By Heather McManus, on July 30, 2019

Cruising 101: First Time Cruise Tips

Many people opt for a vacation at sea because of cruising’s irresistible convenience. Multiple destinations, a plethora of activities, and exceptional dining and entertainment options within minutes. You can experience it all from the same room while unpacking your suitcase only once! Although cruising is easy-breezy once you’re onboard, the planning process can be somewhat overwhelming for first-timers. Here are a few first time cruise tips to help you navigate the many decisions you’ll make during the planning process.

1. Where should I go on my first cruise?

The cruise port of Ocho Rios
Source: Shutterstock; Aerial view of Ocho Rios, Jamaica

With 35% of all cruises sailing to the Caribbean (including Mexico and The Bahamas), it’s an obvious, easy, and inexpensive choice for your first cruise. Plus, most Caribbean cruises depart from home ports around the United States so you’ll have plenty of options for embarkation points within driving distance or a short flight from home. Caribbean cruises range in length starting at just three nights which allows you to get a taste for the cruise life without sacrificing an entire week’s vacation.

Travelling from the Pacific Northwest? Cruises to Alaska are becoming increasingly popular and roundtrip sailings depart from Seattle or Vancouver, BC between May and October. Not only is Alaska an easily accessible first cruise destination from North America, its natural wonders like glaciers and marine life are also best experienced by ship.

Looking for an East Coast getaway? Cruises to Canada New England are also a fantastic option for first-timers with approachable port cities that are easy to explore on your own.

2. Which cruise line is right for me?

The Crown Princess in Jamaica
Source: Princess Cruises; Crown Princess

Likely the biggest and most important decision you’ll make as a first-time cruiser is choosing which cruise line is the best fit for your travel style. This can have a big impact on your vacation experience so make sure to spend some time evaluating your options.

Each cruise line caters to its own niche customer by offering amenities, activities and itineraries that differentiate it from the rest. Budget, destination and travel dates will help you quickly narrow down your choices, but you’ll likely still be left with a few options to ponder.

When evaluating different cruise lines, here are a few first time cruise tips to consider:

Travel companions

Family cruise vacation
Source: Shutterstock

Are you looking for a romantic escape with plenty of adults-only quiet areas? Or are you bringing the kids who will want amenities designed to maximize play? What about grandma? Does she require an accessible room and ramps throughout the ship that will allow her to partake in all the fun? Consider the needs of your travel companions and which ship meets them best.

Activity level

Do you plan to spend your days lounging by the pool or running around the ship experiencing the latest onboard innovations from dawn till dusk? You can find zooming race cars, giant waterslides, and guest-controlled rollercoasters onboard today’s cruise ships – decide which amenities matter most to you. If it’s all about the ship for you, you may not mind an itinerary that includes a few days at sea.

Dining experiences

Main dining experience at Allure of the Seas
Source: Royal Caribbean International; Main Dining Room at Allure of the Seas

Do you consider yourself a foodie or is eating merely a means to fuel up for your next adventure? While it is always an option to hit the buffet, there are plenty of memorable dining experiences to be found on today’s cruise ships from locally-sourced menus that change with each port, to restaurants created by celebrity chefs like Jamie Oliver on Royal Caribbean or Emeril Lagasse on Carnival. If food is an important part of travel for you, it’s worth looking into your onboard dining options before you book.

Small vs. big ships

Although it may seem as though all contemporary cruise vessels are ‘mega-ships’ compared to your family sailboat, there’s actually a huge difference between a ship that carries 5,000 guests and a ship that holds 2,000. While the world’s largest cruise ships boast some pretty incredible amenities, that’s a lot of extra people onboard. That’s 3,000 more people waiting in line to get on the ship, off the ship, book their shore excursions, and fill their plates at the buffet. Decide if you value big ship amenities over small ship intimacy.

My articles below highlighting individual cruise lines may also be helpful in determining which cruise line is the best fit for you:

3. What kind of stateroom should I book for my first cruise?

The onboard experience at the Royal suite
Source: Royal Caribbean International; Royal Suite

Is it worth splurging for that balcony stateroom? If your budget allows it, the answer is almost always a resounding “yes!”–especially if you’re visiting destinations like Alaska or the Panama Canal where the best sights can be seen right from the ship. Enjoying the privacy of your own veranda while breathing in the salty sea air and looking out at the open ocean is always worth the upcharge, in my humble opinion.

If you’re travelling with children, a good way to save can be to book an inside stateroom for them across the hall from your balcony. You’ll pay a fraction of the cost for their sleeping quarters and they can still enjoy the views and the extra space while you all hang out together in your room across the hall.

Prone to seasickness? Staterooms that are on lower decks and located mid-ship are your best choice for minimal rocking as the ship moves. If you’re looking for a quiet night’s sleep, steer clear of rooms located right above, below or adjacent to popular gathering areas like the pool deck, bars, or theatres.

4. What’s included with my cruise fare?

Zip line aboard the Oasis of the Seas
Source: Royal Caribbean International

One of the things first-time cruisers find most confusing is figuring out what exactly is included with your cruise fare, and what’s not. While inclusions do vary by cruise line (generally the more luxury the line, the more that’s included), there are many similarities between contemporary cruise lines. Here’s a typical breakdown of what to expect.

Usually included with your base fare:

  • General dining (including room service!)
  • Onboard entertainment (live music, theatre performances, etc.)
  • Water/coffee/tea/juice
  • Daily Housekeeping
  • Most on-board experiences

Expect an additional charge for:

  • Soda
  • Alcoholic beverages (including your in-room mini bar)
  • Special coffees (lattes, cappuccinos, etc.)
  • Specialty dining (you’ll usually pay a cover charge to enter the restaurant, then can order anything on the menu)
  • Gratuities (automatically added to your invoice at the end of the cruise)
  • Wi-fi
  • Special on-board experiences/areas

Many of these add-on charges can be minimized by purchasing packages for things like soda, alcohol and wi-fi before or at the beginning of your cruise. Another one of my best first time cruise tips is to make sure to check your cruise line’s alcohol policy before you leave since most allow you to bring one bottle of wine per person onto the ship at embarkation! Pre-paid gratuities are also offered as a common booking incentive which can save you hundreds of dollars per stateroom.


If you’re finding the cruise selection process overwhelming, you’re not alone. There’s a reason that more than 70% of cruises are booked through a travel agent! Consulting an expert for your first booking can be a good idea and won’t cost any extra as the agent’s commission is paid out of the cruise line’s cut.  To find an Expedia CruiseShipCenters travel agent in your area click here.

I hope you found this list of first time cruise tips helpful in beginning your planning. When you put the effort into finding the right cruise for your first vacation at sea, it surely won’t be your last!

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