10 Things to Expect on Your First Cruise

A cruise is a common item to find on a travel bucket list.

With reasonable fares and a plethora of destinations, durations, and a cruise line for every personality, cruises are often touted as a budget friendly vacation for the whole family.

While cruises are a great option for many, it can be tough to know what to expect until you’ve actually been on one.

But unlike many other vacations, it’s very important for new cruisers to be prepared for the unique aspects of a cruise so that they know what they’re getting into. Otherwise, you might find some unpleasant surprises along the way.

Here are 10 things to expect on your first cruise.

The Base Fare is Just the Beginning

With most cruise fares ranging from $200 – $1,200 per person, they’re often seen as a budget-friendly option.

But while a cruise looks cheap upon first glance it’s important to realize that the fare price is just the beginning.

First, there are costs associated with getting to and from the cruise. You must include the airfare or driving needed to get to the port, plus any hotel stays the night before or after the cruise. Additionally, you’ll often need to pay for transportation to and from the cruise terminal.

And the costs keep coming once you’re on the ship, which brings us to our next point.

Know What’s Included

Cruises appear to be all-inclusive, which is part of their draw, but that’s not completely true.

The base fare typically includes your room, meals in the buffet locations and some restaurants, on-board entertainment, as well as basic drinks such as water, juice, tea, and coffee.

Anything extra, including soda and alcohol, will cost you. Furthermore, many on-board restaurants may cost extra as well.

One trick that helps remedy the cost of extras not included in the base fare is bringing drinks on board with you. You’ll have to check the rules for your cruise line, but typically passengers can bring a certain amount of drinks on board, including sodas and alcohol.

It’s important to read the fine print for the cruise and cruise line you’re considering so you know exactly what you’re getting with the base fare. If you’re still unsure, give the cruise line a call and get clarification.

It’s important to know what your fare price is getting you so you won’t be blindsided by extras and can budget for them if necessary.

Expensive Excursions

If you thought your fare, travel to and from the ship, and ship extras added up, you may be disappointed to learn that the excursions are another added expense that will cost you a pretty penny.

Each cruise has a number of ports of call where the ship stops so that passengers can disembark and see the sights. However, if you want to do more than just walk around near the ship you’ll need to sign up for an excursion.

An excursion is a guided tour or other guided activity offered in and around the port of call.

Excursions range in price from a minimum of around $30 to several hundred per person depending on the activity. Of course, more expensive excursions tend to be better and involve more things, such as food and better activities.

While lower-priced excursions may not seem like much, you’ll likely be signing up for multiple ones depending on how many ports of call you visit. Even $30 a person will add up over a week’s cruise.

For example, a couple that signs up for an excursion at each of 4 ports of call for $30 a piece will end up paying $240 in excursion fees.

And that’s assuming you go on the cheap.

The average price of an excursion is more like $60 or more a person, which would bump up your price to $480 over the length of the cruise.

Port Stops are Short

Part of the reason excursions are almost a necessity for seeing more than the minimum around the ship is because the port stops are very short.

While it seems as though a cruise is a good way to see many cities in one vacation, the reality is that short stops are another thing to expect on your first cruise.

In fact, most stops are somewhere between 5 and 9 hours.

Although there are some cruises that offer overnight stays, the vast majority are only in port a half a day, which leaves you only a few hours to see the city.

With such a short time to visit, we recommend having a plan for what you want to see and do in port before arriving so you can make the most of your stop.

Small Rooms

Although the idea is to spend little time in your room, another thing to expect on your first cruise is a very small room.

While you may be expecting a smaller room, most aren’t prepared for just how small cruise cabins are. A dorm room is probably the closest comparison.

There is a finite amount of space on a ship. Between fitting thousands of passengers and crew, along with the facilities, there is little room left for anything more than sleeping in cruise cabins.

Of course, you can purchase a bigger cabin for a price, but the average room size is between 140 and 185 square feet.

A basic room will work fine if you only plan on sleeping there, but if you prefer some solitude you should look to get a room with more space or a balcony.

Common Spaces are Crowded

If you don’t like crowds a cruise vacation may not be for you.

The main reason for the room recommendation made above is that the common areas on a cruise ship are typically very crowded.

The average cruise ship passenger capacity is around 3,000 people, with some going as high as 6,000 plus when at maximum capacity.

That’s a lot of people in a relatively small area.

The crowds can be better or worse depending on the demographics of the cruise you’re on, but no matter what cruise line or passenger population you should expect to encounter a lot of people in the common areas.

Expect Seasickness

Yet another thing to expect on your first cruise is that you might experience some seasickness.

Whether or not you’ll get seasick on a cruise is difficult to predetermine because people that are prone to motion sickness may do well while those that aren’t may find themselves getting seasick.

Furthermore, you may find that certain areas of the ship (being up higher where there’s more motion, for instance) or certain cruise conditions (rougher seas, faster cruise speed, etc.) make you seasick.

Even if you’re a person that typically isn’t bothered by motion sickness, it’s best to expect possible seasickness and be prepared by bringing an anti-nausea medication such as Dramamine with you.

It’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.

Mandatory Safety Drill Before Departure (Muster Drill)

Remember the Titanic?

Cruises have come a long way since then in terms of safety.

Not only do cruise ships have enough lifeboats for everyone on board, they also have a mandatory muster drill before every departure.

You may be taken by surprise by the muster drill if you’re on your first cruise, but a muster drill is just a safety drill so you know where to go and what to do in case of an emergency.

All passengers will be asked to gather in a designated area depending on your room location where you’ll be given instructions for where to go for your lifeboat station during an emergency. You’ll then actually practice going to that location and your station lead will perform a roll call to make sure everyone has participated.

Only when the muster drill has been successfully conducted will the ship prepare for departure.

Can’t Use Phone/Internet

One major thing to expect on your first cruise is that you won’t be able to use your cell phone to access the internet or make calls while at sea without paying a heavy price.

Although you may be able to connect to cellular service at times while at sea, at-sea providers are categorized as roaming charges by your carrier and you can rack up a hefty bill very quickly.

If you absolutely must use your phone while at sea you can connect to the ship’s cellular service (will likely be charged as roaming) or Wi-Fi for a fee (typically a daily rate).

The safest and cheapest option is to put your phone in airplane mode while at sea and to only take it out while in port.

If you’re within the United States you can use your phone as normal, but if you’re traveling internationally you’ll need to set up an international plan with your carrier. You can also use a Wi-Fi connection to send text messaged and apps such as WhatsApp to send messages and make calls internationally.

You May Be Bored

The last major thing to expect on your first cruise is that you may be bored while on board depending on what you like to do.

Cruises always have tons of activities, and different ships have different activities because they are targeted at different age groups.

However, no matter the target population most ships will have a casino, bars and lounges, gift shops, a stage for entertainment, pools, and an art gallery.

The problem with these activities is that not everyone will enjoy them. Casinos, bars, and the art gallery may not be your style, while other activities such as the pool or deck space may be very crowded. The entertainment typically consists of comedy shows or dance/music routines.

If you’re into the activities we listed a cruise will be a great vacation for you. But if you’re not you may find yourself bored when not in port.

We recommend bringing your own form of entertainment in case you’re not interested in what’s provided on board or it’s too crowded for your liking.

Make sure you have a plan for what you want to do during the cruise, otherwise you may be stuck people watching.

Moral of the Story

A cruise can be a relatively inexpensive way to see multiple cities in a short amount of time. They are truly unique travel experience likely different from anything else you’ve experienced.

Each cruise and cruise line will be slightly different, but there are still many commonalities about a cruise that you should be aware of when planning your trip.

Know that the base fare is just the beginning in terms of cost and that you’ll need to include transportation to and from the cruise, as well as the cost of extras on board such as many drinks and meals. You’ll also need to factor in the cost of excursions for each port of call as they can be expensive.

Some other things to expect on your first cruise are that the ports stops are generally short, the rooms are extremely small, the common spaces are crowded, there will be a muster drill before departure, and you cannot use your phone for internet/calls while at sea without being charged for roaming.

Furthermore, you may be bored with the activities on the ship depending on what you like to do, and you should expect and plan to potentially experience some seasickness.

Where will you go now that you know what to expect on your first cruise?

Talk about Money Saved.


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Tawnya is an elementary special education teacher by day and co-blogger at Money Saved is Money Earned by night.

She holds an Honors BS in Psychology from Oregon State University and an MS in Special Education from Portland State University. She has had a pretty successful writing career, first as a writing tutor at the Oregon State University Writing Center, and in recent years, as a freelance writer.

Tawnya and co-blogger Sebastian have a wealth of knowledge and information about personal finance, retirement, student loans, credit cards, and many other financial topics. They teach people how to save money, make money, and understand money.