11 First Time Cruise Prep Tips: How to Prepare for a Cruise

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Booking a cruise vacation is exciting and we start to count the days immediately after booking. In this post, we share our top tips on how to prepare for a cruise for first-timers.

I remember our first time cruising over 20 years ago. We booked the cruise but boarded so unprepared. I didn’t even book excursions and had no idea we could book our own. We walked around aimlessly at the ports. While we did have a great first cruise experience, I regret a few things like making sure hubby packed a swimsuit and exploring the Southern Caribbean islands.

With every cruise you take, you’ll learn something new in preparation for having the next best cruise experience. I’ve learned spontaneity can be fun, but then not so much when we leave things for the last minute or unplanned.

Sometimes, booking a great cruise itinerary and just showing up is not enough. We say this from experience. Especially from the one time, we decided not to make any advanced reservations.

Even if you’re just planning to get on the ship and lay around it the entire time, some of these tips will help you prepare for a cruise. It’s important at least to have a list of what to do before going on a cruise or at least know what to expect.

11 Cruise Prep Tips Checklist:

  1. Purchase travel insurance
  2. Confirm passport and visas
  3. Book your flights
  4. Book hotels for pre-cruise and-or post-cruise.
  5. Join a roll call
  6. Become familiar with the cruise ship
  7. Book in advance drink packages and reservations
  8. Research cruise shore excursions
  9. Start saving cash
  10. Make sure you are vaccinated or Covid-tested
  11. Print cruise documents and luggage tags

We’re not suggesting every single item is a must (some are). Do what works best for you and what your expectations are for your cruise vacation. 

How to Prepare for a Cruise | Featured Image

How will COVID-19 affect Your cruise prep?

How to prepare for a cruise? That’s the big question. How will it affect preparing for a cruise? The original 10 Cruise Prep tips from this post still apply. They are core tips for planning any big cruise vacation.

But post-pandemic you can expect these differences:

  • Negative PRC test required prior to boarding
  • Face masks in public places unless you’re drinking or eating (some cruise lines are not requiring masks from vaccinated passengers)
  • Buffets no longer are self-serve
  • Additional hand sanitizers throughout the ship
  • Crew members wearing masks at all times
  • Possible cruise-controlled excursion at ports – this depends on the port’s guidelines and requirements
  • Possible Covid testing prior to deboarding ship at some ports.

With any cruise vacation, you must check what the procedures and guidelines are directly with the cruise line.

How to Prepare for a Cruise

1. Purchase Travel Insurance

Booked a cruise? Buy insurance.

→ This is so important. We cannot stress enough how important it is to have some sort of insurance in place. Especially now with Covid. It should be #1 on your cruise preparation checklist. Some cruise lines are requiring medical insurance for Covid.

You do not have to buy the insurance offered by the cruise line, as a matter of fact, you should look into other options. You want to at least have comprehensive insurance that will cover any medical bills and if you need to cancel in case you have an emergency.

In the past, we’d purchase whatever the cruise line offered because it was easy. We learned our lesson the hard way and realized their insurance is not covering our best interest. We lost a lot of money.

  • InsureMyTrip.com is a great place to start your research.
  • Compare multiple insurance options.
  • Double-check that the medical covers Covid related care.

Everyone’s needs vary. We’re not a travel insurance experts, but we do know that travel insurance is important. You will only gain by doing your own research and determine what is best and necessary for you and your family.

Do not wait long to choose to buy cruise insurance as the longer you wait, the more expensive the rates become.

2. Don’t Forget Passports & Visas

Verify with the cruise line if you need a passport or a visa for any of the countries you are visiting. It all depends on the itinerary and from where you’re sailing.

Passports

Make sure your passport is valid and has not expired. If the expiration date on your passport is close to expiring near your cruise dates, renew it ASAP.

No matter what, you will need to bring an official government-issued identification with you.

Travel Tip: Keep a scanned copy of your passport on your phone or a hard copy on you.

An official government ID is mandatory. Please check what other identification the cruise line requires for check-in before your sailing date.

Visas

If a Visa is required for a country you are visiting, my advice is to let the cruise line take care of it for an additional fee. It may cost slightly more to let them do it, but it’s worth it. They make it easy and hassle-free.

25 Reasons A Cruise Is a Great Vacation

We list all the best things about cruises. You will be convinced that a cruise will be part of your next vacation.

3. Book Your Flights

Flying in?

Fly in the day before embarkation. This is an ideal plan when you prepare for a cruise.

Full disclosure: On our last cruise (pre-covid), we were naughty and booked a redeye flight that landed at the crack of dawn. We were at the port hours before check-in. We were lucky, but we’ve heard nightmares from others.

However, we were anxious from the moment we booked the flight. What if the flight is delayed? What if it’s canceled. What if… what if… what if? All this anxiety is not worth it unless necessary. This time we had limited time off and needed to take the risk. Thankful it worked out.

Now with the pandemic changing the travel industry. We’re not so sure it’s worth taking the risks as flights are being canceled and changed constantly.

Return Flight

Don’t book anything too early in the morning. Try not to book anything before noon.

→ Most ships start to disembark at 8 AM. Check to see how far the airport is from the cruise port. Give yourself some cushion between disembarkation and your flight. Sometimes it’s a quick disembarkation process and other times it’s a hot mess. You can easily miss your flight.

If the cruise is many months away, you may have some time to research airfares. It doesn’t hurt to compare what you find online with what the cruise line is offering. The cruise line may surprise you.

Celebrity recently surprised me, their rates were the same as going through the airline directly. I booked via Celebrity because there were added benefits at no extra cost. Of course, this is not always the norm. Research is your friend. 

Cruise Tip: If you have extra vacation time, plan to spend time a few days before or after at the port-of-call.

Last year, our port-of-call was in Barcelona, Spain, so we planned to stay an extra week after our return. We spent 3 days in Girona, Spain before returning to Barcelona for the last few days.

4. Book a Hotel

Accommodations for Your Pre-cruise or Post-Cruise Stay

Flying in a day or more early? Planning to stay longer after the cruise. You will need to book a hotel.

  • Stay near the port or in the closest city the day before your cruise.
  • Check to see if hotels have a free shuttle that will drive you to the port on embarkation day.
  • Driving in from a nearby state? Check for stay and park rates at hotels. A special rate provided for cruisers to stay for one night and leave your car parked at their facility for the length of your cruise.
  • Book a hotel that offers FREE BREAKFAST. Who doesn’t like free food?! This way you don’t have to leave the hotel to get coffee and something small to eat. You’ll save money, time and you can just head on to the cruise port after you’re ready. Also, don’t overindulge, leave room for lunch on the ship.

We recommend using Booking.com. Not only do they offer great discounted rates to hotels, B&Bs, and more, but they have flexible rates that allow you to cancel easily.

5. Join a Roll Call – Meet Other Cruisers

Prepare for a cruise by joining a roll call

→ One of the things to do before a cruise is to join a roll call for your sailing. This is optional.

The best roll call can be found at the Cruise Critic Community Boards.

Advantages
  • Attend the meet & greet set up between the cruise line and Cruise Critic. Cruise Critic is well known amongst the cruising community and the cruise lines work closely with the organizer of the meet & greet to set up a time and place on the ship for it to take place.
  • You’ll meet other cruisers and make new friends.
  • Food, coffee, and beverages are provided.
  • You will meet some of the ship officers and they will say a few words. Sometimes they provide information that other passengers may not have like their direct phone numbers on the ship. If there is a problem, you can contact them.
Disadvantages
  • It does take away time from whatever it is you want to do on a sea day. Sometimes we don’t want to give that up, especially if you have a port-intensive itinerary. 
  • You’re not one for group activities.

6. Become Familiar with the Cruise Ship

Your next order of business, if you haven’t done so already, is to research everything you can about your cruise ship and what it offers.

Find the best tips on Cruise Critic, Pinterest, and even do a quick Google search. You’ll be equipped with tidbits of knowledge upon boarding that many other passengers won’t know of.

Some things you may want to know prior to boarding your cruise:

  • Do they serve lunch anywhere else besides the buffet on embarkation day?
  • Is there self-serve laundry on the ship?
  • What restaurants are free?
  • When can I start making reservations for specialty restaurants?
  • How many formal nights?
  • Are there any special activities on the ship? For example, Carnival has sit-down brunch on sea days and Princess has Afternoon Tea available on certain afternoons.
  • Are there any special shows on the ship you have to pay and reserve in advance?
  • What ports do we have to tender for? When and where can we sign up to tender early? We have witnessed people completely lost the morning of and then end up with the latest tender time off the ship… that’s a waste of a morning.

Cruise tip: Dallies are provided every night on the ship for the next day. You should read it and mark what you’d like to do every day. Join in on the fun!

Cruise Essentials to Pack

Add these items to your cruise packing list. Don’t forget to pack these cruise items that will help enhance your cruise vacation.

7. What to Book in Advance on a Cruise

Prepare for a cruise by booking the following in advance:

Drink Packages

→ Do the math. If you are planning to have several or more paid drinks per day, a drink package or soda package may be for you. They offer pre-cruise discounts for booking it in advance.

There is just something freeing ordering whatever you want without having to worry about the bill at the end of the cruise.

sunrise martini from the martini bar on celebrity equinox

We don’t drink enough to pay for a drink package, however, some cruise lines offer it as an extra “free” perk. Being that I was sailing Norwegian, I should have taken that free perk at the time of booking, but didn’t. We totally regretted not paying extra for the “free” perk and we don’t even drink that much.

Specialty Dining Reservations

→ Prepare for a cruise by booking specialty dining restaurants in advance.

Even if you don’t book this in advance, at least make it a priority to book reservations as soon as you get on the ship.

We failed miserably at this while planning our Norwegian Epic cruise, which is not by any means how we roll.

We normally have it all planned. Having to hear, “we’re booked”, over and over on the ship is disappointing. We rather have the reservation and cancel on the ship if plans change.

Spa Services

→ Interested in Spa Passes? Take advantage of the pre-cruise discount and book this in advance.

Covid note: This may no longer be worth it with the new rules set forth by the CDC.

Not all spa treatments will be available for reservations (some cruise lines don’t even allow any bookings pre-cruise), but if they become available, book them.

We recommend booking spa treatments on sea days. Those appointments usually are booked up quickly.

8. Getting Off the Ship at Cruise Ports

❗️ Due to the pandemic, it appears that some port destinations are only allowing controlled cruise excursions off the ship. You also may have to take a Covid test prior to departing the ship, even if you’re vaccinated. You must check with your cruise lines to see which ports on your itinerary this applies to.

This is truly disappointing to me as I am a big proponent of exploring on your own or booking your own tours. But the good news is that it’s not all ports and I don’t see this being a long-term solution.

Previously, I listed all the info you needed to explore on your own or book shore excursions. These tips will return as soon as Covid is gone.

We have to look on the bright side, you can still have a great time on a tour of your choosing. Just make sure to pick the right tour and book in advance. Cruise excursions always fill up quickly.

Plan, Research and Book Tours

Some of the best experiences will take place off the ship. Don’t wait until you’re on the ship to figure out what you’re going to do at the cruise ports.

On our first cruise many, many years ago, we were clueless. We’d get off at the cruise port and have no idea what to do.  We’d walk around aimlessly. Times have obviously changed since then. Don’t get me wrong, some ports are nice to just do that, but some need some extra planning so you can really experience what the port has to offer. You have to leave the port in order to find adventure and local experiences. 

One of the downsides of cruising is the short amount of time at each cruise port. It’s a complete turn-off for me, especially when we cruised Europe. However, I still made the most out of our itinerary and ventured off to places most cruisers don’t think of. 

Make the most of your time, even if the plan is to get off the ship and spend it at a beach close by. Wouldn’t you like to know what the best beach is, or the least crowded beach is nearby? How much the beach chair rentals are? And, are there any facilities for you to use? It’s okay to wing it and be spontaneous, but it works in your favor to have some local knowledge.

Book an Excursion

Beach chairs, strawb beach umbrella overlooking the bay and cruise ship | How to Prepare for a Cruise
Costa Maya Cruise Port

Sometimes it seems like I do a lot of DIY, but I love tours. Do I love big tour groups? No. I do enjoy smaller group tours and private ones. Those are my preference, but you need to do what works for you and your family. 

Look at all the options for each and every port. Sometimes you’ll find exactly what it is you want to do and you won’t have to go deeper into planning the logistics cause you’re paying for someone else to do that for you.

Pros 
  • You don’t have to worry about how you’re going to get from point A to B.
  • Someone is driving you and guiding you on a tour. Sometimes that is totally worth the extra money while on vacation.
  • There is a great chance that you’ll be blessed with a great tour guide that really wants to provide the best experience possible. 
  • If you book with the ship (normally more expensive and only group tours avail), the tours are guaranteed to get you back on time. The ship will not leave without you if you’re late.
Cons
  • Unless you booked a private tour that allows you to customize your itinerary, you are stuck doing what the entire group is doing. It can be limiting.
  • The groups may be too large.
  • The guide can end up being terrible.
  • It turns out to be not what you expected.

Cruise Tip: Don’t be a pier runner. The captain and staff will repeat over and over the time you should be back on the ship.

If you come running down the pier past the scheduled time the ship is supposed to take off, they will leave you behind. So, make sure to plan to be back near the port at least an hour ahead.

Need some inspiration on what to do at the cruise ports? Maybe you’ll find a similar cruise excursion with your ship.

Click one of the following cruise itineraries:

9. Prepare for a Cruise by Saving Cash

What Will You Need Money For?

It is possible to provide a cash deposit against your incidentals that will be linked to your key card/cruise ship ID card. The cruise line will still ask for a credit card on file in case you go over the deposit. Remember, if you use your debit card, they place a $300 hold at a time.

If you’re anything like me, you probably like to use your credit card for everything and accumulate as many travel points or cash back rewards as possible.

Start Saving Cash

When on a cruise, you’ll find that you’ll need smaller denomination cash for tips and other reasons listed below. We suggest you start to save cash early on so you’re not scrambling to find an ATM on embarkation day.

An ATM can be found in the Casino. Use at your own risk and note that there will be a high service fee.

Save Some Side Cash With These Tips:
  • Start a cruise jar fund.
  • If you’re paying with your debit card at the supermarket or any other location that allows free withdrawals, withdraw an extra $20 and save it to your cruise fund.
  • Save the leftover change. You will need those smaller bills. I have literally sent hubby the morning of embarkation to turn our larger bills into smaller denominations, and it’s an extra step we could have saved with a little planning.
  • Keep separate envelopes for excursions, tips, gambling…etc. Start adding money to the envelopes little by little to cover the cost of your expenses.
You’ll need cash For
  • Your cruise starts the moment you hand your luggage to a porter at port check-in. Tip $3-5 per luggage.
  • Single dollars will come in handy. Show extra love to the people serving you day in and out. Tip as you see fit; it’s a personal choice.
  • Tip your guide at the end of your excursion.
  • Purchases off the ship like food, souvenirs, and street vendors. 
  • Gambling. Cash on hand is your best option. You have the option to charge it to your cabin but be prepared for an additional fee to be added.
  • Currency exchange may be necessary. Where are you traveling to? Travel within the Caribbean, Mexico, and other surroundings around the USA, they accept and ask for US Dollars. On our trip to the Mediterranean, we had to have euros for everything we did off the ship.

Related Read Not to Miss: 8 Tips to Save More Money to Travel

10. COVID Testing or VACCINE

❗️Depending on the cruise line, you will either be required to be vaccinated for COVID-19 or take a PCR test. Check with your cruise line regarding their Covid guidelines.

Some tips requiring testing:

  • Check your local Covid testing sites that are able to provide results in 72 hours or less.
  • Book your appointment no more than 72 hours before boarding.
  • Do NOT forget to bring a copy of proof of vaccination or your negative PCR test.
  • You may also be tested by the cruise line’s medical staff prior to boarding the ship on embarkation day.
  • There is a possibility that some ports may require a covid test prior to deboarding the ship.

11. Have all Your Documents Ready & Printed

Print Documents & Luggage Tags

Cruise lines make it easy for us and have everything available online through their website portal. You just have to sign in to your account and fill out your passenger information for check-in.

You will receive an email when your documents and luggage tags are ready. Print them out to bring with you on your trip. Save them as PDF on your phone, just in case.

Attach the luggage tags on the morning of embarkation. You can either staple the tags to your luggage handle or buy a set of these luggage tag holders.

Some cruise lines [like Celebrity Cruises] will mail the luggage tags and that’s simply a luxury that not all cruise lines do anymore. 


This list may seem slightly overwhelming. But, once you start checking things off and your cruise gets closer, you’ll see it is worth it.

Before you know it, you’ll be relaxing on your cruise and enjoying all the rewards from all your planning.

Did you find these tips helpful to prepare for a cruise? Tell me about your next cruise!


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When I’m not daydreaming about my next vacation, drinking coffee, or playing with my dogs, you can find me on InstagramTwitter, or Facebook for more posts and stories! Would love to hear from you!

19 thoughts on “11 First Time Cruise Prep Tips: How to Prepare for a Cruise”

    • Thanks so much for reading!
      I have a love and hate relationship with cruises, which I will leave for another blog post, ha. However, they are fun, there is a ton of food and you get to discover new places you have might have never stepped foot in before. Plus, you can find great deals. I love cruising the Caribbean and recommend everyone to do so at least once. =)

      Reply
  1. I’ve never been on a cruise before but have had some level of intrigue and your post has definitely piqued that interest! The ideas for things to research are particularly useful as I know cruising has its own particular issues (such as tendering) that you don’t know until you know. Thanks for a great post with lots of food for thought ?

    Reply
    • I think cruises are great to relax and get a taste of cities you may have never thought of visiting. They are not for everyone. It doesn’t hurt to try once and you can start with maybe a 3-4 day cruise. 🙂

      Reply
  2. Hey you,

    I am going to try this one again and not on WP reader LOL!! WP reader lets me type these long comments and then is like: nope, not posting. I have to start copying my comments before hitting the send button. That way they are not lost forever.

    I loved reading this informative and helpful post. I have actually never been on a cruise because I get severely motion sick. I know that everyone says it is a BIG boat and not the same, but…..I also have taken strong meds and well, ya know. Sometimes I am completely fine. If I ever take a cruise, I know who to plan with. YOU!!! You can bet I pinned this one all over the place.

    I hope you feel better and get some rest today, too.

    Christine, The Uncorked Librarian

    Reply
    • Motion sickness is not fun, and if it’s that bad, you may not want to try cruising. Or if you do, maybe like a weekend cruise. A mega-ship may be best for you. You can take ginger pills or eat green apples on the ship. Fact: they have whole green apples available at the buffet just for this. There are a number of remedies.
      My best friend also suffers from motion sickness and she loves to cruise. What she does is she makes sure to get a cabin mid-ship because that helps a bit and she wears these wrists bands they sell to help. Not sure how well it works. Last time we cruised together, she was sick for half of it.
      Thanks so much for reading, commenting, and pinning. Your support really does mean the world to me! Hugs.

      Reply
  3. I’ve been meaning to sit down and read this post for a while now, mainly so I can share it with my mum a she is a big cruiser! & because I love the way Kathy writes all your posts are always fab! This is great advice for anyone embarking on a cruise anytime soon! I think you’ve covered all the essentials and more in this post and I’ll be sure to check back if I ever go on a cruise myself! I especially love your kind heart in regards to tipping, a friend of mine worked on a cruise ships for years and the Tips meant so much to him! And of course he ‘gave a little love’ back in the drinks and went out of his way to make his guest vacation even more enjoyable! Great post can’t wait to read more! I’ll be sure not to miss one now with my subscription! ?

    Reply
    • Alicia – You have made my day! You shared it with your mom? That is so sweet! I hope she approves of my tips. And thank you for your kind words. I think this was the easiest post I’ve written so far because I’m in the middle of all the planning and research. It was kind of cathartic to write to tell you the truth. Hah. So nice to hear that my tips are appreciated. Someone once chided me and told me I’m not supposed to tip because I already paid a daily service fee. I’m glad to show my appreciation to the wonderful servers. Thanks again for stopping by. =)

      Reply
    • Thanks so much! Cruising is fun and it’s nice to experience another form of travel, even if its just once. Hope you get to cruise soon!

      Reply
  4. Hey! I know that you updated this post (and I commented before about yakking lol), but I just wanted to say how awesome the updates are! The layout is perfect for someone like me who hasn’t cruised before. Thank you for taking me through cruising from literally start to finish.

    Mentioning cash is huge because who the heck carries cash these days?! We always have to remember to hit up the ATM before we travel. It’s 101, but we always screw up.

    Thinking about formal nights is big too because you want to pack light (and nice clothes take up soooo much space), but you don’t want to be underdressed. I always forget my damn nice shoes that go with the pretty dress.

    I love your little budgeting/saving cash ideas too, which are applicable for any trip. I never thought to make little envelopes for each area of spending. OMG: can you freaking imagine what my booze envelope would look like? I’d probably need ONE PER DAY. Unless it’s all-inclusive.

    Getting a pre-cruise hotel with BREAKFAST is SUCH a good piece of advice too. Breakfast can add up, and if you are in a hurry, the convenience is perfect. I think a lot of travelers overlook this piece.

    Love love love the updates, especially with the bullets since we are all busy skimmers lol.

    Have a GREAT upcoming vacation. Xxx

    Reply
    • We never have cash. It’s the worst! You’d think we’d learn our lesson each and everytime we forget to prepare, but it’s only been the past couple of years that we’ve gotten better. I love separating things in envelopes and it helps immensely on these cruise trips, but I fail at it sometimes. I’m only human lol

      Clothes take up so much space and I really hate carrying around fancy clothes that I will only wear once during the trip. It’s also so uncomfy. I like to look pretty but being comfortable is my #1 goal.

      I am not one to give tips on how to travel on a budget, so I really won’t ever give advice to that. HAHA But I can totally advise on some tips and tricks on how I save cash. Your booze envelope would be thick. If you went on a cruise, I’d totally push for that drink package. Some cruise lines are more expensive than others and not worth it.

      Some of those hotel breakfasts are sooo good! I was so impressed wtih the hotel in Barcelona, I didn’t want to leave.

      Thanks for commenting!

      Reply
  5. Your cruise posts are so bad for me because I really want to go on one but I don’t have the vacation time. ?
    So much helpful info for a first timer, I’ll be saving to read again whenever we are finally are able to try cruising!

    Reply
    • I hate that feeling of not being able to go somewhere or plan anything because the vacation time is not there. I’m always planning the next vacation but I don’t have enough time in the year to go everywhere I want to go. Dreaming and planning keeps me sane. So look up a cruise or any trip far in the future, just start planning and have fun with it. I already hae a cruise booked for 2021. Yup, you can start figuring it out that far in advance.

      Hope you get to try cruising. Even if it is one that takes place over a long weekend. There are a ton of those itineraries and for great prices too.

      Reply
  6. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this to you before, but my grandparents used to go on quite a lot of cruises! I have a particularly fond memory of welcoming them home one Autumn afternoon, but I digress :’) I loved to look at the photos of my Nana in a black sparkly dress onboard the ship, and my grandpa all suited up behind her. Anyhow, this post has reminded me of all of that, and I think I’ll ask my Nana for some cruise stories the next time I see her! I know she’s probably got some good ones haha :’)

    Reply
    • Hi Macey – Thanks for the comment! I think you mentioned it once in another post. I love hearing cruise stories from the golden days of cruising and am open ears when cruise veterans recount those special times. It was such an elegant time and cruising then was so different. You should absolutely ask them all about it and get all the scoop.

      Reply

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