First Time Cruise: Cruising 101 Primer


HAL Nieuw Amsterdam in Grand Turks

Although there are a lot of similarities to a resort vacation, there are some distinct differences with cruising. I find that the fewer surprises you have, the more you will be able to enjoy the experience. In particular understand what is, and is not, included in your base price and understanding some of the particulars of cruising, like muster drills.


With few exceptions, cruises are not all-inclusive vacations, you will be paying extra for things when you get on board. So, in that spirit, my wife and I put together this Cruising 101 Primer on some things you may not know about cruising.


1. CABIN PRICING

Cabins are priced as 2 people per cabin, although a few ships now have solo cabins. You will be charged for 2 passengers in a cabin even if only one person stays in it. You can see below that the cabin comes up as essentially the same base price if 1 or 2 people stay in it. For 2 people the total price is a little higher due to the additional taxes on the second person.

And if you add a third (or fourth) person, there is an additional charge added to the basic price. You can see the price for the same cabin with 1 or 2 guests below.



As a side note, we generally use Costco’s website to book our cruises. While the prices might be the same as the main cruise lines, we can often get additional On Board Credit by booking through Costco.


2. ON BOARD CREDIT

Many cruise lines have offers that include “additional on-board credit.” This is essentially cash to spend however you see fit on the cruise. You can book dinners, pay for drinks, book excursions and so on with the on-board credit. Generally OBC starts out at $25 and can go as high as $400+ depending the cabin level. Generally, on board credit offered by the cruise line is non-refundable (use it or lose it), whereas on board credit offered by your travel agent is usually refundable.

3. DINING, INCLUDED vs. SPECIALTY

Most all cruise lines include certain restaurants and eateries in the base price, these are considered “free.” These might include main dining rooms, a buffet, a burger and/or pizza joint and some sort of a quick snacks location. Most cruise lines also offer ‘specialty dining’ restaurants that come with an up-charge. Sometimes that will be a set charge for the entire meal and sometimes it is a la carte, just like eating in a land based restaurant. Generally the up-charge restaurants give you a more unique and better dining experience than the included dining. These restaurants can be great for a special occasion or just to have a different experience than the included dining.


Notable exceptions are Virgin Voyages and some of the higher end cruise lines like Regent Seven Seas which includes all dining in the base price of the cruise.

Taj Mahal specialty dinner on the Celebrity Equinox

4. DINING, FIXED vs. ANYTIME.

Most cruise lines have the option of either "fixed" or "anytime" dining. It might be called different things, but essentially it is a choice between the two.


Fixed dining usually happens in two different seatings. Early is generally sometime around 5:30 pm and Late is generally around 8:30 pm. The advantages are that you get the same table and same waitstaff every night. You will be guaranteed that table each night. The waitstaff will also make a point to get to know you and what you like so often they will start to bring out your ‘usual drinks’ before you even ask for them. It is also helpful if you have severe food allergies as you don't have to keep explaining your issues.


Anytime dining is what it sounds like, you show up anytime. You may not get the same table and waitstaff, but you don't have to plan ahead. If you go at peak times (usually between 6:30 pm and 7:30 pm), you may have to wait for a table. If you want to, you can usually make a reservation for a certain time either pre-cruise or a day or two in advance once on the cruise.


I prefer the flexibility of anytime dining, particularly on port days when you may want to make changes to your routine based on how your day went.


Disney Cruise Line only features fixed dining with each dinner in a different restaurant with your same waitstaff following along.


5. DRINK PACKAGES

With few exceptions, no alcohol or soft drinks (including soda) is included in the base price of the cruise. The included beverages are water, non-bottled iced tea and hot tea (can vary in quality), some coffee (usually in the buffet), and often lemonade and punch as well as orange juice for breakfast only.

Mojito Flight on the NCL Breakaway

Beverage packages (both alcoholic and non) are generally available for purchase and oftentimes these will include speciality coffees (lattes, cappuccinos, etc). In recent years, cruise lines have been running deals that can include a beverage package as a ‘perk’ which we tend to take when available.

When considering paying for a beverage package, it’s important to understand exactly what is and is not included in the package price. For a majority of people, paying by the drink is a cheaper option.

First thing to understand about beverage packages, they are per person. You cannot share a beverage package between two people. If you are caught doing that, the cruise line will generally apply a beverage package to the other person immediately.


Many cruise lines require that if one passenger in a cabin selects a drink package, all passengers in the same cabin must have the same drink package.


Also understand that any third party speciality shop, like Starbucks, will not be included in the ship drink package. You will have to pay out of pocket for any drinks from these locations.


The easiest way to find the most up-to-date drink package information is to simply Search “(Cruise Line) Drink Package Price”. Then go to the actual cruise line’s website to find the ‘fine print.’ Below is Royal Caribbean’s Deluxe Beverage Package as of today when I’m writing this article.

You can see the types of drinks that are available for this drink package along the top. The costs as of today are $63 - $89 per day, per person. The variation is price is due to different sailing lengths, itineraries and ship size. All of these factor into the price you are charged.


Then you see the fine print down below. That first sentence says the package includes any drink up to $12. Any drink more than $12, you will have to either pay full price or pay the difference for that drink. (rules vary per cruise line).


As a VERY general rule of thumb, as of today, drink fees are averaging:

$2.50 - $5.00 per drink for speciality coffees and hot tea.

$3.00 - $4.25 for soda and soft drinks

$8.00 - $14.00 per drink for most wines

$7.00 - $14.00 per drink for most cocktails

$6.00 - $12.00 per bottle of most beers

$9.00 - $14.00 per glass of most liquors (scotch, bourbon, whiskey, etc)

As with any location, there are also much higher priced options for drinks.




From my last cruise I know that the coffees I ordered on-board were $4.50 each and my drinks averaged $11. The regular coffee in the buffet was quite good so I only had to purchase speciality coffees.


My typical day was: 2 or 3 speciality coffees and 4 cocktails.

3 coffees x $4.50 = $13.50/day

4 cocktails x $11 = $44/day

Total = $57.50/day

For my 7 drinks per day, even $63/day was more than I was spending. At $89/day I’d be paying the cruise line over $30/day for drinks I’m not going to purchase.

You can do the math on the types of drinks you might purchase each day to see how the price stacks out for you. Don’t forget to include soft drinks in your calculations to see if that makes the price worthwhile.


A notable mainstream cruise line exception is Virgin Voyages which includes most all soft drinks, coffee and tea in the price of the cruise.


6. ENTERTAINMENT

Most of the entertainment onboard is free. Most ships will have a main theater with Broadway style shows and comedians, plus multiple smaller venues and sometimes specialty venues such as a dinner theater. Some of these specialty venues can have an upcharge, especially if it’s a dinner theater.

"Magic" onboard the Crown Princess

The main theater will generally feature two performances per night allowing early and late diners the opportunity to catch the show before or after dinner. Some of the shows require advance reservations, even for the free shows. For example the Royal Caribbean water and ice skating shows on the ships that feature them. Seating is limited for these shows so advance reservations are required.


Some ships have piano bars, jazz clubs, dueling piano bars or comedy clubs. Most of them will feature musicians and bands throughout the ship. You’ll find most of these folks quite entertaining and friendly. We’ve met quite a few of them on our journeys.


7. TRIP INSURANCE

While often ignored with destination travel (hotels, resorts) trip insurance is highly recommended for cruising because in general you will be visiting multiple countries during your cruise. Even if you never plan to get off the ship, you may end up going into one of those countries for medical treatment.


If you have a medical issue that is beyond what the ship can handle, you will be removed from the ship and taken to the nearest hospital. When cruising, that can mean being taken to a hospital in another country.

Most U.S. based health insurance will NOT cover medical expenses incurred in another country. Most Trip Insurance policies WILL.

Unless the condition was caused by negligence by the ship’s crew, you will be responsible for all medical bills. If you don’t have trip insurance, then you will be paying for those bills out of pocket.


8. PASSPORTS, BRING THEM.

U.S. passengers sailing to the Caribbean often think they won’t ever need their passports because they are generally not needed to get off the ship. There are two reasons why you want them in your cabin.

First and most importantly, if you need to leave the ship for any reason during the cruise, such as for a medical emergency, you will need your passport to get back to the U.S. if you’re in another country.

You cannot get a flight or a ferry out of that country without your passport. You can leave your passports in the safe and if necessary, the ship will have them retrieved and brought to you.


Secondly, some islands such as Martinique are starting to require passports to visit their countries.


Bring your passports and leave them locked in your safe just in case. Much better to have them than not.


9. ARRIVE THE DAY BEFORE

Unlike a destination vacation, a cruise ship runs on a schedule. If you’re delayed in your travels, the ship will not be there waiting for you. It will sail without you.


Whenever possible, plan to arrive to the port city at least one day in advance. If your flights or travel are delayed, you still have another day to get to the port. If your travel plans have you arriving hours before the ship sails, you have a much smaller window of opportunity to allow for delays.


10. EMBARKATION / BOARDING THE SHIP / GETTING YOUR CABIN

The day you board the ship is called Embarkation. This the busiest day for the ship because passengers are exiting the ship from the previous cruise, all provisions for the next cruise are being brought on board, the cabins are all being cleaned and prepped for the next cruise and of course, you and your shipmates are coming on board. This all happens in a little over 8 hours in most cases which is quite remarkable when you consider the average cruise ship has 2500 passengers with the larger ships over 6000. That’s 5000 - 12000 passengers exiting and boarding the ship in a single day.


When you get to the port, you will drop off your bigger pieces of luggage with the porters (always tip) and then you will have to go through a security checkpoint similar to airports. Then it’s on to the check-in area. The check-in can be quick or take some time depending on the size of your ship and the class you’re booked in.


Most cruise lines will assign you a time window to board the ship. Generally boarding will not begin until at least 10:30am to ensure that everyone from the previous cruise is off the ship and allow security time to reset everything for the next sailing. There’s no reason to show up much earlier than the start of your window. If you do, you may end up sitting in a crowded waiting area for some time. Some cruise lines, like Disney, are strict about the boarding time windows and won’t let you board until your group is called. Others can be more lax and will allow you to board anytime after the first window opens.

While you may get onboard earlier, in general, cabins are not available until 1 - 1:30pm.
Junior Suite onboard the RCCL Mariner of the Seas

Depending on the cruise line, you will either have to keep your carry-on items with you until the cabins open up, or may be allowed to drop off your items in the cabin. You will want to check with the individual cruise line rules (it can even vary between ships in the same cruise line) because this will affect your strategy for what to carry on board.


If you must keep your carry-on items with you, I recommend just taking backpacks onboard with you that have your essentials like medications, passports / IDs, wallet, valuables, a change of clothes and your bathing suits. Leave every other bag with the porter to be brought to your room later. This way you go onboard very light, you can change into your bathing suits and relax by the pool while you wait for your cabin to be ready.


If you can drop off your carry on items, that gives you much more flexibility since you can drop off your bags in the cabin. You will not be allowed to stay in the cabin until after the cleaning services are completed around 1 or 1:30pm. But you can at least use the bathroom, and change if you wish.


11. YOUR CABIN STEWARD

In most cases, the stateroom steward will come in twice a day. Once in the morning to clean the room, make the bed and give you fresh towels. In the evening, they will tidy up, turn down the bed and leave you the schedule for the next day as well as some other information and usually you will get a chocolate on your pillow. If you want, you can also make other requests such as asking for a bucket of ice daily, they can take your laundry for cleaning and help with any other requests.

Towel Monkey from our room steward on the Disney Fantasy

These are incredibly hard working people who generally know your names before the first night is out. They’re great folks who can give you all sorts of advice on getting around the ship and helping you to navigate your first cruise.


12. ROOM KEY / ONBOARD CHARGING

You will get a cruise card (on some lines, you will also be able to get a medallion much like the Disney magic bands). This card will be your room key and will let you charge things back to your account. It is also the way they keep track of whether you have left the ship and if you have returned. You will not be able to leave the ship without your room key, so always keep it with you.


13. MUSTER DRILL

Shortly before you sail away, you will have to attend a Muster drill. This is a Coast Guard mandated safety drill.

The drill is 100% mandatory, if you try to avoid it, cruise lines will send someone to find you. The captain can have you removed from the ship if you refuse to participate in the muster drill.

All services will shut down when it’s time for the drill. You will proceed to your muster station with your cruise card so your attendance will be recorded. The drill consists of a discussion on safety procedures and a demonstration of how to put on your life vest. You’re generally done in 15-20 minutes. So don’t skip the muster drill.


14. DRESS CODE

Usually there is a dress code for the evenings although it is not always strictly enforced. Generally, there are "smart casual" days which for men would mean jeans or slacks and a polo or casual button up shirt and for women either the same or skirt/sundress.

There will also likely be two "formal" nights on 7 night or longer cruises, though these have gotten less formal through the years.

Some people will be wearing gowns and tuxes, but most will not. Men will wear slacks and a long sleeve button up shirt (maybe with just a tie or maybe with a jacket, but sometimes just the shirt). On many ships now, men can wear dress jeans (no stains or holes) with a button down shirt. Women will generally wear a dress or nice pants and a sparkly top.


Even the characters get dressed up for Formal Night on the Disney Fantasy

During the day, it is extremely casual. Generally the only rule is no bathing suits in the dining areas including the buffet.


15. ELEVATORS

The elevators can get very busy, especially after the Muster Drill and when the big show lets out. If you are able, take the stairs. They are generally less crowded and you get around the ship faster.


If you are unable to use the stairs, stay back for about 15 minutes or so to allow the first rush of folks to get through the elevators, then come through. Or, go past the first set of elevators to the next set. There are usually 2 or 3 banks of elevators in ships, so if the one at the theater is crazy busy, keep going through the ship to the next set of elevators, they will probably be less crowded.


16. DAILY SERVICE CHARGE / AUTOMATIC TIPS

There will be a daily service charge (called different things on different lines) added to your account. This will cover tips for the dining staff and the room stewards. It is generally around $12 - $15 per person per day. You are not required to tip more, but if a crew member gives you exceptional service on your cruise, feel free to tip them extra at the end of your trip. We generally do.


Note that drink purchases and spa treatments already have a tip included in the fee. You are welcome to add an additional tip.


17. INTERNET FEES

The internet is not included in most cruise line base fees. Most cruise lines now offer two types of internet packages, a slower package for checking email and a faster package that allows video streaming and better use of social services. The packages are usually priced per device, meaning a one device package will only work on a single device at a time. To use another device requires logging off the first device.

These packages are much more expensive than your home based internet with fees of over $200 for a single device on a 7 night cruise not uncommon.

The one mainstream cruise line exception is Virgin Voyages which includes WiFi in their base cabin fees.


18. CRUISELINE APPS

In the past few years especially, the cruise line apps have been getting much better. Most all are available for both iOS and Android. Use of the app is 100% free onboard, so you don’t need an internet package just to use the app.


It’s best to download and set up the app before you get onboard. I recommend you set it all up at home a few weeks in advance of the cruise so everything is fully downloaded, updated and your profile is all set to go.


In most cases you’ll be able to bookmark and possibly make reservations for shows and dining via the app in advance of your cruise. Once onboard, you can check the daily schedule get shipboard directions, check menus, and sometimes make reservations and message others.


The messaging feature is incredibly useful, because again, you don’t need an internet package to use that feature. You can coordinate with other members of your party no matter where they are on the ship.


The apps vary wildly in accuracy and there are often glitches, but they can be very helpful onboard.


19. SWITCH ALL DEVICES TO AIRPLANE MODE AT SEA.

Most all cruise lines have “Cellular At Sea” services which essentially allows you to use the ship’s communications system to make calls from your mobile device and retrieve data while at sea. The cost for this service is generally $2.50 - $5.00 per minute and up. It’s not cheap.

If you don’t switch your cellular device to Airplane Mode, you could end up connecting to this Cellular at Sea service. Your mobile device will then be using this service to receive calls, retrieve emails, text messages and so on... at $2.50 per minute that’s $150 per hour. This fee will show up on your phone bill (or possibly your room account.)


While at port, you can often find shops with “Free WiFi” and depending on the cellular service you use, you can get free or discounted services on land. If you want to know where the free WiFi is at port, just ask the crew members who are exiting the ship. They know all the good spots.


20. PROHIBITED ITEMS

There are always many items that are prohibited on cruises.

Two obvious items are weapons and anything with an open flame. That means no candles or anything else with an open flame.

One of the less obvious prohibited items is a power strip.

In general, many cruise cabins have only one or two standard outlets. So plugging in all of your electronics that need charging can be a challenge. If a power strip is in use in your room, it will be removed and you can reclaim it at the end of your cruise. After our last cruise, we witnessed about 100 people in line to retrieve their power cords and power strips during disembarkation.


Fortunately the newer ships and those that have gone in for recent dry dock renovations are getting more power outlets and USB outlets making the need for a power strip unnecessary. For the latest on the power situation inside a particular ship’s cabin, check out the Boards on Cruise Critic where you can find first hand information and ask questions on pretty much any ship that sails.


You cannot bring your own beer or hard liquor onboard. Most lines have gotten savvy about putting liquor into 2 liter soda bottles so that trick most likely won’t work either. For the most part you can bring a bottle or two of wine onboard, but the rules for how much varies with each cruise line.

If you purchase bottles of alcohol in a port, they will be held until the end of the cruise.

You will not be permitted to take the alcohol to your cabin. It will be held by the ship when you go through security upon your return to the ship. The alcohol will be delivered to your cabin the final evening of your cruise.


21. CHANGE OF ITINERARY

The cruise line and the captain has the right to change the itinerary at their discretion. With or without advance notice.


Your cruise may skip stops altogether or swap out one port for another. Generally, this is done for weather related reasons but not always. For instance if the port requires the use of tenders, small boats to get to shore, and the weather is too rough to do this safely, the ship will skip the port. During hurricane season changes happen often due to the ever changing weather conditions.

We sailed during Hurricane Irma a few years ago and the itinerary completely changed as the storm was headed directly into the path of our planned cruise. We still had an 11-day sailing as planned, but the route changed.
Smooth sailing on Celebrity Equinox, Sept. 2017 during Hurricane Irma

You have to ‘roll with the flow’ when cruising. Cruise lines will refund any excursions reserved through the cruise line.


22. INDEPENDENT vs. CRUISE LINE EXCURSIONS

Cruise Lines offer excursions for all ports of call that can be booked directly through their websites or once onboard. You can also find dozens of independent tours and excursions at each port that you pay for directly.

There is one major difference between booking with the cruise line vs. booking an independent tour. The cruise line is responsible for getting you back to the ship.

That means if you book an excursion through the cruise line and it is late getting back to port, the ship will either wait for you (if it has time in the schedule) or the cruise line will get you to the next port on the itinerary. Yes, the ship might leave due to schedule restrictions, but the cruise line will drive, fly or send you on a boat to meet the ship at the next scheduled port.


If you book an independent tour and you are late getting back to port, and the ship leaves without you… you are on your own. You will have to figure out how to get back to the ship or get back home. Yes, this does happen.


In general, a ship will wait 30 to 60 minutes past the scheduled departure time to allow late guests a chance to get back onboard, but not always.

Mad Max Dune Buggies in St. Kitts, an independent tour.

Booking through a cruise line is always more expensive than booking independent because the cruise line just marks up the costs. If you plan to book an independent tour, do your research on sites like TripAdvisor and Cruise Critic. You can find plenty of information and reviews on pretty much any destination you’ll sail to.


One piece of advice is to take a tour that’s at least 2 hours shorter than your planned time in port and take the first tour if there are multiple tour times. This gives you the most flexibility to find alternative methods back to the ship if necessary.


23. US CURRENCY

Most of the Caribbean islands accept US dollars. A notable exception is Martinique which currently accepts Euros.


24. ONBOARD SHOPPING AND CASINOS

The casino and shops will be closed while the ship is in port. This is often a surprise to first time cruisers.


On most ships the casinos allow smoking. If you’re not a fan of smoking, you can generally avoid the casinos by going through an upper or lower deck.


25. DISEMBARKATION / LEAVING THE SHIP

There are two different ways to do the disembarkation.


Most commonly, you will get luggage tags which will indicate both your departure group number and what section of the terminal you will be able to find your checked bags. You will set these bags outside your cabin by a certain time on the final night of the cruise. Your app or your final daily newsletter should give you the time.


You’ll generally have to vacate the cabin by 8am but the buffet and some dining areas will be open that morning for breakfast. You will then either wait in a designated area for your disembarkation number or make one final tour of the ship.


As you exit the ship, your room key will be scanned for the very last time, then you head into the terminal to retrieve your luggage. Every port has a slightly different procedure for then going through customs. It can be as simple as a walk through a facial recognition system or you may have to wait to actually talk to a customs official. Usually, they will just ask you if you have anything to declare and look at your passport.


The other option is self-disembarkation. In this option, you take ALL of your bags off the ship yourself. This is generally only a good idea if you don't have too much luggage and need to get off really early such as you booked an early flight.


Generally you don’t want to book a flight much earlier than 11am on disembarkation day. While most ships arrive between 6 and 7am, if there are any weather or mechanical delays, it could set back the arrival time which can mess with your early flights. We had one cruise come back to port close to 11am due to a bad propeller which greatly slowed our progress back to port.

View from an aft balcony on the Disney Fantasy

Research Links

Here's some links to get you started on your research.


Cruise Critic - Reviews and User Forums on most every cruise line sailing. Reviews on Ports and Excursions as well.


Trip Advisor - Reviews for many excursions and independent tour companies.


Princess Cruises

Royal Caribbean Cruises

Disney Cruises

Celebrity Cruises

Norwegian Cruises (NCL)

Holland America Cruises

Virgin Voyages

MSC Cruises

Carnival Cruises


About Me

I'm a lifelong storyteller and wanna-be chef. You've seen my work on Food Network and PBS to name a few.  My favorite stories revolve around travel and food.

 

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