What to Expect on Your First Cruise

Updated on March 30, 2017

You’re Going on a Cruise!

If you’ve just planned and booked your first cruise you are probably pretty excited. Cruising is one of the best vacations out there, packed with new experiences and once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. It’s only natural to be eager to get out there on that big, beautiful ocean.

But you might also be a little nervous, and worried about what to expect. That’s normal too, especially if you have never cruised before. What if this is a big mistake? What if you hate it? What really goes on aboard ship anyway?

In this article you’ll get a little advice on what you should expect on your cruise. Of course all cruises are a little different, and experiences vary by cruise line, but this will give you the basics.

The hope is that this will set your mind at ease, and help to alleviate some of those worries and concerns. You are not joining the Navy, and you are not setting sail aboard a pirate ship. You are going on vacation, and if you go in with the right frame of mind you will have a blast!

Here’s some advice on how to make sure that happens.

Be Adventurous!

A cruise is an adventure. Literally! You are setting sail on the deep blue sea and traveling to a foreign land. How awesome is that? But this adventure is about more than just travel. You will be confronted by countless people, things and ideas you have never experienced before. That’s pretty awesome too!

So, the #1 rule is: Be adventurous! Be ready to try new things. Go in with a positive attitude and you won’t have any trouble having a great time.

Onboard, you may have a chance to climb a rock wall, see a Broadway-quality show or go down the biggest waterslide you’ve ever seen. On shore you can explore a new city, go snorkeling on a reef or just relax on one of the most beautiful beaches in the world.

The chefs and culinary staff aboard cruise ships are first-rate, and you’ll get a chance to try foods you’ve probably never even heard of. You’ll meet some really interesting people too. (Tip: Some of the most interesting people to talk to on a cruise are the members of the crew!)

Remember, too, that a ship is a floating community of thousands of people. At times you just have to be willing to relax and go with it. Be aware that you will probably have small snags along the way, and be ready to brush them off.

Cruises present once-in-a-lifetime sights and experiences. Don't let it all pass you by!
Cruises present once-in-a-lifetime sights and experiences. Don't let it all pass you by!

What to Do During Days at Sea

Many cruise itineraries have one or more sea days. These are full days where you are sailing from one port to the next and you are, of course, stuck on the ship.

That’s not a bad thing. In fact, some people, myself included, really look forward to the sea days. But what are you supposed to do?

Don’t worry, you won’t be bored. There is plenty to do aboard a cruise ship while you’re at sea! You’ll find activities planned from early morning to late at night. These range from fitness sessions, to games, to classes to Vegas-worthy shows.

Depending on the ship, there may be are sports courts available, and even organized tournaments. Of course there are always the pools and sundecks, some of the most popular locations onboard ship during days at sea.

You can’t possibly do everything, so you have to plan your day. Every morning, or often the night before, you’ll get a schedule of the day’s events. On most cruise lines, you get to pick and choose how you spend your day and attend the activities you wish.

That’s actually one of the most enjoyable things about cruising. You can hop from activity to activity throughout the day, and you’ll never be bored. Night time is when things really take off, and you might see a comedian, listen to a rock band, and participate in a game show all in the same night.

Jump in and have fun! You’re on vacation!

Planning Shore Excursions

Shore excursions are activities you can participate in once you get to port. You can book them aboard ship, but many cruise lines allow you to book them online before you even sail.

Typically, shore excursions involve a third-party company that is approved by the cruise line. You might go on a glass-bottom boat ride, take a tour, go snorkeling, catch a transport to a beach or learn to ride a jet ski.

Your shore excursions will cost extra, anywhere from a few dollars to several hundred. None of this is money you have to spend, and depending on your comfort level you can spend a few thousand dollars over the cost of the cruise, or nothing at all.

In addition to cost differences, shore excursions are usually rated by physical difficulty. Some may only be appropriate for active people, or people who can walk long distances. There may also be restrictions based on weight, height and age. These are for safety reasons, and you need to be aware of any restrictions when booking.

Going on shore excursions can lead to some fun opportunities. In most cases they are worth the price of admission, but they are not a necessity. You can certainly plan your own day and explore a port-of-call on your own terms if you wish. However, if you have never been to a destination before, it is probably smart to book a few shore excursions and take some of the worry off your plate.

While in Port

When you are in port have a great time, but be sure to carry yourself appropriately. Some places, like American and Canadian ports or Bermuda, are safe enough to wander about and explore. In other places you will not want to stray far from the beaten path.

The locals know you’re a tourist, so be wary of anyone trying to take advantage of you. Your cruise line or shore excursion company will advise you of where to go and where to avoid.

Most cruise lines will also warn you to only do business with shore excursion companies that are authorized by them. I sometimes think this a way to scare you into doing business with them, but it’s probably good advice.

None of this is meant to frighten you. Any place a cruise ship takes you is safe, as long as you don’t do anything dumb.

But here’s something that should frighten you: When they tell you to be back onboard ship at a certain time, they are not joking. They will not wait for you. They will leave you behind. At every port of call you’ll hear them announce the names of people who are unaccounted for, asking them to call the main number if they are indeed onboard. Usually they just planned poorly and didn’t get back to the ship before it sailed away.

That's bad. Being stuck in a foreign country without any of your belongings must be a nightmare, and a serious financial burden. Don't let that happen. Get back to the ship on time!

You can book a shore excursion for your time in port, or explore interesting locations on your own. It's up to you!
You can book a shore excursion for your time in port, or explore interesting locations on your own. It's up to you!

Extra Costs on a Cruise

Some cruise lines have gotten really good at the “upsell”, so be ready for it. Even though they tell you the cost is “all inclusive” that’s not always true. Usually, your booking fees will pay for your accommodations, your meals and most of your entertainment. Shore excursions cost extra, but what else?

There is something psychological about spending thousands on a cruise that leads people to throw caution to the wind and spend even more aboard ship. Cruise companies know this, and they are banking on your lack of self-control.

Here are a few things to watch out for:

  • Beverages: On most cruise lines water, coffee and tea are included with your meal, but other beverages cost extra. Beer, wine and mixed drinks are notoriously pricey aboard ship, but soda and other soft drinks often cost extra too. If you are not careful your bar tab can rival the cost of the cruise itself.
  • Dining: Meals in places like the main dining room and buffet are typically included in your booking fee. However, some cruise lines offer specialized dining opportunities that will cost extra. In most cases the food in the main dining room is fantastic, but if you wish you can spend a few bucks for something a little more special.
  • Wine tastings and art auctions: Sometimes there is a fee just to participate, but often this is a way to get you to drop a little more cash aboard ship. Go for it if you want!
  • The casino: Many ships have casinos onboard, and this is one way to while away the hours during days at sea. Of course, like with any casino, your odds of winning are pretty low.
  • Duty-free shops: Most ships have them, and they are also typically open during days at sea. You can get some good deals, but you can also spend a whole lot of money if you aren’t careful.
  • Entertainment: On my last cruise there were several entertainment options that had cover charges. This seems to be a trend, one I am none too happy about. As with meals, it’s up to you whether you want to pay extra for “premium” entertainment.
  • Gratuity: You will likely be charged a gratuity cost, usually by the day. It seems odd, but it takes the guesswork out of tipping waiters and room stewards.

Final Advice: Pace Yourself!

Make the most of your days on your vacation. Between the onboard activities and the shore excursions, you can have experiences you’ll never forget. Don’t let it all pass you by!

But be careful not to wear yourself out over the first couple of days. The sheer amount of food, drink and fun available can be a little overwhelming.

I remember one trip when the people in the cabin next to mine raised such a ruckus while the ship was pulling out of port. They were screaming and carrying on about how much they were going to party. My wife and I just smiled at each other.

Sure enough, they went nuts the first night until all hours of the morning. But then and we didn’t hear much from them for the rest of the trip. Whenever we saw them they always looked like they were ready to drop. They partied themselves out in one night!

You can spot a novice cruiser by the way they handle the first day. Have fun but pace yourself, or you’ll miss a lot of great stuff!

I hope you found this article helpful. Good luck on your first cruise!

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    • profile image

      Diana Abrahamson 

      2 years ago

      Cruising is the best type of vacation. My husband and I love the Caribbean ones!

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