Six Tips for First-Time Cruisers

Photo: Celebrity Cruises
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on April 13, 2010. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: Carnival, Celebrity Cruises, cruise, cruise itinerary, Dan Askin, Cruise Critic Associate Editor, Norwegian Cruise Lines, packing, Princess, restaurant, Royal Caribbean Cruises, shore excursion, weather.

Congratulations on booking your first cruise. If you're looking for some tips that'll make the experience that much better, who's more qualified to give advice than first-time cruise travelers who've just returned from their first voyage? What they didn't know (packing, cocktails, ports, dining), they learned the hard way. But just as valuable, however, are the insights offered by the long-time cruiser, a grizzled ocean vet who knows the decks bow to stern. We've gathered top tips from both parties—three from first-timers and three from stalwart sea-goers.

Pre-Cruise Studies: Don't Be Left for Lost in Port

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On a cruise, everything you'll need—food, fun, cabins, ports—is neatly arranged. Your only job is to fork over the credit card, right? Well, not exactly. Andy, an experienced cruiser, cautioned about "cruising blind," especially when it comes to the destination. Said Andy: "Read as much as you possibly can before your cruise ... otherwise you might end up in a decent-sized port [especially in Europe], overwhelmed and without the slightest clue of what to do for the next eight hours." In terms of port info, lines rarely go beyond handing out a map of the town jewelry stores (with which they have special business agreements). So with limited time in port, it pays to hit the books before you go. And even if you've booked an excursion, after that three-hour snorkel trip, you might find yourself with several hours to kill.

Don't Tip Double on Beer—Remember, There's Auto-Gratuity!

Bruce, "a former Navy guy who can't swim," learned this on his first cruise with wife Cindy, a honeymoon trip for the Sarasota-based couple: "You're already automatically paying gratuities when you buy a drink at the bar. Now I don't mind tipping ... but I was handing out an extra dollar for drinks without even knowing it!"

Indeed, most big-ship lines—Carnival, Royal Caribbean, NCL, and others—automatically tack on a 15 percent service charge to bar bills. Unless the service was spectacular, there's no need to add another tip on top. Learn more about gratuities in SmarterTravel's Tipping: The Ultimate Guide.

When It Rains in the Caribbean ... Pack Right

Meg, sailing on her first cruise, made a few important discoveries during her introduction to cruise travel, one of which involved a heavy downpour during a port call in Roatan, Honduras. Unless things get particularly dicey, shore excursions will run—rain or shine. Back on the ship, it was clear to see that Meg wasn't alone in getting soaked to the bone (or being forced to improvise with garbage bag ponchos, as other cruisers did). The tropical Caribbean climate is mercurial, so high on our list of must-pack items—and now hers—is a lightweight waterproof jacket or poncho.

For a broader look at what to pack on your upcoming cruise, read Cruise Packing 101 on SmarterTravel's sister site, Cruise Critic. Or check out all of SmarterTravel's packing advice.

Staying Slim Amidst the All-You-Can-Eat Buffet

Being an independent traveler type who's visited six continents, Rich only recently went on his first cruise. Like many first-timers, he had heard about passengers staying well fed. But how to balance the intake—multiple lobster tails, cream sauces, molten chocolate cake—with health concerns? "Take the stairs instead of the elevator for a little exercise," says Rich. We definitely concur. Considering the flights of stairs on a 15-deck cruise ship, all that climbing will help to keep off the extra pounds.

We'd be remiss not to mention one of cruising's hottest trends: spa cuisine. Lines like Celebrity Cruises have special spa restaurants and low-calorie items on the main dining room menus.

On Embarkation Day, Avoid the Buffet Throngs and Score a Quiet Meal

While debarkation day certainly ranks as the worst day of the cruise (the cruise is over, cruise ships typically boot you early), embarkation day is a close second. For many, it starts with an early morning jolt out of bed, continues with a lengthy sojourn to the port, and concludes with lots of thumb-twiddling in a bleak, amenity-free terminal. All this pre-cruise time makes the soon-to-cruise very hungry. And once onboard, the mad dash to the buffet begins. Ottawa-area native Sheila, a cruise vet, offers a solid tip for those looking to avoid the famished throngs during embarkation day. Bypass the buffet or pool grill where the masses gather, and head to a dining room for some peace. One note: Not every line opens its dining rooms for lunch on embarkation day (NCL and Princess do).

Design a Ship Tour for Embarkation Day

For a first-timer, the prospect of finding your way around a 110,000-ton, 3,100-passenger, 15-deck mega-ship can be daunting. Kathy, a Palatino, California resident who's been on seven cruises, has a novel solution. A few days before embarkation, she creates her own ship tour, gathering information on the whereabouts of lounges and alternative restaurants from cruise ship deck plans, message boards, and ship reviews. So while others wander aimlessly on their first day aboard, Kathy, husband in tow, tours the ship like an old pro. All this pre-cruise preparation gives her more time to enjoy one of her favorite cruise pastimes—dancing the Twist.

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