What to expect on the ship: cruises for first-timers

What to expect on the ship: cruises for first-timers

Last Updated on June 22, 2020 by Laura Cooper

So, you’re going on a cruise. You’re off to sail the high seas and enjoy all that the ships have onboard, from Vegas-style entertainment to kids clubs and dining like you wouldn’t believe. But being a first time cruiser can be intimidating, and there are lots of tips and tricks you might not know about if you’ve only taken an all-inclusive vacation in the past. With so many on-board activities, excursions, ports to visit, and ship terms to know, we don’t want to have you swimming to keep up or not enjoying your hard-earned vacation to its fullest.

Whether you’re packing for your first cruise, or whether you’ve sailed before and cruises from Canada are second nature, here are the best things to know about cruise ships before boarding:

You probably aren’t required to dress to the nines

Most cruise ships don’t require you to dress up for formal meals anymore, but you’ll want to check with your cruise line to make sure. Though some restaurants on-board might still be considered fancy, most cruise lines have dropped their standards from full ball gowns and black sequin dresses and tuxedos to simply evening chic or smart casual: throw a cocktail dress and heels or a dress shirt and blazer in your suitcase and you’ll be ready to go. Don’t feel stressed about fitting these dress codes, though. Cruise ships have so many restaurant options you can totally avoid needing to put effort into your look and stick with sundresses and pants and golf shirts and eat at one of the many other on-board options (and with Carnival offering Guy Fieri’s burgers, how can you go wrong?). Resort casual is the cruise-ship evening dress of choice for most lines (think date night). While packing, don’t forget to look at what activities are offered on board and in destination for your vacation. Cruise ships sometimes offer activities like rock climbing walls or golfing excursions, and you’ll want to throw a pair of socks and closed-toe shoes in between the flip flops and bathing suit for activities like these.

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Lobster meal in specialty restaurant on-board a cruise ship

Know the additional costs you might come across on the ship. Cruises aren’t all all-inclusive

All-inclusive cruising is an option: and what better way to experience the lifestyle of an all-inclusive resort, while experiencing the multiple destinations of a cruise? Not everything is included if you’re not opting for an all-inclusive package, however. Make sure to read over the fine-print of your drink package to find out if specialty coffees, bottled water, and other drinks are available to you at no extra cost. Looking for a special dinner, specialty cupcake café, or fancy ice cream? You might find you’re paying extra. Gratuities are sometimes also not prepaid with your package on the ship. Cruises differ depending on cruise line, but extras like excursions, casino visits, on-board shops, and spa services will be extras across any cruise line. We also recommend double-checking your receipt, as most specialty restaurant or drink receipts already include a gratuity charge, so you won’t want to add a tip and be surprised you’ve tipped twice when reviewing receipts later.

TIP: Don’t forget that cruises are also cash-free societies so there’s no need to carry cash or cards on you; you can have services, casino money, and extras like drinks or special treats billed to your room.

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Make sure you know visa requirements for your ports of call

Look at your itinerary carefully before you leave on your vacation and make sure there aren’t any special passport or visa requirements for your ports of call. You’ll want to double-check you have all the right documentation, or you might find yourself ship-bound and missing that exciting excursion in-destination that you had been hoping to experience if you don’t have the right paperwork to disembark the ship (or not allowed on-board at all, as ships can be fined for passengers without the right paperwork).

Opt-out of a port to enjoy a quiet ship

Look at your itinerary – are you doing several port days? Opt to skip one to have that quiet, peaceful vacation you’ve been longing for on the ship. Cruises are often ghost ships on port days, with few people staying on board other than minimal crew. Score the perfect seat next to the pool and pull out a book to lose yourself in – you’ll put a dent in your relaxing vacation plans without fighting for the perfect seat, sun umbrella, or space to swim in the pool.

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Quiet adults-only section onboard a Carnival Cruise ship

Bring small fridge magnets

Most ships are metal, which means most of your cabin’s wall space (especially the doors) will be magnetic. Bring a few small fridge magnets to stick important pieces of paper – think invites to on-board cocktail parties, schedule of events, or even visas – to the walls so you don’t lose them. Cruise cabins are often small and maximizing space and organizing your belongings will cut down on stress while on vacation which isn’t what anyone wants! Need more space for your belongings? Look under the bed. Your suitcase will probably fit nicely there rather than needing to be stuffed in the closet.

Book our next cruise while still on-board the cruise ship

Love your cruise so much you want to take another one for your next vacation? Book your next cruise – even on a different ship or itinerary while still on-board. Most cruise lines offer great discounts for putting down a $100 deposit for your next vacation while still at sea. That means you’re not only getting the best price for your cruise, but making sure you get everything you’re looking for: from your favourite ship to the itinerary you’ve been dying to discover, to the best balcony options before they’re picked over. Most lines also offer special inclusions to repeat guests who book on-board, like shipboard credits to be used for drinks, on-board activities, or on special services like the spa. Don’t want to miss out on booking with your travel agent? Making a deposit on a cruise vacation deal while on-board still lets you work with your favourite agent: your files can easily be transferred back to work out the details.

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Maritini bar onboard the Celebrity Constellation

Be as organized, or as go-as-you-please as you want

For the traveller who wants to pre-book and plan their dining, activities, excursions, and even entertainment before leaving land: a cruise is the place to do it. You can be as organized and have your days as filled or as relaxed and go-as-you-please as you’d like on-board a cruise ship. Everything from massages and manicures at the spa to your time at the show, IMAX, or cruise ship attractions and rides can be organized in advance so you know exactly what your days hold and where to be when. Also worth noting is researching the excursions offered from the ship in port: talk with your travel agent about booking your excursions directly through the cruise, or through a partner or affiliate company recommended from your agent, to guarantee your arrival back in port on time. In most destinations, planning your days in port are definitely do-able on your own with local transportation, walking the city, and exploring the attractions, but note that relying on third-party excursion companies, taxis, or your own time might mean you miss your call to be back on the ship. Cruises won’t know that you’re still making your way back to the port and you might be left spending more time in a destination than expected.

Fly in the day before your cruise leaves

You don’t want to relive the movies by running from your plane to the cruise port with your suitcase in tow, or in a cab speeding through the city. We recommend the best option is booking your flight into your cruise port destination – whether that’s in the United States, the Caribbean, or Europe – at least a day before (but why not do more and explore the departure city?). Our unique cruise search will even search flights that match your cruise ensuring you have plenty of time with layovers and arrival times to make it to port, which is especially important in places like Rome where the port is actually more than an hour outside the city and airport. Sometimes even booking your flight with the cruise-line or other cruise websites will leave you with arrival times that just don’t match the time required to get to port without panic. Flying in the day before gives you enough time to get used to time changes, to not worry about possible delayed flights or any hiccups in your travel plans. As they say, it’s better to be safe than sorry!


  • Aft and forward: The back of the ship is the aft, and the front is the forward. You might here these for your cabin location – ie. “Deck 3 forward.”
  • Bow and stern: The back part of the ship is the stern, while the front is the bow.
  • Lido deck: The pool deck.
  • Tender: The boat that takes you to and from the ship’s dock to ports.
  • The gangway: Area of the ships’ side where people board and disembark.
  • Muster drill: Don’t panic. This is none other than a drill of what to do in an emergency. You’ll be told what part of the ship to gather in.
  • Port and starboard: The nautical terms for left (port) and right (starboard) for directions.

Have you cruised before? What is your number 1 tip for a first-time cruiser?

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