Vacationing aboard a cruise ship can seem like the ultimate in luxury vacations. But for the first time cruiser it can also feel like a bit of an obstacle course. Here are some tips to make your first-time cruise a fantastic voyage!

Booking concerns
One of the most confusing questions is: which cruise to choose? Some cruises cater to a more active crowd while others provide relaxation and first-rate nighttime entertainment. Before you sit down with a stack of brochures, consider the type of vacation you would like. Some questions to consider:

Do you prefer to relax with a book, or be on the go?
Do you like to dress up or do you prefer a casual style?
What cruising areas are you interested in, and at what time of year?
How long of a vacation would you like to take?

You may choose to work with a travel agent for your first cruise, particularly if you aren’t sure which cruise line you want to book with. If you have your heart set on a particular cruise, one strategy is to look for discounts online and then call the cruise line directly and ask for that price. They may be able to match i, and you will have the advantage of working with someone who knows the ship as well as the ports of call for the rest of the booking process.

One big question is whether to take an inside cabin or an outside cabin. Many people recommend that you pay for an outside cabin on your first cruise. But you may not spend much time there at all, so if your budget is strained by the price of a view, don’t worry about it. If you do book an outside cabin, ask specifically whether it is truly a good view – some of them mostly have views of lifeboats! Either way, prepare yourself for a tight fit. Cruise cabins are notoriously small.

For most cruises you will be asked whether you want an early or late seating for dinner. If you intend to spend as much time as possible in the various ports of call, you may want to opt for the late seating – it will give you extra time to get back and relax before dinner. On the other hand, if you don’t like to go to bed feeling full, or want to catch early shows, the early seating is the way to go.

Speaking of dinner bookings, if you would like to meet people, opt for seating at a larger table. Mealtime is one of the best times to meet people. There certainly is a possibility that you’ll be placed with someone you don’t like, but in that case a word to the maitre d’ should facilitate a switch.

On a few cruises however – and the number continues to grow – the set dining time and seating has becoming optional or non-existent and open seating or a more restaurant-like system has been put in place. Your booking agent will be able to tell you more.

Financial nitty-gritty
Lots of first-time cruisers worry about tips. Yes, they are expected and yes, they do add up – but the good news is that your cruise line should make their tipping expectations crystal clear. Some experienced cruisers recommend that you make up the tipping envelopes in advance, adding or subtracting gratuities as appropriate to the level of service.

Other costs on board will include: soda pop, alcoholic beverages, surcharges for special restaurants (on some ships), shore excursions, gambling, spa treatments and other services, and phone calls and internet time. Pictures are another expense. There are also often a variety of shops on board.

It’s a good idea to check your account daily or every other day so you don’t end up with a nasty surprise at the end of the trip. One tip about setting up your account: you don’t have to rush to do it as soon as you’re on board, unless you intend to start spending right away. If you wait for the lines to clear you can save some time and aggravation.

Packing tips
Read through the activities for your cruise before you pack, so that you know how many formal events there are (and that you plan to attend), and whether there are theme nights for which you wish to dress. Casual dining is almost always available and you may find yourself opting for that instead of one of the formal meals.

If you plan to shop while on your trip you may not need as many clothes as you think; souvenir t-shirts can provide casual clothing for the last few days. Packing light will not only make transportation easier, it will keep the cabin chaos to a minimum.

Nights can be chilly on board even a Caribbean cruise, so remember to pack a sweater as well as an umbrella or other inclement-weather gear for days in port.

It’s worth investing in a good quality water wallet if you intend to spend time on a beach — thieves can make a shore excursion a nightmare. You may also want to consider a money belt or other way to carry money and papers while on shore. Most cruise ships offer some kind of safe for valuables while on board.

Things to do
Cruise lines specialize in entertainment, so having enough to occupy you is probably not going to be a concern. There are usually shows and movies; events and activities such as karaoke and talent nights; dance lessons; gambling; lectures and activities; a ship’s library; pools and spas and workout rooms. There’s also, of course, the activities available at each stop. Eating is also practically a sport on most cruises: midnight buffets, around-the-clock room service, and a variety of informal and formal dining rooms.

First time cruisers may be surprised to find that with so much going on, it can be hard to feel at leisure. For that reason you may want to try a mid-length cruise – 7 to 9 days – before you try a shorter or longer trip. It takes a day or two to settle into the routine, so a 3 or 4 day cruise may feel rushed, whereas a longer cruise might be tiring.

Research before you go
And finally to get the most out of your cruise you will want to take some time to plan in advance. The Internet provides a great way to look in depth at your ship, activities, local sights at your ports of call, and shopping. There are also some fantastic forums where you can ask questions and even possibly meet people who will be on your cruise. Two of the best are:

CruiseCritic.com: http://www.cruisecritic.com/
CruiseMates.com: http://www.cruisemates.com/

Other useful links include:
The Ultimate Packing List: http://www.geocities.com/jazzyjas63/PackingList.htm
CruiseDiva: http://cruisediva.com/
Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada: http://www.voyage.gc.ca/main/before_menu-en.asp
Travel Health: http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/tmp-pmv/index.html
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by:
Jennifer Gruden