In early April, Eric and I disembarked from the first cruise ship either of us had ever been on. I wasn’t sure we would like cruising, but we LOVED it. The trip was SO much fun. And the best part of all, for me, was seeing how relaxed and happy Eric was. He does so much for other people that he totally deserved it!
Here’s a list of questions that I hope is helpful to many. This covers things I asked before I cruised and things other people have asked me.
These are specific to my one cruise experience, a 7-day Western Caribbean cruise on the Norwegian Spirit (NCL) but many answers apply to other mainstream large cruise lines too. Ask your travel agent or cruise consultant for help!
CROWDS and BOARDING PROCESS
Was the ship crowded?
Not really, no. The Spirit has a passenger capacity of 2,018 people (based on double occupancy) according to NCL.com. There are so many places to go on board that we never felt “boxed in.” Although the ship is the smallest in the NCL fleet, remember that other ships are also built to accommodate their own passenger capacities. Make up your mind to have a good time and you probably will!
Were you able to get a chaise lounge by the pool?
I saw this question EVERYWHERE. People are really worried they will have to fight other people for a spot by the main pool. While I can’t speak for other ships, we always found lounge chairs! Getting a lounge right next to the pool wasn’t always possible, but neither was it a lost cause. Regardless, a spot could always be found somewhere within the pool vicinity. Obviously, the sunny at-sea days are the most crowded times around the pool. To get a prime spot, just get there early. And if you are really worried about it, DO NOT cruise during spring break season (typically March-April). Etiquette Tip: Please don’t be a chair hog and just leave your stuff on lounges for hours on end while you dine and go elsewhere.
Were the buffet lines crowded?
Nope. Even when there were tons of people, it was so easy to get what we wanted and go sit down. We even had the choice to sit indoors or outdoors at the buffet. The max I ever waited to get a particular food item was probably 30 seconds. Seating at sit-down restaurants was also very quick, so long as we got there early, but then again, we were a group of two as opposed to a larger group requiring more seating.
Were there quiet places on board?
Yes. There was a designated quiet area, which wasn’t marked clearly, so not sure exactly where that was. Areas toward the ship forward tended to be the quietest. The captain’s bridge was usually not crowded, but no place to sit. There was a lounge on the next floor up with chairs to sit in and read, with a great view of the ocean (and the same view the captain has). As long as there wasn’t something going on in the attached nightclub, it was relatively peaceful. The library, card/game rooms and the cigar room (if you smoke cigars) are also fairly quiet. Cabins are generally quiet, but ask your cruise consultant or travel agent to help you get a middle inside cabin that’s under other cabins (as opposed to dining halls or nightclubs) or an outside cabin in a quieter spot. And taking a walk around the ship’s outdoor decks at night not only gives you a beautiful view, but allows you to find the quietest places to watch the ocean!
Was embarking on the first day really hard to do?
Not at all. It’s very similar to airport security, but it feels light years faster. In the case of the NCL loading area at the Port of New Orleans, we found a porter to take our checked bags almost immediately. (Tip your porter, please!) The check-in and security went smooth and fast. Inside the waiting area, plenty of seats were available as were free juice and cookies. People loaded by groups and it took no time at all for everyone to make it on board, where a band played in the atrium and the staff clapped and sang to welcome us. You may want to do your research on what’s available ahead of time as I have heard this can vary greatly by embarkation port.
How long did you have to wait to eat once you got on board?
Tons of free food was available on the main deck buffet, Raffles, but we headed into one of the two main dining halls instead for our lunch. It was almost empty in there and we had a window seat, where we ate and looked out at the Mississippi. So in short, we probably waited five minutes.
How long did you have to wait for your room to be ready?
Staff members begin cleaning and preparing rooms right around the time the ship docks at your embarkation port and previous cruise passengers start getting off. So, give them time to get things ready. It can take a few hours. In our case, I think we boarded around noon and they announced that our rooms were ready at 2 PM. Checked luggage is not available until the evening hours. Ours was sitting outside our cabin door by 6 PM, but it can take till midnight, so be patient and bring a carry-on bag with swimsuit, change of clothes, medicines, reading material, your PASSPORT and BOARDING DOCUMENTATION and anything else you think you might need in the meantime.
Was disembarking easy?
Yes. You can choose to have porters take your checked bags off the ship for you at a certain time, or you can do an “easy walk-off” and just walk right off with your own bags at the given time (which is what we did). Easy!
What was included in your cruise fare?
Our cruise fare included our on-board lodging, basic entertainment such as comedy, musical, and acrobatic shows and performances, gym equipment, access to the pool, library, lounges, etc., multiple on-board dining options, multiple free activities and lectures, 24-7 room service, and much more. This is typical for all cruises, although what’s available on each cruise ship does vary, of course. See my Food and Entertainment sections for more information on what was included.
What are some of the things that weren’t included?
Alcohol, soda, and specialty coffee drinks were not included, as is typical. There were many professional photo ops at dinner, around the ship, with the captain, and with goofy mascots off the ship which also cost extra. (We could view the photos without buying first, but we couldn’t take pictures of the photos … nice try.) Gift shop items cost extra, of course, as did specialty restaurants, special dining nights, spa services, arcade games (very small cost), and certain activities. There was PLENTY to do on-board at no expense, however. Off-shore excursions, whether sponsored by NCL or independent operators, always mean paying extra and don’t include tips (which are expected).
How did you pay for things onboard?
As with most cruise lines, with NCL you set up an onboard account ahead of time. You do this by providing a debit or credit card when you check in. As the cruise progresses, anything extra is charged to your cabin number account. At the end of your cruise, all charges are put on the card that you provided at once; you’ll receive a statement in your cabin the last night of the cruise with your charge summary. You may have the option to split disburse the charges between cards if that’s what you prefer but make sure you arrange this before your cruise is over. And, PLEASE BE AWARE that the cruise line will automatically put an incremental hold on your card at the time they swipe it and they can add additional holds as the cruise progresses. These holds can take some time to come off following the end of your cruise and will remain in addition to any additional charges you incur. You should expect a minimum of a $100 hold, but it can be much larger, so don’t use a debit card – use a credit card with a decent limit. You may want to try and find out how much of a hold you can expect ahead of time although a concrete answer is not likely. I have read where some cruise lines can charge holds up to thousands of dollars if they think that’s how much you may charge during the cruise. Holds can take as long as two weeks to come off your card following the cruise. I highly recommend keeping a small notebook and tracking what you charge in that each day if you don’t have a sky-high credit limit or fear getting hit with an unusually large amount. This way there are no surprises and it is easier to resolve disputes if you find something was charged to your cabin that you don’t recall buying.
How do you tip people?
Tips will most likely not be included in your cruise fare. They are usually part of a separate gratuities fee. NCL charges $12 per person per day. You can prepay these fees or you can have them added to your cabin account and pay them at the end of the cruise. (Make sure you specify that you want to prepay when you book the cruise, if that’s what you prefer, as the agent may not ask.) NCL uses these fees toward bonus and incentive programs to reward employees. Use your comment cards to tell NCL about employees you saw who did a particularly great job! Be aware that gratuities are NOT charged for certain employees like porters and spa employees, and that extra gratuities ARE automatically added for alcoholic beverages (typically 18 percent).
What kind of food is served on board?
All kinds! Everything from hot and cold American breakfast foods, sandwiches, desserts, breads, soups, salads, ice cream, steak and seafood, appetizers, multiple international dishes, and on and on. You will NOT go hungry.
What times can you eat?
That all depends on what cruise line you’re with. On NCL, the “Freestyle Dining” feature is standard and that means you can eat whenever you want. Certain eateries are open at certain hours, but room service and the fast food grill are available 24-7. Food can always be found somewhere. On other cruise lines, you will have assigned dining hours which generally means you can eat at the main dining halls within those specific time frames at your assigned tables, though you’re not obligated to. (You can go somewhere else to eat if you like, and my research showed that not all eateries on all cruise ships enforce times … just check it all out before you book.)
Does any of the food cost extra?
Yes. You’ll typically find many eateries whose cost is included in your fare and then at least a few that charge a flat cover charge if you want to eat there. The fee can range from 10 to 25 dollars on some ships and is charged per person each time you eat there. On NCL, the for-a-fee eateries are known as “specialty” dining and can require reservations; they typically include French, Italian, Japanese, Asian fusion, and Spanish tapas restaurants.
Is the food actually good?
Yes. The food we ate was not top-of-the-line gourmet, but it was delicious. You have tons of options so if you don’t like something, it’s easy to get something else or send it back.
What kind of beverages do you get included in your cruise price?
On board NCL, your cruise fare includes iced tea, ice water, and black coffee (to which you can add milk, sugar, creamer etc.). In the mornings, you will also find fruit juices (orange, apple, cranberry cocktail) and milk.
Which beverages cost extra?
If you’re a big soda drinker, you’ll need to purchase a soda package ahead of time in order to have it on board – this is true of most mainstream cruise lines. Specialty coffee drinks like cappuccino and cafe latte also cost extra. And, beer, wine, and liquor always mean a fee and gratuity is charged to your room on most cruise lines. We found that alcoholic drinks were not cheap on board. A frozen fruity drink and a Red Stripe purchased as we left New Orleans cost $18, and two Heinekens bought at a game show cost well over $11. So in other words, it was just like drinking in D.C.! We found we were fine without the alcohol as neither of us are huge drinkers and we mostly just enjoyed a beer or two while in port, although we would’ve liked to have a beer with the sunset each night.
Are you allowed to bring food or beverages on board?
You can’t bring liquor on board. If you buy liquor on port or on board, it will be held for you until the end of the cruise when you can pick it up at a designated area. You also can’t bring food on board from foreign ports. If you do, it will be thrown out. My research seemed to indicate that all of this is in line with maritime laws, and of course laws based on your home port will be enforced with regards to what you can bring through customs. The rules vary for what types of snacks and drinks you can bring with you when you first board the ship from the home port.
Don’t people always gain a lot of weight on cruises?
I’m just going to be blunt. If you gain weight, that’s your own fault. I LOST two pounds because we were so active! It is not hard to find healthful fresh food options and to stay active on board. In fact, when you’re in port much of the food you’ll find will be fresh and better-for-you anyway! So if you are really concerned about weight gain, keep that in mind. Otherwise, just try to relax and enjoy yourself. If you really prefer to sit in a beach chair and listen to the ocean all day, there’s nothing wrong with that either. You’re on vacation!
What can I do to keep up with my fitness?
Most, if not all, ships have a decent-sized gym with all kinds of fitness equipment. Some are even equipped to the max with lap pools and rock-climbing walls. Taking a walk around even a “small” ship will give you a good workout. Eric took a lap or two around the jogging track on the top deck. Splash around in the pool and take time to explore the whole ship. Your cabin probably won’t be so small that you can’t do some push-ups and sit-ups on the floor. And, of course there are many active pursuits to be found on shore!
Aren’t cruise ships unsanitary?
We didn’t think ours was. It was very obvious that NCL does not want its passengers to become ill with norovirus, flu or any other type of disease. You can understand why as outbreaks of illness mean plenty of bad press for cruising in general. On board the Spirit, we received educational literature on preventing illness. Disinfectant hand gel stations were placed prominently throughout the ship, particularly in dining areas. A staff member would joyfully say “Washy washy!” and spray our hands with this gel as a courtesy every time we came back on board or entered a dining hall during peak dining hours. Tables were cleared and wiped down quickly after diners left.
Is the cruise staff prepared to help in case of an emergency at sea?
Yes. There is an on board doctor and small medical facility. I never had to use it, thankfully, so I can’t vouch for how well it operates. As far as at-sea safety goes, there is a helipad in case the Coast Guard must assist. When you first board, you will be required to attend muster – that is, a safety drill in which all passengers head to their respective stations (as shown on your cabin keycard), which is where assigned lifeboats are. There you will watch a demonstration on how to put on your life jacket (which you’ll find in your cabin). This can take some time, so be patient.
What are the staterooms like?
They aren’t huge. We thought ours was comfortable. We had an inside stateroom which included a closet with safe, cabinets with a small TV and room for ice bucket (refilled daily), table with chair and mirror, large armchair, bedside table, two twin beds with individual wall lamps, and pull-down bunk bed. We had a painting on the wall where the window would be if it were an outside room. The bathroom was little but plenty adequate with mirror, shelves, sink, toilet, tiny trashcan, and shower stall with hanging clothesline inside. If you can afford a bigger room or one of the huge luxury suites (available on almost any cruise ship) and want to do that, go for it!
Are the beds uncomfortable?
That all depends. I like a firmer mattress so these were fine. You can have your twin beds pushed together to form a full which may not be the most comfortable thing in the world as the mattresses can separate. If you find the mattresses are not soft enough, ask your stewards if they can put a duvet or blanket underneath the top sheet for you. It seems to be well-known that newer ships have much more comfortable mattresses, and of course luxury cruises will. Do your research online or at communities like Cruise Critic if this is a major concern.
What kind of toiletries and extras are included in the stateroom?
Fresh beach/bath towels (one and the same), which the stewards made into towel animals some days, were included. Body wash and shampoo were included but came in pump dispensers on the shower wall. The ice tub was refilled with fresh ice daily.
How is the service on board?
It was excellent! Our stewards were sweethearts who came by to give us the daily newsletter (the Freestyle Daily) every night and always had a smile for us. And, I routinely saw people going out of their way to assist others. For example, one time an older lady was trying to figure out how the milk dispenser worked. She was looking all around confused when a staff member nearby stopped what he was doing and walked across the room to patiently show her how it worked. This was not unusual. I have heard people complain about rude service on online message boards, but we honestly didn’t receive any bad service. My advice is to keep a positive attitude and remember that the cruise staff is working extraordinarily hard, long days to provide you with the best experience possible. So if someone doesn’t smile as much as you would like or your meal takes a couple extra minutes to get to your table, give them a break!
Where are the cruise staff from? Do they speak English?
The cruise staff comes from around the world. I believe the captain was Swedish. Other staff members represented the U.S., the U.K., Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica, India, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil, Russia, and many, many more. All staff members that I spoke with spoke English. Note: Some cruise lines and/or itineraries are meant to serve a specific international clientele. For example, Star Cruises caters to East Asian countries, whereas some Royal Caribbean cruises are “immersion cruises” that cater to South American clientele. You can find staff that speak English, but I’ve heard that most of the announcements and entertainment will be in the native language. If you are looking to improve your knowledge of a certain language or want a full cultural experience, this might be a great thing to try!
What is there to do on the ship?
There is no conceivable way that you can be bored on a cruise ship, if you ask me. Maybe if you had too many at-sea days, you would get tired of it. Our ship is one of the smaller and older ones in the fleet, and it still had the following:
-arcade room (charged to your account – typical arcade usage fees for each game)
-separate sun deck
-special (free) poolside buffets
-dance parties with bands or DJs
-tiny golf course
-casino, nightclubs and bars
-fully equipped (albeit small) gym
-original artwork auctions
-shows each night: may include music/dancing, comedy, acrobatics, magic shows, specialty, burlesque shows, and one night, male strippers! (if that’s your thing 😉
Other cruise ships may have things like rock-climbing walls, zip lines, multiple pools, mini-golf, giant water slides, bowling alleys, Nintendo Wii rooms, Broadway musicals, and ice bars, to name just a few.
Are the shows any good?
YES. Head to the auditorium on the first evening to see if there is a special “all-inclusive” show, which will give you a preview of all of the attractions. Get there EARLY because seating fills FAST! On our ship we saw a moderately funny comedian, fabulous singers and dancers, adult improv by well-known Second City group, and an amazing elaborate final show called ELEMENTS that mixed all of the above plus the magician for an incredible production, which ended with the captain and cast and crew singing and waving us out and confetti flying. It was crazy! We also watched a fun classy burlesque tribute in one of the lounges, as well as various bands and singers throughout the ship. Special Note: The auditorium on our ship had typical theatre-style seats. I didn’t realize this, but on some ships, such as Carnival, the seating is bench-style. I personally cannot imagine anything more uncomfortable then a bench-style seat except a bench-style seat with no back or cushion. Be forewarned and do your research!
What kind of on-shore excursions can you find?
Through NCL, there are plenty. You can browse through the ones offered for specific ports at the NCL website. We chose to book all of our excursions through local companies at each port. We wouldn’t necessarily do that each time; it’s just what we wound up doing this time. We felt we got an excellent overview of the local areas each time. Be aware that group excursions sponsored by NCL will get you back to your ship on time, and if they are late, the ship will wait for your group to return. This is not the case if you go offshore otherwise, so WATCH THE TIME.
What kind of lectures are there?
You can attend lectures on health, fitness, nutrition, shopping, ports of call, crafts, artwork, and cooking, to name just a few!
Am I going to have to sit with people I don’t know at dinnertime?
That all depends. On NCL, you will not. On other cruise lines, you probably will if you eat in their main dining rooms.
Do I have to eat at a certain time?
You never have to do anything – just be aware of what times your favorite on-board eateries are open! Some cruise lines do have assigned dining times for the main eateries.
Is it hard to meet other people?
Uh, definitely not. We met a nice couple our age on our first excursion and met up with them several more times throughout the cruise (mostly by accident)! Sadly, we didn’t get their contact info or we could’ve kept up with them. You can control how much or how little you want to socialize. It was common to recognize some of the same people on the ship each day and on excursions. Some of the less affable people even got private nicknames from Eric and myself, such as “Whiny Sunscreen Lady” or “Stupid Mexico Remark Man.”
What is the dress code on board?
It varies by cruise line and by ship. Some may have more stringent guidelines. NCL is seriously anything (legal) goes, except in the nicer dining halls where you can’t wear tank tops, shorts, or flip-flops.
Is there a rush to get back on the ship at the end of each port day?
There is if you don’t pay attention to time! But checking back in is fairly easy. It’s like going through an unusually fast airport security line. You’ll go through metal detectors and put your bags on a conveyor belt.
Well, what happens if I miss the boarding time?
You’re in trouble. The ship will not wait for you. Officers on board will probably attempt to verify that you are in fact not on board and make a reasonable attempt to find where you are first. (We saw them do this with our ship as we prepared to leave.) If you’re in the vicinity – say, you’re walking up the pier or half a block away – they MAY wait for you, but do not count on it. If they leave you, you will need to make arrangements to either get to the next port and meet the ship there, or just fly on home. This is one reason you want trip insurance!
I don’t think this is enough time to explore one country. I feel too touristy.
This was a major concern of mine. There are some places that I don’t want to see for just a day. If this is the case, choose your itinerary carefully based on what you want to see and do in the states, countries or regions visited. You can often find cruises in which the ship docks at certain ports for an overnight (meaning you technically have two days). Some cruises even stay for far longer – check cruises to Bermuda where the cruise ship serves as your hotel for a few days. Pick excursions where you can do and see a lot in one day. (Read trusted reviews first.) In our case, I do feel we got a good feel for all of the ports we visited, and we would love to come back.
More questions? Ask me in the comments! If I don’t know the answer, I’ll tell you where to find out.
Cruising isn’t for everyone, but it’s definitely for me. I won’t make every vacation a cruise, but it certainly is tempting. For more information on cruising, I recommend Cruise Critic