Cruising has changed! Updated First-time Cruiser advice for the modern world of cruises.
I took my first cruise in 1983, but unlike most I started behind the scenes, working as a crewmember. So, while I had a chance to learn many things about shipboard processes, there were many things I did not know until later - when I started cruising as a regular passenger. But in the last nearly 30 years I have seen cruising form "both sides now."
My first passenger cruise was in 1995 - on the Seabourn Sun - a former Royal Viking Line ship that had been put into the Seabourn fleet temporarily - we went to the Baltic Sea. (The ship is now known as the Prinsendam and is in the Holland America fleet). This was the first time I experienced pre-assigned dining times, dress codes, gratuities and how to interface with a room steward and waiter.
Working as a ship reviewer for 15 years now, at one time I decided to experiment with going on a cruise having done only a minimum of homework. I wanted to see how well the cruise staff could convey to me the things I did not know -information about the ship and its activities, onboard events, shore excursion options, food options, etc.
Here is what I found - a person can go on a ship knowing very little about the cruise, but in most cases the more you know about your cruise before you go, the better your cruise will be. The people who have the best cruises are the ones who do a lot of research before they sail and pre-arrange as many things as possible.
If it is your first cruise you need to learn many things like:
- What should I bring to wear - is there a dress code?
- How does the dining system work?
- For what onboard expenses will I be responsible?
- How do I get on tours in ports of call?
- Are there activities especially for the kids?
- How do I keep in touch with friends and family at home?
- What do I need to bring in additional to clothes?
- How do I deal with emergencies?
In fact - things have changed a great deal since we started this web site in 1999, so it is time to answer these questions in the style of 2011.
What should I bring to wear - is there a dress code?
Most cruise ships still have a dress code, but it has been toned it down and the enforcement lightened up over the years. Cruising has become more casual in the last decade, which is a considered a good thing by most people, although there is still many cruisers who misses the formality of old-style cruising.
Most cruise ships will have at least one "formal optional" night onboard each cruise - which means you can dress up if you choose to do so. While these events are no longer mandatory, it is still a good idea to plan to participate in these formal nights and to bring appropriate clothes. The reason is that these nights generally have the best food in the main dining room, and you will want to be dressed appropriately at the risk of standing out like an ugly sore thumb. If you are not dressed nicely some ships will deny you entrance to the dining room - but don't worry, there are always other ways get food dinner, the buffet area or room service, for example.
Some ships will let into anyone into the dining room no matter how they are dressed (I believe Carnival and NCL have this policy now). Still, no matter what ship you are sailing upon we still advise you never to wear the following in the main dining room: jeans, shorts, t-shirts, flip-flops or tennis shoes. The minimum is a shirt with a collar, slacks and "nice" shoes. For women; a pantsuit is fine, or a skirt with a dressy top. The most appropriate attire is a jacket and dress shirt for men and a cocktail dress for the ladies. A necktie is usually optional - but this will be specified in your cruise information.
This is quite a change from the old days when all men wore tuxedoes on formal nights and the women looked like they were attending a ball at the Governor's mansion. The vast majority of people still participating in formal nights on most ships, albeit at these looser standards, but if you choose to avoid it all together you can still get a very decent meal in the buffet area of the ship - where breakfast and lunch are typically taken.
How Does the Dining System Work?
There are two main places to eat on all ships - the main dining room and the buffet area, commonly called the Lido. Breakfast and lunch are usually taken in the Lido while the main dining room is for dinner. Both rooms are open for both meals, however, and the choice on where to eat is entirely yours every day.
For dinner in the dining room, in the old days you had to choose between early and late seatings. Early was usually 6:00 and late was 8:00. You were assigned a table before you arrived and you dined at that same table, with the same wait staff and tablemates for the entire cruise. This "traditional dining" is still an option on most cruise ships, and you specify that you want it before your cruise starts.
Today most ships also offer "anytime" dining in the same dining room, or sometimes in a separate but equally nice dining room. You get the same food, but you can show up at any time and request a table for any number of people. You do not need reservations although some ships offer them. On big ships it is a good idea to get a reservation when possible.
If you are a couple you can request a table for two, but it is also very customary to share tables on cruise ships - so if you would like to meet new people you just ask to be seated at a larger table. I assure you, no one will be offended when you sit at their table.
Most ships now also offer "alternative dining" restaurants. These are dining venues with higher quality cuisine than you get in the "included in the cruise fare" dining rooms. Now, even the average food on a cruise ships is very good - you will get steak offered every night on your cruise, and lobster at least once, but if you want excellent food then these special restaurants are worth the cost. The typical meal ranges from $15 to $35 per person. Yes, that is a little expensive, but if you had the same meal on land you would actually pay a lot more.
For What Onboard Expenses Will I Be Responsible?
Ships are cashless systems except in the casino. Every passenger has an onboard account created when you submit a credit card at the beginning of the cruise. The same card will be charged at the end of the cruise. A married couple or family can all be on the same account, or you can have individual accounts.
Unless otherwise noted, you will be responsible for paying gratuities at the end of the cruise, luxury cruise lines like Seabourn, Silversea, Regent and soon Crystal (2012) are the exception. Gratuities are usually about $12 per passenger per day. You can put them on your bill and they will be charged to your credit card. You must pay for certain beverages; alcoholic drinks, sodas, special coffees like cappuccino. Spa services are additional (a massage is now about $130). There is also plenty of shopping onboard - and anything you buy will be charged to your onboard account.
Shore tours are also additional charged to your account. Shore tours are one area where planning ahead makes a big difference.
How Do I Get on Tours in Ports of Call?
You can generally find all the information you need and even pre-book the tours offered on your cruise on the cruise line web site before you leave. The advantage to booking a tour through the cruise line is that they make it easy for you to find the right bus and will get you to the tour and back to the ship on time.
On the ship is a "Shore Excursion Desk" where you go to book tours. In the old days it was very common to see a long here on the first day as the best tours can sell out quickly. Now most people book the best tours online, so they may be sold out by the time you get onboard. So, the best advice is to go online pre-cruise and book the tours yourself. Be aware that most cruise lines will charge your credit card when you book a tour online, however you can cancel and they will reverse the charge if you change your mind.
If you choose to go alone you can just walk off the ship in any port. You can hire taxi drivers or book independent tours through third-party companies. In the vast majority of cases you will be fine. The ports of call are full of people ready to help cruisers have a good time. They know what time the ship sails and do this regularly. However, if anything goes wrong and the ship sails without you, if you are not on a cruise line-sponsored shore excursion you will be responsible for getting yourself to the next port of call.
Are There Activities Especially for the Kids?
These days most mainstream cruise lines (referring to the larger ships on cruise line names you know like Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Princess, Holland America and Norwegian Cruise Line) offer childcare services from the ages of six months to 17 years old. Of course, the kids are separated by age and given age-appropriate supervised activities. The breakdown is usually; 6 to 36 months, 4 to7, 8 to 11, 12 - 14 and 15-17. If you have kids who want to stay together it is usually possible to let an older kid go into a younger group, or the opposite, depending on which makes more sense.
For the most part, these activities are free, but be sure to check the rules. Some ships allow older kids to sign themselves out, for example. There are also babysitting services available at an hourly rate on most ships if you want to stay out later than usual.
How Do I Stay in Touch with Friends and Family at Home?
Almost all U.S.-based cruise line ships now offer Internet access and cell phone service onboard. The best part is that you can cruise in the Caribbean, Europe or Asia and you do not need a "global" phone. Your U.S.-technology phone will work on a cruise ship anywhere in the world. There are roaming charges, however, and you should expect to pay about $4 per minute to use a cell phone on a cruise ship.
Internet access is far more common and works far better on most cruise ships now than it did a few years ago. Newer ships will have Wi-Fi onboard so you can bring your laptop and use it in your stateroom. If you do not want to bring your laptop the ship will have an Internet center with workstations. But in general these workstations will only allow you to access webmail, so be sure you bring your email username and password. Internet access generally costs about 50-cents per minute, more or less, depending on the size of the package you buy when you sign up.
What Do I Need to Bring in Additional to Clothes?
Most cruise ships have hair dryers onboard - although you may need to ask for one when you arrive. Most cruise lines supply shampoo and soap. One good thing to have is adaptors to turn U.S.-style electrical plugs into European ones. U.S. plugs are two flat prongs while European ones are two round prongs slightly farther apart. Cruise ships are built in Europe and hence come with mostly European sockets. There will be at least one U.S. socket in your room, but the rest will be European.
IMPORTANT: Europe uses 220 volts as a standard instead of the 110 volts we use in the U.S. - If you merely use a plug converter on something like a hair curler you can burn your locks off. Or you may end up frying your favorite lighted makeup mirror. The good news is that most cell-phone, laptop and camera chargers are made to adapt to the voltage they "see" when you plug them in, so it is usually OK to plug those into a European socket with a U.S. to European plug adaptor. Just look carefully at your chargers and make sure they say "voltage 110 - 220."
How Do I Deal with Emergencies?
The best thing is to buy travel insurance before you leave. This insurance generally costs about five to 10-percent of your total trip cost. It will cover you if there is an emergency. If your cruise is cancelled due to weather or a strike, for example, or if you miss the ship because of bad weather they will re-book you, get you to the ship, and cover the expenses. Travel Insurance is a big topic, so I suggest you read about it separately. The main thing you need to know about travel insurance is this - the policy will list what it covers - there are exclusions for areas where the State Dept. has issued travel warnings, natural disasters and pandemics, for example. In general, if it is listed it is covered, if it is not listed it is NOT covered.
The cruise lines will always send you a phone number to give to your relatives to contact you in case of an emergency. Be sure to leave this number with a close relative and a friend. Also - be sure to write down the name of the cruise line and ship you are sailing upon, and well as your stateroom number. Be sure you know whose name was used to book the cruise since that will be the name of record on the ship. If you used a travel agent (which we highly recommend) includes the agent's contact information.
For non-emergencies, people can call you on your cell-phone, but it will still cost you $4/minute. Email is the best way to keep in touch. There are also tricks to keeping your internet usage time to a minimum, such as not typing out an email while you are connected to the Internet.
If you have any further questions - please post them on our forums. We have a section specifically for first-time cruisers. Welcome to the world of cruising - and be prepared to love it. Most people who cruise once choose to cruise again and again.