The Ultimate Guide to Cruising For First-Time Cruise Passengers (Updated 2018)


So, you’ve booked your very first cruise holiday and are starting to get excited. What should I pack? What do I need to prepare prior? You’re probably pondering these questions, among many others, prior to your set sail date. We’ve gathered some tips to ensure your first cruise is nothing but smooth sailing.

Pre-departure questionnaire, passports and visas, online check-in: Obligatory documents before departure

With the worldwide web at your fingertips, now’s the perfect time to do some indispensable research on your first cruise before even thinking about packing your bags. From connecting flights to cheap shore excursions, when it comes to your first cruise holiday it’s all in the preparation and planning.

First, you’ve got to fill out some travel documents. Namely, a form containing all of the important data for the authorities of the ports and countries you’ll be visiting during your cruise. You can easily fill out this form online when you complete your online check-in. Though the deadline can vary by cruise line, this form is typically due no later than one week before departure. Double-check that your travel documents will remain up-to-date and valid during the required time period as well. Give yourself plenty of time to apply for a new passport or a new ID card, if necessary.Stamped passport
The same goes for visas if any of the destinations you’ll be visiting require a visa for passengers of your nationality. Equally important is a pre-departure health check-up. Make sure you’ve got an ample supply of any medications you’ll need to take while cruising, and ask your doctor if you’ll need any vaccinations to travel safely in the destinations you’ll be visiting.

Planning your shore excursions: The earlier, the better

For the majority of cruise-goers, shore excursions are a must during any sea voyage – regardless of the destination. You can book your shore excursions independently or through your cruise operator.

Entrance of China town/ Safari

Presumably, you’ve already familiarised yourself with your cruise ship’s itinerary during your journey. The destinations may have even been your primary reason for booking this particular cruise. So you’ve probably got an idea or two about what you’d like to do or see in the different destination ports – whether you’d like to explore a specific city with its cultural treasures and tourist attractions, go on a bicycle excursion to work off those calories from the buffet, or go on a wild animal safari to get a glimpse of the local wildlife. Your cruise line will offer many different types of shore excursions that you can book long before your cruise. It’s also possible to book a shore excursion once you’re already on board, but keep in mind that some excursions are very popular and might already be sold out by the time you board the ship. It’s also important to note, that they’ll usually cost a lot more if booked aboard. Those who have done their research already know that by booking shore excursions before travel, you’ll be sure to save some money. Because of these reasons, we recommend you book before your journey. If you’re new to cruising, however, you may feel more comfortable disembarking the ship as part of a pre-arranged group.

If you prefer exploring on your own, keep in mind that the ship will leave right on time – with or without you. If you get held up and arrive back late at the port, you risk quite literally missing the boat. In this case, you’ll have to arrange your own transportation to the next port of call in order to board the ship again. This isn’t just stressful – sometimes it can be a very expensive detour as well. But if you stick with tours that are organised by the cruise line, if unforeseen circumstances delay your return to port, the ship will wait.

What goes in my suitcase?

Closed red suitcase and a hanging socks

Now that you’ve ticked the pre-cruise admin off your list, it’s time for the exciting part – packing. There are a few things that might be useful to know when packing for your first cruise holiday.

Broadly speaking, you should pack for the weather of the destination you’ll be visiting, just like any other trip. Medication, passport and travel documents, sunscreen, an adaptor, a hat to keep off the sun, appropriate clothing for the activities you’ll be participating in – this is a good place to start. If you like looking out over the open ocean, observing dolphins, sea birds, or other ships that come your way, a pair of binoculars is also a good idea.

Some of the less obvious items such as chewing gum and medication against motion sickness might be a good idea if you know you’re susceptible to getting seasick. Thanks to new stabilisation technology, the motion of the ship is much less noticeable on deck than in the olden days, but there’s always a chance of encountering rough seas for which you’ll want to be prepared.

Formally dressed man and woman watching the ship sail

You’ll also want to be prepared for the evening activities on board. Most cruise lines, for instance, require that passengers dress up for dinner when dining in a sit-down restaurant, and some have daytime dress codes as well. Most cruise lines also have at least one Formal Night per cruise, a festive occasion which many passengers take as an opportunity to dress to the nines. Formal Nights typically involve a meet-and-greet with the ship’s crew, a photo op with the captain, and an extra-special evening meal and so the dress code is formal to match. For longer itineraries, it’s not a bad idea to pack multiple nice outfits, particularly if there are no laundry services available onboard. On some cruise lines, such as Cunard, passengers really go all-out with ball gowns and heirloom jewellery, while on others, things are much more casual – such as Celebrity Cruises with its signature “Evening Chic” nights. The cruise line will provide you with detailed information about the onboard dress code before your departure.

But nobody has to dress up nicely if they don’t want to. If you’d prefer to avoid the festivities, at the ship’s buffet you can always come as you are. Some cruise lines also avoid Formal Nights altogether, such as Norwegian Cruise Line, which prides itself on “freestyle cruising” with its casual onboard atmosphere and lack of an official dress code.

What about carry-on luggage?

Your travel documents, your passport, and your medications belong in your hand luggage – on the way to the port as well as on the way home since you have to give up your suitcase at check-out time as well as check-in. It’s also recommended to carry a change of clothes with you in your carry-on. You’ll be able to enter your cabin at some point during the day after boarding, once the cabin has been cleaned and prepared for you, but depending on the size of the ship, it may take a little longer for your checked baggage to reach you there. If you’ve got a long journey to the port and you want to be able to change into fresh things as soon as you get into your cabin, it’s a good idea to carry the clothes with you in your hand luggage.

Getting there and checking in

At check-in time, you’ll receive your board card, which you’ll use for nearly everything on the ship. Your board card is your room key, your ID, and your credit card, all in one. You only need to show your credit card once, at check-in, and after that, your board card is your payment method for everything on the ship. You can leave your credit card in your cabin safe, only taking it out for shore excursions and the like. Whenever you leave and return to the ship, your board card is your key to check in and check out.

Shortly before departure

Finally, the time has come: You’re on the ship, about to embark on your first cruise. But there’s still one important hurdle to clear before you can start on your dream holiday: the muster drill. A safety drill is a necessary part of each cruise. It doesn’t matter if you’re cruising for the first time or the fifteenth – participation is mandatory. Some drills take place on deck using life jackets you’ve found in your cabin. Others take place in theatres and lounges. Regardless, this is where you’ll receive important information in case of an emergency. Remember to take your board card with you to the safety drill – the crew will scan every passenger’s card to make sure that everyone has participated.

Watching the ship sail by the balcony
After the muster drill, there’s not much longer to wait before the ship can depart. At this point, you’ll want to find a good place on the deck so you can watch as the ship sails out to sea. The departure is the highlight of any cruise. If you wait a few hours to start unpacking or exploring the ship, your patience will be rewarded.

A note on tips

Stack of coin

On most cruise lines, tipping is expected. Unless your cruise line specifically advertises that gratuities are included in the cruise fare and not expected, it’s a good idea to tip your cabin steward as well as the waitperson onboard if you’re satisfied with their service. Many cruise ship service staff members live from tips, and an extra dollar here or there can also be a way to guarantee great service. Even if the cruise line automatically calculates a per person, per day gratuity rate on top of your cruise fare, the staff will appreciate your generosity.

Checklist – what you should take with youCruise checklist

If you have any other questions regarding your first cruise, get in touch with the Cruise1st Australia team on 1300 857 345, and we’d be delighted to help. 

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