If you’ve decided to hit the high seas on vacation for the first time, there’s a lot to consider before booking your trip. Beyond the seemingly endless itinerary options, you’ll also need to select your ideal cruise line and ship size, research what’s included with your cruise fare and learn what comes next after you’ve booked your trip. Figuring out all the moving parts of your first cruise getaway may seem daunting.
To help make your debut voyage as seamless as possible, U.S. News compiled the following tips from industry specialists and avid cruisers. From booking your cruise to embarking on the ship to saying farewell at the end of your sailing, these tips will help ensure you have a vacation of a lifetime. (Note: Some sailings may be affected due to the coronavirus pandemic. Cruise lines may require travelers to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination or present a negative COVID-19 test before boarding. Some excursions and onboard activities may also be limited. For the latest information, please visit the CDC website and each individual cruise line’s website.)
Hire a travel advisor
Selecting a cruise line and cruise ship can be overwhelming if you’re not familiar with the industry. Add to that the confusion that comes with figuring out cruise fares and additional fees, and you may want to consider hiring a travel advisor (at no extra cost to you). Annie Scrivanich, senior vice president of Cruise Specialists (which is part of Travel Leaders Network), suggests using a travel advisor to simplify the process, maximize your savings and make the most of your budget. “A retail travel agent can offer amenities not available via booking directly with the cruise line,” Scrivanich says. “Travel agency members of associations, such as Travel Leaders Network, can further enhance that valuation with complimentary perks such as private onboard events, shore tours, shipboard credits and the services of an onboard host.”
Book cruise packages before you embark
Before you sail, check out the cruise line’s available package deals to save money on dining, excursions and more. Andrew Garnett, president and chief executive officer of Special Needs Group – a company that provides accessibility and respiratory equipment to cruise passengers around the world – says, “First-time cruisers can ensure a great experience if they do a few things that I wish I knew on my first cruise, such as booking the packages offered before you board the ship.” Packages vary by ship and cruise line, but they may include specialty dining restaurants, nonalcoholic and alcoholic beverages, gratuities, shore excursions and other amenities. “When booking in advance online,” Garnett says, “you’ll have a discounted rate over what you would pay once on board the ship. Even the Wi-Fi packages can be discounted if purchased ahead of time.” If you’re working with a travel advisor, they can also notify you of special promotional packages that may not be advertised on the cruise line’s website.
Reserve dinners and excursions early
It’s best to make your specialty dining reservations, book shore excursions and reserve tickets for shows once you’re confirmed on the cruise. “The availability of the tours, services, restaurants, etc. may be limited if you wait until you get on the ship,” Garnett says. Debra Kerper of Cruise Planners and Easy Access Travel, which specializes in travel for people with mobility challenges, agrees. “Download the mobile app – if offered by your cruise line – and do your online registration,” Kerper says. “This can usually be done up to 90 days before sailing. Once you’re registered online, you can view shore excursions, specialty restaurants, shows, spa services, drink packages, internet packages and more. Now is the time to sign up.”
When it comes to shore excursions, Kerper says, “Explore your options and book early, as they do fill up. Once on board, you can get more information about them, and you’ll be able to cancel if they’re not to your liking. Be aware of icons denoting activity level, and choose activities according to your abilities.” And if you decide to change dinner reservations once you’re on board, you can do that, too. It’s best to have plans in place before you leave so that you don’t miss out on the activities and dinners you’re looking forward to while on your cruise.
Embark from a port within driving distance
If you’re looking for ways to save time and money, consider an itinerary that departs from a port that you can drive to. Bill Panoff, editor-in-chief of Porthole Cruise and Travel Magazine, says, “Many cruise lines have positioned ships in what is referred to as the ‘Drive Market,’ which means you as a consumer can now drive to the ship to embark versus flying to the ship. This option can save you money, especially when traveling with a large family.” Driving directly to the port will also save you money on pre-cruise expenses like hotel stays and additional meals, and you’ll avoid any potential issues with flight delays or cancellations.
[Ready to plan a cruise? Find the best value sailings on GoToSea, a service of U.S. News.]
Purchase cruise travel insurance
Consider purchasing a travel insurance policy once your cruise booking is finalized. Unexpected situations can unravel your plans at the last minute, which may cause you to lose some (or all) of your money. Shop around and compare the prices, benefits and limitations of several travel insurance plans before purchasing. Some companies also offer a cancel for any reason upgrade, which allows cruisers to recover a good chunk of their money should they cancel within 48 hours of departure (in most cases). It’s worth the peace of mind knowing that you are covered in the unlikely situation you’re forced to delay or cancel your cruise. Travel insurance can also cover travel delays and medical emergencies while on your trip. Read the fine print to know what’s covered in the policy before you make your purchase.
Get to know your ship before you arrive
Some cruise ships are so large, you could spend your whole trip exploring all the onboard amenities, activities, shopping venues, restaurants and bars. To save some time, Kerper suggests exploring the ship virtually before you set sail. “Become familiar with the cruise line and the ship by reading through their website,” she says. “It contains valuable information and will be very helpful in getting you on the way to being an experienced cruiser.” Watch online videos, get acquainted with the deck plans and learn where your stateroom is in relation to the restaurants, coffee shops, shopping and entertainment venues, gym and spa. Kerper also recommends researching the ports of call you’ll be visiting before your cruise, as you might want to explore on your own or hire a taxi rather than booking an official excursion.
Pack medications and valuables in your carry-on
Be sure to pack your medications, vitamins and other important items in your carry-on luggage where you will be able to easily access them. Don’t take the chance of leaving them in your checked bags, which could get lost or delayed in transit. It can also take time for your luggage to reach the stateroom if you’ve left it with baggage handlers at the cruise terminal. To be on the safe side, it’s best to bring up to two weeks of additional medications in case there’s a situation that delays you returning home.
Be prepared in case motion sickness strikes
If you’re prone to motion sickness on choppy waters, take preventative measures before you board the ship. Medications like Dramamine can quell symptoms, but they are most effective if you take them before setting sail. An alternative to Dramamine is the prescription Transderm-Scop Patch, which you wear behind your ear. Afflicted passengers should start wearing the patch approximately four hours before boarding and replace it every three days.
A natural, drug-free alternative is the Sea-Band elasticized wristband, which aims to ease stomach troubles by applying pressure on the Nei Kuan acupressure point. Bands must be worn as directed on both wrists to be fully effective. You can put them on once you’re on the ship, but it’s best to be safe and start wearing them before you board.
Arrive at least one day before your cruise departs
Don’t take any chances when it comes to reaching your long-awaited cruise vacation on time. Plan to arrive to your embarkation destination at least a day ahead of the sail date, especially if you are flying. Driving instead of flying provides a bit more protection from delays, but traffic accidents or car trouble can still delay your arrival. And if you’re flying overseas, arriving the day before allows you to rest up and get adjusted to the time change before embarkation. To extend your vacation, you might even want to add a few additional days to do a bit of sightseeing before you board the ship. Many cruise lines offer pre- and post-cruise hotel add-ons if you don’t want to book your own accommodations, so check with your cruise line for available options.
Time your arrival to avoid crowds at the port on embarkation day
With so many people trying to check in and board the ship at once, the embarkation process can be stressful. Scrivanich notes that some cruise lines assign scheduled boarding times to better streamline the process. However, if you do not have a scheduled time to arrive at the cruise terminal, Panoff says, “It’s a good idea to get to the pier early during the embarkation process to avoid any lines, or arrive later in the day when most guests have already boarded. Cruise lines have made the process seamless in most cases and even touchless now.”
Garnett also recommends getting to the ship early but for another reason: to check it out before most of the other passengers board. “You have paid for the day. So, why not enjoy it as early as you can? While you’re at it, explore the ship and look at a map of the decks to make sure you don’t miss anything. I have been on a weeklong cruise only to find out that there was something I had missed on the day we had to get off the vessel.”
Organize important documents in a folder
More documents are required to fly and cruise now than ever before, so organization is key when you arrive at the cruise terminal. Keep a folder handy with vital documents, including your cruise ticket, passport, vaccination card, COVID-19 test results or any paperwork required to enter other countries. If you’re tech savvy, you may also be able to show a QR code on your smartphone for some of the documentation. Keep the folder and your cellphone handy until you arrive at your stateroom, as you might have to show these documents a few times during the embarkation process. It’s also important to note that, in most cases, your passport must be valid for at least six months after your return date. Depending on your itinerary destinations, you may need to carry your passport or copies of important documents with you when you go ashore.
Contact the cruise line early with special requests
When accessibility is a concern, it’s best to advise the cruise line as far in advance as possible of your situation. “Passengers should contact the access department of the cruise line and inform them of any special needs,” Kerper says. “Be aware that crew members cannot assist with anything of a personal nature. Cruisers must be self-sufficient or travel with someone who can help them.”
Garnett recommends that cruisers plan ahead if they’ll need to rent equipment like wheelchairs, mobility scooters or rollators. “Reserve your special needs equipment for rental far in advance. We have all heard about supply chain issues affecting everything from toilet paper to cars. Unfortunately, special needs equipment is no different. So, make sure to reserve what you need sooner than later.”
Learn cruise lingo before you set sail
While on board, you may hear nautical terms referring to the ship like aft, galley, lido deck, atrium, tender, starboard and bow. If you’re not familiar with these phrases, search online for websites that offer a short description of commonly used cruise terms. Then, when you’re on the ship, you’ll feel like a pro when someone suggests that you meet up at the lido deck and you know exactly where to find them.
Disembark with ease
All good things must come to an end, and a cruise vacation is no exception. Most cruise lines require travelers to leave their packed, larger (checked) luggage outside of their staterooms before bed on the final night of the voyage. While you’re asleep, the crew will transfer your bags to the cruise terminal, where you will retrieve them the next morning after disembarking the ship. If you prefer, you can wheel your own luggage off the ship instead. “The debarkation process has been streamlined, and, in most cases, guests can disembark by the deck where their stateroom is located,” Panoff says. “Some cruise lines offer luggage programs whereby your luggage can be shipped home independently by companies like Luggage Forward.” This service is an excellent option for travelers extending their cruise vacation with a land tour, as they’ll have limited luggage to carry around.