What I Wish I Knew Before I Took My First Cruise

Today, I make my living writing and talking about cruises, but just over a decade ago, I took my first trip ever.

In the dozens of cruises since, I’ve learned a lot, and there is plenty that I remember thinking before the first cruise that was just plain wrong, and other things that I just had no idea about.

That’s why I’m pulling back the curtain and sharing what no one told me before I took my first cruise…

The Headline Price Is Just the Start of What You’ll Pay (Rule of 2.5)

My first cruise was actually a wedding present. I worked at a small company when I got married, and one of the bosses loved to cruise. As a gift, the company bought me a Royal Caribbean gift certificate for two grand. So I hopped on the Royal Caribbean website — and see prices for cruises starting for just a few hundred bucks. I’m thinking they didn’t get us one vacation, they bought us three or four!

But then I started to price things out…

First there’s double occupancy, so that price is doubled off the bat. Then there are the taxes and fees. There’s upgraded costs for nicer rooms, and the required gratuities. That few hundred bucks in cruise fare quickly bumped up against the value of the gift certificate, especially when you add onboard spending.

Today, I know the headline price is just the start of what you’ll pay. I use something I call the “rule of 2.5.” Simply put, when you see a headline price for a cruise, multiply it by 2.5 off the bat to get an idea of what it will actually cost. Change that to three or even four if you want to include onboard spending.

So a cruise with a $500 price tag will actually be closer to $1,250 when it’s said and done.

Note: Following a new law in California, cruise lines are moving to include taxes and fees in the advertised fare. That will reduce the dramatic difference between the headline fare and final price. 

Different Lines Have Different Personalities

While all cruises will have a lot of similarities, each one has a distinct personality.

If it’s your first time sailing, you might be overwhelmed with all the different cruise lines to choose from. How do you know which one is right for you?

I had no idea when I first sailed. I sailed Royal Caribbean because that’s where I had a gift certificate. Now, I find it actually pretty easy to find the right fit. Having sailed just about all the major lines, I’ve figured out that the cruise line websites are a good proxy. While the images themselves are definitely done up for marketing (if you notice, they never show other people on the ship other than the focus of the shot and everyone is wonderfully attractive) they are aimed to appeal to who the cruise line is built for.

If you notice, Celebrity features images of people 40 plus who look more affluent. Virgin has lots of trendy looking people on their website. Royal Caribbean shows families and the wild pool decks with lots to do.

Bottom line, if the images on the website catch your eye, then it’s likely that the cruise line will be a fit. Use them as a resource if you’re not sure if a line is a fit.

There’s LOTS of Time Spent on the Ship

One thing I didn’t know before I sailed? How much the ship matters because you will spend the vast majority of your time onboard. My first cruise was a 7-day trip with three ports of call. Back then, I thought that meant four days at sea and three days in port. But days in port are only about 8 hours long. That means it’s more like one entire day in port over the week and the rest of the time is on the ship.

That means the ship really matters to your cruise. Thankfully, we booked a newer ship at the time that had a lot to do. But my next cruise was on an older ship and over the course of the trip, I got pretty bored — especially coming from one that had tons to do.

Now some people do like the older, smaller ships as they are more relaxed, easier to navigate, and have fewer people. I’d suggest first timers stick to newer ships first to get an idea of what a cruise can be, then decide if you want something less active.

You HAVE to Mix it up From the Buffet

Buffet on a cruise
The buffet is where the most meals are eaten on the ship, but you have to mix up the variety during a longer cruise.

Food on any cruise is a big deal. When I first sailed, I knew there were some paid spots and some restaurants included with the fare. Given what I had already spent on the cruise, there was no way I was going to pay extra to eat in a specialty restaurant when there was included food already.

I did that for a week, but ever since then, I’ve known that you have to mix it up some. The food in the buffet, it’s serviceable, but I’d tell you that I’d never actually pay out of pocket to eat there on land. Eating there a couple of times a day for a week straight? That’s tough to me.

The dining room is better, but I find it hit and miss, personally. Some dishes I could eat every day and others I never want to have again.

However, I’ve found specialty restaurants to be generally good overall. It helps the dishes are prepared individually versus in mass quantities. I still hate having to pay extra, but it’s a nice change of pace on a longer cruise.

Dining Room Etiquette: No Bill or Tip to Leave

Speaking of eating, one thing that struck me as odd that first cruise is something pretty specific, but hopefully it can help you feel more confident. When you eat in a place like the buffet or the main dining room, there will be staff who will either serve you, or in the case of the buffet, clear your dishes.

At home, you’d normally sign a check and leave a tip as you leave. But on a cruise, your gratuities are charged daily and distributed to the staff on your behalf. That means, when you’re done eating, you just get up and walk out.

I’ll never forget my first cruise all those years ago looking around at other tables and eating slow so that I could see what others did before I just got up and left.

What to Know About Formal Night for First-Timers

Even if you’ve never sailed before, formal night might be something you’ve heard about. There seems to be two camps on formal night — those who can’t wait, and those who dread it. If you’re not looking forward to it because you don’t want to get dressed up, let me put you at ease.

Before I took my first cruise, I thought I’d have to wear a tux or a suit. Some people do, but if you’re sailing a mainstream line like Carnival or Royal Caribbean, then don’t worry — you don’t have to go that far. As long as you look decent, you’re fine on formal night.

So a button-down shirt for guys and a nice blouse or dress for ladies. Of course, you can always go nicer if you want. Avoid anything like ballcaps, shorts, or flip-flops and it will be formal enough for formal night.

Now if you’re on a higher-end line then the dress code may be more stringent. For most people, though, formal night is more like “not completely casual” night.

Sales Pitches Galore

My first cruise surprised me with the amount of sales pitches around the ship, including flyers in your cabin.

If there is one thing that jumped out to me after my first cruise, it’s something I never even considered before I stepped onboard. And while it seems like it’s gotten better over the years, the sales pitches may jump out to you.

You might think of your cruise fare as the cost of your cruise, but onboard spending is also a major source of revenue for the cruise companies. This includes everything from casino gambling to onboard shopping to buying drinks.

What you’ll find is that the cruise line isn’t shy on sales pitches. Whether it’s announcements about sales or events, shopping guides for ports, or coupons delivered to your door, you’ll hear plenty about ways that you can spend money around the ship.

Excursions Are a Must

Speaking of spending more money, shore excursions cost extra on your cruise. This is thankfully somewhere that I spent money on my first trip, and I learned very quickly they are worth it.

On that cruise, I took a tour into the jungles of Belize to see ancient Mayan ruins, followed by a boat ride back up a river where we saw monkeys, crocs, bats, and other wildlife. More than a decade after that trip, I’ve never forgotten that excursion.

That’s why I tell people to take at least one excursion every cruise. They simply give you a chance to do things you can’t do back home and it normally ends up being one of the most memorable parts of your cruise.

Cruises Are Not Just For ‘Old’ People

When my wife and I got our cruise gift certificate as a wedding present, I have to admit that we both sort of looked at each other and cringed. Back then, I thought that cruising was for old people. I can tell you first-hand that is not the case.

If you take a Viking river cruise, yes, it’s going to be an older crowd. But your typical Caribbean trip runs the gamut. There are kids, teens, honeymooners, bachelorette parties, middle-aged folks and retirees. And if anything, I’ve noticed that cruises seem to be getting younger… or maybe I’ve just gotten older.

And it’s not just age, the diversity on board is crazy. I just took a cruise from California to Mexico and everyone was there — black, white, Asian, Hispanic, straight, gay, young, old. I honestly can’t think of any single place that’s as diverse as on a cruise ship. All types seem to love it. So if you’re thinking you’ll be the only young, left-handed redhead on the ship, that likely won’t be the case.

Caribbean Ports Are Built for Americans (English Spoken, Dollars Accepted)

Tourist sign in cruise port
Cruise ports in the Caribbean are all designed for American tourists, so English is widely spoken and U.S. dollars accepted.

If you’ve never taken a cruise or never visited out of the country, you definitely won’t be alone. There are newbies on every cruise. What you might be wondering about is getting by when in a foreign port.

If you’ve never traveled abroad, it can be intimidating. When it comes to cruises, you don’t have anything to worry about if sailing in North America. Caribbean ports are heavily Americanized. Dollars are accepted everywhere, so you don’t need to swap out money. English is widely spoken, so you won’t have any trouble communicating.

It makes it really easy to get around and have a good time, though I will say that it can be a little disappointing that the ports don’t feel as exotic as you might be expecting.

Other parts of the world may be different, but given the popularity of cruises to the Caribbean, the destinations roll out the red carpet to make things easy.

Different Cruises Have Different Vibes (Even on the Same Line)

I mentioned before that different cruise lines have different personalities. It wasn’t until I cruised a bit that I realized that different cruises themselves — even on the same cruise line — can have their own personality.

A weeklong cruise to the Caribbean is a completely different atmosphere than a weeklong cruise to Alaska, where things are more subdued. A three-day cruise from Miami will be different than a 7-day trip, even on the same line, as the shorter cruise will have more of a party atmosphere. I’ve even found that the vibes and the crowd can change from port to port.

I mentioned how diverse the crowd sailing from California was. In Florida you seem to get more younger adult passengers as cruising is just a way of life out there. And in my homeport of Galveston, the crowd seems more middle-aged and families to me.

I had no idea that there could be such a difference between ports, ships, and routes, but there definitely is.

Cruising Is Only Getting More Popular

One thing that I didn’t realize when I first sailed was that from that trip on, taking a cruise would just get more and more popular. Today, cruising looks almost nothing like it did back then. There are more cruise lines, more cruise ships, bigger ships, and more people.

For instance, that first cruise I took stopped in Roatan where we were the only ship. It stopped in Belize, where again, the only ship. Cozumel was the busy port and it had five ships in port — which is a decent amount — but all those ships were about half the size of today’s vessels.

Today, Nassau can welcome upwards of 30,000 passengers a day. There are new lines in the U.S. market since my first cruise such as MSC, Margaritaville, and Virgin Voyages. Some ports like Key West are even pushing back on cruise ships and those spots that do welcome cruise passengers are getting more crowded.

It’s arguably the heyday of cruises right now, but I didn’t realize back then just how much more popular they would become.

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