Tips for Your First Cruise

It’s Your First Cruise andâÂ?¦

And you’re excited about it. Here are some suggestions and what to expect.

My first suggestion is that you fly into your embarkation city/port the day before. This will avoid “missing the boat” should there be any travel delays. If you live in or near the port, of course, this doesn’t apply to you. However, consider heavy traffic and other problems so leave yourself plenty of time to get to your cruise. The ship won’t wait for you. Should you book your airline through the cruise ship, you’ll usually arrive shortly before sailing but you will be guaranteed the ship will either wait for you, or provide you with free transportation to the ship.

When I flew into Vancouver the night before my ship sailed, it allowed me to visit Stanley Park and it’s awesome aquarium, do a bit of shopping (our US dollar was very strong back then) and enjoy a pleasant lunch. Then we took two taxis to the pier. Be certain of your embarkation location -i.e. Vancouver has two places where the cruises leave. So double check your documents and verify the proper address with your taxi driver or your own directions if you’re driving to your pier.

Prior to getting ready to leave for the ship, I’d suggest filling out all your forms because they’ll need to see these papers a couple of times during the boarding process. It will be quicker if this is completed ahead of time.

As a travel agent, I recommend my clients don’t rush to get on the ship as soon as it’s available for boarding. A few reasons for that – the lines will be much shorter a later, the staterooms won’t be ready, and you’ll miss a bit of touring the city you’re leaving from. (I really enjoyed the half-day in Vancouver prior to my Alaskan cruise.) If you’re ship sails around 5 or 530pm, I’d suggest arriving at the dock about 3 or 330pm. Check to see if you can take advantage of any of the “priority” registration lines – if you’re part of a group, you may have priority boarding, or VIP boarding for several different reasons.

Baggage handlers are probably the first people you’ll encounter at the dock. They’re usually not employees of the cruise line and they do expect a tip. I generally tip a dollar a bag but I’m not a big tipper. You’ll need to have your tickets, photo ID and stateroom number to show them. Be sure all the pieces of your luggage are tagged with your room number. Don’t leave the baggage area until you have seen this completed. (Usually with your cruise documents, you’ll find the luggage tags and you can affix them to all of your suitcases before you get to the pier.) Give them your hand luggage also (taking out anything necessary for the next few hours) – it could be as long as three hours before you can get into your stateroom and you don’t want to be lugging excess bags around with you. At some point you’ll need a credit card to place a deposit in an account for purchases onboard the cruise – nothing except gambling in the casino or additional tipping is done with cash. There will also be some sort of security screening procedure down at some point during this check-in process. Most likely, they will scan and inspect any purses and hand luggage you’re carrying with you. You’ll be given a room card the size of a credit card and doubles as your “charge” card to use when buying drinks and/or items in the ship gift shops.

At some point while embarking you’ll meet the ship photographer. Let him take your picture (they’ll usually pose you with lifesaver or sign with the ship’s name, etc.) – you’re not obligated to purchase the final pictures but you’ll enjoy looking at them after they post them on the ship. At that time, you might choose to buy a picture or two as a souvenir.

If your cabin is not ready, you will have already been told where to pick up your room card/key and about what time it should be ready. Sometimes, you’ll be able to go to your cabin where the staff might still be finishing up getting your stateroom ready for you. Welcoming staff will help you find your way to your cabin and if you do have any hand luggage a steward will take it for you. Some high-end cruise lines might greet you with a glass of champagne when you board the ship.

Go to your cabin – if it take awhile to get there your luggage might be there but this is pretty unlikely. Check to be sure each passenger in your cabin has a life jacket – they should be readily available and you’ll need them for the muster drill (similar to a fire drill) later. If you rented tuxedos check to be sure they’re in the closet and double check sizes, etc. Look for the ship’s daily schedule (you may want to get extras so everyone in your party has one with them) and check to see what time the muster drill takes place. In the closet or inside your cabin door should have a sign indicating where you go and directions to get there. Always leave your life jackets where everyone can easily reach them in the unlikely event of an emergency.

You might find a bon voyage gift(s) waiting for you but it might come later. The staff is very busy and your cabin steward might not have time to introduce himself until later in the evening or perhaps the next morning.

If you arrived early, you might want to take advantage of the buffet lunch the ships put out for those who didn’t eat lunch prior to boarding the ship. Your daily schedule should list the time and location for this buffet. On your way to the buffet, you might notice cocktail waiters/waitresses offering “Bon Voyage” drinks – these are seldom complimentary, so be forewarned you’re probably buying these. Sometimes these signature drinks are in colorful souvenir glasses you’d like to take home.

While you’re enjoying a snack or a full lunch, glance over the daily schedule to see what activities you might wish to participate in. Then, if you haven’t already booked your shore excursions get a brochure describing them (probably at the purser’s office) and decide what tours you’re interested in and book them as soon as possible. The really popular tours sell out very quickly; hopefully, your cruise line is one that sent you booking forms with your cruises documents and you already booked any excursions you wanted.

Next, explore the ship a bit and locate the spa and beauty salon. If you’re interested in any massages or other salon/spa treatments, you’ll want to book them quickly because the spa and salon will soon fill up on at sea days.

Another item to verify is your seating assignment in the dining room for your meals. If the ship was unable to get you the preferred seating (early or late), you might check with the main dining room staff (the maitre’d if possible) to see if you can change to the preferred seating. You can also make sure you’ve been placed at a large or small table as you requested and make any changes you like. If you’re interested in any alternative dining options (i.e. Le Bistro on NCL’s Wind) you can go by the eatery(ies) you like and make reservations. (Some lines don’t take reservations for these restaurants until the day of.) Some ships are now using what’s called “freestyle dining” which means you can go eat anytime you like and sit with anyone you like. I guess I’m old fashioned because I like sitting with the same group every night (or most nights, since people often try other restaurants or skip some meals.)

Once those things are taken care of, you might just wander around the ship and get acquainted with it. There will be the required muster drill but that won’t be until after you’ve sailed; some ships do it on the following morning. Try to be up on deck when you sail – that’s lots of fun, especially for a first time cruiser.

Hopefully, by this time you luggage will have been delivered to your room so you can put things away. If you’re cabin is small, ask the steward to take your suitcases away so they can be stored until the day before your cruise ends. Dinner is casual the first night – that doesn’t really mean shorts and sandals but a nice pair of slacks with a collared shirt for the men and a pant suit or pants and tops or a similar outfit for the ladies.

Dinner will be fun for it’s here you’ll meet your tablemates for the duration of the cruise and your waitstaff. Realize any drinks other than iced tea, coffee and water, all other beverages are not included with your cruise cost. (There are some cruise lines which include complimentary wine.) You’ll find a fairly extensive menu choice of appetizers, salads and soups, perhaps pasta, and entrees plus desserts. (NOTE: Every day, stop by the dining room and check out that evening’s dinner menus; when you find a menu you don’t care for, that’s the night to sample one of the alternative restaurants.

After dinner the ship should be alive with non-stop action. There may or may not be a show the first evening – these are scheduled to coincide with early or late seating. The casino should be open (they have to be so many miles from land before they are allowed to open.) and the lounges, piano bar, and disco should all be going strong. Keep in mind, when you order an adult beverage, a favorite trick of the staff is to bring you a large drink and with name brand liquor. Princess did this on my last cruise; we learned after the first night to say a small size drink and with well liquor. You’ll also tip (or, sign for a tip) every time you order a drink at a bar; tipping for your dining room and cabin staff is the only tipping at the end of the journey.)

Your days at sea will be similar and usually filled with activities – ship tours, port/shopping talks, games, fitness programs, children’s programs, movies, bingo, art auctions and other activities. You can find out the times and locations by checking your daily ship’s schedule. There is usually a library, card room, movie theatre, hot tubs, pools as well as several lounges. On smaller ships, there will be less formal activities. You’ll never go hungry, for early risers there is usually an open deck area with coffee and other breakfast snacks, and the buffet opens earlier than the dining rooms. There will be another buffet for lunch and sometimes a luau or BBQ on one of the decks. You can always return to the main dining room for breakfast and lunch also but it’s open seating so you don’t have to sit at your “regular” table.

Be sure to attend the horse racing at least once – it’s quite fun even if you don’t bet on them. If there is a galley (kitchen) tour, I’d suggest taking it. I took one on my first cruise and it was really interesting to see and hear how they prepare meals for thousands of travelers and the employees. Sometimes there is a bridge tour which can be very interesting also. You might have the opportunity to catch up with a movie you haven’t seen yet and more and more ships are offering internet access. Some even have laptop rentals – Princess did on my last cruise.

Sea days often end with the formal nights. Here most people will dress for dinner, and attend one of the captain’s parties. On the first formal night he’ll hold two, one before each dinner seating. There will be appetizers and complimentary drinks and the captain will welcome everyone and introduce the senior members of his staff. The ship photographer will be out so be sure to pose for a picture. Remember, you’re not obligated to buy any pictures if you prefer not too. The second, and often, last, formal nights might not have a captain’s party but you’ll still have a special dinner menu and usually a very festive dessert with special effects.

Days you’re in port will be quite different. Often you’ll arrive very early so you might consider saving time by ordering through room service for breakfast. Or, you might enjoy breakfast in the port you’re visiting. Be sure to check your excursion tickets to see where you will meet to leave the ship to go on your tour. Remember to take your photo ID and room keycard with you. The ship will be quieter on these days and if you stay onboard, you’ll find the casino and the gift shops closed. Often, the spa and salon are also closed all or part of the day so their staff can enjoy visits to the port also. You’ll need to decide if you’ll return to the ship for lunch or dinner but be very sure to return to the ship with plenty of time before it sails. Remember, it will not wait for you. (NOTE: On excursions booked with the cruise line, they will usually hold up the sailing for you to return or arrange for transportation back to the ship if a delay occurs.) Mealtimes will sometimes vary so be sure to check the ship’s daily schedule for this information.

Well, you’ve had a great time but now it’s almost over. The afternoon before the day you arrive at your final destination, the staff will return your suitcases to you. You’ll be given information as to when your suitcases must be packed and put outside your cabin door for pick up. Your cabin steward will all drop off luggage tags and custom forms and you’ll receive copies of all items and services purchased onboard. Be sure all your medication, travel documents and photo ID stay with your hand luggage. The last evening is a casual night and many passengers wear the same outfit they will disembark in the next morning. Just before placing your luggage outside your door, make sure all old luggage tags have been removed and new ones attached to each piece.

When you get your itemized statement with your charges be sure to look it over carefully for accuracy. On a 10 or 14 day cruise, you might request a statement halfway through the cruise to check it over so it won’t take as long to reconcile when you receive the final bill. Discrepancies should be taken care of prior to leaving the ship; this is usually done at the purser’s office. You’ll also need to take care of your gratuities. More cruise lines are now including a “suggested” tip with your itemized statement but you have right to increase or decrease this amount for any of the staff members. If they haven’t done this you’ll want to place the gratuity money in envelopes and mark them “cabin steward,” “dining room staff,” “wine steward,” etc. Should you do it this way, be sure to give the restaurant staff their tip the night before at dinner; you will probably not seem them the morning of disembarkation.

The morning of your disembarkation, breakfast is usually served in the buffet area and the main dining rooms but room service is not usually available. After breakfast you’ll be directed to lounges or decks to wait for your number (or color) to be called to leave the ship. Many areas will no longer be available because the staff will be cleaning these areas for arrival of the new passengers.

Customs and immigration officials will meet with you either on the ship or in the terminal before you leave the dock. (I’ve been on cruises where it’s been done both ways.) Once off the ship, some locations will have you get your luggage prior to going through customs and others will have you pick up your bags after you’ve cleared immigration. Once you’ve gone through customs, you’ll be directed to buses and other transportation which will take you to the airport. If you’re staying in the area for additional time, you’ll be told where you can hire cabs and limos.

You now a “Veteran Cruiser” and although you may enjoy many more cruises none will have quite the excitement of your very first cruise.

On every cruise there will also be some type of problem, usually very minor. If your luggage hasn’t appeared in your stateroom by the end of the late seating, be sure to check with the staff, usually the purser’s desk. Ditto with tuxedos you might have rented for the formal evenings. Your room steward can always tell you which department can help you with your problem. There is an infirmary and a ship doctor if you become ill. They also have medication for seasickness. In the case of foul weather, the ship might have to skip a port or substitute a different port. Check the fine print on your cruise documentation to see what type of monetary recourse you might have available if this happens.

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