I just got back from taking my first cruise and I wanted to write this article to help other people who may be considering taking a cruise or who are getting ready to cruise for the first time. I hope that my experiences can help answer any questions fellow "newbies" may have, regarding everything from boarding procedures to day-to-day life on a cruise ship.
Flying to the Port: My first piece of advice is to fly into your port city the night before your cruise. My sister and I both had to fly into Miami from different parts of the United States. I live in Oklahoma and she lives in Ohio. Our cruise left at 4:00 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon so we thought it would be best if we flew into Miami on Friday night, thinking we would be able to relax and not be rushed getting to the ship on Saturday. Boy, were we wrong. Firstly, both of our flights were delayed due to weather conditions. We were both supposed to get into Miami around 8:30 p.m. Friday, but, due to the delays, I arrived after 10 p.m. and my sister didn't get in until after midnight. To make matters worse, the airline "misplaced" my luggage, which leads me to my next piece of advice.
Packing: Pack enough clothing for a day or two in your carry-on bag. I was lucky that the airline found my suitcase and delivered it to the ship, but I met a couple from New York who did not receive their "misplaced" luggage until we arrived at our first port-of-call 2 days later!
Security: I was surprised at how quickly and easily our boarding process went. We arrived at the Port of Miami and were greeted by port officials who marked our luggage with the proper tags, and then had it delivered to our ship. Officials strongly suggested (but did not require) that we unlock any locked bags because they were subject to being searched by port security. If security deemed it necessary to open a locked bag, they would simply cut the lock off. I used inexpensive zip ties instead of a lock on my baggage and, when my bags arrived in my room, they were still intact.
Identification: Next we had to establish citizenship with immigration officials. I was concerned because I did not have a passport, but the law states that if your cruise departs and arrives at the same port city you are not required to have a passport. You can use alternate forms of identification. I used my birth certificate and drivers license.
Setting up: We were directed to cruise officials who checked our cruise documentation and set up our "sign and sail" accounts (the on-board account that we would use to purchase everything from drinks to gift shop items). You can either use a credit card for your "sign and sail" account and have all of your purchases charged to it or use cash to set up a debit account. You receive an actual "sign and sail" credit card that lists your name, room number, and dining room assignment. It's important to keep this card with you at all times because it is also your room key and your ticket back onto the ship if you go off board on a shore excursion.
Photographs: Once we had our "sign and sail" cards, we boarded the ship and had our pictures taken for the first of many times. I didn't know it at the time, but there are people from the cruise line taking photos of you constantly so they can sell the pictures back to you for $20 each! The photographers are everywhere on the ship and on all the shore excursions. I got so fed up with the photographers that I started making faces at them when they snapped a shot of me, thinking they wouldn't process the picture. Boy, was I wrong. Here is one of my funny-faced pictures taken in the dining room when a photographer jumped in front of me and told me to smile. (I think it's pretty funny!)
On the Ship
The Room: We were on the actual ship in less than 30 minutes from the time we got to the port to the time we were fully processed in. We found our room relatively quickly and were pleasantly surprised to see how big it actually was. Our room had 2 twin sized beds, a fold out couch, a vanity area, 4 large closets, ample drawer space, and a bathroom with a sink, toilet, and full-sized shower. The bathroom was also stocked with necessities like razors, soap, toothpaste, and towels. There were sodas and water on the vanity too. I almost drank one until I read the note that let me know that my room would be charged $3 per soft drink and $6 per bottled water. My sister and I opted to go to the buffet instead, where there was no charge for water, juice, coffee, tea, and milk.
Take a Tour: Before I go any further, here is a very helpful piece of advice for first time cruisers: take the guided tour of the ship that is offered when you check in. Sounds like a no brainer, huh? My sister and I thought that we wouldn't need the tour. We could find our way around the boat; it couldn't be too hard, right? Wrong! Once we got to our room, we had a very difficult time navigating the passage ways and finding anything. We didn't realize that the ship was broken up into 3 separate parts and that it was necessary to walk through areas to get to where we were going. On the first day, we got lost numerous times until we figured out that we had to walk through the bars and casino to get to the other parts of the ship. If you take one piece of my advice to heart, remember that you have to walk through. This will save you lots of time and loads of frustration!
Dining and Shore Excursions
Sit-Down Dinner: Everyone is an assigned a dining time on the ship. This is the time that you go to the special dining areas and have sit-down table service. There is an early session and a late session. We were assigned the early session at 6:00 daily and ended up missing several of the services (Not to worry. They served the exact same food at the buffet. I would strongly recommend requesting the late session at 8:30. If you go on a shore excursion it is very difficult getting to the dining room at 6:00).
You are randomly assigned a seat at a large table so you will have fellow cruisers as table mates. This can be good or bad depending on who your fellow cruisers are. We had some really nice people from Chicago at our table: a mom, son, and son's fiancée. We also had a less than pleasant table mate: a very large woman who loved to eat. She ordered at least 2 dinner entrees nightly. She was also an expert on cruising and bore us with her non-stop talk of her many cruises. My sister and I had a few drinks before coming to dinner one night and she was clearly NOT happy with our behavior (giggling, silly). I was glad that was the last night we had to spend with her.
Buffet: The buffet was always a winner. There were always several entrée choices to choose from, so there was usually something for everyone. If you couldn't find something on the buffet, there was an outside grill available that served burgers and hot dogs. There was also a deli with sandwiches and wraps as well as a Chinese food place. There was a sushi bar open outside of the casino, and pizza was always hot and ready. Note: the buffet was not open 24 hours a day. The only place that was open all the time was the pizza place. If you didn't want pizza, you could always order a sandwich from room service.
Excursions: When it came time to book our shore excursions, we were surprised to find that many of the things we wanted to do were completely booked up! I wanted to go para-sailing in Grand Cayman but, unfortunately, there were no spots left, so we went snorkeling instead (it was awesome). My advice to you on this front is to book shore excursions early. If there is something special you want to do, they fill up quickly.
You also need to remember that the cruise ship is on a schedule. If the ship is set to depart the port at 5:00, it will leave at 5:00, whether you are on it or not. Several college students who went on a rum-run didn't make it back to the ship in time and were left stranded in Jamaica.
Onboard Activities: There is a lot to do when you are on the ship for a day at sea. There are shows to watch, bingo to play, sunbathing to do, etc. You can also go to the casino, but you need to realize that the slot machines on the ship are not designed to pay out. They are designed to take and keep your money. We found this out after our first losing night. Your best bet when it comes to playing the machines is to stick to the penny slots. I had never played them prior to this cruise, but we had a great time, and occasionally, we would make a good hit. My sister cleared $280 off one on our last day.
Drinking: One of the most debated aspects of going on a cruise is whether or not to bring alcohol in your checked baggage onto the ship. The guidelines for our cruise stated that each person could bring one bottle of wine aboard in their checked luggage, which I did. I later found out that others had brought lots of alcohol aboard in their checked luggage. While I wouldn't recommend bringing so much, I will bring some liquor aboard next time. I paid $14 for one drink on the cruise — money that I would have much rather spent in the gift shop. Also, you are allowed to bring other drinks (sodas, water) aboard the ship. I saw several people lugging on cases of pop and water. While you can buy an unlimited soda card (adult cards were $34), I absolutely recommend bringing some soft drinks of your own. While you can buy bottles of alcohol duty-free on the ship or in your ports-of-call, those bottles are confiscated and you will not receive them until the last night of the cruise.
In-Room Entertainment: If you just want to stay in your cabin and relax, there are first-run movies on the television for you to enjoy that run constantly. My sister and I ordered room service one night and watched The Blindside.
Disembarkment Made Easy
I was concerned about the disembarkment process, but it was relatively easy. You can either take your bags off the ship yourself or have the ship take them, and have them available for you during your disembarkment process. We chose to take our bags with us and zipped right through customs. The people that had their baggage sent off the ship had to retrieve it much like you would retrieve baggage from at an airport baggage claim. This didn't appeal to me at all.
We were able to get a taxi right away and were at the airport within 15 minutes. My last piece of advice for a new cruiser is to disregard the cruise line's recommendation that you don't book your flight until after 5:00 p.m. on the day you disembark. My flight didn't leave Miami until 5:30 p.m., so I spent over 9 hours in the airport. Talk about a wasted day. Next time I will book an earlier flight. If for some reason the ship is late docking and I miss my flight, the airline will get me on another plane. That's a risk I am willing to take.
I hope this hub helps you when you are considering your first cruise. If you are already booked for one, use my experience for your gain and learn from my mistakes. The cruise was a really great experience. I had a great time and hope that you have as much fun as I did when you take your vacation. Bon Voyage!
Questions & Answers
Question: Would my birth certificate be OK as an I.D. for a Carnival cruise? I don't have a passport.
Answer: I used my birth certificate. I was told that if you leave from the same port your arrive back in a birth certificate will suffice.
SandmanIllinois on November 19, 2018:
Get ready for Karaoke on your next Carnival Cruise!
Review this list and practice up ahead of time, get your short-list of songs ready to go!
Karaoke Songlist PDF download:
Gayle German on October 13, 2018:
Some things to know to enjoy cruising to the fullest!
Ruth Meyer on June 11, 2018:
My husband and I were on a carnival cruise 7 years ago and had a terrible time..i hope this one is better. staff on the ship seemed not to care about us or anyone else. Almost left 20 to 25 people on one island. thank goodness some of the family on the ship demanded to find out where we were. we were the last people boarding on the ship as they were bringing up the anchor. no sorry, kiss my foot nothing from the ship. hope this one is better..worried.
Brandon on January 27, 2017:
Just a heads up that the sail and sign cards don't actually have room numbers printed on them (that would be a safety concern if the card was lost). Instead it has a portfolio number which you can use to access your account balance on the stateroom TV, at a kiosk, or at the guest services desk.
Taranwanderer on February 06, 2015:
I MUST bookmark this excellent cruise ship travel hub - it ought to come in handy when I begin planning my own trip. I've been looking at several different ones, from the Norwegian varieties to the Princess cruise ship.
Missi on February 05, 2015:
SO many great tips! Thanks!
mikicagle (author) from Oklahoma on October 09, 2014:
According to Carnival's 2014 policies you are allowed to take 1 bottle of wine per 21 year old passenger. The policy states that any hard liquor will be confiscated. That being said, with the cost of drinks ranging from 10.00-25.00 each a lot of people try to bring some liquor on board in their luggage. There are even special "bladders" you can buy online that you can put inside of other items to try to get on board. I'm not sure if it I worth it or not. I do know though that if you buy bottles of liquor from one of the gift stores on the ship or while you are in port they DO take them and give them back to you the last day you are on the ship. I purchased several things in Jamaica that I didn't get back until the end of the cruise.
chris on October 09, 2014:
Can you explain how the alcohol works in more detail? Would I be allowed to bring liquor aboard to use in my state room? Thanks!
John Hollywood from Hollywood, CA on September 01, 2014:
Very informative. I've never set foot on a cruise ship so this was a very informative and helpful hub. Voted up!
mikicagle (author) from Oklahoma on March 16, 2014:
If it is just a carry on I believe you are allowed to take it to your stateroom. We were told to make sure we took a change of clothes in our carry on in case our luggage didn't arrive in the stateroom until the next day.
Myriam on February 27, 2014:
My best friend Cristina and I will take Carnival Victory on April 19, she is coming from Mexico and I from Arizona. My biggest question is if we can bring our luggage to the Cruise all the way to our stateroom after check -in at the port? We just going to travel with a carry-on bag because we don't want to take any chance to lost our bags at the airport. Thanks for the recommendation on diner time, I will book the latest.
mikicagle (author) from Oklahoma on April 21, 2012:
I hope you have a wonderful time. I can't wait to go on my next cruise!!
Erin on April 21, 2012:
Thank you so much, I'm taking my boyfriend on a cruise in nov for his bday and I feel like this hub was very helpful. Many people jus talk about the fun when they go on a cruise but I like the fact that uou went into greater detail. Thanks!
mikicagle (author) from Oklahoma on February 23, 2012:
If you had money on the account they legally have to refund it to you, they can't keep it. Have you contacted the corporate office? That would be my first step. Then lodge a complaint with your states attorney general, the better business bureau, the Federat Trade Commission and any other federal agency you can think of.
John and Angela on February 22, 2012:
Hi everyone. We just booked our second cruise and hopefully this time we will get on the boat. Last year my entire family decided to cruise with Carnival. My wife and myself were first time traveler on a cruise boat. I wish I had seen this blog earlier. But I want to add something to this blog. Make sure your birth certificate is issue by the state and not a hospital issue. Carnival does not accept hospital issued birth certificates. Our Carnival planner looked at our paperwork before we left for Miami. But once there they would not accept my wife's paperwork. We had everything from our marriage license to military ID's. But they keep asking us for more information. Bottom line have a passport. We lost all our money and our luggage and all the money my parent put in our cabin account. We also traveled down with my brother and his new wife so I had to return to Miami a week later to pick them up. My wife had cancer at this time so this added to the stress. Carnival told us we would receive a refund for our entire cruise. That never happened. We received our port fees and tax which was 104 dollars. After getting her state issue birth certificate they told us to catch up in Nassau but we needed passport to fly. Again bad information. The next day they told us the boat was actually in St Thomas so we would have flown to the wrong island. So again bad information. Bottom line do your own checking and ask questions. The Carnival cruise personnel in Miami did not give a rat ass if we lived or died. Left us standing in the port with no luggage and have a nice trip home. We arrived at 945 and left at 400pm after the boat left us. We watched our boat sail out of the harbor. Make sure you have the right paperwork. My wife's paperwork she used to join the military and get married and obtain a social security card but not good enough to cruise with Carnival.. I know being military means nothing to Carnival as well. I was laugh out after the boat and all the people were out of the port. I was mad as hell and now they won't even give us an upgrade after everything we went through. Told us today it was our fault. We booked anyway. But asked for an upgrade and a free gift or return our cabin account money to put in this cruise account. We had 1500 dollars in our cabin account which they stated we could not get back since we were not on the ship to settle our account. So be sure not to put too much money into your account you can always pay more at the end. Any help with this problem would be helpful. Please no smart ass remarks. We were new and relied on Carnival personnel to lead us in the right direction. `i know what I could have done now. Does not help after the fact. If you have something that can help me I would appreciate hearing from you.
mikicagle (author) from Oklahoma on August 03, 2011:
Applejuic3 you will have the best time ever! My experience was really positive and I hope to be able to cruise again soon.
applejuic3 from San Diego, CA on June 17, 2011:
i will be going on my first cruise, and on carnival, in november. i very much appreciate this hub and what you have put together, your advice will help me greatly.
mikicagle (author) from Oklahoma on July 07, 2010:
You would have a wonderful time. I absolutely want to go again and take my husband and son.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on July 06, 2010:
This is terrific advice. As a person who has never cruised but would consider doing so, I will remember these tips. Thank you!
mikicagle (author) from Oklahoma on June 26, 2010:
Thanks. I had lots of questions before my first cruise-I hope other's can learn from my experience.
talfonso from Tampa Bay, FL on June 26, 2010:
As a person who sailed on more than one cruise, I praise you for excellent advice you gave out for the novice cruiser. This is also excellent for repeat ones!
mikicagle (author) from Oklahoma on June 10, 2010:
Thanks so much. My husband wants to go to Alaska too. We were going to take a family cruise this October, but because of the oil problems in Gulf of Mexico we have had to put our plans on hold. One of my friends from work is currently on an Alaska cruise-so check back for a hub about her experience.
DustinsMom from USA on June 10, 2010:
Great tips for a cruise! Thank you for sharing. I would love to go to Alaska one day.