Tips For First-Time Cruisers

Don’t let cruising jitters sink your ship. Our cruise expert offers ways to save money and ensure a smooth-sailing cruise vacation—before, during and after your voyage.


So you finally booked a cruise. Everyone in your family has been dying to take a cruise vacation for years, and you just handed the credit card to your travel agent for the deposit. Now what?

Booking a cruise is actually the easy part. Now you need to make some preparations and take some precautions to ensure smooth sailing. With 19 cruises notched into my headboard, I have learned a lot—sometimes the hard way. I hope some of these tips will help you plan a successful family cruise vacation.

Before You Cruise

  • Purchase travel insurance. You never know what will come up and it is a relatively inexpensive way to achieve peace of mind. Based on my experiences with ease of submitting claims, lack of hassle when submitting claims and the percentage of paid claims (and face it, that is what the traveler is looking for), I recommend (in no particular order) Access America, Travel Guard and Travel Insured. Also, people need to know that Medicare does NOT travel outside the United States, so if you are cruising and on Medicare, insurance is really a MUST. Also, many policies are tightening up and also do not cover out of the US. Best to check your policy to be sure.
  • Book your shore excursions before the ship sails; they usually sell out in advance. If you want to save money, book with a separate company like ShoreTrips. I have used them many times and they offer better service, lower prices and less crowded tours than the excursions offered through the cruise lines.
  • Pack what you want—then unpack a quarter of it; there is a laundry and dry cleaner aboard almost every ship. Pack a power strip if you can’t live without your electronics. [Read more tips in our What to Pack on a Cruise Article.]
  • Carry-on packing: Be sure to pack your bathing suit and some dinner clothes in your carry-on bag because your checked luggage won't get to your room until late in the evening of embarkation.
  • Do not pack your airline tickets, passports or other travel documents in your suitcase. They should be with you at all times in your carry-on.

During the Cruise

  • Pay attention to the “muster drill.” This is the “Oh my God, we might sink” talk on the first day. It’s scary but it’s very important that you know what to do in an emergency.
  • Explore the ship early so you have a good idea of where things are. Modern cruise ships are like small towns at sea, and it would be a shame to miss out on any of the action. Let the older kids do their own exploring; they’ll find cool things to interest them that will just leave you scratching your head.
  • Communicate with your family. I travel with Post-It notes, and whenever someone leaves the cabin, they post a note saying where they will be. My kids know to check in periodically and to “read the mirror” to find out what’s going on that day.
  • If anyone in your group drinks soda, buy a soda card. It will cost you $20 to $40, but with unlimited refills, it is well worth it.
  • Control yourself and your kids. It is remotely possible that your fellow passengers will not be amused when “darling Johnny” knocks on all the cabin doors at midnight. Likewise, they will not be amused if you do.
  • If you want casual, go casual. There is no rule that you must attend the formal nights. Just head for the buffet or an alternative restaurant when the rest of the crowd is gussied up in the main dining room.
  • Watch your expenses. The cruise lines count on shipboard revenues and they offer plenty of opportunities for you to spend: booze, ice cream, wine, shore excursions, shopping, gambling—you get the idea. It can add up fast. In fact, I have never disembarked from a seven-night cruise with a bill less than $1,000 for my family of four.
  • Tip the crew. Cruise staffs work their butts off to make sure you have a great time. The cruise line will provide guidelines for tipping and some cruise lines will even add tips to your bill. No need to tip as you go; I like to thank people personally with an envelope on the last night of the cruise.

After Cruising

  • Be patient at disembarkation. Understand that the cruise line is trying to get 3,000 people off the ship and on their way; it’s like a finely choreographed ballet. Listen to the instructions, move when you are told to move, and sit when you are told to sit. Customs and immigration can take some time, but rest assured, the cruise line will get you back on dry land. Remember they have 3,000 new cruisers waiting to spend their money!

My three kids probably love cruising more than any other vacation. There are more places to go, more things to see and do, and more freedom. Want to enjoy your first family cruise? Talk to your travel agent and be on your way.

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Themes: Family Travel, Cruises

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