Tips for first-time cruisers: How to prepare for your first ever cruise


Your very first cruise can be both exciting and unnerving. What do I need to do before I depart? What do I need to pack? New cruisers will inevitably ask themselves these questions and many others. Therefore we’ve compiled a few tips to ensure your first cruise is nothing but smooth sailing.

Pre-departure questionnaire, passport, visas, online check-in: All the things you need before departure

You’ve booked your first cruise? Congratulations! You’ve already completed the most important step on the way to your dream holiday. But before you can hop onboard, there are a few things to watch out for.

A lady and a guy reading through a transport planFirst, you’ve got to fill out the necessary travel documents which contain all of the important data for the authorities of the ports and countries you’ll be visiting during your cruise. This can be conveniently filled out online when you do your online check-in. Although the deadline varies between cruise lines, this form is typically due around one week before departure. Double-check that your travel documents will be up-to-date and valid during the required time period as well. Give yourself enough time to apply for a new passport if necessary (for a UK passport this takes around six weeks but it of course can take longer) . The same goes for visas, if any of the destinations you’ll be visiting require a visa for passengers of your nationality.

Equally important is a pre-departure health check-up. Make sure you’ve got an ample supply of any medication you’ll need and ask your GP if you’ll need any vaccinations to travel safely in the destinations you’ll be visiting.

Shore excursions: The early bird catches the worm

You’ve almost certainly already familiarised yourself with your cruise ship’s itinerary. The destinations were probably a huge factor in booking this particular cruise. So it’s likely you’ve got an idea or two about what you’d like to do or see in the different destination ports. Whether you’d like to explore a specific city with its cultural treasures and tourist attractions, go on a bicycle excursion to work off those calories from the buffet, or go on a safari to get a glimpse of the local wildlife, your cruise line will offer many different types of shore excursions that you can book long before your cruise. It’s also possible to book a shore excursion once you’re already onboard, however you should keep in mind that popular excursions might be sold out by the time you’re onboard. Therefore we recommend you book before your journey.

London guards on march paradeIf you prefer exploring on your own, keep in mind that cruise ships leave on time– with or without you. If you get held up and arrive back late at port, you risk missing the boat and you’ll have to arrange your own transportation to the next port of call in order to board the ship again. This isn’t just stressful – sometimes it can be a very expensive detour as well. But if you stick with tours that are organized by the cruise line and unforeseen circumstances delay your return to port, the ship will wait.

What to pack?

Broadly speaking, you should pack for the weather in the destination you’ll be visiting, just like any other trip. Medication, passport and travel documents, sunscreen, an adaptor, a hat to keep off the sun, appropriate clothing for the activities you’ll be participating in – like any other holiday, these are good to start with. If you like looking out over the open ocean, observing dolphins, other ships that come your way (or if you’re very lucky the odd whale) a pair of binoculars can also come in handy.

There are also a few other items to take into consideration when going on a journey at sea. Chewing gum and medication against motion sickness might be a good idea if you know you’re susceptible to getting seasick. Thanks to new stabilisation technology, the motion of the ship is much less noticeable on deck than in the olden days, but there’s always a chance of encountering rough seas so better safe than sorry.

Formally dressed ship guestsYou’ll also want to be prepared for the evening activities onboard. Most cruise lines require that passengers dress up for dinner in an onboard restaurant (others cruise lines have daytime dress codes as well). Most cruise lines also have at least one formal night per cruise, a festive occasion which many passengers take as an opportunity to get their glad rags on. Formal Nights typically involve a meet-and-greet with the ship’s crew, a chance to have a photo with the captain, and an extra-special evening meal. For these special occasions, ladies should pack at least one dress or nice skirt and top, with shoes to go with it, and men should pack a suit and tie. For longer itineraries, it’s not a bad idea to pack multiple nice outfits, particularly if there aren’t laundry services available onboard. On some cruise lines, such as Cunard, passengers really go all-out with ball gowns and jewellery: On others, things are much more casual –Celebrity Cruises signature “Evening Chic” nights, for example. The cruise line will provide you with detailed information about the onboard dress code before your departure.

Of course you don’t have to dress up nicely if you don’t want to. If you’d prefer to avoid anything too formal, you’ll be welcomed at the ship’s buffet. Some cruise lines have abandoned formal nights altogether, such as Norwegian Cruise Line, which prides itself in “freestyle cruising” with its casual onboard atmosphere and lack of an official dress code.

And what about hand luggage?

Your travel documents, your passport, and medication belong in your hand luggage – on the way to the port as well as on the way home. Afterall, you have to give up your suitcase at check-in time as well as check-out. It’s also recommended to carry a change of clothes with you in your hand luggage. You’ll be able to enter your cabin at some point during the day after boarding, once the cabin has been cleaned and prepared for you, but depending on the size of the ship, there may be some delay between you and your checked baggage arriving at your room. If you’ve got a long journey to the port and you want to be able to change into fresh things as soon as you get into your cabin, it’s a good idea to carry the clothes with you in your hand luggage.

Arrival and checking in

At check-in time, you’ll receive your board card, which you’ll use for nearly everything on the ship. Your board card is your room key, your ID, and your credit card, all in one. You only need to show your credit card once, at check-in, and after that, your board card is your payment method for everything on the ship. You can leave your credit card in your cabin safe, only taking it out for shore excursions and the like. Whenever you leave and return to the ship, your board card is your key to check in and check out.

Cruise1st tip: Bring a lanyard to keep track of your board card. The ship’s reception can punch a hole in it so you can attach it to your lanyard or keychain.

Shortly before departure

Hooray! The time is here. You’re on the ship, about to embark on your first cruise. But there’s still one important hurdle to clear before you can start on your dream holiday: the muster drill. This safety drill is a necessary part of each cruise. It doesn’t matter if you’re cruising for the first time or the fifteenth – participation is mandatory. Some muster drills take place on deck using life jackets you’ll find in your cabin. Others take place in theatres and lounges. In any case, this is where you’ll receive important information in case of an emergency. Remember to take your board card with you to the safety drill – the crew will scan every passenger’s card to make sure that everyone has participated.

People on the ship balcony watching the ship sail

After the muster drill, there’s not much longer to wait before the ship can depart. At this point, you’ll want to find a good place on deck so you can watch as the ship sails out to sea. The departure is the highlight of any cruise. If you wait a few hours to start unpacking or exploring the ship, your patience will be rewarded. You’ll have plenty of time for that later.


Do I need to tip?

Coin in a thank you inscribed trayOne last tip: On most cruise lines, tipping is expected. Unless your cruise line specifically advertises that gratuities are included in the cruise fare and not expected, it’s a good idea to tip your cabin steward as well as your server onboard if you’re happy with their service. Bear in mind that many cruise ship service staff members live from tips, and an extra couple of pounds here or there can also be a way to guarantee great service. Even if the cruise line automatically calculates per person, per day gratuity rate on top of your cruise fare, the staff will appreciate your generosity.


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About Author

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Claire has worked in the travel industry since leaving college in 1994. One of this blog's most regular contributors, Claire covers cruise news and industry trends.

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