10 Insider Tips for Going on Your First Cruise

Going on your first cruise can feel overwhelming. These tips can help you navigate unknown waters.
Updated Aug. 22, 2023
Cruise ship

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Booking a cruise is an investment, and the options — especially for first-timers — can be mind-boggling. From where and when to book? What to bring? What activities to schedule? There are a lot of options and you might be worried about making the wrong choices when you’re spending so much.

If you’re planning your first cruise, here is a list of tips to help you get the most out of your experience — and your dollar.

Book directly through the cruise line

daviles/Adobe Booking cruise on laptop

Sometimes you can get better deals or even free upgrades by directly calling the cruise line and to make your booking. Once you’ve narrowed down the geographic location and a few cruise lines that fit your style, search for the best prices online. Then call the cruise lines to see if they can offer you a lower price.

Strike a connection with the agent and you may even find yourself with a free cabin upgrade.

Use a travel agent who specializes in cruises

Dragana Gordic/Adobe Travel agent handing passports to clients

Finding that perfect destination and cruising style can feel like a puzzle. Maybe you’re more about historical locations than beach resorts, but you wouldn’t mind a party atmosphere. Or maybe any tropical destination will do, but you’re set on fine-dining and Broadway-level entertainment. An experienced travel agent will know which specific cruises check the boxes on your dream list.

And even though an agent might seem more expensive than shopping online on your own, if you use one of the best travel credit cards to book your trip, you’ll potentially make up some of the difference in cash back or rewards.

Get deep discounts by booking last minute

Damir Khabirov/Adobe Happy woman on computer

It’s possible to book a cruise directly with the company one to three days before departure, and save up to 50%. Although this works best if you live near a port city, many cruise lines also have deals with airline companies, so don’t pass up a cruise leaving from a destination that’s not close to you.

Keep an eye on your schedule and a handful of trips, be flexible with your requirements, and give the cruise line a call three days or less before a cruise departure. You might be surprised at the offers that are available.

Research your cruise line’s alcohol pricing

Parfenova/Adobe Champagne glasses

Cruise lines have vastly different alcohol policies and prices, and while purchasing an all-inclusive beverage package for the trip may seem like a stress-free option, it might not be necessary. Some beverage prices are exorbitant while others are just slightly higher than what you would find landside.

Do a bit of research beforehand on the cruise forums and reviews, calculate out how much you typically drink while on vacation, and then decide if those packages are worth it.

Research your cruise’s non-alcoholic beverage prices

Pavel Losevsky/Adobe Mother and daughter on cruise ship

Some cruise lines provide beverages such as coffee or juice, but then charge for sodas and bottled water. Those same cruise lines might allow each passenger to bring a 12-pack of their favorite non-alcoholic beverages onboard — or they may not. How they handle beverages, might be one of those hidden cruise line costs you hear about.

You can avoid some of the extra spending if you pack a refillable water bottle — perhaps even one with a filter for shore days — and packets of flavored drink powder that you can mix in.

Book a shore excursion through a local tour company

oleg_p_100/Adobe Woman traveling in coastal town

While your cruise company may offer some amazing shore excursions that would be difficult to arrange on your own, do some comparison shopping before your trip. In particular, check out the tours available with any local companies. A quick search will show you reviews and options, and you may find a more unique, intimate, and economical experience.

For the truly adventurous, make friends with other cruise passengers and hire a local guide in-person at the port, which are usually hubs of activity. Creating your own shore excursion can help your budget go further.

Rent a car and create your own tour

rh2010/Adobe Friends in convertible near the coast

Renting a car in a port city is almost always easy to do. Plus it can give you some freedom and get you away from the cruise ship crowds. This is an especially great budget alternative if you’re booking one of those beach destination cruises that work with large resorts whose tour options might be expensive.

Do some research on your port city and map out locations you would like to visit. With well-known car rental companies, you can book online beforehand. Local car rental companies are typically within walking distance of the port, and often an agent can meet you right at the ship.

Using a service like Autoslash can help you save on rental cars. Check out our Autoslash review for more information on how it works.

Pack smart and make your life easier

Nattakorn/Adobe Family packing suitcases

Typically there are no baggage limits on cruise lines. But in a tiny cabin and with a limited schedule, paring down will simplify your life and help you focus on your cruise experience.

Bring separates that are easy to mix and match instead of single outfits. Pack your bathing suit in your carry-on so you can hit the deck chairs straight away on disembarkation day, and go for shoes that can serve double-duty, like stylish orthopedic sandals or closed-toed shoes rather than flip flops and dress shoes.

Finally, don’t forget a messenger bag or backpack (here are all the reasons we love backpacks) and portable battery charger for shore days, and never underestimate the usefulness of a rollable, washable tote bag for the beach.

Keep your cabin tidy and useful

vvoe/Adobe Cruise ship cabin

Speaking of making your life easier, there are a handful of gadgets that will help maximize cabin space. Keep your cabin neat with a hanging, rollable toiletry bag and travel pill organizer. Don’t worry about a converter — most cruise ships are outfitted with 120v power outlets — but outlets are usually limited, so bring along a multiport USB hub.

Don’t disregard those touristy spots

kityyaya/Adobe Woman drinking wine and enjoying view of Santorini

We’ve all seen a thousand photos of social media influencers, perched at the top of those incredibly photogenic white-washed stairs on Santorini Island at sunset. But as much as we all want our own unique experience of a destination, you know what’s truly unforgettable?

Being at the top of Santorini, clinking wine glasses at sunset.

Sometimes those crowded tourist hot-spots are on postcards and all over social media for a reason. Don’t skip out on an iconic place if it really will be an amazing experience.

Bottom line

sakkmesterke/Adobe happy woman on cruise

Although booking and going on a cruise can seem like a budgeting nightmare, there are ways to save money. For instance, you can shop ahead of time and save on trip essentials with these Amazon shopping hacks. Don’t let money stop you from creating your dream trip — just be smart with your spending and it will truly be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

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Becky Holladay Becky Holladay is a finance and travel writer whose work has been published in The Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times, and the California Business Journal, among others. She loves finding out what makes people tick and telling their stories, whether they're entrepreneurs, artists, or changemakers.