a Princess cruise ship docked at a port in the Caribbean

Tips and Hacks from My First Time on a Cruise

Recently this ThriftyTourist.ca reporter and his spouse embarked on their inaugural cruise vacation. If you’re considering going on your first cruise, here are some cruise tips and hacks based on the experience we had with our first time on a cruise.

3 websites for exploring cruise destinations and deals

Tip#1: Use a travel agent to book your first cruise

In this day and age, where our digital world makes it possible to research, shop and purchase things all by ourselves, your initial inclination might be to book your first time on a cruise, yourself. I would recommend you use a travel agent that specializes in cruises, instead. Here are my reasons why:

  • A cruise travel agent will save you a ton of time
  • A cruise travel agent knows the marketplace and can quickly recommend the cruise destination and package that best matches your interests and needs
  • A cruise travel agent has access to the latest deals
  • It doesn’t cost anything extra to have a cruise travel agent book your trip

To book our first time on a cruise, we used a travel agent from Expedia Cruises that a friend of ours had recommended.

Tip #2: How to determine the destination for your first cruise

If you can’t resist and decide to do a little preliminary research of your own for your first cruise, it won’t be long before you feel a little overwhelmed (trust me, we did). There are so many cruise routes to choose from. That’s why using a cruise travel agent is one of the most important first-time cruise tips I recommend.

Instead of asking us where we wanted to go, our cruise travel agent asked us questions like, “What’s your budget?”, “Do you want to go somewhere that’s warm and sunny?”, “Are there any specific things you would like to do while on your vacation?”

  • We told her we wanted the best possible price.
  • When we decided to go on our first cruise, it was winter. Living in central Canada, the hallmarks of winter are cold temperatures and snow. So, we definitely wanted to go somewhere where it was warm and sunny.
  • We wanted to be able to go snorkeling and see animals.

With this as the criteria, our cruise travel agent conducted a search on her system. A few minutes later she presented us with a few destination options for our cruise. For our first time on a cruise, we decided to go on a 7-day Princess Western Caribbean Cruise.

Tip #3: How to decide how long your first cruise should be

Believe it or not, a cruise vacation can last from two nights to over 250 days. (We can back this up to some degree as during our first time on a cruise we met a guy named Eddie who had been cruising for nine weeks straight. We were also told there was another man who was on our ship that was a permanent cruiser—he had actually sold his home and was now living 365 days a year on a cruise ship!)

For someone who is going on their first cruise and is unsure of whether they will like it, travel agents and various online guides recommend this first-time cruise tip: book a 1-week trip to try it out. That’s what we decided to do.

Tip #4: Book a flight that arrives the day before your cruise leaves

With some cruise deals, your flight to the cruise port is included. Sometimes you can get a better deal on your flight if you book it separately. This is another reason why it’s helpful to work with a cruise travel agent. They can quickly confirm which method of booking your flight is the better deal.

Whichever option you choose, here’s one of the most important first-time cruise tips to remember: book your flight to the cruise port so it arrives the day before your cruise leaves.


Because you never know when there will be a flight delay.

This happened to my in-laws the first time they went on a cruise. They booked their flight to the cruise port for the day of their cruise’s departure. Their flight ended up being delayed by several hours. By the time they had arrived at the cruise port, the ship had already closed the gang plank and was ready to set sail. It took a lot of begging and pleading before they were let on.

So, don’t forget this cruise hack: book your flight to the cruise port so you arrive the day before. You’ll be able to have a relaxing night’s sleep in a hotel, get up in the morning at a decent hour, have a leisurely breakfast, and then head over and board the ship without feeling rushed. Our cruise ship didn’t leave the port until 4:00 PM, so we had plenty of time to get on board.

You can have your cruise travel agent book your flight and hotel for you, but they will charge you a fee to do so. If you’re comfortable doing it, use follow this first-time cruise tip: book your flight and hotel yourself and you’ll save yourself a little money. We booked our flight and hotel through Expedia. By booking them as a combo, we got the hotel accommodation for slightly less.

Tip #5: Don’t wait till the last minute to set up your cruise medallion

To make your time while cruising as convenient as possible, your cruise line will give you an electronic medallion to wear around your neck. This medallion is your way of confirming who you are when you get on and off the ship. It’s also how you can charge any purchases you make, while on the ship, to your “account”.

For my first time on a cruise, I was surprised by how much information was required to set up my medallion, including uploading my picture. It took almost an hour to complete everything. So, follow this first-time cruise tip: don’t wait until you’re boarding the ship to do this. Set up your cruise medallion weeks before you go on your trip.

Tip #6: Book your excursions through the cruise ship

Our one-week, cruise we stopped at four ports: Cozumel, Roatan, Belize and Costa Maya. Every time a cruise ship stops at a port, you have the option of going on an excursion for the day. You can book your excursions through the cruise line or through a third party like Expedia Cruises.

What did we do?

Our friends who are experienced cruisers, told us to book our excursions through a third party.

  • The pro: booking an excursion through a third party is usually a little less money than what the cruise line charges.
  • The con: if you’re too late getting back from your third-party excursion, the cruise ship might leave without you. (Veteran cruisers we spoke to on our trip confirmed that they had seen this happen before.)

During our first time on a cruise, we were never late returning from our third-party excursions, so this wasn’t an issue. But I would be lying if I didn’t say that the night before a particular excursion that involved us going on a 40-minute boat ride to an island, we felt a little uneasy wondering, “What if there’s an issue and we don’t get back in time?”

Therefore, for peace of mind, I would recommend this first-time cruise tip: book your excursions through the cruise line. That way, if for any reason your excursion is late getting back,  the cruise line guarantees the ship won’t leave without you.

Tip #7: Don’t get the drink package if you’re not a big drinker

My spouse and I were under the impression that every time we wanted to have a soft drink, juice or water, it would cost us money, so we opted to get the drink plan, which gave us up to 15 drinks a day each.

We were wrong.

Soft drinks, juice and water were unlimited and free as part of our cruise purchase. The drink plan was for 15 alcoholic drinks a day, per person.

Getting the drink plan was a mistake for us.

We enjoy having a few alcoholic drinks, but we would never consume 15 drinks each, in a day! Plus, four of the days of our 7-day cruise we were off the ship on an excursion for most of the time.

Don’t make the same first-time-on-a-cruise mistake that we did. If you’re not a big drinker and you’re planning to do excursions, don’t get the drink plan. It will be a waste of money.

Tip #8: Bring US money for tips and cab fare

You’ll need to bring US cash with you for your first time on a cruise.

Our cruise port was in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida so we needed US cash to pay for our shuttle from the hotel. All the ports that our cruise ship visited took US cash as well. Plus, we needed US cash for taxis, and tipping tour guides, drivers, servers in local restaurants, the woman who made up our cabin every day, and even a few of the servers on the ship that we got to know.

We brought $300 US and came home with some left over.

Tip #9: Packing advice for your first time on a cruise

  • Bring Gravol

Cruise ships are massive and built with stabilizers, so unless the water is choppy your first time on a cruise ship should be a pretty smooth ride. But, if you would rather be safe than sorry like we did, here’s a simple first-time cruise tip: pack a box of Gravol medication. We never had to use it, but it was nice to know we had it if we needed it. Plus, if you go on an excursion that involves taking a smaller boat across the sea waters and you’re worried you might get queasy, you can take a Gravol before you head out.

  • Bring dress clothes

Most cruise ships have a couple nights where the theme in the dining room is “dress formal”. If you show up in shorts and a golf shirt, you’ll still be welcome but if you want to feel like you fit in, employ this first-time cruise tip: pack at least one outfit that is a little dressy such as a sport coat, dress shirt, casual pants and shoes, nice dress, etc.

  • Bring Band-Aids

It had been a while since we had been on a trip. I for one had to buy a new pair of causal shoes for our first time on a cruise and wouldn’t you know it, the initial night I wore them, I got a blister. So, here’s a simple cruise hack I highly recommend: tuck a small box of band-aids into your luggage.

  • Bring an analog watch

On our cruise, when we woke up in the morning we were in a new port and often a new time zone. Our cell phone didn’t always switch over to the new time. To avoid confusion, here’s a great first-time cruise tip suggested by a fellow traveller we met: pack an analog watch.

The night before the time change is supposed to take place, set the analog watch to the new time zone. When you wake up in the morning you be able to look at the analog watch and know the correct time so you’re not late for your excursion start time or the return time to the cruise ship.

Tip #10: Advice for when you’re on the ship

  • Don’t go to your room first

When you arrive at the cruise port for your first time on a cruise, porters will take your luggage and deliver it to your room. This can take a few hours, as they have hundreds of suitcases to courier. So, don’t waste your time going to your cabin when you get onboard the ship. Follow this first-time cruise tip instead: go directly to the buffet dining restaurant and have a relaxing lunch instead. Afterwards, take a walk around the ship and get your bearings.

  • Where to find a quiet spot

A lot of the pool areas on our cruise ship were busy with people and the music was loud. If you prefer a quieter, calmer, more relaxing atmosphere head to the deck and pool area at the back of the boat. That’s where we found a great spot to chill in a lounger and read.

  • Get to the theatre early

The comedy shows and musical productions that took place in the theatre on our cruise were very popular activities. On our cruise, usually every seat was full. Seating was on a first come, first serve basis. So, if you want to guarantee you get a seat, don’t dilly dally. My first-time cruise tip for this is, get to the theatre in good time.

Tip #11: Book your return flight from your cruise for later in the day

We knew in advance that our first time on a cruise would end with the ship returning to the Ft. Lauderdale cruise port at 7:00 AM in the morning. Yours will probably arrive at a similar time, so, rather than booking a morning flight home, I suggest you follow this first-time cruise tip that we followed: book a later return flight and spend the day exploring the area or doing an activity where you cruise port is located.

As I mentioned before, our cruise port was in Ft. Lauderdale. We ended up going on an air boat excursion in the Florida everglades. Other travellers we met on the cruise went on a boat tour of the rich and famous and others spent the day lounging poolside at a nice hotel.

So, before you book that return flight, I encourage you to investigate what excursions, attractions, or beaches are available in your cruise port area. Take advantage of time to squeeze in one more day of discovery, exploring and relaxation.

Enjoy your first time on a cruise!

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Photo Credits: Princess Cruise Lines.