First Time Cruise Tips to help you plan

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Want to take a cruise vacation, but not sure what to expect? You’ve come to the right place! These first time cruise tips will help you plan like a pro and avoid the rookie mistakes.

When it’s a new experience, it really helps to learn from a seasoned pro to avoid the mistakes that come with “I didn’t know.”

Ship docked in port with another ship behind it.

So, read these planning tips for first time cruisers — and then book that dream vacation with confidence!

Choose a departure port that fits your needs

The first thing to consider is your budget and itinerary. Where is your departure port? And, what ports of call will you visit?

When you set a budget for your cruise, include hidden costs like transportation to the port and a hotel stay the night before if you are traveling by plane. That $1,500 cruise can get really expensive if it will cost a lot to get to the port.

For example, I took my daughter on a cruise for spring break and I had a very limited budget. Because of that, I narrowed our cruise down to two ports we could easily drive to: Charleston and Jacksonville. The best option for us was the Carnival Elation out of Jacksonville — it had the best price and travel costs were minimal, just the cost of gas and parking at the port (about $150).

If you find an inexpensive cruise, but you have to fly to the port, it could double your costs. Use our worksheet, “How to estimate travel expenses,” to help you decide which cruise best fits your budget.

Pick the best cabin for your needs

When you book a cruise cabin, your obvious choices are inside cabin (no view), outside cabin (view), balcony (view with outdoor space) or suites (luxury level accommodations with more space and perks). The inside cabins are usually cheapest.

But, that’s not the only thing to consider! This is probably one of the most important first time cruise tips!

Whether you book a cruise on your own or use a travel agent, check to see what is above your cabin, below your cabin and across the hall! I do not book cabins under the night clubs, the pool deck or the buffet restaurant as they tend to be noisy upstairs neighbors. I try to book with passenger cabins above and below me.

Cruise deck plan showing forward part of ship with staterooms and entertainment by deck level.
Forward part of ship showing how staterooms and public spaces stack up.

But, I also consider how far my cabin is from the elevator. I like to be far away from the elevators to avoid the noise, but if you have mobility issues, being closer to the elevators might be beneficial.

Another thing to consider is ocean motion! The closer you get to the front of the ship (forward cabins), the more you’ll feel the ship’s motion. The back of the ship (aft cabins), also tend to have more motion than cabins midship. Aft cabins with balconies sometimes get debris from the ship’s smokestack. In general, a midship cabin costs a little bit more, but for first time cruisers, it might be worth it.

Don’t miss the boat!

I’m in several cruise travel groups, and at least once a month, someone shares their horror story of missing the boat!

On embarkation day, which is the day you arrive at the cruise terminal to check in and board the ship, everyone MUST BE on board at least two hours before the ship’s scheduled departure. There’s no wiggle room!

Sometimes, people choose to fly in the morning of their cruise, and they miss the boat because of flight delays. While that was less common with early morning flights before 2020, it’s far more common now. Even if the cruise line organizes your air travel, the ship won’t wait if your flight is delayed. So, if you’re flying in, I urge you to fly in the day before and stay at a hotel near the cruise port that offers a shuttle to the cruise terminal. No one wants to miss vacation because of a flight delay.

Also, when booking flights home, do not book before 2:00 p.m. Cruises can be delayed by weather or have issues on return to port. I cruised recently, and the ship got back to port at 11:30 a.m. — much later than the scheduled 7:00 a.m. due to fog.

I have flown three times this year, for a total of six flights. And, three of them have had delays of more than four hours. It’s just not worth the risk to fly in the same day.

However you choose to get to the port, plan to arrive at least four hours before the last boarding time — more if at all possible. Consider things like flat tires, car accidents blocking traffic, and construction slow downs.

For our spring break cruise, we left home early morning for a planned arrival at the port at 11:00 a.m. There was a traffic accident on the highway, and we detoured around using the WAZE app. We arrived at the port about 12:30, plenty early for a 4:00 departure without major stress.

Don’t be late back to the ship on shore excursions

Another common mistake, either from booking independent shore excursions or from sitting at a bar and losing track of time, is returning to the ship late on shore excursions.

Carnival Elation in distance viewed through fallen tree on beach on Bimini shore excursion.

Recently, seasoned cruisers made the news when they missed their ship after booking an independent shore excursion in Africa.

Overwhelmingly, cruisers discussing this incident agreed with the cruise line that the cruise line did nothing wrong.


  • First, cruises follow a strict schedule. Waiting on stragglers puts the ship behind schedule, which could result in getting to the next port late disrupting everyone’s travel plans at the next port.
  • Also, cruise ships pay for dock time and boat tenders based on hours used. If the ship waits, its costs go up and that would eventually make all cruises more expensive.
  • Third, on EVERY CRUISE at EVERY PORT, the ship will announce repeatedly when to be back on board. EVERYONE knows when to be back. No one is exempt. And there’s no reason not to know. TIP: Make sure your clock/watch is set to ship’s time!
  • Fourth, when you book an independent shore excursion, your cruise documents clearly state that you are 100% responsible to be back in time. It’s up to you to determine the risks of a late return vs. the savings of booking independently. Read our article on booking shore excursions to learn more.

What you really need to pack for a cruise

The most popular post on my website, by far, is “what to pack for a 7 day cruise,” which explains what you need to pack and tips for how to pack for a cruise. The nice thing about cruising, though, is you don’t need special outfits — pack all casual, comfy clothes and skip the dining room on formal night if you don’t want to dress up.

family on formal cruise night.

Essentially, you need:

  • Clothes for non-pool times (no swimsuits in any dining rooms),
  • Swimsuits for the pool,
  • A jacket or hoodie (even the Caribbean gets chilly after dark),
  • Medications and cruise documents.

Of course, there are theme nights that are fun to dress up for (80s night, pirate night, glow party — people wear white and get glow necklaces), but they aren’t essential. And, many people enjoy getting dressed up for dinner because who has time for that back in the real world, but dressing up is not mandatory.

Dressed up for 80s night on the cruise.

Remember your cruise documents

So, if you forget all your clothes and your sunscreen, you can still cruise. It might be a bit awkward, but it’s doable.

But, if you forget your cruise documents, you won’t be allowed to board! Period. No ifs, ands or buts. No sob stories. No bending the rules. For safety, this is the one non-negotiable with cruising. Though, don’t travel when you’re sick is a very close second and travel insurance is a big help with that. But, I digress….

You cannot cruise without a photo ID (state issued — job badge and college ID are insufficient). You cannot cruise without a valid passport, a passport card OR a valid birth certificate. If your name has changed, the birth certificate is insufficient and you must also bring something to explain your name change like a marriage license. Further, the birth certificate must be the state issued certificate and not a photo copy.

The best choice is a valid passport. For European travel and South America, you’ll need at least six months remaining on the passport for it to be considered valid. For most US based travel to the Caribbean, Canada, Mexico and Alaska, the passport simply can’t expire before the end of the trip. Passports can take up to four months for processing unless you pay the expedited fee, so plan ahead!

Sadly, I have seen people turned away at almost every cruise I have taken for not having the right documents.

So that I don’t forget my cruise documents, I put the car keys in the same bag that the cruise documents are in. There’s no way to go without that bag!

Plan your onboard expenses

Cruises are not quite all inclusive, so knowing what to expect from your onboard experience is helpful.

First, drinks and drink packages. Many cruise lines offer drink package which can offer a savings over paying individually. Most cruise lines require all people age 21+ to get the drink package. You can’t get it for just one person. So, if one person drinks and another doesn’t, it might be better to skip the drink package. Or, if you only plan to have a few drinks, it’s not worth it to have the drink package. Weigh the options before you add it on.

WiFi and data roaming. Ship’s WiFi is not 100% reliable, and it’s a costly add-on. Many cruise lines have an onboard app that allows for free texting among the members of your travel party, so you might not need WiFi. Regardless of whether you purchase a WiFi package, make sure ALL devices (including smart watches) are switched to airplane mode with cellular data turned off so that you don’t end up with international roaming fees. You can check with your phone company to see what they offer for international travel to use on cruise port days.

Set limits on kids’ charging. One surprise expense that many families discover at the end of the cruise is kids’ charges in the arcade. Some cruises offer an arcade package, which includes some of the arcade games but not all. If kids (or adults) play the other games, there’s an additional charge. Or, if you don’t get the arcade package and the kids pay per game, you can rack up quite a bill.

You can pick and choose what expenses to have onboard. With just a little planning, you can avoid unexpected charges at the end.

Get travel insurance

Whether you’re taking a four day cruise to the Bahamas or an extended cruise to exotic ports, please get travel insurance. Almost every cruise I have been on, someone has gotten sick or injured and needed to leave the cruise early. Without medical travel insurance coverage, the cost of a medical evacuation can run upwards of $50,000.

If you miss the ship because of travel interruption, or your shore excursion gets back late and you need to fly to the next port to catch up, or your luggage gets lost, having travel insurance can help. Read the fine print to fully understand the coverages. I usually purchase travel insurance separately, not through the cruise line, but that is a convenient option.

There you go, our first time cruise tips to help you plan the perfect cruise vacation! Before you book it, make sure that getting to the port won’t be too difficult or too expensive. If flying, PLEASE arrive the day before. When you select your cabin, consider what’s above, below and across so you don’t end up in a noisy cabin. And, stay midship if you’re concerned about motion sickness. Pay attention to the all-aboard times. The ship won’t wait on you. Once the Coast Guard clears it to move, it’s going to move. Do a cost/benefit analysis for any cruise ship add-ons, particularly the drinks package. Is it worth it for the price? Or for the convenience? And turn all phones and smart watches to airplane mode to avoid expensive international data!

We’ve got lots more great cruise travel information on the site, so take a look. Happy cruising!