Many first time cruisers spend at least some time researching the exciting ports they’ll be visiting. But most people don’t really know what cruise ship travel is like until they get on board.
When you take your very first cruise, there will definitely be some things that will surprise you. A cruise is very different from a land-based vacation! Here are eight things that you might not know about traveling on a cruise ship.
1. A room steward isn’t exactly like a hotel housekeeper (but he’s not a butler, either)
Chances are, you’ve stayed in a hotel before. Once a day, the housekeeping staff comes in and makes the bed, empties the trash, and gives you new towels. You probably don’t have much contact with them, unless you make a special request, or you forget to put up the do not disturb sign.
What a cruise steward can do for you
A cruise room steward performs all of the functions of a housekeeper, but goes a bit further. Your steward will clean your room twice a day, making your bed in the morning and turning it down in the evening. Soon after you enter your stateroom for the first time, your steward will knock on your door to introduce himself.
This is a great time to tell him about any general needs you may have, such as if your beds need to be pushed together or pulled apart (you can request your bed configuration through the cruise line’s website or your travel agent, but sometimes mistakes are made).
You may have a sleeper sofa or pullman beds as well. If any members of your party are using them, let your steward know approximately what time those beds will need to be set up. Sometimes they will ask if you’re going to be early or late risers, or if you’re planning on dining early or late in general. I usually let them know our habits, even if they don’t ask, so they have an idea of when we’re likely to be out of the room.
Update: Due to the pandemic, many cruise lines have switched to once-a-day room cleaning. Your steward may ask you whether you prefer morning or afternoon cleaning during your cruise.
A room steward does more than you might think, but can’t do everything
Your room steward can also bring you bathrobes and extra hangers, empty your mini fridge, and even remove furniture, such as that pesky chair that’s in the way when your sleeper sofa is open.
Stewards often tidy up a bit more than the average hotel housekeeper. They may rearrange your toiletries in the bathroom, or organize your desk. We once had a steward who liked to line up my daughter’s cosmetics on the desk and arrange her makeup brushes on a towel for her. She thought it was strange, but I loved his attention to detail.
Your steward usually will give you their direct phone line to call if you need something. I prefer to just leave them a note on the desk. Usually, your steward will take care of whatever you need the next time he cleans your room.
Unlike a butler, whose services may be available in some suites and on some luxury cruise lines, a room steward won’t unpack your suitcases, make your dinner reservations, or serve you breakfast on your balcony. He might make you towel animals, though!
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2. Your stateroom will probably be smaller than you expected
If you booked an inside or oceanview, your room will likely be very small. The average inside or oceanview cabin is around 140-160 square feet. Be sure that you’re aware of just how small that can be when booking a smaller stateroom for more than two people.
Some insides and oceanviews can sleep four (or even five or six!) people, but it can be very cramped. Remember that closet and storage space is limited, and there is only one small bathroom.
Your bathroom most likely won’t have a tub
Unless you’re staying in a mini-suite or above, your bathroom will probably have just a stand-up shower. This isn’t an issue for many people, but it can pose a problem for some.
If you or any of your cabinmates are larger people, you may feel cramped in this smaller space. Even if you’re not planning on taking a bath, you might consider a stateroom that has a bathtub to have more shower space.
If you’re traveling with babies or younger children who aren’t old enough to use a shower, you won’t have anywhere to bathe them. The sinks are small, too, not nearly large enough to bathe an infant.
Some cruise lines do offer family staterooms that have a bathtub. For example, Disney family inside rooms have a “bath and a half”. Some Holland America ships have family outside cabins with two separate bathrooms, one with a tub.
Be sure to check your stateroom size and layout very carefully before you book, to avoid any surprises when you arrive.
Read more: Is an Interior Cabin Right for Your Cruise?
3. The ship is a cashless environment, with some exceptions
When you check in and receive your cruise card, your credit card will be linked to it. Any purchases you make on board will be charged to that credit card when you swipe your cruise card.
Some cruise lines’ casinos take cash, and some are cruise card only. If you’re planning on gambling, check to see if you need to bring cash. There are ATMs on board, but they will hit you with hefty fees.
You might have prepaid your gratuities, but be sure to take some small bills for tipping your porter at the cruise port (they don’t work for the cruise line), and for room service staff. You can also give an extra tip to any waiters or bartenders who provide excellent service, and also for your room steward.
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4. Restaurants are very different from their “real world” counterparts
Cruise ships are famous for their buffets, but the restaurants are where you’ll find the best food and service. All cruise ships will have some restaurants that are included in your cruise fare. Most also offer specialty restaurants with an added fee for more upscale cuisine and service.
Traditionally, cruise diners had a set time and table, and passengers ate with the same group each night. Some cruise lines still have set dining times. Some now also have “anytime dining”, where you can dine whenever you like. You may be able to eat at a table with just your party. I love meeting new people, but meeting new people when I’m eating is not my favorite thing. We always opt for anytime dining when it’s offered, and we’ve had varying degrees of luck with getting a private table.
In complimentary dining venues, the biggest difference to land-based restaurants is that you can order as much as you want…for free! Do you want six appetizers and no entrée? Sure! Want to try both the steak and the shrimp dishes? Absolutely!
(Many specialty restaurants do note on their menus that there is a limit of one entrée per person. However, I’ve never seen that rule apply to appetizers and desserts.)
Most first time cruisers assume they can only order what’s shown on the menu. Not true! The main dining rooms will try to accommodate special requests. Did you see a pasta dish that you know would be even better with some grilled chicken and broccoli on it? Just ask. Unless you’re asking for a very unusual ingredient, the kitchen will most likely be able to make your requested dish.
5. There are (almost) no trash receptacles for passengers
This was one of the weirdest things for me when I was a first time cruiser. I had a piece of plastic wrapping from an item I had bought, and I searched high and low for a trash can. They don’t exist.
Well, there are trash receptacles in the public restrooms, as well as small bins in the staterooms. But in any other public area of the ship, there are zero trash cans.
So what do you do with used cups, napkins, and wrappers? You leave them on a table. Any table will do – the one you’re sitting at, or any empty table. There are tables everywhere.
I know it feels weird to first time cruisers, unless you’re one of those people who leaves trash all over any flat surface anyway. The staff are usually super-efficient in clearing tables and surfaces, so you won’t generally see piles of cups and napkins everywhere.
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6. Some ports are tender ports
You might notice that some of the ports you’ll visit are listed as tender ports, or that “tenders are required”. This means that the ship can’t pull right up to a dock, allowing passengers to walk off. Instead, a small boat transfers passengers to shore.
Some ports don’t have deep enough water to accommodate large cruise ships at the pier. In these cases, the ship will anchor in the harbor. Passengers transfer in lifeboats from the ship, or in slightly larger vessels from the port. There is no extra charge for the transfer.
When disembarking at a tender port, there are often long lines to leave the ship. Usually, passengers receive a group number for a tender, to help the process go more smoothly. Be sure that you take the extra time needed into consideration, especially if you’re meeting a privately-booked excursion. Excursions booked through the cruise line generally have priority tendering.
If you or a member of your party uses a wheelchair or other mobility device, check with the cruise line before you book to ensure that they will be able to provide assistance. Accessible cruise tenders are not common, but some cruise lines do offer them. However, even if your cruise line does accommodate mobility devices on tenders, it might not be possible if there are rough seas that day.
7. On board shops and the casino are closed while in port
Maybe you’re planning on staying on board the ship when visiting a port that you don’t care to see. Don’t plan on doing any shopping or gambling!
While there will be activities scheduled on the ship for port days, and there will be restaurants and bars that are open, the on board shops will be closed due to tax laws.
Most of the time, the ship’s casino also closes while in port. There are a few exceptions: in Bermuda, as long as the cruise line pays a fee to the local government, the casino can open in the evenings. This is for cruises that dock in Bermuda overnight. There are also a few Caribbean islands that do allow the casino to remain open in port.
8. You MUST read the daily program every day
Each evening, your steward will place a daily program in your room, or outside of your door. It’s crucial that you read this program every single day. The program will notify you of any time changes, changes to any upcoming ports, as well as activities and shows for the next day.
Update: Due to the pandemic, many cruise lines have stopped delivering the daily planner to guest staterooms. Instead, the information is posted on the cruise line’s app. Or you can pick up a paper copy at the Guest Services desk.
Ports are subject to change
If you read the terms and conditions when booking a cruise, you’ll see that any and all port stops can be changed or canceled for any reason, with no refund. The captain will make the decision to change or cancel ports of call if bad weather would make it too dangerous to stop. Ports can also be skipped if there is an outbreak of disease at the port, or if there is another danger in the area, such as political unrest.
The ship always goes by ship’s time
An important nuance of cruise travel that first time cruisers don’t know about is that the ship always goes by ship’s time.
Often, the official time on board the ship will match the local time in the port. If the ship is traveling in and out of a time zone, such as when visiting several Caribbean islands, local time could vary from ship’s time. In these instances, sometimes the captain will elect to keep the ship on its own time to avoid having to repeatedly switch an hour forward and then back again.
It’s crucial that you know what the ship’s time is when you visit a port, because the ship will leave on ship’s time. If you’ve set your watch to local time (or your phone resets to local time), you could miss the ship. It won’t wait for you!
When cruising through time zones, such as on a transatlantic crossing, the ship’s time will also change. Check your daily program for these changes to avoid showing up at the wrong time for activities or dinner reservations.
You might also like:
- 10 Rookie Cruise Mistakes to Avoid When Booking
- The 19 Best Cruise Accessories You Need to Pack
- Nine Things You Need to Check Before Your Cruise
- How to Have the Best Embarkation Day on a Cruise
- A Cruise Glossary: Cruise Terms You Should Know
- What Should You Wear on Embarkation Day on a Cruise?
What surprised you on your first cruise? Do you have any other tips for first time cruisers? Let me know in the comments below!
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