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Tips and Advice for Planning Your First Cruise

Updated on April 10, 2017
Thinking of going on a cruise? Read these tips before you set sail on that beautiful blue ocean!
Thinking of going on a cruise? Read these tips before you set sail on that beautiful blue ocean!

Your First Cruise

Planning a cruise can be a confusing experience, especially if you've never been on one before. Don't worry! If you take some time to educate yourself it will go smoothly.

And it is so worth it! Cruising is a popular vacation option that combines adventure, good living and amazing destinations. For me, there is no better escape, and when that big ship starts to pull away from the pier I know great memories are about to be made.

But if you’ve not been on a cruise before, how do you know it’s for you? Truthfully, it’s one of those things you’ll never know until you try. Many people become hooked for life after their first cruise. There is a certain kind of camaraderie among frequent cruisers, and once you’re “in the club” you may find yourself comparing notes with people you meet on your trips.

Some people have been on dozens of cruises! You may think these are wealthy people, but not necessarily. When compared to other vacation options cruising is a great deal, and you can keep your costs pretty low if you know what you’re looking for.

So, if you’re thinking about taking that first cruise, there is no time like the present! Soon you’ll be sipping a cold drink and looking out over a gorgeous ocean beneath a blue sky.

Here are some tips to help make it possible!

What is the Best Time of Year to Cruise?

There is no perfect answer to what time of year is best of cruising. Really, it depends on your destination, and your idea of the ideal vacation. Think about your specific situation as you read through this article.

For example, families with children need to consider school and extracurricular activities. For this reason, summer and vacation periods are popular times for family cruise vacations.

On the other hand, if you are hoping to avoid those screaming children and college students on your trip, fall is a great time to go. The weather is still nice, but kids are, for the most part, back in school.

Taking a Caribbean cruise in February sounds like a brilliant idea, but sailing out of a northern port in winter can mean rough seas and cold weather for part of your trip. If enjoying your days at sea is important to you, it might be smart to reconsider.

Should you sail during the peak of hurricane season in August and September? I do! You can save a couple of bucks, and avoid the aforementioned packs of screaming kids. Plus, the crews of these giant cruise ships know what they are doing, and they aren’t going to sail into a hurricane! However, you do run the risk of an itinerary change should a storm get in your way.

Summer sailing dates typically mean more kids, families and young adults. Winter and fall sailings mean a somewhat older crowd, fewer kids and a little less mayhem. You decide what is important to you!

Which Destination Should You Choose?

Where should you go? The answer to this question may depend on where you are right now. The good news is, cruise ships go just about everywhere, so odds are you’ll find one with a port of call where you wish to go.

However, for some destinations you may need to arrange some complex and expensive travel just to get to and from the pier. This is something you need to consider in your schedule and budget.

Some cruises are “re-positioning” cruises, which is basically a one-way trip. You have to fly home, or plan another cruise back. Then there are options like transatlantic cruises and Panama Canal cruises. These are long, expensive trips, but they must be so amazing.

For your first cruise you’ll probably want to stick with something simple. Generally, if you’re on the east coast of the United States you’ll have lot of options for the Caribbean, Bermuda, Mexico and Canada.

If you are on the west coast you’ll probably be considering Mexico, Alaska and Canada. Some cruises have destinations in the United States as well, places such as New England and Key West.

Choosing a Cruise Line

The destination where you wish to travel may, in part, help you choose which company to cruise with. The individual cruise lines post schedules on their websites, and put out publications that are available from travel agents and by direct email and regular mail. But don’t let this be the only deciding factor.

Different cruise lines have different business models. Some, such as Carnival and Disney, cater to kids and families. Others, such as Holland America, cater to an older, more affluent crowd. Still others, such as Princess and Norwegian, are more middle-of-the-road. Personally, my wife and I are big fans of Norwegian because of the Freestyle cruising.

The line you pick should match your expectations. If you’re bringing small children, you are definitely going to want to make sure you pick a cruise line that offers them something to do. Most cruise lines have some kind of "kids club" that provides activities for children of all ages.

If you are a young adult couple without kids, you probably don’t want to be stuck on a ship with a thousand kids running amok. You'd be smart to choose a cruise line with fewer features for kids, and to sail at a time of year that attracts fewer families.

When it comes to other amenities, while you’ll likely find more similarities than differences between the cruise lines, some are quite a bit more expensive. Some, too, offer services and options you won’t find on other ships. Many cruise lines have really upped their games in recent years with specialty services and unique options.

The only way to know is to read up on your options. Start by researching major cruise lines who sail from a port you can travel to, but don't forget to consider smaller cruise lines too. Here are a few of the cruise lines to check out:

  • Carnival
  • Celebrity
  • Disney
  • Holland America
  • NCL
  • Princess
  • Royal Caribbean


How Many Days for Your First Cruise?

A typical cruise lasts from a couple of days, to a couple of weeks. How brave are you willing to be for your first cruise?

For families, one-week cruises are ideal. Consider vacation time, time away from school and extracurricular activities for kids, pet care and household concerns in your decision.

For this reason, if you are looking to escape from screaming children, cruises of over a week are a smart choice. You’ll see fewer families and fewer kids.

I think a week is about the perfect amount of time, but you might want to plan a three, four or five-day trip if you aren’t sure you’ll like it. You don’t want to be trapped aboard ship for two weeks after finding out you hate cruising on day one!

Choosing Your Cabin

What kind of stateroom should you choose? Though the cruise lines may call them by different names, you generally have a choice between:

  • Inside cabins (no windows)
  • Cabins with a porthole or window
  • Balcony cabins
  • Various suites that range from slightly larger than a regular cabin, to really huge and expensive.

The best advice is to choose the highest-level cabin you feel comfortable paying for.

If you want to save a few dollars, inside cabins are cheapest, and you can get some really good deals. Some people don’t spend much time in their stateroom anyway.

I prefer the balcony option. Sitting outside my cabin and watching the sun rise over the ocean is the perfect way to start the day, in my opinion. If you are going to go this route, be sure to consider the direction your ship is sailing when choosing your cabin. If you want to see the sun rise, you need to be on the correct side of the ship!

It is also important to look at the layout of the ship when choosing your cabin, and be aware of what is around it. Stay away from busy passageways, elevators and public areas. Remember, what’s above and below you matters, too. If you choose a room above a busy night club you might not get to sleep very early.

For me, a balcony cabin is the only way to go!
For me, a balcony cabin is the only way to go!

Planning Transportation to and from Port

While you are in the planning stages, you need to think about your transportation to and from the pier. If you can drive there yourself be prepared to find a safe place to leave your vehicle, and to pay for parking.

You may need to fly to the port you are sailing from, so consider the price of the airline tickets in your costs. Then you have to figure out how to get from the airport to the pier. If you are lucky enough to live relatively close to a port, you can avoid all of this by arranging a van for transport to and from.

We typically cruise out of New York City, which is basically a long car ride away. But we've also gone from Florida ports, which meant the expense and time of a plane flight had to be considered in the agenda.

Figuring out transportation is the biggest hassle in the whole cruising process. For this reason, I often like to arrange my cruises through a travel agent. They can help you put together a package for the best price, and arrange your other travel issues.

Some cruise lines also have packages where, through them, you can arrange transport to and from the airport. Be sure to check and see what they have to offer and find out what kinds of deals you can get.

The Pre-cruise Buzz

After you’ve planned your cruise and scheduled it you still have a lot of work ahead of you. Among other things, you need to consider which clothes and other items to pack, you need to make sure your passports are up to date, you have to start thinking about shore excursions and other expenses, and preparing for household issues like pet care, mail and paper delivery.

But don’t let one of the best parts of cruising pass you by. Because after you’ve chosen your cruise line, picked your destination and booked your cabin, stop for a minute and take a deep breath.

Because you’re going on a cruise!

During the months and weeks leading up to a cruise, everyday life seems a whole lot better. Suddenly it’s not so bad being stuck in traffic, because you’re going on a cruise! Another boring day at work? So what! You’re going on a cruise!

It might be a little stressful, but don’t forget to get excited! That’s part of the fun! Good luck planning your first cruise vacation!

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