You’ve heard your friends’ stories of their amazing cruise vacations, and now you want to try it yourself.  But perhaps you’re a little apprehensive about trying to book a new kind of vacation.

Are you tempted by the romance of warm Caribbean nights at sea, but stressing about making a rookie mistake that could ruin the perfect vacation?

Don’t worry!  Whether you’re thinking of a 3-day cruise to the Bahamas, or an 18-day voyage around the Mediterranean, here is some advice from experienced cruisers that will make your first cruise even more enjoyable.

Fail-safe Tips for the Perfect Cruise

Find A Travel Agent: It is possible to book a great cruise vacation online, but without previous experience, you may end up with more questions than answers.  Your best bet is to find a travel agent who specializes in cruises.  He or she will ask you what you like to do, and will be able to find your perfect cruise.  He or she can also make the extra arrangements including flights, ship transfers and shore excursions.

Save Some Money: There are great deals to be had if you book early, or book late.  If you book as early as three to six months ahead, you can save as much as 50% on the cost of your cruise.  You can also get great deals if you book just two to three weeks ahead of the sailing, when cruise lines are desperate to fill the ship.  Last minute flights can be costly though, so this is only a saving if you live close enough to drive to the port.

Be Aware of What You Are Spending: Most cruises are not all-inclusive, but they can feel like it, at least until the bill comes. You will use an on-board charge card for all purchases on the ship, so it can be easy to lose track of how much you’re spending, especially at the bar or at the casino. There are also constant sales at the shops onboard, which can be a real “gotcha” when added up over the week.  You can check your on-board charge card balance anytime you want, often right from the TV in your stateroom, although few people do it.  We strongly advise that you keep your receipts, check your balance and keep track, so you don’t have a nasty shock at the end of your trip.

Not All Meals and Drinks Are Created Equal: When you purchase your tickets, meals in the main dining room and buffets, usually up on the lido deck, are included. However, most cruise lines are now including specialty restaurants on board most ships that not included in the price of your ticket. These specialty restaurants range from steak houses, italian, classic french to sushi and can be a wonderful treat; just be aware of the extra cost when you make your reservation.

Coffee and iced tea are free, but soft drinks are not. There are drink cards that allow you all the soft drinks you want for a flat fee. Again, ask your waiter if you’re not sure what you will be charged for.

Tips Are Expected: You will be expected to pay a gratuity for each staff member who helped you on your vacation.  There are guidelines, ranging from $1-2 per day/per person to your headwaiter to $6 per day/per cabin to your head steward.  Envelopes will be put in your stateroom on the last night, and you should plan to have cash on hand for this.

Some cruise lines are starting to charge automatic gratuities to be added to the bill at the end of the cruise, giving you the ability to adjust it as you like. Some cruise lines offer it as an option to pre-pay before you go.  Check with your travel agent about what’s expected on your cruise, and what will be easiest for you.

Overall, you need to be aware that the cost of your cruise may end up being quite a bit more than the cost of your ticket, if you are not careful.  Plan to pay extra for the items mentioned here, as well as dining upgrades, internet access, use of the phone, spa services, babysitting, gambling, drinks, anything you buy at the shops, not to mention your shore excursions and what you may spend in port.  As Barry says, always remember that the key card that unlocks your cabin door also unlocks your wallet, so you need to budget realistically before your trip, and don’t forget to ask “Is this free?”

Have Fun: There may be a few new things to wrap your head around, but the best part of any cruise is the wide variety of activities available on every ship.  There will be daily schedules dropped off in your room every night.  Check out what’s on the go every day, and whether you plan to take a tango lesson, go star-gazing at night, or attend a free lecture on Aztec history, you are sure to find plenty to do to make your first cruise a once-in-a lifetime experience!

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