Congratulations on booking your first cruise!! (or seriously considering one) Now the fun, and possibly daunting, part begins…planning and booking everything that goes with your cruise. Here’s Part One of our primer to answer some questions as you get ready to set sail for the first time.
We know this is a lot of information to take in on this page, but there are about 20 years of our cruise experiences wrapped into this primer We hope this information will help make your first voyage a super fantastic experience.
Although there are a lot of similarities to a resort vacation, there are some distinct differences with cruising. I find that the fewer surprises you have, the more you will be able to enjoy the experience. In particular understand what is, and is not, included in your base price and understanding some of the particulars of cruising, like muster drills.
With few exceptions, cruises are not all-inclusive vacations, you will be paying extra for things when you get on board. Virgin Voyages has the most included items of any cruise line at this time. So let's get started with this Cruising 101 Primer!
As of the time of this writing, the following documentation is required to board a cruise ship for cruises that originate in the United States. You will need to present this identification at the Cruise Terminal to check in.
U.S. Passport book that is valid at least 6 months after your cruise ends.
- OR -
For sailings departing from U.S. homeports, an official U.S. Birth Certificate is also accepted.
Guests aged 16 and older that present a Birth Certificate will also need to provide a valid
Driver’s License or picture ID issued by the government. Please note that hospital Birth
Certificates (baby feet Birth Certificates) are not accepted.
Note that you will be required to present BOTH the original Birth Certificate and Photo ID
for guests 16 and older in lieu of a passport.
A notable exception is Virgin Voyages which requires a passport for all sailings, no matter where they originate.
PASSPORTS, GET THEM
U.S. passengers sailing to the Caribbean often think they won’t ever need their passports because they are generally not needed to get off the ship. There are two reasons why you want them in your cabin.
First and most importantly, if you need to leave the ship for any reason during the cruise, such as for a medical emergency, you will need your passport to get back to the U.S. if you’re in another country.
You cannot get a flight or a ferry out of that country without your passport. You can leave your passports in the safe and if necessary, the ship will have them retrieved and brought to you. Secondly, some islands such as Martinique are starting to require passports to visit their countries.
Bring your passports and leave them locked in your safe just in case. Much better to have them and not need them than to need them and not have them..
While often ignored with destination travel (hotels, resorts) trip insurance is highly recommended for cruising because in general you will be visiting multiple countries during your cruise. Even if you never plan to get off the ship, you may end up going into one of those countries for medical treatment.
If you have a medical issue that is beyond what the ship can handle, you will be removed from the ship and taken to the nearest hospital. When cruising, that can mean being taken to a hospital in another country.
Most U.S. based health insurance will NOT cover medical expenses incurred in another country. Good Trip Insurance policies WILL.
Unless the condition was caused by negligence by the ship’s crew, you will be responsible for all medical bills. If you don’t have trip insurance, then you will be paying for those bills out of pocket.
HOW BIG IS THE SHIP (REALLY)?
When you read about cruise ship occupancy you may notice that the ships are sailing at 105%, 110% or 120% occupancy. How can a ship sail with more than 100% capacity? There are two occupancy numbers for every ship.
Double Occupancy: 2 people in every cabin. That's 100% capacity of the ship. In general, this is the capacity displayed on a cruise ship website, if at all.
Maximum Capacity: The total number of passengers if every berth is occupied in the cabins that can house 3 or more people. Some cabins can hold 4 or more, such as family and larger suites.
For example, Royal Caribbean Icon of the Seas Double Occupancy capacity is 5,610. Maximum capacity is 7,600. The wide difference in capacity is because over 80% of the cabins can hold 3 or more guests. It was designed primarily for families, thus the large number of high capacity cabins.
Cruise ships have four basic cabin classes. Interior, Ocean View, Balcony and Suites.
Interior cabins are what they sound like, interior to the ship with no windows. They are among the smallest and most cost effective cabins on any ship. Many cruisers love these cabins because the are absolutely dark when the lights are turned out. On some Royal Caribbean ships, there is an "Interior Promenade View" cabin class that features a large picture window and seating bench that looks out onto the main Promenade in the middle of the ship.
Ocean View cabins have a window, or windows, that look out of the cabin but do not open. These cabins often are the same size as their interior counterparts, but the window makes them feel a bit larger. On some ships, the "ocean view" does not actually look out onto the ocean, but may look to an interior section of the ship, such as the Central Park area on a Royal Caribbean Oasis Class ship.
Balcony cabins allow you to open your doors and step out into the fresh air outside the ship. Balconies come in all shapes, sizes and locations on the ship. In general, the higher you are on the ship, the higher your cruise fare. The higher cabins are considered more desirable due to the better view, especially when you are in port. The lower level cabins could have their view blocked by nearby ships or buildings. Balcony cabins on the aft of the ship are generally among the most expensive because there are a limited number of them.
Suites is where the cruising really gets interesting with a wide array of sizes, locations and perks included with your suite. Suites range from a simple 350 sq ft Mini Suite to a 1700 square foot, 3-deck Ultimate Family Townhouse on the Icon of the Seas and everything in between. No two cruise lines or even two ships are alike when it comes to suites, and what is included with the cabin. You really have to do some research or call on us to help you figure out which suite it right for you.
Now here's where it gets confusing, both for the new cruiser and veteran cruiser alike. In each of those four basic categories there are dozens of sub-categories. And each cruise line follows their own rules as to what those subcategories are and what they include. The new Royal Caribbean of the Seas has 28 cabin categories!
You will see designations such as 2V, 4V, 5V, 6T Interior cabins. Ocean View, Spacious Ocean View, Family Ocean View and now Infinite balconies. Mini Junior, Grand and Owner's Suites.
You may see two cabins side by side on a deck plan, each the exact same size, one is labeled a Balcony while the other a Mini Suite with the Mini Suite priced about $500 or so more. What's the difference? The bathroom may be upgraded in the Mini-Suite or features a tub whereas the balcony only has a standup shower. But in terms of the cabin themselves, they're probably identical.
Cabins are priced as 2 people per cabin, (double occupancy) although there is a trend in recent years to add solo cabins and some studio lounges.
You can see below that the cabin comes up as essentially the same base price if 1 or 2 people stay in it. For 2 people the total price is a little higher due to the additional taxes on the second person. You will see promotions from time to time with cruise lines waiving or reducing the single supplement allowing solo travelers more options on the ship without the need to pay the full 2-person price.
BOOKING SOLO CABINS
You can choose to book any cabin on the ship by yourself, however you will be charged the full 2-person price for the cabin. This is known as a 'single supplement' in the cruise industry, charging a single person a 'supplement' to cover the missing second person in the cabin. It's best for solo travelers to find cruise lines and ships that have studio or solo cabins. From time to time, cruise lines offer sales on single supplements allowing you to book most any cabin on the ship, with either no extra fees, or minimal extra fees as a solo traveler.
The cruise lines with the most options for solo travelers are Norwegian Cruise Line, Virgin Voyages and Celebrity Cruises (on their Edge class ships). Norwegian has studio lounges in most of their solo cabin areas, Virgin has both interior and ocean view cabins and Celebrity Edge series has single Infinite Verandah (balcony) cabins in addition to interiors.
DOWNLOAD THE APP
All cruise lines now have a mobile app of some sort. Some are good while others are terrible. Download it as soon as you book a cruise so you can get everything set up in it. Plus you can figure out what you can and cannot do with the app. You do NOT want to spend the first three or four hours of your cruise trying to download an app on the ship and then setting it all up.
In addition to the identification mentioned earlier, you will need your boarding pass. It will be available
via the cruise line app, however we also recommend having a printed copy with you just in
case. WiFi and connections inside the cruise terminals have been known to be spotty.
One tip is to bring up the cruise line app and your boarding pass before you actually enter the terminal building.
Each cruise line has something like “What to bring to check in” on their FAQ page. Read
through that carefully to see exactly what they want you to have on hand during check-in.
RELATED: Download our Pre-Cruise 'To-Do" and Checklist
CRUISE CHECK-IN (the earlier, the better)
Approx. 30-45 days before your cruise you will be able to check in via the website or the
cruise line app. You can find the exact check-in date and time in your account on the website
or in the app. When you check-in you can select your terminal arrival time.
The earlier you check-in, the more selection you’ll have for your boarding time as they are
filled in first-come, first-served. In general terminal arrival starts around 9:30 or 10am and
boarding will start at 11 or 11:30am. Boarding generally ends approx. 45-60 minutes prior to
Either immediately after checking in or a few days later you should be able to print your
Luggage Tags from your account. You will need a luggage tag for each piece of checked
luggage. Purchase a set of these Tag Savers from SailPak to both protect your luggage tags
and connect them securely to your luggage.
If you don’t intend to check any luggage for your cruise, you do not need luggage tags.
We usually try to check-in as quickly as possible to secure an early boarding time so we can get
on the ship early.
A Muster Drill a mandatory safety drill that every guest MUST complete before the ship is
allowed to sail.
This now consists of watching a video either through your app, your stateroom
television, or at an assigned station. You must then report to your Muster Station, this will be a
letter/number combination on your Ship Card, such as D3. If you’re unsure where to go, simply
ask any crew member on the ship. Your Muster Station is also noted on the back of your
stateroom door. A Muster Station is where you will gather in the case of an emergency onboard
Get this over with as soon as you get on the ship or as soon as they start accepting people at the musters stations so you're not 'that person' who is holding up the entire ship. The Captain and security can and will remove any passenger from the ship who refuses to participate in the Muster Drill.
ARRIVE THE DAY BEFORE (or two)
Unlike a destination vacation, a cruise ship runs on a schedule. If you’re delayed in your travels, the ship will not be there waiting for you. It will sail without you.
Whenever possible, plan to arrive to the port city at least one day in advance. If your flights or travel are delayed, you still have another day to get to the port. If your travel plans have you arriving hours before the ship sails, you have a much smaller window of opportunity to allow for delays. We don't need to tell you about the many issues with air travel these days and delays.
EMBARKATION / BOARDING THE SHIP / GETTING YOUR CABIN
Depending on the time you arrive, it CAN be very busy and a bit chaotic with thousands of
people exiting and entering the same ship. Just relax and know that there’s a big cruise ship
waiting on the other side of the building. :)
Read our related article that walks you through both Embarkation (The Big Day!) and Debarkation (the sad day).
What To Know For Your First Cruise, main category
Your First Cruise Part 2: Meals, Drinks and On-Board Credit
Your First Cruise Part 3: Entertainment, Excursions and Cabin
First Cruise Guide: Tips for Booking Your First Cruise
First Cruise Guide: Excursions, Dining & Drink Packages
First Cruise Guide: Selecting Your Cruise Ship Cabin
Cruise Critic: (membership is free, sign up to participate in the cruise boards)