I get a lot of questions about cruising. They run the gamut from “what part of the ship should I book a stateroom” to “how much I should plan to spend on beer.” Like all things, the answer to those questions is “it depends.” Questions about cruising are numerous, and I’ve provided a lot of answers to many questions in my “Cruising for Beginners” primer.

quantum of the seas

All the advice you can get is never a bad thing, and my thoughts for beginners are by no means meant to imply that something you won’t read there will not be a great idea for you. However, as I think back over my cruising and blogging career, I’m certain I could boil down the best advice I’ve given to three things.

  • Don’t automatically write off the value of a good travel agent
  • Don’t overpack
  • Don’t be afraid to eschew the organized ship shore excursion

I won’t attempt to define each of these in order of importance, but will try to give some clarity to what I mean. When I’m talking to a certified travel hacker, it’s not unusual for me to get a truly mystified stare when I mutter the word “travel agent.” For sure, I do not use a travel agent for every cruise I book, but for special cruises – those where I’m looking for an experience, I pick up the phone and call my trusted agent. An “experience” in my book might be 2 weeks on the Mediterranean, a river cruise, a Galapagos expedition cruise, or a trip around the horn. An experience for a first time cruiser might be a 5-night cruise to Cozumel and Key West. The point is, a good travel agent can be indispensable in helping build the right kind of experience for you. Travel agents well-versed in cruising to the destinations you desire can be invaluable in helping you pick the right cruise itinerary and most importantly, the right cruise line for you.

I sometimes laugh when I look at what I packed for my first few cruises, no matter the length, and what I pack now. To say I’ve downsized a bit would be an understatement. While I might sometimes cruise with a piece of luggage that wouldn’t qualify as an airline carry on, it is increasingly rare. Of course, packing requirements depend on destination, but your typical Caribbean cruise is very t-shirt friendly. A few of those, some shorts, swim trunks, and yes…underwear, is key. “Formal night” has evolved over the years depending on the cruise line you choose. For the majority of your mass market lines, a decent pair of slacks and a sport jacket will suffice. Most of the time, I go open collar, even if I decide to wear a suit. And for those times when I feel like a tux, I pack my formal bowtie, and just rent the tux from the cruise line. (I have a thing about not wearing clip on anything.) I pack enough clothing for 4 or 5 days, and plan on doing laundry on board. Some ships have laundry facilities, while others will require you to use the ship’s dry cleaning and laundry service….something I usually partake of on cruises longer than 5 days.

Ah, the shore excursion. I’ll let you in on a secret, if I ruled the world, alarm clocks would be banned on vacation. I spend most of my working life scheduled for something, and the idea of having to be somewhere at a certain time when I am on vacation annoys me. It really annoys me. Which brings me to the organized cruise line shore excursion which usually comes with a specific appointment time very soon after your ship arrives in the morning. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been on some terrific shore excursions. A recent catamaran and train ride in St. Kitts, parasailing above the beautiful Caribbean Sea, etc. It was all good. But the best shore excursions are those booked privately, perhaps with a small group of friends or fellow cruisers. No 50 passenger busses, and you control the timing…..within reason, of course, as you don’t want to miss the ship! Beyond that, there’s always the option to purchase a travel book, read about a destination, and exploring it on your own!

I’d never claim that these three items are the only things you need to consider when taking your first cruise. They are, however, the first three things I think of when offering advice to a first time cruiser. What are your three tips for the first time cruiser?

-MJ, March 16, 2015