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The No Nonsense Guide to Your First Cruise

So you’re thinking about going on a cruise? I can think of few things more polarizing than cruising when it comes to travel. Ask two people who have gone on a cruise and chances are you’ll find one that won’t vacation any other way, and another that has sworn off cruises forever. Forget the naysayers for a minute—some people will find fault with almost anything. Cruises are awesome. And if you’ve not yet experienced one, it’s high time you did. That’s why I decided to write this no nonsense guide to your first cruise, so that we can talk about cruises, what you need to know, and why you should absolutely consider getting on board—pun intended. Let’s get started.

Why You Should Go on a Cruise

So, why go on a cruise? That’s easy. For starters, cruises are incredibly convenient. Think of a cruise as a way of visiting several exotic places while only having to unpack once. Americans will spend $100 Billion on vacations this year, the average spending 10 percent of their income on getting away. Because of that, there can be tremendous pressure on the planning phase. With a cruise, you don’t have to find a hotel for the night, plan transportation, or find just the right restaurant, all the work is done for you, you just need to relax and enjoy the ride.

no nonsense guide to your first cruise

Next, cruises are relatively cheap. Of course, there are many variables to consider, but there are several itineraries on the mainstream cruise lines that are priced at less than $100 per person, per day. When you consider that that includes the room, meals in most of the dining rooms, entertainment in most of the onboard venues, access to the pools and fitness centers, and limited drink options, that’s a much better value than you’ll probably ever find on land.

no nonsense guide to your first cruise

Finally, there are so many options! Cruises are absolutely, positively not “One Size Fits All.” From the largest ship in the world, Royal Caribbean’s 5,400 passenger Symphony of The Seas, to Viking’s Long Ships cruising European rivers, to French Country Waterways’ 12-person barges, there is literally something for everyone’s taste.

Start With a Starter Cruise

To get you started on your cruising adventures, I recommend you consider a “starter cruise.” This is a fantastic way to dip your toes in the water, as it were, and see what you think. And, from a practical standpoint, there is no reason to spend a bunch of money on airfare and a lengthy itinerary, when you might find going on a boat is just not for you. There are lots of choices that offer a starter cruise of three, four, or five nights that can give you a taste of the experience without a significant commitment. My wife and I are cruise veterans, and we experiment with what we like to call our “cruise adventures” on a regular basis.

In fact, we recently jumped on something that would be perfect for a “starter cruise.” The ship boarded in Charleston, SC, which is a few hours’ drive for us, and we spent five nights with two days at sea and two stops in the Bahamas. It was the perfect easy getaway for a chance to unplug and relax, and for a newbie, a great way to test your cruise-ability.

no nonsense guide to your first cruise

Where and How to Get the Best Deals on Cruises

If that sounds like a good idea, the next questions are logically where and how to get the best deals on cruises. First things first here: Know there is no such thing as full price. Nobody who knows what they’re doing pays full price, and that’s part of my mission with this article, to teach you just that.

Let’s start with where the deals are. First, think about where you would like to go, and find what cruise lines have those ports of call. The internet is your friend on this front. Sign up for the cruise lines’ newsletters and you’ll quickly see that your email inbox will fill up with offers like cabin upgrades, onboard ship credits, and discounts on excursions. Watch for bundles, which are where the cruise lines put together airfare, rental cars, and hotel stays, as a bundled deal. Make sure you do your homework and compare pricing from other suppliers for the same deal.

It also pays to be patient. This is where being retired, like my wife and I are, can really pay off, because we are free to go and do without having to worry about planning much in advance. If it sounds like I’m bragging about that, you might be right. I’m not going to lie—retirement is awesome. I digressed—back to being patient. Know that the closer you get to the start date of the cruise, the lower the prices get. Why? Because the cruise lines make their money from what passengers buy on the ship, so none of them want empty staterooms. If you are willing to risk that some itineraries could sell out during prime season, or some excursions might not be available, then you could score amazing cruise discounts, cabin upgrades, onboard ship credits, or all of the above at a fraction of the originally published prices. While you can utilize your traditional travel agent, there are tons of sites where you can fashion your own deals. We have been successful with Vacations To Go on several occasions, and you might also try Cruise Sheet. We actually got the best deal most recently, and airline miles, by using an offer from our airline credit card company. They also were looking to promote a travel bundle with the cruise as a significant incentive. We jumped at the opportunity!

Reviews Can Be Your BFF, So Check Them!

Before you make that great deal purchase, check one more thing—reviews can be your BFF. Check out the specific boat that you will be on. There are all sorts of reviews available online for the exact itinerary on the exact ship you’re considering. Your fellow cruisers are amazing and you’ll find that many of them write reviews on critical details like when the ship was last refurbished (that’s important—look for words like “tired”), and their experiences with excursions. You don’t want to spend your hard-earned money on the jeep excursion with vehicles that don’t work, or the all-inclusive beach day with food that reviewers call “absolutely terrible.” Reviews, and fellow travelers are very much your friend in this regard. Your fellow travelers have gone before you, and done a bunch of the legwork. Make sure you spend a lot of time reading the reviews they’ve written and factor that into your final decision.

All-Inclusive? Not If You’re Thirsty

Everybody likes the all-inclusive deals, but defining exactly what that means, before you go on a cruise adventure, is important. On a cruise ship, while many things are included, some, like alcoholic beverages, are generally not. While most of your dining options include free non-bottled water, iced tea or lemonade with dinner, they definitely don’t include alcohol, and likely not soft drinks either. Check your specific cruise options in advance so that you’ll know what’s included, as well as what you can bring on board. Some lines let you bring a case of bottled water, some soft drinks and two bottles of wine on board, and those are definitely things you want to do if you’re able. You can also purchase upgrades for liquor or soft drinks, but no matter what you do, just make sure you know what’s included and what’s not, and also do the math before buying upgrades.

Internet access is also not included with your cruise. While I personally recommend taking the advantage of that and simply unplugging and relaxing while you are on board, if you absolutely have to check that Facebook account, there is Wifi throughout most of the larger ships. There are usually internet kiosks available, as well, with internet access available hourly, daily, or for the whole cruise. Some options include paying more for “higher speed” internet, but be aware, it’s not like the internet at home. It’s a satellite service and depending on where you are, it can be S-L-O-W. Also be aware that most of the ships use an open internet access, so the usual caution should be taken with what you access and information you transmit while online.

Motion Sickness, Shopping, and Gratuities

Motion Sickness. If you’ve never been on a cruise, it’s normal to worry a bit about motion sickness. After all, it’s not like you can simply hop off if you succumb to motion sickness, so it’s a legitimate concern. Today’s large cruise ships have stabilizers internally but some people still struggle with motion sickness and getting accustomed to being at sea. If you’re at all concerned that you might have an issue with that, consider booking a cabin with at least a window, located mid-ship and on a lower deck, where there is the least amount of motion. Come prepared, just in case. Bring Scopolamine patches or take Dramamine or Bonine, or wear the special wristbands designed to help combat seasickness.

Shopping. If possible, it’s generally a good idea to resist the urge to shop onboard. You will be tempted by the shops with everything from souvenirs to jewelry to “duty-free” alcohol. It’s a bit like shopping in an airport—you’re a captive audience, and probably not spending a lot of time thinking about price-checking. They count on that, you can be sure! Make sure especially avoid the art auctions. After a couple of drinks and a good meal, the deals may indeed seem too good to be true, and trust me, they generally are!

Gratuities. Finally, a word about gratuities. The ship’s crew make their living from tips, and many lines automatically include gratuities on your bill as a percentage of the cost of the cruise. That’s not a bad thing, as it would be hard for you to tip the crew members you never see. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t tip the room service delivery guy (if this is a cruise deal, much of the room service food is included), just be aware of what is included, and what isn’t. Pay attention, or ask if you’re not sure. For example, the bill at the bar is likely to include both a standard tip, and a line for you to include another. Unless you got service over and above whatever the standard tip covers, maybe you don’t want to include another. Or, maybe your service was so spectacular and over the top, you do. Whichever route you go, just know that gratuities are often something that are built into what you’re paying, so pay attention and tip where and when it makes sense to reward great service.

no nonsense guide to your first cruise

Wrapping It Up

There you have it, my best advice on how to get started if you’re thinking about taking that first cruise adventure. My wife and I have been on a ton of cruises and, while do other kinds of vacation trips as well, we really enjoy cruises and the places we’ve seen and the adventures we’ve had as a result. I know that it can seem overwhelming if you’ve not ever been on a cruise, so I thought this getting started cruising guide might be just the resource you’re looking for.

There are lots of choices, and a ton of adventure out there, just waiting for you. Hopefully you’ll find this information helpful as you set about planning your first (and subsequent) cruises), and you’ll come back and let me know how it went. If you have questions that I’ve not answered here, let me know in the comments, and I’m happy to help. Happy Cruising!

Jeff Jacobs

Jeff Jacobs has been an expert in building brands and brand stewardship for 40 years, working in commercial television, Hollywood film and home video, publishing, and promotional brand merchandise. He’s a staunch advocate of consumer product safety and has a deep passion and belief regarding the issues surrounding compliance and corporate social responsibility. He retired as executive director of Quality Certification Alliance, the only non-profit dedicated to helping suppliers provide safe and compliant promotional products. Before that, he was director of brand merchandise for Michelin. You can find him volunteering as a Guardian ad Litem, traveling the world with his lovely wife, or enjoying a cigar at his favorite local cigar shop. Connect with Jeff on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Instagram, or reach out to him at jacobs.jeffreyp@gmail.com.
Jeff Jacobs