1st Time Cruising: Spill the Tea

1st Time Cruising: Spill the Tea


You're doing it.  Or maybe you're considering it.  Perhaps you've even booked it.  You have a million questions and have absolutely no idea where to find the answers.  Well, you've come to the right place.  Here's a little guide to your first cruise.

Why Cruise?

Easy, convenient way to travel. As a new cruiser the convenience can’t be topped. Unpack once and experience the best of the region you are visiting in one cruise vacation. There is nothing easier than simply waking up in the morning in the world's most exciting and interesting cities.

Unbeatable value. Your cruise fare includes accommodations, dining, entertainment and an endless array of activities. Plus, you won’t have to pay for costly airfare, trains, or motorcoaches to get you from one city to the next.

That feeling of being taken care of. You'll be right at home without a care in the world. From sun-up to late into the night, we are there to anticipate your every need. And by voyage's end, the crew will feel just like family.

Refreshing sea air. Sea days can be as relaxing or active as you wish. There is nothing comparable to being out on the open sea with warm ocean breezes.

Check out the views of the Carnival Breeze Atrium. You'll find a world inside each ship to explore.

Where can I go?

Wherever there's an ocean, a cruise can take you there.  No seriously.  There's a ship sailing places you may have never even heard of right now.  You can see the whole-- oh and they have sailings just for that too.

What Is There to Do on Board?

In a word – plenty. There are so many choices, it’s hard to list them all. But one of the best parts about cruising is there are activities for everyone, from the very young to the young at heart. (And, of course, do-nothing days are perfectly acceptable too!)

While cruising, you spend the evening enjoying a movie at sea, that is, under the stars on the Lido (pool deck) with blankets and popcorn. Meet friends for a snack, glass of wine and street performer-style entertainment in the atrium. Or spend a few kid-free hours relaxing in adult-only area onboard.  Maybe even book a massage with sea views. And if dining is your favorite pastime, you have your pick of everything from a multicourse meal in a formal dining room or award-winning specialty restaurant to a world-of-options buffet and hand-tossed pizza.  Catch Broadway-Style entertainment, spend your luck at the casino, or catch a comedy show in one of the lounges.  Bingo!  (You can play that too.)

You won't need to memorize all the activities and events each day. You can grab a copy of the newsletter from Guest Services that will tell you when the casino opens, the hours for the health and fitness center, daily tips for cruising, and an hourly listing of all other happenings on board.  You can also find it in the app if you've opted to go paperless during your sailing.  There are so many things to do that it will be hard to pick between them.

Lido Deck aka Pool Area:

This is the life of the ship during the day, especially on Sea Days.  It is always busy and there's a lot going on here. You'll find sunshine and relaxation at the Lido deck.  You'll also find a ton of activities here too.  From sleeping husbands to Hairy Chest Contests, celebrations, libations, pool parties, and charity events, you will enjoy the Lido deck.  If you're looking for a quiet area, there's an adult-only pool located on most ships.  Water slides, splash pads, and giggling children linger on the Lido deck.  You'll find an array of exciting fun like putt putt, basketball courts, rollercoasters, ziplining, and more, which all vary by ship and brand.  Be sure to check out the options for your sailing if life onboard is really important.  All ships are very different and have a variety of options.

When it comes to the Lido deck, beware:  There's people that get there early and save a chair for their items, then dip for the remainder of the day.  It's hard to find a seat, so if you're going with a group, get there early and claim your turf.  Of course cruise lines have rules against taking up space but there is no enforcement and it perpetuates the problem.  Until there's a cubby wall like at a kid's playground, just know that the pool chairs are sacred spaces that will run out.  You'll be like the parking lot stalkers, just roaming about waiting for someone to get up.

Shopping Onboard

There's basically a mini mall on each sailing.  Jewelry, watches, clothing, accessories, toys, trinkets, alcohol, candy and more, all sit in the shopping area onboard.  There's lots of ways to spend your onboard credit while cruising.

Keep an eye on the sales in your nightly newsletter before you make purchases. Sometimes they'll share insider cruise tips on when there are onboard boutique sales. You can also check with your host about any onshore purchases you are interested in making, that way you'll get the best bargains and quality.  As a pro cruiser, we'll tell you that you should wait until the final days of sailing when the prices drop to move merchandise.  You'll notice great sales on the final days of cruising but be careful.  That Citizen you've been eyeing may be plucked before you get to it.  It's the risk you take onboard.


Shore Excursions

Shore excursions are an addition to your cruise, (meaning they’re an extra expense).  Shore Excursions help you make the most of your time in port.  These are escorted tours that will take you to the most memorable sites and let you experience the culture. Each cruise line offers a variety of shore excursions to cruisers based on interests, activity levels as well as some tailored for families.  Sometimes shore excursions change, sell out, or are all together cancelled. You'll want to book your excursions early to get the ones you have your heart set on.  The other advantage to planning in advance is making sure you bring anything that an outing might call for, such as hiking boots or water shoes, otherwise, like me, you're spent paying for them to attend.  If you wait until you're onboard, be flexible with what you'll do while at each location.  You may find what you wanted is completely sold out.

Maybe you want to swim with dolphins or pigs.  You'll want to find the location that has this sort of activity and book those earlier if that's what you have your heart set on.  Shore excursions are not typically free, although there are brands that allow credit towards the excursions and others that are inclusive.  If you're looking to have everything include, well, that's why you have me.


Although similar, the term cruisetour is very different from a shore excursion. Explore farther inland on a cruisetour.  Consider this an addition to the cruise, adding more to your cruise.  A cruisetour combines a cruise with a multi-night land tour to inland destinations that the ship can't reach. Combining cruising, transportation, and lodging, allows passengers to explore both ashore and inland, combining an ocean or river adventure with sightseeing and more.  These will include a vacation within a vacation.  You can add a tour to certain locations, like Alaska, for example.  You'll combine the cruise with a train ride to visit Denali National Park with a 3-6 days stay included in the fare.  Cruisetours are the best way to really experience both life on the water and from sites further inland.


What Can Kids Do?

Youth Centers and Teen Lounges are staffed by experienced counselors, who are ready to ensure your kids stay happy all day long. There’s everything from art projects, games, the latest movies, pizza parties, talent shows, and much more. Cruises have developed engaging new youth programs and wonder-filled centers designed for cruisers ages 3 to 17 to play, discover and create.

Many cruise lines offer childcare onboard to children between 6 months-3 years old.  These services can vary by brand.  It's important to know what's included and what costs extra for our youngest adventurers.

In addition to the kids clubs and lounges, kids are welcome onboard, unless sailing Virgin Voyages, (it's the only true kid-free sailing cruise line).  All the areas onboard you can visit, you can bring your family too!  Most sailings have an adults-only area onboard for those who wish to find some relaxing, quiet time without our younger guests, so with the exception of those areas, even your smallest members of your family are welcome too.

Children must be 6 months old to sail on their first cruise.

Let Talk Food

Is it included?  YES!  Try everything you ever thought you would want to taste.  Seriously, the food is endless.

You'll never go hungry on a cruise ship — and no need to fret over dining options. You can always hit the pizza bar or the buffet if you feel like having a casual evening, or even order room service. A selection of internationally-inspired dining options is always available onboard.

You'll need to make a decision about whether you'll want late or early dining on your cruise.  I'll go over this a bit more in the "Dinner" section below.

You can order whatever you want on the menu. This is great for dishes like frog legs and escargot that you may have never tried.  Now, it's included in your meal and no additional cost to enjoy.  Why not?  See two things you want to try?  Get them both.  You can have more than one plate while dining.  Most meals are smaller than you would get in a standard restaurant to prevent waste. Food is always a favorite onboard, so enjoy it while you're there.  After all, you've already paid for it with your fare.


There's a standard buffet that has breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  Usually, their hours are longer than those of the Main Dining Room and their selection is vast.  Here you'll find cuisine from all over the world with a variety of flavor palates for both picky "boring" eaters to those who like a little spice in your life.  The buffet stretches a good portion of the ship and allows the pickers to make their selection from a variety of dishes.  Some buffets even have a few options that allow eggs made to order or something of the like.

The buffet is an easy option for those that do not wish to dress up on formal nights or for those that want to toss on some flip flips and go.  There is a very relaxed dress code for the buffet.  Just make sure you're in at minimum a swimsuit cover-up and you're good to go.  For this reason, the buffet is crowded and is the hustle and bustle of the ship.  If you're looking for a relaxing environment, chances are you will not find that here.  For this, head to the main dining room.

Main Dining Room

You'll find the hours for the main dining room on your daily agenda.  Yes, you'll get one of those each day.  More about that later.


Most cruise lines will have a set dining room for breakfast.  Here you will find table service.  Many people do no realize this is available on this ship or have no interest for visiting each morning.  You'll find this quiet, relaxing breakfast perfect for those that just want to sit and enjoy the pampering of "cruise life".  The menu will include buffet items with an assortment of options but it will also have some great choices that may not be available on the buffet, like eggs benedict.  If you don't want to fight folks at the buffet line, this is where you should be.  I mean, after all, you'll have everything and then some at the main dining room breakfast.  Try it once.

Carnival's Sea Day Brunch may be held utmost in my heart of breakfast creations.  Steak and eggs & huevos rancheros are just two of the options they have on the Sea Day Brunch menu.


Lunch varies across the industry and often there's a variety of options for lunch as well.  The main dining room will allow for the same sit-down service for lunch with an assortment of daily specials on the menu.  From sandwiches and salads to plates of hearty meals, you'll be able to enjoy lunch in the main dining room as well.


Traditionally, you'll have two assigned dinner times: early (around 6pm) and late (around 8pm).  Prior to sailing, you will make a selection.  When you select your dinner time, you're committing to being at dinner (and completed with your meal) within your "window".  So, for early dining, you'll need to be in and out of the dining room between 6-8pm so that at 8pm, late diners can begin their dinner service. If you're signed up for late dining, you cannot show up for your assigned dinner time at 9:30pm, as dining will be closed.  Try to adhere to your dining time.  If you can't make it, well, remember that relaxed buffet that's anything goes?  Yeah, that's where you should head if you oversleep your dining time.  Some cruises allow for anytime dining, meaning show up and you're sat for dinner.  NCL does not have a traditional dinner service, rather, you show up at leisure for dinner each night.

Dinner in the main dining room will abide by the dress code, so ensure you are properly packed for the occasion.  Formal nights onboard are celebrated with a sit-down meal in the main dining room.  The meal changes nightly with most sailings; however, you'll find an array of classic options that may stay on the menu for the course of the cruise.  You'll get that amazing service from the wait staff.  Having an assigned dining time also means having assigned wait staff.  They're ready when you arrive, and after the first or second night, they'll know what beverages you drink and most likely anticipate your needs.  They'll become extended family on longer cruises.  You'll begin to understand those prepaid gratuities by the level of service they provide, even with budget cruising.

Specialty dining

Normally have a flat rate charge at each restaurant.  The food is typically exquisite in the restaurants.  The pace is a bit slower, service is even more attentive, and reservations are required.  Here, you'll find the luxury of cruising cuisine.  I've enjoyed Steakhouses, Italian, Hibachi, Sushi, and an assortment of specialty restaurants onboard.  The service and peace you'll find in these places really just make them worth the extra dollars to wine and dine your date onboard.

One piece of advice, though: If you think you might like to indulge in fine dining, you'll want to make a reservation ahead of time. Those specialty restaurants tend to book up at the beginning of each cruise.


You'll have access to a variety of services onboard.  Your stateroom attendant will probably know you by name when you arrive onboard.  You'll find everything you need can be solved with asking your stateroom attendant or guest services.

Personally, I love ice in my room.  Although this does not come standard in every state room, if you'll simply ask your stateroom attendant, they'll get this for you.  Oh, and they'll even replace the ice daily so you can enjoy it throughout your sailing.

You'll find the dining room staff will also take care of all your needs through your dinner service.  You're sure about to be spoiled with the level of service you'll get while onboard.  These guys juggle quite a few tables and on top of fulfilling your needs.


After talking about Service, naturally this brings us to the topic of Gratuities. This topic is so controversial.  Gratuities are "mandatory tips".  Let me really confuse you by saying they're technically optional.  Let me explain.

Please note that various lines call these a few different things:

  • MSC: Hotel Service Charge
  • Carnival: Gratuities
  • Norwegian Cruise Lines: Crew Appreciation

Each day you'll be charged a per person, per day rate for gratuities on each sailing (+/- $15-20 per person, per day).  Cruise lines vary on the per person rate; however, the information is available at the time of booking.  You can either pre-pay for the gratuities or you can pay onboard.  Gratuities are technically optional so you can change the amount onboard by speaking to guest services.  Some prefer to pay the staff directly and completely have the gratuities removed from their onboard account.  Personally, like most travelers, I pay the suggested/automatic amount for gratuities.  For exceptional service, we give more to our stateroom steward and dining staff at the end of the sailing.  You may find others that go above and beyond and wish to give them additional tips as well.

Pre-Paid Gratuities vs Not Pre-Paying:

You have two options when it comes to "Mandatory Tipping":  Pre-pay or Pay onboard.

These fees can either be paid with your cruise fare, prior to departure {Pre-Paid) or they will be added to your bill on the FINAL DAY OF SAILING.  On your first cruise this may be the most terrifying moment.  The night prior to returning to the "home" port, you'll get a statement of charges delivered to your stateroom, showing what will be charged on your method of payment.  Most often, you will see more charges that you expected.  Maybe a few too many cocktails led to inaccurate counts of beverages or you frivolously spent here and there.  None the less, you'll get to inspect your sailing charges before being charged the next day as you disembark the ship.  If you have NOT pre-paid the gratuities before the sailing, you'll see those charges added to your bill. So the at around $20 per person per day, a couple sailing for 7 days could end up with an unexpected $280.00 on your bill at the end of the cruise.

Now what happens?  Well, of the 6,000 people sailing, several hundred have just seen the same billing statement and have jumped into line at the guest services counter, where they will wait for their turn to have these issues addressed.  You'll spend the next hour or more waiting to discuss this with those onboard.  Now, you can have the charges removed and you're also free to tip those who have provided you service onboard in cash if you wish.  There's tons of controversy over this and you're sure to be scolded if this is what you choose, should you tell someone else.  The cruise lines assure passengers that the gratuities are paid to those that have serviced you onboard.  We pre-pay our gratuities and leave those who have done an exceptional job while onboard a little extra in cash at the end of our sailing.

Listen, we have sailed with Toddlers: Those temperamental, food-throwing, hissy fit, running, tiny people.  Our waitstaff has been monumental in making our cruise pleasant and helped us keep our sanity while we try to sit for dinner each night.  We're going to take care of those angels on the last day.

Packages, Extras, and Upgrades:

Wi-Fi, Beverages, and other options can be added to your cruise.  Most people do not realize that things like Internet are not included in cruising, especially with value brands like Royal Caribbean, Carnival, and MSC.  The more you purchase before the cruise, the more all-inclusive it will feel.  With that, it won't feel like you are being nickeled and dimed throughout your sailing either.

We're a family that likes to disconnect for the sailing.  It's a great way to set down the leash and just truly get away. We wait until we're at a nice little restaurant in Mexico or some other port stop with Wi-Fi and check in with the socials.  However,   If you're like me, who's likely got clients on a vacation and need to be reached in an emergency, you'll need internet onboard and sometimes it's just less expensive to add it before you sail.

Some packages, like the beverage package, can cost more once you arrive onboard and decide to add those to your sailing.  If you already know you are planning to get them, add it pre-cruise.

IMG_20211208_091024914 (1)

Brenda Lofton Huffman
(281) 468-8189

Send me your next vacation details to get started today!