Five Real Tips For First Time Cruisers From A Real Cruiser.

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I ran across this article titled “Five Tips for First Time Cruisers” and as an experienced cruiser I wasn’t expecting it to tell me things I didn’t know, but I was hoping that it might provide some real insight to the potential first time cruiser. I thought I’d provide some additional thoughts by providing my insights into the same questions posed in the this article, and maybe actually provide a “real tip” or two.

San Jose Mercury News Article

1. Must I use a travel agent to book a cruise?

If you are more of “web surfing, find the answer for myself” kind of person, then you probably don’t absolutely need a travel agent to tell you which cruise to choose or which line is right for your. As the Mercury News the article mentions, each cruise line has their own web site. Independent sites like Cruise Critic, Cruise Line Fans, and right here, Cruise Talk, provide both editorial and member input on important aspects of the cruise experience.

But here’s my actual tip, you can get a better overall deal and often free goodies if you use a travel agent. In order to keep customers loyal, the travel agents will often send a welcome aboard gift to your room. Usually these are not of tremendous value – a bottle of champagne or a cruise line towel, but still nice. They also often offer things like free trip insurance or an on board credit for your cruise as part of their incentive package to get you to book through them. Most cruise lines don’t allow agents to discount the cruise, so these incentives are about the only way that they can win customer loyalty. If the agency has a large block on a ship the total price is often better than direct cruise pricing. Just make sure that the agent you pick knows about all the cruise lines and your needs. An experienced agent will usually know more about the cruise lines than the person who works for the cruise line’s call center. Often the people who answer calls for the cruise line have never even been on a ship, much less actually taken a cruise. I’ve heard horror stories about miss matches – a more formal cruiser on NCL or a casual cruiser on Cunard, for example. The individual cruiser did not get complete information from the agent booking the cruise, and the particular cruise they booked was not the vacation experience they were seeking.

2. Do I have to eat in the formal dining room with strangers and dress for dinner?

If this is an issue for you, then do your research and make sure that you know the dining alternatives and dress codes. Research the alternative dining options on your line and your specific vessel. It will usually be pretty clear on the Cruise Line website whether they are offering traditional dining or a more flexible experience. Our Cruise Talk Central Dress Codes page is a great place to start your dress code research.

But here’s my tip as an experienced cruiser: This is one of the best parts of cruising. Usually the “strangers” become great friends by the end of the cruise. If you don’t get along at all, you can always request to be moved to different table. The service in the main dining room is generally more attentive and elegant than what one would receive at home. Formal nights are only two or three nights of your cruise, and why not get dressed up, have some nice pictures taken, and enjoy an evening that is out of the ordinary.

3. What should I pack?

The Mercury News has one suggestion that is most important: Dress for the weather. Research the weather for your itinerary and keep in mind that a long voyage might have a few cool days before your get to warm tropical weather. I would add: pack for the dress code of your planned dining experience. If you plan to forgo formal night then there is no need to pack formal stuff, but if you plan to attend formal nights then don’t forget your finest.

As far as packing goes, I have had to learn to pack light. One tip is to pre-pack you suit case several days before the cruise, then take about 1/3 of the items you have packed and leave them at home. You want to make sure your bag is under the airline weight limits. You can pack enough underwear, t-shirts and day wear to get your through a little over half of your trip. If you ship has self service laundry and you don’t mind spending some time in a “Washateria”, then you can was and rewer some of those items. If your ship only has laundry service, you can usually send the items out and get them washed for around $30. Other than that, I usually pack two outfits per day… one for day time and one for evening. Bring things you can mix and match to create differnt looks.

A few other things to bring are:

Duct tape to repair anything and every thing like suitcases or a drawer that won’t stay shut.
A Portable DVD player is nice to have for your pre-cruise flight or if you need to just hang out in your room for a while.
A power strip for your room so that you can plug in multiple items like your battery charger, curling iron, and portable DVD player at the same time.
Sunscreen
A brand new stick of deodorant (If you run out on a sea day the ship’s store most likely won’t have your brand).

And finally, the last two questions addressed in the article:

4. Does the price include everything?

5. How much and whom do I tip?

I’ll answer both of these together because they are so closely related. Your price can include everything if you really want it to. You can choose to prepay your tips when you book. Some of the large mass market cruise line are now offering this option. Then, you would just have to refrain from purchasing any extras once on board. If you choose to wait until after you have received your services before paying your tip or if you cruise line doesn’t offer the pre-payed options, you can pre-budget your expected tips by referring to the cruise lines web sight for suggested tipping policies. Here’s an example of the Celebrity Cruise Tipping Policy.

A very few of the upper end cruise lines include all beverages and tips, but you’ll still pay extra for things like spa treatments and excursions. However, the price of those cruises usually start at more than double the price of a more mass market line. So unless you go crazy with your on board spending, the cruises that “nickle and dime” you are generally less expensive.

You can “get by” with just the cruise price and the tipping. However, if you want to have sodas, purchase a little from the gift shops, enjoy an alcoholic beverage, dine in a specialty dining room, or even have a specialty coffee, then you’ll need to figure those extra expenses on top of your cruise price and budget for it. Here’s my tip: We generally spend about $100 a day per our family of 4 on those types of extras. This usually includes a bottle of fine wine with dinner, sodas and specialty coffee. If you want to take a trip to the spa, play simulated golf, or eat at the specialty dining room, you would probably spend a bit more. If you just purchase soda and less expensive drinks like beer or house wine, it would be less.

I also agree with the Mercury News on pre-planning and budgeting your excursions before you leave. They suggest booking the excursion that you have your heart set on ahead of time so that you can budget for it. They also point out that you can save money buy picking up an excursion from vendors at each port.

Here’s my tip: Research your independent tours ahead of time and compare them to the ones offered by the cruise lines. That way you don’t get sticker shock once you’ve set out for port. This was our strategy with our last three cruises with three very different destinations: Hawaii, Mexican Riviera, and Alaska. In Hawaii, we did all preplanned independent excursions. In Mexico, we did only one ship’s tour because the attraction that we wanted to see was only offered to cruise passengers on planned excursions. In the rest of the ports, we did preplanned, though not prearranged, independent activities. For Alaska, we ended up with two ship’s excursions because when I researched the difference in price, the independent price was virtually the same as booking through the cruise lines.