So, you decided to try cruising instead of your usual all-inclusive resort, backpacking, or road trip. You’ve been telling yourself you wouldn’t want to be trapped on a boat for a week or more because you’re claustrophobic/get seasick/want to explore more/etc. The excuses go on.
That was me before I gave it a go.
Working for a travel agency, I’ve received amazing opportunities to explore the world. Even being one of the top selling products, cruising was still something I was hesitant about. I know everything about them and convinced others why to take them, but I was never able to tell clients any first-hand tips and experiences. I finally decided to take one for myself.
I went on a trip with several other first-time cruising travel consultants on a 7-night Western Caribbean cruise including Jamaica, Haiti, and finally Mexico. It wasn’t my first choice for destinations, having been to 2 out of 3 countries, but hey it was free!
Getting some special treatment and a few added perks because of my status in the travel industry, I was able to experience a lot that most people don’t. Now, that doesn’t mean that you can’t do what I did. I just had been pre-planned to do these things to get a better grasp on what cruising is all about. And now I can share that with other first-time cruisers.
So, what’s the secret to having the best cruise?
1) Pack what you need
I think the hardest part of the whole trip was figuring out what the heck I was going to take with me. I was going to the Caribbean, so of course I needed a lot of summer clothes, right? Kind of. I ended up packing way too much stuff I never wore or considered wearing and spent way too much money on a summer wardrobe that I could have spent on guacamole in Cozumel.
Of course, it depends what type of cruise you go on for your first, but generally there are two formal nights and the rest are “country club casual” as several put it, meaning just wear something decent – not your cut-offs or swimsuit, but something you might wear to a nice dinner or party. I found that I could have packed 3 or 4 pain dresses, a couple statement necklaces, and a sweater or two to switch it up. No one in my group noticed or they were doing the same thing. You’re only wearing it for dinner and maybe a show later, so chances are pretty slim it getting dirty enough to retire for rest of the week.
For excursions while in port, I also found that less is more. All of my day trips included the beach or the water so of course I just needed my swimsuit and a coverup. You’ll be gone the majority of the day for your excursions so these outfits are the majority of what you’ll be wearing. I found that a plain, flowy, cotton dress over my swimsuit was perfect. It’s cute and dried easily so I was okay wearing my swimsuit underneath, even when wet. And of course, I wore it a couple times because I’m going to the ocean both days, why bother packing something for every day?
Of course, there are other types of excursions in different parts of the world. So, in that case, layers are your friend. Learn to customize plain, basic pieces with jewelry, scarfs, and jackets to create a different look each day. And, if you sweat a lot and are worried about wearing the same shirt multiple times, I learned from a friend that sticking pantyhose in the armpits of your shirt works wonders! #travelhack
2) Bring on a carry-on with the necessities
This was the biggest tip someone gave me.
I am really bad about packing carry-ons because I like being able to stroll through the airport with nothing but my phone, ID, coffee, and my boarding pass. I’ve had my luggage lost before but I guess I never learned my lesson.
When you pull into port, you will hand off your luggage with tags indicating your deck and room number to the attendants in the drop-off area. Then you play the guessing game of when your luggage will actually be delivered to your stateroom.
If you decide to arrive early (see below why I think you definitely should), you probably will want to freshen up, use the pools while they’re still uncrowded, or get ready for the night ahead. Doing this is hard when you don’t pack anything but your phone, ID, boarding pass, and an empty coffee cup like me.
In my carry-on I brought my swimsuit, a coverup, a dress for dinner, an easy outfit in case my luggage got lost, and all of my toiletries. (Full packing list to follow.) I ended up not getting my luggage until that night after dinner! Props to the workers for figuring out where thousands of bags go, but I definitely would have been in a bind if I hadn’t had everything I needed for dinner that night, especially since I was there for a conference and needed to make a good first impression.
Also, coffee breath is not a good feature – pack your toothbrush!
3) Arrive early
On most cruise lines, you are able to board the ship as early as 11AM. Why not take advantage of the early boarding?
Many people drive in and are busy waiting in lines of traffic to park or would rather not take the early morning flight so they push arriving off until the last minute – and that’s okay if you’re one of many of us who struggle with mornings! When I saw that I had to leave for the airport at 3AM after working the night before, I about fell over. Even though I was beyond exhausted, my adrenaline was pumping and kept me awake the first day on board.
After a 45 minute ride from the Orlando airport to Port Everglades, we sat in the taxi for at least another 30 just waiting to get into the drop off zone. Although I was dying to get out and stretch my legs, I just sat in absolute awe staring at the huge cruise ships lined up, including the one I’d be on – Oasis of the Seas. I dropped off my tagged luggage and bolted towards check-in to get inside the ship ASAP.
I was so glad to arrive early. The ship wasn’t extremely crowded but was still buzzing with excitement. While waiting for my luggage to arrive to my room, I was able to grab a bite to eat in the buffet, missing the huge rush that was to come a few hours later, and explore the ship. I wanted to get oriented with where I was on the ship so I made a point to go to the dining room, the meeting rooms, entertainment venues, etc starting from my stateroom. Nothing worse than being completely backwards when you’re running late to meet your new friends or your specialty dining reservation!
I was also able to snag a spot along the railing to wave goodbye to everyone on land during the sail-away party. It was amazing on its own, just feeling the wind blowing through your hair as you first pull away from shore.
I was over the top exhausted by the end of the day but so glad I was able to enjoy the entire day and orientate myself with the ship before it all began.
I hear time and time again from returning (and a bit obsessive) cruisers that why they keep cruising boils down to two main reasons: A floating hotel taking to you a different city/island/country everyday and the social aspect.
If you like to meet new people, especially from all over the World, cruising is a great way to do this. People from all over Europe, South America, North America, Asian, and you know the rest, come on all kind of cruises. They want to explore the world just like us right? Chances are, they want to meet new people from other cultures while they’re there too! With some of the bigger ships, and yes even the small ships, there are plenty of venues to meet and mingle with other people. Eventually after being on the ship a few days, you will start recognizing the same people go to the places you like to go to. Intruduce yourself!!
A regret of mine was not continuing the conversation when a French man asked me if I had sang at karaoke the night before. Maybe we could have sang a duet that night!
5) Stray off the beaten path
Sometimes cruise lines have great shore excursions, sometimes they don’t. Most of the time you will be bearded like cattle on a big bus to a destination crowded with other tourists. If it’s an excursion you are dying to see and it hits all the highlights you are looking for, by all means you should take the ship’s excursion! However, if you’re looking for some local flavor, I suggest taking a 3rd party tour (check with your travel agent – or me! – to make sure they are credible) or do some exploring on your own. My favorite travel memories are moments stumbling into landmarks while roaming around or eating at a restaurant recommended by a local. These are the things you’ll remember, not the history of a small town in the Caribbean (unless you’re into that sort of thing).
The absolute best experience of my life was swimming right next to a sea turtle in Cozumel, Mexico. I was with a small group with a local tour operator. There’s no way I would have had that experience with hundreds of other tourists off the boat! After, I ventured off into the city where I went to a local restaurant my taxi driver recommended – best guacamole ever!!!
These were 5 things I wish I had known prior or were great tips I’m glad I received before my trip. Regardless, you will have a great time and I won’t be surprised when you come back with cruising fever! P.s. You’ll gain a few pounds from the endless food and desserts. Don’t worry – you deserve it.