What to Expect on Your First Cruise

Cruise vacations are becoming an increasingly popular way to travel. In fact, in 2016, over 11 million Americans went on a cruise vacation. There's a reason why cruises are so trendy.

"Cruising is an awesome vacation as far as getting a good bang for your buck. You get lodging, transportation to foreign countries, and food all at one low price," says Lance Cothern, a personal finance blogger at Money Manifesto and cruise aficionado.

Still, cruises can be intimidating for the uninitiated. What exactly is included? How do meals work? Aren't the cabins small? What about seasickness? And for Pete's sake, how much is alcohol going to cost?

Fear not. I spoke with cruise experts Joel Parker, from Financial Freedom Community, and Lance Cothern to get the scoop on what you need to know. (See also: 5 Most Affordable Cruise Lines for Families)

Select your cabin carefully

The cabins on cruise ships are generally divided up among these types, in order of highest to lowest cost:

  • Suites
  • Veranda cabins with private balconies
  • Ocean view cabins with windows or portholes that you can't actually open
  • Interior cabins with no views

For those looking to save a few bucks, Parker recommends skipping the expensive veranda cabins unless you'll be in a position to use them well and often.

"My most recent cruise only had two days at sea and the premium veranda room went unused. However, on our other cruise, we had several days at sea and used the veranda almost every day," he says.

Unless you book a highfalutin' suite, chances are your cabin will be smaller than you're used to with a traditional hotel room. You don't necessarily need to skimp on packing, but now's definitely not the time to bring your entire collection of fine china.

Additionally, cruise ships get creative with the design of the rooms. For example, most cabins come equipped with two twin beds, regardless of how many people will be sleeping in the room. Couples can push these together to form a bigger bed. The bathroom might also come with a clothesline or bar that you can use to dry bathing suits. (See also: How to Get a Cruise Cabin Upgrade for Free)

Food will be plentiful

There's good news and bad news when it comes to food on cruises.

First, the good news is that free food at designated restaurants and all-you-can-eat buffets is included with your cruise fare. This is usually pretty standard American food, like hamburgers, hot dogs, and barbecue. You can even take this food back to your room with you, although you can't take it off the ship in an attempt to save on food while on shore excursions.

The bad news is that premium restaurants like steakhouses, Italian trattorias, and sushi joints typically aren't free. You need to pay out of pocket for those. Furthermore, since the free places are … well … free, they tend to get crowded, especially during regular mealtimes.

To get around this, Parker advises to "make dining reservations in advance so you can avoid being locked out of the free sit-down restaurants."

Now, more bad news: alcohol and even soda generally aren't free (although free soda is included on Disney cruises), and they can be expensive on the ship. However, "most cruise lines allow you to bring on a 12-pack of soda per person and a 750 mL bottle of wine if you like," says Cothern. It's a good idea to check your cruise line's policy before you do this, just to make sure.

Additionally, you may also be able to purchase an all-you-can-drink package at the beginning of the cruise. This may be a cheaper option if you plan on buying a lot of drinks, but make sure to read the fine print and run the calculations so you know if it really is a deal or not. (See also: 6 Money-Saving Items to Bring On Your Next Cruise)

You'll want to stretch your legs on shore excursions

One can only sit still and relax for so long without going stir-crazy. That's where shore excursions come into play. When the ship docks in a destination, often you'll be allowed off the boat for fun activities.

Most people book shore excursions through the cruise line itself. However, budget travelers can do better than that.

"Don't just immediately book your excursions through the cruise company," says Parker. "You can typically find the exact same excursion for less by booking direct, or in many cases, find alternative, better experiences through a different company." Websites like TripAdvisor and Expedia can clue you in to good tours and allow you to book them for cheap.

The catch here is that if you go it alone, you're responsible for your own safety and getting back to the ship on time. Sometimes, the ship clock and local time can be different, so make sure to set your watch to ship time and try to get back at least an hour or two early so the cruise doesn't leave you behind.

In addition, getting on and off the boat isn't always a speedy process. After all, it takes a lot of work to funnel hundreds or thousands of people through limited entryways. Make sure to budget this time into your plans as well.

Be prepared for seasickness

A lot of people worry about getting seasick while on cruises. It's a fair concern. Most cruises, however, have stabilizers built in for a smooth ride (they do have swimming pools and tubs on board, after all), although you still may feel a bit queasy, especially if you encounter a storm or rough waters.

It's recommended to always bring Dramamine or other seasickness remedies on board, just in case. There will be medicine available on the ship and there is a full medical team on board as well. If you're prone to seasickness, a good place to book a cabin is in the middle of the ship on a lower deck, since this is the most stable place on the ship. (See also: 16 Must-Haves to Pack for Your Next Cruise)

Bottom line

Cruising is a great way to spend your vacation relaxing and not worrying about logistical planning. That doesn't mean it's entirely worry-free or cheap, however. By doing your homework ahead of time with your specific cruise line and following these tips, you'll be well on your way to enjoying your first cruise.

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