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Prepare yourself with these handy cruise tips for first-timers

Holidays on the high seas are becoming more and more popular, especially in Australia,where fun-loving, laid-back Aussies who work hard and like to relax are finding that this style of getaway suits them down to the ground. Jumping on a bandwagon like this, however, can be a little nerve-wracking - how does it all work? Will a newbie cruiser stick out like a sore thumb?

We wouldn't want anyone to miss out on the amazing experience that is cruising due to a few nerves - once onboard, you'll find your worries are likely to melt away with the ocean breeze! To set at rest the minds of potential passengers, we have put together a guide to the basics of cruising. Brush up on what to expect and you can sail away stress-free!

Relax on a cruise

Choose a cruise
Being an expert cruiser begins with picking the perfect cruise. Of course, you might not get it 100% right on your first try - and that's ok, because most cruises are a wonderful holiday regardless, and they also tend to be addictive, so you'll have the opportunity to discover what's best for your preferences over the course of a few great getaways.

The variety of cruise lines, cruise ships,destinations and departure ports available to Aussie cruisers is increasing as the market grows hugely Down Under. While more choice is always good news, it can also make for some uncertainty when deciding! The biggest mainstream lines operating in the region are a very good place to start.

  • P&O Cruises is Australia-based and offers a laid-back, fun and relatively no-frills cruise experience tailored to Australian tastes. It is also inexpensive and family-friendly.

  • Princess Cruises is an American-owned line with several ships based in Australia and set up for operating Down Under. Their cruises are elegant and a little luxurious, often slightly pricier. Great for couples who want a romantic holiday.

  • Royal Caribbean operates several ships in Australia over the summer season, typically from October to April. They are big, bold and packed with facilities for entertainment - many have mini golf, rock climbing walls and more. They are great for families.

  • Carnival Cruise Lines has two ships in the region, and they have been renovated and tailored to fit Australian tastes. The line calls its vessels "Fun Ships" and the casual atmosphere and light-hearted decor makes it an apt name. This line is also great for children.

  • Celebrity Cruises send their beautiful Celebrity Solstice to regularly sail in the South Pacific. This is a premium line with a high level of service and plush accommodations, well suited to couples and those looking for an upmarket cruise experience.

cruising in the South Pacific

There are several important things to take into consideration when deciding on a cruise. One is the group you are travelling with - a couple will find plenty of cabins to suit, but families or larger groups will need to think about a cabin, suite or combination of rooms that will suit them. Another is the entertainment and range of activities available onboard - will there be something to interest you? If lying by the pool is your preferred way to pass the time on holiday, your options will be wide open!

Other details to consider include whether the restaurants take your fancy, the overall onboard atmosphere and the facilities for children if you are bringing some with you. Your cruise agent should be able to help with many of your queries, and forums or social media are another good tool for research. The Cruise Sale Finder Facebook page has a great community of keen cruisers who can answer questions!

Here are some blog posts which you might find handy when it comes to choosing a cruise line:

Before you board
Getting yourself organised and ready to board the ship is your first task. Thankfully, you'll probably have plenty of time to do so - and other than paying for your cruise (your agency will walk you through this) there isn't really much to worry about.

Here are a few things to tick off the list before you sail away:

  • Organise travel to and from the departure port. This might include flights, train tickets, airport transfers and the like. Renting a car is not a good idea as parking for the duration of your cruise could be very expensive. Give yourself a very good buffer between flight times and embarkation/disembarkation times - this is important!

  • Start thinking about what to pack! Packing for a cruise is not very complicated - just think about the weather and the likelihood of swimming (even in a hot tub). Remember to think about airline baggage limits if you are flying, but otherwise there's no pressing need to pack light as the vast majority of cruises have no baggage limits - you are restricted only by the space in your cabin, and your things will travel with you! Soft bags can be easier to store in your cabin than suitcases. You should also think about whether you need visas and foreign currency.

  • Decide on whether you want to prebook any beverage packages. Your cruise agent should be able to help with this decision and there is also more information below in the "eating and drinking" section.

packing for a cruise

Here are a few blog posts which might help with preparation:



Embarkation
Getting on and off the ship is one of the few times during a cruise when you may need to be a little organised, and keep track of time! However, if you have all you need and allow a bit of time for the process, you will be away laughing.

Different cruise lines will have different boarding procedures, so it's important to closely read the documentation you have received from your cruise agent. Generally, you will be given a generous window of time during which you should arrive to the cruise terminal. If you are early, you may have to wait a bit before you can start checking in. If you are late, there is a good chance you will not be allowed to board. Give yourself plenty of time for all travel, including airport transfers and allowing for traffic and delays. Also, some lines will require online check-in before you arrive at the terminal.

  • It is important to get to the terminal in time! Give yourself room for travel delays.

Like flying, ocean travel will require security and customs screenings for luggage. Keep your tickets and passport (or identification for a domestic cruise) handy. Expect to have your carry-on luggage scanned, to fill out a health questionnaire, and to drop off your main suitcase or bags to be checked for contraband and security. These will then be delivered to your stateroom. A top tip for passengers is to keep valuables, anything fragile and items you might need within your first few hours on the ship (i.e swimwear if you would like to get in the pool immediately) in your carry on.

  • Expect to have your carry on and main luggage screened. Your main luggage will be delivered to your stateroom and there may be a delay, so keep anything important with you.

For check-in, you will need your passport (or approved photo ID for a domestic cruise), any documentation the line has asked for (might be an eTicket) and a credit or debit card to set up your onboard account - this happens during check in and you will be issued with your cruise card, a charge card about the size of a credit card which many cruisers wear on a lanyard around their necks. Children will also require a passport, and if they are embarking on a domestic cruise and do not have one, another form of photo ID or a birth certificate will likely be required.

  • You will need all the same travel documents as any other form of travel! Read carefully over all instructions from your cruise agent or cruise line to find out exactly what is required.

embarking on a cruise

First things first
There are a few things you'll need to know about in order to relax and enjoy your time onboard. These are just the little bits and pieces which will make life easier!

We briefly touched on setting up your onboard account above. This is essential, as it is how you will pay for things on the ship. You can use your credit or debit card to set this up, and this is probably the easiest option. At the end of the cruise, the charges will be made automatically unless you dispute them. Alternatively, you can set up an account in cash. If you use up all of your credit, you can add more during the cruise - and it can be refunded at the end if you overestimate how much you will need. Your cruise card will be the medium of payment for basically anything you want to purchase onboard - just swipe it/tap it to charge items to your account.

  • Your cruise account is set up with credit/debit card or cash, and is accessed via the cruise card for all purchases onboard.

You will have a room steward/cabin attendant assigned to your stateroom for the duration of the cruise. This person you might never actually meet, but they will visit your room during the day to make beds, refresh towels and toiletries, take away used glasses or room service trays and perhaps make a towel animal or two. There may be a card from the steward in your room when you arrive, introducing themselves, or they might say hello in person. It's a great idea to make friends, as they can often grant special requests. You can call your steward attendant on the phone in your room if you need anything or have any questions.

  • Your room steward takes care of your stateroom, and is your first port of call for enquiries and requests. Be nice to them!

towel animal

Daily newsletters are another great source of information. They are delivered to your stateroom early each morning or the night before, and generally have alliterative or puntastic names like "Princess Patter", "Cruise Compass" and "Fun Times". In there you will find a schedule of activities, opening hours of venues and services like the spa, daily specials, show times, port call details and any additional information that might be needed. The day prior to disembarkation, the newsletter will contain details for the procedure. Many cruisers like to bring highlighters so they can make note of activities, shows and classes they don't want to miss.

  • The daily newsletter which appears in your stateroom is full of important and helpful information - don't throw it away!

Tipping is a commonplace part of life and cruising in much of the northern hemisphere, but things are different Down Under, and many cruise lines are cottoning on with the holidays they provide for Aussies and Kiwis. Tipping is completely optional (although allowed) on P&O, and there are similar policies for Princess and Carnival ships operating from Australia. Individual crew members can be given tips in cash for good service if a passenger wishes to do so. On other lines, a daily gratuity charge will be added to each passenger's onboard account. These can be removed or revised upon request.

  • Tipping is allowed but not done automatically on many Australia-based ships. Others add daily gratuity charges which can be taken off or changed.

     

Eating and drinking
As well as being a basic bodily need, these two things are crucial components of a cruise holiday. Leisurely meals, both casual and formal, form the backbone of many a day at sea, and drinks by the pool or in the onboard bars are a relaxing good time for most passengers. The way both of these things work is different from line to line, occasionally even ship to ship, but here are a few general facts to get you started:

Food
Any cruise you choose will have meals included in the fare. This includes breakfast, lunch, dinner and generally snacks throughout the day too. The majority of ships, especially the bigger ones,  will have special restaurants which cost extra as well, but there are always free alternatives - and they are good and plentiful!

  • You will not have to pay extra for food on the ship if you don't want to! All meals are included.

It's impossible to say which restaurants or type of restaurants will be on any given ship.They vary hugely - the enormous megaships have multiple options and types of eateries, while smaller river ships or expedition ships might stick to one communal dining room. However, for your average Australian cruise - many Aussies choose P&O Cruises, Princess Cruises, Royal Caribbean or Carnival Cruises for instance - there will be a big main dining room/restaurant, a buffet (or in the case of P&O, a "Pantry" food market) and a few casual options like a poolside grill, pizzeria, taqueria or hot dog stand. On top of these complementary options, there will often be two or three for-fee specialty restaurants which are great value compared to similiar gourmet quality on land as they are subsidised by your cruise fare.

  • You can generally expect a main dining room with table service and multiple courses, a buffet option, and at least one casual eatery serving something like burgers, pizza or hot dogs. On top of that there will likely be several specialty options which incur a small extra fee and require reservations.

eating on a cruise

If you have special snacks or food items you don't want to go without, most lines will allow you to bring them onboard. However it is best to stick to packaged items, and not fresh or homemade food. If you have special dietary requirements, it's a good idea to check with your cruise line or travel agent before you board as many specialty foods can be supplied. See our blog post about special diets on a cruise for more information on this!

  • It's generally ok to bring packaged food items onboard, but if there's something in particular you need, it's a good idea to check whether the line can supply it. Special diets can usually be catered for.

Many people considering a cruise are concerned that they will be forced to eat at certain times and with a set group of strangers. On modern cruise ships, this is almost never the case! On most cruise lines you can opt to have set times and set tables should you like the idea of this traditional set-up, but you can also choose a flexible dining plan which means you can eat whenever and are seated in a different place each time - although most lines still require that you reserve your spot in advance, before your cruise or while onboard. Of course, if you are looking for something even more unstructured, there are the casual buffet and other options.

  • On modern cruise lines, you won't be forced to eat at a certain time and with the same group of people every night, although you can do so if you choose to!

dining on a cruise

Beverages
As a general rule, any drinks beyond water, maybe juice and basic tea or coffee at the buffet are not included in the cruise fare. The exceptions to this are luxury all-inclusive lines such as Seabourn and Paul Gauguin Cruises. You will certainly not be in danger of being dehydrated should you choose not to spend any money on drinks during a cruise holiday, but many choose to buy extras as they do tend to add a little something to the experience - whether that's alcoholic or non-alcoholic.

  • Water and basic buffet options like juice, tea and coffee will be available free of charge throughout the cruise.

Many cruise lines now offer package deals for those who think they will be ordering quite a few drinks throughout their cruise. They are usually priced on a per-day basis but must be purchased for the entire cruise, and are for one passenger only. Check with your travel agent the prices for your cruise, as these change frequently and each line also often offers a few different "levels" of beverage package - for example, a non-alcoholic package or soda package, a wine and beer package or a full package. They can be booked before you embark or once you get onboard, but in some cases the onboard price is higher.

  • You can buy beverage packages. If you are expecting to drink quite a few each day, they may be cost-effective.

Drinks are available for purchase in various places throughout each ship. Most have a variety of bars, often some kind of cafe with specialty coffees and also will offer bottles or glasses of wine and other drinks with dinner. Your cruise card is used to purchase drinks or confirm your beverage package entitlements.

  • Drinks are purchased with cruise cards at bars, cafes and over dinner.

Beverages on a cruise

Port calls
While the ship provides plenty of fun, getting off and visiting a new place is a highlight of any cruise - and it's always exciting to look out the window in the morning and see what's in store! There are a few things to keep in mind when it comes to getting off and on the ship to explore.

The ship sailing away and leaving you stranded is no joke - it can actually happen, although passengers rarely make that mistake. The time when you need to be back at the ship should be clearly posted near the gangways and in the daily newsletter. Make sure your watch is synched to the correct time used on the ship, and allow plenty of buffer time to get back if you are using public transport or taxis. Ship-organised tours are a safe bet as the ship will wait for them. For more info, read our article about missing the boat.

  • Yes, the ship will leave you behind if you are late back to the dock! Be extra careful to get back on time.

cruise ships excursions

Some ports have docks, wharves or piers where the ship can tie up to allow passengers to get on and off. This is the most convenient possibility. If there are no such facilities, passengers are ferried ashore to a smaller pier in tender boats. This can require a bit of organisation and waiting to get everyone off the ship. Patience is a virtue at tender ports - and if you aren't in a rush, it's a good idea to have a leisurely breakfast and wait for the rush to die down. Priority is given to those who need to catch a tour, and some ships will have a ticket system to prevent queues.

  • If your ship cannot dock at a wharf, tenders will be used to get ashore. These are slightly less convenient than getting off the ship directly, so have some patience.

Many passengers book shore tours through the line. This is a convenient option and also a safe one, as the ship will wait for those on sanctioned tours. However, others choose to book excursions through other experienced tour companies, or simply explore on foot or using public transport. Some choose to remain on the ship and enjoy the space! All are valid options - just make sure you are back at the ship in time, and be aware of any customs restrictions or cruise line contraband rules if you bring any purchases onboard.

  • Onshore, you can take tours booked through the line or independent providers, or explore at your own pace. You can even stay on the ship if you prefer.

     

Entertainment and activities
As well as accommodation and meals, the cruise ship provides plenty to keep you busy and entertained. The bigger the ship, the more diverse the options - but many passengers also enjoy the more low-key entertainment available on smaller vessels.

Daytime
The facilities available for passengers to use provide plenty of opportunity to keep busy. Although they vary widely on different ships, pools (or multiple pools), hot tubs, gyms, spas, libraries and some kind of sports courts or deck game setups are quite standard. Others take it further and feature rock climbing walls, mini golf, even surf simulators. The Ovation of the Seas, which is heading to Australia for summer seasons, brings cruise facilities to the next level with a skydiving simulator, bumper cars and more. Note: spa treatments, specialised fitness classes and some highly sought-after facilities can incur an extra charge and/or reservations.

  • Onboard facilities are available for fun all day long - and sometimes into the evening. Pools, gyms, spas and more elaborate facilities for fun are common - most free, a few requiring a fee and/or bookings. You won't need to be bored!

cruise activities

The crew will also organise activities for passengers throughout the day - most of these should be listed in the daily newsletter, so check it out each morning to see if there's something you'd really like to participate in. Activities often include bingo, deck games, sports tournaments, trivia and silly competitions. These are a great way to meet other cruisers, and although shyness might be a barrier to participation, most find that once they go along they really enjoy it.

  • The crew organises a range of activities for passengers, from bingo and quizzes to sports tournaments. These are not only great fun but a fantastic way to interact with other cruisers.

Enrichment is a bit of a catch-all term used by cruise lines, referring to classes, lectures, demonstrations, seminars, tastings and all other kinds of educational activities. Some lines have more than others, and those wanting a very "enriching" experience should try Holland America, which has a full Culinary Arts Centre on each ship, or Princess Cruises which prides itself on an interesting range of educational and exciting programs. Knowledgeable guest speakers or experts in their field are often recruited for lectures, demonstrations and seminars, and they can provide a fascinating opportunity to expand your mind while on holiday.

  • Enrichment opportunities onboard include lectures, seminars, workshops, classes and more. Some lines have fantastic enrichment programs!

Evening
Socialising and enjoying a beverage or two is one of the favoured evening pastimes at sea! Bars and lounges can generally be found throughout the ship, often grouped around the atrium and pool deck. They generally offer a great range of different environments, from quiet and elegant to rowdy and fun. Many ships also have a nightclub type venue for dancing, and will put on live musical acts in some of the bars on various evenings. There is always somewhere to go for a drink.

  • Bars, lounges and even nightclubs provide plenty of onboard venues for merriment.

Shows and productions are generally the centerpiece of evening entertainment onboard! Each vessel has some kind of show lounge or theatre where a range of different shows are put on each evening. Often there are two seatings, so everyone can arrange their eating and entertainment schedule how they want it. Shows might include broadway-style numbers, musical acts, comedy, circus acts and more.

  • Shows and productions are the main feature in the evenings! Two showings mean it's easy to work one into your plans.

cruise show

Children and families
Cruising is a great option for those bringing kids, and the onboard entertainment provided for them is a big part of the reason why. The children's programs vary from line to line, but generally provide care and fun for little ones aged 2-17 years, grouping them in three or four age ranges for age-appropriate activities and learning. They can be dropped off in the morning and collected for meals and when the program finishes for the day, freeing up parents and caregivers to enjoy themselves while the kids have the time of their lives under the supervision of trained counsellors. Some lines even offer evening programs. There is no extra charge for the programs, although some lines offer babysitting services which do cost.

  • The youth programs on various lines keep little ones entertained and supervised, and allow parents and carers to have a bit of a break. They are included in the cruise fare!

camp ocean

Disembarkation
The procedure for departing the ship can be confusing for first-timers, but there will be plenty of crew on hand to show you the ropes - and you can often attend a briefing on the day before disembarkation to make sure you know what's going on.

  • It's a good idea to attend a disembarkation briefing if you are unsure of procedure.

Before you leave the ship, you will have to settle your onboard account. Generally, you will have a bill delivered to your cabin and if there are no issues with any of the charges, it will automatically be charged to the card you used to set it up. If you are paying with cash or have an issue, you will need to go to the Purser's desk. It's a good idea to get this done as soon as possible and not leave it until the last minute!

  • Make sure your onboard account is settled and all charges are correct before disembarking.

If you have an early flight, let them know at the front desk at least a day in advance so they can give you one of the first disembarkation times. Otherwise, you will be assigned a disembarkation time when you are given luggage tags. If you want the crew to handle your bags rather than lugging them off the ship yourselves, have them ready and tagged the night prior to disembarkation and they will be taken. In the morning, if you do not have an early slot, relax and enjoy a few more leisurely hours onboard! Once your time slot or group is called, you will be led off the ship and can clear your luggage through customs. Don't forget to declare any items purchased during port visits!

  • You will be given a time when you can get off the ship, and tags for your luggage so it can be taken if you don't want to carry it off - early disembarkation should be pre-arranged. Once you are off the ship, expect to submit to a customs check.

sunset on a cruise

There is plenty more to a cruise holiday, and yet at the same time it's very simple: get there, get on, sail away into the sunset and enjoy a relaxing getaway. For more information, advice and news from the cruise world, you can check out our cruise blog. Once you're ready to take the plunge, find a cruise and let the fun begin. Cruise Sale Finder has a range of cruises from Australia and more, so you can track down one which takes your fancy.

Written By: Sarah Glover, Content Editor of Cruise Sale Finder

I have enjoyed visiting as much of the world as possible over the years. Europe and the Mediterranean are personal favourites, but there is so much to see very close to our little Australasian corner of the globe- one of my top travel experiences was snorkeling with tropical fish and turtles in New Caledonia! Cruising is a fantastic way to see it all, and we hope to make booking a cruise easier for both first-timers and old salts. From ship tips to destination news and views, we will keep you up-to-date. Happy cruising!

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