Things to know before your first cruise

So, you’ve decided you want to try a cruise. You might know exactly where you want to go and what kind of ship you want to sail on, or you might have no idea where to begin. That’s where your Travel Counsellor comes in: they will get to know you personally and help to find the perfect cruise for you. Whether it’s a boutique river cruise, 2 weeks sailing the Caribbean on a family-friendly adventure or something further afield and more obscure, your Travel Counsellor will be able to match your perfect cruise to you.

We chatted to Su, one of our Travel Counsellors and cruise enthusiasts, to get her advice for first-time cruisers. Here’s some of the things she discusses with her new-to-cruisers to help them set sail on the high seas.

How long do you want to go for?

For your first ever cruise, you might not want to risk spending 14 days at sea. Luckily plenty of cruise lines now offer two to five night itineraries, for example Cunard’s city break cruises departing from Southampton and heading to Hamburg, Amsterdam, Bruges and more. Su says she always recommends a 5-7 night cruise, so passengers can really get a feel for cruising as 2 days at sea is just not long enough, not for Su anyway! Su also says : “You should look out for ’at sea’ days, as this is the time when folk who have never cruised may find it odd spending all day on board. Most 7-10 night Mediterranean and Caribbean cruises have a port of call on most days so can be a good choice if you’re worried about getting cabin fever’”

What kind of atmosphere would suit you?

“Some cruises P&O and Cunard, to name a couple still have the formal dress codes which are strictly adhered to, so if guests don’t want to do the whole black-tie/cocktail dress thing then steer away from that. Many others have a ‘Captain’s Night’, which is still smart but not as formal or strict, so you can enjoy getting dressed up but don’t have to worry too much.” We’d always advise packing appropriate clothing and footwear for on and off board, remember you will be exploring your ports of call! If dress code and on-board etiquette are a concern for you, Su says: “there is so much choice of cruises now, with the size and style of ships, destinations and activities, there really is something to suit all tastes”.

What about where you sleep?

Of course, it would be nice to have a luxurious 3-room suite with fabulous views, but sometimes budgets don’t quite stretch to that. Think about how much time you’ll be spending in your cabin, and whether you will find it good value for money. “If you are looking simply for the best deal, then this is always an inside cabin. I have many clients who are happy with this as they don’t spend any time in their cabin and would rather spend their money elsewhere. But my advice for any first timer is to go for at least an ocean view and, if possible, a balcony. Once you’ve sailed with the sea air in your cabin and enjoyed breakfast or pre-dinner drinks on the balcony, there’s no going back! Plus, the pool-side can get busy so it’s nice to have your own sanctuary of space” says Su.

And what you like to eat?

“Food is a massive part of cruising, and hearsay would have you believe you can put on half a stone in a week’s cruise… and that’ not far wrong! Think whether you would be happy with set dining times or prefer to eat whenever you want, this might help to narrow down your options at least!” says Su. “This brings me to another point; drinks! Quite a few lines offer drinks packages and often the earlier you book, the better the deal you get so the drinks packages might be included for free. I’ve often had clients say “oh I don’t drink much” but it can be surprising how quick a few soft drinks by day and a wine or two with dinner can add up so it might be wise to buy a drinks package”.

Keeping busy on board

One of the best things about cruise ships is the range of activities on board. There’s plenty of opportunities to try something new, and if you decide you don’t like it, you can go and find something else just around the corner! “It depends on the age and choices of each customer, if it’s a family with small children then look towards Norwegian/MSC/Disney and Royal Caribbean whose ships are family-focused and have lots of fun things on board including ice skating, rock climbing and water parks to name a few. If it’s a couple then perhaps look at Celebrity Cruises or Holland America” advises Su. “There’s always lots going on from outdoor games and activities, demonstrations from the chefs and crew, dancing, films – the list is pretty endless so you really can be as active as you want or simply sit back, relax, and let the waiter bring you another cocktail!”

It’s the same story by night; there is plenty of choice on board a cruise ship so you can spend your evening however you want. “From a quiet piano bar, where you can enjoy a cocktail reading a book if that’s what you prefer, to cabaret shows by brilliant entertainers and guest artists are often flown in for one night, you can take part in family games shows like ‘Deal or No Deal’ or ‘Play Your Cards Right’ and it’s usually rounded off by late night disco”.

With so much going on on board and on shore, there’s no way you’ll be able to see and do it all unless you have super-human powers. So, don’t stress about missing stuff. Think about what you actually want to do and don’t worry about trying to fit it all in. Plus, many of the on-board activities will still be open whilst the ship is in port, so you’ll find they are quieter when everyone else is on land. And remember, you’re on holiday, so enjoy the fact that you don’t have to do anything.

Tipping and on-board credit

“Tipping is a real discussion point and can be confusing, especially for first-timers. A lot of the American-owned ships now offer a “pre-paid gratuities” option and if you don’t want to pay this you have to speak to the purser within a day of boarding. Many of my customers still express their wishes to pay the staff themselves who they feel have gone above and beyond to serve them, so that’s an occasion when you would need to avoid the pre-paid gratuities”. ‘On board credit’ is money for you to spend on spa treatments, excursions, special meals or other things on board. You might get it by booking by a certain deadline, or it might be included as an option when you book. For example, you might have the choice between a number of free shore excursions or a certain amount of OBC, you can pick which you prefer when you book.

If you don’t ask, you don’t get

The service on board a cruise really is exceptional. “Every evening, on all cruises I’ve done there’s been a nightly turn down service, and the cabin steward would leave the plan for the following day’s schedule” says Su. Most cruise lines offer free room service, so if you don’t have the energy to get showered and dressed up for dinner after a long day on shore, you don’t have to! Plus, breakfast on your balcony is a lovely way to start the day, and means you can be up and off quicker than trailing to the dining room and back.

Most cruise lines will be more than happy to show you the ‘Bridge’; this is the control centre where the navigation and steering of the ship takes place. They probably won’t advertise this because thousands of visitors can be quite distracting for the crew, but if you ask, chances are you’ll be able to see the action for yourself. Crews are more than happy to help guests, so if you have any questions or issues when on board, you can always ask one of the staff, and of course your Travel Counsellor will be able to help you out should anything go wrong whilst you are on your cruise.

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