Bob has been a frequent cruiser for the last 15 years and has gained a lot of experience, which he'd like to share with first-timers.
What Are Cruise Ships Like for Holidays?
In a word? Great! That's my opinion, anyway. If you are considering taking a holiday on a cruise ship any time soon, it is worth doing a bit of research first. By all means, get some brochures from different cruise lines and different ships. They are not all the same! Start by browsing through the brochures on display in your local travel agents.
Know What the Cruise Line Expects of You
Read their literature thoroughly to get a good idea of what to expect from a cruise on one of their ships. You also need to begin to understand what they expect from you.
Understandably, in the interests of all their passengers, they have a few simple rules regarding things like dress code, which apply at different times of the day, and in various places around the ship. There are rules about smoking, safety, and general behaviour in and around the pools, bars and other areas. They want you to have a great time, but not at the expense of other travellers' safety and enjoyment.
Sorry if this sounds a bit harsh, and I'm sure most people reading this know perfectly well how to behave, but we've all met the odd one who doesn't.
Anyway, if you are a potential first-time cruiser, and even if you have asked around a bit, you probably still have many questions. Let's see if I can answer some of them.
What Are the Cabins Like on Cruise Ships?
First, a bit more about me and my own experience. I have done about 15 cruises, all of them on P&O, and spent weeks aboard 5 of their fleet of 6 ships. I was introduced to cruising by a former partner, who was already a big fan of P&O, and since the start have never felt the urge to even think about a different cruise line.
You, of course, must choose for yourself. As I understand from talking to other cruise fanatics, all cruise lines, and indeed ships, do things slightly differently.
As for myself, I was so impressed by P&O that I persuaded my whole family to come with us on a Mediterranean cruise in 2010. We were six adults and five children aged between 10 and 13. We booked three double cabins with extra pull-down bunks, all on the same corridor and only separated by one or two other cabins. They were outside cabins with windows. With children, we didn't think balconies were necessary or even appropriate.
All bed making and pulling up and down of bunks is done by your cabin steward while you are out during the day. The stewards, either male or female, are invariably friendly and helpful. They arrange their activities of cleaning, tidying and keeping your cabin supplied with towels, shower gel, soap, tea bags, coffee, milk, biscuits, and other necessities, around your normal comings and goings. They can be found in your corridor most of the morning if needed, and will return during your evening meal to arrange the bunks, turn down the beds, and leave a chocolate on your pillow. Such luxury, eh?
Incidentally, in normal double cabins without the extra bunks, beds can be configured as either twin or double. You can normally specify which at the time of booking, but if you prefer to have a change around, your steward will be pleased to do it for you.
The cabin shown here was the one my partner and I had on Ventura in 2010. My 13-year-old granddaughter slept in the bunk overnight, but did everything else in the cabin two doors away with her parents and twin brothers.
The cabins vary throughout the ship and are priced accordingly. The cheapest are the inside cabins, mostly twin/double, and of course have no window. They do all have air-conditioning, but can be quite dark when the lights are out. They do have all the normal en-suite facilities including shower/bath, cupboards, drawer units, wardrobe/clothes hanging space, dressing table, sofa, coffee table, fridge, complimentary tea/coffee making facilities, hairdryer, and a safe for your valuables.
Outside cabins have all of the above plus a non-opening window, which at least lets in daylight and affords a view of what is going on outside the ship. Some windows have something of a restricted view, usually part of a lifeboat or part of the ship's superstructure, but you usually have a partial view of the sea.
Some cabins are a little larger, particularly those with balconies, and beds are arranged along a side wall. Balconies are partitioned and have seats or sunbeds according to size.
For those passengers requiring and willing to pay for extra space, there are suites with larger, sometimes corner balconies, scattered about the ship. Some of these come with your own personal butler!
How Much Luggage Can I Take, and Will I Have to Carry it Onboard Myself?
If you drive your own car to Southampton, UK, to board your cruise ship, you are only limited to the number of cases you can personally load into the car in the space it has available. The weight of each case is limited for the safety of the baggage handlers at the port and your particular cruise line will advise you of the maximum weight per item of luggage when confirming your booking.
The picture shows the 5 large suitcases we normally took with us and does not include hand baggage. You should try to have cases which fit inside each other when unpacked because the empty cases stay in your cabin for the voyage. There is room under the beds for storage.
Please note: If you choose to fly to a foreign port to start your cruise, then your baggage allowance is determined by the airline and may be considerably less.
What About My Car?
If you are driving yourself to your port of embarkation, you will have been advised to pre-book car parking for the duration of your cruise. In Southampton, because of the daily arrival of cars on the way to the various docks, there are people and signs directing you to where you need to go. You will eventually arrive at the unloading area right next to your ship.
You may have to queue a short while but then you will be met on the one side by a porter who will load your cabin luggage on a trolley, and on the other side by a driver who will check your parking details. Once you have cleared your car of everything you will need on the voyage, the porter will take the cases off towards the ship and the driver will take your keys and drive the car away to the secure parking area, which may not necessarily be close to the ship.
The next time you see your cases, they will be lined up outside your cabin. This may be a couple of hours later as your cabin is probably still being given a deep clean after the previous cruise which has just disembarked this morning.
You are now free to enter the Reception Hall to go through the embarkation process and board this fabulous ship, which will be your home for the next week or two.
That was easy, wasn't it? And exciting too, if you are first timers like this little lot!
When Can We Get Into Our Cabin?
Once you have gone through the boarding formalities and registered a credit card to cover drinks, extra on-board purchases and any onshore excursions you choose to take, you will be issued with your own personal digital cabin key-card which you also use to board or leave the ship and present whenever you buy anything in the ship's bars or shops, etc. You can check your credit balance at any time at the ship's reception and get a printed record of everything you have spent.
As soon as you are on board, you are free to use most of the public facilities including bars and cafeterias, sit in the lounges or out on deck, or simply go and explore the ship. An announcement will be made over the speaker system when the cabins are ready to be occupied. This usually happens about 2.00 to 2.30pm.
What's the Routine Once We Get Into Our Cabin?
Don't just put your feet up and go to sleep. Start to unpack and store all your stuff away.
Locate your orange life jackets ready to take to the mandatory lifeboat drill, which takes place at various indoor assembly points around the ship later in the afternoon. I always found it useful, if you can figure out how to put it on, to try it for size and make any adjustments in the cabin to save time and any embarrassment when asked to wear it at the end of the drill. If you are not sure, there will be lots of crew members present to help you. Your safety is very important to them.
There will be notices in the cabin telling you your allocated assembly point. Announcements will be made throughout the ship and crew members stationed everywhere to direct you.
After the safety drill, all passengers will be invited to assemble on the dockside Promenade Deck for traditional "Sailaway" drinks as the ship slips her moorings, pulls slowly out, and gets underway. Your dream cruise has begun!
Next on your agenda is dinner!
Where Does One Eat Aboard a Cruise Ship?
If you choose Formal Dining when booking your cruise, which I would thoroughly recommend, on P&O ships you can decide which sitting you want to take dinner for the duration of the cruise and what size table you would like to sit at. Their dinner sittings are usually 6.30pm and 8.30pm in the main restaurants, but vary slightly in the others.
As to table size in Formal Dining, I personally favour a table for six. You make your choice at the time of booking and the allocated table is yours for the whole cruise. This means if you are a couple you will dine with the same two other couples every night. This has its advantages in that you know what to expect each evening and after initial introductions, conversations get ever more interesting as your holiday progresses.
On a ship with perhaps 3,000 passengers, you are unlikely to bump into your table mates during the day, unless you become close friends and choose to do so. Part of your nightly dinner conversation is an exchange of what you have been up to in the previous 24 hours.
Every P&O ship has, I believe, restaurant/cafeterias and a few other fine dining options. At least one will be open for Full English Breakfast and during the day there will always be places open for meals/snacks/tea/coffee etc., until 2.00am the following morning.
Opening times are published in your daily ship's newsletter, along with the evening dress code.
What Is the Dress Code Aboard a Cruise Ship?
During the day, all around the ship, and in the pool areas, or going ashore, you wear pretty much the same things that you would normally wear on any shore based holiday.
The Dress Code varies each evening. During a 12-day cruise, there will normally be 3 or 4 formal Black Tie nights applying to the main restaurants, lounges and bars. Formal wear usually includes a smart dark suit and tie for gentlemen and ball gown, trouser suit or cocktail dress for ladies.
The remaining nights are Evening Casual, which means open-necked shirt, with or without jacket or blazer, over tailored trousers or smart jeans for men and dress or casual separates for ladies. Bars and lounges will accept smart leisurewear in the evening, but NO shorts, blue or worn denim, trainers, football shirts or tracksuits.
A much fuller explanation of "Things You Need To Know" will be sent to you with your booking acknowledgment, luggage labels, and Personalised Holiday Information Booklet.
What Is There to Do During the Day While at Sea?
Every evening your cabin steward will deliver the next day's Ship's Newsletter. This is a detailed listing of all the available services, group activities, competitions, special events, talks, films, shows, exercise classes, health and beauty pampering sessions, things to do ashore on port days and travel arrangements if needed, meetups, arts and crafts classes, dancing, music, special offers in the shopping area, and supervised activities for kids aged 0 to 17.
There is so much to do aboard most modern cruise ships you will never find enough time to take part in everything. Not only that you should take time to relax on the many sun decks, cool off in one of the pools, order a drink from a passing waiter and sit sipping it while reading your favourite author, or just watching the world go by (usually a vast empty sea with perhaps the odd large ship in the far distance). There is also a chance you may even see a group of passing dolphins or a whale spouting spray from its blowhole. If the Captain on the Bridge notices something like this, he might well draw passengers' attention to it over the loudspeaker.
What Items Should I Take to the Sun Deck?
On P&O ships, every passenger is issued with a large blue beach towel in their cabin, along with the normal white bath and hand towels. You can take the blue towel with you when you go to the sun decks or pools. If they get wet, you can leave them there in the bins near each pool and a replacement will be provided next day by your cabin steward. The trouble is, everyone else's towel is the same blue, which can be confusing if you come back from the pool looking for your own sunbed. Ooops!
My recommendation is that you pack one of your own colourful beach towels to take out with you if only to easily identify your own sun bed. There are hundreds of them on the deck areas! Your towels can be securely clipped to the back of the sunbed using large coloured plastic pegs like these available from Amazon. They also stop the towel from blowing away, if you get a gust of wind.
You will also need a suitably large beach bag to carry your pool towels, water bottle, deck shoes or flip-flops, sun cream, sun hat, purse, phone, kindle, books, etc.
You may, of course, have most of these items at home already, but if you do need to buy some new, Amazon has a great range of cruise accessories to choose from.
I Love Cruising and Have So Much to Say About It . . .
. . . but perhaps I'll leave the rest for another time.
If you are a newbie or first-time cruiser, or even a 'hardened old sea dog', I would love to hear about your experiences good or not so good. Please write a brief comment below, or ask a question if you are currently considering a cruise and are not sure what it involves or if you would like it. I'll try to answer honestly.
Finally, if you are off on a cruise soon, I hope you have a wonderful time.
© 2019 Bob Black
Bob Black (author) from East Midlands, England, UK on February 07, 2019:
Thank you Liz. Hope your relatives have a great time.
Liz Westwood from UK on February 07, 2019:
We have relatives taking a P&O cruise from Southampton later this year. I have therefore read your atlrticle with great interest.