First-Time Cruisers: 11 Biggest Mistakes (and How Not to Make Them)

Cruise ship boardingPassengers boarding a cruise ship
Angela Perryman/Dreamstime

Don’t forget a carry-on bag!

Don’t let these rookie fumbles cost you money or make your first cruise any less enjoyable.

A record-high number of travelers are taking cruises. According to the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), about 28.5 million people set sail in 2018, up 7% from 2017. Americans, in particular, are fueling the industry: 14.2 million U.S. citizens took a cruise last year.

However, many first-time cruisers make mistakes that can cause them undue stress or drive up the costs of their vacation. If you’re planning your first voyage, you don’t want to be one of them.

Here are 11 blunders to avoid on your maiden cruise.

Mistake #1: Waiting to reserve excursions till you’re on the ship

Many seasoned cruisers book land excursions far in advance, since making a reservation ahead of time guarantees they’ll reserve a spot. (Popular excursions, unsurprisingly, sell out!) Also, many cruise lines offer deals for early bookings. The caveat? Depending on the cruise ship’s policy, some excursions may be nonrefundable.

Mistake #2: Overlooking cruise line loyalty programs

Most cruise lines, including the four largest in the world—Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, and MSC Cruises—have free loyalty programs that reward customers with points that they can use to receive reduced cruise fares, cash back to spend aboard their ships, or other perks, such as priority boarding, member parties, private concierge services, and complimentary meals. Though some cruise lines automatically enroll members following their first sailing, others require travelers to opt into the program—sometimes before they board. So, find out what the sign-up process before you make a reservation.

Mistake #3: Only booking directly through the cruise line

Booking a cruise directly through a cruise line is convenient, but it’s not your only option. Plus, travelers can nab cheaper rates by exploring deals on discount websites like Expedia, Cruise.com, Priceline, and Travelocity. Another perk: if you find a cheaper price after you book a reservation, many discount travel providers will match the lower rate and refund you the difference.

That being said, it may make sense for loyalty members to book directly with the cruise line in order to receive rewards points. It ultimately depends on whether the lower fare from a third-party booking service offsets the numbers of points you’d get by booking with the cruise line.

Mistake #4: Assuming the cruise is all-inclusive

Typically, cruise fares only cover your cabin, meals, and onboard activities and entertainment. Be prepared to pay extra for drink packages, Internet, and gratuities. (Note: many cruise lines, today, use an automatic gratuity system that tacks on 15% to 20% tips) Find out what these costs are ahead of time so that you can budget accordingly.

Mistake #5: Not switching your cellphone to airplane mode

Even if you don’t make a single phone call or send a text message while you’re cruising, international roaming rates can cost hundreds of dollar. Also, you may get charged for simply receiving text messages. Thus, either turn on your cellphone’s airplane mode, or contact your carrier to inquire about getting a short-term international plan. (Turning off your phone when you board the ship works, too!)

Mistake #6: Buying trip protection from the cruise line

If you’re the type of person who likes to purchase travel insurance, look into buying an insurance plan from an independent insurance provider. Oftentimes, third-party insurance plans offer better coverage—and may be cheaper—than trip protection sold by cruise lines.

Pro tip: Some premium credit cards offer trip protections—the Chase Sapphire Reserve, for example, provides not only trip cancellation insurance but also emergency medical and medical evacuation coverage.

Mistake #7: Presuming your health insurance policy covers you abroad

Put simply, your primary health insurance may not pick up the tab for hospital treatments or emergency medical expenses while you travel internationally. That explains why a report from Allianz Global Assistance found that 67% of all cruise related “billing reasons” for insurance claims are the result of an illness or injury. The morale: talk to your insurance provider to learn what your policy does and doesn’t cover abroad.

Mistake #8: Not selecting your cabin’s location

Obviously, when you book a cruise, you choose what type of cabin you want (e.g., an interior room, a room with a balcony, a suite). However, many people don’t consider where their cabin is located. If you’re prone to seasickness, health experts recommend staying in a cabin in the middle of the ship on a low floor, where you’re less likely to feel the “sway” of the boat. Booking a cabin that’s located near an elevator—or, heaven forbid, a night club—can also sting, especially if you’re a light sleeper.

Mistake #9: Under-packing

Over-packing, of course, isn’t good. (After all, why schlep around more stuff than you actually need?) However, under-packing is also a common mistake first-time cruisers make. Many ships have formal or smart-casual nights that require certain attire (some even enforce black-tie dress codes!), so pack accordingly.

Also, pack some cool-weather clothes—a strong breeze can make it chilly on the deck at night.

Mistake #10: Parking at the port

Cruise lines tend to charge top dollar for guests to park their car at the ship’s first point of departure. To find cheaper parking, look for deals at nearby lots that are a short Uber or Taxi ride away. Plan to stay in town the night before your cruise? See if your hotel offers guests a special rate for you to park your car there during the cruise.

Mistake #11: Not packing a carry-on for the first few hours

On many cruises, especially large ships, you’ll hand off your luggage when you climb on board, and the ship’s staff will deliver it to your room a few hours later. Which is why you’ll want to pack a small carry-on bag with any essentials you’ll need during the first few hours, like a bathing suit, sunscreen, or medications.

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