First cruise tips - things to know before a cruise

35 Things to Know Before a Cruise – First Cruise Tips

These top things to know before a cruise and first cruise tips will help you make the most of your vacation at sea. Many of these are things I wish I’d known before my first cruise.

A cruise is a little bit different than an all-inclusive vacation.

First cruise tips - things I wish I'd known before my first cruise.  Image is a hot tub on a pool deck of a cruise ship

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35 Things to know before a cruise

Some of these are important things to know before a cruise is even booked.

1. Staterooms are smaller than hotel rooms

In most cases, cruise staterooms (cabins) are smaller than hotel rooms. There are some exceptions if you are fortunate enough to book one of the larger suites.

Because of the small space, stateroom organization is important. 27 Smart Cruise Cabin Organization Tips has some helpful information.

2. Check in time is not necessarily boarding time

Most cruise lines now have staggered check-in times to help eliminate crowds and wait time. When you check in online before your cruise (check with your cruise line – with some lines this can be done 21 days or more prior), you will be asked to select a check-in time. This is the time you will arrive at the cruise terminal to do the in-person check-in.

If you have an early check-in time (ex/ 9am), expect to have to wait in the cruise terminal for boarding to start. Check in time is not your boarding time. Boarding time varies and depends on how fast they get the ship ready for the next set of guests. You can expect boarding to start between 11:00 and 12:00.

3. You often can’t access your stateroom until the afternoon

In most cases, if you board the ship early, you won’t be able to access your stateroom until early afternoon. There are some exceptions and the time can vary, but expect to have to wait until approximately 2:00pm before you can go to your room.

This is to allow the very hard working crew members to clean all the staterooms (cabins).

First cruise tips - 35 things to know before a cruise. Image is a promenade view stateroom on Royal Caribbean

4. You don’t get your luggage until later

At the cruise terminal, the porters will take your checked luggage. It will be delivered to outside your stateroom door later that afternoon.

This is a major job for the cruise line employees on embarkation day. Be prepared to not have access to your luggage until late afternoon (often 2:00-5:00 pm.)

This is why bringing a carry on with all the essentials you will need for the afternoon is important. What to pack in your cruise carry on lists the essentials you will need.

5. Stateroom door decorating is a thing (on most cruise lines)

One way to add a little extra fun to your cruise vacation is with stateroom door magnets. You can see some really great personalized cruise magnets here.

One of the things to know before your cruise is that stateroom door decorating is popular on many cruise lines.  It's one of the first cruise tips - consider a cruise magnet like this Mickey Mouse one
Photo by CruiseDesignsBB

See this cute Disney Cruise Line magnet here.

6. Check you cruise line’s dress code

Different cruise lines have different dress codes. These dress codes are applicable for the main dining room. Many still have a formal night or two.

7. Middle of the ship cabins have less movement

If you are worried about motion sickness, choose your cabin location wisely. Cabins (aka staterooms) located in the middle of the ship will have less movement than a cabin located at the front of the ship. Also, a cabin located on a mid or lower deck will have less movement than a cabin located on a top deck.

8. Choose your cabin location wisely

In addition to selecting a mid ship cabin to minimize motion sickness, you want to choose a cabin away from public areas. The best way to do this is to look at the deck plans. You can find these on the cruise line’s website. When selecting a cabin, try to avoid choosing one that is below a night club or a fitness center.

Also, avoid a connecting cabin unless your travel party is in that connecting cabin. Noise can travel between the connecting door easier than it does through the walls. I found this out on my last cruise.

9. Most cruises are not all inclusive

Most cruise lines are not all inclusive. While a lot is included and you have the option of pre purchasing items, often things like shore excursions and drinks have an extra charge. Be sure to research your cruise line carefully before your first cruise.

First timers planning a cruise on Carnival Cruise Line, should read What is Included on a Carnival Cruise and What is Not.

10. Not all food on a cruise is included

First-time cruisers will want to know that while cruise ships do have restaurants that are included in your cruise fare, they also have specialty restaurants that have an additional charge.

first cruise tip - some specialty restaurants have an additional cost
Jamie’s Italian specialty restaurant on Royal Caribbean’s Mariner of the Seas has an additional cost but it’s well worth it.

More things to know before a cruise and first cruise tips

11. Not all cruise lines are the same

Just as hotels can vary greatly in amenities and services, so do cruise companies. Some cater more to young families and others more to older adults looking to relax.

Your travel agent can help recommend the right cruise line for you.

12. Not all cruise ships in the same cruise company are the same

Once you decide on a cruise line, don’t assume all their ships are similar.

The cruise line’s newer ships will be larger, have more amenities, more dining options, and be more expensive. Their older ships are often smaller, have a few less amenities and are less expensive. Some prefer the newer ships, some prefer the older, smaller ships. If you are travelling with teens, I’d suggest the newer ships, as there will be more to keep them entertained.

13. Fly in the day before

This is an important cruise tip. Even if you purchase your airfare through the cruise line, you can request that you fly in the day before.

If you are cruising at Christmas time, I’d suggest flying in two days before. Flights around Christmas time are extra busy, and winter weather is more unpredictable. We just learned this the hard way. We were booked to fly in a full 24 hours before our cruise departure, but unfortunately the bad weather caused many flight cancellations and the alternative flights were already full. Sadly, we missed the ship 🙁 More on that in another post.

View from an airplane window.  Text reads cruise tip - fly in the day before

14. Purchase travel insurance

Travel insurance is always a good idea, you just don’t know what can happen. Be sure to understand your policy and what is covered and what is not. This varies from insurance company to insurance company.

15. Budget for cruise gratuities

Cruise gratuities are an additional cost with most cruise lines, some however allow them to be prepaid. Tipping on a Cruise explains the automatic gratuity systems in place, how tipping works, and who receives the tips.

Prepaid cruise gratuities lists three reasons you might want to consider prepaying your cruise tips.

Important first cruise tips - 35 things to know before a cruise.  Woman in a white sun hat looks out into the ocean from a cruise ship

16. The muster drill is a must

The muster drill used to be the worst part of a cruise trip. It is much better now that most cruise lines have gone to a mostly electronic muster drill done through the cruise line’s app (fingers crossed it stays this way). This is a necessary safety lesson. Unless your cruise line still has a scheduled time for the muster drill, get it over with as soon as you board on embarkation day.

Don’t be those people they call over the speaker over and over. I always giggle at those people who say they had no idea they had to do a “mustard drill”.

17. An inside cabin doesn’t have a window to the outside

First-time cruisers might not be aware that an inside cabin (or interior stateroom) doesn’t have a window to the outside. Most don’t have a window at all. Some ships have a few cabins with virtual windows or windows looking into the ship atrium or promenade.

First cruise tips – things to know before a cruise

18. Book shore excursions ahead of time

Look at the different ports on your cruise itinerary and decide ahead of time if you will purchase a shore excursion through the cruise company or if you will explore on your own.

Some ports of call are easier to explore on your own than others. I’d suggest to start by looking at what shore excursions the cruise line offers at each cruise port, it’s the best way to get an idea of what there is to see and do. You can then research each port of call further if you’d like.

19. Buy cruise luggage tag holders

Most cruise lines have you print your cruise luggage tags at home. Once you have checked in online your cruise edocs will be available to download. Included in these documents are your luggage tags.

Rather than just having just a piece of paper as your luggage tag that can easily rip off, consider purchasing luggage tag holders. Each cruise line has slightly different luggage tag sizes. You can find more information on cruise luggage tags and links to find cruise line luggage tag holders here.

Here are luggage tag holders that fit Royal Caribbean International luggage tags.

More things to know before a cruise and first cruise tips

20. Decide how to carry your cruise card

For those cruise lines that use a cruise card, such as Carnival Cruise Lines, Royal Caribbean Cruises, and Norwegian Cruise Line, you will want to decide ahead of time how you will carry it.

Your cruise card is your room key, cruise identification, the way your charge your onboard purchases, and more. It is a credit card sized card. Royal Caribbean calls theirs a Sea Pass, you can read more about it here.

First time cruisers will want to read 6 Ways to Carry Your Cruise card.

21. Buy your drink package ahead of time

For the best deal, purchase your beverage package before your cruise starts. Most cruise lines have a drink package that includes both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages as well as a package that includes soft drinks.

Royal Caribbean also has a non-alcoholic beverage package called the refreshment package that includes mocktails, milkshakes, bottled water, soft drinks, and more. I wish all the cruise lines would offer this.

There is an automatic gratuity (service charge) added to the cost of the beverage packages – often in the 18-20% range.

22. Stateroom plug ins are limited

You will often find that plug ins in your cruise stateroom are limited. I’d suggest brining a cruise approved power strip. Not any power bar will do, it must be NON surge protected. This is the one I have.

23. Bring a cardigan

Pack a cardigan or a sweater that you can wear with just about anything. The air conditioning in the public rooms can be a little chilly, even on a Caribbean cruise.

If you are wondering what to pack for a Caribbean cruise, this can help.

24. Use a cruise planner

Our printable cruise planner is the best way to get organized before your cruise vacation. It has checklists, an outfit planner, daily planner sheets for both port days and sea days, and more. You can read more details about our cruise planner here.

Cruise planner and journal - printable pdf. For every step of the cruise proccess from planning your cruise, to preparing for your vaction to remembering it. Packing lists and to do lists

25. You can have more than one appetizer

In the main dining room your food is included in your cruise fare and you can order more than one appetizer. A cruise is a great place to try a new food. If you don’t like it you aren’t out any money and won’t go hungry.

More first cruise tips

26. Bring a reusable water bottle

This is one of the things to know before a cruise so that you can add it to your packing list. I would suggest a wide mouth water bottle so that you can easily add ice.

27. Bring magnetic hooks

This is a great tip for first time cruisers. Most cruise ship walls are magnetic. Magnetic hooks and magnetic clips are a great way to create more space and keep things organized.

Magnetic hooks are a great way to help organize your cruise stateroom.  Image is a magnetic hook on a cruise room wall with a hat, sunglasses, and a Royal Caribbean medal

Cruise cabin organization tip - use magnetic clips to organize papers

28. Be sure your phone has enough storage space

This is important if you use your phone as your camera. I have made this mistake before, but won’t do it again. There is nothing worse than trying to take a photo and seeing, “not enough storage”, then scrolling through old photos looking for ones you can delete just so you can take a new one.

There are a few ways you can do this:

  • Delete old duplicate photos or ones that didn’t turn out
  • Remove apps you no longer use
  • Transfer your photos off your phone to a computer or memory stick
  • Purchase cloud space

29. A hanging toiletry bag is a space saver

A great way to save space in a cruise ship bathroom is to use a hanging toiletry bag. Hang it on the back of the bathroom door to save counter space.

One of the things to know before a cruise is that a hanging toiletry bag saves bathroom counter space.

The one in the above picture is the one my teenage daughter uses. It is great if you are packing for one or two people. For a family, I’d suggest a larger one.

The above is the one I have. It is an extra large hanging toiletry bag. When it is full it can hang a little funny, but I don’t find it to be a problem. It also sits nicely on a countertop.

30. Pack a waterproof phone pouch

This is a must if you plan on going to the beach in any of your cruise ports. It keeps your phone dry and on your body. These are the ones we have. I do have to take mine out of the Otterbox to fit, but don’t find that to be an issue.

More things to know before a cruise and first cruise tips

31. Store your empty suitcase under your bed

This saves precious cruise cabin space. A great first cruise tip that you might not have thought of. The cabins are too small to have the empty suitcases lying around.

32. Bring small bills

This is a first cruise tip that I wish I’d known before my first cruise vacation. Make sure you have several small bills for tipping. You will want smaller bills to tip the cruise terminal porters, tour guides, for room service, and more.

33. Pack a change of clothes in your travel companion’s suitcase

This is a smart cruise packing tip especially if you are flying to your departure point. Pack a change of clothes in your travel companion’s suitcase. This way if one suitcase is lost or delayed, you at least have a change of clothes.

Packing cubes makes this easy and keeps things organized.

34. Check out the dinner menu ahead of time

The dinner menu will be posted each night outside of the main dining room and/or on the cruise line’s app. The newer cruise ships have so many dining options. Seeing what the main dining room menu is ahead of time can help you decide if that is where you want to eat or if you want to try one of the specialty dining venues instead.

35. How awesome cruise are – the biggest thing I wish I’d known before my first cruise

I would have started cruising years earlier if I had realized how great they are. Beautiful ships, beautiful ports, delicious food, yummy drinks, great entertainment, and a ton of fun. Plus, the crew members definitely have a way of making you feel extra special.

I hope these first time cruise tips help to make your cruise vacation an amazing experience.