Before going on my first cruise, it’s fair to say I was a complete cruise novice. Pretty much the only knowledge I had about cruising came from repeat viewings of Titanic (so I was paying particular attention when it came to the evacuation drill). I normally do a lot of research before a trip, but this time I was in the dark – especially so as a documentation malfunction meant the only info I had when I boarded the ship was a bit of paper with our flight numbers on.
It’s fair to say I didn’t know what to expect, whether that was what I needed to pack, how much to tip, what it was going to be like on board, or even how to embark and disembark. So I thought I’d put together a post for clueless first-time cruisers like me, or people who want to find out more about cruising, where I ask all the stupid questions so you don’t have to!
Note: my answers are based on trips with Celebrity Cruises and P&O – a lot of the answers apply to other cruise lines too but it’s a good idea to double check, and make sure to read your documentation properly. (You don’t want to turn up and realise you should’ve got a Turkish visa and have to spend the week trying to do it online from the patchy ship internet, for example!)
Do I just turn up and walk onto the ship?
Er, no. This was the biggest surprise for me – I pictured us just walking up a gangplank, going through a scanner and getting on board. And that’s pretty much what happens when you dock en route, but embarkation is a whole different experience, and much more like getting a flight. When we arrived into Venice airport our bags were labelled and taken off us.
Then we were taken to a huge terminal at the port to check in, get our photos taken, credit cards scanned and our passes issued. With about 2800 passengers it was busy – a flight delay meant we were near the end of the day and waited 40 minutes, but earlier on the wait was longer. Once you get on board your bags will be delivered to your room but not until later in the day, so keep your swimsuit in your hand luggage if you want to head straight to the pool.
Will I get lots of new stamps in my passport?
It depends on where you’re going but probably not. Although my cruise visited Italy, Croatia, Greece and Turkey, we were classed as transit passengers so only had to go through passport control once, which was when we disembarked in Istanbul. So I got stamped into Turkey on the morning I left the ship and then stamped back out later that day at Istanbul airport.
So that’s bad news when it comes to filling up those spare pages in your passport. But it’s good for visiting places like Russia where visas are more difficult and expensive to get hold of, as cruise passengers can spend up to 72 hours in the country visa-free.
Do I have to do shore excursions with a big group?
No – if you want you can do everything independently, by either hiring a car or using public transport. It’s worth doing your research in advance though as understandably the cruise companies want you to take their excursions so they don’t give you a lot of information for independent trips. At some ports we could walk into the town, or there are always taxis available at all the ports we visited, as well as local shuttle buses to sites like Olympia and Ephesus.
If you don’t want to organise excursions yourself, you can either do one of the cruise company’s trips or book one with an external company like Get Your Guide, who have a lot more choice. If you do a cruise company excursion you get the bonus of being first off the ship when you dock and you’re guaranteed they won’t go without you. There are a wide range of excursions so you won’t necessarily be stuck in a massive group – we did an iPod tour at Ephesus so we could wander around the site independently and avoid the worst of the crowds.
What currency is used on the ship? And are there lots of extra costs?
The currency onboard will depend where the cruise company is based – so it’s usually US dollars, UK pounds or Euros. But you don’t need cash as everything on board is charged to your pass, which also acts as your ID card and room key. The total of any extras is normally charged to your credit card at the end of the trip. The cruise price covers accommodation, food and many activities on board, so you don’t have to spend much more if you don’t want to. Extras include speciality restaurant dining, excursions, internet, shopping and spa treatments.
Basic hot and cold drinks are included but you pay extra for fizzy drinks, bottled water and alcohol. Drinks policies vary by cruise line but some let you buy drinks packages (on Celebrity these started from $49 a day for standard wines and beers) – though you have to book it for the whole trip so it depends how much you plan to drink. You often can’t bring alcohol on board other than a limited amount at the start of the trip – any bought en route is taken off you and stored until disembarkation (bags are scanned as you get back on the ship).
Tipping practices also vary between different cruise lines. Some are all-inclusive or have tips factored into the price so you don’t need to worry about tipping. But generally you are expected to tip, with either a daily amount (often $10) added to your bill or there’s an envelope in your room where you can leave a tip for your waiter and room steward.
Am I going to put on loads of weight?
If you want to! There’s food available on board ship 24 hours a day, with a mixture of types from the formal dining room and speciality restaurants to buffets and snack bars. Weirdly having food around all day meant we ate less, as you always know there’s more so you don’t need to stock up. In the main dining room you have four-course meals every night, but portions aren’t excessive.
Buffet have a wide array of counters with salads, main dishes (which are often themed to go with the destination) as well as pizza and pasta. Not to mention the amazing array of desserts – on Celebrity they were all in mini sizes so you can try a few. But there are also lots of healthy options – like fresh fruit, a big salad bar and a stir fry bar where you can pick your own ingredients. The food labelling on board also makes it good for people with food intolerances – the menus in the dining room were marked for gluten-free, dairy-free and low-sugar.
Do I have to eat dinner with the same people every night?
In the old days of cruising you were allocated a specific dinner time and table, with the same waiter and the same people every night – good if you happen to like them, not so much if you don’t and can’t escape. Now more cruise lines offer flexible dining, where you choose what time you eat and can often choose have a table to yourselves or share with other people.
We went for the flexible option so we could eat any time between 6pm and 9:30pm – so if we were out on shore late we could eat later or if we wanted to go to a show in the evening we could eat before. Or if you’re not into formal dining at all then you can avoid the dining room completely and eat dinner in the buffet restaurant (or just snack around the ship all day).
Should I pack my ballgown/tuxedo?
Not if you don’t want to. You can wear whatever you like by day, then the usual dress code for dinner is ‘smart casual’. Bit vague I know, but in this case it translated as a dress or a skirt or trousers with a smart top for women, and a shirt and trousers for men. There are usually a couple of formal nights on a seven-night cruise where you can dress up, but how far you go is up to you. I saw everything from suits and cocktail dresses to tuxedos and sparkly ballgowns.
Anything goes, and as I don’t get to dress up very often I packed a couple of dresses and a pair of heels (the bonus being you don’t have too far to walk home at the end of the night!). But again it’s all optional, so if you don’t want to get involved – like the Aussies we met who were on a nine-week trip so didn’t have spare suitcase space – you don’t have to.
What is the entertainment like (is it all bingo and ballroom dancing?)
There is always something going on on board. There are all the traditional things like bingo, quizzes and games if you want them. But there are also all sorts of other things, like cookery demonstrations, dance classes, ice-carving, cocktail-making and glass-blowing, to mention just a few. There’s lots of live music – from DJs to a string duo and jazz band – and two shows a night in the ship’s theatre, which included West End-quality singers and dancers, a magician and a Cirque du Soleil-style acrobatic show. Each night you get a sheet left in you room telling you all about what’s going on tomorrow so you can plan what you want to do.
Will I get seasick?
Hopefully not – cruise ships now have sophisticated stabilisers to keep the trip as smooth as possible. I’m really sensitive to motion but really couldn’t feel we were moving most of the time. There were two nights when we travelled further so you could feel the engine rumbling and the ship’s motion, but it was more of juddering than the horrible swaying feeling. If you do get rough seas I recommend Gin Gins ginger sweets, acupressure wristbands and Stugerol tablets – and if things are really bad the ship’s doctor can give you a special injection. If you’re worried about seasickness, it’s a good idea to start off with a cruise like ours, in a relatively calm area during summer and without any full days out at sea.
Any other tips?
Packing-wise, if you’ve got a lots of electricals then a multi-plug adaptor is a good idea (we only had one European and two US plug sockets in our cabin), you might want to bring your own hairdryer if you’ve got long hair as the ones provided are a bit feeble, and bring a wrap or cardigan for formal evenings as the dining room air-con can get a bit chilly. It’s also a good idea to pick up a bottle of water whenever you are off the ship – on board it costs $3 a bottle, but it was only €0,50 on the docks. On board the tap water is drinkable (though its not very cold) or you can fill up glasses of ice water in the restaurant.
Also be aware that you need to be out of your cabin by 9am on the day of disembarkation, so if you are on a cruise transfer you’ll be taken to the airport by then at the latest – not so good if your flight is in the afternoon (there’s really not much to do in Istanbul Airport for six hours!). But as long as you are out of your cabin you can stay on board until later if you arrange your own transfer to the airport, or even better you could book a hotel and stay for an extra night or two in your final destination.
So there you go, those are my top cruise questions and answers – do you have anything else you want to know about cruising? Let me know in the comments below and I’ll try to answer!