First Cruise? Here’s 10 Ways to Avoid First-Time Cruise Jitters

First Cruise

Advice for your first cruise. Or even the fiftieth.

You’ve paid for your first cruise in full, bought a new swim suit and a set of luggage, arranged for a pet sitter/plant person and stopped the mail and newspaper delivery. Now what?

To make the transition from landlubber to seasoned sailor a cinch, here are my suggestions to help ensure a smooth sailing on your first cruise. Or fiftieth!

First time cruise advice

Test the waters

Not sure how you’ll do at sea? Start with a shorter three- or four-night cruise. Expect a party attitude on these weekend getaways but it’s really a good way to see if you even like being on the water. Just don’t judge all cruises by this example.

Carnival Ecstasy luggage arrival

Pack light. Then pack again.

Even after a zillion cruises, I still return home with unworn clothes. If you have to fly to the port, even more reason to leave half of what you think you’ll need at home. Color-coordinate so that you can easily mix and match and turn a daytime outfit into evening wear. Sounds simple, right?

I’ve developed a plan that I like to call my “Noah’s Ark cruise packing tips.” I bring two of everything. For a 7-night Caribbean cruise I pack:

  • Two black dress pants with two dressy tops
  • Two dresses; one cocktail-type and one casual dress
  • two pairs of shorts
  • two short-sleeve t-shirts
  • two sleeveless t-shirts
  • two bathing suits
  • two pairs of running socks
  • two casual pants
  • two skirts (that go with the t-shirts/tops) and so on.

Did I say I pack two of everything? Well, there is one exception: shoes. It’s impossible to only bring two pairs of shoes. So, it’s one pair each of black high-ish heels, sneakers, sandals, some kind of dressy nice-looking flat shoes and maybe one extra casual shoe with a heel. Four or five pairs of shoes are sufficient. Black/neutral colors only.

Whether your one-week cruise has two formal nights or none, the above recipe really works well. Throw in a couple of scarves, costume jewelry and you’re good to go.

What about for a man? Follow the above guidelines, perhaps omitting the high heels.

You can always wash a few pieces of clothing in the sink (shampoo works ok, but I bring travel packets of Tide) but never ever leave wet clothes on the balcony to dry. Many ships (from mass market to ultra-luxe) have self-service laundromats or you can send out your dirty clothes to be washed/folded (less expensive than dry cleaning.) Cruise lines now reward frequent passengers with complimentary clothes washing mid-way through the cruise. That is one of my favorite perks.

Read More:  Stateroom Locations to Absolutely Avoid

off site parking for cruise

Arrive early – or even the night before.

Nothing increases frustration and frazzles nerves more than imagining the ship sailing without you. Why put yourself through that aggravation when it is easy to avoid. (That said, there have been a handful of times many years ago, when I was the absolutely last to board and the gangway clanked closed behind me.)

Fast-forward to today. Homeland Security demands checking in at the ship no less than ninety minute prior to the published sailing time. That said, the cruise line may deny boarding to late arrivals and with no refund. Why risk it?

Whenever possible, fly or drive in to your port the day prior to your cruise. You can sleep later, enjoy a nice breakfast at your hotel then grab your luggage and a shuttle or taxi and head to the port. Many hotels now offer free or greatly reduced parking rates for up to three weeks if you simply spend only one night at their hotel. Check out and click “cruiseport.”

Have the correct documents to travel outside of the USA.

I’ve seen people in a state of panic at the port when they suddenly realize they’ve forgotten their passport. Or immigration papers. Put a big note on your front door, “GOT PASSPORTS?” As soon as you reserve your cruise, check your passport’s expiration date. It needs to be valid for at least six months after the date you return from your cruise.

Ask the cruise line or your travel agent, but double-check on the website. Make sure that you and your traveling companions’ documents are correct and current. This link contains information on passport requirements.

Hand-carry your documents, medicines and even a change of clothes.

If you accidentally pack your passport in your checked luggage, it can really ruin a good day or even contribute to missing the ship. There’s a good possibility that you won’t see your belongings in your stateroom until 5pm. If you need medication at lunchtime and your luggage is lost or delayed, always carry your meds aboard with you.

Same goes for a change of clothes. If you flew to your ship in the morning and left winter’s wrath behind, hand-carry a lightweight change of clothes. Should you not see your luggage until 5pm, at least you will be able to change clothes and enjoy the first day of your cruise without looking like Nanook of the North meets the Love Boat.

Tip the shoreside porters.

Despite the fact that there are signs posted all around the baggage handling areas that say tipping isn’t necessary because the baggage handlers are on a salary, don’t follow that advice. These men really do work hard to unload your car and transport vehicles. They spend long hours, usually in the hot sun, lifting tons of overweight luggage, filling cargo bins and moving them to the ship.

A good rule of thumb is $2-3/per bag. Or if you are traveling solo and have only one bag, $5-$7 will help insure that your solo bag makes it to your room. On time. For that particular sailing. There are stories I could tell about passengers who don’t tip the baggage handlers…but I’ll leave it to your imagination.

Attend the muster drill

No hiding in the bathroom, in the closet or under the bed. Muster drill is essential, required and can truly save your life. After the Costa Concordia disaster a few years ago, every cruise line has tightened their muster drill regulations. Attendance is taken at each muster station and if you are not there, you will be required to attend a private muster drill at a time determined by the Captain.

Cunard Queen Mary 2 Britannia Dining Room

Check out your dining room seating arrangements.

Why? To avoid one of the most uncomfortable situations on a cruise; when you and your cabin mate are seated in the dining room at a table for four. So many variables can be put into play. Imagine being at dinner for seven nights in a row with two strangers with whom you have absolutely nothing in common. Sometimes they don’t talk, they’re grumpy, don’t speak your language and on and on. NEVER request a table for four unless you know them before the cruise.

You’re probably thinking that you could go to the maître‘d immediately after dinner and request a table change. And you certainly can. But imagine that you are waiting for an elevator, the doors open and who should be standing there? None other than the abandoned table couple. On a ship with 4,000 passengers it may seem highly unlikely that you’d EVER run into them again. Trust me. You will.

Facilitate that event ever happening and simply wander into the dining room BEFORE the first night dinner and find your table. That way, if it’s a table for four, you can politely ask the maître‘d to change your table on that same night. You may have to wait a bit while some juggling is done, but it can and will be done.

Grab the fold-out deck plan map & get acquainted with your ship.

When muster is over, be sure to go on deck for the sailaway festivities. Unfold the deck plan booklet and make your way to the highest deck on the ship. After a peek at what there is to do up top, meander your way down deck by deck walking from bow to aft til you complete your tour. This should really only take maybe 30 minutes and it’s a great way to get a quick overview of where things are and what there is to do. You probably won’t remember half of it, but at least it will look semi-familiar when you go back there later on the cruise.

deck plan

And most important:

Take a mental snapshot of your deck plan and exit route.

There’s 99.9% chance you’ll never need it use it, but just like you should always do at a hotel, note where the emergency exits are…in this case, the closest stairwell. Also, I always travel with a mini-flashlight which sits on my nightstand along with quick-to-jump-into clothes folded nearby. I do this at hotels, too. Maybe it was my Girl Scout training to always be prepared. Keep your phone fully charged, too.

A first cruise can be incredibly exciting and a bit overwhelming. With these 10 first cruise tips, your first or even fiftieth cruise can be one of the best vacation experiences you’ll ever remember.

Bon Voyage!

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  1. Hi Costa,
    I’m totally leaning in your direction for all of the reasons you’ve mentioned. And it’s true, you can strike up conversations when seated at the buffet tables, too. I much prefer the selections at the buffet as well as balancing the entertainment schedules around dining rather than the other way. Happy cruising!

  2. After several cruises we have now abandoned the formal dining room altogether – some might think this a little lazy and anti-social, but we’ve found 1) it’s just as easy to strike up conversations in the buffet restaurant 2) you don’t have to get dressed up so you can pack lighter taking just a carry-on 3) you can dine when you want to fit around other activities 4) the choice of food is wider 5) you can often find a table overlooking the sea. All in all, why does anyone bother with the MDR?

  3. These Tips are very useful, especially for the people who are going for the first time.I am doing cruising for years, but still, I miss on many things.But now I have read these tips carefully and I hope that I will follow them strictly.

  4. Hi – Technically, no. Confirm with your cruise line what alternative documentation they require. U.S. citizens on closed-loop cruises (cruises that begin and end at the same port like yours with Galveston) will be able to enter or depart the country with proof of citizenship, such as an Enhanced Driver’s License (EDL), a government-issued birth certificate (issued by the Vital Records Department in the state where he or she was born) or passport. If 16 or older, a government issued driver’s license, picture ID, denoting photo, name and date of birth.

    HOWEVER…keep in mind that should you need to unexpectedly fly back to the US while on your cruise, it is no easy task to reenter here without a passport book. I’d advise you to also check here and read the requirements for cruise passengers directly from the US government. Have a wonderful cruise!

  5. Hi! Thanks for your comment and nice to connect now on Twitter, too.


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