Thinking of booking your first ever cruise holiday? The choices are endless. If you’re feeling a little baffled as to where to begin, this handy guide breaks down how to choose your first cruise holiday, and what to expect from the experience.
“Booking your first cruise can be perplexing”
If you’ve never booked a cruise before, searching for the right one can be a little confusing. There are hundreds of cruise lines and ships to choose from, each providing different itineraries and experiences. It’s worth reading a few useful sources like Cruise Critic to find out what other travellers thought of their first cruises, and what they’d recommend. For more information about researching your first cruise, we spoke to Adam Coulter, UK Managing Editor at Cruise Critic: “Booking your first cruise can be perplexing, as there's so much choice and information out there. It is consequently worth checking out our website to check what other cruisers are saying about the choices you have shortlisted.”
Book through a specialist
“Agencies that only sell cruises are, by nature, likely to have the greatest knowledge”
Booking through a reputable, specialist cruise travel agency like ROL Cruise guarantees that you’ll get all the information you need prior to choosing a cruise. You’ll also get insider information on when to book to get the best deals and how to save money.
“It's easy to be seduced by cheap cruise offers online but if this is your first voyage, it will really pay off to consult a specialist travel agent and make sure you end up on the right ship for you,” says Adam from Cruise Critic. “Agencies that only sell cruises are, by nature, likely to have the greatest knowledge.
“Of course, you can do your research online first; read the member reviews on Cruise Critic and don't be shy about posting questions on the message boards; there's even a special section for first time cruisers.”
Think about your fellow passengers
There are hundreds of cruise lines to choose from, and many are catered to different types of travellers. So, whether you’re a solo traveller, a couple, a group of friends or a family, your choice of cruise ship is important. “To a first-time cruiser, all cruise lines can look the same,” said Adam. “They're not, of course, and different lines - and ships - attract completely different people. It is wise to think about the age group you want to travel with too.”
For couples, adult-only cruises may be preferable, whereas families should look out for cruise ships with plenty of entertainment options like water parks, rock climbing and kids’ clubs. On our website you can read a thorough overview of the features on each and every cruise line we offer holidays with, so you can make an informed decision.
Consider a mini-cruise or river cruise
If you’re apprehensive about booking an ocean cruise for your first trip, why not test the waters with a river cruise? Staying much closer to land, and with more frequent stops, a river cruise is a great way to settle into the world of cruise holidays. Book a city trip along the Danube or Rhine, or head to the Douro River in Portugal with Emerald Waterways for a wine-tasting adventure. Alternatively, you can book a weekend mini cruise.
“Why not dip your toe in the water with a short 'taster' cruise?” said Adam. “Cunard, Royal Caribbean and P&O Cruises offer cruises from Southampton; expect two or three nights onboard - and a short hop across the Channel or the North Sea to ports like Zeebrugge (for Bruges) and Le Havre (for Paris). Fred. Olsen has short breaks from Dover, Southampton, Tilbury, Harwich, Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow to France, Belgium, Ireland and The Netherlands, while Cruise & Maritime Voyages sail from Cardiff, Dundee, Tilbury, Bristol, Liverpool, Hull, Newcastle, Poole, Portsmouth and Rosyth to ports including the Faroe Islands, Cobh, Amsterdam and St Peter Port in the Channel Islands.”
Once you’ve tried a short cruise or river cruise, you’ll have a good idea of what to expect on a longer journey or a larger ocean liner.
One of the key things to consider before your cruise holiday is how important add-ons like drinks packages are. These are usually offered to you at the time of booking your cruise, so it’s worth thinking about in advance. “These may seem attractive but think before you buy – as packages can vary greatly,” said Adam of Cruise Critic. “P&O Cruises, for example, offers packages for soft drinks, Costa coffee and wine by four, six, nine or 12 bottles in two package variations. Some are quite restrictive, only including certain drinks, or drinks up to a certain value. Take your itinerary into consideration before investing. You may, for example, be spending a lot of time in port, enjoying long, lunches ashore, in which case, a drinks package can be wasted.”
Think about your itinerary
As with any holiday, it’s good to get an idea of how you’d like to spend your time away. Thinking about the types of activities you might like to take part in, or the sights you’d like to see, can help you decide on whether you need to book any excursions for your trip. This is something Adam highly recommends: “Have a rough idea of what you want to do on your cruise. If it's a port-intensive week in the Med, don't exhaust yourself by booking onto one tour after another. A lot of ports are easy to explore independently, at your own pace - Venice, for example, or Portofino, or St Tropez.
“Throw in the occasional beach day - cruise lines often provide shuttle buses (for a fee) to nearby beaches - or do your own research and take a taxi or local transport. A lot of cruise lines allow tours and spa treatments to be booked online before departure but keep your options open for part of the cruise, at least. If you already know a port well and it's unbearably hot, don't feel guilty if you choose to stay onboard while everybody goes off on tour. The pools and decks will be empty, and you can pretend that you're on a private yacht.
“Some cruise lines offer special tours of the ship on the first day, aimed at 'cruise virgins'. It's a good idea to join one of these; you'll get to know the ship and a bit about how it functions.”
What to Expect on Your First Cruise
Once you’ve arrived at the cruise port, you’ll find you spend a lot less time faffing about than you would at an airport. But it’s important to remember there’s still the usual procedures of checking in luggage etc. though you won’t need to drag your suitcases to your stateroom. Adam has a few top tips for your embarkation day: “Since you most likely will be doing a lot of walking and standing in line, comfortable shoes are essential. Dress casually and make sure you check the weather beforehand. If sailing from the UK to somewhere much warmer, make sure that you take suitable clothes for each climate. Layers are always convenient for temperature changes.
“All cabins are cleaned and prepped on embarkation day, so it depends on when yours is ready. The cruise director will make an announcement over the PA system when rooms are ready. In some cases, you might be able to pop in early if your cabin has already been cleaned. Some ships will block off hallway access with fire doors until all rooms are serviced. If you have a bag you'd rather not carry around, the guest relations' desk might be able to hold onto it for you.
“Luggage is delivered to the cabins within a few hours after boarding. Most cruisers get theirs before dinnertime, but there's a chance luggage could be delayed or that some of your bags arrive before others. Because of this factor, dinner on the first night is almost always a casual affair. We recommend packing a carry-on with anything you'll need for the first day onboard. This should include a change of clothes, bathing suit, medications and anything else you may need until your luggage is returned to your cabin - as well as any electronics or valuables you do not feel comfortable checking.
“You will receive a newsletter with a list of embarkation day activities and restaurant hours, either at check-in or in your cabin. Once you board, you'll be able to grab some lunch, take a dip in the pool or hot tub, hit the gym or walk around to get a feel for the ship. The spa and kids club will run tours for interested passengers, and shore excursions and dining reservations desks will be taking bookings. In the evening, the bars will be open, as well as the casino and shops, and there's usually a welcome show in the main theatre.”
Book spa treatments and speciality dining early
For the ultimate relaxing holiday, many travellers will choose to book spa treatment and speciality dining experiences for their cruise. But to avoid disappointment, Adam recommends doing this as soon as you can once you’ve boarded the ship: “If you've considered dining in a specialty restaurant or getting a massage, you'll want to make your reservations early, as the best times get booked up quickly. Here's where to go: spa and salon services can be booked in the spa, dinner reservations can be made at your desired restaurant, shore tours can be booked at the excursions desk, and beverage packages and soft drinks cards can be purchased at the front desk or at designated kiosks.
“Passes for adults-only sun deck areas and thermal suites can be purchased at the reception desk, spa or at the adults-only area, depending on the ship. There, you also can reserve space for-fee adults-only areas.
“If you're travelling with little ones, head to the kids’ club to sign them up for activities as soon as you can. If you have any special requests for your cabin - such as changing up bed configurations - catch up with your cabin steward.
“In the event that you want to change your dinner seating time or need to discuss dietary restrictions, locate the maître d' in the main dining room.”
Looking to celebrate on your first ever night on a cruise ship? Don’t miss the sailaway party! There is often live music, cocktails, wine, and everyone is excited to be setting sail for somewhere new. Head to the top deck and party the night away!
As with any form of travel, there are safety regulations in place. On a cruise, this takes the form of a safety drill which takes place within the first 24 hours of all cruises.
“The International Maritime Organization requires that all passenger cruise ships must hold a safety drill within 24 hours of embarkation,” said Adam. “These emergency drills typically occur before departure and vary depending on ship. Passengers are notified prior to the drill and guided to meeting points, either in an inside lounge, theatre or on an outer deck. During the drill, crewmembers will give instructions on what to do in case of an emergency and demonstrate how to put on a life jacket. Failure to comply can result in being forced to disembark the ship!”
“You can turn off your phone, or at least put it on ‘airplane mode,’ when the ship starts to sail away. The farther you get from port, the less access you have to land-based cell towers. Bear in mind that if you wait too long, you could be hit with satellite internet and roaming fees.
“For a detailed tick list of what you need to action: within two weeks of booking; three/four months before your cruise; one/two months before your cruise, one/two weeks and 1 day before your cruise - make sure you have this essential ultimate pre-cruise planning checklist.” Also read our guide on what you can take on a cruise ship.
We hope this article has helped you to start planning your first cruise holiday! If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact our friendly team today.