First-time cruiser? Here’s what you need to know

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So you’re thinking about a cruise? Cruises offer a world of relaxation, adventure and delicious food, all rolled into one unforgettable vacation, but preparing for your first cruise can seem a little overwhelming. This guide will equip you with everything you need to know to have a smooth and fantastic first cruise.

A person with a backpack and hat stands at a dock with arms raised, facing a large cruise ship on a sunny day.
Photo credit: YayImages.

Why you should book a cruise

Cruises are perfect for those who want a hassle-free vacation. Unlike planning a trip with flights, hotels and endless itineraries, cruises bundle everything together. Unpack once, explore multiple destinations and have your meals taken care of — it’s the ultimate all-inclusive experience.

Plus, cruise ships are basically floating cities packed with activities, entertainment and amenities. Many of them have waterslides, casinos, pools, shows and even rock climbing walls — there’s something for everyone onboard, and each cruise line caters to a different style of cruiser.

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How to avoid seasickness

The fear of seasickness is a common concern for first-time cruisers. The good news is there are ways to avoid seasickness.

First, choose a larger, more stable ship. Bigger ships cut through waves more smoothly, making seasickness less likely. Newer ships have even more stabilizers built in, so you don’t feel the motion.

When you book, pick a cabin in the middle of the ship and on the lower decks. The center of the ship experiences less rocking motion, and that’s typically what sets off the sensation of seasickness.

Even before you sail, stay hydrated and avoid heavy meals. If you do start to feel seasick, ginger is also a natural remedy — ginger chews or candied ginger can work wonders.

If you know you’re prone to motion sickness, talk to your doctor about medication options. The scopaline patch is a miracle worker, and you can now purchase it over the counter. The acupressure patches like Sea Bands also work incredibly well when worn as instructed.

Planning your cruise like a pro

Cruises are available year-round to destinations all over the world, from the Caribbean and Alaska to Europe and Asia. Consider factors like weather, interests and budget when making your choice, as some destinations have limited sailing seasons.

Think about the weather. Cruising the Caribbean in peak summer might mean scorching temperatures and crowded ports. Shoulder seasons or even the start of hurricane season can offer pleasant weather and fewer crowds.

Each cruise line offers unique experiences suited to different interests and styles of cruisers. Some cater to families, while others offer a more luxurious atmosphere. Read reviews and compare amenities to find the cruise line that’s the best fit for you.

Packing for smooth sailing

Packing for a cruise is easier than you might think. For the most part, you will wear comfortable resort clothing. Swimsuits, cover-ups, shorts, t-shirts and sundresses are all cruise essentials unless you’re headed to Alaska. Pack some dressier outfits for formal nights, which most lines have at least one of per cruise.

Don’t forget sunscreen, a hat and sunglasses for those sunny days at sea. Be sure to pack medications and toiletries, and pack extra just in case you don’t get home quite on time. It’s hard to replace medication.

Remember, most ships have laundry facilities onboard, so you don’t need to pack for weeks. At first, you always pack more than you need, and then on each subsequent cruise you take, you pack less and less.

“Take advantage of the laundry services. I’ve been on ships where you could stuff an entire bag full of laundry for $25. This means you can pack less and not check a bag while still having fresh clothes. I’ve also used the self service laundry which is often free and usually located on every floor.” 

— Kelly Stilwell, Food, Fun & Faraway Places

Budgeting for your cruise vacation

Cruises can be surprisingly affordable, especially when you consider everything that’s included — your accommodation, meals and entertainment. However, there are additional costs to factor in.

Shore excursions you may choose at each port of call are extra, as are drinks, unless you purchase a drink package. Most cruise lines also have optional specialty dining and experiences you can also purchase but are not required to enjoy your cruise.

A person wearing a sunhat and white shirt looks out over the ocean from a ship's railing, with a tropical drink placed on the rail next to them. For those seeking cruise tips, this serene moment encapsulates the relaxation awaiting you on your next adventure.
Photo credit: YayImages.

Gratuities for housekeeping and wait staff are also typically added to your bill. While you can remove these, this is the wage that these employees rely on, so please do not do that. Factor in these extras when budgeting for your cruise.

Embarkation day: Setting sail smoothly

Embarkation day can be a bit hectic, but with a little planning, you can breeze through it. Before your cruise, you will select a check-in time for the day of embarkation. Show up at that time and not earlier.

Have your passport and cruise documents readily available. Once onboard, familiarize yourself with the ship’s layout and be sure you have downloaded the cruise line app. 

Explore the public areas, find your cabin once it’s available and unpack your essentials. You generally want to get something to eat once you’re on board and start to plan what activities you want to do on board that day and for the rest of the cruise. Most importantly, relax and enjoy the start of your adventure.

“My top tip for a first-time cruiser is to pack your bathing suit and a change of clothes in your carry-on bag. It may be a while before your suitcase is delivered to your cabin. If you pack some essentials in your carry-on, you can enjoy the ship as soon as you board.” 

—  Lisa Wells, Coastal Wandering

Pro tips for first-time cruisers

Book shore excursions in advance, especially for popular activities. This ensures you get the tours you want. Many of these will book out months in advance, but keep checking because sometimes there are cancellations.

A woman in a floral dress smiles while standing on a pier, with a large white cruise ship docked in the background, ready to share some helpful cruise tips.
Photo credit: YayImages.

Buying bottled water can get expensive, but staying hydrated is important. Bring a reusable water bottle, especially for off the ship. You can get tap water and things like basic coffee and tea free on the ship, and the reusable water bottle lets you keep it cold or hot for a longer period of time. 

Explore the ship’s hidden gems. Many larger ships have secret areas like adult-only decks or secluded solariums. Others have small restaurants tucked away that may be less crowded than the main buffet or main dining room or areas with comfy seating to relax on sea days.

Are you ready to book?

Cruising is an unforgettable way to explore the world. With a little planning and these essential tips in your back pocket, you’re well on your way to a smooth and fantastic first cruise experience.

Michelle Price is a food and travel writer at Honest and Truly who almost has an empty nest. She loves to provide both the inspiration and the confidence you need to help get you into the kitchen and on the road to enjoy new flavors and experiences.

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