20 Great Tips For Your First Time On A Cruise

Norwegian Pearl - Tips for First Time Cruisers | Travel Guide | Elle Blonde Luxury Lifestyle Destination Blog

If you thought cruising was just for OAPs or elitists (like I once did) then you’d be very wrong. Fresh back from our first-time cruise on the Jon Bon Jovi Runaway to Paradise tour. Which was held on the prestigious Norwegian Pearl I learnt that cruising, is in fact for all! With the increased popularity of festival style cruises, the cruise liners are attracting a whole new different kind of cruiser. Discover our top 20 tips for your first time on a cruise.

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Cruising is huge, there are so many tips regulars of the cruise liners have learnt over their various cruises. There are some things that aren’t as widely vocalised too. So we’ve broken it down for you in our 20 handy tips for your first time on a cruise.

Although there are a multitude of different aspects to take into consideration including the cruise line, the demographics of people who are also going on the cruise. As well as the destinations and length of your cruise. We’re going to assume you’ve already chosen or booked your holiday and only give our onboard tips.

The very first tip though is always choose a room in the centre of the ship. This means that you’ll be closer to pretty much everything and if the ship experiences tough weather. You’re less likely to feel the sway of the boat.

1. Arrive at your departure city a day or more before the cruise

Regardless if your ship is leaving late in the afternoon you’ll want to arrive in the city of departure at least the day before. This is so that if your flight is delayed, there’s heavy traffic or another obstacle for you to contend with. You’re not going to miss embarkation and the ship won’t leave without you

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2. Check your cruiseliner’s FAQs section

I know this seems like an obvious thing to do, however, reading the FAQs page of your cruise operator may offer you a greater insight into what to expect. What to pack (and what not to pack), how the cruise works, drinks packages and allowances.

It will also give you other important information such as which documents you need to take with you, onboard currency. As well as other important things you need to know etc. Most cruise operators have an in-depth FAQs page designed for those on a first time cruise and it’s highly recommended that you read this before cruising. 

3. Easy embarkation 

As the Runaway to Paradise cruise was our first cruise, I didn’t know what to expect when heading into the terminal. Having only been on the DFDS Ferry to Amsterdam previously, this was very different. After dropping our luggage (which we had pre-labelled) at the door. We then got into the line inside the port terminal where we had photos taken and passes issued.

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If you have not pre-authorised a card this is also where they swipe your card for any onboard charges (more about that later). We opted for a 12:30pm boarding time. And although the atmosphere was chaotic and electric with excitement.

We only waited around 15 minutes to board the Norwegian Pearl. Many cruise websites suggest heading to the terminal early or late to avoid the queues. Norwegian’s system, however, was that where you chose a 30-minute embarkation time slot. This was extremely efficient. Check with your cruise operator for planning your embarkation time.

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4. Take a carry on with you

We had dropped our bags off at 12:30pm when entering the terminal. The expectation was that the bags would be delivered to our stateroom until between 3pm and 5pm. We decided to pack a carry on. After many recommendations for those on a first-time cruise. Which we packed our makeup, suncream, swimwear, camera and a change of clothes and a couple of other essentials.

Top tip: Pack a sports water bottle in your carry on and fill up at the hydration stations. This eliminates unnecessary cup usage and also saves you buying bottles of water. Which on this cruise were priced around $3 per bottle

5. Enjoy all the ship has to offer

From the moment you get on the ship the dining facilities and bars are open, while you’re waiting to depart from the port take advantage of these locations to fill some time. On embarkation day we headed to the outdoor buffet on the stern (back) of the Pearl and enjoyed our lunch looking at the skyline of Barcelona, which was extremely pleasant!

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Before you even leave your home for your cruise, have a look at the ship’s plan online. You can usually find this on their website. If not, on embarkation you’ll be given a ship map. Carefully look at the map and familiarise yourself with where everything is on board. Also, have a look for the attractions and other activities you’d like to visit. This will save you wandering aimlessly when trying to get to places on the ship. 

6. No cash required – cashless onboard system

Norwegian, like the majority of cruises, operates a cashless system. Which is both a blessing and a curse all at once. If you’re like me and hate carrying cash, then it’s great as you just hand over your keycard and charge it to your pre-authorised card. On the other hand, you can get overzealous and your spending may run away with you when you’re just charging to a plastic room key.

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The things that may incur costs include alcoholic drinks, speciality coffees or smoothies, meals in non-complimentary restaurants, spa treatments, WiFi, shop purchases, cruise shore excursions, additional fitness classes, some adventure activities and entertainment experiences.

Pay in the currency of the cruise liner

Of course, you’ll be charged in the currency of the cruise liner. For example Norwegian, an American cruise line charges all accounts in USD ($). Which when the pound is strong, spending onboard is attractive, with a current weak pound it’s not so attractive. 

Sometimes (not always) you’ll have the option to have your onboard account converted into your local currency. As a frequent traveller, I always recommend paying in the currency charged in and not converting it. This way you’re likely to obtain a greater exchange rate.

7. Should you buy the drinks package?

If you’re thinking about buying the drinks package do the maths before committing. If you’re a big drinker it may actually be worthwhile and a good deal however, the additional rules associated with the drinks package can make them quite pricey.

Most American cruises add a 15% charge on all alcoholic drinks which also includes 15% on the drinks package too. There are many cruise lines that force each person in the cabin to take out the drinks package to avoid sharing of drinks. You also must buy the package for the entire cruise (even port days). Rule of thumb means that you’ll have to drink around 7-10 drinks daily on the cruise for it to be beneficial. 

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You can on the other hand purchase bottles of spirits before your trip. These are exorbitantly priced (£97 for 1l of Bacardi), however, in the long run, will save you money as opposed to purchasing measures from the bar. You are able to take your alcohol purchased wherever onboard as you wish.

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Also, be aware that when walking around the ship often you’re often offered a drink which appears to be complementary, however, is chargeable. We found this out the hard way when we went to ‘Bingo and Brunch’ which included brunch, the crew were walking around with Mimosas and Bloody Marys. We opted for 2 Mimosas whilst purchasing bingo tickets and then also received a $15 bill for our drinks.

Soft drinks packages

There are additional options to add a soft drinks package on to your account, a children’s package and so on. These vary between cruise operators. Cruise liners are reducing plastic waste and there’s the growing popularity of water available from the hydration stations.

As previously stated, if you take your own bottle on board you not only save unnecessary cup waste. You can carry your bottle around and remain hydrated. On the Norwegian Pearl, there was also complimentary fresh lemonade, cranberry, apple, orange and other assorted fruit juices available from the buffet.

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There are, however, some cruise lines which are now all-inclusive. So do check which options are available when it comes to booking your cruise and work out based on your usual alcohol consumption which option is most beneficial for you.

Prior to booking if you look around for special offers your travel agent or cruise line may throw in the free drinks package for you as an incentive to book. It’s great to know about these incentives if you are looking for a first time cruise you’ll love.

8. Check the guidelines for bringing alcohol on board

Each cruise line has its own policy regarding how much (if any) alcohol you can bring on board with you. Some allow you to bring a bottle or two of wine or champagne on. However, it is highly recommended that you check directly with your cruise operator to understand your allowances and if there are corkage fees associated before you board to avoid having anything confiscated or incurring unknown charges.

9. Know your Gratuities for your first time cruise

This was something that we researched before we cruised and it ultimately saved us money. Most cruise lines use an automatic gratuity system, which is linked to your cashless onboard payments. The gratuities from the trip are pooled and distributed amongst the housekeeping, dining crew and staff providing behind-the-scenes support. Gratuity is added whenever you’re served, this is usually between 15-18%.

With this in mind when signing for anything onboard do check the itemised bill prior, as there’s often a second line to add tips. There’s simply no reason for you to tip twice unless the service was outstanding so keep this in mind. This is often a tumultuous topic if you’re not used to a tipping culture. As no two cruise lines are the same, the gratuity system and tipping policy can change cruise to cruise. 

Tips already included

Some cruise lines do not ask for or expect tips, these are built into the price. With some of these allowing you to add an additional tip in cash (if you wish). Some cruise lines charge a gratuity or service charge (or whatever name they give it) on additional services such as spa treatments. This is automatically added to your final bill, however, it can be removed if you’re not happy with the service. If you use additional services such as private butlers and event coordinators it is appropriate to tip in these instances.

Other cruise lines add a fixed amount per passenger per day to your account for gratuities. This fixed amount may either appear daily on your onboard account (which you can usually check on the interactive TV in your cabin) or it will be added towards the end of your cruise. There are a small number of cruise liners which allow you to prepay gratuities before sailing, although this does mean you’re paying for a service you haven’t yet received. 

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Not happy paying a service charge?

So what happens if you don’t want to pay the service charge? Or you want to pay less (or even more)? Head to the Purser to discuss this with them and they should adjust the amount accordingly. Be aware they will begrudge doing this and may ask you what you’re unhappy with. Don’t do this on the final day though as the Purser is always really busy.

On the Norwegian cruise, gratuities were charged at $16.50 per person per day and in all fairness this rate was fair and acceptable as the housekeeping were incredible offering both morning and turn down service. The restaurant staff worked tirelessly and everybody we encountered was always jovial and polite. This is no different from paying resort fees in Las Vegas.

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10. Onboard Credit

Onboard credit is often mentioned frequently (also known as OBC, SBC (shipboard credit) or OBS (onboard spend). This is often used by cruise lines as an incentive to encourage passengers to cruise with them.

If you’re given an OBS this is applied to your room account and once aboard the ship it is deducted from your account on all of your purchases automatically. Once you’ve used your onboard credit your debit/credit card will then kick in for any spending over this amount. Do double check that this OBC has been applied (if you have been given any) on the first day and then do check your bill before debarkation.

11. Pace yourself 

The first time on a cruise can be overwhelming, especially if you the ship is larger in size than you had first anticipated. For us, and if you’re on a festival-style cruise, you’ll definitely want to take heed of this tip. Pace yourself! You absolutely don’t have to complete everything on the first day!

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Take your time and plan when you can fit in everything. Prior to cruising the Runaway to Paradise cruise, we received an itinerary with all of the different bands on and events happening. We sat down and planned who we’d go and see and when. Keeping in mind we wanted to make the most of our 4-day cruise without burning ourselves out. We paced ourselves and it’s a good idea for you to too!

Which leads us nicely onto…

12. Itinerary changes

Things on and off-board can change the itinerary. Keep this in mind. Some itineraries change due to an issue with the ship, the weather or even issues in port. More often than not cruise lines will try and sub-one port for another, however, it isn’t unheard of for them to just scrap a stop altogether.

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Even itineraries on the ship are subject to change. For example on the Tuesday after some hairy high winds and gruesome rain, the pool deck was closed. Bon Jovi was supposed to play an acoustic set here, however, itinerary changes meant he played his set in one of the ship’s theatres.

He actually did 2 sets as the theatre only held 1,000 capacity and there were 2,000 on the cruise. In hindsight for everybody, this worked out as a far better itinerary change as the set was more intimate. This also had a knock-on effect to the rest of the evening’s itinerary after his set, however, everybody just rolled with it.

13. Take the stairs (whenever possible)

At all costs try and use the stairs instead of the elevators when you can. It’s far quicker to use the stairs, as most people are waiting to use the elevators. You’ll either spend ages waiting or you’ll go up and down once inside before reaching your deck. Plus it’s a good way to burn off some of those extra calories you consumed at the buffet!

14. Know the food options

Food is available 24 hours a day with a multitude of different dining options. From a formal dining room to speciality restaurants, buffets and snack bars. Check with your specific cruise as to which restaurants are included and which have an additional charge. Sometimes the cruise liner offers an additional speciality dining package to encourage you to eat in more of the restaurants that are at an additional charge.

The buffets have a wide array of counters with international cuisines cooking up a feast. Sometimes they do theme nights, or they are themed to suit your destination. While we were on board it was Matt Bongovi’s birthday. So the buffet chefs had baked cupcakes and birthday cakes and carved watermelons. They were serving a turkey dinner as the carvery choice with all the New Jersey traditional accompaniments.

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Catering for dietary requirements

We enjoyed an expansive salad bar too and with a mix of burgers, pizzas, curries, soups, specials of the day and more there was something for everybody. Norwegian even had a special Vegan section too and the food labelling was pretty good for anybody with intolerances. 

The desserts cabinet is always worth a look as they create some incredible small desserts for you to enjoy. Also, be aware that many cruise lines offer an option to take food ‘to-go’. Simply grab a disposable box fill it up and either take it to your room for later or enjoy it on the go.

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Opening hours

Do know which food places are open at which times so that you’re never wandering around for a bite to eat.

I highly recommend taking a blind leap and sampling dishes you wouldn’t usually choose as the food is delicious and it’s a great way to try something new. 

Order all the dishes

If you’re sat at the dining room, you are able to order as many dishes as you like, so feel free to order a couple of starters, mains and desserts to try if you wish. I’m not an advocate of food waste, however, if you think you can eat it, order it. Dinner in the main dining rooms is one of the few amenities included in your cruise fare, you can take advantage by ordering however many dishes you wish without the cost spiralling.

If you’re not adventurous and enjoyed last night’s dinner, you could order it again. A lot of people don’t realise that cruise lines will bend over backwards to make you happy. You are often able to order items from the dining room, even if they aren’t listed on the menu that night. So if you enjoyed something a few nights earlier, ask your server if there’s any chance of having it again. 

Free room service

Another thing you might not know is that for the most part, room service is free. Usually, in hotels, this is an (overpriced) luxury, however, on a cruise, it’s a free perk. You’re able to order breakfast the next morning by hanging a completed menu on your stateroom’s cabin door, or you can order lunch or dinner if you don’t feel like going to the buffet. It is typically free (probably tip your server a few $). Some cruise lines do charge for certain items on the menu, however, these will be clearly marked. You may also see a charge if your order very late at night too.

15. Keep it down, the walls (and everybody around you) can hear you

With a lot of cabins in close proximity and thin walls, you can hear a lot of movement in both the hallway and adjoining rooms. Although you won’t hear the cabin next to you watching TV on a normal volume, we felt like at times, we were part of the next cabin’s conversations when they were speaking (rather) loudly on their balcony.

Things to know if you are on a first time cruise | Travel Guide | Elle Blonde Luxury Lifestyle Destination Blog

16. Hairdryers are provided

One of the most asked questions I saw in the Runaway to Paradise Facebook Group prior to the cruise was ‘are there hair dryers in the rooms?’ and there are. You can save space and weight by leaving your hairdryer at home as there’s a hairdryer available. Irons, on the other hand, are not permitted on board, however, you can ask guest services to borrow one of theirs. Do check your specific cruise booking to see which items you can and can’t take with you. 

Our room was complete with a safe, mini-bar, TV, hairdryer and in the bathroom, there were also miniature toiletries and shampoo and shower gel pumps in the shower. If you’re limited on space when travelling, double-check as you might save yourself packing these.

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17. Port days

We stopped for a day in Palma whilst Jon Bon Jovi got onboard. Having never been to Palma, although extensively having been to other Spanish cities, we decided to explore for the day. Knowing what time we were supposed to be back on board, we told ourselves the deadline was 2 hours before. This was so that we had plenty of time to get back without worrying we’d miss the ship leaving. Know your port times, make sure you plan in advance so that you’re not running to your sailing off into the distance!

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As you’ll have an itinerary with the ports of call and debarkation and re-embarkation times on this will allow you to plan your shore excursions. You can book these through the ship or you can book externally. Remember your ship’s departure time is non-negotiable so make sure you leave plenty of time to return regardless of which activity you book.

We quite like to do the City Sightseeing Tours when in a new city to get an understanding of where we are and the history. You can usually get a good deal here.

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Do research your port calls and what the destinations have to offer and what you can do in the time you have that’s enjoyable as well as something that is not going to cause stress when getting back for your ship timing. Often by booking excursions prior to cruising you can get a good deal online as opposed to booking when you get there.

Skip a port day

You can always skip a port day. These days are often the quietest days on the ship. Meaning there are a lot fewer people around and you are free to enjoy the ship’s activities without the crowds. Do weigh this up though as you will be calling at some beautiful destinations and I’m a firm believer of seeing the world up close and not from a ship’s deck.

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18. Pack cool weather clothes

Lesson learnt the hard way. I told you it rained, it was horrifically windy and the ship felt cold. This girl over here had only packed little dresses and strappy tops, because you know when in Spain, despite having been in the rain in Spain at the start of the year at a Bootcamp. Perhaps one day I’ll learn? Make sure you pack a sweater, cardigan or wrap in case it’s a cooler day at sea. Sometimes the evenings are a little cooler too. Remember you’re going to be in the middle of the sea!  Hopefully, you won’t need it, but it might save you spending $50 on a sweater in the gift shop?


19. Leave your luggage out before 12am

On debarkation day, some people like to get off early, cruises offer early debarkation for passengers who carry off their luggage. The majority of passengers opt for this route (not us). This often results in a long wait to get off, instead if you leave your luggage outside your room before 12am on the day of departure it will be collected and taken off the ship for you and will be waiting for you in the port terminal.

This gives you time to enjoy your final breakfast and depart at your cabin’s normal debarkation time which is an all-round better experience than standing in a queue at silly o’clock in the morning.

20. Tag your bag

Okay, admittedly, this is something nobody told us about at all! We were given a tag we printed at home for our luggage for getting on board, however, we were unaware that for debarkation you were required to obtain another luggage tag (still not sure where from?) to place on our bag.

We thought we were the purple colour so left when the purple group were called to debarkation only to find our luggage off the ship in the ‘miscellaneous’ section and not in the purple section despite it having a purple boarding tag.

Do check with guest services the protocol for debarkation and find out where to get your bag tag to ensure that your bag doesn’t end up in the lonely hearts club like ours did.

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Top tip: If you don’t want to struggle with your luggage around the city all day before a later flight home, you can book your bag on a service which is transported from the port terminal to the airport and you simply take a ticket and collect your luggage at the airport’s left luggage. We paid €15 for this service, it would have been cheaper pre-booking however was also the first time we used this service. We’d highly recommend it for ease. Just simply search ‘cruise to airport bag drop YOUR CITY/PORT’ on a search engine and you’ll find the service provided in this location.

Cruising terms

  • Berth – the name of the in-built bed or bunk in your stateroom
  • Bow – the front of the ship
  • Bridge – navigational control of the ship which is usually off-limits to passengers
  • Cruise Director – “the face of the cruise” and who is in charge of hosting events
  • Deck Plan – the map of the cruise ship (and will be integral to finding your way around)
  • Dock vs Tender – next to each Port Of Call on the itinerary it will state dock or tender. Dock is when the ship will dock next to land and you will walk straight off into port; a tender is when the ship will anchor in a bay close to port and you will be transferred across to land on a smaller vessel.
  • Galley – the ship’s kitchen
  • Gangway – the ramp you will use to embark/disembark the ship
  • Muster Station – every passenger is assigned a ‘muster station’ close to their stateroom and this is where you gather (with your life jacket) in the event of an emergency. You will be called to the muster station at the start of the cruise as it’s Maritime Law so that the staff can go through the emergency procedures with you. Make sure you attend and pay attention!
Port – left side of the ship when facing the Bow (front)
  • Port Expenses – each port of call will levy a charge based on local taxes and fees which are charged to the shop and in turn passed on to customers. These fees are not usually included in the cruise price.
  • Port of Call – a designated stop (or port cities) on your itinerary
  • Purser – the man or woman that oversees all financial transactions on board
  • Roll – in rough seas you may feel a little side to side motion which is known as the ‘roll’
  • Sea Day – When the ship does not dock or visit a port of call and remains on the water all-day
  • Shorex – an abbreviation of ‘shore excursions’ you can book these through the ship or independently.
Starboard – right side of the ship when facing the Bow
  • Stateroom – your cabin, or if you have upgraded, your suite
  • Stern – the back of the ship

Have you been on a cruise and think we’ve missed a top tip? Let us know in the comments below.

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