We just returned from our very first cruise (EVER) a couple weeks ago. Cruising Carnival Spirit was such a wonderful time of relaxing (not having to worry about visas, immigration, hotels, food, or things to do), it was just what we needed as we begin our 3rd year of living abroad.
Before we left, I spent a couple weeks scrolling through online articles, trying to figure out exactly what I needed to know as a first time cruiser. Sadly all I found was a bunch of people that I’d like to label ‘chronic cruisers’ leaving comments for first timers that really didn’t help at all. I think after 20 or so cruises you tend to forget the first time you hopped on a ship, and exactly what your fears and apprehensions were.
If you’re just about to embark on your first cruise, here’s what you need to know.
You’re going to have fun. It’s inevitable. The best part about our cruise was the fact that it was completely stress-free (except when we had to pay our ship account bill…yikes). We needed to go on a trip that was completely r&r time. When you live abroad for three years, and out of that three years you’ve only spent 2 weeks back in the US (aka land of the familiar), weariness tends to creep up on you. Yes, we’ve had other vacations, but most of them involved lots of planning before and during the trip. They’ve involved keeping our wits about us 24/7, staying safe, and hitting up local spots…in areas we weren’t familiar to at all.
The cruise was vastly different. There were people from all over the world vacationing with us (for example, our dinner table had couples from China, Australia, Denmark, Wales, and then Derik and I from the USA). We all put down our customs and enjoyed what the ship had to offer. We didn’t have to worry about where we were staying for the night, how we were going to arrange transportation and visas for each small country we visited, or trying to find food for the day. It. Was. So. Nice.
Everyone has a different experience when the travel, but I can at least guarantee that you’ll have a great time.
You don’t have to buy the shore excursions that are available for purchase on the ship or ahead of time. The first few days of our cruise, the staff tried to drill it in our heads that we needed to buy shore excursions so we would have something to do when we reached a port of call. Here’s the thing: they’re trying to make money. Yes, if you have extra cash to spend, go for it! We just couldn’t make ourselves spend $95+ each just to ride a bus around a city to look at the sights, or $125 to go snorkeling for two hours.
Do your research online. Find out what your ports have to offer. If it’s a populated place, odds are that location is going to have the same exact tourist activities available for purchase right as you leave the ship (at possibly 50-80% off the prices they were offering on the ship). There are other ports, like Maré, New Caledonia, that literally has absolutely nothing on it except for a few locals and a tiny gift shop. After looking online, we realized we needed to buy a bus pass to the beach via the ship’s excursion desk. If we hadn’t purchased that, we would’ve been walking all day just to get to the beach.
Just know alcoholic drinks are going to be ridiculously priced. I was aware of this, but couldn’t find anything online that said exactly how much drinks actually were. We went on a Carnival Spirit cruise, and a cocktail was anywhere from $10-12 Australian dollars. Yes, I know what you’re thinking,”I think can handle that.” What you don’t realize is that they have waitstaff floating around all day with a tray of yummy drinks in cool looking glasses you get to keep(the glasses change every day). You’ll have a drink here, a drink there, and before you know it, you’ve spent $80 dollars on drinks in one day ($40 per person).
You’ll want to buy a drink or two as you’re lounging by the pool, grab a little wine with dinner, and then enjoy a drink while you watch the show at night, or while laugh you face off in comedy. Be careful, they freaking add up.
If you want to try being sneaky and bring alcohol on, be my guest. There are all sorts of crazy tricks you can try to smuggle it aboard. We didn’t have time to even try; our plane landed in Sydney four hours before our ship set sail, so we were high-tailing it to the harbor asap.
Buy travel insurance. After our scary incident with Derik’s heart four days before the cruise, we knew that buying travel insurance a few weeks prior, just for the trip, had been a good idea. You never know what might happen while aboard a ship or in port, and it’s always better to be safe than sorry. If you have a major incident, it’s not as easy to get to a hospital while out to sea as it would be on dry land.
The gym can be/will be your best friend. Make use of the super sweet free gym open 18+ hours a day! Derik and I went to a fitness orientation within the first few hours we were on board, and found out that most people gain 2kg per day while cruising! WHAT. The food is super rich, and there’s lots of it. I could definitely see how this could happen!
Derik and I were determined to not be part of that statistic, so we did our best to work out every day. We found out the least busiest time of day to work out was between 2-4pm. Not only was it good for us due to the daily intake of crazy awesome food, we gained some satisfaction in knowing that we were on vacation yet taking the time to work out like we would back home. Success!
Cruise ships are huge, and there’s a lot going on at the same time! Check the daily event schedule. On our Carnival Spirit cruise, we always received a little booklet of things going on the next day. It’s mind boggling that the ship’s itinerary covered three pages (yes, three pages). We liked to look through it the night before and underline the things we were interested in doing. Basically anything and everything is offered: Yoga sessions, towel folding classes, to bingo and ping-pong tournaments.
Get up early on port days. One of the only things I was sad about on the cruise, was the fact that we only had 8 hours (max) at any port. Depending on the weather and how quickly your ship can anchor, you’ll most likely be able to leave the ship to explore the port of call around 7:00-8:30am. Don’t sleep in if you can help it.
If the port of call is relatively small and the ship has to set anchor 1-3km out, you’ll have to get a tender sticker (that has a number on it) first thing in the morning and wait for your number to be called so you can board a small boat to shore. The earlier you get up to do this, the less amount of time you’ll have to wait around to get on land. For example: if you woke up early and got your tender sticker at 6:30am, odds are that you’ll be pounding pavement by 7:15. But if you wait until 9:30am, you may be chilling on the ship until 11:30 or later for your number to be called!
You don’t have to get a balcony room to have a good time. I read over, and over, and over again that you absolutely must buy a room with a balcony to get the best cruise experience. I don’t doubt balcony rooms are amazing. Imagine the sunrises and sunsets -all viewed from the comfort of you own room! For us it wasn’t even an option – upgrading to a balcony room itself cost just as much as the original ticket price with an interior room! Instead we opted for the interior room and put the extra money towards staying a week longer in Australia.
While on board, we learned that a few guests actually got their balcony rooms for the same price as interior by booking through a travel agent. They also received on-board credit! Next time we plan on taking a cruise, we will give working with an agency a try.
It’s easy to make friends if you reach out and talk to people. This is one of my favorite parts about cruising; you’re given the greatest opportunity to talk and hang out with other guests! The first few days is always awkward because most people don’t really know what’s going on and tend to be a little shy. Once people start getting comfortable and relaxed, they tend to open up more. We had so many intriguing conversations during meal times, at port destinations, and at the bar, we ended spending extra time with some of the people we met!
Be open and enjoy meeting new friends, as it’s always a bonus to get to know others from around the world. You never know when their advice may help you during your travels!