Cruises: A Cheat Sheet for Beginners


As a form of travel, you will either love or hate cruises.  I took my first cruise on Carnival Cruises in 2001 to celebrate my upcoming divorce.  I didn’t do any research.  I simply visited a travel agent and pointed to brochures of the Caribbean because when I thought about cruises, I could only think Caribbean.  I don’t mind traveling alone, but now, I’d rather have someone to share it with.  If you have looked past the recent disasters on cruise ships, and still want to try a vacation on a cruise ship, I applaud you.  Here are some tips for a beginner’s first cruise:

You Need to be Healthy

Would you believe there are passengers who never leave the ship to explore its land destinations?

Many retirees who have worked and saved all their lives for that “trip of a lifetime” get on a cruise ship and realize that they cannot keep up with the physical requirements needed to travel.  A cruise ship has ramps, stairs and times when you have to wait in line for long periods of time.  Going on excursions (tours) means even more obstacles.

If you need to navigate with a cane, walker or a wheelchair, many excursions may not suit you.  If you have any permanent injuries or disabilities, you have to be honest with yourself when it comes to what you can (or can’t) do.  If you are overweight and exceed the weight limitations (like a helicopter ride over a glacier or a volcano), you will pay extra for your weight.  

Do Your Research

Unfortunately, you won’t know if you will like cruises as a form of travel until you actually go on one.  Everyone has doubts, so do your research before you even purchase a ticket.  This is your time to ask away because your research is part of the planning.  Most likely your research will save you money.  Ask friends, family and acquaintances who have gone on cruises.  Check out the different cruise lines.  Read travel brochures, magazines and travel magazines.  Watch the travel programs.  Consult a travel agent and ask questions, but don’t be obligated to buy anything.  If you are still undecided, try taking a short (usually 4 days) cruise.  These are usually a lot more affordable, and they will give you a glimpse of how a cruise ship works.  If you happen to like the short cruise, then other cruises may follow.

Book Your Cruise a Year in Advance

If you book your cruise at the last minute, you are paying way too much.

Book your cruise a year in advance, and you can pay for it up front or in two installments.  Keep in mind that this only pays for the cruise itself–not the extras that occur while you are on the ship or on land.

Don’t even think of putting the cost of your cruise ticket (and other cruise purchases) on a credit card.  There are people who think nothing of taking a cruise on credit.  Then they spend the following year paying for it.  By booking your cruise early, you can avoid this madness.

Learn from the international travelers who frequent the United States.  Take a year to save, then take your vacation.    


You are not required to purchase any excursions.  You can stay or the ship or decide to wander on your own.  If you have no interest in taking a tour, you can walk, dine or shop.  Any known travel destinations are geared for tourists and hardcore travelers.  On your own, you will find something to do.  It’s all about what you want to do with your time and money. 

Your choice of excursions can make or break your cruise.  Right before you set sail, the cruise lines will send you a list of excursions, plus the costs.  This is where your research comes in.  Decide what you want to see, and choose the trips that are within your budget.  Do this immediately.  Excursions cover the cost of the tour guide, the tour or the activity.  Tipping the tour guide is up to you. 


Depending on the ship’s schedule, you only have a number of hours.  Anything can happen when you travel.  If you are late getting back from wandering around, and you miss boarding, then it’s up to you to meet the ship at its next destination.  Or you can just go home.  

When you first get on board the cruise ship, make sure that you are given the schedule that you had purchased.  Some excursions are sold out at the last minute, and if you are going as a couple, a family or as a group, there may not be enough tickets.  Immediately settle any problems with excursion staff.  Otherwise, someone will be left out.  Or you will be charged for the tickets that you won’t use because not everyone could go.

You may be tempted to save money and choose an outside vendor for your excursions.  Many of those are there to meet you once you are on land.  You could save money, but keep in mind that if your outside tour runs late and misses the ship, the cruise ship has every right to leave you.  If you choose to buy their excursions, they are willing to wait for you if your tour misses the boarding deadline.           

Money First, People Second

Isn’t paying for your cruise fare enough?  But when a cruise ship is packing 3,000+ passengers, you know ship employees will do anything to get into your wallet.  Here’s a few of their ways:

  • Drinks.  Wonder why you’re asked every other minute if you want a drink?  Drinks bring in the most money.
  • Photographs.  Those pesky ship photographers with the Nikon cameras get you coming and going.  Bring your own camera.
  • Classes.  Tour the ship’s kitchen or learn how to fold napkins.  Be prepared to receive a sales pitch for a book or a video.
  • Spa Treatments.  Just who is giving you that botox treatment?  And skip the $500 seaweed treatment to lose weight.
  • The Cruise Activities Director.  He pushes you to shop on the ship and at all the affiliates on land.  
  • Restaurants On Board.  Don’t live at the buffet.  Know which restaurants charge because some don’t.
  • Medical.  You will be charged for all injuries.  If you have special needs, find out if the ship can accommodate you.
  • Casinos.  Although gambling may be illegal at your land destination, there is nothing illegal about gambling at sea.
  • Art Auctions.  Unless you know your art–look, but don’t buy.  Holding up that paddle and out-bidding someone can be costly.   


There was a time when tipping was optional.  Now, the cruise lines have worked tipping into your cruise fare.  If you feel that an employee has given you top service, feel free to tip.  But because of this tipping policy, every employee is guaranteed a tip.  And some are tempted not to work that hard.

Couples, Families, Friends, and Big Groups are Welcome

If you are single, choose a cruise specifically meant for singles or book a specialty cruise where people mingle with celebrities or follow the same interest.  If you are single and travel alone, you either share your cabin with a stranger or pay full price for the cabin or suite to be by your lonesome. 

You are taking a big risk when it comes to bunking with a stranger.  If you don’t get along, you end up paying for a miserable time.

You Cannot Leave the Ship Unless Your Debts are Cleared

Before boarding, each passenger is given an identification card.  Although this card identifies you as a passenger when it comes to coming and going, it is also linked to your credit card for all the purchases that you make while on the ship.  This is where you need to track your spending because a lot of these goods and services add up faster than you think.  The night before you leave your final destination, a list of all your expenses will be delivered to your cabin.  Look over the bill and settle any problems with staff.  Otherwise, you’ll be staying a lot longer on board than you want to.

The Real Purpose of Taking a Cruise

A cruise lets you see different travel locations at a time, but your time there is limited unless you’ve booked a cruise that is much longer than two weeks.  When you come away from your cruise and have time to think about which travel destinations interested you, then make arrangements to spend time there. 

A cruise is one of many ways to travel.  Some people don’t travel any other way.  Others won’t even try.  Remember that you have so many choices when it comes to traveling.  Who knows?  A cruise may motivate you to try other modes of travel.                  













  1. marlenebertrand · February 21, 2014

    This is an excellent summary of what it’s like to be on a cruise ship. I’ve been on eight cruises, so I guess it’s safe to say I really enjoy cruising. I like Royal Caribbean the best. I haven’t been on a cruise now for quite some time. Now after reading your blog I want to schedule a cruise.

    • Arlene Poma · February 21, 2014

      Marlene, thank you! I’ve been on enough cruises (Carnival, Princess, Celebrity, and NCL) to know what works or what doesn’t. Looking forward to Alaska in the future. Been there by cruise ship twice, but only did the southern half of Alaska. This time, we want to do a mix of land and sea. From Denali on down. Me and Mister Jack love wildlife and scenery. Although Jack is the type of person who keeps his camera to his face, I’m more relaxed with a camera because I don’t want to miss a thing. Don’t know what my plans are after my recovery, but I am saving for a new camera with wide and telescopic lenses. Then I can join all those camera freaks on both land and sea! I loved NCL’s cruise around Hawaii. Been on it twice, and I think that’s enough. My neighbor cruised Italy on one of those massive cruise ships. She isn’t one to go into detail about her travels, but I must admit that I was drooling with envy.

  2. marlenebertrand · February 21, 2014

    I’m glad to read that you enjoyed the cruise around Hawaii. My husband and I were looking into doing a cruise to Hawaii. We love Hawaii, but we weren’t sure whether or not we would like a cruise there. I sometimes imagine myself with a camera like the pros – big ol’ lenses and all. But, it would be a waste because I’m not that good at capturing scenes the way I wish. My husband, on the other hand, is an amazing cameraman. I really enjoy the photos you post with your blogs. They capture the scenes beautifully and always make me want to be there.

    • Arlene Poma · February 21, 2014

      Thank you so much for the compliment! When I found out that we photographed a lot of the same things, I let Jack take the photographs while I goofed around. We have all these photos on storage sticks and in folders, but when it comes down to it, we don’t know who photographed what. You’re so right. As someone who travels, I don’t like babysitting expensive camera equipment, but I do want to make a change if the location is right for landscapes and wildlife. I’ve spent almost my whole lifetime with the writing and the photography. To me, they are a passion. To me, if they became work, they would no longer be a passion. As for the NCL cruises around Hawaii? We took our last one in 2012. I spend a lot of time alone, and I could not stand being around all these people! Still, an Alaskan cruise is not out of the question. While on the last NCL cruise, we did find our timeshare locations in Kauai and Hilo. We would love to stay at those for a week or two. Who knows what we’ll do next?

  3. marlenebertrand · February 21, 2014

    Timeshares! A lot of people poke fun at them, but I’m really grateful for them. My husband, David and I have one that we use religiously. I know what you mean by babysitting expensive camera equipment. My husband had a really expensive camera stolen at a luau we attended. He put the camera down to applaud at the end of the event and, bam! His camera was gone and of course, no one saw anything. For a few years after that, we would only take those box cameras with us when we traveled. We’re back to bringing our regular cameras now. My parents went on an Alaskan cruise and came back raving over it. That’s another cruise I want to try. We’re using our timeshare for Napa this year. Oh… we’re also going to start making our own wine to get into the spirit of wine country. I’m really excited about it.

    • Arlene Poma · February 22, 2014

      We’ve had our timeshare for 7 years. I ignore people who whine about them. I figure they had to give them up or are too lazy to use them. I do know about that Napa location. Been to Windsor twice, but the timeshare people tell me that the new Napa timeshare is just divine! I am sorry your husband lost his camera during (of all things) a luau. Believe me. Thieves get bolder and bolder, and I certainly feel his pain. I went to Rio de Janeiro with a throwaway camera. I took photos of the Christ the Redeemer statue (Corcovado). It was a very foggy day atop that mountain, but to see the statue (face) of Jesus coming up from the fog? Unbelievable. I took numerous shots. When you go down that trolley from the mountain, it is packed with people. I had my camera buried deep into my jacket pocket. Like, down to my knees? Yet, it was stolen. I guess there are times when you just have to rely on memories.

  4. Raymund · February 25, 2014

    I am glad to have experienced this at an early stage of my life, I got it free to have the whole journey and ship photographed, hopefully I can still do this soon specially now I am here in NZ where its really accessible

    • Arlene Poma · February 25, 2014

      So many ways to travel, Raymund! I agree with you 100%. It’s best to be exposed to traveling at a young age instead of waiting for the Golden Years. My parents introduced me and my brother to international travel. At the time, I was 10. It was PanAm to the Philippines, with overnight stops in Hong Kong and Tokyo. What a thrill! I used to love hanging out at San Francisco International, but travel by air has become so stressful. For now, it’s exploring the U.S. by road trips and using our timeshare membership to book our lodging destinations. Being from California, there are so many places in the U.S. that we haven’t seen.

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