7 Things Every First-Time Cruise Passenger Should Know

7 Things Every First-Time Cruise Passenger Should Know

When I started cruising, I made loads of mistakes. And it saddens me that when I go cruising today, I meet so many first-time cruisers still making those same mistakes.

That’s why I’ve pulled together these seven things. They are all things that anyone thinking of going on their first cruise needs to know.

7 Things Every First-Time Cruise Passenger Should Know

Best First Cruise?

What is the best first cruise to go on? I always recommend a first-time cruiser sticks to one of the three most popular cruising regions in the world: the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and Alaska.

They are popular for a reason. Not only do they call on great places, but these regions and ports are well-proven and geared up for cruising and the needs of cruise passengers.

There will also be a wide range of excursions that they’ve found over time are what cruisers enjoy, especially those on a first-time cruise.

And, because these regions are so popular, all the cruise lines are there. This means you will have lots of choice which is very important.

Best Cruise Line?

Choosing the right cruise line is critical. Get on the right cruise line and you’ll love it, get on the wrong cruise line and you’ll hate your first cruise.

I’ve been on many cruises where people are miserable. Why? Because they picked a cruise line that’s wrong for them. They love to party but booked onto Cunard, which is very formal and heavy on enrichment talks. Or they don’t want to be with children but booked on a Royal Caribbean, MSC or Norwegian cruise, which is often packed full of families.

It can be complicated choosing the right cruise line. There are so many and each one is designed to cater for someone different.

Broadly speaking, there are four key categories of cruise lines in my view.

Cruise line categories 

Bigger ships – resort-style 

The biggest category, in terms of passengers carried, are the mass cruise lines which are resort like. These are cruise lines like Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise line and MSC Cruises.

You’ll find that these tend to be very large ships, which are getting larger and larger. Expect many ships in this category to be mega-ships carrying over 3,500 passengers.

They have a wide range of cabins, ranging from very inexpensive inside cabins, which could cost under $100 a night out of peak season, through to massive and costly suites costing $80,000 a week.

But, importantly, they have lots of facilities and lots of choice. You will find many entertainment venues, big production shows, on some ships you’ll find even go carts and ice-skating rinks.

It’s very resort like, and are popular with families, young couples and people that love active, busy and high-energy resort-like vacations, so if that’s something that appeals to you, these are the cruise lines you should gravitate to.

Premium cruise lines

The next category of cruise lines is what is generally known as premium cruise lines. These tend to be mid-sized to large ships, ranging from just under 2,000 to 3,400 passengers.

It includes cruise lines like Princess, Holland America, Celebrity, Virgin Voyages, Disney Cruise Line and Cunard.

They also offer cabins ranging from inside to suites. Usually, they tend to have a more classical cruise experience on offer, and don’t have all the resort-style features. There’s still have a wide choice of facilities like restaurants and bars, but notably fewer in comparison to the larger ships.

These lines are more sedate than the resort-like ships and entertainment and activities will be more geared to quizzes, talks, bingo, cooking displays, movies, smaller scale production shows but will still have pool parties and similar events.

Small-ship cruising

The next category, which is similar in cruise experience to the premium lines but just on smaller scale is the small cruise lines category, which probably are more luxury than the premium lines. These include lines like Oceania, Viking, Azamara, Saga Cruises and Windstar. They carry between 600 and 1,200 passengers. This is probably my favourite category of all.

They have even less choice, of course, as smaller. Have a traditional cruise experience, and many offer from inside to suites.

small ship

Ultra-luxury cruise lines

Then there is the ultra-luxury, or the six-star category.

These are mostly all suite ships, often only with 600 guests. They have a lot of inclusions in their fares, have a very high passenger to crew ratio so very high service. This includes lines like Seabourn, Silversea, Regent Seven Sea, the new Ritz Carlton yacht, Ponant and Hapag-Lloyd.

How to Choose What’s Right For You – Frist-Time Cruise 

So, as you can see there is a lot of choice. How do you choose which is right for you?

Write a list of what’s important to you on a vacation. So, for example, my partner likes big production shows, a big casino with lots of gaming options, and a big gym with lots of classes.

You may want a relaxed dress code, adult only, ballroom dancing or late-night partying and so on. Draw up a list of the things that are important to you. And then use that to find the cruise line that meets your list closest.

If you’re doing the Caribbean, Mediterranean or Alaska, as I suggest, your chosen line is almost certainly going to be cruising there. But you then have one more key decision to make.

First-Time Cruise – Which Cabin?

Some people will say to you, “Don’t worry about your cabin. You’re not going to spend a lot of time in there, you’re going to be out enjoying the ship”. Ignore that advice. If you have a cabin that is noisy or in the wrong location it will ruin your trip.

When it comes to booking a cruise, you will be given two options. Cruise lines will offer you a guaranteed fare, and this means that you choose a specific category (inside, ocean view, a balcony or a suite), but you don’t get to choose a specific cabin. They will allocate it to you.

Or, you have another option where you get choose your specific cabin. Some cruise lines charge a slight premium for that, others don’t.

I always go with choosing a cabin fare, and there’s a simple rule that you should follow.

Choose a cabin which is surrounded by other cabins on all sides. So the left, the right, above, below and opposite you. This is going to mean that you’re less likely to be near a noisy or busy venue or a high traffic area that’s likely to cause disturbance.

Other than making an error on choosing a cabin, there is another area that trips up many first-time cruisers.

More tips can be found on my YouTube channel on how to get the best cabin and avoid the worst.

Cruise Cabin Checks Everyone Should Do BEFORE Unpacking

First-Time Cruise – What Will It Cost Me?

The other thing that I find people stumbling with, and I certainly made this mistake, is around budgeting.

When it comes to cruising, don’t focus only on the fare that you see advertised, focus on the concept of door-to-door. Many studies show that cruise passengers spend between 50% and 100% of the fare that they’ve paid once they get on board. Every single line has different inclusions and exclusions within their fare, and it keeps changing.

Generally, the mass market lines have lots of exclusions. So of course, you’ll have all your meals included and the basic entertainment included. But you’ll then find there will be lots of added things like gratuities, Wi-Fi, drinks, excursions and specialty dining.

Premium and Small-Ship Lines

The premium and small ship lines tend to have many extra costs on board, although some of those are moving to more all-inclusive fares. If you go ultra-luxury, you’re going to find that many of those things are included.

When you’re looking at your cruise, don’t just focus on the fare and go for the lowest fare, understand what you’re going to have to pay for extra.

The key things to focus on are obviously getting to and from the ship, then gratuities, Wi-Fi drinks, excursions and specialty dining. Then, of course you need to think about things like spa, or laundries, or the casino or whatever.

First-Time Cruise – Budgeting Tips

The best times to book are either when cruises first go on sale. This is when cruise lines tend to have deals and offers. And then, within 90 days of the cruise departing. Final balances generally have to be paid 90 days before a cruise goes. The cruise line then knows how much capacity they’ve got left. Then, they work hard to discount and get those cabins filled because they want to sail full.

My next tip around budgeting is always track fares because if your fare goes down, you can go back to the cruise line and ask them to reduce your fare. They won’t come to you necessarily and tell you that the fare’s gone down.

I had an email today as I was preparing this, from someone who told me they had $800 off their cruise fare by tracking the fare, following this advice. They tracked it on sites like Cruise Watch and Cruise Critic, called the cruise line, which was Norwegian Cruise Line, and got $800 off their fare.

I mentioned excursions is one of the big add-on costs. Is there a way to cut back here? Perhaps, but with one big watch out which I need to explain.

Learn more about budgeting and avoiding rip offs onboard on my YouTube channel – there’s an entire section dedicated to this!

First-Time Cruise – What Should I Do in Ports?

When it comes to excursions, for a first-time cruise I would recommend that you stick with, as much as possible, the cruise line excursions, certainly for that first cruise.

The reason is partly because the cruise lines will have many well-proven cruises for each port. But more importantly, they guarantee that the ship will wait past scheduled departure time if any of their excursions are delayed for any reason.

However, people that have gone on independent tours or perhaps self-explored, they will not wait for you. The ship will leave without you. So as a first-time cruiser, going on cruise line excursions is a great idea because it just gives you that sense of reassurance. That’s until you understand how things work. So, for your next cruise, you perhaps want to be a little bit more adventurous.

If you really don’t want to go on cruise line excursions, I recommend using one of their “explore on your own” transfers into the closest town. Technically, this counts as an excursion but costs very little. Alternatively, you can use the hop-on hop-off bus is if available.

Many cruise ports have these, and they synchronise the timetables with the ship schedule.

Cruising Ports

Other Watch-outs?

One big watch-out for a first-time cruiser is you are agreeing lots of things that you may not realise the significance of when you book a cruise.

The cruise contract that you agree to simply, by booking a cruise has many conditions.

For example, you accept and agree that the line can change the itinerary or ports of call at will. You must accept it and without the right to compensation, or often ability to cancel.

They usually have strict cancellation terms, which won’t allow you to change the name of the person you’re cruising with.

As this is your first-time cruising you need to take time to understand what you are agreeing to and look at the terms and conditions.

That has become more important, as we saw as cruising resumed after the shutdown, that we want more flexibility to change or cancel if the protocols on board are changed and not to our liking. Sudden and constant changes to vaccination, testing, or masks or whatever. And as we move forward, how that evolves, nobody really knows.

Ask and be clear what your options are on changes or cancellations.

To find out more about more in-depth tips on each of these areas, I have put together this short playlist of five videos starting with how to overcome the biggest challenge that people like you have when it comes to choosing and booking your first cruise. See you over there.

View more videos on my YouTube channel.

View more of my cruising tips.



Gary Bembridge

I grew up in Zimbabwe, but I have been based in London since 1987. My travel life spans more than three decades and that includes more than 95 cruises. In 2005, I launched Tips for Travellers to make it easy and fun for people to discover, plan and enjoy incredible cruise vacations. And the rest, as they say, is history. I have the largest cruise vlogger channel currently on YouTube, with more than 3 million video views per month.

You may also like...

2 Responses

  1. In addition to my comments yesterday, I have two more useful thoughts based on 20+ cruises. First for US citizens, when you get a new US Passport, pay a bit extra for a “Passport Card.” It is the best possible government issued ID when you are on shore without a passport and should you lose your passport, it facilitates getting a new one (card’s and passport’s numbers are different). Second, email to yourself PDF’s of your essential documents including the back of your credit cards (i.e., call numbers for fraud) and then also keep in your email account a special subfolder for “Travel” where you can store these documents for quick retrieval.

Leave a Reply