Tips for the First Time Cruiser – Part 1

Tips for the First Time Cruiser – Part 2

Tips for the First Time Cruiser – Part 3

A Word on Passports

Embarkation Day

In the conclusion to my series on first time cruising tips, I want to talk about embarkation day, ship life, and saving a few bucks here and there. When you receive your cruising documents, either through the mail or electronically via email, they will usually list a boarding time. This varies by itinerary and port, but typically is sometime after noon. It’s fine if you respect that to a tee, but I’ve found a couple of sweet spots for boarding. Your average 4:30pm to 5pm departing cruise is usually boarding by 11:30am, even if your documents say boarding begins at 1pm. I usually handle this one of two ways. For a ship I’ve not sailed on before, I usually like to be among the first to board, meaning I’m checking in around 11:30am, so I can get on board, snap a few photos before the ship gets busy, enjoy embarkation lunch, and explore a bit before staterooms are ready around 1:30pm. Alternatively, for a ship I’ve sailed on many times like Royal Caribbean’s Majesty of the Seas, which is my favorite weekend getaway ship, MrsMJ and I usually lunch at a favorite Miami restaurant and head over to the port checking in by 2:30pm. I’ve experienced 15 minute C2C (curbside to cocktail) times this way.

No matter what you do, embarkation day is exciting. Personally, I feel the stress of the daily grind begin to lift the minute I spot the ship from the car on the way to port. Frankly, the feeling of exuberance I get when I’m about to embark on a cruise is the same every time, whether I’m boarding a smallish ship for a Bahamas 3-nighter, or a magnificent new ship for a 14-night Mediterranean voyage. Cruising = happy for me. The advantage of boarding early – you beat some of the crowds. The advantage of boarding later – you can drop your bags in your stateroom immediately, change, and hit the pool. Either way, your on a cruise. Just don’t get there late. The ship will leave without you. I would never plan to arrive less than 2 hours before departure, and preferably 3.

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Ship Life

On a routine day, ship life is no different than life in a resort hotel other than the scenery changes outside with each new port. I personally prefer itineraries that begin and end with a sea day with ports in between. Sea days are a great first full day onboard a ship. Sleep in, work out, late breakfast, sleep in. 🙂 You get the drill. When you first check into your stateroom, and every evening thereafter, you’ll find a newsletter containing daily activities. Look it over. Opportunities abound for everything from trivia (yawn, but to each their own) to rock climbing and wine tastings. My advice, pick at least one thing each day that you find interesting, and then leave a little time for either doing nothing, sitting by the pool, or whatever comes up. I usually begin each day by walking at least 1 mile on the jogging track, then breakfast and getting a little sun.

In general, the smaller the ship, the fewer the onboard “toys.” Ships like Royal Caribbean’s Oasis Class and any other line’s largest ships are chock full of amenities from surfing simulators to miniature golf courses. You’ll not suffer from a lack of choices when it comes to the newest mega-ships. Pick a few things that look interesting and space them out over your cruise. Don’t try to experience everything onboard because one person probably can’t.

Dining is a big part of cruising, and while I’d never call typical dining room cuisine on a large mass-market cruise ship 5-star, it is usually pretty good. Considering meals are being prepared for thousands, it’s downright phenomenal. Most nights I eat dinner in the main dining room, but I make it a point to visit at least one specialty restaurant during a cruise. Most lines offer up charge restaurants ranging from typical “steakhouse” to Italian, and even fine French dining. Take a look at what your ship offers, and try to budget to try at least one. Yes, you have to pay extra, typically $25 to $35, but I think it’s well worth it. Look at it as getting a 5 star meal at a discount price.

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Saving Money Onboard

Unless you’ve booked a cruise with all beverages included or you generally forgo alcohol, your largest expense while onboard is likely to be your bar bill. Most cruise lines offer drink packages now that can run from basic beer budget to nearly all-inclusive. I like Celebrity’s premium package because it includes bottled water and specialty coffees which I drink plenty of in addition to most every kind of alcohol on board with some limits. On the other hand, I’ve yet to find a package that I thought was a good deal on other lines, including Royal Caribbean. My advice – set a budget for yourself and try to stick to it. Every few days, take a look at your onboard account and monitor your actual spending against your plans.

One of the best ways to save money on alcohol is to be loyal. This won’t help you on your first cruise, but it is something to keep in mind for the future. For example, on Royal Caribbean, I receive complimentary alcoholic refreshments each evening in the hours prior to dinner. There’s typically at least one reception for returning cruisers where beverages are served too. And for all cruisers, the Captain’s reception usually includes at least sparkling wine….same for onboard art auctions.

Regarding onboard shopping, I think it’s fine to pick up a few trinkets on the ship, but overall, you’ll usually find better pricing in shops at your ports of call. One thing to consider, cruise lines typically back your onboard purchases with some kind of warranty. It’s up to you to determine whether or not that holds value for you. You can also buy things like bottled water in port at prices that are usually better than are available on the ship.

In conclusion, your first cruise is a great occasion, and I hope these tips and those shared by readers in the comments are helpful. I am sure there’s something I’ve not covered that cruisers might be interested in. If you have a question about something cruising related, just comment or email. Happy cruising!!

-MJ, June 23, 2014