What to expect on your first cruise
Updated: Aug 12, 2020
Cruising for the first time can be a pretty intimidating process. I’m here to help let you know what to expect from the time you prepare to board your ship until you disembark.
Before You Go
Any time between booking and about two weeks before your cruise, you should complete your online check-in. Here, you will:
Verify all personal & contact information
Provide proof of citizenship (have your passports ready)
Provide incoming and onward travel information if you are flying in the day the cruise begins or home the day the cruise ends
Select an Arrival Time (some cruise lines allow you to choose a specific time – this is to help alleviate congestion in the check-in area)
This is the time you want to arrive for check-in to begin the process of boarding the ship – select any time that works with your travel schedule
Enter your credit card to be linked for all onboard purchases, for everyone in your cabin
Agree to the Ticket Contract
Print your eDocs (like your cruise boarding pass) when it’s ready (this will be about 30-60 days before the cruise)
To complete online check-in, you’ll log in to your account on your cruise line website and follow the instructions for online check-in.
What to Pack
Packing is a really personal journey. Your packing list will depend on where you are going and what time of year you’re traveling. I recommend checking Accuweather.com and searching for historical averages for the ports you will be in during the time you’ll be there. This will help prepare you for what you should expect. You can always adjust things when the time is close enough to have an actual forecast available.
For most US-based cruise lines, I would recommend taking :
Enough “every day” outfits to get you through the cruise, including any days before or after that you’ll be traveling
One or two nice outfits (women – dress/skirt or nice jeans/slacks and top & men – polo shirt & nice jeans/khakis/slacks) that you’ll be able to wear for multiple evenings to dinner in one of the dining rooms or restaurants.
For a 7-night cruise, there will be one night where people are encouraged to dress a little nicer. This is not required and you will typically still be allowed in the dining room, even if you’re not wearing something “fancy”.
Undergarments & Socks
Rain gear (umbrella, raincoat, maybe wellies if you’re planning any water-based tours)
Charging cords for all your electronics and maybe a USB hub if you have a lot of things that charge with USB cables
Outerwear and layers if you’re traveling to a cold climate
Shoes for tours, dinner, casually around the ship
Toiletries (the ship will likely provide shampoo, conditioner, and body wash, if you’re not picky about brands)
A highlighter (I’ll explain why later)
Daypack (lightweight backpack to take with you on tours)
Water bottle (if you don’t have the beverage package – bottled water typically has a charge on the ship)
Sea-Sickness Meds (just in case)
Cash for tips on tours, extra tips for crew who go above and beyond
I may have missed pretty standard things on this list. Definitely make your own list so you’re sure you don’t forget anything. Remember that we’ll be on a ship and that everything is more expensive in the gift shop onboard and also in port. In an emergency, you’ll be able to get necessities in the ports, but you’ll pay a bit extra for them.
Try not to overpack. Even after 20 cruises, I still find myself packing things I never end up using, particularly extra clothes.
On embarkation day, you’ll want to arrive at the port at least two hours prior to the ship’s departure. This video does a great job of showing you what to expect as you arrive at the port.
Luggage Porters & Carry-On Luggage
When you arrive at the port, you will likely be greeted by luggage porters (longshoremen) outside of the cruise terminal. By this time, your luggage should be tagged with the luggage tags that were included with your eDocs. You’ll want to make sure each bag you’re leaving with the porters has a tag on it, or it won’t get to your stateroom.
You’ll want to make sure you keep the items I’ve listed below with you in a small carry-on or backpack, even if you’re getting directly on the ship. Sometimes your luggage won’t arrive at your stateroom until after dinner, particularly on cruises that depart late in the evening, and you don’t want to be left without if your luggage is delayed or somehow gets misplaced.
eDocs (check-in paperwork)
Credit card for onboard expenses
Electronics (particularly laptops)
Anything you might need before dinner time
After you drop your bags and proceed into the terminal, you’ll go through port security. It’s similar to airport security, but typically not as intense (shoes typically stay on, etc.). After security, you’ll head to check-in.
Make sure you have your passports, eDocs, and a credit card for your onboard purchases as you approach the check-in desk. The ticket agent will check all your paperwork, take your photos, and provide you and your family with your ship cards. These will be used as your ID on the ship, allowing you to get on and off the ship, purchase things while on the ship, and access your stateroom. Don’t lose this card, especially while on a tour, because you won’t be able to get back on the ship.
Here’s a good embarkation day checklist, from Norwegian Cruise Line, to review.
After check-in, you may be sent to a holding area to wait to board the ship. Depending on what time you arrive that day, you may or may not be required to wait before boarding. Later in the day, you’ll likely be able to just walk right on board.
You’ll be asked to scan your Ship Card when you get on the ship and this tells the crew that you are onboard. Any time you get off the ship, they scan your card again to indicate that you are no longer on board. This will happen every time you get on or off the ship.
What to do after you board
After you board the ship, you’ll have a few options, depending on what time you board. If you board before or around lunch time, it is unlikely that your stateroom will be ready. Typically staterooms are ready for new guests to access them after 1:30 or 2pm. If you board prior to that, you can head to the buffet for some lunch. Note that if you head straight for the buffet before staterooms are ready, it might be quite crowded, since many people will plant themselves there until there’s an announcement that the rooms are ready, even if they’re not actively eating.
Another, less crowded option, would be to begin to explore the ship. . .
Getting Familiar with the Ship
You may have heard the terms forward, aft, starboard, and port. Here are some definitions for those of you who aren’t sailors and who have never cruised before:
Forward – the front of the ship
Aft – the back of the ship
Starboard – the right side of the ship when facing forward
Port – the left side of the ship when facing forward
If you happen to be sailing on Norwegian, they offer a quick hint for you to be able to tell which is forward and aft when you’re inside with no windows available. . . The fish on the carpet always swim toward the front of the ship. Not all cruise lines provide this type of hint, but keep your eyes open, as they may be hidden in plain sight.
You can find deck plans for your ship by looking on your cruise line’s website, or by searching for your ship here.
In general, you should be able to access most public areas of the ship once you board, so starting to familiarize yourself with where restaurants, lounges, shops, the spa, pool, and kids areas are can be a smart way to start your cruise. I particularly recommend doing this early in the afternoon before the ship becomes more crowded.
Check in to the Kids Area
If you’re traveling with kiddos, you’ll want to make your first stop the kids area. In the kids area, your child(ren) will be given a wristband that helps to identify them and gives crew the information they need to get your child(ren) back to you in case of a ship emergency. The kids area crew will give you all the information you need to keep your kids having a blast during the cruise.
Finding Your Stateroom
Once the staterooms are ready, you can make your way to yours by following the signs in the elevator lobby on your deck.
Meet Your Room Steward
As you’re looking for your stateroom, you may have the opportunity to meet your room steward, in the hallway, near your cabin. If you don’t see them in the hallway, don’t be surprised if you hear a knock on your door while you’re looking around the room. Your room steward will likely introduce themselves and let you know how to get a hold of them if you have any issues.
Don’t be shy. They’re there to help make you have a great trip, so if you have any problems with your stateroom, questions about how to get places on the ship, or can think of anything that will make your trip better, let them know. The same person will be your steward all week, so I encourage you to build a friendly relationship with them. They’re typically very happy to stop and say hello and ask about your day. We’ve never had a bad room steward.
At the end of the cruise, if you feel like they have gone above and beyond, you’re welcome to give them an additional tip, in cash. They do receive part of the automatic gratuities that will be charged to your onboard account or that you’ve arranged to pre-pay before the cruise, but I always feel like it never hurts to show a little extra appreciation for a job well done and the crew truly appreciate it.
Sometime in the first 24 hours of the cruise, you will have a Muster Drill (lifeboat drill). This sounds scary, but it’s typically pretty simple. There will be plenty of announcements about when this will take place.
This drill begins with an announcement, then horn blasts (which can be loud and a little jarring, so be prepared). This video is a little shaky, but is a good audio example of what you might hear before the muster drill begins and what the horn blasts sound like from inside the ship. If you’re on an outside deck when the horn sounds, you’ll hear the ship’s horn rather than the high-pitched blasts.
Your muster station number will be listed on your ship card, as well as the back of your stateroom door. Many lines have shifted to having muster stations in indoor venues around the ship, but a few still do the drill on the outer decks, near the lifeboats. If you’re travelling with a group, you may all have different muster stations, so be sure to check for your station on your ship card before proceeding to the drill.It is very important that you go to your assigned muster station, as crew will be stationed there, checking everyone in to account for every passenger.
You will not actually be getting into any lifeboats, and truly, you may not even see them at all, if your muster station is inside. The drill is just an instruction time where you learn what to do in case of an emergency. If you’re traveling with kiddos and they’re in the kids club during a ship emergency, they will be delivered directly to you at the muster station, so you don’t need to worry about going to find them yourself.
Most cruise lines today do not require you to carry your life jackets with you to the muster drill, but please listen to the announcements to be certain, as some lines still require this.
This drill is required and will take approximately 30 minutes if everyone is cooperating. During the drill, you will be asked to refrain from eating, drinking, and using any electronic devices. During the instruction portion of the drill, it is important that everyone be paying close attention to the crew member demonstration and the announcement happening over the PA system.
Once the drill is completed, there will be an announcement and you can go along with your day.
Getting Your Luggage
At some point after you board the ship, any luggage you dropped off with the porters, outside the ship, will be delivered outside your stateroom door. Sometimes it’s very quick, and other times it doesn’t show up until after dinner. If you haven’t received your luggage and you’re growing concerned, you can always call the Guest Relations Deck and they can assist you.
Dinner the First Night
Dinner the first night will be more casual because people are just getting on and getting adjusted to ship life. You can eat any time you want to, but the restaurants are typically open only until 9 or 9:30, so keep that in mind.
Ship Daily “Newspaper”
When you get back to your stateroom after dinner the first night, you’ll likely find the first daily “newspaper” of your cruise. This newspaper will tell you everything that will be happening the following day. I recommend using a highlighter to highlight the activities you’re interested so they’re easy to find later. Keep in mind the time you’ll be away from the ship for tours so you’re not disappointed to miss morning trivia or another favorite activity.
The daily newspaper will be a great resource for you to have with you on the ship and you’ll be kept informed about everything going on around the ship by referring to it often.
Most US-based cruise lines offer set dining times(early or late seating) where you may be joined with other travelers for dinner for the duration of the cruise. Lines have started to shift to offering more open dining options, where you can approach the dining room at any time during dinner hours and be seated.
If you choose a set dining time, you will have this time throughout the cruise. If you choose the open dining option, you can either make reservations for a certain time each night or you can approach the dining room at any time and may be required to wait, if it’s a popular time.
You’re also able to walk into the buffet any time, with no waiting time, if you’d prefer a more casual dining experience.
If you choose to eat in the main dining room, you will have a different menu every night, with a choice of appetizer/soup, entree, and dessert. Most lines allow you to order as many of each course that you’d like. If you want 3 appetizers, 2 entrees, and 4 desserts, go for it! Your wait staff can help you determine if you’re sailing on a line that requires additional payment for additional entrees.
You can order drinks from the bar at your table, or stop at a bar on the way to the dining room and bring a drink in with you.
Most lines offer specialty restaurants if you’d like to branch out from the main dining room for a night or two. Note that these restaurants typically have an additional charge – sometimes per person and sometimes items are charged a la carte.
If you want to dine in a specialty restaurant, I recommend making dining reservations early, as they do tend to fill up early. You can usually book online through your cruise line account, or wait until you board the ship and make reservations then. If you want to book onboard, you’ll just need to find the reservations podium onboard, visit the restaurant you’d like to make a reservation at, or call the reservations desk from your cabin phone.
Where can I get a class of water/coffee/tea/lemonade?
On most US-based lines, you can get complimentary beverages including water, tea, lemonade, and brewed coffee any time, in the buffet. If you’d like soda, alcohol, or bottled water, you’ll need to go to one of the bars, or ask a server. If you’d like fancy coffee, you’ll have to get that in the coffee shop onboard, during their operating hours.
Note that the in-room mini bar is not free. Your onboard account will be charged for anything that’s removed from that when you leave the ship. If you’d like your room steward to remove the temptation or you’d like to have more room in your stateroom fridge, you can ask them to remove the items from the mini bar completely.
Sea days can seem a little intimidating for those who aren’t used to relaxing. In addition to just watching nature float by, you’ll have plenty to do onboard with the activities staff. From trivia to bingo to spa treatments, there’s something for everyone to love about a sea day!
How Soon Can You Get Off the Ship?
When you arrive in port, port authority agents have to “clear” the ship. This just means that they have to verify that we’re not transporting anyone illegally and that we’re all cleared to come ashore. Typically, when the schedule says you’ll arrive at a certain time, you actually arrive 30 minutes to an hour before that time to give the agents enough time to clear the ship.
Normally, you’ll be able to get off the ship very close to the time the schedule says you’ll arrive.
When you’re leaving the ship, remember to have a photo ID with you at all times, and if your tour says it requires a passport, bring that along too. You’ll scan your ship card as you get off the ship and scan it again when you return to the ship.
When Do You Have To Be Back OnBoard?
Generally, you are required to be back on board the ship between 30 minutes and one hour prior to the ship’s scheduled departure from a port. Be sure to check your daily newspaper each day to see when the All Aboard time is. It will be different each day.
If you are not back on board by the All Aboard time, the ship could very likely leave you behind and it would be your responsibility (and expense) to find transportation to the next port to rejoin the ship.
Do You Have to Get Off the Ship?
If you’d prefer to spend the day relaxing on an almost empty ship, you are never required to get off the ship except for the last day of the cruise. If you choose to stay onboard, there will be limited activities available all day and you’ll be able to eat in the buffet for normally scheduled meals.
OnBoard the Ship
If you have an internet package based on minutes available, make absolutely sure you’re signing our every single time you want to stop an internet session. If you forget to sign out, your session will continue to deduct time from your package and you’ll be out of time before you know it.
Ship internet isn’t known for being very fast unless you’re sailing on Royal Caribbean, so be prepared for speeds similar to dial-up. If you can go without internet for the duration of your cruise and survive on WiFi or international data (if your phone plan doesn’t include this, it could cost you $$$$$$$, so check before you leave home) in ports of call, I recommend sticking to that.
I recommend using the phone in your stateroom only to communicate with friends and family on the ship, and for calling venues within the ship. There are house phones placed all over the ship, so you will be able to use them to call directly to other cabins.
I do NOT recommend using the stateroom phones to call someone back at home unless it is absolutely necessary. I’ve seen prices for these calls be as high as $9.99 per MINUTE.
Dress code onboard is typically pretty casual. Some lines tend to skew a little fancier for dinner and formal nights, but some are very casual all the time. I recommend reading the ship dress code from the cruise line website before packing, so you know you’re not under (or over) doing things. Typically shorts, flip flops, and swimwear is not allowed in the dining rooms, but you can usually get away with a swimsuit cover-up in the buffet.
The spa on a cruise ship can be a great way to relax. You’ll be able to find treatments you didn’t know existed and you can do anything from a haircut to a 90 minute couples massage. Know that the spa is expensive and there’s typically a sales element to any treatment (trying to get you to buy extra products after the treatment), but a cruise massage can be amazing if that’s your thing.
If your ship has a casino on board (most do), it will have most of the games you’d typically find in a casino on land, including a live poker game at specified times. There are table games, video machines, and slot machines.
If bingo is your thing, you’ll likely have plenty of opportunities to play on the cruise. Bingo can be a big deal on a cruise ship and some people even win a free cruise, but you’ll have to purchase your cards and compete with some real hard-core players.
There’s usually a night club on each ship where music is played late into the evening. Every ship and every group of passengers is different, so if you enjoy dancing, check out the club on one of the first few nights and get a feel for what it’s like.
Most ships will offer some kind of karaoke in the evenings, but I’ve noticed it less and less recently. If you enjoy karaoke, check the daily newspaper for evening activities and check it out.
On a typical Caribbean cruise, you can swim every single day. . . If you’re sailing to a colder climate, swimming may be limited, unless your ship has a solarium with an indoor pool. If you’re on a warm weather sailing, the pool will be a hub of activity, so if lounging in the sun or swimming is your thing, you’ll be in good company. There’s likely to be live music all day long, movies under the stars at night, and ship-wide games and fun throughout the day. It’s a great spot to people watch, as well.
Debarkation (Getting off the Ship at the end of the Cruise)
Determine When You Are Getting Off the Ship
A few days before the end of the cruise, you may receive a note in your stateroom that asks what your plans are for immediately following the cruise or a set of luggage tags based on information you gave the cruise line when you checked in. If you’re given a choice, this will be your opportunity to determine when you will be getting off the ship so that you can get an appropriately labeled luggage tag.
The luggage tag you receive or choose will determine what time you will be leaving the ship. If you’re flying home the same day you get off the ship, you’re going to want a luggage tag that’s for an earlier time.
Generally, debarkation begins around 6am and ends around 10 am. If you’re staying in the city where you disembark for a day or more after the cruise, you may want to get a later luggage tag so that you have less time to wait before you check in to your hotel. Or, you could get off early to have more time to explore the city.
Setting Luggage Out & What to Keep with You
The night before you arrive in the city where you will disembark, you should plan to set your bigger luggage (the stuff you left with the porters when you got on the ship) outside your stateroom door by about 11pm (there will be information in the daily newspaper on exactly when the cutoff for your specific sailing is). The reason for this is so that crew can offload your luggage early the following morning, in your debarkation city, and have it ready for you to pick up before going through customs, when you get off the ship.
You should plan to keep all medication, valuables, passports, and the toiletries and clothes you will need for the following morning with you. I’ve seen people get off the ship in their PJs because they forgot to leave themselves a set of clothes. Don’t be that person!
Vacating Your Stateroom
The morning you arrive in the city where you will disembark, you’ll be asked to vacate your stateroom completely no later than 8am (usually). If you picked up a luggage tag that lists a time later than 8am, you will be asked to wait for your tag to be called in one of the public lounges or in the buffet.
The reason they ask for you to vacate your stateroom is so that your room steward can begin preparing the staterooms for the next sailing, which will leave later that day, with a whole new set of passengers. The earlier people are out of their staterooms, the earlier the people boarding the ship will be able to access their staterooms.
Where to Wait for Your Announcement
I typically recommend finding a quiet public lounge the morning of debarkation, after eating a nice breakfast in the buffet. The buffet will be a crowded and chaotic place to wait, so if you can find a lounge, I recommend doing that after breakfast.
Luggage tags will be called in time-order, so just relax and wait for your tag to be called. If you try to leave the ship before the appropriate tag has been called, your luggage will not be ready for you to pick up and you’ll be standing around in the terminal waiting, which can be frustrating.
Scanning Yourself Out
When you get off the ship for the last time, you’ll be asked to scan your ship card one last time. After that, you can recycle your card or keep it as a souvenir.
Finding Your Luggage
When you get off the ship, sometimes you are asked to find your luggage first, then go through customs, and sometimes you go through customs, then go get your luggage. It really depends on the port.
In order to find your luggage in the baggage area though, you’ll want to look for your luggage tag group. There should be signs directing you to the correct place.
Customs & Passport Control
When you arrive in the cruise terminal, you’ll have to pass through customs and passport control. Have your passports ready to be inspected and expect to answer a few questions. This is very similar to going through US customs at the airport.
When you’re back at home, wishing you were still being pampered on the cruise ship, you will receive an email from your cruise line with a survey about your experience. I truly hope you had an amazing experience and that you’ll have wonderful things to say about the trip.
I recommend making note of any exceptional crew members throughout your trip so that you can give them a shout-out during your survey. You’ll be given the opportunity to give some open-ended feedback, so please tell the company about anyone you found to be exceptional.
I hope this information has been helpful and has given you a better idea about what to expect as you prepare to board your first cruise. If you have any questions I haven’t covered, or questions about anything I have covered, please leave a comment below with question and your email address and I’d be happy to respond to the comment and email you as well.