Fancy a cruise but don’t know where to start? Here’s our expert guide to ensure your first holiday by ship is something to remember

WaterWorks for first-time cruiser - first-time cruiser © Carnival Cruise Line
WaterWorks © Carnival Cruise Line

Planning your cruise

Once you’ve booked your cruise, all the hard work is over and the fun begins. “This is the exciting part,” says Andy Harmer from CLIA. “You can now explore the ship in detail from the comfort of your sofa as cruise lines have ship plans, photographs and many offer 360-degree visuals.”

You can explore the activities on board, shore excursions, what time you’d like to eat (though many cruise lines now have an open-seating policy to dine at any time), which restaurants you want to try, and the entertainment. Many ships have West End/Broadway-style shows as well as dancers, comedians and circus troupes. The most popular shore excursions go quickly, so book early. Decide which shore excursions are a must-do and book as soon as you can, ideally before you travel, to avoid disappointment.

If it’s your first time in a city then it’s usually easier to take the ship’s excursion, but there are plenty of destinations where you can explore on your own, too. There are many ports in the Baltic and Med which you can explore easily on your own. Civitavecchia is a great example – it’s easy to hop on a train to Rome and spend the day sightseeing at your own pace. And the main sights of Tallinn, Estonia, are within walking distance of the port. Just make sure you check what time you have to be back on board, otherwise you will hold the
entire ship up from departure – and sometimes they won’t wait and you will have to get to the next port of call at your own expense.

Some cruise lines will dock overnight or for two or three nights in a destination, giving you more time to explore, enjoy unique cultural experiences or simply go out for dinner at a local restaurant. Most cruises run a free bus to the main city centre and there are always plenty of ‘hop-on hop-off’ local buses so you can explore and sight-see at your own leisure.
Many cruise lines offer excursions that show much more than just the usual destination. For example, Oceania Cruises offer Culinary Discovery Tours where guests are taken on shore by a master chef, then they cook with the fresh ingredients back on the ship.

There’s also a fish workshop in Tallinn, Estonia, pasta making in Portofino, Italy, and lessons in how to create a traditional Greek meze in Argostoli, Greece. P&O Cruises has similar market tours with James Martin and on board classes with Marco Pierre White.
Don’t forget to check any visa and vaccine requirements for the countries you’re visiting and find out if there is free wifi on board. If not, buy a wifi package, or use your cruise holiday as the perfect excuse for a digital detox.

Grease on board Harmony of the Seas - first-time cruiser © Royal Caribbean International
Grease on board Harmony of the Seas © Royal Caribbean International

On board the cruise ship

If you’re going on a fly-cruise holiday, many cruisers now fly out early to the embarkation port to make the most of the destination before they set sail. “It means they get in the holiday vibe early and arrive relaxed and refreshed ready to start an amazing journey,” says Viking’s Neil Barclay, Head of Sales.

Some fly-cruises offer a service where you can check in your luggage at the airport. “The next time you see your cases is in your cabin, so you’re free to relax,” says Harmer.
It could take a while to check in or for your luggage to arrive, so pack a day bag carrying medicine and essentials. Don’t forget your phone charger, an adapter plug and some local currency.

Finding your way around your ship could seem daunting at first, but it’s fun to explore. “Instead of following the ship guide, have a wander around. Our guests tell us that within half an hour of being on board they have found their favourite corner and feel right at home,” suggests Barclay.

Do take time to get to know the crew, adds Carter. “Interacting with them will enhance your holiday experience. Talk to your room steward, make friends with your waiter, say hello to the Captain. Not only will they be warm and friendly, they’ll give you further tips on how to make the most of your time on board.”

If you’re on a family cruise, register your children for the kids’ clubs as soon as you can – not to get rid of them but because they will absolutely love it, plus it’s a chance to make new friends. If you fancy some pampering, book your spa treatments as soon as you’re able. On Viking’s ocean cruises you can use the facilities for free.

“For something really unique, take part in the Norwegian ‘Bathing Ritual’ to rejuvenate the skin,” suggests Barclay. “It involves jumping from the hydrotherapy pool to the steam room via the ice cold water bucket and the first snow grotto at sea – with some real snow.”

There’s always a compulsory muster drill, or boat drill, on board before sailing so that all the passengers know what to do in the (very unlikely) event of an emergency; some lines require you to practice putting on your life jacket and some don’t, but all will require you to attend. Afterwards, you can grab a cocktail for the sail away party and relax into your best holiday ever.

Read part one of our first-time cruiser guide.

Whether you’re looking for a cultural holiday or relaxing break, find your perfect cruise with our Cruise Finder.