Planning your first cruise can be an exciting but nerve wracking time but we’ve broken it down into baby steps with helpful tips for choosing the perfect combination for your first cruise vacation.
There are so many cruise lines, ships, ports and destinations to choose from. Then you have to determine a length of stay and of course fill your time on and off the ship. Let us help you out!
When to Start Planning Your First Cruise
As soon as possible. Like right now. Seriously. Cruise companies often offer really great deals for early and late bookings . But trust me, for your first time go with early booking specials.
The best time of year to book a cruise is during “wave season”, which falls between January and March.
Avid cruisers know these three months can mean some really amazing sales and booking promos like free room upgrades, extra amenities, pre-paid gratuities and even cash credited to your cabin that you will be able to spend on-board.
Why Should I Book a Cruise Early?
You can usually book as early as 18 months ahead of your chosen sailing. Booking a cruise early will give you a bigger variety of choices for cabin location.
This is especially true for popular sailings, new ships or cruises during the holidays. The best rates are offered when fares first go on sale and they will only go up from there as the ship gets booked.
Why Should I Wait and Book a Cruise Late?
For your next cruise (yes, I already know you’ll be booking again after just one taste!), you can try snagging a deal by cruising during low season or choosing an older ship.
You can usually find lower rates and even free add-ons for these types of sailings because the cruise line tries to fill empty cabins as sailing date approaches.
If you’re keeping to a strict budget and don’t mind not being able to choose your cabin location, or possibly risking paying more for last minute airfare, you can try holding out for a last minute deal.
Choose a Cruise Line
As with most things in life, not all cruise lines are created equal.
The standard of service, size of their ships and the included amenities can vary greatly between cruise lines. Of course, cost and departure/arrival ports are other factors as well.
Make sure to research your options and ask yourself the important questions on timing, budget and what you want to get out of your vacation. Some cruise lines make that easy to do with helpful apps.
Choose Your Destination
One of the incredible parts about cruising is the opportunity to see just one destination or visit many with just a single fare (and never having to change hotel rooms!).
Cruises offer the ability to affordably visit many bucket list destinations like:
- The Caribbean
- Europe (River Cruises are popular here)
- The Mediterranean
- Antarctica or the Arctic
- South Pacific and Asia
Choose Your Cruise Length
Depending on where you’re cruising to, you can choose lengths from 2 nights to 10 nights or even weeks.
Most destinations allow you to choose between at least two lengths. For example, a Caribbean cruise from Miami offers 4, 7 and even 20 night options.
Pick a View
One of the greatest determining factors in cruise cost is the type of cruise cabin you choose. If you tend to get seasick, you’ll want to try and choose a cabin that is towards the center of the ship and on a lower level.
Inside staterooms are great for the budget traveler who wants to see enjoy the experience and perhaps doesn’t plan on spending much time in their room.
Greater budgets can afford balcony rooms, suites and deluxe packages.
A big consideration that new cruisers don’t think of is what level their stateroom is compared to the common areas of the ship – like restaurants, the buffet or the pool. While all large ships have elevators, there is often a wait to use them.
So take a look at the deck plans of your chosen ship and be honest with yourself on how far you want to walk, how many flights of stairs you’re willing to climb and if you want to deal with waiting in line every time you need to use an elevator.
Personally, I love taking the stairs while cruising and pride myself on never taking an elevator. It’s my way of getting some exercise in without actually going to the gym.
Find a Great Deal
Now that you have determined where you’re going and how you’re going to get there, it’s time to find the best deals for flights and hotels. Many travel websites offer discount codes or deal alerts specifically for cruisers:
or you can go right to the source. For instance, the MSC Cruises app has a section dedicated just to special offers.
Somethings to consider when choosing flights to your cruise port:
- Airlines are notorious for delays, and the ship will leave port without you!
- Plan to arrive the night before (or even better a few days before the cruise is scheduled to leave).
- Cruise food is delicious and unlimited, so to help keep yourself from totally breaking the scale on your first cruise trip, book a hotel room that has a full kitchen. Dining in for breakfast and lunch will be an easy way to keep costs down and nutrition up before indulging on the ship.
- The boats are on a tight schedule, and you can count on arriving back to the mainland on time, but disembarking the ship is a time consuming process. We recommend scheduling your departing flight at least 5 hours after your scheduled return time. You never know what the taxi and traffic situation will be like.
Fill Your Itinerary
Now that you have booked your cruise, it’s time to fill your itinerary. Fill down time on board by the pool or taking in a show and spend time in port on excursions like:
Whatever you do, just don’t skip getting off at a port. So many cruisers will do this, and I’m not really sure why. Laziness? They’ve already been there? Either way, it’s a huge mistake.
Every port call experience is different (even if it’s a port you have visited before) and brings an opportunity to make that incredible travel memory you’ll never forget.
If you’ve already been to the port, do some research on something different you can experience. If you went to the beach the last time, take a food tour this time.
I promise you there will always be something new for you to experience, even if you’ve already visited the destination 20 other times.
Shop for the Season
Shopping for cruise-wear is an important part of getting ready. Research the weather for each port town and pack accordingly. Swimsuits, shorts, light t-shirts, and sundresses will do for most Caribbean ports of call. Don’t forget a light jacket for the air-conditioned areas or evenings.
Some cruises have a number of theme nights, like all-white, 80s, and even black-tie galas. There may be some concerts at sea, and don’t forget an option for nicer dining.
Cruise Packing Tips
As much as I hate to admit it, I bring too much stuff on every trip. I can keep my wardrobe condensed, but for some reason I have to bring half of my apartment in my suitcase.
On a cruise in particular, there are a lot of things I simply won’t need (or can definitely live without). My laptop is a staple, but since on-board wifi is pricey and unreliable, I’m better off bringing my iPad preloaded with movies or read eBooks. I’lll also be able to check my e-mail if given the opportunity for free wifi.
My mom’s biggest tip is to bring your tech onto land, because many tourist stops provide enough free wifi to check Facebook and send a few photos to family members.
My phone will have the wireless turned off, but the portability and photo quality makes it easy to skip carrying a larger digital camera.
More things I can live without? Curling irons, straighteners, nail polish, hair spray, and most make-up. Cruise ship hair is a thing, ladies. Be prepared to just accept the wind and the crazy cruise hair you’ll undoubtedly sport for most of the cruise.
Bring a versatile hair product (I use It’s A 10), a basic set of make-up (powder, eyeliner, mascara, lipstick, and a small palette), and leave the rest at home.
Be realistic about your glamour routine. If you’re traveling with friends or family, you may be able to bring along some of the luxury items by splitting who brings what and sharing.
Reusable water bottles and small backpacks are also great for every day of excursions, and light enough to not be a worry.
Whatever you do, just don’t forget the sunscreen! That includes protective sunglasses and a lip balm with SPF, too.
Prepare for Your Expenses
The best part of a cruise is the included food. I love ordering late night room service, and casually grazing dessert bars in the afternoons.
Typically, what’s not included is soda, alcohol, spa services, and gambling.
Drinks are generally sold in unlimited packages that last the duration of your cruise. These can save a substantial amount of money for avid drinkers. If you know you’ll want a couple of beers or cocktails each night, you may want to consider purchasing an upgraded beverage package.
I usually don’t drink more than 1-2 drinks a day on a cruise so I usually skip the package and just budget for $25/day for cocktails.
Or save that budget on experiences instead! Or consider the villages you may stop at and the unique souvenirs you can splurge on. Plus, you can get your alcohol on land, it’s usually cheaper than the ship.
Learn the Lingo
Bow, debarkation, forward, knot, port, port-of-call, starboard, stateroom, stern and tender are all on your list of terms to Google. Familiarize yourself with your ship’s deck plan, and make a note of which eateries and entertainments are on your deck to help keep yourself oriented.
The above was a lot, but don’t worry you got this. No matter what, your first cruise is going to rock!
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