Cruising 101: Sail Through the Basics
From tropical Caribbean getaways and stunning Alaska adventures to quaint European river sailings, there are so many types of cruises to experience. Get started with the answers to our most commonly asked cruise questions to prep for your first (or next) cruise.
Have cruise companies upgraded their ships for sanitation and do I need to provide COVID-19 vaccination credentials and/or negative test results?
The biggest question we’ve received recently is all about cruising in a post-pandemic world. Thankfully cruise operators took the quiet time of quarantine to enhance their many of their ships with new sanitation systems, updated cleaning protocols, and other infection-control safety measures. Recent statistics have shown these precautions have also reduced the number of other various illnesses (including the norovirus) on cruise ships making them far lower than in pre-pandemic years. (Washington Post, August 22, 2022)
As for the rules you need to follow when it comes to providing vaccination statuses and negative test results, each cruise line has different rules. One may require guests to be fully vaccinated, one may only require a negative COVID-19 tests for non-vaccinated guests, and another may not require anything it all, so talk to your travel consultant ahead of time depending on your specific needs and preferences.
How much luggage can I bring?
In theory – quite a bit. Pragmatically? Pack light. Though cruise ships aren’t as packed as planes, staterooms are also commonly not as spacious hotel suites. This means space can be tight, so every single extra bag you bring will take up a certain amount of room. If you have sturdy bags that can double as seating, pack like you would a big journey. But most luggage doesn’t come with this capability and simply gets in your way. We suggest packing judiciously to get the most of your wardrobe with the fewest items. Though this is much easier for a swimsuit-heavy Caribbean cruise than a winter wonderland Alaskan one!
What’s the process for boarding a cruise ship?
Boarding, nautically known as embarkation, is similar to entering a plane in that there are certain regulations, a specific time to arrive and check-in, and, of course, security. It’s obviously worth it for the fun you’ll have. Most cruise lines have transportation available from airports and usually have their own paid parking lot where you can leave your car. A porter will most likely come by to take your bags off your hands and you’ll sort of just… well… wait in line.
To secure your seat (stateroom) and admittance aboard the ship, complete online check-in probably no later than three days before the cruise. If you don’t, you’ll have to complete the process at the pier (not impossible, but not encouraged) hours before boarding time. Cut it too close and you might be watching the ship sail off into the sunset instead of being on it!
Once on board, the fun begins. Literally. There is that little muster drill you’ll have to take part of, but it goes fast and you could get right back to having a great time! (Plus, the safety tips and procedures are good to know anyway—so pay attention!)
What is and isn’t included on a cruise?
Generally included are most meals and snacks, room service, some activities, nightly entertainment, ocean transport (obviously), and non-alcoholic beverages. Not included are things like optional shore excursions, gift shop purchases, beauty salon services, spa treatments, and all those photos they’ll take of you. As for those alcoholic beverages, some cruises may be purchased with free drinks offers. Or you can take care of the cost before you sail by purchasing the cruise line’s designated drink package. You can even prepay your tips, so you won’t have to at the end of the long seaward exploration. The cruise line will give you a complete bill at the end of the journey. They’ll have kept up with purchases during the trip (except for any casino-made or other cash purchases) and you’ll be able to settle up (and/or dispute) all transactions.
Do I have to eat at certain times in the day?
Ha! So naive, you first-time cruiser you! When it comes to food, there’s lots of it, at almost every turn, no matter the time. Will there always be an endless course meal with wait service at your beck and call? No. Will there be snacks and other tasty treats to grab if you just get a little hungry? Yes.
Here’s a typical set-up:
There are usually four ways to eat meals—traditional dining, open dining, casual dining, and specialty dining.
Traditional is referring to that endless coursed meal where you all will dress up nice and go to your assigned table at the assigned time. And here’s where you’ll be all jocular and fun with strangers over a yummy meal and get to know your waiter, who will have your ordering habits memorized probably after the first night. One of the really cool things about cruising is having the same wait team every night for dinner. They make your experience very personalized. And though this may seem like a specifically three or four course dinner with fancy accoutrement every which way, just order up that favorite dish again. They’ll bring it right to you.
Open dining is referring to all those pizzerias, hot dog stands, sandwich shops, and soft serve services that always open for you to grab a quick bite. The benefit, of course, is eating when you’re hungry.
Casual dining is where the mega cruise ships get their mythical stamp of being one giant food fest—the buffet. The giant, legendary buffet. And yes, it’s tremendous and awesome. We’re not going to knock it at all. Open for three meals a day, sit down and indulge.
Specialty dining is self-explanatory enough—you’ll pay an extra charge for specific cuisine, though making advanced reservations. These can include restaurants ranging from Italian, French, Asian, and Mexican, to premium steakhouses, fresh-caught seafood establishments, and curated chef’s journey experiences.
Is there onboard Wi-Fi? What about using my phone?
Long gone are the cruising days when you’d have to find the ole “Internet Café” to then log on to check your email. For a cost—sometimes as low as $5 a day— you can have all-out Wi-Fi access everywhere from the pool to your room. Also, some cruise lines offer free Wi-Fi with specific offers and packages, so keep an eye out for those deals!
Also, let’s talk about using your cellular service Remember that even though it feels like you’re just gliding around going nowhere, you’ll be in international waters and most also most likely dock outside of the country. Don’t get lost at sea with high roaming charges on phone calls! Contact your cell carrier beforehand to purchase a limited-time international package if you think you’ll need to use cellular data. If you don’t want the charges, change the settings on your phone before sailing to prevent sneaky charges.
Will I get seasick? What happens if I do?
Ahh, seasickness. Yes, we all know it’s a thing. We’re not going to stand on our high horse and act like it doesn’t exist. Will you get sick? That depends on you, of course. But even if you get sick on smaller boats, there’s a good chance you won’t on a mega ship. The movement, in calm seas, is barely noticeable. In fact, we daresay, calming. Ships today are equipped with state-of-the-art motion stabilizers that markedly cut down on that turbulent feeling (it’s definitely nowhere near what it’s like on a plane), and other advanced technology to ensure you’re avoiding rough seas. If you think you will – or do – get sick, just be prepared with medication, which is also obviously available for a charge on board. And if it gets really bad, all cruise ships have medical facilities and doctors on staff to help.
What happens when we dock at a port?
Fun. What else?
Enjoy exciting shore excursions or just explore the destination on your own. You could also simply remain on board if you’d like and enjoy the ship’s experiences without any crowds. At the end of the day, you’re free to do whatever, including coming and going as you please. Just keep in mind you’ll probably have to present credentials and definitely your boarding card or pass to get back on. Another important piece of advice is to get back in time (and with time to spare) before the ship is scheduled to depart. They tend to leave promptly and exactly when they said they would—with or without you.
What happens at the end of the cruise?
You go home. Well, first you’re going to leave your packed luggage (minus carry-ons) outside of your stateroom door the night before it’s time to leave. It might seem weird putting all your stuff outside of your room and then sleeping inside the room, but you’ll want to trust-fall on this one. This is so the cruise line can get your bags out for unloading when the ship docks, making it easier for you to get off. It’s like checking your bag onto a plane. Each carrier may have a slightly different process, but it will most likely involve a list of clearcut disembarking instructions with color-coded or numbered tags to attach to your luggage. The ship’s personnel will take care of it from there. Once your bag is out there and you’re asleep there’s no getting it back until you’re off the ship, so hold onto anything you will need the next morning.
Once you’re off the ship, you’ll go through US Immigration and Customs to declare all that fun you had before heading home.
Remember: this information doesn’t apply to every cruise line. Make sure you check with your travel consultant about the rules and regulations for your particular trip.
Please note: Travel requirements and health standards are continually changing. Visit our Traveler Resources Hub for up-to-date information and learn more about the entry rules of your specific destination and to plan your next vacation.