Maiden Voyages

New to cruising? Here’s what you need to know.
Renata Faeth

It's been just 40 years since the TV series The Love Boat introduced us to the world of cruising, and vacationers have been getting on board ever since, enthusiastically embracing the idea of a holiday at sea. According to statistics gathered by Princess Cruise Line, 25 million people cruised in 2017, including 1.2 million new cruisers. An astonishing 92 percent of those first-timers say they will cruise again, suggesting that vacationers have an insatiable appetite for today’s sleekly designed ships, expanding itinerary selections and creative activities that engage diverse travelers of all ages.

When it comes to cruising, no doubt about it, the best-laid plans result in a great experience. Cruising is a relaxing, enjoyable, hassle-free getaway, but planning involves more moving parts than other vacation packages. Here are some “know before you go” tips to consider.

Where Are You Going, and How Will You Get There?

Choosing a destination and cruise line may be influenced by a promotion or a friend’s advice, but a travel consultant will ask important questions about the type of accommodations you’re used to and how you like to spend your time. Are you traveling with children? Do you seek out unusual ports with authentic experiences? Is affordability critical to your decision? A good travel professional wants to know what you value most.

It’s a big world out there, so when you’re charting your course, it helps to have an open mind. For example, many first-timers to Alaska only investigate a seven-night cruise, assuming that adding a land package will take too much time and blow the budget. It will be a longer trip and cost more, but those extra few days take travelers beyond the coastline’s towering fjords and glaciers into a vast wilderness featuring wildlife and scenery beyond their imagination, without sacrificing comfort.

We recommend Alaska travelers see as much as they can because this may be their one and only visit to America’s last continental frontier. The same holds true of other “once in a lifetime” cruise destinations, such as the South Pacific and South America.

The Caribbean, on the other hand, draws repeat visitors sold on island-hopping adventures in a sizzling array of diverse cultures. A vacation with tropical trade winds, spicy salsa and reggae music, and sugary white-sand beaches is too irresistible to experience just once, especially when it’s relatively affordable and easy to reach.

Doing Dining Right

If the notion of cruising presents dreaded images of midnight buffets, froufrou drinks, and sequins and tuxedos at dinner, here’s some good news: Today’s cruise culture is about enjoying yourself in a style that suits your taste. Midnight buffets featuring elaborate food and ice sculptures are long gone, while traditional formal nights are a celebratory affair that larger cruise lines such as Royal Caribbean, Princess and others still embrace. They bring a certain “big night out” experience that some families, couples and singles enjoy for their photo ops and memory making.

But formal nights are optional. Alternative casual dining venues are always available, and there’s no law that says you have to dress up on any cruise, ever. Nor are you obligated to accept assigned seating with people you don’t know. You can opt into a flexible dining program that allows you to eat when you want, with whom you want, with the same menu as those assigned to a table.

Higher-end, adult-oriented cruise lines such as Oceania and Viking River Cruises offer a nightly resort-casual approach, without any assigned seating. Of course, you’ll swap out your favorite cut-off blue jeans and swim attire, but you needn’t pack a ball gown or suit and tie, either. It’s a modern approach to living the good life at sea.

Speaking of the good life, most cruise lines offer beverage packages so you can bundle alcohol, bottled water and specialty drink purchases on a daily per person basis instead of paying individually. Note: Gratuities are typically added to bar drink tabs, so no need to add on more.

Shore Excursions Galore

Just like in pre-Internet times, shore excursion representatives still have a sales desk, but they’re also there to help you make changes to arrangements you made online prior to sailing. It’s another reason a travel consultant is such a great resource. Many travelers line up their tours once they’ve set up an online account for charging purposes, but professional guidance comes in handy when there are questions or concerns.

Can excursions sell out? Yes, they can. Cruise lines do an extraordinary job of managing inventory with plentiful space through local tour operators, but if your heart is set on a specific tour, such as seeing sled dogs in Juneau, Alaska, or zip lining in Panama, make early booking a priority.

Relax, Unwind or Challenge Your Mind

These days, virtually all cruise lines emphasize the opportunity for personal enrichment. Beyond the luxurious spas, fitness rooms, waterslides and putting greens are painting and photography classes, culinary demonstrations, digital workshops, and even guest lecture series featuring experts on local history and natural science. Fill your sea days with stimulating activities or do next to nothing. The option itself is one reason those 92 percent want more of it.

The Art of Choosing a Stateroom

For many cruise guests, this is the most important decision of their trip, and too often they realize it the day they set sail. Travel consultants know this refrain well: “We’ll never be in the room.” Yes, you will. You’ll sleep and change clothes there, and you’ll walk the hallway so many times the image will be forever etched in your mind. At the very least, explore options and understand the cost of upgrading between inside, ocean view, balcony and suite.

Balcony rooms are high in demand but plentiful on most ships, so prices have come down over the years. What’s the appeal? They offer privacy with an ocean breeze—to unwind, read a book, watch the sunset or enjoy a quiet meal. Once you’ve had a balcony, you may not want to go back. But it’s not essential to every traveler, and good travel pros know this. It’s their job to share the deck plan with you and provide insight on room size, type and location. Ask about access to your favorite hangouts, such as the pool and promenade deck, and proximity to elevators. It’s all in the details.

Membership Has Its Privileges

Cruise loyalty programs provide special offers, but for first-time cruisers, nothing beats AAA, where right off the bat you’ll likely enjoy benefits such as onboard credits, VIP check-in or specialty dining vouchers. Join the 1.2 million new cruisers this year, with a little help unpacking the details before you set sail. Then, bon voyage!

Once in a Lifetime

“We recommend Alaska travelers see as much as they can because this may be their one and only visit to America’s last continental frontier. The same holds true of other ‘once in a lifetime’ cruise destinations, such as the South Pacific and South America.”

Renata Faeth is sales manager of AAA Minneapolis Travel.