Cruise ship at sea (Photo: Shutterstock)
Cruise ship at sea (Photo: Shutterstock)

Your First Cruise: Everything You Need to Know for a Successful Cruise Vacation

There are a lot of moving parts to a cruise vacation. Where should you go? And for how long? Which ships have the best onboard water parks? Which ones visit the best private islands? Do kids sail free? With so many questions to answer, it’s no wonder that planning your first cruise vacation can feel overwhelming.

But don’t worry, we can help. Here’s how to plan for your first cruise vacation so that you have a great time from the very first day onboard, fully discover the ports of call you’ll visit, and enjoy a cruise experience that will make you want to immediately book your second cruise. And you might just learn how to find a hot tub you don’t have to share, too.

The Right Length for Your First Cruise

Do you start small with a three- to five-day jaunt in the Caribbean or leap headfirst into cruising with a weeklong (or longer) voyage? Travel costs may play a factor in your decision, but we recommend first thinking about how you vacation.

Does it typically take you a day or two to relax and detox from work before you’re truly in vacation mode? If so, consider a longer sailing.

But if you’re the kind of person who can jump right into a vacation, you might do well to opt for a little toe dip into the cruising waters with a short cruise to see how everyone in your family enjoys the experience and handles life at sea. 

Preventing and Managing Motion Sickness

Planning for the type of water your cruise will encounter is key for managing motion sickness. The Caribbean is generally more gentle than open ocean water, making Bahamian cruises a better choice for first timers than, say, a cruise that cuts across a chunk of the Atlantic to call on Bermuda. This is because the motion of the ocean may have you spending more time than usual in bed.

As you plan for your first cruise, you should guard against motion sickness by packing a bottle of All Day Less Drowsy Dramamine (my family’s preferred variety), anti-nausea wristbands, or lavender oil. Maybe you’ll never need a pill or a rub of oil behind your ears, but buying these items on land is cheaper than onboard, and stashing them in your luggage may be the best thing you’ll pack should the motion of the ocean get too heavy for you or your kids. 

Cruise Ports of Call

Port-heavy cruises offer a variety of unique experiences on land but may have you feeling as though you didn’t get the most out of your cruise ship, which is a destination in and of itself. Conversely, too many sea days might have you wandering the ship a little bit bored. Finding the right balance of sea day fun and port adventures is key to a successful first family cruise vacation.

Check to see if your cruise line has a private island and if your cruise will stop there, because whether it’s taking full advantage of the massive water slides and zip lines of Royal Caribbean’s Perfect Day at Cococay or collecting your medals while crossing the 5K finish line with your family at Disney’s Castaway Cay, an exclusive island oasis is as close as most of us will come to living the life of the rich and famous.

Also, check the weather ahead of time for each port to better plan your outfits and activities for your first cruise. 

Cruise Excursions

At every port of call, you’ll have a bevy of excursion choices that can be booked directly through your cruise line. The prices of these adventures are generally not cheap, but when you book through your ship, you will have the assurance of your cruise not leaving without you should a shuttle bus break down or some other emergency occur on land. (Don’t worry, this is a fear of every first time cruiser.)

Sometimes, the excursions are less expensive when booked before departure, so do research all of the options before embarkation day. Of course, if you plan to use cruising as a mode of transportation to see new places and explore on your own, you can look up car rentals near the docks and have a DIY experience in that exotic new place, leaving plenty of time to return to port and get back on the ship before the all-aboard whistle.

If there’s a port of call that doesn’t quite pique your interest, stay onboard and have the ship, the buffet, and most importantly, the hot tubs, practically to yourself while everyone else is off on dry land.

Choosing the Best Family Cabin

This is a critical decision that may make or break your first cruise. If you plan to be zipping down water slides, watching movies under the stars, falling asleep on a deck chair with a book on your chest, and enrolling your children in the kids’ camps, then an interior cabin (already the best value onboard most cruise ships) could be a great way to enjoy your first cruise on a budget.

Cabins with windows cost a little more but do give you access to daylight and the first sight of your ports of call. Balconies are nice for enjoying that first cup of coffee as the sun comes up, or a glass of wine as the sun sets at sea, but the expense is ultimately a luxury for most families planning their first cruise vacation.

If you feel that you’ll be impacted by the motion of the cruise ship, pick a midship cabin on a  lower deck to help minimize motion sickness.

Onboard Activities 

There’s usually nothing to plan regarding onboard activities, but it’s a good idea to read through descriptions of some of your first cruise’s theatrical productions that will be staged during the sailing, the water slides available on the ship, and other goodies waiting for your kids onboard. This will amp your children up in the days and weeks leading up to the start of your first family cruise, making them even giddier to step onboard.

Kids’ Clubs

You’ll be able to preregister your children for the ship’s kids’ clubs before embarkation, but you may also do so onboard. Many family friendly cruise lines (Carnival, Disney, Royal Caribbean, etc.) offer a variety of free, age-appropriate camps, clubs, and private areas of the ships for young cruisers. So, whether you are cruising with an infant, toddler, grade school kiddo, tween, or teen, there will be exclusive activities for them and the chance to make new friends during your first cruise.

The ship’s kids programs will not only provide your child with awesome memories and friends to stay connected with once back at home, but will also allow you the time to unwind, enjoy a fine meal, and maybe finish that book that’s been collecting dust on your nightstand.

When to Arrive for Your First Cruise

Because flights can be delayed or canceled outright, it’s advisable to fly into your departure port city the day before your cruise departs. This will all but eliminate the stress of bad weather or other travel issues, and also give you the opportunity to explore the port city before your actual vacation begins.

Packing for the First Day

For the first day of your cruise, called embarkation day, you will want an easy-to-carry day bag or backpack with your family’s bathing suits, flip flops and sandals (if you aren’t already wearing them), sunscreen, sunglasses for babies and kids, and other essentials while you wait for your luggage to arrive in your stateroom (usually around the time you sail away, about three to four hours after getting into your cabin). Having a change of clothes will allow your family to get right into the cruise fun while the ship is still filling up, meaning shorter lines for the water slides.

Packing for the Whole Cruise

There are laundry rooms onboard most cruise ships, but do you want to spend your first cruise vacation with the washers and dryers or with your children? Either way, it’s a good idea to pack light and include a variety of mix-and-match clothes for wearing more than once, understanding space in your cabin will be at a premium.

Pay attention to the different dress codes in the evening, and find a bit of room in your luggage for the nice shoes, dress, or blazer with slacks should your first cruise have an elegant night or two. (For some, this still means black tie, but most male guests tend toward a simple button-down shirt and tie.)

Exercising

Most cruise ships have gyms, some have outdoor running/walking tracks, and every single ship has lots of steps, so working off your over-indulgence at the all-you-can-eat-buffet and 24-hour soft-serve station is at least within the realm of possibility. Pack your exercise gear and running shoes if you want a fighting chance against the “cruise ship 10” that many people gain on their first cruise.

Staying Connected

Your cruise will offer internet access, but it’s best to download movies, music, and podcasts before you leave home to lessen the reliance on traditionally spotty (and definitely not cheap) cruise ship Wi-Fi. Regardless of whether you unplug or stay connected, don’t forget your charging cables. Most ships today have apps you can download for your phone or tablet to help you keep track of onboard entertainment options and schedules, so even if you plan to go without internet, you may still want your devices charged.

Beverages

Cruising usually looks like a great value when compared to vacations by air and land, but that’s because beverages aren’t generally included in the base price. If you plan to have your fair share of adult beverages and your kiddos gulp down their sodas, iced tea/lemonade combos, and mango smoothies, look into your cruise’s different beverage options, ranging from all-you-can-drink to pay-as-you-go. Pay attention also to what you’re allowed to bring onboard (cases of bottled water and bottles of wine, for example) both during embarkation and at each port. 

Specialty Dining

Many cruise ships today offer premium dining options at additional charges. Of course you can chow down at the pizzeria, burger joint, main dining room, and the famous cruise ship buffet morning, noon, and night; but if you want to have a more sophisticated, sit-down dinner with a higher quality of food and service, look into the specialty restaurants onboard your first cruise and prebook to ensure you’ll have a table waiting for the birthday, anniversary, or whichever special occasion you’d like to celebrate.

Tipping

Bring $20 or so to tip your cabin steward for the twice daily cleaning and straightening of your stateroom; but also rest assured you’ll very likely be prepaying your gratuities for all the other onboard crew helping to make your first cruise amazing.

Identification

Even if it’s not technically required, it’s a good idea to travel with a valid passport for everyone in your family group. While a birth certificate may be sufficient, you want to have the freedom to drive up into the Yukon in Canada during an Alaskan cruise; and later, after you’ve properly fallen in love with cruising, to be able to pull the trigger on the international cruise departing from Barcelona or the repositioning cruise taking you from Florida to California (or vice versa) through the Panama Canal. 

Cash

Maybe you want to sit down for some blackjack or roulette in the cruise ship casino or have a bit of flash money for trinkets while in port. Whatever the case, it’s never a bad idea to have some cash in your pocket. There’s likely an ATM onboard in case you forget, but it’s also likely that you’ll pay a fee to withdrawal money. So, be prepared with some greenbacks in your wallet or purse.

Booking Your Second Cruise

If you’ve fallen in love with the rest and relaxation of your first family cruise vacation, you can often save money on booking a second cruise while you’re still onboard. Cruise lines typically offer better-than-usual incentives to get you to put a deposit down on your second cruise.

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