Our Six First Time Cruise Tips
Have you ever dreamed of going on a cruise but you don’t know what to expect? No worries. We took our first cruise to find out what all the fuss is about and we’re here to share our first time cruise tips with you. We were surprised, enchanted and disappointed all at the same time. I guess, at the end of the day, a cruise is like any other vacation in that you can make it whatever you want it to be. However, good or bad, you get your hotel, transportation and meals in one package so choose wisely. Here are our six hints for what to look for in choosing your cruise that we wished we knew before we embarked.
- Know your luxury level
- Plan for boat time
- Enjoy the time away from everything
- Optimize your shore leave
- You’ll have a new cruise family
- You’ll always be traveling
First Time Cruise Tip #1 – Know your luxury level
A cruise ship, in many ways, is a floating casino, complete with gambling. To me, it seemed a lot like Vegas. In addition to gambling, there was luxury shopping, shows, souvenirs, and lots of opportunity for drinking – just like Vegas. In fact, onboard spending accounts for 25%-30% of total cruise revenue. We’ll talk about this more in the next section, but back to our Vegas analogy.
You can stay at the Bellagio or Circus Circus. Heck, you can even stay on Freemont Street. Just make sure you double check your assumptions. Don’t come in expecting Bellagio white gloves and end up with the Fremont Street Experience. The booze cruise from Long Beach to Ensenada was not the Bellagio experience we hoped for, and didn’t live up to the ocean elegance of our imagination. We did muse on several occasions if our preconceived notions came from watching too much Love Boat as a kid while dreaming of an adult life filled with travel. Next time, we decided, we will choose more wisely.
First Time Cruise Tip #2 – Plan for Boat Time
A cruise ship is a floating restaurant, bar, casino, luxury shopping, and the ever present photography stand. If you hate the up-sell, maybe cruising isn’t for you…..but you don’t have to play. There are plenty of good things to eat without the expanded menu. You don’t have to pay for the all inclusive alcohol upgrade (but you can’t bring on your own liquor, only 1 bottle of wine per adult passenger), but the per drink price is pretty good. The photo-ops would be a great way to get a family portrait done (especially on the dress up night). You can even shop duty-free and get some great deals. You don’t have to participate, but the sea day and pre-dinner port pull out certainly does encourage it. For our cruise, it took us a day and a half to sail 26 miles from Long Beach to Catalina Island. The fist time we went to Catalina Island we paddled an outrigger canoe there in a little over 5 hours. This definitely created a lot of boat time.
Many boats are themed too. You can take a Disney cruise or a cruise with celebrities of every breed. There are even fitness cruises that will help work off all that buffet food. Climbing walls, spas, gyms, pools, miniature golf and sometimes even ice skating can be found on cruises. There are multiple bands playing and two theaters of entertainment running all evening long. Good thing there was an on-cruise app to help us keep track of it all. Perhaps what excited us the most was hearing about Alaskan cruises where all of these amenities are masterfully steered into the fjords and glacial bays that defy description.
First Time Cruise Tip #3 – Enjoy your time away from everything
We came in expecting to catch up on blogging work with onboard internet. The price wasn’t bad but the connection speed kept any real work from happening. In fact, all we could really do was keep current with social media which only cost $5/day. You’re not isolated, but you’re certainly out of the loop. We cruised during US election day. We had no clue Trump was winning the election until the evening comedian began his monologue. That isn’t such a bad thing (and we were already heading to Mexico). A recent Home Away study found “Those who used their phones for more than two hours each day were 26% more likely to have trouble remembering their vacations versus those who spend less than two hours on their phones”. Perhaps this was a blessing in disguise.
First Time Cruise Tip #4 – Optimize your shore leave
Saturday Evening Post states “On average, the cruise lines collect a commission or fee from the local tour agency as great as 50 percent of the price of the tour. In one year, Royal Caribbean earned a third of its profits from selling shore excursions.” Does this mean that you should never go with the boat’s excursion? No, you are paying for convenience. Their excursions are meticulously planned to start and end at the ship for an efficient trip and the agents are on board with you. The timing and stress reduction could very well be worth while. However, if you like planning and are willing to do the legwork, there are great deals to be found by looking on your own. Just know what you are getting into. Either plan the budget in time or money to make these shore excursions happen. What’s the point of visiting a new land if you never leave the ship?
First Time Cruise Tip #5 – You’ll have a new cruise family
Once you are on the cruise you are part of the family (and what family doesn’t have these uncool people in it). It is important to pick the right cruise with your peeps on it. You’ll have a cruise director to MC the parties and keep the fun rolling for the entire journey with lots of time to mingle with your new friends. You’ll start to recognize other couples on the boat everywhere. Hint – the conversation starters “Is this your first cruise” and “Where else have you gone” go a long way. On shore, your cruise mates will be filing onto every bus and every on-shore tourist ‘reception’ area. Why? Everyone is on the same basic itinerary. If you like company, you’ll find it. To begin the cruise we were definitely expecting either Love Boat or Fantasy Island. We ended up with Three’s Company and Full House.
For good or bad, you’ll be insulated from the countries you are visiting. Cruising is a very safe way to visit many ports of calls. You can eat breakfast and dinner on the boat and only have to worry about finding lunch in a foreign land. You will be steered to the highlights of the city during your brief time in-country and return to the safety of your family before the quiet hours start. Instead of dangerous nocturnal adventures, you’ll have the cruise selections of food, fun, and frivolity once the sun sets. Again, it’s all in how you look at it.
First Time Cruise Tip #6 – You’ll always be traveling
Cruise ships are made to be moving. Not only do they want to make money gambling on international waters, they need to have the engines running for power and the ability to dump (allowed) waste at sea. If you are on the sea you are subject to the mercy of the sea. There was a high surf advisory on the day we sailed to Catalina which, combined with our slow rate of travel, made for a lot of motion from the ocean. On other destinations with bigger ships or calmer seas (like the Mediterranean or Alaskan Interior Passage), you apparently don’t feel the waves at all. Judge for yourself how much rocking you can handle. Certain cabin upgrades are supposed to help with the malaise but always bring ample medication just in case.
Not only will you be rocking but every time you leave the hotel (aka cruise ship) you’re entering a new country. There will be a pass through customs on the way out and ocean security on the way back in. It took us from 1:00 to about 7:00 for the total boarding process the first day in Long Beach. This included a painful safety briefing that had a certain amount of upselling of cruise amenities slipped in and overly eager crew keeping you off your cell phone and herding you back in line. We saw but couldn’t photograph an amazing sunset over the Long Beach harbor thanks to the staff herding us into our muster area 20 minutes early. The parking at the cruise terminal is about the same price as parking at the airport too so make room for it in your trip budget.
We had a good but not great time on the water. We got to go scuba diving at Catalina and explore the blowhole in Ensenada. The catch is that either one of these could be done as a day trip from our home in San Diego. Many of our close and respected friends and family members gush about their various cruise experiences being one the best travel experiences of their lives. We didn’t plan our cruise well for our needs or niche. We will certainly go on another cruise and use our six tips to make that trip exactly what we want and expect. There are many cruise agents who will work one on one with you to match their cruises to your vacation style. Hopefully, you all can use all of this information to find the cruise of your dreams now that you know some good questions to ask.