When Anne Crowley took her first cruise in July, she did not realize there was a dress code. She and her husband, John, along with their three children, took a Mediterranean cruise from Barcelona, and only learned when they got on the ship that the Royal Caribbean International ship had different themes for attire some nights.
“So, one night is really formal, one night you wear all white, one night was Hawaiian night,” Crowley, 49, told USA TODAY.
While the preschool teacher, who is based in Duxbury, Massachusetts, said they “lucked out” by bringing clothes that could pass for each category, that was one of several things Crowley wish she knew before boarding a ship for the first time.
First-time cruisers may not be aware of those kinds of particulars, and taking your first voyage can present new considerations, from how to plan it to what to pack. This summer may be a particularly good time to try it: as travel costs have gone up amid inflation and high demand, cruises are a more affordable option.
USA TODAY spoke with travelers and travel experts to get their tips.
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1. Figure out what kind of cruise you want and when to book it
First, consider where you want to go. Once you pick, Linda Speer, a travel agent affiliated with Virtuoso-member agency Brownell Travel, recommended working with a travel advisor who can help you pick the best time to go. Crowley worked with an advisor at My Path Unwinding Travel.
For Alaska cruises, for instance, the season runs from mid-May to mid-September, but in order to have “reliably good weather, you’d really want to go, I’d consider it to be from Memorial Day to Labor Day,” Speer said.
The itinerary can also impact other aspects of the voyage. Speer said some newbies opt to get their feet wet by taking a three-day cruise, but she warned that is a “terrible idea.”
“The cruise lines usually put their oldest vessels on their shortest routes, so in order to go on the nicer ships, you need to primarily do a seven-day or longer cruise,” Speer said. Longer trips also give first-time cruisers more time to get oriented.
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Cruise lines are all different, as well.
“If they’re purely looking for cheap, then we know to look at Carnival Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean, not to worry about the more expensive ones like Holland America, Princess, Celebrity,” said Geoffrey Millstone, owner of Clarksburg Travel Service.
But even if a cruise is affordable, air travel can add significantly to a trip’s overall price tag. Driving to a closer port can present a less expensive alternative, said Speer.
And even with cruise lines that offer fares with drinks and other amenities included, she said her office will frequently “price it out naked,” stripping away everything but the fare, taxes and fees. Then she can pick the packages or offers that make sense for each client. “If you’re not going to use something, you don’t really want to pay for it,” she said.
As you’re planning, pick your cabin carefully. “First-time cruisers usually are like, ‘I don’t really care what my room is like, I just want to go,'” said Speer. “And so I will tell them to get their smartphone or their book and go and sit in their walk-in closet and see how comfortable they are.”
If you get claustrophobic, she said, you should avoid inside cabins, which do not have windows.
2. Prepare and pack accordingly
Before taking your first cruise, doing your own research can help. Denise Langner and her husband went on a Carnival cruise to the Bahamas for their honeymoon and to celebrate her birthday. While the 29-year-old’s husband, Keefer, had cruised before, she had not, so she sought out wisdom online before their March trip.
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“I guess really the most helpful thing was browsing on Reddit, just trying to figure out the process of things,” said Langner, who lives in Costa Mesa, California. “There’s posts for first-time cruisers, like, tips and such, and I think I took a lot from that.”
When it comes to your suitcase, though, consider taking less than you might think. Speer said many people overpack when taking their first cruise, typically bringing at least twice as much clothing they will use. All of your bags “will have to be stored in your cabin, and most of the time you can do that under the bed,” she said.
3. Give yourself time to adjust on board
Once on board, you may need to adjust to the ship. If you are concerned about motion sickness, Speer recommended turning your cabin temperature down so it’s cool, and standing in a “fully open outside area” as the ship sails away from shore, so you can watch the horizon disappear.
She said to do so for at least 30 to 45 minutes “because that will allow your brain to come into the realization that you’re on something that’s moving. Millstone said Sea-Bands work well, too.
Speer also recommended going to the top level of the ship and walking around each level that has public areas to familiarize yourself.
If you have a watch, set it to the clock on the ship before you get off at ports, Millstone said, to make sure you are back when you need to be. A good rule, he said, is to always be on the ship an hour beforehand unless you’re on a cruise ship tour.
Despite the attire surprise, Crowley said she and her family had a great first cruise. “I’m ready to book another one,” she said.