21 Lessons Learned From My First Cruise

The first time I stepped onto a cruise ship, I had no idea what to expect… despite having spent approximately a gazillion hours researching the trip in advance. Although I made a whole lotta rookie mistakes, I wound up having an absolutely incredible time. So now, in the hope of helping you avoid at least a few of the blunders I made, here’s a list of lessons I learned.

Take a look, and then hit the comments if you have a few pointers you can offer your fellow cruisers. 

1. Get a map at guest relations.

I spent the first two days wandering around the ship aimlessly. Had I only bothered to swing by guest relations to get an easily-pocketable map, I could have saved myself an awful lot of time!

2. Seasickness is over-hyped.

Before my first cruise, message boards had me convinced that if I didn’t wear a sea band, chew ginger candies, pop pills and practice deep breathing exercises, I’d spend my entire trip on the verge of throwing up. As it turned out, I didn’t do any of those things and wound up not experiencing any nausea at all. That’s not to say many people don’t. I’m just saying that while it’s great to be prepared, there’s also a good chance you’ll be perfectly fine.

3, Food is everywhere.

The second you set foot on a ship, you’ll have someone telling you where you can grab a quick bite for lunch. From that moment on, an endless array of edible delights will be at your disposal. Fun fact: You don’t have to eat them all. Equally fun fact: If you do, you’ll understand why so many people put on weight during a cruise!

4. Cruise lines put a hold on your account.

Before boarding, you’re asked to leave a credit card for “incidentals.” Whether you wind up spending money during the cruise or not, the cruise line will likely put a “hold” on your account. Why? To make sure that if you do incur expenses during the trip, you’ll be able to cover them. It’s basically the same thing most hotels do when you check-in. The amount of the hold generally runs between $50 and $500, but can vary.

5. Look at a 10-day forecast when packing.

Obviously, weather can change drastically and unexpectedly over the course of a week or two. However, the extended forecast will at least give you some idea what to expect. Hey, it might prevent you from unnecessarily packing a parka when all you’ll really need is a light sweater!

6. The daily itinerary is your best friend.

Absolutely everything you need to know about the day ahead can be found in the itinerary left in your room each night. Restaurant hours, Bingo session times, special events… it’s all there. Beginning with my second cruise, I started making sure to pack a Hi-Liter with which to mark the things I wanted to make sure to do the next day. Friends of mine now take a different colored marker for each member of the family so each can track their own areas of interest.

7. Bring a cup.

Yes, yes, of course the ship will have plenty of glasses for you to drink from. But they tend to be pretty small… especially in the buffets. So why not save yourself a few trips to the water cooler by bringing your own, larger cup or, better still, one of the wildly popular Yeti tumblers!

8. You can and will sunburn.

The sun is very unforgiving in the Caribbean. I know, I got sun poisoned on my first cruise when I was snorkeling. Pack a bottle of sunscreen and apply it when you’re going to be doing an excursion, hitting the water slides, or hanging out by the pool.If there’s one good thing that came out of this, it’s the next item on our list… which I learned too late, but might save you some money!

9. Shops onboard are pricey.

After my painful day in the sun, I went to the gift shop onboard in search of some aloe. They had it… for $14.99. That same bottle sells for $3.99 at the local drug store.

10. Don’t overpack.

With the exception of formal night, the atmosphere around the ship is very casual and laid back. Don’t feel like you need to bring your whole wardrobe. Worst case scenario, you can send things out to be laundered or, if the ship has machines available to passengers, throw a get-me-through-the-final-days load into the wash.

11. Don’t use your cell phone.

I’m a big believer in disconnecting from the world as much as possible during a cruise… and was even before I found out just how expensive it is to use your phone to call or text home! You’re probably going to pay around $2.50 per minute and $.50 per text. Text someone a photo, and that goes up to around $1.30. If you’re sailing and you see AT&T ( or your provider), 901-18, Cellular at Sea or NOR-18 on your screen, you are on the ship’s network and gonna get a bill for that call!

12. There are limited outlets in the stateroom.

Although newer ships have more outlets, most will only have one or two per stateroom. So if you’re like most travelers and can’t leave home without a plethora of things which will need plugged in, pack a power strip/USB adapter. You can pick up a three-outlet/two USB strip all-in-one for around $18 on Amazon.

13. Just say “Yes!”

When they ask for volunteers at one of the many shows going on around the ship, wave that hand in the air like you just don’t care. For one thing, you’re likely to wind up having a good time. And for another, there is likely to be a prize involved. It might be a bottle of champagne or a chance to win a free cruise. But as they say of the lottery, you gotta be in it to win it!

14. Try the character breakfasts.

“Um, why would I, a grown adult with no known personality disorders, go to a character breakfast?” you’re asking yourself. And I’m going to respond, “Because it’s a blast.” The character breakfasts onboard are for everyone – the kids and the young at heart! Royal Caribbean offers the DreamWorks character breakfast for $10 per person, and Carnival offers a Green Eggs and Ham Breakfast with The Cat in the Hat and Friends breakfast for $5 per person.  And don’t get me started on all the different characters you can eat with on a Disney cruise! As an added bonus, many of the menus offer items you won’t find anywhere else on the ship!

15. Consider buying the drink package.

I opted not to get a drink package on my first cruise… and really regretted it. Not only would I have gotten my money}s worth out of it, but I found myself thinking about the cost of each drink as I kept a running tab in my head during the course of the week. Not everyone is going to get their money’s worth out of a drink package, but it’s worth spending a little bit of time to figure out if it’s right for you. One thing to keep in mind: Many cruise lines make everyone in the room who is of drinking age buy the package if one person wants it, while others don’t.

16. Bring dollar bills

No, there’s not a strip club on board! But you will want to hand out dollar bills as tips to folks like the luggage porter, your bartender, the guy who brings your late-night room service delivery. There is an ATM on board from which you can get money, but you’ll get hit with a fee and have to get the bills it dispenses broken down into singles.

17. Set a price-drop alert.

My favorite website for setting cruise price drops is Cruiseline.com, because it monitors price drops in real time and emails you if the price goes up or down more than one percent. I’ve been able to get a $200 refund and an upgrade from a guaranteed inside stateroom to a deluxe oceanview.

18. Ask people for gift cards.

They say you should ask for what you want… and the Christmas before my first cruise, I made sure everyone knew that I hoped Santa would bring me gift cards. By the time my cruise rolled around, I’d amassed enough of them to cover the pre-paid gratuities charges and several meals in specialty restaurants. Oh, and make sure you share our next tip with the folks who’ll be giving you gift cards…

19. Gift cards are cheaper on apps like Raise.

I recently discovered an app called Raise, and it give you a certain percentage off cruise line gift cards… if only for a limited time. It’s pretty tough to snag a discounted Carnival or Norwegian gift card on the app, but Royal Caribbean seems to have a steady supply at 10.6% off.

20. Practice blackjack with cards from guest services.

If you’re going to hit the tables, ask for a complimentary deck of cards from guest services. Not only can you get in a little practice, but they make a nifty little souvenir.

21. Don’t let anyone rain on your parade.

At first, I was absolutely terrified to take part in all of the activities available during my cruise. What would people think if I entered the dance contest or tried the ropes course and freaked out? And then I remembered… I don’t know 99.9 percent of these people and will never see them again! By day three, I was making such questionable decisions as singing karaoke (despite having a voice comparable to nails on a chalkboard) and ordering three desserts… and I was also having a blast. We don’t get a practice life, this is it… so make sure to have as much fun as you possibly can!

What did you learn from your first cruise vacation? Let us know in the comments below.

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