I have a pretty well-established cruise routine these days, but I sure wish I had done a little more research before those first few sailings.
I mean, these veteran cruisers really know what they're doing. I felt a little lost at first. And not just because I was spinning in circles wandering the passageways trying to find my cabin.
Luckily for you, the mistakes I made in the beginning can help you have a better first cruise. Check out nine of my expert tips for first-time cruisers.
Memorize them. Or print them out and bring them along for your trip. However you do it, keep them handy, and you'll seamlessly dive right into your first cruise experience.
Here you go . . .
1. Score free drinks. Yeah, of course this is at the top of my list. Some cruisers are able to smuggle on booze in their luggage, but this violates policies for most cruise lines. Some lines allow a bottle of wine or two, but of course they would rather sell you their drinks onboard. You can still get free drinks by attending the welcome aboard captain's reception and onboard art auctions (usually Champagne for these events). There also will be wine and liquor tastings on some sailings, generally near the ships stores as a way to entice you to purchase duty-free alcohol. Keep your eyes peeled for these in the ship's daily schedule of events that is left in your cabin each night. You also might score free rounds of drinks if you frequent the same bar throughout your cruise and treat your bartender to a series of extra-nice tips early on in the sailing -- also, strike up a friendly conversation (ask about the country where she is from, for example). The bartender can be your best friend, and you can learn about people from different parts of the world.
2. Don't head straight for the buffet. Try to stave off your hunger with a nice big breakfast, and use your first couple hours on the ship to learn the layout and check out your room. The buffet area is always too crowded during this time, and the public spaces can be quite empty, giving you prime time to get the lay of the land.
3. Book specialty restaurants right away. Main lines offer several for-fee eateries that provide markedly improved meals over the main dining room. If you decide to treat yourself to a specialty restaurant, book ASAP so that you get the day and time you want.
4. Carry on your bathing suit and other important items. When you drop off your bags portside, you might not see them in your room for several hours. But you surely want to get started enjoying the fun and sun on the lido deck, so pack your swimsuit and sunscreen in your carry-on bag. Also, bring any needed medications or other items you might find handy, such as a pack of playing cards.
5. See something you like? Order it. You can eat more than one entree or dessert or appetizer. I have been known to order three main courses. The truth is, sometimes it's hard to choose, and you don't want to miss out on something that looks tasty to you. You also can order something and share it, too, so you each get try a wider variety of items. Remember, this cruise is all about you, so go ahead and splurge a little.
6. Take the stairs. The elevators are going to be crowded and typically are a maddeningly slow way to get around. So, if you are at all able, take the stairs. This also serves to help you burn off some extra calories from your second entree or dessert at dinner.
7. You won't need cash on the ship. Your keycard gets you into your cabin, and it also serves as an onboard "credit card"; just swipe it and charges will magically appear on your onboard account (check your tab mid-week if you don't want a big surprise at the end of your cruise). You can use it to buy drinks, spa treatments, shore excursions and that giant bottle of tequila at the shops. If you hit the casino, though, bring cash.
8. Formal nights are suggested attire. Many cruisers love dressing up in tuxes and cocktail dresses on vacation. Others don't want to have to pack all that stuff or fuss around so much. The main rule on cruises: Dress comfortably and stylishly, but absolutely no shorts and tank tops in the main dining rooms.
9. Don't pack your clothes iron. Cruise lines take fire safety seriously, and anything that poses a hazard is a big no-no. If you bring an iron, security will take it away (don't worry; you can get it back after the cruise).
Always travel happy!