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Cruising is becoming a more and more mainstream way to spend a vacation and cruise lines are building ever more gigantic new cruise ships. There is immense competition between the cruise lines and that means fares stay low and more cruise destinations are being added.
There are cruise lines for every budget, from exclusive very expensive cruises to low cost cruises and from cruise lines that cater to younger people to cruise lines that cater to the more mature population.
We have mostly cruised with Carnival Cruise Lines, because they have competitive prices, lots of activities for the young-at-heart and attractive destinations. Even though some of the information on this website is specific to Carnival, most of it is valid for all cruise lines. Carnival-specific information is marked as such.
While we are US citizens, this Cruise Guide is designed for non-US citizens and for cruises that do not originate in the US. Please be advised that this Cruise Guide is not for river cruises.
A lot of people who like to take a cruise are overwhelmed by the information and the decisions they need to make. Some get so overwhelmed that they don’t know where to begin and decide not to cruise at all. That is a shame. This Cruise Guide will tell you exactly how to get started and what you need to know.
If you have any questions or comments, then please do not hesitate to contact me.
There are different ways to book your cruise and there are pros and cons for each.
Since you are new to cruising and you probably have a million questions, my proposal is to call the cruise line or vacationstogo or a travel agent you trust. Talking to a live person is, in my opinion, better for first-time cruisers than trying to figure something out online all by yourself. The people at the cruise lines will help you book a cruise, find the best rooms and answer all your questions for free.
Just one more thing: If there are any changes that you want to make and you have NOT booked through the cruise line but a third party (e.g. Costco or travel agent), then the third party will need to make the changes. The cruise line cannot help you.
I have booked through the cruise lines and through vacationstogo in the past and never had any bad experiences. Over the last years, I always book directly through the cruise line.
There are numerous cruise lines out there with very different pricing and service. My proposal for someone who has never cruised is to try a short cruise on a less expensive cruise line first to see if you like it. If you fall in love with cruising, but did not like the age group on the ship, or the ship or the food or the entertainment, then you can always select a different cruise line for your second cruise.
There is a big difference between port days (when the ship docks at a port of call) and sea days (where the ship is in transit on the ocean). My recommendation is to choose a cruise that has at least 2 or 3 port days and at least 1 or 2 sea days. I would consider 4 or 5 day cruises perfect for a new cruiser.
You can, of course, choose a longer cruise but since you don’t know if you will like cruising, my recommendation is to not go for more than 6 days on your first cruise. Also, if you are prone to motion sickness, then a shorter cruise is definitely better.
There are plenty of 4 and 5 day cruises available from Carnival or Norwegian.
For Pinterest users, here are some pins that you can use:
I am listing some of the most important things-to-know in alphabetical order.
The prices that you see are per person in a room for 2 people before tax and other items. So, chances are that your final price will be significantly higher. What will increase the price:
If you use a CPAP machine at home, then you can bring it on the ship. You can buy distilled water on the ship. Please be advised that each state room typically has 1 power outlet and one in the bathroom. The power outlet may be far away from your bed, so you should bring an extension cord WITHOUT a surge protector. Surge protectors are illegal on ships as their electrical system works differently and can actually cause a fire.
There are multiple facebook groups for different cruise lines. Just type them in your facebook search bar and ask to join these private groups. People there will be happy to help you with their advice. Just keep in mind that people in a Carnival group will likely tell you that Carnival is the best and people in a Disney Cruise Line group will tell you that Disney is the best.
Chances are that your cruise leaves your country at any time. So, you will likely need a passport. There is one exception for US citizens that go on a cruise that starts and ends in the US: In this case a birth certificate with the raised seal and drivers license or a passport card may be acceptable.
For kids under 18 that do not travel with both parents: a notarized letter stating that the non-accompanying parent agrees to the kid going on the cruise may be needed.
Name change certificates if the name on the booking is different than the name on any of the IDs.
If your cruise departs from the US and you are someone who has travelled to the US under the ESTA visa waiver, make sure that you have a print-out of the ESTA permit and that it shows the expiration date. This is very important as the ESTA website prints in the US letter format which is wider than the A4 format that is used in most countries around the world, leading to the expiration date being outside of the printed area (you may need to print in landscape format and not in portrait format).
Please check with the cruise line for the current regulations.
If you are prone to motion sickness, then please see your doctor to either get a prescription or buy some medication. Dramamine and the patches that go behind the ears appear to help most people. A heavy dose of seasickness can ruin your cruise. Should you get seasick, then you will be able to buy pills at the 24h reception on the ship and if that does not help, then the medical department (which typically has very limited opening hours) will be able to give you an injection (which will make you sleep for several hours) and pills to keep you seasick free. The injection and pills for the whole cruise will likely cost you >$150. Travel insurance can be helpful to cover the cost.
On most ships, smoking is only legal in the casino and in few designated smoking areas. It is illegal everywhere else incl. the balconies due to the fire hazard. If you are a heavy smoker, then you may not want to go on a cruise.
Drinking water on the cruise is typically made from ocean water. That means that the sodium content in the ship’s water is higher than what you are used to at home. So, if you are on a low sodium diet or sensitive to high sodium in water (which can lead to swelling of e.g. the legs in some people), you may want to consult with your doctor and the cruise line.
Cruise lines are used to dealing with people that are allergic to all kinds of foods like peanuts, dairy, etc. If you have any rare allergies than you should consult with the cruise line before you book if they can accommodate you.
Cruise lines are used to dealing with people in wheel chairs. Please contact the cruise line for restrictions and things that you need to know.
If you go to the Caribbean, remember to bring beach clothes and swim wear. We only bring one pair of swim trunks / 1 swimsuit. Some people claim that their's don’t dry overnight (which has never happened to us), so they bring a second or even third pair. Especially if you have a balcony and it is not raining, I have always had our swimwear dry the next morning.
If you go on an Alaska cruise, keep in mind that there is a reason why there are glaciers and snow on the mountains: because it is cold. So check the weather forecast and pack accordingly.
Sometimes I see couples with 3 or more large suitcases and I wonder: how often do they plan to change their clothes per day? Well, that’s their business. The cruise lines allow as many suitcases as will fit into your state room. My wife and I are light packers. We typically pack clothes for 4 days and then hand wash the used clothes every 2 or 3 days. Alternatively, there is a launderette where you can do your laundry for a small fee on each deck and, if you want to pay somebody, the cruise ships have a laundry and ironing service.
At Carnival, cruises of 4 days or longer have at least one elegant night. Other cruise lines like Norwegian don’t have that. An elegant or formal night is a night where you need to meet a certain dress code in order to be permitted to go in the main dining room.
Some people dress up in their best dresses and take the opportunity to get photos taken from professional photographers with various backgrounds. This can be a great opportunity to get your formal family photos taken. For Carnival, the minimum dress code is long pants, no sneakers or sandals, even though new looking and clean sneakers got us into the dining room and a formal looking shirt is typically OK. Some people would call the minimum dress code a bit less than business casual. Neck ties for men and a jacket are not required. Typically, the food on elegant night is a bit better than normal. For everyone who does not want to participate in elegant night, they can eat at the main buffet on Lido with their normal clothes – no swimwear.
Your cabin will likely have 1 single power outlet in the bedroom and 1 in the bathroom. Newer ships may have USB ports for charging. Often, this power outlet will accept North American and European plugs. But not always. So, if you are e.g. European and cruising on a US cruise ship, you may want to have a plug adapter handy. The same thing is true if you are US/Canadian/Mexican and cruise on a European cruise ship. Remember the plug converter only converts the plug and not the voltage or frequency. So, you may want to check if your electric devices accept dual voltage (110V and 220V). I am sure you don’t want to fry your single voltage 110V appliance by plugging it into a 220V outlet and potentially cause a fire.
Keep in mind that the power outlet may not be where you need it, e.g. it may be too far away from the bed to allow you to sleep with your CPAP machine. So, you may want to bring an extension cord. If you want to charge multiple electronic devices at the same time then you may need a multi plug extension cord.
Most importantly: Extension cords with surge protectors are strictly forbidden, because the electric system on a ship works differently than on land. Meaning that a surge protector can actually cause a fire and burn down the ship in the middle of the ocean. Also, some cruise lines will confiscate old or unsafe looking extension cords as they may be fire hazards, too.
Some cruise lines have restrictions on curling irons, fans, steamers and other electronic devices, so please check with your cruise line. Your state room has a hair dryer and the launderette have irons and ironing boards. Cruise lines typically do not allow those items to be brought on board. Again, check with your cruise line.
If you cruise from the US to the Caribbean or to Mexico, then chances are that the locals will accept your US dollars and many will also accept credit cards. If you visit some small stores or restaurants that don't typically make a lot of money from cruise ship passengers on islands that don't see too many cruise ship passengers (e.g. Guadeloupe or Martinique), then chances are that they expect their local currency or, if you are lucky, they may take credit cards.
An important tip about credit cards and debit cards: More and more credit and debit card companies will block transactions in other companies thinking that those may be fraudulent. Therefore, check with your bank or credit card company to put a travel notification on your account so that they know that you made the transaction and not some crook who stole your data.
Passports and Visas and ESTA
Most people will need passports to cruise if at least one port of call is in a different country. A notable exception exists for US citizens who go on a cruise that departs and ends in the US. In this case, a birth certificate and valid photo ID or a passport card can be sufficient - check with your cruise line.
The general statement that is never wrong is: Use your valid passport when going on a cruise. US green card holders will also need their green card in addition to their passport and any advanced parole document that they may be required to carry if they cruise from/to the US.
VISA holders must carry additional visa documentation that is not in their passports.
One very important fact about ESTA:
If you cruise from/to the US and you entered the US via ESTA, you will need to have a printout for every ESTA holder that shows the expiration date. That sounds simple enough, but the US uses letter sized paper and most of the world uses A4 paper which is not as wide. When you print your ESTA, then the ESTA website may provide the document in letter format but your printer will print in A4 format meaning that the right hand side of the ESTA document, which of course contains the expiration date, will be cut off rendering your printout useless.
If that happens then you will be escorted to a special holding area where somebody will eventually help you. This may cause you to board the ship with a 1-2h delay (hoping that you will not miss the ship) and cause some unnecessary anxiety and stress.
Don’t cruise when sick
On a cruise ship you basically have several thousand people in a small confined space. Because of the confined space, germs can travel freely and very fast from one sick person to many other people and be responsible to make thousands of other people sick within a few days. If you follow the news, you will see reports a couple of times per year about quarantined ships or ships that abort their voyage prematurely due to everyone being sick. Do you want to be the person responsible for making thousands of people sick and ruining their cruise? I hope not.
So, if you are sick and contagious, then in the name of all cruise ship passengers in the world: please take the loss (hopefully you have trip insurance) and do not board the ship.
If you take any medicine then bring enough for the cruise. Should you cruise during hurricane season, then bring medicine for 3-5 additional days and maybe seasickness medication. It has happened in the past that hurricanes flooded or destroyed parts of cruise ports and the cruise ships had to stay on the ocean for a few days longer than expected.
If you a prone to motion sickness, talk to your doctor about what prescription or over-the-counter seasick medication is best for you.
Limit on drinks and food that can be brought on board or taken off the ship
Airports have strict limitations on the amount of liquids that you can bring through security and cruise lines are slowly following suit. There are, however, big differences between the cruise lines on how many beverages and the type of container that they need to be packaged in are permitted to be brought on board. To make matters worse, these regulations change ever so often. So, it is best to check with your cruise line.
It is best to assume that no alcohol and no opened beverage containing containers (bottles/cans/cartons) may be brought on board.
Many ports of call and every port in the US do not allow you to bring food off the ship. There is also a restriction on food that can be brought on the ship, especially potentially disease carrying food. Check with your cruise line for details.
The cruise line will typically provide a bar of soap every few days. Carnival also provides in the shower a refillable body wash container and a refillable shampoo with conditioner container. If they are running low, the room steward will have them refilled. So, unless you cannot live without your shampoo and body was, you don't need to bother bringing them.
Some ports of call in the Caribbean have beaches close to the cruise port and others don’t. If you are looking for other things to do or simply less crowded or nicer beaches, then the cruise line’s website is a good point to start. Typically, the excursions listed there provide a good overview of things that can reasonably be done in the time that you are in port.
You may, however, be surprised by the prices listed there. Don’t worry, there are typically cheaper alternatives and I will tell you how to find those. Some cruise lines have a best price guarantee, but be warned, if an excursion from a third party is not exactly the same (which it almost never is), then the guarantee will not apply.
Booking the expensive excursions through the cruise line has the advantage that your cruise ship will wait for you if your excursion comes back late. This is typically not the case for passengers that book through independent tour operators.
We typically book through independent tour operators, because they are cheaper and because they typically have smaller groups. Yes, there is a difference if you go on a snorkeling trip with 4 other people of 50-100 others. Independent operators make their money from cruise ship passengers and bad reviews from passengers that missed their cruise can ruin them. That’s why they will do everything possible to get you back to your ship on time. For us, this is a risk worth taking.
Once you found some tour operators, check out their websites and also check the reviews on tripadvisor.com.
Another way is to get off the ship and talk to the tour companies that often offer excursions on the pier or in the cruise port. These companies may provide great deals or, I have heard, that some overcharge passengers. I have never even considered any of these tour operators, so I cannot comment on how reliable they are and how good their tours are.
To be safe, it always helps to write down the phone number of the ship so that you can call them (or have your tour operator call them) in case you run late. For Carnival, the phone number is listed on the “Fun Times” that are distributed daily. Will the ship wait for you? Maybe, if you are lucky. Generally: The later you run and the smaller your party, the higher the chances that the ship will not wait.
There is a lot of emotional debate on this topic in various facebook groups. Here are the facts, as far as Carnival is concerned: Carnival requires that you carry your room key and a photo ID in order to get back on board. The photo ID could be your drivers license, passport, military ID, etc. Carnival suggest that you leave your passport in the safe (see John Heald's post below) in the state room and take a different ID, as the passport is too valuable and you could get in serious trouble if you lose it. Should you miss the ship, then Carnival will search your state room and leave the passport with the docking agent in the harbor.
John Heald, Brand Ambassador and senior cruise director of Carnival Cruise Lines, posted on his facebook page August 10, 2017:
Now and then people do miss the ship. It’s a big drama for the ship when this happens.
A guest services officer accompanied by the state room steward and a security officer have to go to the cabin. They check nobody is inside and then have to search for official documentation such as passports or photo ID.
When this is found it is handed to the ship’s agent ( we have one in each port who takes care of the ship’s needs whilst there) and they will arrange transportation, hotels and flights for when the guests finally show up………………..and yep, it is all at the guest’s expense, obviously.
Now the Captain will always wait as long as he can and we will never leave if a ship organized excursion has not returned. However, we are not going to wait if we don’t know where the guest is.
I have to say that most of the time that a guest misses the ship it is because they simply didn’t allow enough time to get back to the ship from where they were. And occasionally it’s because they are still sitting in a bar, wearing an oversized sombrero singing a drunken version of “ Despascito”
Anyway, please allow yourself enough time to get back to the ship and if you are going to see the sites please please consider taking a Carnival excursion because peace of mind is invaluable
Cheers and have a brilliant day
If so, then please let me know.
Let’s say that you are interested in one port of call with a beautiful beach that you can reach by foot (e.g. Grand Turk, Half Moon Cay, Nassau, Coco Cay) and a second port of call where you can do some sightseeing and shopping (e.g. Nassau, St. Thomas, Grand Cayman, Key West).
There are multiple options: you can either go directly to the website of a cruise line, but there are many cruise lines and you don't really know which one is best for you.
Therefore it is smarter to go to a fare aggregator website (=website that has itineraries from multiple cruise lines). My favorite fare aggregator website is vacationstogo.com (you will first need to register with them before you can use their site) as they sometimes have incentives like On Board Credit (=free money for your cruise) that you may not get if you book directly with the cruise line. Most of the time, their prices are the same as with the cruise line. Should you prefer to book with a cruise line instead of a fare aggregator website, that's perfectly fine. Just use the fare aggregator website to find what you are looking for and then go to the respective cruise line to book.
For your information, here are websites from some of the biggest and most renowned cruise lines that you can use - this list is not complete:
To make your life easier (and mine as I don’t want to write another 10 pages on how to use each cruise line’s website) I am describing how to find you a good cruise with vacationstogo.com.
The easiest way to get a reasonable number of search results is to decide on 2 or 3 factors:
Now you may ask if I am crazy, how can you know what's best? No problem, I will help you with this - just bear with me.
Approximate travel date
Cruises are often cheaper during hurricane season and more expensive during the winter and spring months in the Northern hemisphere. There is nothing wrong with booking a cruise during hurricane season to save a few bucks. After all, there are not that many hurricanes and chances that you will be affected by one are low, but there is still a higher chance for rain.
Since this is your first cruise, I like everything to be as perfect as possible. That's why I advocate for limiting our search results to November through April, which is outside of the hurricane season. If you have a preferred time, e.g. a Christmas cruise, then by all means limit the dates even further.
One more remark: The best and the cheapest rooms tend to sell out quickly. That’s why I typically book our cruises 6 months or more in advance. Since you are new to cruising, my advice to you is to book a cruise that is 3 months out or more to give you enough time to plan everything.
Port of Call
Now it is time to select one port of call that you like to see. Let's look at the table that I shared with you earlier.
First you will need to decide where you want to go. If you are fine with the Caribbean or Mexico, then the choice is easy. If you want to visit multiple countries or Alaska, then you will have a lot fewer options. Alaska cruises are typically min. 8 days and multi country cruises in the Mediterranean (Europe) are typically longer than 4 days, too.
Let’s assume you are all hyped up about the Caribbean or Mexico’s West coast. There are cruises that leave from Los Angeles to e.g. Cabo San Lucas in Mexico, but for the sake of this Cruise Guide I will continue with the Caribbean as the Caribbean has a bigger choice of ports of call and some of the most beautiful beaches on the planet.
Four day cruises to the Bahamas and Caribbean leave from various ports in Florida, Texas, Alabama, South Carolina, etc.. So, how do you find the one that is right for you?
The table below shows a brief summary of some of the different things you can do at a select number of ports of call that can be reached on 4 and 5 day cruises. For some activities it says “excursion”. That means you will need to join a tour that will often cost around $50-$200 per person to get there.
Just choose one that looks interesting to you from the above table.
Do you want to go to a white sand beach that has turquoise water and looks like paradise and that is right off the ship?
If you do, then consider these ports of call: Castaway Cay, CocoCay, Grand Turk, Great Stirrup Cay, Half Moon Cay, Ocean Cay, Princess Cays. Since I proposed to limit yourself to a more budget friendly cruise line, we eliminate some and come to a more manageable list:
To make it easy, let's choose the first off the list: Grand Turk
For the sake of this exercise, I choose Grand Turk, as it has a great beach in walking distance from the ship and also options for sightseeing and shopping with a taxi who also acts as a tour guide.
If you don’t like the search results, then you can do the search again with another port of call. Or, you can choose none. That’s perfectly fine.
Cruise port where the cruise starts and ends
Another way of limiting search results is to choose a port from where the cruise starts or ends. You may live in Houston, Texas and it would therefore be easy for you to drive to Galveston or you may live in Kansas and you may find that your cheapest flights go to Miami or Fort Lauderdale. If you have a port preference, then you can enter this too.
For the sake of this exercise, I am not selecting a port.
As discussed earlier, my proposal is to limit yourself to a 4 or 5 day cruise. On the vacationstogo website, I therefore select "3-6 days".
Here are the search criteria that I entered into vacationstogo:
When I click "Show Me The Deals", then I get 60 results. There is no way that I go through 60 cruises. So, my next step is to sort them by "Our Starting Price". Here is a (modified) screenshot of the first results:
So, it seems I can cruise from Miami for US$265 per person for 5 nights. On top of the US$265 come taxes, tip, excursions, etc., meaning that the final price will be higher.
That sounds interesting to me. Now I click on the #23798 and #17399 in the yellow left column to find out more about these itineraries.
#23798 has 2 sea days and goes to Grand Turk and Amber Cove
This is how I propose to proceed. If you still cannot decide, here is one more tip: there really are no bad cruise lines and there really are no bad itineraries. Close your eyes and point on one cruise on the screen and this is your chosen one. Seriously, don’t freak out and spend a year researching what the most perfect cruise is for you. Just go ahead and feel good with the decision that you have just made.