A Beginner's Guide to Cruises

We have spent a fair amount of time on cruises. Whether it’s a romantic getaway or a family vacation with our kids, we are huge advocates of taking cruises. You get to cover a lot of ground and get a taste of several different locations. This handy beginner’s guide to cruises will give you everything you need to know about this nearly all-inclusive floating vacation.


A Beginner's Guide to Cruises


What You Need to Know About Booking Your Cruise

Choosing the Right Cruise Line

The first thing you need to figure out is what cruise line is the right fit for you and your unique situation. There are many cruise lines out there, and you’ve probably seen many of them on TV ads or in fliers. Each cruise line will offer different amenities, experiences, and pricing.


While this is not a comprehensive list, here are some cruise lines:


     Carnival Cruise Line - a great fit for those traveling on a tighter budget and for families.

     Disney Cruise Line - perfect for Disney lovers and families with small kids.

     Holland America Line - ideal for adults or families with older kids.

   Norwegian Cruise Line - good all-around cruise line with mid-pricing and more adventure-geared amenities.

     Princess Cruises - great all-around for casual cruisers.

     Royal Caribbean International - good all-around cruise line with more expensive pricing and more onboard amenities.

Don't miss this post: 7 First Time Cruise Tips for Your Best Vacation at Sea

Choosing the Right Cruise Destination and Length

Cruise lines can vary greatly from 3-day to 14+ day cruises depending on the destinations you’ll visit and the cruise line. While plenty of cruises go to the Caribbean and Mexico, those aren’t the only kinds of cruises you can take! Each cruise line has set ports and set destinations and will go on those voyages multiple times throughout the year.

When taking our week-long Holland America cruise to Alaska with our teenagers, a variety of factors went into our decision. We knew we wanted to visit Alaska and that nearly every cruise line would take us to Juneau and other popular Alaskan destinations. We had options for cruise lines that started out of Canada, while some started in Seattle. We chose one out of Seattle as it was closer to us, and we wouldn’t have to leave the country to start our cruise.



For more info on how we planned our trip to Alaska, check out this post!

Choosing the Right Stateroom

When planning a cruise vacation, one of the biggest decisions you will make is in selecting your stateroom. This will be your home away from home during your voyage, and it's essential to consider a few factors to ensure you have a comfortable and enjoyable experience. Here are some tips you can use to help choose the perfect stateroom for your cruise vacation.

1. Keep Your Budget in Mind

Before you start exploring your stateroom options, make sure you have a budget in mind for your cruise vacation. Stateroom prices can vary significantly depending on factors like location, size, and amenities. Balcony suites and cabins with ocean views will usually come at a higher cost than an interior cabin too. Some people will happily forgo a stateroom view, knowing they can wander outside of their room and into common areas and get a view for free.

2. Location Location Location

The location of your stateroom can impact your cruise experience. If you are prone to motion sickness, opting for a mid-ship cabin on a lower deck can sometimes help. Passengers who want peace and quiet should avoid staterooms that are near elevators, restaurants and other high-traffic areas. On the other hand, if you like the energy and excitement of the ships nightlife, a cabin closer to the entertainment venues might be more suitable.

3. Cabin Size and Layout

This is where we run into issues as a family. Cruise staterooms aren't generally very large. If you are traveling with a family, you want to keep that in mind. You might also run into issues if you have more than two children, or if you are traveling with older children who are considered adults {over the age of 12 generally}. Many rooms have limits on how many adults they allow to stay in a stateroom. Some cruise lines are better suited for families and offer family-friendly cabins with connecting doors, and others might have suites with separate living areas to offer more space. Keep in mind the square footage and bed configurations to ensure everyone has enough space to relax and unwind. But set realistic expectations! 

4. Ocean View or Balcony?

Choosing between and ocean view and a balcony stateroom comes down to personal preference and budget. Ocean view cabins provide a window to the sea, while balconies offer a private outdoor space to enjoy breathtaking views and fresh sea air. If you like spending time in your cabin and appreciate the beauty of the open sea, a balcony stateroom might be worth the investment. 

Pro tip: Always splurge on the balcony on a cruise to Alaska. You won't regret it!

5. Read Reviews and Seek Advice

Before finalizing your stateroom choice, read reviews from previous cruise passengers and seek advice from experienced cruisers. They can often offer valuable insights and help you avoid potential pitfalls. For example, some reviews might offer you tips on how you can pay less for an obstructed view cabin, but with a carefully selected room, still enjoy the view.


Tips for Booking Your Cruise

To help you plan the perfect cruise getaway, here are some top tips to consider when booking your next vacation.

1. Start Early for the Best Deals

When it comes to cruise vacations, early birds often get the best deals. Booking well in advance allows you to take advantage of early-bird promotions, cabin upgrades and discounted fares. Popular cruise itineraries {especially those around spring break time!}, fill up quickly, so reserving a spot early ensures you get to secure the stateroom of your choice.

2. Be Flexible for Better Deals

If your travel dates are flexible, you can take advantage of last-minute deals and discounted fares. Cruise lines often offer significant discounts to fill remaining cabins closer to departure dates. While you might get a heck of a deal, you also might limit your stateroom and destination choices.

3. Consider the Itinerary

Cruise itineraries vary, from tropical island-hopping to cultural explorations of historic cities. Think about what destinations you want to visit and the activities you want to experience and explore during your cruise. 

4. Check Visa and Passport Requirements

For international cruises, make sure that you have all of the necessary visas and valid passports for all the countries you will be visiting. Make sure your passport has enough validity to cover the entire duration of your trip. 

Hidden Costs for Planning a Cruise Vacation

Figuring out all the different cruise extras and navigating them can be tricky, so I put together a whole post to help you figure out which you should skip and which are worth the splurge!


Shore Excursions

Shore excursions are an integral part of any cruise vacation, and can give you the opportunity to explore fascinating destinations and create lasting memories. Shore excursions are often not included in your cruise rate. With the exception of several of the higher-end cruise lines {like Viking}, you are on your own in booking excursions in port. Here are some additional tips to keep in mind when booking and planning your onshore adventures.

1. Research the Ports of Call

Before your cruise departs, research the ports of call and available shore excursions. Many cruise lines will provide detailed information about each excursion on their website. Read reviews, watch videos and gather as much information as possible to find which excursions you want to splurge on, and which you could skip.

2. To Book Through the Cruise Line or Not?

This is a very heated discussion between cruisers and I could write a WHOLE post just on this topic. Cruise lines offer shore excursions that they have vetted for safety, reliability and quality. The cruise line also guarantees that the ship won't depart until all participants are back on board if you book through them. There are people on every cruise who are left behind in port, so it's a valid concern. 

However, those same excursions can be booked independently if you do a little research and find out which companies the cruise line uses. You can often book them on your own for 10-30% less! Make sure you give yourself plenty of time to get from the excursion location and back.

3. Don't Over Do It

Some cruisers will book a shore excursion in every port they stop in. Others will play it by ear. You don't have to over do it! Sometimes the most fun you will have is relaxing on the boat in port when all the other people are exploring the town. In Alaska, the best port day I had cost us nothing. I spent the day exploring low tide with my son and we enjoyed the free activities around the port. You don't have to have something planned for every waking minute!

4. Manage Expectations

Flightseeing is a popular shore excursion in most ports. As a mom of a pilot, make sure you manage your expectations. Flightseeing tours are dependant on weather and mechanical operations. Both are necessary to keep you safe. If you have a flightseeing tour scheduled in say, Alaska, know that there is a possibility that it will be canceled. Have a back up plan and don't be upset. You'd rather the pilot erred on the side of caution that put lives at risk. 

Cruise Ship Dining and Beverages

Cruise ship dining is a large part of your cruise experience. Make sure you understand the various dining options. There are specialty dining options that will require an upcharge and various beverages that will be extra as well. But you will always find dining options that are included in your cruise price that don't cost extra.

Pro tip: Room service is often included in your cruise price. This is a great option for an early morning breakfast option, especially if you have an excursion planned!

If you enjoy drinks, buying a beverage package might be a more affordable option. There are even soda packages as well since usually only coffee, tea and milk is included. You'll need to assess your beverage consumption habits and compare how that will compare to the cost of a package. 

Pro tip: Bring a reusable water bottle and coffee cup with you. Both are free on board and will save you money!

Onboard Entertainment and Shopping

Cruise lines often go above and beyond to provide an array of entertainment options, many of which are free. Casinos and gambling will cost extra and there might even be opportunities to win a free cruise or money through various games. Keep your budget in mind!

Cruise lines often have several shopping options available. I'm a deal hunter, so you won't find me shopping on a cruise ship. You'll have plenty of shopping options in port if you need a shopping fix.


Booking Travel To and From Your Cruise

The journey to and from your cruise is an essential part of your vacation experience. Most people are overwhelmed by all of this so they opt for booking through a travel agent. With these tips, you can feel confident in booking arrangements to and from your cruise on your own.

1. Plan Ahead

Start planning your travel well in advance, especially if your cruise departure destination requires you to travel a significant distance. Booking early will give you the best access for flight options and lower prices.

2. Consider Cruise Line Transfers

Many cruise lines will offer transfer services between the airport and the cruise terminal. They may be slightly more expensive than arranging your own transportation, but they will provide convenience and peace of mind helping to ensure that you arrive at the port on time.

One downside is that you are often waiting for other cruise passengers for the transfer and you might get antsy if you just want your vacation to start!

3. Allow Plenty of Time

When booking flights and other transportation, make sure you allow ample time for any potential delays or disruptions. You might also want to consider arriving a day prior and leaving a day later so you can enjoy the port city and take into consideration any flight delays or issues you might encounter.

4. Stay Close to the Cruise Port

If possible, book accomodations near the cruise port for both your arrival and departure days. This will save time on travel and minimize the risk of missing your cruise due to traffic or other unexpected delays.

5. Purchase Travel Insurance

Consider investing in travel insurance that covers trip cancellations, delays, medical emergencies and lost luggage. While you hope you don't encounter any of these issues, having travel insurance provides peace of mind in case of any unforeseen circumstance. There are a lot of moving parts when taking a cruise!

6. Review Cruise Line Policies

Before you book travel to and from your cruise, review the cruise line's policies regarding flight schedules, embarkation times and disembarkation procedures. Understanding their rules can help you plan your travel arrangements accordingly. 

Final Thoughts

Hopefully, this guide has helped you figure out how to take the perfect cruise vacation, even if you’re a beginner!

For more cruise tips and tricks, check out these posts:


     Taking a Cruise or Going to an All-Inclusive Resort: Which is Better for a Family with Teens?

     What I Wish I Packed for My Cruise to Alaska  


disclaimer: this post may have affiliate links. By clicking on them and purchasing through them, I may receive a small commission. These small purchases help me to continue to keep writing content and creating at Rachel Teodoro. Thank you!

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