14 Simple Things that Surprise First-Time Cruisers

Never taken a cruise before? Then you’re likely wondering what you can expect on the ship.

After all, cruising is a bit unlike any other vacation. Nowhere else are you on a floating resort in the middle of the ocean, making your way from port to port. Meanwhile, all your food, entertainment, and accommodations are all on one property. That means almost your entire vacation takes place in one spot.

Of course, with so much of your vacation taking place on the ship, there are bound to be things you didn’t suspect or are surprising. If you’re a first-time passenger, here are a number of things that may surprise you about taking a cruise.

How Easy It Is to Get “Lost” On the Ship

Map of cruise ship
Maps of the ship help you get around.

Think that it’s going to be easy to navigate the ship? Think again. It famously takes even seasoned cruisers a couple of days to get their bearing on a new ship. That’s not to say that you will get lost and not be able to find your way back to the cabin. After all, if you just walk a little bit, you’ll eventually find elevators or stairs that can take you to the deck you want to be.

Instead, we’re referring to the fact that it’s very easy to get turned around; walking forward on the ship when you want to walk back and vice versa. This is easiest to do when you are in the hallways with cabins. Row after row of cabin doors that all look the same — and no windows in the hallway — can make it feel like a maze.

Don’t worry though, after a day or two you’ll be navigating the ship like a pro.

How Much There Is Going On & To Do On the Ship

If you’re someone who always wants something to do, then you’re going to fit right in on a cruise ship. That’s because from the time you wake up until the time you go to bed there is always something (and usually lots of things) happening on the ship.

First there are the “built-in” features of the ship. Things like the pools, casinos, rock walls, restaurants, shopping, and much more. You could spend all day doing the activities on the ship and never get bored.

But that’s only part of what’s going on. In addition, there is all the entertainment on the ship that’s put on by the cruise staff. This can be simple — such as trivia contests during the day — or a full on production show in the evening.

No matter what you’re looking for, the entertainment staff puts on events all throughout the day to keep passengers engaged. Just look at the daily schedule that’s put in your cabin each night to see the dozens of things you can do in a given day.

How Little Time Is Spent in Port

If you’re taking a week-long cruise with three ports of call, you might think that means you have three days at port and four days at sea. The ratio is actually more like one day at port and six days at sea.

That’s because the ships actually only port for eight or nine hours on average before they sail away again. For instance, a ship might dock at 8 a.m. and have all aboard be at 4:30 p.m. Added up, a week-long trip often has about 24 hours of time combined in ports.

Cruise lines are moving toward having longer port stays in some cases (even some overnight stays in ports like Havana), but by and large you’ll spend a morning and afternoon in port, but the rest of your time on the ship.

How You Can Still Find Quiet Spots on the Ship

Empty cruise ship deck
Thousands of people are on the ship, but you can still find quiet spots.

Four thousand people — plus crew — on a ship that’s about the size of a city block? Yes, cruise ships are large, but you’d also expect them to be crowded. True, many spots are. If you head to the pool on a sunny day, it will be packed with people.

What’s surprising, however, is that you can still find plenty of quiet spots on cruise ships if you want to get away from the crowds. In the evenings the pools decks clear out, giving you practically the entire area to yourself. Inside the ship is the same story. Places like the ship’s library are quiet and few people are usually there.

Each ship is a little different depending on the layout and the venues. It might take a day or two to discover the spots that don’t attract a lot of people. But once you do figure it out, you have your own little “private” space despite being on a full ship.

How Many Sales Pitches You’ll See

Massages, arts, drink packages, jewelry… the list goes on. These things — and much more — are what you’ll be pitched as a passenger on a cruise ship.

You might think that once you’ve bought your ticket that you’re done spending money. In fact, about 30% of cruise line revenue comes from spending by passengers on the ship. And you’ll definitely be tempted to spend. From announcements over the intercom to stacks of sales flyers delivered to your stateroom door, it’s almost shocking how much advertising you’re hit with when cruising.

To be fair, if you’re looking to purchase a massage or something on the ship, these flyers can tell you about sales and discounts that can save you money. But if you’re not in a shopping mood, they can simply be an annoyance.

How Much You Can Pack for a Cruise

If you’re like most people, then you think about flying when you are packing luggage. These days air travel and baggage are like oil and water. Between bag charges, carry-on space, and having to check luggage, it’s a pain to pack hardly anything for a plane.

You might be surprised that cruising is completely different. Have two big suitcases? Bring them. What about full bottles of shampoo? You can bring those too. What if you only have a small suitcase? That’s fine as well.

In short, there are few restrictions on the size of your luggage or how much you can bring. Best of all, there are no charges for bags. So pack big, little, or in between. It’s all allowed on a ship and you don’t have to worry about the cost.

That said, there are a few restrictions on what you can bring, but they are pretty simple. Just don’t bring on any beer or liquor, nor should you bring anything that could start a fire (candles, clothes irons, etc.). Hair straighteners and curling irons are ok.

Gratuities on Purchases

By the time you board the ship, you should be well aware of gratuities. These days the charges are applied automatically to your account. In fact, you might have already paid your daily gratuity amounts by the time you step on the ship.

But that doesn’t mean you’re done with tipping. On the ship pretty much any consumable or service you buy — food, drink, spa services — is going to have an automatic gratuity tacked on. This amount is usually 18-20% of the cost, depending on the cruise line. So a $100 massage is actually around $120. An $8 beer is actually around $9.50.

These extra charges are tacked on automatically to the price, but be careful. When you get the bill, it will have the price with the gratuity added… and then another line for an additional tip. Feel like being generous? Then by all means tip more. However, it’s not required.

How Friendly Other Passengers Are on the Ship

Now, we’re not saying that everyone on a cruise ship is always full of sunshine and rainbows. But if you’re on a cruise then it’s a good chance the person next to you is going to be on vacation mode as well. That means in general people are in a great mood on the ship. This makes it easy to strike up a conversation, share a drink, and make new friends.

So don’t be shocked if you actually make a few new buddies after a little time on the ship.

How Big Cruise Ships Really Are

Everyone knows that cruise ships are big. It’s not until you are actually at the port getting ready to board that you realize how big they can be. Consider that cruise ships can rise 200 feet above the water water — the equivalent of a 20-story building. Meanwhile, today’s new ships are almost always more than 1,000 feet long, which is longer than a city block.

On the ship you get an even greater appreciation for their size. Inside the ship are full promenades, restaurants, and thousands of cabins. There are nightclubs, atriums, double-decker theaters, and more. Everything you would expect to be in a modern resort is on the ship, and it’s a full-size version — not something scaled down to fit on the cruise.

Be sure you bring your walking shoes!

How Stable the Ships Are

A few times a year there is always a news story about a cruise ship that hits a storm. The most compelling of these stories has video filmed on the ship of the rocking and rolling as the cruise ship fights through the waves.

Truth is, 99% of cruises aren’t like this at all. In fact, given the size of the ships and technology designed to make the ship sail smoothly, most of the time you don’t even feel the ocean.

That’s not to say you won’t feel the ship moving at all. If the waves are big enough you can definitely feel the ship rock a bit. But if you’re expecting that you’ll feel the movement of the ocean constantly, that’s likely not the case.

How Dark Interior Cabins Can Get

If you are booked in an interior cabin, then take our advice: pack a nightlight. You’ll be amazed at how dark these cabins can get. Remember that interior rooms don’t have any windows. If the lights are turned off, once you shut the cabin door there is no source of illumination. The room will be pitch black, except for maybe a small spot of light through the peephole in the door.

A small nightlight is a smart idea to give a little light in the room should you need to get up in the middle of the night. The only other alternative is to turn on the room light or the bedside lamp, which will light up the entire cabin, disturbing anyone else who might be in the room.

How Cold It Can Get at Night

If you’re headed to Alaska, you likely pack for cold weather. But if you’re headed to the Caribbean, you might be shocked that it gets cool there too.

During the day you don’t have much to worry about. Caribbean days are sunny and warm. Even occasional rainy days are still warm. During the evenings, the temperatures drop. It might only drop into the 70s, but at sea with the wind blowing as the ship moves through the night, the wind chill can make it pretty cool. It’s at least jacket or hoodie weather… if you don’t just decide to stay inside the ship instead.

How Much Stronger the Sun Is At Low Latitudes

Sun is sun, right? Not exactly. Maybe you’re used to the summer sun at home where you live, and it’s no big deal to be outdoors for an hour or two and not get burned. At the lower latitudes of the Caribbean, it’s a different story.

If your cruise heads to the Caribbean, then be prepared for more direct sun rays. Sure it keeps things nice and warm, but it also makes it much faster to burn. Of course, pack plenty of sunscreen, but also pack some aloe vera in case you do get too much sun. You don’t want to be uncomfortable the rest of your cruise because you got burnt on day one.

Have a first-time cruise question? Ask us in the comments below and see our 57 tips for first-time cruisers.

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14 Simple Things that Surprise First-Time Cruisers


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