7 Tips for Your First Cruise

Cruise Ship in portI took my first cruise with my family when I was in high school. We were aboard the now-defunct Big Red Boat. We chose the particularly delightful El Niño season to sail the ocean blue, so suffice to say we never saw the sun. And while larger—much larger—cruise ships continued on their merry way out to sea, the Big Red Boat proved how very small it actually was by staying in port for nearly the whole trip.

So when I was given the opportunity to take another cruise this year—more than ten years later—I was a little hesitant. But I’m happy to report that I recently returned from the International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association 2010 conference at sea, which was held on Holland America’s ms Eurodam cruise ship, and I actually had a lot of fun. I picked up some tidbits about the travel writing industry, tasted more than my share of wine and met some fascinating people aboard the ship.

I also got to spend some time with my sister, who I don’t see nearly often enough, and we had the chance to tour Old San Juan in Puerto Rico, check out the hurricane damage from 2008 on Grand Turk in the Turks and Caicos Islands, kayak in the lagoon on Little San Salvador in the Bahamas and hike in the U.S. Virgin Islands National Park on St. John.

I also learned a lot about what it means to vacation aboard a boat that is actually big enough to move away from shore. So from a *ahem* first-time cruiser, here are seven tips if you, too, are planning on taking a cruise.Lounger on cruise ship

1. Find out what is covered when you pay your cruise fee. Though cruises are “all-inclusive,” meaning your accommodations, dining and basic on-boat activities are included in the cost, expect to pay for soda, alcoholic beverages, spa services, shore excursions, casino gambling and cooking classes. Our cruise was “cashless,” and we just handed over an innocent little plastic card anytime we wanted to purchase something (and a 15% gratuity was automatically added). It’s easy to run up a tab in the piano bar if you aren’t counting out the change.

2. Research demographics. Decide what kind of crowd you want to hang with before you book your cruise. Some cruise ships cater to families while others have an older demographic. During Spring Break season, it is possible to find ships offering specials for college students. If you have expectations about who will be joining you aboard the ship, advance research is a must.

3. Sign up for shore excursions early. If you want to take advantage of the planned shore excursions—such as snorkeling, bike tours or parasailing—when your cruise ship docks in a port, decide what you want to do as soon as possible. On Holland America—and I would assume many other cruise ships—we could sign up for shore excursions in advance online. By the time we got on the boat and had decided we wanted to go kayaking in the Bahamas (just an hour or two after setting sail), there were only two time slots still available.

4. Inquire early if you want your passport stamped. Having never been to Turks and Caicos, my sister and I both wanted our passports stamped. But passports are not the ticket to travel on a cruise ship anymore. Though you need them to get on the boat, you don’t need them to go to shore, which means no stamp. Ask at the information desk how you can get yours stamped BEFORE you arrive in port. Because local officials have to come aboard to clear the ship, chances are they can be stamped then, but this usually happens in the middle of the night. We received mixed responses about how far in advance your passport needs to be turned in to be stamped, but the key here is to ask early and long before you reach the port of your desired stamp destination.

5. Work twice as hard in the gym. Expect to get a healthy core workout in the fitness center because you’ll have to hold yourself on the equipment. The sway of the boat makes it difficult to run on a treadmill or use the elliptical machine. Don’t get too sidetracked watching TV or listening to music because you just might step off the equipment. That’s not to say you shouldn’t workout …

Desserts on cruise ship6. Avoid overindulgence. I know, I know, I know. You’re on vacation. Here’s a fact you probably didn’t want to know: The average person gains 7 to 14 pounds on a cruise. That’s no surprise considered the rich food and enormous spread of desserts. But you don’t want to feel bloated on the beach or angry at yourself when you return home. It’s definitely okay to treat yourself to a little more than you would at home, but don’t forget to throw in a tossed salad and some fresh fruit every now and again.

7. Don’t overpack. The staterooms on cruise ships aren’t roomy by any definition of the word. We had an inside stateroom with a double bed, which included two small closets, three shelves and no extra room for frivolous stuff. Because cruises have “smart casual” and “formal” nights, you’ll need to plan clothing and shoe choices carefully. I would suggest planning all of your outfits around a few pairs of shoes.

My cruising experience was paid for by the International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association as part of the 2010 conference at sea scholarship, but all opinions are my own.

14 Responses to “7 Tips for Your First Cruise”

  1. Gray

    JoAnna, this is a great article. I’ve read a number of “first-time cruiser” type articles in the past, but you have some advice here I’ve never seen before–like the bit about getting your passport stamped, and it being hard to stay on the machines when you work out. I was shocked to read that the *average* person gains 7 to 14 pounds–that is an enormous amount of weight to gain in a short period of time. If that’s the average, morbid curiosity has me wondering what the most weight is that someone has gained on a single cruise.

  2. Faraz

    Good & helpful list JoAnna. I have 2 comments.

    First, don’t be afraid to arrange your own shore excursions if the cruise ship’s choices don’t appeal to you. At Playa de Carmen, a friend and I decided we wanted to do a dive trip…but on a small boat without 50 others. We found a small operator online and booked directly with them…and they were cheaper to boot! Obviously, passengers should make sure to take extra safety precautions and use common sense.

    Second, totally agree with researching demographics. Although this is not as straightforward given today’s large ship populations. Passengers can use the roll call feature on cruisecritic.com’s site…also we provide a similar service on meetoncruise.com. The idea is to meet and get to know who you are cruising with.



  3. Trisha Miller

    Excellent advice! Especially about being more mindful of what you eat – it’s so easy to overindulge when the food is included, so unless you’re careful you wind up consuming many more calories than you should!

    Glad to hear you enjoyed the cruise and conference!

  4. [email protected]

    I’m about to take my first cruise in just a couple of weeks — on a press trip aboard the actual Love Boat — and your advice is just brilliant! (So much so, I’m going to share your post with my Facebook fans. 🙂 )

    I had no idea that passport stamps required prior arrangement, and really appreciate the reminder about packing light. I’m picturing an average stateroom as a bit like my old NYU dorm room…Now, please wish me luck on not shoveling food into my craw all day and night…

  5. Jen the Marx

    Hi JO! Thank you and great article, as usual. (The one for the Vietnam trip blew the other entries away, IMHO) Mom, Patta, Mr. Patta and I are cruising in less than 10 days – my first cruise, so this was perfect timing and great advice. I have been excited to get my newly-renewed, strangely naked passport some stamps, so I especially appreciate that tip. I would love to tell you that you are so lucky to lead such a charmed life, but I know you have worked and earned every bit of it. Congratulations and thank you, again!

  6. JoAnna

    @Melanie ~ I’m glad you found this post helpful. I’m so jealous you’re traveling on the Love Boat! What a fun experience!

    @Jen ~ Great to see you stop by! Where will you be cruising? Drop me a note and let me know all about it … I’m always up for living vicariously through anyone on the road!

  7. Candice

    I would totally love to try a cruise experience sometime. Having to pay for the drinks puts a little damper on the experience, but I suppose those desserts make up for it!

  8. Anil

    Cruises try to get you into that ‘do whatever’ mentality and you overeat and spend. Good advice on knowing what’s under your plan before getting on board.

  9. Maralyn D Hill

    Great tips JoAnna. Because I love cruising, I learned early that eating what you want and not all that is available is the key.

    As long as I eat a small breakfast, lite lunch, I can have a dessert if desired for dinner. That with exercise, and I don’t gain weight.

    There were times when I was not as disciplined, and had dessert at lunch and large breakfasts–disaster with 5 pounds at the end.

    It’s been a great learning experience and I’ve enjoyed the ride learning more each time.

    Your comments were all right on target. I had forgotten the questions I had early in my cruising experience.

  10. Barry McConnell

    If I may expand on your excellent tips, decide what you want to do before you board. That is both the kinds of activities you want to participate in while aboard and what you want to do in ports. There are too many choices to leave it to the last minute and you’ll just feel overwhelmed. You’re on vacation! That’s no time for feeling stress. Do your research ahead of time to see what you want to do; if you want to shop then know what kinds of stores are available and what you want to find. If you’re into beaches, find out what the beaches are like and what activities are available there.

    Cruise lines keep the prices low because they know they will make it up once you’re aboard. Again, research is the key to saving money. Here is an interview with David Kirkland that gives some great tips for saving money on your cruise. http://www.cruisedork.com/dork-chat/episode-1-david-kirkland-author-intelligent-cruiser/

  11. Jay Floyd

    I didn’t even think about getting my passport stamped in Mexico. Bummer. Next time. We had a great time. I love the information here and I’m a definite cruiser now for sure. Thanks for the great tips for next time!!

    • JoAnna

      The awesome thing about travel is that there can always be a next time!

  12. Emma

    Those were some excellent tips. The weight gain issue that you mentioned , that’s quite true. I remember my wife telling she gained a couple of pounds in that one week we set out on cruise adventure from Blount Small Ship Adventures . It was a one week thing, but definitely learned quite a lot from fellow cruisers. 🙂



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