10 First Time Cruise Tips To Prepare You For Your First Cruise

Blog Header - first time cruise tips.png

We recently embarked on our first cruise to the Bahamas on-board Mariner of the Seas with Royal Caribbean. Jeremy has been on a few cruises with his family over the years; however, this was my first cruise and I had no idea what to expect.

To ease into the cruise experience, we booked a 3 night cruise with stops in Freeport, Grand Bahama Island and Cococay, The Bahamas (also known as the Berry Islands).

As the cruise approached, I spent countless hours searching for blog posts that provided helpful tips for first time cruisers. I could not find a single post to answer all of my questions about what to expect and cruise do’s and don’ts.

Look no further because this post breaks down everything you need to know for your first cruise.

Please note, we may receive affiliate compensation for a few of the links below at no cost to you. We have personally tested all of the items listed here.



1. Best cruise line for first time cruisers

Carnival — Headquartered in Florida, Carnival takes the top spot as the largest cruise line in the world with 27 ships on the water in 2019. Carnival is the perfect cruise line for the budget conscious and has the reputation for having some of the lowest fares. Prices include most alternative restaurants and entertainment. The average demographics are families and couples in their 30s to 60s (about half of the passengers are 33 to 55 years old). Itineraries include cruises to the Caribbean, Bermuda, Bahamas, Mexico, Alaska and Hawaii. Carnival will begin to offer cruises to Europe starting in 2020.

Royal Caribbean — Another Florida native, Royal Caribbean is also one of the largest cruise lines in the world. They operate a total of 25 ships including four of the largest ships in the world. Royal Caribbean puts a big emphasis on high-tech entertainment and activities including waterslides, flowriders, rock walls, escape rooms, arcades, casinos, zip lines and much more! Royal Caribbean is the perfect cruise line for all demographics including couples, families and singles looking for adventure. Main itineraries include cruises to the Caribbean, Bermuda, Bahamas, Mexico, Alaska and Hawaii with year-round European destinations including Baltic, Northern Europe and Mediterranean cruises.

Norwegian — Similar to its peers, Norwegian is based in Florida and is the third-largest cruise line in the world with itineraries sailing to the Caribbean, Bermuda, Bahamas, Mexico and Alaska. Cruise fares are generally comparable to industry averages, but has a reputation for nickel-and-diming on-board. The main demographics of Norwegian cruises are families and couples ages 35 to 65. Norwegian also has the largest number of solo cruisers as they offer Studio cabins deigned for one person.

Royal Caribbean ships are equipped with all sorts of on-board activities. The Mariner of the Seas is home to a Flowrider, rock wall, waterslides, climbing structure, basketball court, mini golf course, escape room, ice rink, arcade and more!

Royal Caribbean ships are equipped with all sorts of on-board activities. The Mariner of the Seas is home to a Flowrider, rock wall, waterslides, climbing structure, basketball court, mini golf course, escape room, ice rink, arcade and more!

2. Picking the right stateroom

There are three standard rooms to choose from one any major cruise line: balcony, ocean view and interior staterooms. A balcony room with a view over the water will cost a premium compared to an interior room, the more economical option.

Given it was our first cruise, we decided to book an interior room as it was the cheapest room option available and we didn’t expect to be spending much time in our room. We were a little skeptical with our choice when we learned that interior staterooms do not have any windows. Would we get claustrophobic?

Overall, we enjoyed our interior stateroom. We never felt claustrophobic and actually slept exceptionally well given how dark the room can get when there are no windows. The air conditioning also kept us calm and cool during the night.

The room itself was a bit small but again we did not spend a lot of time in our room.

If you are worried about feeling seasick on the ship, it is important to choose a stateroom on a lower deck and located in the middle of the ship. The staterooms located on higher decks at the very front (forward) or very back (aft) will feel the most rock and roll of the ship.

Pro tip: If you are looking for a place to escape the crowds and enjoy the wind in your hair, it is worth upgrading to a stateroom with a balcony. However, if you don’t expect to spend a lot of time in your room, an interior room is perfectly adequate.

The ocean view rooms are often located on the lower decks — the circular windows indicate the ocean view rooms, whereas, the balcony rooms will be on the upper decks.

The ocean view rooms are often located on the lower decks — the circular windows indicate the ocean view rooms, whereas, the balcony rooms will be on the upper decks.

3. First time cruise packing list

Similar to packing for travel via airplane, we recommend packing a small personal item (backpack, day bag or carry-on) and also a larger suitcase. The suitcase will be checked at the cruise terminal and brought up to your room a few hours after boarding (you will not have access to this bag after it has been checked).

Pro tip: Print your luggage tags at home to save time at the cruise terminal. They can be found in your cruise contract.

Essentials for your carry-on:

  • Travel documents (passport, boarding pass)

  • Wallet (make sure to have cash in hand)

  • Bathing suit

  • Sunscreen

  • Hat

  • Sunglasses

  • Flip flop /water shoes

  • Change of clothes (t-shirt, shorts, cover-up)

  • Medication

  • Camera

  • Water bottle

Essentials for larger suitcase:

  • Toiletries (toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo, conditioner, soap)

  • Clothes (t-shirts, shorts, sun dresses, underwear, socks, etc.)

  • Formal attire for dinner (check dress codes on your cruise line)

  • Sweatshirt/jacket

  • Athletic or walking shoes

  • Seasick bands (if you are prone to seasickness)

  • Snacks (we recommend ONE protein bars)

  • BYOB (check with cruise line on how much alcohol is allowed — your room is typically equipped with a mini fridge)

We always bring a backpack on every adventure to carry our travel essentials.

We always bring a backpack on every adventure to carry our travel essentials.

4. Getting to the cruise port from the airport

If you are not a Florida native — or a native of the surrounding southern states for that matter — then you will likely need to fly to Orlando or Miami to catch your cruise. If you are a southern native, skip to #5 😉

How in the world does one get from the airport to the cruise port without paying a fortune?

  • Independent shuttles (cheapest option is with Go Port Canaveral at $29.98 per person for round trip)

  • Rental cars (one-way rental from Orlando to Port Canaveral costs about $70 per day with a round-trip coming in at $120-$150)

  • Cruise Line Shuttles (official shuttles will cost around $80 per person round trip)

  • Taxi/Uber/Lyft (one way trip from MCO to Port Canaveral $115)

We decided to go with a rental car because it gave us the most flexibility as we arrived on a red eye and wanted to explore some Disney parks before we left Orlando, Florida. We paid $124 for a four day car rental through Costco Travel and their partnership with Budget.

Pro tip: If you have the option, try booking a cruise out of Miami. It only costs $16 one way in an Uber/Lyft to get from the airport to the cruise terminal. You can also avoid any parking fees for rental cars.

5. Parking at the cruise port

This section is dedicated to all our Floridians (and their state neighbors) out there who love to cruise ❤ And of course, those who rent cars like us to get to and from the airport in Orlando.

Parking is another cost that can quickly add up on your cruise trip. Here are the most popular parking options at Port Canaveral and Port Miami:

6. Cruise check-in/boarding process

You have finally arrived at the cruise port and its time to board the ship!

Similar to flying, it is wise to check-in as early as possible prior to departure. Most cruise lines will provide you with a digital boarding pass and the option to print a paper copy prior the the day of the cruise. We highly recommend checking in online as it will save you a lot of time at the cruise terminal.

Once you check-in, you will get a boarding time. For our recent cruise, we received a boarding time of 11:30am with a set sail time of 4:00pm. To avoid long lines in the parking garage and through security, we highly recommend starting the boarding process as early as possible.

With a boarding time of 11:30am, we decided to board at 11:00am. You can never go wrong with being the first person on the ship! 😜

The boarding process is very similar to that of traveling on an airplane. If you have large suitcases, you should “check” them prior to entering the security lines.

There will be a bag drop outside of the terminal where you can leave your bags. Remember to attach your respective bag tags found in your cruise contract and your checked bags will be dropped off at your stateroom a few hours later.

From here, you be required to carry any personal items/carry-on bags through security and will be responsible for these belongings until your stateroom is ready at 1:00pm. We chose to keep our Hershel carry-on’s with us as we boarded the ship. Looking back, we wish that we checked this to be delivered to our stateroom.

After checking larger bags and suitcases, you will enter the cruise terminal and proceed through a security line where a crew member will check your boarding pass and passport/identification.

Once cleared, you will place any personal items on a conveyor belt to run through a security scanner and you will be ushered through a metal detector.

After passing through security, a final crew member will take your picture, check your boarding pass and passport to finalize your SeaPass (your identification and payment method throughout the cruise).

Finally, you will follow the marked pathways to the gangway to board the ship. Let me tell you, the first step on the ship are magical as it signals the start of your vacation! 😍

Exploring the cruise ship to find our stateroom for the duration of the cruise.

Exploring the cruise ship to find our stateroom for the duration of the cruise.

7. What to expect and how to navigate the first day

The first day of the cruise can be overwhelming for those who don’t know what to expect.

First off, there were be a lot of people. I repeat, a lot of people! And just like you, they will be very excited to be starting their vacation and things can get rowdy really quickly.

Most people will immediately head to the bar to grab a drink and/or to the buffet to eat lunch.

We advise skipping this step until a bit later and find a quiet spot to sit and relax and have a drink. We personally love the adult only sections as they have great lounge areas that are much quieter than the main pool.

After a bit of rest and relaxation, head to the buffet for some grub once the crowd has subsided. Stop by the self serve ice cream stations for some desert if available!

Your stateroom should be ready at 1:00pm and is the perfect spot to stop after lunch. Here you should find your SeaPass cards (if on a Royal Caribbean ship), your checked luggage and any tickets for onshore excursions. This it the perfect time to unpack and drop off any personal items to your room.

Pro tip: Lock your passports, jewelry, and cash in the safe provided in the stateroom.

If you are fitness gurus, like Jeremy and myself, head to the gym right before the muster drill (typically 30 mins prior to departure). It will be completely empty and it is always feels great to get in a workout to start your vacation off right.

If you have no desire to hit the gym on your vacation, this is also a great time to explore the ship and check out all the amenities it has to offer.

After the muster drill (see #8 below for more details), head to the back (aft) of the ship for the best views of the sail away.

The sail away officially signals the start of the cruise. Time to sit back, relax and enjoy your vacation!

For some rest and relaxation check out the adult section of the ship. This is the ideal spot to hunker down and wait for your stateroom to be available.

For some rest and relaxation check out the adult section of the ship. This is the ideal spot to hunker down and wait for your stateroom to be available.

8. Muster drill

Muster is not to be confused with the condiment for your hot dogs 😉

This is a mandatory safety drill to familiarize all guests with the location they should gather in case of a serious emergency while at sea.

The cruise director will announce over the loudspeaker when it is time to gather in your muster station (which is determined based on the location of your stateroom and will be posted on your seapass). There are plenty of posted crew members around the ship that will help direct you to the correct muster location.

During this session, the crew will line up all guests (which is determined based on the location of your stateroom) and provide a demonstration of how to put on a life jacket. The captain sounds the emergency signal.

This drill is required by the coast guard and is required for all guests regardless if you have sailed on cruises in the past. Typically the drill take places 30 minutes prior to departure and is mandatory. If you fail to attend this session, the crew will know and you could be kicked off the ship.

Each cruise ship is equipped with life boats in case of an unlikely emergency.

Each cruise ship is equipped with life boats in case of an unlikely emergency.

9. Know the hidden cruise fees

Booking the cruise is expensive enough as is, but once you board the ship and dock at a given port, it gets even more expensive.

Be prepared with cash when docking at ports abroad, as everything will cost extra unless you are at Cococay.

Here are the main hidden cruise fees to be aware of for your first time cruise:

  • Transportation — cost varies but keep in mind transportation to and from the airport, taxis at each destination/port of call, parking, tolls, etc.

  • Gratuities — $14.50 per person, per day

  • Soda and bottled water— $7 to $13 per day

  • Internet — $14.95 per device, per day

  • Specialty restaurants — prices vary by cruise ship, be aware of what food is included and what is not. Unfortunately, Starbucks is not included!

  • Corkage fees — $10-$30

  • Babysitting — $6 to $15 per hour, per child

  • On-board activities — Spa, Casino, Personal Trainer, Escape Room, Private Flowrider lessons etc.

  • Taxes and fees — Include U.S. and/or foreign government taxes, U.S. custom fees and port charges to cover the ship when leaving, entering, docking and anchoring — can nearly double the advertised cruise fare depending on the line, itinerary and length of your sailing.

Barnacle & Barrel is one of Royal Caribbean’s specialty restaurants. Eating at this restaurant will incur an extra cost during your cruise.

Barnacle & Barrel is one of Royal Caribbean’s specialty restaurants. Eating at this restaurant will incur an extra cost during your cruise.

10. Disembarking the ship

The worst part of any cruise is sailing away from your last port of call and leaving your tropical destinations behind 😢

Unfortunately, cruises don’t last forever and that day will come when you have to leave the beautiful ship you called home for the past few days.

The night before your scheduled departure, the stateroom attendants will provide you will luggage tags for any large suitcases that you would like help with when leaving the ship. The porters will stop by at a designated time and collect your bags. These bags can be picked up at the cruise terminal once you arrive in your final port of call.

Typically the cruise ship will arrive early in the morning to the final port and guests are welcome to breakfast and coffee prior to disembarking.

We stopped at the buffet one final time prior to departure to soak in the last hour of our tropical vacation to the Bahamas. The captain finally announced that we were cleared by local authorities and were free to leave as we please.

If you were on a international cruise, you will have to pass through customs prior to exiting the cruise terminal.

We suggest leaving as early as possible if you are in a rush to catch a flight back home as long lines can form at customs.

Passing through custom is very straightforward as the customs officers will simply check your passport as you leave the terminal.

Pro tip: To skip some of the long lines, consider using a porter. They will help you with your bags and you will also be usher to the front of a special line in the custom queue.

Clearing customs is like teleportation back to reality 😢 Once cleared, you are on your way back home and already dreaming of your next cruise!

Royal Caribbean’s Mariner of the Seas docked at Port Canaveral in Florida.

Royal Caribbean’s Mariner of the Seas docked at Port Canaveral in Florida.


Bonus: Cruise Do's and Don'ts

Do’s

  1. Bring a water bottle — it is important to stay hydrated while spending copious amounts of time in the sun. Water bottles are not included unless your purchase a deluxe drink package. We recommend the Hydro Flask - it keeps your water cold for 24 hours!

  2. Make sure to bring lots of cash — you will need cash to tip your porters, stateroom attendants and purchase souvenirs at your various destinations. Also any transportation on the local islands can add up quickly and do not accept credit cards.

  3. Take advantage of all the on board activities — cruises can be expensive so indulge in all of the included activities such as comedy shows, dances, fitness classes, trivia, karaoke, waterslides, rock walls and more!

  4. Do your research before docking in port —you never want to arrive in a new port of call without a plan of action. If you come with a plan then you can optimize your time at each destination.

  5. Eat as many meals as possible in the buffet or main dining room — the food on cruise ships is absolutely delicious! There is no need to spend extra on a deluxe meal plan. The buffet and main dining room have options for everyone, even picky eaters!

  6. Purchase a drink package if you want to indulge on beverages — yes, drink packages are an added cost. However, if your idea of a vacation is kicking back on a lounge chair and enjoy an alcoholic beverage (or five!) then this is the right option for you! 😜

  7. Wake up early and enjoy a sunrise — this is a must! Sunrises over the open ocean are absolutely stunning. This is also the most peaceful time of the day with no crowds. Enjoy a lap around the track and soak in the serenity.

  8. Take the stairs whenever possible — can’t stay away from the all you can eat self serve ice cream? We can’t either! To get in some extra exercise, always opt for the stairs. It is also ends up being faster than the crowded elevators.

Don’ts

  1. Wait until the last minute to book onshore excursions — you will pay much more for excursions if you purchase them on the ship.

  2. Lose your towel — Royal Caribbean will charge you $25 per towel that is not returned. Keep track of it!

  3. Forget the sunscreen — Let’s face it, sunburns are the worst. Cruise ships to not provide complementary sunscreen and is very expensive if you have to purchase on board.

  4. Pay for Internet on multiple devices — Internet expenses can add up quickly! Choose one device so you post the obligatory Instagram picutre but otherwise you can enjoy your vacation as screen free as possible.

  5. Eat dinner right when the buffet opens — skip the crowds and eat later in the evening. You will also be able to catch the sunset!

  6. Skip the Muster Drill — if you skip this mandatory safety demonstration you could be kicked off the cruise. Not the best way to start your vacation!

  7. Be late — the ship might just leave without you! But maybe being stranded in the Bahamas isn’t the worst things that could happen? 😉

Where are you headed on your next cruise?

Other posts we think you might like

Adventure For Less