The ultimate cruise guide for first time cruisers
People love them, hate them or others are just afraid of them!
To tell you the truth, we were very sceptical, but in hindsight cruising is great – easy and convenient! It honestly takes a lot of the planning out of your holiday and leaves you with plenty of time to sit back, relax and enjoy!
We (or rather Jenna) were planning a jam packed 5-week itinerary for Jenna’s parents who were visiting us while living in London. Naturally, we wanted to tick off as many places as possible as we were heading into (May/June 2014) our first European summer! The Greek islands, specifically Santorini was an absolute must and something we all wanted to do – this is when we stumbled upon what would be our first ever cruising experience. The cruise was on the Norwegian Jade for 7 nights, departing from Venice we stopped in at 4 incredible Greek destinations!
Our top 3 reasons why we love cruising:
- You unpack ONCE and wake up in a different location each morning
- The entertainment onboard is endless and actually really good
- The food. Oh wow, the food is amazing and unlimited!
We have now been on two cruises and both were absolutely Ah-Mah-Zing!
- June 2014, Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL Jade) – 7 night Greek Islands from Venice
- July 2015, Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL Star) – 9 night Baltic Cruise from Copenhagen
I’d like to say we (well Jenna) is pretty organised and had everything under control, but there are still things that would have been good to know before our first cruise! We’ve come up with this list which will hopefully help future cruisers like yourselves!
Picking your destination
For us, this was the easy part! There were a few places in Europe we wanted to see, and doing it on a cruise just made perfect sense! You need to make sure the cruise you pick suits your personal needs and that you are interested in all of the stops. It is a lot of money to pay for a cruise you only want to do half of. Look around. There are plenty of cruise companies around offering different itineraries!
Picking your cruise company
Once you’ve picked your destination, you then need to pick the cruise line. Having done a bit of research, we decided to book NCL for our first cruise and subsequently our second as well. The thing we loved most about NCL is that it is Freestyle Cruising. If you’re not sure what that is, it is when you can eat at any time, with whoever you want. There is no set dining times per cabin. It is fantastic! You can even go and have two dinner sittings if you’re still hungry later on.
You really need to do your research. Each company is slightly different with their ports of call, inclusions and importantly when the ship was most recently refurbished. Read reviews on cruise critic if you’re unsure, just go with your gut!
Look at the different cabin options
When booking your cruise, it is so important to pick the most suitable cabin. Do you want to be at the front or the back of the ship, or the middle? Each has their advantages. For us, we wanted to be close to the stairs that took us to the pool area and gym. Others want to be close to the theatre. Once you’ve figured out what sort of cabin you want and which end of the ship, then comes the decision on the type of cabin. This is very important. We chose a mini suite with a balcony the first time around and weren’t disappointed.
It was so spacious and we had fresh air during the evenings as we could sleep with the sliding door open. The other benefit with a balcony is you can easily do a little bit of washing in your bathroom and put it outside in the sun to dry! We also picked a room on a higher deck so we were close to the action and didn’t need to use the lifts!
Our second cabin was a picture window room. This is a couple steps down from the mini suite, but you get a large picture window. It lets plenty of light in (especially when you’re in the Baltic and the sun barely goes down in summer!) and the room was fairly spacious, but not as spacious as the mini suite.
The cheapest rooms are generally the inside cabins, there is no window and therefore no natural light. If you’re travelling with a large group of friends and you’re not intending on spending any time in the room then to be fair, this probably wouldn’t be too bad, but when we looked in a couple of these the rooms were very dark and felt somewhat claustrophobic compared to ours. If you’re on a budget I would definitely recommend opting for at least a porthole to give you that much needed natural light – each to their own, but in my opinion, it would be absolutely worth it!
Getting to and from the port
This might be an obvious one, but you need to check what time you need to be at the port for departure. There is a cutoff, and they are strict about it. You want to get there shortly after checking in starts to avoid any unwanted stress. Do you need to order a taxi, arrange a transfer through the cruise company? Are you taking public transport? Don’t underestimate how long it will take, there are a few thousand people trying to get to the same destination as you!
We learnt this the hard way when we decided to take the train from Copenhagen City centre to the port, by train. We thought it was only a 20-minute walk from the station to the port. We were wrong, very wrong, and it was only thanks to a lovely bus driver who saw we were in desperate need of a lift who pulled over and picked us up (6 of us!) and dropped us off at the port with 10 minutes to spare. Talk about stressful!
You might want also want to look at flying in the evening before to allow for any flight delays etc.
Research your shore excursions and each port
Our first cruise, we decided to book all of our shore excursions through the cruise company. This was because we didn’t know it was easy and possible to use other tour providers at each port. The excursions through the cruise company were excellent, and very well organised. However, they can often be quite a bit more expensive than booking your own.
Our second cruise, we decided to book our tours through local tour companies that were recommended on Trip Advisor or other cruise critic forums.
You can’t really go wrong with either – one just saves you a bit more money (but takes a bit more organisation).
What to pack
Take a look at the cruise itinerary. Is there a formal evening where you are required to wear a dinner suit or formal gown? You might be going somewhere tropical, but most restaurants on the ship won’t allow men to wear shorts. It is worth double checking the dress code prior to packing to make sure you aren’t limiting yourself!
If you’re on a cruise through the Med, the chances are you aren’t going to need a lot of different outfits. Perhaps pack a few swim suits, and a few dinner options but other than that – you probably won’t need much more! You can probably re-wear a couple of outfits twice and that way you can pick up a few things at each of your ports and you will have room to take it home!
You will need to remember to pack a hat and sunscreen, especially if you plan on enjoying your sea days lazing by the pool 🙂
TIP: Make sure you pack your swim suit in your backpack. Our first mistake was having this in our suitcase. This meant after we boarded the ship at lunch time, we had to wait several hours to receive our bags and then have a swim!
Now you’re all booked and ready to go. Make sure you have ALL of the documentation printed and ready to go!
For most cruise liners, if you haven’t completed your online check in and printed the necessary documents you will not be allowed to board your ship! That’s the last thing you want so just double check you have gone through their list of instructions of what you need, and get that sorted!
Check what currency the ship accepts
If you’re planning on paying cash for anything on the cruise or using the casino – it is best to double check what currency is accepted. On both of our cruises, it was US dollars so we needed to make sure we had some handy for those little casino dabbles!
Waterproof pouch case
This is something we picked up just before our first cruise, and I am so happy we did. When you’re onboard, you need your room key to pay for any drinks, when you arrive at dinner and getting on and off the ship. We found the waterproof pouch case perfect, you can have it next to you in the pool without the worry of your card and phone etc getting wet. You can pick these up for a few bucks online.
Giant towel pegs
Yep. Strange right? Well, within the first 10 minutes of boarding our first cruise, we saw a lot of people with these giant pegs, which clipped their towel to the deck chairs. I thought, that’s a bit strange… but then as our cruise departed and the wind picked up – it made perfect sense! Needless to say, we picked up a set of these before our next cruise! They are an absolute must have especially if you have a few sea days!
The cruise liners will offer you a variety of drink packages. All I can say is whether you get the soft drink package, or the full alcohol package you won’t be disappointed. Drinks can start to add up and the last thing you want when you settle your final bill is a massive drinks bill!
Most cruise liners allow guests to bring some water and soft drinks on board with them. So, if you’re not going with a drinks package, this might be good for you!
Pre-book your additional services
If you are wanting to get a massage, beauty treatment, hair cut etc then I would recommend booking this in as soon as you board if not before hand. Spots surprisingly get booked up super quickly!
Enjoy the sunset, at least one evening!
It is one of the most magical parts of being on a cruise, the amazing sunsets night after night!
Take your gym gear
You’re probably laughing at me for suggesting this… but the gyms often have amazing views, so what better way to work out? In all seriousness, you tend to eat so much on these cruise ships because there is always an unlimited food supply! Particularly on the sea days, you aren’t moving as much but continue to eat and drink as much as you can, just because you can! So, why not have a mid afternoon break from the pool, head to the gym and then finish your afternoon off with a nice swim? Not a bad way to ensure you don’t pile the kilo’s on while on your cruise!
We’ve never purchased internet on the ships, mainly because it is so expensive but also we like to enjoy some down time away from social media! You tend to get plenty of wifi spots when you’re on shore anyway. But, if you’re away from family or the kids and need to keep in contact then this is probably something you should look at getting, just in case.
Get to know your dining options
I’m not sure about other cruise lines, but NCL had an incredible range of restaurants. We did only enjoy the restaurants that were complimentary and we weren’t disappointed! One piece of advice, avoid the buffet.. you only end up overeating. Stick to the amazing 3-course restaurants and try something different each night. Or, better still if you can’t decide on what to order – you can order both! Yep, it’s a thing and they don’t mind! Just be mindful not to waste food, so if you order it – eat it!
Pre-pay your gratuities
We arranged to pre-pay our gratuities before we boarded the ship. This just takes the hassle out of doing it throughout the stay or at the end. And this way, you can be sure that the staff that work behind the scenes, in the laundry, engine room etc are also given a tip for their hard work and it isn’t just going to those who are personally serving you each day. The staff all work extremely hard every day. It was so nice to have a different little animal made for us each day!
There is so much happening on board, you really need to know what and when so you don’t miss out!
Take a look at the daily planner you’re given and particularly on your sea days, make the most of what’s on offer! Whether it is pool games, bingo, trivia or art auctions – either way, they are all a heap of fun and keeps your day interesting!
The most important thing to remember when you’re cruising – Have fun, relax and enjoy!!
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