First Time Cruise Tips (and Warnings)

First Time Cruise Tips (and Warnings)

First Time Cruise Tips – What You Need to Know

Recently, I took my first cruise ever.  It was aboard the Carnival Sunshine, a five day cruise from Norfolk, Virginia to the Bahamas and back. I went for work, and I know you’re thinking wow, what a great day job she must have! Trust me, it was definitely not a vacation.  However, I was happy to have experienced my first cruise on someone else’s dime. It served as a test run to help me decide whether I would want to go on a cruise vacation in the future.

Here’s what I learned about cruises in general, and Carnival cruises in particular.  And here’s what you need to know before you book one.

Cruises are for relaxation, not sight-seeing.

first time cruise tips
The view when you’re at sea. It’s pretty, but it doesn’t change much.

This may sound off, but when I travel, I don’t want to relax.  I want to go places and see stuff and learn things and soak up the local color.  The only reason I book a hotel or Airbnb at all is so I have a semi-comfortable bed and a shower at my disposal.  Sitting on the beach reading a book? Pshaw.  I can do that at home!

So if you’re like me, a cruise probably isn’t a good fit for you.  Yes, they have activities on the ship.  Yes, there are arcades and nightclubs and restaurants, and even a casino.  But even if you do all of those, you’re not experiencing anything that you can’t experience at home, and you aren’t seeing anything that you can’t see anywhere else.

Cruises are for extroverts.

You’re stuck on a boat in the middle of the ocean with two or three thousand strangers.  Roughly half of them are going to try to strike up a conversation with you.  If you’re not a morning person, not good at making small talk, or simply don’t like talking with strangers, you will be forced out of your comfort zone by friendly passengers and/or crew. Multiple times each day.

I liked the fact that everyone was so friendly, I really did. But as an introvert, I didn’t like the fact that I could not experience some quiet time to myself anywhere but in my cabin.  And speaking of the cabin…

Interior cabins are literally The Worst.

If you’re going to take a cruise and keep your costs low, you might select an interior cabin, which is the cheapest option.  And with good reason.  The interior cabins on Carnival ships are a whopping 185 square feet, which sadly is one of the largest interior rooms of any cruise line.  If more than two people are in that room, it is crazy cramped. We had four.  The only place for me to sit was on my bed, which was a bunk bed that dropped down out of the ceiling. So any time I wanted to sit down, I had to climb the ladder and get on my bed. Eventually it got to the point where I just got ready for bed and refused to get down again until I had to either use the bathroom or get dressed in the morning.

first time cruise tips small cabin
Stock photo for illustration purposes; this is not the cabin in which I actually stayed. Can you imagine three or four people in a space this small?

The other downside of an interior cabin is that there’s no window, so you have no idea whether it’s day or night. One afternoon I took a nap and I woke up completely disoriented, unsure whether I had slept an hour or clear through until the next morning. If you are prone to Seasonal Affective Disorder, or you get depressed when daylight savings time ends, you might find yourself feeling rather glum when you’re in your room.

“All-inclusive” is a very relative term.

Everyone always talks about how cruises are great because they are “all-inclusive.”  To me, “all-inclusive” means that the only thing I will have to pay for is alcoholic beverages and souvenirs. Unfortunately, that was not the case.

If, like me, you can’t imagine going a week without drinking a single soda, you need to know that soda is not included in the “all-inclusive” price.  I paid almost $8 per day in order to get as much soda as I wanted.  Was it worth it? Yes and no. I think a 12 ounce soda was going for $2 and some change if you didn’t have the soda package. However, the only place you could get a soda was at a bar, so it was a bit inconvenient at times.

Deceptive tipping practices are my other big gripe.  I always try to tip generously unless the service is really horrible, so whenever I ordered an alcoholic drink I always added a $1.50 – $2.00 tip.  I had done this for nearly three full days before I happened to notice that they had already added a 15% tip to the bill before I even added a tip.

first time cruise tips hidden fees and charges

Additionally, the day before we returned, each person’s account received a $65 charge for gratuities to other crew members – the housekeeping team, stewards, busboys, etc. I didn’t see that coming, either. The charge amounted to roughly 10% of the price we paid to go on this “all-inclusive” cruise. I don’t know if it’s a flat rate, or if they base the charge on the price of your fare. Don’t really care. A gratuity, by definition, is supposed to be a voluntary gift.

Like soda, if you want any sort of internet access, you’ll be paying a fee for that every day also. I chose the $12 per day plan, in exchange for which I could have access to everything except streaming services.  Unfortunately, the service was slow and spotty at best. I could not access my blog at all, I was only able to get my email once or twice, and uploading pictures to Facebook only worked the first day.  Save your money – don’t get the internet package.  The Interwebs will still be waiting for you when you get back on land.

But what about the nifty Carnival Hub app? It was useful for looking at a map of the ship to determine how to get to certain places, and to keep up on what activities were taking place each day.  But for communication? Well, I paid the $5 fee to enable the chat feature and it was useful when it worked.  But much like the internet access it was very unreliable.  It did not always deliver messages immediately, often dropped messages from threads, and occasionally crashed completely.  I have an iPhone 6 and if memory serves, someone told me that the Hub app works poorly on iOS phones.  I can certainly understand that, given that so few people use iPhones these days. Hmph.

On-board restaurants can also be deceptively expensive.  I had dinner one night at the on-board Italian restaurant, Cucina del Capitano, and even though it was an “all inclusive” cruise, and even though the menu had no prices listed, I received a bill for $15 at the end of the meal.  No idea why.  (I will say, however, that the spaghetti carbonara I had there was AMAZING and worth every cent.)

Then there are the fees and taxes! When booking your cruise, the advertised “average price per person” does not include “taxes, fees, and port expenses.”  And while that might not sound like it could be a substantial amount, it actually is a pretty big chunk of change.

Right now on the Carnival web site, you can book a cruise at the cheap rate of $179*. The asterisk, if you lean in close to your computer monitor and look at the fine print, means that there will be an additional $96.81 per person. In this case, the taxes, fees, and port expenses are an additional 54% of the fare. If you bought something priced $100 and the salesclerk told you that you owed $154 instead, wouldn’t you be upset? I would!

first time cruise tips fees

I think a safe rule of thumb when considering the cost is to expect to pay double the advertised fare.  Worst case scenario, you will budget appropriately.  Best case scenario, you will spend less than you anticipated and have money left over.

How do you define fun?

Carnival styles itself as “The Fun Ship.” Turns out fun is a relative term too.

If you’re really into loud music, lots of alcohol, and/or you’re interested in hooking up with someone for a little fling, Carnival is probably a good fit for you. Unfortunately, I don’t fall into any of those categories.

One of the ship activities was a “Hairiest Chest Contest” on the main deck. I really didn’t pay much attention until the announcer told the two finalists to look around the deck for a woman that reminded them of their grandmother and bring her up to the contest area. Kinda weird, given that most passengers were in their 30s, and one of the finalists was at least 50. Okay, whatever.  I went back to what I was doing and kind of tuned out the whole thing.  Until I heard the announcer instruct the finalists to give their “grandmother” a lap dance.  And they did.

first time cruise tips carnival fun

I hate to sound like a prude, but it was just so raunchy.  It was at 1:00 in the afternoon, kids were in the pool right behind them.  Oh, and just in case anyone missed it, they also streamed it live on the huge video screen. Yuck.

If you travel with children under age 21, I would strongly advise you to not go on a Carnival cruise.

Truthfully, I think there could possibly be a time in my future when I would enjoy a cruise.  For instance, when I don’t have children living at home, or when I’m not able to GO and DO as much as I once was. But that time has not yet arrived.  When it does, I will not choose to go on a Carnival Cruise.

If the time is right for you to take a cruise, then do your research, talk to people who have cruised, and keep these tips in mind.  An informed traveler is a happy traveler. 🙂

first time cruise tips carnival

7 Replies to “First Time Cruise Tips (and Warnings)”

  1. Thank you for writing such an honest review about cruising! My hairdresser recently went on a cruise with P&O and loved it but she said the alcohol was really watered down and just people all the time. Judging by your description of cruising I don’t think it’s for me! Enjoyed reading your experience.

  2. I have not taken a cruise but i have thought about taking one in the past. Thank you for the amazing information so I can make sure and ask questions to learn the true cost. The cruise I wanted to take was an Alaska cruise but I suspect the fees would be similar.

  3. I think most of the times people misunderstand cruises: it’s awesome that you pointed out one should see them as a way to relax and have fun, sometimes they tend to forget it! As for the interior cabins, Norwegian Cruise Line wasn’t that bad, theirs have more space!

  4. I have never been on a cruise so these tips are very informative. Yes, one needs to be careful about all the extra charges that can be sneaked it. Something similar happened to us in Hong Kong.

  5. I’m sorry you didn’t really have a good experience on your first cruise. We tried it for the first time two years ago on the Mediterranean and loved it. It helped that we were upgraded to a balcony cabin and that we saw Rome, Palermo, Barcelona, and Valletta on day trips instead of staying on the ship. But I get what you say about “all-inclusive” never really being “all-inclusive”.

  6. This is really helpful. I always wanted to do a cruise trip. But like you, I like my vacations to be jam packed and busy. If there is not much sight seeing or going out I might not like it much either.

  7. I think a major part of your bad experience comes from not knowing about certain facts before. I’ve never been on a cruise before but I’ve booked a Royal Caribbean Cruise for New Year’s Eve and usually the websites clearly state the gratuity, sodas, alcohol, and activities that are charged extra. I don’t know about Carnival’s website, but RC is pretty clear on all these aspects. But yes, I agree that cruising is meant for relaxing. I hope your second time will be a better experience.

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