So you’re looking to book a cruise for the first time, and aren’t sure where to start. You’ve come to the right place! Here, we’re going over how to pick and book your first cruise, what to expect once on board, what to pack, and more to help you have the best first time cruise possible.
Our Top Tips and Advice on How to Have the Best First Time Cruise
What to Expect on Your First Cruise
When it comes time to embark on your first cruise, you may be apprehensive because you don’t know what to expect. To help alleviate your worries, we’re going to run through the basics on what to know for your first-time cruise.
When you step off the gangway and onto the ship for the first time, you’ll be entering into a busy public area such as the atrium on most mainstream cruise ships. If you’re one of the first boarding groups, your cabin likely won’t be ready yet. So, you might have to hang out at the bar or one of the restaurants before heading to your room. If you’re boarding in the afternoon, you likely can head right to your cabin to drop off your things and start exploring the ship.
Your cruise ship will likely have four main cabin categories, many of which will break down further into sub-categories that vary greatly depending on the ship and cruise line. The four main categories are interior rooms (no window or balcony), oceanview (with a window), balcony (usually with two chairs), and a suite that has more square footage and usually includes a balcony as well.
Be aware that cruise staterooms are generally smaller than most hotel rooms, so it will be less space to move around than you may be used to. Bathrooms are smaller, too. And remember that they have a step up (unless you’re in an accessible cabin) so be careful not to trip. Cabins usually have smart storage solutions, so you should find spots to put all of your things once you unpack and your suitcases can easily slide under the bed. Plus, there are other cruise cabin hacks to maximize your space.
Cruise rooms span all price ranges, with the best rooms on a cruise ship typically being the most expensive. Higher decks also tend to come at an increased cost, as do rooms in the middle of the ship. In general, there are also some rooms you may want to avoid.
Dining options are not equal between cruise lines. Often times, they are not even equal between many ships from the same cruise line. With that being said, here’s a basic guideline on what to expect.
Your ship will have one or more main dining rooms, which is where most guests have dinner each night. It may also be open for breakfast and/or lunch on select days. There’s a large buffet, usually located adjacent to the main pool on one of the upper decks. A poolside grill serving casual quick-service items is often outside by the pool as well, and there’s usually a 24/7 or late-night pizza place located somewhere on the ship.
Room service is also always available. It will either be free or incur a small charge (much less expensive than a hotel’s room service).
Additional dinner options may include specialty restaurants that have a la carte menu items or incur a flat fee. These commonly include an American-style steakhouse, an Italian restaurant, an Asian restaurant, and a French restaurant.
Your ship will have a main theater, with various shows such as musicals, singing performances, acrobatics, and game shows. The ship might also have a comedy club or multi-purpose venue that hosts stand-up comedians or improv shows, often with earlier family-friendly sets as well as late-night adults-only shows. Around the ship throughout the day and night, expect to find live music in the form of vocalists, guitarists, and house bands. Common spots to find live music include the atrium, the main pool deck, and bars and lounges.
Cruise ships also host big deck parties, which usually take place on the main pool deck. There’s usually a sail away party which occurs as the ship sails away from the homeport on the first day of the cruise. Late-night parties on deck or in the atrium might also be featured. Popular ones include a themed party where everyone wears white, an 80s party, and a silent disco.
Amenities are one of the areas where cruise ships can vary wildly depending on the cruise line, but also the specific ship itself. However, there are some standard things you can expect to find on most vessels. At least one pool (but often more) and some hot tubs are practically a given on cruise ships, as people look to connect to the sun and sea during their time on board. Some ships even have pool decks with retractable roofs so they can still be enjoyed in inclement weather.
Ships also include a spa where you can get treatments like facials and massages. Many also include a thermal suite that guests can buy passes to. This includes things like a steam room, sauna, hot tub, experiential showers, and more. A casino can be found on most cruise vessels, along with an arcade for kids and kids at heart. On the upper deck, a mini-golf course and netted sports court are also common.
Your cruise director and entertainment staff will host a variety of events and activities throughout the cruise. These include contests like trivia, bingo, and dance classes. Events at the jewelry shop and duty-free shop are also common, as are art auctions. One of the best events to attend is the love and marriage show, some variation of which can be found on multiple cruise lines.
When it comes time for a port day, there are a few things a new cruiser should know. First of all, you’ll be able to get to port one of two ways. Many ports have docks or piers, meaning you’ll be able to walk right off the ship as you please. Other ports don’t have the infrastructure for cruise ships to pull right up to a dock. Thus, the vessel will need to anchor off the coast. In this case, small boats called tenders ferry passengers to and from the cruise ship to the port.
Before you get off the ship, make sure you know when the all-aboard time is, and plan to get back to the ship a good bit prior to that time. (We recommend at least an hour.) Also note the “ship’s time” — the time that the ship keeps may not be the same as the local time in port.
As for activities, you can do whatever you want while in port. Many passengers choose to explore the area on their own. Others book excursions through the cruise line or through third-party tour companies. A benefit of booking through the cruise line is that even if a tour is late getting back to the ship, it’s guaranteed that the ship will not leave without those who are on the tour. However, independent tours may provide more options and be more affordable.
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How to Pick a Cruise for the First Time
To answer the question “where should I go on my first cruise?,” decide what your objective is with taking a cruise in the first place. For many people, we’d recommend starting with the classic cruise: the sunny Caribbean or Bahamas. If you live on the west coast, consider taking a voyage down to the Mexican Riviera. In general, choosing your first cruise will boil down to what’s most important to you: the destinations, the ship, itinerary length, convenience, etc.
When it comes to picking your first cruise, the best choice depends on what you’re looking for in a cruise vacation. Some people’s first cruise winds up being to Alaska — not necessarily because they’re dying to take a cruise, but because they want to see Alaska. And a cruise is one of the best ways to see multiple parts of the state.
Some people want a sampler of destinations in the Caribbean or Mediterranean. This can give an idea of where they might want to go back to for a land-based vacation. And others, like ourselves, love cruising for being on the sea and everything that comes with it: the rocking of the ocean waves, the endless horizon in all directions, and all of the comforts and conveniences that come with traveling around on what is essentially a floating resort.
You may also want to take the departure point into consideration if you are looking for convenience. The majority of U.S. cruise homeports are in Florida. But, other locations include Seattle, New York/New Jersey, Galveston, New Orleans, and more.
Once you’ve decided on a destination, it’s time to figure out the length of your first cruise and what ship. If you’re sailing because you heard about a specific ship that you just have to experience, that will narrow down your itinerary and cruise length options, as ships have certain schedules. But if your criteria is more broad, like a general region such as Europe or the Caribbean, you’re going to have options.
If you’re ready to dive in head-first and don’t have concerns about being at sea or seasickness, we don’t have any qualms against recommending an eight-plus day cruise for your first time. However, for most guests we would recommend something a bit shorter: ideally five to seven days. This tends to be the most common cruise length anyway.
Many people might recommend taking a three or four-night, long weekend cruise to start out. But these short “getaway” voyages tend to attract more passengers who are looking to drink heavily and party hard. They can also attract families with young kids who want to get away during the school year. If you fit into either of these demographics, great! By all means, take that quick cruise to get your feet wet. But if you’re looking for a sailing that will offer more destinations and really give you a good idea of a classic “cruise” experience, look for a 7-day voyage.
Of course, if you’re envisioning a traditional 7-day Caribbean or Bahamas cruise, you will have endless options of ships. Picking the perfect ship and cruise line comes down to a number of factors. There is no one best cruise line. Are you looking for a cheap cruise, a family-friendly option, or an adult-only vacation? There are also a variety of themed cruises that gather like-minded individuals.
As a starting point, you may want to consider one of these best new ships for 2024.
Popular cruise lines all have a number of ships of different sizes with different amenities. So, do your research. Some of the big names in mainstream cruising include:
- Royal Caribbean
- Carnival Cruise Line
- Norwegian Cruise Line
- Celebrity Cruises
- Princess Cruises
- Holland America Line
- MSC Cruises
- Disney Cruise Line
How to Book a Cruise for the First Time
There are several ways to book a cruise. The two most common ways are to book on the cruise line’s website or through an online travel agency/agent. A less-common but still optional way is to call the cruise line and book over the phone.
As a first-time cruiser, we recommend finding a reputable travel agent and booking your cruise vacation through them. They’ll help guide you through every step of the process including choosing a cruise line, cabin type, excursions, and more. Plus, they’ll be available if you run into any issues during the trip and can help you sort them out in real-time.
Many travel agents will throw in perks as a thank you for your business, too, like onboard credit or welcome treats in your stateroom. The best part? Using a travel agent is completely free to you as the customer — they are paid through commissions from the cruise line.
If you’re an experienced traveler or want to organize everything yourself, you can book directly on the cruise line’s website. Cruise lines generally make this an easy, streamlined process so there isn’t much to worry about.
When to Book a Cruise
Backing up, though, you may be wondering how long before a cruise you should book. There isn’t really a one-size-fits-all answer to this. Many cruise lines have shied away from offering last-minute deals, looking to boost their revenue as quickly as possible. So if price is your main goal, there isn’t really a singular answer.
The main caution is that if you wait until the very last minute, your preferred stateroom category may be sold out and you’ll have to potentially pay for a higher category room. If you’re flying to your homeport, it could also mean higher airfare when booked so close to the travel date.
If specialty restaurants, activities, and excursions are priorities, we’d say to book your cruise at least several months in advance. This way, you’ll already have a confirmed booking and be ready to go when reservations open up. As for excursions, the most popular port tours and experiences do sell out prior to the cruise. So, the sooner you book your voyage, the sooner you can lock in the port activities you really want.
How to Prepare For Your First Cruise
When the time to set sail gets closer, there are things you’ll want to add to your to-do list. We’ve compiled some here as guidelines.
- Decide whether you’ll be flying in a day or more prior to the sail date (we recommend you do) and book a hotel if needed.
- Set up transportation to/from the cruise port. If parking, decide whether you plan to park at the port or on a third-party lot. If flying, figure out how you’ll be getting from the airport to the ship (Uber, shuttle bus, etc.) or from the airport to a hotel to the ship.
- Make pre-cruise reservations and purchases. For example, if you are able to book specialty restaurants before the cruise, do that ahead of time to ensure you get a reservation at your ideal time. With purchases, many cruise lines allow you to purchase drink packages, spa thermal suite passes, and sometimes even pre-pay your automatic gratuities before the sailing. Consider doing this so you don’t have to worry about it once on board.
- Book excursions either through the cruise line or independently.
- Evaluate whether you think you might need seasickness medication/bands/patches.
- Decide whether you want to buy travel insurance (we highly recommend you do!) and purchase it at least a month in advance of your cruise if possible. Be sure to print out the page detailing what your policy includes and bring it with you on the trip.
- Make sure your pets/houseplants will be taken care of.
- Inform a family member or friend that’s not traveling with you of your travel plans — including the ship and ship’s phone number, the ship’s homeport, your pre/post-cruise hotel, and flight numbers (if applicable).
- Stay in communication with your travel agent.
- Make sure you are aware of what’s included in the cruise fare and what will cost you extra. Then, budget accordingly for all those extras.
- Bring a folder of essential travel documents i.e. your passport or birth certificate, boarding passes (if needed), travel insurance documents, excursion confirmations, and any other necessary paperwork. Keep this folder with you — do not put it in any luggage that will be handed over to the porters at the terminal.
- Once you’re on the ship, make sure you put your cell phone into Airplane Mode. You can then turn the WiFi function back on to connect to the ship’s internet. This will prevent enormous fees as your phone tries to find a signal out at sea.
What to Pack For Your First Cruise
Clothing-wise, what you pack for your first cruise will largely depend on where you’re sailing. If you’re taking a warm-weather cruise (such as in the Caribbean or Mediterranean), you’ll want lots of shorts, t-shirts, tank tops, sundresses, lightweight pants, and sandals. For a cruise to a place such as Canada/New England in the fall or Alaska, layers are key. Bring shirts, sweaters, and jackets that can be worn over base layers and then taken off if needed.
No matter what type of cruise you take, be sure to bring a pair of secure, closed-toed shoes such as sneakers. You might want them for excursions and activities on the ship that require them. Also be sure to bring nicer clothes for dinners in the main dining room and specialty restaurants, and bring fancier outfits (if you wish) for your cruise ship formal night(s).
Aside from clothes, standard items you should consider packing for your cruise include sunglasses (we recommend bringing a cheap pair of sunglasses and leaving your expensive ones at home), a beach bag or lightweight backpack to use while in port, a portable cell phone charger, a reusable water bottle, and a lanyard for your cruise card.
Best First Cruise Recommendations
Best First Time Cruises for Families with Kids
Seven-night western Caribbean from Galveston on Mariner of the Seas. A week-long western Caribbean voyage is the perfect way to dip your feet into cruising. This voyage has an equal amount of sea days and port days so you get ample time to both enjoy the ship and time in port.
Mariner of the Seas is one of Royal Caribbean’s mid-sized ships. It was renovated in 2018, meaning you get lots of fun amenities and activities without being overwhelmed by the behemoth size of larger cruise vessels. In addition to clubs for kids and teens, the ship features a rock climbing wall, escape room, ice skating rink, and multiple swimming pools.
Five-night Bahamas from Fort Lauderdale on Disney Dream. For families who already love the Disney parks or just love Disney’s classic tales, taking a Disney cruise is an excellent way to foray into vacations on the high seas. Short jaunts from Florida to the Bahamas on Disney pretty much always include a visit to Disney Cruise Line’s private island Castaway Cay, along with other popular Bahamian ports.
On board, parents can take advantage of the adults-only pool and bars while kids enjoy the Oceaneer Club. Plus, the quality of the service and food on DCL is next-to-none. The cruise line is excellent at creating an unforgettable family vacation.
Best First Time Cruises for Couples
Seven-night eastern Caribbean from Fort Lauderdale on Celebrity Ascent. Celebrity is a great cruise line in general, but the line really stepped up its game with the introduction of its Edge class in 2018.
This seven-night eastern Caribbean cruise, aboard the line’s newest ship Celebrity Ascent, combines luxurious onboard spaces and dining with a great sampling of popular Caribbean destinations. Departing from Port Everglades, it’s a stone’s throw away from FLL airport and an easy drive from Miami International Airport.
Seven-night Alaska from Seattle on Anthem of the Seas. Couples looking for just the right ship for their first cruise might consider one of Royal Caribbean’s Quantum class ships, such as Anthem of the Seas. One of the line’s mid-sized ships, Anthem features an enclosed pool and an adults-only solarium, plus an array of dining options and a thrilling observation capsule that takes guests high above the ship for panoramic views.
This voyage visits three ports in Alaska and one in Canada and includes two sea days. It’s a perfect foray into cruising while exploring the 49th state.
Best First Time Cruises for Extended Families
Seven-night eastern Caribbean from Miami on Carnival Celebration. Carnival is a great option for extended families because there’s truly something for everyone on board. And that’s especially true when it comes to its new mega Excel class ships like Carnival Celebration.
Featuring a roller coaster, ropes course, and a waterpark, there’s lots of thrills to be found. But there are also laid-back areas like the adults-only Serenity sundeck, and Loft 19 sundeck for suite guests. Many staterooms are connecting, which is perfect for large families.
Seven-night Canada/New England from New York City on Enchanted Princess. Set sail on a leaf-peeping cruise with the whole family aboard a relaxing Princess cruise. This seven-night cruise includes two sea days and four ports of call. This allows for lots of exploring in New England and Halifax and also taking time to enjoy the ship — including trying dishes from the many restaurants on board.
Best First Time Cruises for Solo Travelers
Seven-night Greek Isles from Athens on Norwegian Viva. Norwegian Cruise Line is known as being one of the very best cruise brands for solo travelers. By January 2024, every ship in its fleet will have studio cabins. The newer vessels (including Viva) have a nearby lounge just for those traveling solo.
Plus, what better way to dip your toes into cruising than by sailing around the idyllic Greek islands? The itinerary is jam-packed with a new port every day (no sea days). So this itinerary is perfect for an energetic traveler looking to explore as much as possible. Back on the ship, amenities include a three-story go-kart track, mini golf, a large spa with thermal suite, an adults-only sundeck, and a myriad of dining options.
Seven-night Mexican Riviera from San Diego on Koningsdam. A number of Holland America vessels have solo cabins, including Koningsdam, which is a smaller ship by mainstream cruise standards.
This seven-night Mexican Riviera voyage is a great choice for SoCal locals, with an equal amount of port days and sea days. Holland America provides a more relaxed atmosphere onboard. Features include the World Stage that hosts musical events with a wraparound stage and LED screen, multiple live music venues including the Rolling Stone Rock Room, a number of included and specialty restaurants, and a spa with a thermal suite.
Best First Time Cruises for Families with Adult Children
Six-night western Caribbean from Fort Lauderdale on Celebrity Beyond. Celebrity Beyond is a great ship for parents traveling with their teenage or adult children. The vessel has a luxury feel, with on-trend interior design and decor that makes you feel like you’re at a trendy beachside resort or restaurant in the up-and-coming part of town. The ship features one of the largest main pools on a cruise ship, as well as a solarium, Rooftop Garden filled with real plants, and a multi-purpose cantilevered platform that hangs off the side of the ship.
The six-night itinerary ensures no one has to take too much time off work. It includes a nice balance of both port and sea days. It even includes a stop at Perfect Day at CocoCay, a private island that Royal Caribbean Group (the parent company to Celebrity) operates.
Five-night Bermuda from New York City on Carnival Venezia. This five-night cruise straight out of the Big Apple is the perfect close-by option for those living in the tri-state area. Carnival Venezia is a unique ship in the Carnival fleet, recently renovated and sporting a very Italian theme throughout — specifically Venice.
It’s a great option for families with adult children who want a taste of Europe without actually going to Europe. The itinerary includes two days at sea and two days in Bermuda. This is plenty of time to explore the island and also relax on the ship. The ship features the Serenity adults-only sundeck, a water park, Italian themed activities and entertainment, and a variety of dining choices.
Do you have any other best first time cruise tips? What did you wish you knew before taking your first cruise? Drop us an anchor below to share your tips and advice.