A First-Timer's Guide to Cruising


We traditionally send off a new cruise ship by smashing a bottle of champagne against its bow. So why is there no similar tradition to celebrate the launch of a first-time cruise ship passenger? How great would it be if people going on their first cruises received a similar kind of ceremonial sendoff? Granted, smashing champagne bottles over the heads of paying passengers may not go over well. But why not pour a little champagne over their heads or spray a little spritz of bubbly at the cruising virgin? Or better yet, just give them the whole darned bottle.

Related: A Cruise Virgin Gives 5 Reasons to Reconsider Cruising

Sadly, there’s no such established tradition for first-time cruisers. All they get is the excitement of being introduced to this unique form of travel — and the stress of not exactly knowing what it entails. We can’t offer you champagne but we can offer you these answers to the questions you first-time cruisers might have about your trip. Drink them in!

What do I pack?

Unless you have a sailor hat you want to wear to get that nautical look, there isn’t too much cruising-specific gear you’ll need to bring. Just be sure to pack weather-appropriate clothes for wherever your cruise ship is headed. Multiple ports of call may mean multiple weather forecasts, so check them all before you pack. Assuming it’s a warm-weather destination, you can pretty much pack as you would for any typical beach vacation: swimsuits, sunglasses, daytime wear, nighttime wear, sunscreen, toothbrush, etc.

But in the case of a cruise, you should also consider the kind of shore-side excursions you’ll be going on during your trip. You may not need hiking boots for the cruise itself but they might come in handy for that three-hour nature walk you’ve booked for your day in the British Virgin Islands.

If you’re going on a longer cruise of a week or more, check to see if your cruise ship has laundry rooms. Doing laundry day at sea means you can pack less stuff, carry fewer bags (which will make embarking and disembarking that much easier) and avoid those pesky airline oversized baggage fees on your flights to and from the cruise.

Related: What I Always Take With Me On Cruises

I heard cruising for old people. Is that true?

Photo: Thinkstock

Depends on your definition of “old.” According to Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the average cruiser is 49, with more than half of all cruisers 50 or older. Adults under 40 account for about a third of all cruisers, but a recent MMGY Global 2014 Portrait of American Travelers study reveals 53 percent of millennials are interested in taking a cruise within the next two years, which is more than any other generation.

What are my chances of hooking up with a fellow passenger?

Hate to be a Debbie Downer, but unless we’re talking about a romantic rendezvous with your travel partner, your chances of a shipboard hookup really aren’t that good. (That has nothing to do with you; we’re sure you’re very sexy.) Cruise ships generally aren’t what you call target-rich environments. CLIA also reports a whopping 84 percent of cruise passengers are married. When you add unmarried couples and, ahem, “undesirable” people to the mix, the numbers become even more daunting for passengers searching for a vacation fling at sea.

And forget about crew members. Despite the shenanigans you may have seen on The Love Boat (and a Yahoo Travel Real Travel story or two) crew members tend to avoid romance with passengers like the Plague. Cruise lines have serious rules that make crew-passenger hookups a hard sell. If a crew member is caught in your stateroom, he or she will likely get fired (unless it’s for an official, cruise-related matter). If you’re caught in a crew member’s quarters, he or she will likely get fired. Again, we’re sure you’re superhot, but crew members generally won’t risk their hard-earned jobs just to get freaky with you.

WATCH: The Love Boat Cast Shares Their Cruising Secrets

If you’re determined to have a shipboard hookup, you have three options: You can go on a theme cruise devoted specifically to singles; you can become a cruise ship crew member yourself and romance a fellow crew member (who, unlike passengers, tend to be young, single, and free to hook up with the crew); or you can become a comedian/musician/magician who performs on cruise ships (they’re often not official crew members and they apparently do very well in the romance department).

Related: Confessions of a Cruise Ship Entertainer

Still, the sad fact is the only boat rocking you’ll likely experience will be from the ocean. Speaking of which…

Will I get seasick?

Probably not. The cruise ships of today have stabilizing technology that promotes smooth and steady sailing. On the newer and larger ships, it’s often hard to tell when it’s moving or standing still. Even if you’ve experienced motion sickness on sailboats or other small vessels in the past, chances are you’ll be just fine on a cruise ship.

That said, seasickness does happen, especially in extremely stormy conditions. You can get motion sickness medication at the gift shop or the ship’s infirmary. But cruise ships are so steady nowadays that if you ever have a ride rough enough to require medication, chances are other passengers will need it as well, making the stuff that much harder to get. Whenever I cruise, I personally pack my own stash of Dramamine — which, by the way, I have yet to actually use.

Related: How to Avoid Getting Seasick on a Cruise (and What to Do if You Do)

What cabin should I select to reduce motion?

Photo: Thinkstock

Conventional wisdom says you should aim for the middle part of the ship on a middle or lower deck. “The rolling — the side-to-side movement of a ship — is amplified the higher you go,” Captain Stefano Ravera of the Star Princess tells Yahoo Travel. “So if you’re lower, you have less rolling.” If you’re worried about motion sickness on your first cruise, consider that advice when booking your stateroom, just to be safe. If all goes well, with future cruises you can start to experiment with booking staterooms in other parts of the ship.

Should I be afraid of norovirus?

In a word, no. The intense news coverage we see whenever norovirus is found on a cruise ship can make one think it’s a clear and present danger for all passengers. But keep three things in mind: 1) norovirus is preventable (mainly by washing your hands frequently and steering clear of those who have it). 2) Cruise lines have to report all possible outbreaks to federal health authorities while other establishments that deal with it more frequently — schools, health care facilities, nursing homes — do not, so you just hear about it on cruises more often. And 3) The numbers are on your side — last year, the CDC reported about 1,500 cruise passengers were sickened by the Norovirus out of the more than 13 million North Americans who went on a cruise.

Can I drink the tap water on board?

A cruise ship doctor once told me, yes, you can drink a ship’s tap water. A restaurant manager on another ship told me, no, you shouldn’t. It all comes down to a matter of taste. If you generally eschew tap water at home, chances are you’re going to want to skip it at sea. If you tend to risk municipal tap water at home, you’ll probably opt to do so at sea. The CDC does inspect cruise ship drinking water systems. You can see the results of its inspections here.

Related: Confessions of a Cruise Ship Doctor

I’m not going to spend my cruise drinking water. Can I bring my own alcohol on board?

Oh, gosh no. Other than maybe a bottle of wine or two, you can’t bring your own hooch on board, no matter if it’s booze you’re carrying in your luggage during embarkation or a bottle you picked up at a port of call’s duty-free shop (in the latter case, the cruise line will take it from you and “hold” it for you until the end of the cruise). Of course, you could try smuggling it aboard — and some people do…

Related: 10 Ways to Smuggle Booze on a Cruise

Personally, if I felt the need to plot a Mission: Impossible-type operation just to get some alcohol on board a cruise ship, I might consider going to an AA meeting — which, by the way, are often held on cruise ships.

Do I have to dress up?

It’s not like the ship’s crew is going to throw you overboard if you don’t. Even though many major cruise lines have formal dining nights, you don’t have to participate. You can skip the dining rooms entirely and have dinner in the more casual buffet dining areas. And don’t worry about being the only one walking around the ship not dressed up on formal nights; you’ll likely encounter plenty of other cruisers who’ve made the same choice.

Be sure to check out your cruise line’s website for its specific dress code policies, as they can vary (luxury cruise line Crystal Cruises has one of the stricter dress codes, with a day and night ban on swimsuits, cover-ups, robes and baseball hats). Even if you opt to go casual, bring something appropriate for formal night in case you get a nautical case of FOMO and decide last-minute to participate in the glamour.

What if I forget something — can I buy it onboard?

Oh, yes. Major cruise lines have a variety of onboard shopping choices. Toothpaste, contact-lens cleaner, batteries, and other light supplies are generally available at cruise ship gift shops. Duty-free shops and jewelry stores are also standard features. And some of the newer, larger cruise ships have brand-name shops on board (such as Michael Kors and Coach) and shopping areas that resemble mini-malls.

How will I exercise?

Photo: Thinkstock

Most major cruise ships have large, well-equipped fitness centers (word to the wise: these often get crazy crowded, especially on days the ship is at sea. The best time to hit the gym is the morning/early afternoon when the cruise is docked at its port of call and many passengers are ashore).

Your ship might also have an outdoor track where you can walk or run. Or a basketball court. Or various Zumba, PX, and yoga classes. Or dance classes. And lots of stairs you can take between decks instead of elevators. Trust: You won’t lack for opportunities to work out.

Will I gain weight on the cruise?

Yes. Bring your stretchy pants. Just kidding: Yahoo Travel’s extremely disciplined Managing Editor Jo Piazza recently revealed how to beat that trend.

Related: Sure-Fire Ways to Lose Weight on a Cruise. We Swear

What are the staterooms like?

As in hotels, the more you pay, the bigger your cruise stateroom will be. But unlike hotels, you’ll find that a cruise ship stateroom, no matter how relatively big or small it may be, tends to be slightly more compact than an equivalent hotel room — something to keep in mind when you’re deciding what to bring.

Is there good Wi-Fi?

I’m actually on a cruise as I type this, and a quick SpeedTest.Net shows I’m at a very slow download speed of .67 Mbps. As in point six seven (in contrast, home connections can go up to the 40s. No decimals.). That’s good enough for email or posting on Twitter, but streaming video can get tricky. You can buy Wi-Fi access by the minute or in packages, but either way the cost tends to add up.

Can I use my cell phone on a cruise?

Most major cruise lines enable you to make calls or use data while the ship’s sailing in international waters as long as your phone is set up for international calling. But roaming charges can apply (some major wireless providers offer special cruise ship packages for voice, data and messaging).

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Once you get into port, however, you’ll get socked with whatever roaming rate your carrier charges for that country. If you don’t have an international plan, that can get real pricey real fast. If you want to avoid accidental roaming charges, be sure to disable your phone’s data roaming and cellular data options in Settings. Cruiseline.com has some other tips for ocean-bound cell usage.

How’s the food?

Photo: Thinkstock

Varies from cruise line to cruise line, of course. But the reputation cruise lines have for amazing dining experiences is well-earned. Everywhere you turn, on most ships you’ll have a variety of dining choices. You can choose to dine poolside, in the dining halls, and the buffets without worrying about the cost; it’s all included in your fare, so eat as much as you want. You can choose to pay extra for the specialty restaurants many cruise lines have on board, but you can have a fine dining vacation without stepping foot in one.

Do I have to go on all the excursions or can I go off on my own?

Excursions offered by cruise lines tend to be very expensive; you can easily double the price of your cruise by signing up for those land-based activities and adventures.

Fortunately, you can go off on your own — a preferred option if you want to save money, go off the beaten path or if you just want to get away from your fellow passengers. I did an entire Hawaiian cruise and explored several islands without booking a single excursion through the cruise line.

Related: Let’s Take An Adrenaline-Fueled Island Hop Through Hawaii

But booking an excursion through the cruise line comes with its benefits. The vendors cruise lines tend to work with — be they tour bus operators, hiking guides, pilots, etc. — tend to be vetted and have relationships with cruise lines that they don’t wish to jeopardize with shoddy service. Going off on your own could make your more vulnerable to shady vendors looking to fleece unsuspected tourists. Also, if you’re in a foreign country or don’t know your way around, exploring via a cruise-sanctioned excursion can keep you from getting lost and/or possibly straying into a dangerous area.

The best part about excursions, though, is that they’re planned for you so they’re much less work. And avoiding work is the point of vacations!

What are some of your tips for first-time cruisers? Share in the comments below.

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