Plan ahead but embrace the unexpected: what first


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Jan 07, 2024

Plan ahead but embrace the unexpected: what first

Alexa H. Bluth is a writer, living in Sacramento with her husband, two sort of well-behaved teenaged daughters and two not-at-all well-behaved dogs. She took some time to write this guest post entry

Alexa H. Bluth is a writer, living in Sacramento with her husband, two sort of well-behaved teenaged daughters and two not-at-all well-behaved dogs. She took some time to write this guest post entry about what she's learned to share with other first timers who are anxiously awaiting their embarkation date.

In summer 2019, I stepped foot on my first-ever cruise ship gangway, headed with my husband and pre-teens on a new kind of adventure.

This was a bucket-list trip to Alaska on a beautiful ship with all the bells and whistles. I researched the daylights out of it. I stressed over every detail, watched hundreds of YouTube videos, and memorized ship deck plans. It was overkill, to be sure, although some of that planning did come in handy.

The cruise was an amazing, life-changing experience, but not because of any of the reasons I’d anticipated. It was the unexpected surprises and the unplanned moments that hooked me for life on cruising.

Cruises are fun and unique. You can travel to several different destinations, while only unpacking once. The feeling of a comfy stateroom and ready-made dinner plans after a long day exploring is priceless. The people in general - both crew members and fellow travelers - are typically interesting and friendly. Once you’re fully soaked in the music, game shows, and ocean breezes, it’s impossible not to have fun.

I’ve learned much since that first sail away to Alaska. Here are some lessons and tips in hopes that you, too, will love your first cruise.

On our first cruise, I wanted to know every granular detail beforehand, but by our third I was more relaxed and wanted to be surprised by some things.

I don’t advise overdoing it. Some basic research can be of help and will ignite excitement for your trip. You can read blogs and watch YouTube videos about your specific ship. You’ll even find room tours of the specific category of stateroom you picked.

Dig deep enough and you can find detailed deck plans and dining menus and daily activity newsletters from previous sailings. All of this can be a bit much, but there are a handful of areas that I do advise researching before and after booking your first cruise.

Before booking, research where the stateroom you’d like is located on the ship, and what generally are the activities and food options the ship offers to make sure it will meet your needs. The ideal room location will be midship, surrounded by other staterooms on all sides (including above and below), near-ish to the elevators but not right next to them, and not directly under a pool deck, buffet or dance club.

Ships vary from older, smaller ships with traditional activities and fewer crowds, to mega ships with trapezes and ice skating rinks and bumper cars, oh my!

After booking, find out if you need to make reservations for dining or entertainment before you board. These things do book up.

It also helps to know: How to get to the pier on embarkation day (and parking options if you are driving), what excursions are offered in your ports of call, and the basic ship layout.

You don’t need to memorize every deck but at least it’s helpful to know if your room is near the aft or forward elevators. On our most recent trip, I dug up where we needed to go once on board to get show and dinner reservations and we headed there the moment we got on board By the time we had our reservations all set, the lines were out the door and we were glad we’d done that research.

You don’t need to memorize a whole new vocabulary. Just a few terms, including stateroom (cabin), MDR (main dining room), aft (back) and forward (self explanatory), and port (left) and starboard (right).

Also you will do a “muster drill,” usually by watching a video on your phone or in your stateroom and going to your designated “muster station,” which is the spot where you’d gather in an emergency.

When packing for your cruise, you will want to make sure that you bring things like sunscreen, ibuprofen, bandages, diapers, etc.

Some items will be available in the ship’s main gift shop or in a vending machine near the medical facility, but what is available there and at the ports will be pricey. Onboard, there is often a limited supply, too. You won't find a full pharmacy, so it is best to bring everything from home.

I have overpacked on each and every cruise. I always end up with clothes and shoes I never wear.

For warm weather cruises, you likely will wear the same shorts/dress/bathing suit repeatedly, and you definitely don’t need multiple outfits per day.

Cruises aren’t as formal as they once were, so you can even wear the same breezy outfit you wore to explore during the day to dinner if you want (just no swimwear, tank tops, or flip flops). You also don’t need to go gadget and gear crazy.

But do bring some heavy-duty magnetic hooks to hang things likes hats and sweaters on the metal cabin walls, a non-surge protector outlet extender with USB ports, and binoculars (you’ll love spotting dolphins, whales, and other cruise ships, which is weirdly exciting when you’re on a cruise).

Because, why not? Get into the spirit. Magnets and magnetic dry erase boards with fun messages are perfect to adorn metal cabin doors. You can mark special occasions with door decorations too. Plus, it helps you to easily identify your stateroom in those really long hallways.

Cruise ships are like massive, confusing floating cities. But every ship has plenty of maps and, again, crew members around to help. Plus, you get the hang of it after a few days.

Crowds are inevitable in the elevators on embarkation day and after shows, in the buffet at peak lunch and breakfast hours, and at the guest services desk (a ship’s equivalent to a hotel’s “front desk”) pretty much all of the time.

But after the first day of the cruise, people disperse to various spaces, and the elevators aren’t so crowded. And there always are quiet spots onboard, often along the outside decks away from the pool, in the far aft of the ship, or in adult-only areas.

Related: How to beat the crowds on your cruise ship

I mean it. Go. Even if it’s not your style to do the Cupid Shuffle, grab a glass of champagne or fruity drink and a spot along the top deck railing. It is impossible not to catch the spirit while listening to party music, watching people dance, and experiencing the ship gliding away from the pier (bonus if it’s at sunset!)

It’s typically either advertised specifically as a welcome show, or it will be the earlier (and more family friendly) showing on the first night of the evening headliner, such as the comedian or magician.

This is a fantastic opportunity to see the cruise director and cruise staff for the first time and to absorb the excitement of the fact that you’re on a cruise!

Ships feature a headline show each night, which typically are Broadway-style shows, magicians, musicians, or comedians. The headliners usually are shown at around 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., so though 6:45 is a lovely dinner time, it won’t work if you want to see the earlier and typically more family-friendly show.

Cruise internet is notoriously slow, so if you can spring for the “fastest” and unlimited package, do. If your whole party has iPhones, you will be able to iMessage each other while onboard, and you can use FaceTime and FaceTime Audio to connect with folks back home.

You can post about your adventures on social media, or stream your favorite movie before bed. Of course, you still can unplug if you wish, but you’ve left your options open.

They might be worth it, they might not. It depends how much they cost and how much you drink.

For us, on Royal Caribbean the unlimited drink package wasn’t worth the cost because we only ordered about two alcoholic drinks a day, but it was well worth getting the soda package because it included premium coffee drinks (hello, vanilla latte!) and mock-tails.

We also got our kids the soda package-- Nothing is more fun for kids than to be able to belly up to the bar anytime they want and flash their room card for a Shirley Temple or strawberry daiquiri. Honestly, don’t underestimate the ability of a paper umbrella or pineapple wedge to make a kid’s day.

Related: 2023 Royal Caribbean Drink Package Info, Tips, Pros & Cons

Cruise lines typically have a channel on your stateroom television that offers a morning show that replays for most of the morning, featuring the cruise director highlighting some of the day’s activities or discussing logistics such as time changes and information about the day’s port.

I confess, there was nothing more relaxing for me than sipping my morning mocha and watching the morning show.

No-one will judge you, except perhaps your own family.

I’m not advocating wasting food; I simply am saying that it’s widely accepted in cruising to order a couple of courses in the main dining room, no questions asked. So go ahead and try the cheesecake and creme brûlée if you can’t pick just one.

Ask for what you need, from directions to the soft serve machine to a couple extra pillows for your bed.

Need help or advice? Tap your fellow travelers. Experienced cruisers love to offer advice, even a little too much sometimes, and there will nearly always be a crew member within a few feet from you that will be willing to help.

Inevitably, something irritating will happen. A rude cruiser will swoop in front of you to grab a roll at the buffet or someone will cut you off to jump onto the elevator you’d patiently awaited.

A show you wanted to see might be sold out or a port might even get canceled because of weather.

Things won’t go exactly as planned. They just won’t. But the more you try to see the bright side and enjoy the positives, the better your overall experience will be.

Onboard, you’ll be hawked drink packages, photos, canvas tote bags, art, and jewelry.

You’ll get lots of pieces of paper with your daily planner advertising jewelry sales and art auctions. Just toss ‘em if you aren’t interested.

On many beaches while in port, there are streams of vendors selling bracelets, hair braiding, and photos with iguanas. Jewelry store salespeople tend to be zealous in trying to get you to come in and be dazzled by their sparkly stuff.

In most if not all cases, a friendly but firm “no thank you” typically does the trick.

Rather than trying to go out on your own, it’s worth to book a Royal Caribbean shore excursion that has built-in transportation to your destination, fewer logistics to plan, and peace of mind knowing you are guaranteed to get back to the ship on time.

Note: the ship does not wait for late travelers in port. It will leave you if you miss all-aboard time.

Crew members come from all over the world and many have fascinating stories.

On our most recent cruise, one tween boy sat at a bar for the better part of an hour, entranced by the bartender’s tales about the ships he’d worked on and the places he’d been.

A fun activity for kids is doing a “country scavenger hunt,” where you bring a list of countries and, for the duration of the cruise, they look for crew members from around the world (crew members’ home countries will be printed on their name badges). It’s like the license plate game for the high seas!

Also chat up fellow cruisers! Cruises come with a special camaraderie, more so in my opinion than other types of travel. Don’t be afraid to ask where someone is from or how many cruises they’ve been on, or to compliment their matching T-shirts.

You could learn some tips, make new friends, or at least mitigate the drudgery while waiting in line for something.

Go to the game shows and activities (and show up a little early to get a good seat). If these look silly, it’s because they are silly, but they’re also fun and entertaining.

I especially like the Newlywed Game-style shows, but I caution against bringing younger kids to this (or even older ones because, let’s be real, they don’t want to sit with their parents listening to people talk about making whoopee).

Encourage (bribery works) your kids to participate in activities in the kids and teens clubs and take part in the family activities such as scavenger hunts and game shows. On each of the cruises we’ve taken, my daughters met friends from various places with whom they’ve kept in touch after the trip.

The best kind are the ones that stretch, with a plastic card holder attached. This will conveniently hold your SeaPass card, which you use to buy anything onboard (and obviously to open your stateroom door).

If you forget one, you can visit the gift shop once your ship has set sail and purchase one.

I imagined a cruise would be mostly spent by the pool, or in the pool, or at the pool bar. I was wrong.

The pools are very crowded and the hot tubs are often, if not always, jam packed. If the weather’s nice, deck chairs generally are nearly all occupied or saved with towels. My kids still swam and had fun doing it, and I still managed to visit the pool bar a few times, but it was anything but serene.

Related: How to beat the chair hogs on your cruise ship

These are what you’ll see in the cruise line commercials, but they sometimes cost an extra fee, nearly always are crowded or booked, and, almost guaranteed, won’t be your favorite memories from your cruise.

My kids were determined to do the wave simulator on our Alaska cruise, so they shivered in their swimsuits in line for a half-hour for 30-second boogie boarding experiences that ended in wipeouts.

We waited almost an hour to experience ice-skating on a cruise ship, and my children gave up after about three minutes of frustration.

We rushed the moment we stepped aboard to make reservation for go-karts, and two teens racing each other kept bumping past us first-time go-kart drivers and nearly made my daughter cry. Bumper cars and roller skating on a cruise ship sounded awesome, but we missed the sign ups. Nevertheless, on each of these cruises, we had the times of our lives.

You’ll typically tip a porter to take your luggage immediately when you get to the port, and there are always opportunities to cash tip on excursions. They will ask. I promise.

Drop everything and head to your balcony or the upper deck at least once. Bring your camera, so you can create your phone’s new wallpaper and enjoy.

Don’t bring a highlighter (I mean it, don’t!) for the daily planner, and do try to become zen about skipping some things.

Sometimes it’s nice to just take a nap in your stateroom or stand at the railing to watch the sea go by.

If you are traveling with multiple families or in a big group, it can be stressful, so plan to let people do what they want when they want. You’ll see them plenty, I promise.

One time in the Bahamas, we thought we had found a reputable jet-ski rental company, only to find ourselves unwittingly riding through questionable neighborhoods in a beat-up minivan with kid-inappropriate music blaring.

We jet-skied off of a remote, trash-strewn beach where a few men quietly sat sharpening their machetes. It was dicey, to be sure, but we ended up having an amazing time jet skiing in the perfect blue-green sea that day and forever will have that story to tell.

In Mexico, a “jeep safari” turned out to be a dusty, harried, traffic-snarled caravan along major city streets and highways, with a prison and tequila factory as highlights. Not what we expected, but the tour guide was fabulous, and we saw parts of the culture we never would have otherwise. And, yep, we’ll always have the story to tell.

I’m not endorsing this type of expedition. In fact, it’s another reason to do your research and to go on cruise line sponsored excursions, but we went with the flow and didn’t let these unexpected turns of events ruin our trips.

The bottom line is that cruises are fun-filled vacations. Expect a few hiccups and hitches, crowds and lines, but also look forward to wonderful surprises, new friends and jaw-dropping sunsets.

Embrace the unplanned and even the cheesy moments. You might even find yourself dancing or hopping on stage to participate in a trivia game. And I can almost guarantee you’ll love it!

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