Tips to help plan your first cruise

December 4, 2022

Cruising is back, in a big way. We’ve had so many clients take up our great cruise deals, which is no surprise when you consider that cruising is one of the most affordable ways to travel. You can set sail on worry-free adventures to places like Asia, Alaska, the Mediterranean, Pacific islands and more.

If you’ve never cruised before, or it’s been years since your last voyage, here are our top tips on how to prepare and what you can do to enhance your holiday.

Choose the cruise line that’s right for you

Not all cruises are created equal. Obviously, ships vary greatly in size. There’s also a vast difference in the inclusions, facilities and the demographics of the people on board.

Small ships generally carry less than 1000 passengers. They are preferred by many seasoned cruisers because they visit ports where the larger ships can’t dock. Also it’s a more intimate experience and often higher quality. Companies that fall into this category include Hurtigruten, Ponant, Crystal Cruises, Lindblad Expeditions, Windstar Cruises, Captain Cook Cruises and Silversea, amongst others.

Mid-size ships carry around 1500-2700 passengers. One of the bonuses of this size is where they can dock. Some of the older ports, that are closer to the centre of towns, haven’t been built to accommodate larger vessels. Within this size group you’ll find ships with the likes of Holland America Line, Virgin Voyages and Cunard Line.

In the big ship range, on average they are at least 300 metres (1000 feet) in length (or almost three Aussie Rules footy ovals) and carry upwards of 3000 passengers. In this category you’ll find many familiar cruise brands, such as P&O, Princess Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL), Royal Caribbean, MSC and Celebrity Cruises.

At the mega end of the scale is Royal Caribbean’s new Wonder of the Seas, that’s 362 metres (1,188 ft) long, 64 metres (210 ft) wide, and holds up to 6,988 passengers. Others at the top end of big include Carnival Cruise Line’s MS Iona with 5206 passengers, Costa cruises’ Smeralda that launched in 2020 with a maximum passenger occupancy of 6,554 and MSC Virtuosos started service in 2022 and carries up to 6,334 guests. The largest in the NCL fleet is Norwegian Encore. It has a length of 1,094 feet and a passenger capacity of 4,004 at double occupancy.

Here’s why big could be better for first time cruisers:

  • If you’re not sure how your sea legs will go, on the big ships there’s less chance of feeling queasy
  • There’s so much choice on board – from a huge range of activities, through to entertainment and dining venues
  • It’s a floating hotel – cabins have private ensuites, room service is available, reception is always open and they have medical services on board
  • Destinations visited are designed for cruising – where you dock will be geared up to look after everyone
  • It’s more affordable – with so many people on the cruise the cost usually comes right down!

Why do we love the sea? It is because it has some potent power to make us think things we like to think.
Robert Henri

Talk to us about what you want from your cruise. We can help advise you on which cruise lines will best suit the things you like to do and what age of travellers they usually attract. Also, we can let you know which cruise deal will give you the best value for your holiday budget!

Carnival cruise ship in Hawaii

Which cabin is best?

Whether a cruise company refers to their rooms as cabins, staterooms or suites, the differentiation between the cabins is generally the same.

Inside Cabins are the lead category. These are located in the middle of the ship and therefore have no external light or windows. Outside cabins or Oceanview are on the exterior of the ship and they have a porthole or larger window. If you can afford a Balcony Cabin, it’s worth it. That’s our recommendation, because sliding doors open out to the fresh sea air and it’s a great place to sit back, relax and watch the world go by. On cruises like Alaska’s Inside Passage and Glacier Bay, you can see so much from your own private space.

Within these three main categories, there’s a whole range of options based on a cabin’s location on the ship. The My Travel Experience experts know the ship layouts and can help you pick the best available cabin. The views from the front and up high are great, but if you’re prone to seasickness you might want to stay mid-ship where there’s less motion. Also, if you really want to splurge, there are suites on the ships that offer much more space to stretch out and a range of additional perks, from personal butler service, to private dining options and suite-only havens.

On river cruises and many small ship vessels, the cabin choice is easier because most of them are outside. Then your choice is how high you want to be above the waterline. Porthole or window cabins are on the lowest decks, whereas balcony cabins are higher. If you see a cabin descriptions that says “French balcony” this means that the cabin has floor-to-ceiling doors that open but there isn’t space on the landing to step outside or sit on any furniture.

NCL Norwegian Encore cruise ship balcony in Glacier Bay Alaska

Should you pre-book shore excursions?

Simple answer – yes! Every cruise has a range of local tours that are designed to suit the cruise schedule and will enhance your experience in the region.

By booking in advance, you are pre-paying in your home currency (no international fees) and guaranteeing your place (tours do sell out once the cruise starts, if not earlier). The cruise line also only uses reputable local operators. Plus, if you book an affiliated shore excursion, then you’re guaranteed to be picked up and dropped off back at the ship in time to depart. Trust us, you don’t want to risk missing the boat!

Your My Travel Experience specialist will let you know what shore excursions are available on your cruise. Then you can choose which of the day trips interests you most. We’re not saying you need to book an organised tour in every port, as sometimes it’s fun to explore at your leisure. But if there’s a particular highlight that you don’t want to miss, then pre-booking is the way to go!

What extras should you consider?

One of the reasons why cruises are so appealing is that most things are taken care of up front. Once you’re on board you’re not dipping into your wallet all the time, so the more you can pre-pay, the less you have to worry about a hefty tab at the end of the cruise.

Drinks on board:
If you enjoy a tipple or two, then pre-paid drinks packages are the way to go. There are standard packages, that cover the basic spirits, beers and wines. Premium packages offer a wider choice of beverages and more top-shelf options.

There are also some cruise lines that include drinks in their fares. Azamara offers international beers, plus a selection of wines and standard spirits in their limited cocktail menu. Celestyal cruise includes unlimited alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks (draft beer, wine by the glass, port, brandy, cognac, whisky, rum, vodka, tequila and other cocktails). Crystal cruise includes fine wines and premium liquors, in addition to non-alcoholic soft drinks, coffees and bottled water. Other fully-inclusive cruise lines include Seabourn, Scenic, Silversea, Viking and several river cruise companies.

Alaska, United States

Speciality dining:
All meals are included on almost all cruise ships, but there’s a but. Many of the most popular ocean liners have included venues and then restaurants that are available for an additional charge.

If you prefer a quieter dining experience in a smaller restaurant, or enjoy more personal service and a la carte menu selection, then you should consider pre-purchasing a speciality dining package. This will give you the freedom to dine where you choose and open up your options without paying extra once you’re on board.

Most cruise companies have compulsory gratuities for the crew. Either added to cabin account for payment at the end of the cruise, or included in the cost. Ask us about which cruise lines include gratuities. We can also let you know if there are any deals where gratuities are included, because the tipping costs can add up and you don’t want any unexpected surprises.

Really don’t leave home without it, especially on a cruise. Since you’re paying for all your accommodation, transport and meals with one supplier, you don’t want to risk the lot if anything unexpected means you can’t travel. Worst-case scenario, you also want to be covered if you need to be air-lifted off the cruise or need specialist assistance. You’ll need to get a special policy that covers cruising – don’t expect your usual policy or free credit card insurance to be enough. We can help with insurance quotes to make sure you’re covered.

Your My Travel Experience specialist can chat to you about the selection of optional extras on your cruise. They can offer advice on where you can save by making your own arrangements and what it’s worth pre-paying to avoid the hassle and get the best value. For help with your booking, don’t hesitate to call 1300 168 910 or email [email protected].

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