before You Set Sail on Your First Cruise + FREE Packing List
Updated: Sep 26, 2019
Congratulations....you've just booked your first cruise! Or maybe you're seriously thinking about taking a cruise. Here's all the juice must-know cruise info before you go (and don't forget to grab your FREE Cruise Packing List)!
The Embarkation Process
I'm just going to get this first one out of the way - embarkation (getting on the ship in non-cruiser lingo) to the cruise ship can be stressful. Everyone is excited and ready to board the ship, but it can be very crowded and confusing for a first-time cruiser.
I highly suggest planning your embarkation for either the earliest times or the latest times to avoid massive crowds and wait-time.
You'll check your luggage which will be later delivered to your stateroom. I recommend packing a separate carry-on bag with a change of clothing, a bathing suit, or anything else you may need access to before your luggage is delivered to your stateroom.
Be prepared to wait in some lines - it's just the nature of getting that many people safely onto a giant ship. Pack some snacks, a book, or make sure your smartphone is fully charged to keep you entertained.
What Travel Documents Do I Need for My Cruise?
Knowing what documents you need ahead of time is going to greatly reduce your stress while boarding. I'm including general rules for most cruising situations for U.S. citizens but be sure to double check your cruise documents to make sure you've got everything you need ahead of time.
You'll need a copy of your cruise boarding documents, usually sent ahead of time via home mail or e-mail.
While technically not required for closed-loop cruises (starting and ending in the U.S.), I always recommend having one. You never know what will happen! If you end up sick or in a hospital at a foreign port, you'll need your passport to get back home by airplane.
If you choose to not take a passport for your closed-loop cruise, you're still required to show a government-issued photo-ID (like a driver's license), and proof of citizenship (like an official birth certificate).
Most cruise lines require the passport be paid for 6-months following the completion of your vacation.
Children ages 16 and under can board with an official government-issued birth certificate.
Make a copy of all your important documents and leave it with a trusted friend or family member at home in case your documents are lost or stolen.
Single-parents, parents with different last names as their child, or grandparents traveling with children may need consent letters from the parent, and often an official form from the cruise line. For these special situations, be sure to research documentation details ahead of time.
You Can Bring Alcohol Onboard
Each cruise line differs in exactly how much alcohol they allow, but generally, it is a 6 pack or 2 bottles of wine per person. Check your specific cruise line for details of their policy. This can absolutely save you money, but remember, you CANNOT bring onboard alcohol purchased at port stops.
Embarkation Day Lunch
You've gone through the check-in process, you've shown all your proper documents, and now you're ready to grab your first meal onboard the ship!
Pretty much EVERYONE will head toward the buffet for that first meal - I highly recommend you go elsewhere!
Most cruise lines will have their table service restaurants open and you can order off the menu, and most importantly, you won't have to worry about fighting for a table or waiting in huge buffet lines.
Most people don't know that other dining locations are open - this is a well-kept secret! Take advantage of the less crowded dining areas.
The word 'Muster' means to assemble, and on embarkation day of each cruise all passengers are required to muster at a specified location for a safety drill. Again, this can seem chaotic, but believe me, once it's over - your relaxation can begin! Everyone, even children, MUST attend.
Skip the Elevators if You Can
With so many people on the ship and only so many elevators, the lines can be significant. If you're physically able, take the stairs any time you can, especially if you're only going up or down a few decks. Plus - it'll help counteract the endless food and drinks!
This is the number one concern I hear from clients about upcoming cruises, "What if I get seasick?"....the truth is, very few people actually get seasick! On our recent large agency cruise with nearly 30 people, only 2-3 individuals felt bothered at all by being on the boat, and their illness consisted of dizziness and some nausea - not full-blow seasickness.
There are a few ways to combat seasickness if you think this will be an issue for you:
Reserve a stateroom in the lower middle of the ship. Think of an old-school playground seesaw: the center part does not move and pitch as the ends do.
Begin taking over-the-counter motion sickness medications, like Dramamine or Bonine, 2 days prior to boarding the ship. Continue taking them throughout your trip. Be sure to purchase a non-drowsy version unless you want to sleep through your cruise! Available on Amazon (if you purchase through my link below, I'll get a few pennies back!)
Sea-Bands are another great option. These clasp around your wrist at certain spots helping with nausea.
If you're at risk for seasickness, choose a larger boat. Larger vessels are equipped with fancier state-of-the-art stabilizing mechanisms.
Don't double-tip! Many major cruise lines include tip in alcoholic beverage purchases, and gratuities are automatically added for dining and housekeeping services. Check your cruise line policy before overtipping!
WIFI and Phone Use
Once out at sea, you won't have automatic phone and internet connections. To use the ship's internet connection, it will generally require a payment for the internet package. Internet speeds can be slow and bandwidth low, simply because there may be many passengers accessing the ship's internet service at once.
If you're looking to simply check-in on things at home, I suggest putting your smartphone in airplane mode while at sea and linking up to free wi-fi while at port stops.
To make phone calls from port stops, most phone companies have reasonably inexpensive international calling options. For example, Verizon offers a TravelPass for $10 per day of use. Contact your provider to inquire about a similar program.
If you need to have access to significant internet onboard the ship, internet data packages are available for purchase.
How Does Dining Work?
The majority of cruise lines work around the same dining process.
There is a main buffet area that is open for each meal, and also separate table-service restaurants open for select meals. These are generally included in cost of the cruise.
Additionally, specialty restaurants may be available for additional cost.
Some cruise lines, such as Disney Cruise Line, do a rotating table-service, where you AND your server will visit a different dining venue each night. Other cruises, like Royal Caribbean, have one main sit-down dining room where different meals are served each night.
Feel free to order anything from any night you wish! If you're really wanting the roast beef from last night, they'll generally be happy to whip it up for you. Prefer the dessert offered in a different dining room on Disney Cruise Line? No problem, they'll go get it for you!
Order as much as you'd like! You're not limited to one appetizer, one main dish, or one dessert. You can order 3 appetizers and 2 desserts - or any other combination your heart (or stomach) desires!
TIP: If eating at the buffet, plan to go either early or later than typical meal hours. You'll be able to find more seating and get to your food faster.
Alcoholic beverages are not included in your cruise dining. Adult beverage packages, as well as other dining packages on select cruise lines, are available for an additional package.
Formal Night on select cruise lines (or specialty party nights on Disney Cruise Line) can be tons of fun but are totally optional! There's no need to spend tons on new outfits unless it's something you want to participate in.
Take Part in Onboard Free Activities
Regardless of which cruise line or ship you're on, there are so many free activities that you can participate in. Some ships will leave a daily newsletter under the door each night, or some, such as Disney Cruise Line, have their own app that will outline activities, entertainment, and character experiences each day.
Some of the free onboard activities include:
Live shows and entertainment like high-dive and ice shows on Royal Caribbean, Broadway-caliber musics on Disney Cruise Line, and varying comedic, magic and live music throughout all cruise lines.
Play a Game! Trivia happens daily on most cruise ships, as well as interactive games like 'Family Feud' on Royal Caribbean, and a version of The Newlywed Game on Disney Cruise Line.
Swimming, whirlpools, waterslides, and kids splash pads are free for daily fun, with scheduled pool parties at certain times.
Fore! Ok, it's just mini-golf but how amazing would it be to play mini-golf atop a cruise deck? And it's free! Along with several other onboard sports like racketball, shuffleboard, ping-pong, and basketball.
See a Movie for free (but the popcorn and snacks may cost you...). Still, it's a fun activity and often Disney Cruise Line will preview not-yet-released movies.
Get your groove on in the many different dance clubs. From karaoke, to silent dance parties (where everyone is wearing headphones grooving to their own music), to piano bars - nightlife is never lacking on a cruise ship.
Some ships also have fun things like free ice skating, rock climbing walls, water slides, surf simulators, exercise facilities and more.
If you're figuring out which ship or cruise line would be best for your family's particular needs, use my online scheduler to book your free vacation planning session and I can help you make the perfect match!
Child Care Options
And what to do with the little ones while you enjoy a specialty meal or dance the night away at an adults-only club? FREE onboard kids clubs are the answer (and every parent's dream). For most family-centered cruise lines, free kids clubs are provided for kids ages 3-12 and nanny services for babies and toddlers are available for fee on family-centered cruises.
Don't think of it as dumping your kids because trust me, they won't want to leave! These specially-curated classes and activities within the childcare centers are incredible.
Meet characters (Disney Cruise Line)
Eat yummy meals provided for them (don't worry, they'll ask about dietary needs)
Do Arts and Crafts
Become Mad Scientists
Learn about ocean life
Have epic dance parties
Make new friends
What to do at Port Visits....
Splurge on Shore Excursions
While shore excursions can be pricey, I always highly recommend my clients do one or two days of planned shore activities. These are truly once-in-a-lifetime experiences that you may never have the chance to do again. How often are you going to snorkel with sea turtles, zip-line through the rainforest, tour ancient Mayan ruins, or hike and swim under a waterfall in Jamaica? I'm ALL about saving money, but sometimes a good splurge is in order. By the way, book these advance and receive discounts - often up to 30% off onboard booking prices.
Explore the local markets, culture, and food. Don't forget that it's totally acceptable (and expected) for you to haggle prices.
Stay on the Ship
This may seem strange, but port visits can be the PERFECT time to enjoy onboard activities while most other passengers are off of the ship. Smaller lines for waterslides, less crowded pools, and more available lounge chairs make for a fantastic day.
DON'T Miss the Boat
They won't wait for you! To get back on the ship you'll need your cruise card or documents, based on which cruise line you sail. Make sure you review their policy before exiting the ship. And then be sure to board the cruise ship on time because you don't want to be like the sad people in this video:
What to Pack for your Cruise
I've put together the ultimate cruise packing list based on what I wish I took my first time (and what I should have left at home). Get your FREE PDF Cruise Packing Checklist HERE.
🛑 Here's your Warning - Cruises are addicting....
Once you go on one and see how fun it is to unpack once and see the world, you'll be hooked!
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