Everything I Did Wrong on My First Cruise (and Even a Couple Things I Did Right)

Getting practical cruise advice is tough—it’s hard to know what to expect from a cruise unless you’ve already been on one. These first time cruise tips are everything you need to know about what to do and, most importantly, what not to do on your first cruise. Trust me—I’m an expert in making mistakes.

About 15 years ago I went on a cruise from Boston to Bermuda with my mother. I was young, but I found a few other kids my age to cause trouble with. I developed a small crush on a Russian girl named Olga and, weirdly, she is one of the most vivid memories I have of that trip.

Well, Olga, and illegally renting a motorbike in Bermuda with a fake ID and almost crashing head-first into oncoming traffic.

Fond memories. I haven’t been on a cruise since.

Last month, I had the opportunity to sail on Carnival’s newest ship, the Carnival Vista, the same one that’s been named “the best ship of 2016.” You don’t turn down an offer like that.

I don’t, anyway.

Winter in Washington, DC has been FAR TOO COLD for my liking, so I saw this as a prime opportunity to get the hell out of dodge, take off for the Caribbean, and take a bit of time to explore Miami (the cruise’s port of call) while I was at it.

It’s been a long year, anyway, so it was due time for a break.

12 First Time Cruise Tips

What I Expected from My First Cruise Experience

Like I’ve said before, going on a cruise is not this “authentic travel experience” that we, as travel bloggers and chronic/full-time travelers, put so much emphasis on. Cruising is a vacation.

If you want to take a vacation and see a few new countries along the way, then going on a cruise is a no-brainer. It can be a ton of fun (and surprisingly, in the right seasons, not that expensive).

I’m one of those guys who likes to learn something from their travels (yeah, those guys). I like my travel to be transformative and life-changing. I’m all about the journey and all those other cliches you’ve heard a million times before.

This cruise was, in a way, transformative. I learned that travel doesn’t have to be a rigorous journey. Sometimes, it can just be easy and relaxing and fun. Maybe this was obvious to you, but it wasn’t to me.

I travel too much for my own good.

Visiting Maho Beach, St. Maarten as a first time cruiser
Visiting Maho Beach, St. Maarten as a first time cruiser

More than anything, I was looking forward to pool days and hot tubs. Blue water. Relaxation. Maybe some coconuts. New countries. TONS of photos. I thought I might even read a book or two (side note: I didn’t).

I was also looking forward to hanging out with my buddy, whom I haven’t seen much since our travels through The Balkans a couple of years ago.

Usually I prefer to travel slowly, spending at least a few weeks per place, so the one thing I was most unsure about was spending just one day in port. I didn’t love the idea of powering through a country in just six or eight hours, but I figured, “hey, I’m doing it, so I might as well do it right.”

Beyond that, I tried to keep an open mind. I like to think I’m pretty good at doing that.

Cruise Advice: My Favorite Things About Cruising on Board the Carnival Vista

  • By and far, my favorite thing about the cruise was being able to unpack JUST ONCE, and leave my things in a drawer for the entire week. Not living out of a suitcase is a luxury I’m not often afforded!
  • The catamaran ride in Grand Turk was beyond beyond (that’s not a typo). I’ve never seen water so blue. We swam in crystal clear waters, I got some amazing photos, and we danced on deck to reggae, Caribbean music and, unfortunately, top ten hits. I’m never one to let that ruin a good dance party though 😉
  • Visiting four countries, three of which I’d never been to before! You go to sleep one night in The Turks and Caicos and the next morning you’re in Puerto Rico. BAM!
  • The variety of food choices, from burger joints to burrito bowls to fine dining to steakhouses to a sushi bar.
  • The nightlife is non-stop. Whether you’re dancing on deck to an 80’s party, watching a a comedy show at the comedy club, having a drink at the piano bar, or getting cocktails mixed up by expert bartenders, there’s something for everyone on board, every night of the week (more on this coming soon).
Grand Turk
Docked at Grand Turk. Can you see the waterslide poking out from the top?
  • The 4D theater and, yes, even an IMAX theater screening the latest movie releases that are still in theaters.
  • The spa that spans about three entire floors, offering everything from massages to facials to infrared saunas. I got one of the best massages I’ve ever gotten in my life at Cloud 9.
  • The adults-only area, Serenity. When you need a moment away (and trust me, you will), it’s an ideal spot to just relax and get some peace and quiet.
  • The staff, without a doubt, made this trip. They are some of the hardest workers I’ve ever met, and they did everything in their power to go above and beyond the call of duty to make sure everybody on board had everything they wanted. My gratitude goes out to every single one of them who worked their tails off to ensure our cruise as good as it could be.

SIDE NOTE: If you’ve ever thought about working on a cruise ship, I suggest reading How to Work on a Cruise Ship—a step-by-step guide to working, traveling, and getting 3 months of vacation every year.

First Time Cruise Tips: What I Did Wrong on My First Cruise

A lot.

When I look at the span of my life, it’s apparent that I’m a product of my mistakes. I learn the things I know by breaking them and then figuring out how to fix them.

The same goes for travel—it isn’t about doing everything right. It’s about doing everything wrong and then learning what to do differently next time.

But I guess that’s just life in general, right? None of us know what we’re actually doing.

We Tried to Do Everything

It’s just not possible to do everything. There is an endless amount of entertainment both on and off the ship, and you simply will not be able to partake in it all.

Carnival actually has an app for your phone that shows you what’s happening and when, every hour of the day—it’s your personal onboard assistant—the Robin to your Batman. FOMO will set in, but try to pick just a few things to do each day and stick to them.

We Lost Track of Ship Time

Ship time and local time are not always the same. When you’re on an island, if you ask a local the time, they’ll give you the local time, but that’s likely not in sync with the schedule on board (i.e. when the ship is leaving port!).

We managed to stay on top of this, except when it came time for sunset in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. We were busy sipping drinks at a local café, thinking we still had an hour until sunset, until we looked outside and realized the sun was already on its way down!

Needless to say, I didn’t get the sunset photos I was hoping for. I guess there’s always next time!

We Made Our Own Plans

On three out of four port days, we tried to do everything on our own. Yes, you might feel like you’re getting a more “authentic” travel experience by not booking a tour, but when you have limited time, booking a shore excursion is much less stressful. Again, commit to doing just one thing at each port, instead of trying to do everything.

Brimstone Hill, St. Kitts
The old fortresses at Brimstone Hill on St. Kitts

We Winged It

While it feels nice to not have a plan, and to wake up every morning with a clean slate, when you’re cruising, it’s necessary to have a plan of action (even if that plan involves sitting by the pool all day). If you don’t, you’ll tire yourself out from running around in circles, trying to figure out what to do next.

On a couple occasions, our lack of a plan meant we missed out on things the following day, because everybody else was smarter than we were and booked things in advance. If there’s one piece of cruise advice I can offer, it’s to plan ahead.

I Brought My Own Fun

Like captain’s hats and inflatable unicorns. I assumed that, being on board a ship for eight days would mean we’d run out of things to do. My assumption was ENTIRELY wrong, and sadly, I never even got a chance to inflate my unicorn 🙁

Everything you will need, and more, is provided on board.

We Ate the Same Food (Almost) Every Night

The main dining room is fancy and free, which makes it a perfect option if you feel like getting fancy or if you’re simply trying to stick to a budget. But it’s a good idea to try some of the other restaurants while you’re on board.

While the food was good at the main restaurant, you definitely need to try the options at some of the others. You do have to pay for most of them, though, as they are considered speciality dining. Plus, you know, diversity is a nice thing to have in life.

Since I’m trying to eat healthy, I steered clear of the burger joint and BBQ restaurant, but I became best buds with the in-house sushi chef. You’re my boy, Rannell! Thanks for the edamame.

In sashimi heaven at Bonsai Sushi
Sashimi heaven!

We Missed the “Behind the Fun” Tour

This is the most popular tour, and for good reason. This tour takes you behind the scenes of the cruise ship, into the galleys, the staff area, and even into the ship’s bridge and command center.

Unfortunately, we were late to the party and the tour had filled up by the second day. We even tried pulling the, “BUT WE’RE BLOGGERS” card, but, well, we’re only bloggers 😉

Tips for Cruising: What I Did Right

I did manage to do a few things right on my first cruise. Not because I had any clue what I was doing, but really, by pure chance.

Spent Just $10 at the Casino

There is a full-fledged casino on board the Carnival Vista. And it’s crazy. After both of us had turned $10 each into $20, I turned to my friend and said, “Smarter individuals would recognize the fact that they’ve just doubled their money and they’d walk away.”

20 minutes later we were both down to zero.

I’m not a big gambler (a trip to Vegas nine years ago turned me off gambling for life—guess why?), and I was happy to wax the ten bucks. We did, however, see a few people win jackpots of $4,000 or more!

Danced to Live Latin Music at Havana Bar, the Cuban-Themed Nightclub

The Havana Bar is where the magic happens. There were a few other areas on board for nightlife (the actual nightclub, the cocktail bar, the piano bar, the comedy club, etc.), but the live music at this Cuban-themed bar was the spot for good music and happy, dancing people. Just don’t stay too late—you probably have an early morning tomorrow.

Tips for cruising: You definitely want to visit Frigate Bay!
Looking out over Frigate Bay on the island of St. Kitts

We Actually Slept…for a Full Eight Hours

Sleep is one of those commodities that I think is hard to come by on a cruise. There is so much going on, from 7am until well past midnight, that if you don’t pace yourself and cut out time for sleep, you’re going to be a train wreck (boat wreck?). Or you can just drink your way through it.

I decided rest was important for me on this cruise, so we hit the hay on the early side, which meant we could get up by 8 or 9, around the same time we docked at port. That gave us ample time to explore our daily destination without feeling like we were dragging our feet.

I Booked My Massage for the End of the Cruise

I booked a massage for the end of the trip, instead of the beginning. Though cruising is meant to be relaxing, you might find that you’re pretty exhausted by the end of it. Trust me—book a massage for the end. You’ll appreciate it so much more.

We Got a Room with a View

There are rooms on board the ship that suit every type of budget, which make cruising a pretty accessible option for almost anyone, regardless of finances. HOWEVER, the balcony attached to our room was one of our cruise highlights.

Waking up every morning and watching the ocean with a hot cup of coffee from your own private deck is exactly how you want to start your day. And that’s not my opinion, that’s a fact 😉

This was my first time on a cruise which meant I really didn’t know what to expect. But that was a good thing! If you’re going on a cruise, leave your expectations on the shore. Take it as it comes, just enjoy, don’t stress, and do whatever the hell you want.

That’s what cruising is really all about.

This post was created for Away We Go with Carnival, the destination for getting in the getaway state of mind. Head on over.

First Time Cruising FAQs

How long should you go on your first cruise?

I recommend making your first cruise a week or less.

What is the first thing you do on a cruise?

Exploring the ship is a great first thing to do when you board your cruise ship. Learn where the pools, dining, and activities are.

Is it better to have cash or card on a cruise?

It’s typically easier to use a card for any additional expenses on your cruise.

Do you tip in cash on a cruise?

You don’t tip in cash on most cruises. Instead, you can add tips to your ship account balance.

Can you take food back to your room on a cruise?

Most cruises let you take food back to your room, and some even offer room service.

About the Author

Jeremy Scott Foster

Jeremy Scott Foster is an adventure-junkie, gear expert and travel photographer based in Southern California. Previously nomadic, he’s been to ~50 countries and loves spending time outdoors. You can usually find him on the trail, on the road, jumping from bridges or hustling on his laptop working to produce the best travel and outdoors content today.
  1. I’ve done cruises both ways, booking excursions and winging it. I had fun both ways, but think that Carnival actually picks some good ones. Rio Secreto in Playa del Carmen was a favorite of mine.

  2. Great tips here Jeremy, I never done a cruise before (yet but I am sure that will change) but when we do, we will take some of these tips on board. Hope to do one around the Caribbean one day (and tick off many islands on the way)

  3. +1 point for cruises. Think of how many miles you can cover on a boat. Thats what I think about taking cruises from like Buenos Aries to Santiago.

    -1 point for Jeremy. THINKING YOUD RUN OUT OF THINGS TO DO.

    next time you will be a pro, and ill be there? 😛

  4. We just tried our first cruise last year and j think your list sums it up very well. You have to be on ship time. If you are not fighting the flow of the ship you’ll be frustrated. If you can relax and go with the flow there is so much to do.

  5. We love love love cruising and, yes, we made some of those same mistakes on our first one many years ago. We are now experts and would happily go on one of those six month cruises around the world! Bucket list item!

  6. Great tips, I have never been on a cruise and it’s on the top of my list. Unpacking once and seeing all of these places is really appealing.

  7. One tip not everyone knows: the Italian restaurant is free at lunch. It’s a limited menu but still awesome and…Free.

  8. Excellent advice! I haven’t been a cruise and expect I would make a few of the same mistakes e.g. trying to be more authentic! I will plan ahead and book the shore excursions – thank you 🙂

  9. I’ve never been one for cruises and quite honestly what seems most appealing from your list is getting lots of sleep. 😉 And the Havana theme bar. That sounds like it could be fun.

  10. These are great tips. Ive been on cruises before with family. It’s not my favorite type of travel but its the best for my family since its less stressful for all of us. I do agree with you about ship time which can be frustrating sometime if we end up wanting to explore more. Glad to see you made the most of this trip and still got to take great pictures!

  11. I’ve always been very resistant to cruises, because it seemed like it was just something for octogenarians. You seemed to have a lot of fun though, and I guess it could be nice to have everything taken care of, like where to eat which always seems like a hard decision to make! Plus, the idea of unpacking once and being done would be amazing.

    1. Hey Kelli, how are you?

      What will be the destination? I’m sure it’ll be an amazing experience for you. My first time on a cruise was amazing too.

  12. A water slide on a ship. Hah! There’s a lot my imagination could do with that.

    Doing one wing at each port – good idea.

    Sounds like you had a good cruise. I never do/will, I get sea sick on mirror calm day.

  13. Headed on a family cruise in July 2018 (first cruise for me and hubby) to Bermuda. I’ve been to Bermuda before so I know what to expect. Thanks for the tips about not trying to do everything at each port stop and keeping track of ship time vs. local time.

  14. Wow, it’s great to know that the food in the main dining room of a cruise ship is not just free but also fancy which is great for travelers on a budget. This is perfect for my boyfriend and I because we are both very thrifty when we travel. We wanted to experience cruising this time for the celebration of our anniversary. It will be our first time, so thanks a lot for the tips!

  15. Thanks for pointing out that when you have limited time, booking a shore excursion is much less stressful. My husband and I are thinking about going on our cruise as an anniversary vacation and we are trying to decide the best way to do everything. I think it would also be smart to look into cruise ship shuttles that could help us get to different ports so that we wouldn’t have to worry about finding our own transportation.

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