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Preparing for your first cruise holiday

Thinking of booking your first ever cruise? The choices are endless! If you’re feeling a little baffled on where to begin, our handy guide will help you to understand what to expect from the experience.

If you’ve never booked a cruise before, searching for the right one can be a little overwhelming. There are hundreds of cruise lines and ships to choose from, each providing different itineraries and experiences. We recommend reading useful sources like Cruise Critic to find out what other travellers thought of their first cruises and what they’d recommend. We chatted to Adam Coulter, UK Managing Editor at Cruise Critic, who said, “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.” Adam suggests the following:

  • Booking through a specialist
  • Thinking about your fellow passengers
  • Considering a mini-cruise or river cruise
  • Considering cruise add-ons
  • Thinking about your itinerary

Booking through a specialist

Booking through a reputable cruise agency guarantees 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 for you,” says Adam.

“Agencies that only sell cruises are, by nature, likely to have the greatest knowledge. Of course, you can do you 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!”

Thinking 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,” says 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.

Considering 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 cruising. 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 could book a weekend mini-cruise. “Why not dip your toe in the water with a short taster cruise?” says Adam. “Cunard and P&O Cruises offer cruises from Southampton, Expect two or three nights on board and a short hop across the Channel or the North Sea to ports like Zeebrugge (for Bruges) and Le Havre (for Paris). Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines has short breaks from Dover, Southampton, Tilbury, Harwich, Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow to France, Belgium, Ireland and The Netherlands.” Once you’ve tried a mini cruise or river cruise, you’ll have a good idea of what to expect on a longer journey or a larger ocean liner.

Considering cruise add-ons

One thing to consider before your cruise 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,” says Adam. “P&O Cruises, for example, offer packages for soft drinks, tea and coffee and wine by four, six, nine or twelve 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 may be wasted.”

Thinking 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 Mediterranean, don’t exhaust yourself by booking onto one tour after another. A lot of ports are easy to explore independently, at your own pace.

“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 yours 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 on board 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 are still the usual procedures of checking in luggage etc. though you won’t need to drag your suitcases to your stateroom. Adam shared his top embarkation tips, “it is likely that you’ll be walking and standing in line so 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 service. 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 on board. This may include a change of clothes, bathing suit, medication 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 leaving.

“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 treatments and speciality dining experiences for their cruise. To avoid disappointment, Adam recommends booking them as soon as you embark, “if you’ve considered dining in a speciality 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 excursions can be booked at the excursions desk and beverage packages 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 can also reserve space for fee adults-only areas.

“If you’re travelling with little ones, head to the kid’s 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.”

Sailaway party

Looking to celebrate your first-ever night on a cruise ship? Don’t miss the sail away 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.

Muster drill

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,” says Adam. “These emergency drills typically occur before departure and vary depending on the 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, crew members 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.”

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