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37 Cruise Tips: What to Do Before Your Cruise

37 Cruise Tips: What to Do Before Your Cruise

Are you going on a cruise soon? Or are you thinking about booking a cruise vacation in the near future? Here are my 37 best cruise tips that every new cruiser needs to know before booking your first cruise.

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1. Pick the right cruise line

Each cruise line has its own flavor—a Holland America cruise, where passengers tend to be more mature in age will be a different experience than a Disney cruise with kid-pleasing costumed characters. Carnival’s “Fun Ship” atmosphere will be a lot different than a more refined voyage on ultra-luxury line Regent Seven Seas.

Some cruise lines offer lots of included amenities, and some are bare-bones unless you choose to pay for the extras. Some offer attractions like water slides and roller coasters, and others focus more on enrichment activities and lectures.

So how do you decide which cruise line to choose? Enter your dates and departure port in a cruise search engine (I like to use the search feature on CruisePlum). Once you have a list of available cruises, you can eliminate the ones that don’t fit your budget, as well as cruises that don’t offer appealing ports of call.

Right from the search results you can watch videos about each ship, see information about amenities on board, and read customer reviews. It’s an easy way to narrow down which cruise line fits your needs and budget.

Read more: Which Cruise Lines Offer All-Inclusive Cruises?

Carnival’s “Fun Ships” are known for being budget-friendly and having a party atmosphere.

2. Choose the cruise length that’s right for you

If you’ve never cruised before, you might be tempted to try a super-short cruise for your first experience. But, be aware that three- or four-day cruises tend to be full of people wanting to party. If that’s your thing, then go for it!

Short cruises can also be very inexpensive. I’ve seen listings for around $150 for a three-day cruise.

Mid-length cruises (5-9 days) will have a variety of age groups. These cruises are long enough to let you relax and unwind, but not so long that any reluctant cruisers in your party will be wanting to get off the ship already! Mid-length cruises are also budget-friendly if you’re already paying for airfare to and from the departure port. As cruises can be as cheap as $50 a day (or less!), extending your vacation by a few days may not cost you much more.

Read more: Seven Reasons Why a Cruise Can be a Cheap Vacation

Longer cruises (10 days or more) tend to attract an older, retired clientele. A long cruise could be perfect if you’re looking for a more sedate experience with fewer kids. Choose a time when school is in session if you’d rather have fewer children on board.

3. Book with a travel agent to save money/time/get extra perks

Most travel agencies don’t charge their customers any fees, and they often offer extra discounts and perks when you book a cruise. We’ve received so many perks, like fancy welcome canapés in our stateroom, discounts and onboard credit, and even cash back by using a travel agent—I’d never dream of booking directly through the cruise line!

Plus, if you choose a travel agent that specializes in cruising, they can often use their knowledge to find you the best room (see tip #4).

Check out my Travel Resources page for links to book your cruise travel.

You may also like: How to Get Onboard Credit for Owning Carnival Stock

4. Choose your stateroom location carefully

Unless you’re looking to book a super-cheap guarantee stateroom where the cruise line chooses your room, be sure to look at the deck plans (or ask your travel agent) before you choose your cabin location.

Check out the deck above you as well as below. Proximity to noisy areas like the theater, restaurants, or the pool deck could result in lots of noise in your stateroom.

If you’re worried about getting seasick, choose a stateroom on a lower deck, in the mid-section of the ship. You’ll feel less of an effect from the motion of the ship.

If you value your sleep, don’t book a stateroom above or below the nightclub!

You may also like: The 10 Worst Cruise Ship Cabins to Avoid

5. Book an overnight stay the night before your cruise

It’s never a good idea to plan to fly into the embarkation port the morning of your cruise. Flight delays and cancellations happen all the time, and the cruise ship won’t wait for you!

Plan to arrive at the port city at least the night before. Some hotels near cruise ports offer free or inexpensive shuttles to the port. You could also rent a car to explore the port city. Think of it as extending your vacation! The last time we cruised out of Fort Lauderdale, I was able to rent a car for just $12. We picked it up at the airport, dropped it at the cruise port the next day, and took the free rental agency shuttle right to the ship.

6. Don’t book an early flight for disembarkation day

Just like planes, cruise ships can sometimes be late as well. Even if your cruise arrives at the port on time, it doesn’t mean you’ll be off the ship moments later. The captain needs to get clearance from the port to disembark passengers, then passengers are called by group to leave the ship and collect their bags. Elite members of the loyalty program are generally the first group to disembark.

If you’ve already booked an early flight and can’t change it, be sure you don’t take too much luggage! Opt to walk off with your bags instead of placing them outside your door on the last night of the cruise. You’ll be able to leave the ship faster, and you won’t have to worry about finding your luggage at the cruise terminal.

If you have a late afternoon or evening flight, you may be worried about what to do with your bags (and yourself!) after disembarking. Many cruise lines and tour companies offer post-cruise tours and airport transfers.

7. Get travel insurance

I always make sure that we’re covered by travel insurance when we cruise (I use Travelex—their coverage is super-affordable).

You never expect to have a medical emergency on vacation, your flight or cruise to be canceled, or having to replace lost or stolen luggage. 

Unfortunately, the unexpected can happen, so it’s a nice feeling to have the peace of mind that if something goes wrong, you’re covered.

Read more: Do You Really Need Travel Insurance?

8. What if a member of your group has a physical disability?

If you or someone you’re traveling with uses a wheelchair or mobility scooter, they can take their mobility devices on a cruise without running into many issues. You’ll see lots of mobility devices on board a cruise!

If you don’t own a scooter or wheelchair, but know you’ll need one for the cruise, you can rent one through companies like Scootaround or Special Needs at Sea. The cruise line won’t have rentals available on board (although they will have wheelchairs for emergency situations).

A limited number of accessible rooms will be available on each ship, so book early if you need one.

If your cruise stops at one or more tender ports, (see #27), mobility devices often won’t be allowed on the tender boats. Even if a tender can accommodate a mobility device, it may not be allowed during rough sea conditions. Your safest bet is to book a cruise with few or no tender ports.

If you need to rent a wheelchair or mobility scooter, do so before your cruise. You can’t rent them on board

9. What to do if you have dietary restrictions

If you have dietary restrictions due to allergies, food intolerances, or ethical/religious reasons, you can still go on a cruise! Just be sure to notify the cruise line a couple of months before you set sail (or ASAP if you’re booking within that window).

If you have time to visit the dining room before your first meal, let the maître d’ know about your restrictions. If you aren’t able to meet with him, let your server know before you place your order.

If you choose traditional dining (see #12), you’ll likely have the same serving staff throughout your cruise, which some cruisers with dietary restrictions prefer.

If you eat at the buffet, you’ll likely see options for some diets clearly marked. You can also ask a member of the dining staff to walk you through which items are safe for you to eat.

Cruise buffets often offer a selection of clearly-marked gluten-free, sugar-free and vegetarian options.

10. Join a cruise roll call for your sailing

Want to get a head start on making new friends on your cruise? Maybe you’re looking to meet up with people who share a hobby or interest. Or maybe you’re planning to independently book an excursion, but you’ll save money if you find a few more people to book with you. Join a roll call for your sailing!

The most popular roll calls are on Facebook, Cruise Critic and the ShipMate smartphone app.

Join your roll call at least a few months before sailing to introduce yourself and make connections and plans with your new cruise buddies.

11. Prepay for your amenities and services before you sail

If you’re purchasing a beverage package, cruise lines often offer a small discount if you buy it before you leave for your cruise. Since beverage packages can be expensive (about $50-$90 per person per day for those that include alcohol), even a small discount can be worth snagging.

Remember, you have to purchase the package for each day of the cruise.

What else should you prepay? If you plan on using the internet or visiting specialty dining restaurants, you can sometimes get a discounted price if you pre-purchase them. I also like to prepay the automatic gratuities so I’m not hit with a hefty charge at the end of the cruise.

Read more: Is a Cruise Beverage Package a Good Value?

12. How to choose your dining style

Many cruise lines now offer anytime dining, as well as traditional set dining times in the main dining rooms. When you book, the cruise line will ask which dining style you prefer. How can you decide which option is best for you?

With traditional dining, you’ll have dinner at the same time, with the same group of people, and often the same serving staff. If you thrive on routine and don’t mind getting to know new people, this could be the option for you.

With anytime dining, you can show up to the dining room at any time you choose, but there may be a wait during peak times. You can request a table for just your party, but some cruise lines will ask if you wouldn’t mind sharing a table with other guests if it’s busy. Anytime dining is a better choice if you tend to eat late and would prefer not to sit with strangers.

13. Make reservations for specialty dining early

If you’d like to try some of the for-a-fee specialty restaurants on the ship, you’ll have the best chance of getting a reservation for your desired days and times if you pre-pay and reserve before you sail. Some cruise lines offer discounted dining packages for multiple restaurants.

If you received a specialty dining package as a free perk from the cruise line or your travel agent, many cruise lines won’t allow you to reserve a table until you’re on board. Be sure to call the moment you get on the ship—they tend to go fast!

Read more: What New Cruisers Don’t Know About Cruise Food & Drinks

14. Booking shore excursions vs. independent exploration

You can always book a shore excursion for each port of call through the cruise line or through an agency that specializes in shore excursions for cruise passengers.

Excursions booked through your cruise line come with a guarantee that the cruise ship will wait for you if the group is late getting back (or they’ll get you to the next port at their expense). I often book shore excursions with companies like Viator and Get Your Guide, and I’ve always been returned to the ship or meeting place with plenty of time to spare.

If you’d rather explore independently, be sure to research exactly where the port is located. For many cruise ports, ships dock outside of the city center, often in areas where there is literally nothing to do. Unless you enjoy walking around looking at warehouses, do a little research on each port. Taxis are usually plentiful at the cruise port to take you where you want to go.

15. Buy lanyards before you sail

Unless you’re sailing on a ship that provides you with an RFID device to make purchases and open your cabin door (like Princess’ Medallion Class ships), you’ll be issued a cruise card upon check in. You’ll likely use your card several times throughout the day, and the best way to keep it handy is with a lanyard.

Save money on lanyards for your entire family by getting them before you cruise—the cruise lines generally charge $10 and up for each lanyard!

Check out pricing on the lanyards my family uses here.

Read more: How to Save Money on Cruises

16. Pack smart

Unlike airlines, cruise lines don’t weigh your bags before you board. They also don’t have limitations on how many pieces of luggage you can take on board, within reason.

However, cruise cabins are generally pretty small, so it’s best to carefully curate what you pack. Check the weather reports for your ports of call just before you pack, and take a couple of extra layering options in case the meteorologists got it wrong!

A common new cruiser mistake is packing too many pairs of shoes, or the wrong kind of shoes! For warm-weather cruises, a pair of sandals, a rubber-soled walking shoe, and a pair of dressier shoes is really all you need. (Of course, colder weather and expedition cruises require different footwear.)

If you plan on spending time at the pool or beach, pack extra swimsuits. They take forever to dry on the bathroom clothesline, but they won’t take up much room in your luggage.

Many cruises will have one or more formal nights. If you hate dressing up, you can always plan to eat in the buffet or a specialty restaurant. But if you’re excited about formal night, be sure to pack a dressy outfit or two!

Worried about your formal night outfits getting squashed in your suitcase? Read How to Prevent Wrinkled Clothes on a Cruise.

17. Know what items you can’t bring on board

You probably won’t be surprised to hear that dangerous items like guns and other weapons aren’t allowed on board cruise ships. But the majority of cruise lines also prohibit carrying on some items that may surprise you.

Since fire is a serious hazard on a ship, candles, clothes irons and steamers, and small electric kitchen appliances aren’t allowed. Oddly, hair straighteners and curling irons are usually allowed.

Non-prescription drugs (even if the substance is legal in your state or country) are not allowed. Note that CBD products (even topical creams) are not allowed on most cruise lines.

Extension cords are also usually not allowed, but if you need one for a medical device such as a CPAP machine, cruise lines will often provide one for you.

Check your cruise line’s website for a list of the specific items that they prohibit.

18. Bring a (non-surge protected) power strip

Cruise staterooms, especially on older ships, have very few power outlets. If you have several electronic devices that will need charging, bring a power strip or power block that is not surge-protected. I like the kind with extra USB ports so we can all charge at the same time.

Surge-protected power strips can cause a disruption to the ship’s electrical system, and can even result in fire. Most cruise lines will confiscate surge-protected power strips, so make sure to choose one that doesn’t have this feature.

19. Don’t pack a beach towel

The cruise line will provide beach towels that you can use at the pool and hot tubs on board. But did you know that you’re allowed to borrow them if you’re heading to the beach in port?

Don’t waste valuable space in your luggage by packing bulky beach towels! Just borrow one from the ship. But be sure not to lose it—some cruise lines will charge you if you don’t return your borrowed towels.

20. Pack a reusable water bottle

Hydration is important, especially when you’re walking around a hot, sunny cruise port! Don’t pay inflated prices for bottled water at the tourist shops. Pack space-saving collapsible water bottles and fill them up at the buffet on the ship.

The ship’s tap water is perfectly safe to drink. You can even bring some flavor enhancer to save money on buying soft drinks on board.

21. Bring your own snorkeling gear

If you’ve booked a snorkeling excursion or you’re planning on snorkeling independently, consider bringing your own snorkel gear instead of using the tour company’s gear or paying for overpriced rentals.

We love our full-face snorkel mask sets! They’re a much better fit than the rental gear we’ve tried, and we don’t have to worry about putting germy rental snorkels in our mouths.

Read more: Why You Need a Full Face Snorkel Mask for Your Next Cruise

22. Bring a travel-size Poo-pourri

Stateroom bathrooms are not well-ventilated. If anyone you’re traveling with is prone to stinking up the bathroom at home, trust me, it will be even worse in a tiny cabin!

Poo-pourri is seriously a miracle product. It doesn’t mask odors like an air freshener; it actually traps smells before they hit the air (and your nose). Plus it’s non-toxic, non-aerosol, and is made with natural ingredients including essential oils.

You can get an inexpensive travel-sized bottle on Amazon—check the price here.

Read more: The 19 Best Cruise Accessories You Need to Pack

23. Use packing cubes to organize accessories and underwear

Many cruisers swear by packing cubes to organize and compress their clothing inside their suitcases. I especially love to use them for socks, underwear, and swimwear. Just take the packing cubes out of your suitcase and place them directly on a shelf or in a drawer. Everything stays neat and organized!

Packing cubes are also great to corral fashion accessories and any small gadgets and charging cords you’re planning to bring with you. Unpacking (and packing at the end of your cruise) is a breeze when everything is already organized.

Check out the packing cubes that I use here.

24. Take a flame-retardant over-the-door organizer

Unless you’re lucky enough to have one of the larger suites, storage space is limited in cruise staterooms. To corral your smaller items and accessories, pack an over-the-door organizer for the outside of your bathroom door.

Be sure that the organizer is flame-retardant, though. Most are not, and your organizer may be confiscated if a crew member thinks it’s unsafe. I keep the packaging for my organizer to prove to the crew that it’s not a hazard!

Check pricing on flame-retardant door organizers here.

25. Pack a perfect carry on bag

You likely won’t have access to your stateroom or your luggage for several hours after you board the ship, so a well-packed carry on bag is crucial to your enjoyment of embarkation day.

So what should you put in your cruise carry on? All your valuables and medications should go in the bag, along with your photo IDs, credit cards, and cash.

Any toiletries that you may need during the day should also go in the bag, including sunscreen. The onboard shops won’t be open while the ship is in port!

Make sure you read my guide to packing the perfect cruise carry on bag (and I’ll give you a free printable checklist, too).

A well-packed carry on bag will help you have an amazing embarkation day!

Read more: What Should You Wear on Embarkation Day on a Cruise?

26. You CAN bring your own drinks (to a certain extent)

Most cruise lines allow passengers to bring a limited amount of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages on board at embarkation. Limited amounts of wine or Champagne, soft drinks, and bottled water are often permitted. You’ll have to take them with your carry-on bag, so be sure to save room if you’re taking any beverages.

What if you buy beverages in port? Usually, cruise lines will hold any alcohol that you purchase in port until the end of your cruise.

Cruise line policies vary wildly, so check with your specific line to see what is allowed, as well as if they charge corkage fees for wine.

Read more: What Beverages Can I Bring On My Cruise?

27. Know your nautical and cruise lingo

Forward, aft, port, starboard, bow, stern. Are you totally sure what those terms mean? What about a muster drill or a tender? What on earth is the purser?

If you don’t know, check out a cruise glossary before you sail, and you’ll sound like a seasoned cruiser in no time!

Read more: Port vs Starboard: Which Side Is Better on a Cruise?

28. Download cruise apps before you sail

Most cruise lines now have a smartphone app (or several) that you can use to stay in touch with your traveling companions and check what activities are going on on board. Some apps will even let you place room service orders, make dinner reservations, or buy excursion tickets.

Cruise apps can be very convenient once you’re at sea, but don’t wait until you’re out on the ocean, out of range of your data plan to download them! Wi-Fi on cruise ships is pretty expensive, so be sure to download the cruise apps at home or at your pre-cruise hotel.

29. Wear your swimsuit under your clothes on embarkation day (or pack it in your carry on bag)

If you’re looking forward to using the pool or hot tub on embarkation day, make sure to wear your swimsuit under your clothes or put it in your carry on bag. You may not see your checked luggage until after dinner!

I also like to bring a gallon ziploc bag for storing wet suits if we need to change and our stateroom isn’t ready yet.

30. Bring cash for tips

Even though you’ll be paying your automatic gratuities, it’s always a good idea to bring some cash for the porters (see # 37) as well as for anyone else you’d like to recognize.

The porters at the dock don’t work for the cruise line, so they won’t share in the auto gratuities. Unless you see signs posted that say not to tip the porters (I’ve seen this just a few times), be prepared with some small bills. It’s customary to give your porter a couple of dollars per bag.

Near the end of your cruise, you may want to recognize a few staff members who provided you with outstanding service by giving them an extra tip. Some cruisers like to tip staff on day one to ensure they’ll be remembered.

31. Make sure everyone in your party is healthy and able to cruise

When you check in for your cruise, you’ll have to fill out a health form stating that no one in your traveling party has been showing any signs of a communicable illness. Staff is also looking for people who look like they may be sick.

If a member of your party has been vomiting or appears to have a communicable illness, the cruise line has the right to deny boarding.

Read more: How to Avoid Getting Sick on a Cruise

If you’re pregnant (or planning to be), be aware that most cruise lines will not allow pregnant women past 24 weeks to board.

32. Make sure everyone has the right travel documents

It’s a cruiser’s responsibility to make sure they have the right travel documents for their pre-and post-cruise travel, boarding the ship, and for any ports the cruise will stop in.

US citizens may only need a driver’s license and birth certificate for some closed-loop cruises from the US, although this isn’t always the case. As of September 2019, the Caribbean island of Martinique has been requiring all cruisers to present a passport to go ashore, even if the cruise is a closed loop (beginning and ending in the same US port).

It’s always safest to carry a passport for any international cruise travel, and it’s often required. Also check to see if you’ll need to apply for a visa to enter any of the countries you’ll be visiting on your trip. The US Department of State’s travel pages have the most up-to-date information for US citizens.

It’s always a good idea to take a passport when cruising internationally, even if your cruise doesn’t require it

Read more: Nine Pre-Embarkation Day Questions for New Cruisers

33. Fill in your details on the cruise line’s website and print your cruise documents

A few months before your cruise embarks, you’ll be able to enter your personal and travel information on the cruise line’s website. They need the info for their manifest, so don’t forget to update it as soon as you can.

After you enter all of your information, if you have an assigned stateroom you’ll be able to print your cruise documents, including your luggage tags. Be sure to print a tag for each of your pieces of luggage, excluding any carry on bags.

Even if you have your own luggage tags with your name and address on them, you’ll need to attach the cruise line’s tags as well. These tags will ensure that your bags make it to the right stateroom.

You can fold and staple the tags on your bags, but I prefer to use waterproof luggage tag holders. You can find them here for Princess, Carnival, Costa, Holland America, P&O, and Norwegian, and here for Royal Caribbean and Celebrity.

34. Print copies of receipts and tickets

If you’ve booked any independent shore excursions or bought tickets for any activities in port, bring printed confirmation of your purchases, along with contact information for the tour providers or booking agents.

Also be sure to print a copy of the tour instructions, including the time and meeting place. The instructions may also specify what to wear and items to bring with you on each excursion. Some tours require specific attire, so make sure you’re prepared!

35. Share the ship’s emergency number

Make sure a family member or close friend has the cruise line’s emergency phone number to contact you on the ship if necessary. Your phone plan won’t work at sea, and messaging apps likely won’t work unless you’re connected to the ship’s internet.

Google “(your cruise line) emergency phone number, and give that plus your ship’s name and dates of travel to your emergency contact.

36. When to get to the cruise port

Your cruise line may give you a window of time that they prefer you to show up to board the ship on embarkation day. They do this to stagger passenger arrivals so thousands of people don’t show up all at once.

I like to get to the port somewhat early, usually around noon. Even if I have a later boarding time, I usually have no problem getting right on. Then I have time to enjoy lunch, explore the ship, or hang out poolside before the muster drill.

If you don’t want to be an early bird, just be sure that you know what time all-aboard is, and plan to get there well in advance. The ship won’t wait if you’re late!

37. Be aware that a porter will take your luggage

When you arrive at the port, a porter will approach you to take your luggage. You can’t take it up to your room yourself—your room likely won’t even be ready. Make sure each bag has a luggage tag from the cruise line attached (see #33). Also make sure you don’t give the porter your carry on bags!

Give your porter a tip for their service (see #30), and go check in for your cruise. It’s time to relax!

Bon Voyage!

Want even more cruise tips and info that new cruisers need to know? My Eight Things That Will Surprise New Cruisers has been shared on social media by over six thousand Should Be Cruising readers.

Are you planning your first cruise? I’d love to hear from you. Or for you seasoned cruisers, are there any cruise tips you’d like to add? Let me know in the comments below!

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Carrie Ann Karstunen