This month I went on my very first cruise! I can honestly say it was a fun experience, and I would certainly do it again. However, there were definitely quite a few things I learned on my first cruise.
There is something to be said for being able to adventure during the day and return to your own floating hotel that will then take you to your next destination overnight.
My family and I sailed with Celebrity Cruises on the Celebrity Reflection, and we had a great time exploring the Lesser Antilles of the Caribbean! The Celebrity staff and crew were wonderful and friendly, the ship was clean, and we felt safe sailing during the time of COVID.
None of us had ever cruised before, and my family and I were complete newbies…and I mean newbies. I had to ask an aunt who cruises all the time, “So how do you get to shore when the ship comes into port? In a rowboat?” (Apparently, my visions of cruising were a bit antiquated.)
Whether it’s your first cruise or your twentieth, you want your time onboard to be…smooth sailing, of course!
There are many things I learned on my first cruise that I shall impart so they may aid you in your best possible first cruise experience!
I’ve put together a full guide of things to know before your first cruise and hopefully it will save you from learning some things the hard way!
Things I Learned On My First Cruise
Things To Consider Before Booking
Research Cruise Lines
Before you book your first cruise, do some research on the various cruise lines. Where do they go? Which islands do you want to visit? What kind of vibe are you looking for?
We chose Celebrity because a) it had many ports of call we were interested in and b) it came recommended to us by family.
Also, consider your length of cruise. Shorter cruises tend to have more young families, while longer cruises have more seniors.
Spring for the Balcony (But Keep Your Door Closed)
We were told to spring for the cabins that have a balcony, and we were so glad we did! Not only did it make the cabin feel larger, but it was also absolutely delightful to sip my coffee while watching the waves every morning.
The balcony also became our towel and swimsuit-drying area, as there was sunshine and a breeze to speed up the process. Just be aware of things blowing away! Make sure to clip things down, and don’t leave items out overnight.
However, we learned the hard way to keep your balcony door closed when opening your cabin door. If both are open, it creates a wind tunnel…it blew many of our papers out into the hallway!
It’s also just economic energy-wise to keep the balcony door closed when you’re not present.
Things To Pack
Probably the most common question for newbie cruisers, is “What do I pack for my first cruise?”
Check out my post about the useful things you don’t want to forget to pack for a cruise!
I was worried about over-packing, but it turns out I probably under-packed! Here are the items I was glad I brought, as well as what I wish I had brought on board.
Long Sleeves and Pants
Even though our cruise went to the Caribbean and almost every day was sunny and warm, I still wish I had brought more long sleeves and pants! If I had one suggestion for what to pack for your first cruise, it would be more sleeves.
For one, the ship was air-conditioned in the interior, so having a sweater or sweatshirt was handy just going about the ship.
For another thing, many of the specialty restaurants have dress codes during the evening hours, and many do not allow shorts and flip-flops during dinner. I wish I had brought another pair of pants to wear to help switch up my dinner outfits.
Having sleeves also helps protect your skin from the sun! Long-sleeved, light-weight UPF shirts and other clothing add an extra layer of protection when adventuring onshore or on one of the ship decks.
Formal(ish) Wear for Evening Chic Night
Many cruise lines are moving away from traditional “formal” nights. Instead, Celebrity offers “evening chic” nights, during which the dress code is a little dressier than normal.
Our nine-night cruise had two evening chic nights, and they were a lot of fun! It’s basically just an excuse to get a little dressed up and feel a little fancy.
While there were some suits and one or two tuxes, most folks were in slacks and button-down shirts or simple dresses and jumpsuits. (I wore heels, but only because my sister did and I couldn’t bear being the shorter one!)
When packing for your first cruise, check your cruise line’s website for restaurant dress codes.
In doing research on what to pack for your first cruise, magnetic hooks were suggested, and they came in extremely useful!
The walls of ship cabins are usually metal, so these handy-dandy little hooks came in useful because you could put them anywhere. We used them for hanging up hats, wet bathing suits, and bags.
Towel clips are a popular thing to pack for a cruise, and for good reason. Not only do they keep your towel from blowing off your lounge chair, but they are also an indicator of “Hey, I’m sitting here, but I just hopped into the pool for a bit.”
We also found that towel clips were very useful for clipping hangers to the chairs on our cabin balcony. This system served as an excellent drying rack for wet swimsuits and clothing.
Pills and Medications
Thankfully, even when things got a little rocky, I ended up not needing any motion sickness medication. However, I was glad to have them on hand just in case! Pack a small box of Bonine or Dramamine in the event that you need them.
We were also glad my dad thought to bring a small first aid kit, as it contained painkillers and band-aids. You can get these on the ship, however, they’re more expensive than buying them from a drug store.
Multiple Swim Suits
One of the things I learned on my first cruise, and I’m glad I had thought to do, was to pack multiple swimsuits. This was less of a fashion statement and more of a practical reason.
We went swimming almost every day, either in the pools onboard or at a beach, and our suits usually didn’t dry in under 12 hours. However, having one swimsuit drying while wearing another, and continually switching them out meant, we always had a clean and dry suit to wear.
Woolite or Similar Gentle Detergent
I had brought a small bottle of Woolite detergent for hand-washing the chlorine out of our swimsuits, and it was incredibly useful! We used it for cleaning laundry in our cabin sink quite often actually. We washed socks and underwear, and as I mentioned, I had not brought enough long-sleeves, so I was able to wash my sweater!
While tossing on a pair of flip flops is easiest for wandering around the ship, make sure to pack comfortable walking shoes. Most cruise ships are large, and whether you’re walking for exercise or exploring, your feet will thank you for having supportive shoes!
There are also some fun activities on board (like archery!) that require close-toed shoes for your own safety.
One of the things I was told before my first cruise was to bring small bills. These came in useful for tipping tour guides when onshore excursions and the bartenders who went above and beyond!
Things To Know For Embarkation Day
Embarkation Day is your first day on the ship, when you, well, embark on your trip!
It can take hours for everyone to get on board, so it’s a great time to start exploring your new home away from home. Learn where the restaurants, theater, art gallery, sporting facilities, pools, and lounges are.
It’s possible your cabin will not be fully ready, as the crew will still be sanitizing/changing over from the previous trip, so you may need to kill some time before your room is ready.
This is also the time you will be required to find your muster station aka where on the ship you should meet in case of an emergency.
Download the Cruise Line’s App Before You Board
Most of the major cruise lines have an app nowadays, and it can be incredibly useful.
Download the app before you board and it can easily save you time during check-in, as it’ll have you upload things like your passport number and emergency contact info.
The Celebrity app also had a helpful ship’s map and a daily schedule. It would tell you which restaurants were open and what was on their menus.
Bring a Carry On Bag
You will most likely arrive at your cabin before your luggage does. That’s why many people choose to bring a carry-on bag when they walk onto the ship. In it, you can put a change of clothes, your bathing suit, a book, electronics, and any meds you might need.
Head Straight to the Library
If you are a bookworm like myself, you’ll understand when I say I was thrilled to learn there was a library on the ship! Some books were property of Celebrity, but others were books people had finished and left behind.
On embarkation day, head to the library first thing for first dibs on available books! There is no limit to how many you can take (though, to be honest, I only read one during the whole cruise).
Put Your Phone On Airplane Mode
If you have a US phone plan and will be traveling outside of the US, remember to put your phone on airplane mode when you board the ship. This will save you from any roaming charges you could incur when the ship finally leaves.
It’s worth double-checking your cellular phone plan before you leave to know what charges could be applied when roaming.
On most ships, you’ll be able to connect to the wifi when you board. We went with the basic wifi package, which was enough to check emails (but not enough to stream anything).
Things To Know On Board Your Ship
Your Cruise Ship ID is Everything
One of the most important things I learned on my first cruise was not to let your cruise ship ID out of your sight! (On Celebrity and Royal Caribbean ships it is called a SeaPass.)
This little plastic card is everything: your room key, your pass getting on and off the ship, and it will act like a credit card when ordering things not included in your food and drink package.
It also tells you where your “muster station” is in case of an emergency, so best to hold on to it at all times!
The Crew Works Really Hard
Another of the biggest lessons I learned on my first cruise was that the crew members onboard work really, really hard. There are hundreds of crew members, including those you see, like those working in the restaurants and bars, and those you don’t, like those who do the massive amount of laundry.
These people work long hours and most don’t get a day off. They sail for months at a time before being able to go home and see their families. And yet, almost everyone we met was friendly and helpful.
So even though gratuities are included, it’s definitely ok to tip those crew members who you really appreciate a little extra.
Our family members who cruise often told us to tip our cabin steward upon first meeting them. This is the person who makes your bed, cleans your bathroom, and can bring you extra towels, so get on their good side!
You are at sea in a big, floating community so get to know people. While the New Yorker in me didn’t want to talk to anyone, I soon realized that cruisers are predominately social.
We met many interesting folks from all over. The ladies who sat next to us at dinner every night even decided they were coming to my wedding one day!
Whether chatting with your fellow passengers or your favorite waiter, it’s best to get to know people.
(Priyan, if you’re reading this, we miss you!)
Understand Your Food and Drink Package
One of the biggest things I learned on my first cruise was to understand your food and drink package.
On our very first day, I tried to order a drink that I hadn’t realized was not part of our drink package. The drink was only going to be a dollar extra…so I tried handing the poor bartender a dollar bill, also not realizing that it would just be charged to my account using my SeaPass card. *Facepalm*
All this to say, know which drinks are included in your package, and be willing to pay a few dollars extra for those that aren’t.
Your food and drink package also dictates which “specialty restaurants” are included. For example, each night we had dinner in the main dining room, which was different from the regular cafeteria. The main dining room meals were included with our package, and they were restaurant-style rather than cafeteria-style (and also more delicious).
Then one day my mom and I went to the sushi restaurant on board, which was not part of our package (but it was worth paying a little extra).
“Talks and Seminars” Include Product Promotions
One of the more disappointing things you should know before your first cruise is that when you see any “talks” or “seminars” on the daily activity sheet, they will most likely include product and service promotions. This could be products from the spa, future cruise packages, or art from the gallery.
However, these seminars usually come with free drinks and/or possible prizes, so if want to go, it’s not a waste of time!
Full disclosure: it is always windy outside! If you step out onto one of the decks, be prepared for a breeze.
Even when you get off the ship for shore excursions, hold on to your hat!
Things To Know During Shore Excursions
Shore excursions are the adventures you can go on when a ship comes into port. It enabled us to see all the various islands we stopped at and learn about each island’s unique culture.
While you can just get off the ship and explore on your own, keep an eye on the time. If you book a shore excursion through your cruise line, the ship is obligated to wait for your group before setting sail again. (Most tours have you back well before departure time, but it offers some peace of mind.)
There are plenty of non-cruise line tours available, but again, just keep an eye on your watch.
The biggest pro of shore excursions is being able to see each destination. However, the biggest con is that you only have a day to see each destination. So make the most of it!
We went on a variety of tours, from city-walking tours to open-air Jeep rides through the rainforest.
During each tour, our guides would ask, “Any questions?” They were all fountains of knowledge, and would of course have plenty to say, but it was a much more immersive experience when people asked the guides questions. Who better to learn from than the people that live and work where you are touring?
Tip Your Tour Guides
That said, it’s totally ok (and expected) to tip your tour guide, and driver, if you had one. (Hence packing small bills.)
Every island we went to accepted American currency, although we learned in Antigua that paper bills can’t be accepted if they’re torn or damaged.
While some tours provided refreshments (usually rum punch, because, well, it was the Caribbean), it was always a good idea to bring a water bottle. Make sure to stay hydrated when exploring!
Although it should go without saying, one thing I was reminded of on my first cruise was to reapply sunscreen. Bring it with you when you go on shore so that if you go swimming, snorkeling, or just walking, you can reapply.
The Caribbean sun was hot, and shade was not always available. If you’re like me, whose skin is basically like the inside of the potatoes our ancestors harvested, protect yourself from those UV rays.
Will I Cruise Again?
One of the main things I learned on my first cruise? Cruising is fun!
I may not take a cruise every year, but I definitely learned how one can get hooked on it. It was so nice to spend the day exploring new places and then returning to your (not-so-little) home away from home.
I certainly see another cruise in my future someday, taking with me everything I learned on my first cruise!
Have you been on a cruise? Did you learn anything the hard way? Let me know!
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