By Barry McConnell

Thank you for allowing us to share our love of cruising with you. Settle back and take a look at some of our top tips for new cruisers. then take a look around the site. If you have a question, please feel free to send it to the Cruise Dork.

Got a great tip or trick you’d like to share? Please send it to us so we can share it with our readers . Let’s get started on our top tips…

1. Set Your Expectations Realistically

Doubtless you’ve heard stories of how magical cruising is or how awful it can be. The reality is that it will have a few great moments, lots of good ones, and a few bad ones. The secret to getting the most out of your cruise is to remember that this is a vacation and vacations are not about stress. The staff and crew of a cruise ship have one goal in mind: make sure you enjoy yourself. If there is something wrong, tell someone immediately; someone will try to fix things right away. My wife had heard so many stories about the five-star gourmet food, she felt let down on her first cruise. We never actually had a bad meal. Most were as good as you’d get in a very good restaurant and a couple were outstanding. But her expectations were based on the service you see in old movies and modern ships simply can’t do that when carrying 3,500 passengers rather than 500. Do your homework (which CruiseDork is designed to help you do) and set a realistic expectation and you will have a memorable time.

2. The Best Time To Book Your Cruise

Book either early (at least 3-6 months before sailing) or at the last minute to get the best prices. Ships have a break-even point with the number of cabins they need to sell. If you let them get there early by booking well in advance, they reward you with discount prices. When it gets down to the wire and they haven’t sold enough cabins yet, discounting starts up again – usually in the last three weeks before sailing. You can get the best rock bottom price by booking late but there are some gotcha’s. If you need to fly, most airlines have a 21-day minimum advance for their best prices so what you saved on cabin fare may get eaten up in airfare. You have to be flexible about which ship, cabin type and itinerary you’ll accept to get the best prices last minute.

3. Study the ship’s layout before boarding

These ships aren’t just big, some of them are HUGE! The key landmarks you want to have a mental map of before boarding are:

  • where your cabin is (which deck, side of the ship and side of the aisle),
  • where your dining room or other eating spots you’ll want to frequent are,
  • where the gangway is (for exiting in port), where the elevators and stairwells are, and
  • where the Purser/Guest Services Office is

As soon as you board, don’t go straight to your cabin. Depending on how early you arrive, you may not be able to go to the cabin anyways as the hotel staff may still be cleaning it. Instead, head to the spa to make any reservations you didn’t make online before boarding (hint, hint). Head to the buffet deck for lunch and, about an hour before sailing, head for the open deck to get a good spot for watching your sail away.

4. Bring The Essentials With You

Stock up on batteries, memory cards, film, and videotape before sailing. Even if they have those items on board or in port – which isn’t guaranteed – you’ll pay 3x the cost. If your camera can use rechargeable batteries, bring a supply of them and a charger. Remember, everything has to go in your luggage and the airlines have gotten mercenary about both how many bags and the weight allowance for each (50 lbs). Don’t waste your weight allowance on a ton of batteries if you can help it. Don’t forget the chargers for your other electronics as well. A small netbook computer can do multiple duty as a place to download your camera and as a charger for devices that have USB interfaces (e.g. cell phones, GPS units, MP3 players, book readers). A must bring item is bug repellant! We were on an excursion to Mayan ruins in Costa Maya, 20 miles out in the jungle. When we realized we hadn’t brought any we ran down to the ship store – who didn’t carry bug repellant. As soon as we docked, we ran to the first store we could find since we only had 10 minutes before the bus left. None to be found. Diamond bracelets yes, bug spray not a drop. Fortunately, the tour guide had some when we arrived at the ruins or there were going to be a lot of cruise ship mosquito snacks that day.

Get your documents in order before you leave home. All cruise lines offer online registration these days. USE IT! When you have completed all the documents, print two copies. One you keep on you to check in, the other is in your luggage as a backup. We usually do three so that each of us has a copy in-hand. Make photocopies of your passport, medicine prescriptions, return airline tickets, and emergency contacts to put in your luggage as well.

Some cruise lines allow you to print your luggage tags from home as well. If you are concerned that they are too flimsy, you can get regular tags at the departure terminal. Just make sure you put your name and cabin number on them before you let the porters take them. And tip the porters $2/bag and they will make it to your cabin instead of going to Aruba without you.

5. Take A 5-Day Trial Cruise First

Unless you know you’re absolutely going to love cruising, make your first cruise a 5-day. The rhythm and patterns of a cruise take a couple days to adjust to and get you fully relaxed. You’ll also get a good taste of ports of call and what they have to offer. We love Western Caribbean for new cruisers as you’ll get to see some very different cultures with each port. Shorter cruises will seem too hectic as you try to do everything since you have such limited time. Your port call, if there is one, will usually force you to choose between excursion or shopping. On the off chance that you just don’t like cruising (yes, Virginia there are people like that), the cost will be lower than the 7-10 day cruises that are most popular and you’ll get off the ship sooner.

6. Bring Two Credit Cards

Use two credit cards for your cruise: one for your shipboard account and a separate one for shopping. The reason is authorizations. When you check in, the credit card you use for your onboard account will get an authorization request for about $200 per day for however long your cruise lasts. This authorization freezes that much of your available credit line so an 8-day cruise has just frozen $1,600 of your available credit – even if you don’t spend a dime. The authorization will expire some time after your cruise has finished and you are home. Oh yeah, remember that hotel room you stayed in the night before sailing? They did the same thing when you checked in. So did that rental car company. Regardless of the actual charges, all those authorizations have sucked up your credit line and you may get that embarrassing ”I’m sorry your card was denied” when you try to buy that absolutely darling sapphire and diamond necklace in Grand Cayman.

When you’re using a credit card in foreign countries you may also get charged a currency conversion fee and a 2-3% processing fee. Check with your card company before leaving as not all cards charge this. Make sure you bring cash with you for incidental expenses and shops that don’t take your credit card. MC and Visa are pretty universal but AMEX and Discover are not. Don’t put all your money in traveler’s checks because you’ll have to find a bank to cash them in port. What do you do if the banks aren’t open or you don’t have time before the tour leaves to find a bank? Cabins have safes in them if you’re worried about taking a lot of cash with you.

7. Pack Efficiently

First, don’t take more than you need. Seriously, be brutal about whether or not you really need something. Pack your nice clothes already on hangars. Huggable hangers are great because they take up very little room and allow you to take your clothes straight out and hang them up immediately. Compression/Space bags are great for socks, undies, t-shirts, shorts, and bathing suits. Pack a small hand steamer. Cabins are equipped with hair dryers so consider whether you need to bring yours. Travel gear specialty vendors like CruiseCheap Luggage Outlet have some great packing bags for shoes, jewelry and other items to make maximum use of your luggage space. And make sure to leave some empty space in your luggage for the souvenirs and gifts you’re going to be bringing back. Remember that 50 lb per bag weight limit at the airport? The fee for overweight luggage on a recent trip we made was $90 per bag. Ouch!

8. Medication Preparation

Get your medications refilled two weeks before your cruise and bring extras with you in your carry-on. Never pack your medications in checked luggage. For any medical conditions you may have (e.g. heart conditions, allergies, contraindicated drugs, etc), bring a copy of your medical records. Your doctor can provide this for you but will need a few days to a week’s advance notice to get it ready. Having this kind of information available can be invaluable when something goes wrong in a foreign country. Make sure you have at least two photocopies in separate places.

9.  Assign An Emergency Contact Person

Designate one person back home as the point of contact while you’re on board and let everyone know that this person is the one to contact you if needed. Cell phones generally don’t work at sea and can charge astronomical roaming fees when they do work. Ship to shore phone rates can often exceed $10/minute. Email is probably going to be cheaper for non-emergency communications but expect to pay a fee for Internet access onboard. Internet cafes in port can be significantly cheaper. The good news is that the cruise line loyalty program for repeat cruisers often includes free Internet onboard.

10. Room Accommodations

The days of cruising being mostly “newlyweds and nearly deads” is over. Today, the typical cruiser is just as likely to be the entire family. One of the better deals for families is the “Family Cabin”. This is an oversized cabin that can accommodate up to five family members (two adults and three children). These are generally found on the mega ships and sell out fast. The biggest benefit is that the additional family members pay a much lower rate than booking a second cabin.

Handicapped accommodations are also becoming more common. Like Family Cabins they are larger and set up to have room for wheel chairs. They also sell out quickly. Make sure you notify the cruise line Guest Services office prior to sailing and tell them what you need (e.g. lactaid free milk, storage for insulin or other drugs, etc). Companion animals are welcome on board and the ships are experienced with making accommodations for your animal’s needs as well.

11. Staying Healthy Onboard

Don’t be afraid. Cruise ships are inspected far more often than your favorite restaurant and are probably a lot cleaner. Hand sanitizer is available in many locations onboard so use it freely. Just take the normal precautions you would at home and you should be fine. In recent years the cruise lines have instituted a health questionnaire prior to boarding and they can and do refuse boarding to anyone with contagious illnesses. By the way, if you do show up to board sick and are denied boarding, you will not be reimbursed for your missed cruise. This is one place trip insurance might be a good idea.

Despite recent news reports about people getting injured or falling overboard, cruise ships have an enviable safety record. Security procedures were ratcheted up after 9/11 and now include luggage and personal scanning before boarding, picture ID on your sailing card, cameras throughout the ship, and monitoring systems tied in to your sailing card that can track your location when you use it.

12. Consider The Weather

Ladies – consider the climate where you’ll be sailing and the activities you have planned. This can significantly impact not only the clothes you bring (make sure to pack a rain suit), but your hair and makeup. Tell your hairdresser where you’re going and get advice on what that climate may do to your hair. Simplify your makeup routine and make adjustments for things like high humidity, water sports, or cold weather. Bring sunscreen and moisturizer wherever you go.

13. Menu Choices – Can’t Decide?

The dining room is not a restaurant. You can have whatever you want from the menu and however much of it you want, within reason. Can’t decide between the Coq au Vin and the Beef Wellington? Have both! On one cruise I asked for some ice cream to go with a delicious apple pie they had for dessert. At every dinner for the rest of the cruise my waiter brought me apple pie ala mode without me saying a word.

Remember what we said about reasonable expectations? Nowhere does this apply more than when dining. First, a meal in the dining room is going to take about an hour and a half from start to finish. This is not McDonald’s. The chefs are preparing a 5-7 course meal for you and 2,000 of your closest friends. The only way they can accomplish this is with carefully scripted procedures. That means they have set periods of time when they’re preparing appetizers, salads, entrees and desserts. If you decide during the dessert course that you’d really like another steak, your waiters will do everything they can to get you that steak. But you have to consider that a chef will have to try and do that out of sequence and without disrupting the dessert prep. Bottom line, you may be waiting a little while for that extra steak. Ditto for your waiters. They may have to travel nearly the length of the ship to get from the kitchen to the dining room. The more trips they have to make, the longer everyone’s service is going to take. The better organized you are, the smoother for everyone. And breakfast will be the worst meal of the day for the staff because it is the most customized meal of the day. No two people want the same thing for breakfast so the load on the kitchen and wait staff is extra heavy. They know you’re eager to get started on your day, just cut them a little slack.

What about the other food venues on board? The key word to remember is patience. When there’s only 1 or 2 chefs at the Mongolian Wok cooking dishes to order, you may have to stand in line for a little while. Knowing this, plan accordingly. Don’t go there at the absolute peak times and then grouse that there’s a line. You’re on vacation, relax and enjoy the experience. There will be plenty of time to work on that third ulcer once you’re back at your job.

If something is wrong, tell someone immediately. Cruise ship crews are evaluated on how well they make your cruise enjoyable. The worst thing you can do is let something go unresolved and then blast the ship and crew on the end of cruise comment card. Give them a chance to make it right then and there. You will likely be pleasantly surprised.

We hope you enjoyed these tips and found something useful in them. Please let us know how we can help you better. Our primary goal at is to give you the information you need to take your cruise from fun to unforgettable.

Good cruising,

Barry McConnell

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