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).
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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.