Here's to a great first cruise

Scrutinise deck plans to determine the location of the room you are being sold.
Scrutinise deck plans to determine the location of the room you are being sold.PHOTO: ISTOCKPHOTO

The choice of cabin, what you pack and research on shore excursions can make for a better experience

WASHINGTON • You always remember your first - whether it is a kiss, a car or a cruise - because of that heady combination of anticipation and trepidation.

For a first-timer, all the decisions that come with taking a cruise - ship, cabin, clothes, tipping and so on - can be overwhelming, especially when you are clueless about how a cruise works.

Here are some of the things to take note to help ensure smooth sailing, compiled by Mr David Swanson, president of the Society of American Travel Writers, who has taken more than 40 cruises in the past six years, and Ms Laura Daily, a freelance writer specialising in travel and consumer issues.

CHOOSE THE RIGHT CRUISE

Instead of spending days researching cruise lines and itineraries, "find a travel agent who specialises in cruises and, more important, actually takes many of them", Mr Swanson says. "Each cruise line and ship has its own personality and a cruise specialist can find you the best match."

There are cruises tailored for singles, couples, families with children, older adults, party animals and adventurers.

There are benefits to both megaships and compact ones. With more amenities, restaurants and diversions, large ships keep you entertained all hours of the day and well into the night.

Each cruise line and ship has its own personality and a cruise specialist can find you the best match.

MR DAVID SWANSON, president of the Society of American Travel Writers, on engaging a travel agent specialising in cruises

Small ships (fewer than 500 passengers) can reach ports the large ones cannot access. Plus, you get to know the crew and they get to know you by your name and preference, be it hot English breakfast tea with milk or extra bath towels.

PICK THE RIGHT CABIN

Cabin choices are typically simple: interior (no view), exterior (ocean view with a window or porthole), balcony (exterior room with a private balcony) and suite (a larger cabin often with separate living and sleeping areas and a private balcony).

Scrutinise deck plans to determine the exact location of the stateroom you are being sold.

Light sleepers will want to avoid one underneath the nightclub dance floor or just above the engine room. For maximum stability, book a midship cabin. That is where you will feel the least movement.

PACK LIGHT

No one cares if you wear the same outfit more than once. Pack enough washable, quick-drying clothes for half your voyage.

Toss in a sweater; even on warm-weather cruises, ships can get chilly. Bring a couple of pairs of shoes - one for walking and a dressier pair for the dining room - plus flip-flops for warm-weather cruises.

Some ships still have formal nights when everyone puts on the glitz, but you do not need to break out the diamonds or tux.

Women can get by with a cocktail dress or dressy pantsuit and men with a jacket and tie. If you despise dressing up, opt for the buffet or consider this the perfect excuse to order room service.

One more packing essential: a dual-voltage extension cord. Cabins have only a handful of electrical outlets and they are not always very accessible. A simple multi-plug is all you need to charge up everything.

EXPLORE THE PRACTICALITIES

Empty suitcases are typically stored under the bed, but there is no rule that they have to be empty. Let them double as storage for rarely used gear and souvenirs.

Read the ship's next-day programme of activities, events and shows before you go to bed. Highlight what you want to do and carry the schedule with you.

You can find a quiet place on the most bustling of ships, Mr Swanson says. The lounges, discos and theatres remain open even when there is no entertainment. Look at the ship's schedule to find the gaps in a venue's use.

Your cellphone plan's rates do not apply at sea. Turn off your phone or set it to airplane mode to avoid expensive roaming charges.

Ships offer Wi-Fi, but it can be pricey and sluggish. Mr Swanson buys the cheapest package available and stretches his usage. He downloads his e-mail and then, for any that require more than a one-sentence response, logs off, composes his replies offline, then logs back on to send.

MANAGE YOUR MONEY

Unless your fee is all-inclusive, expect to shell out money during the cruise and settle at the end of the voyage. You may be dinged for Wi-Fi; restaurants other than the main dining room and buffet; shore excursions; and spa treatments.

Even though you register a credit card when you board, it is wise to bring cash - ones, fives and 10s - to tip tour guides, for small purchases and for cruise staff members who go above and beyond.

GET SOME SHORE LEAVE

Shore excursions are the raison d'etre for many a cruise. There are two schools of thought.

Some experts say you should sign up for those offered by the cruise line; that guarantees you will be treated with care and returned to the ship at the appointed hour.

Others contend that cruise lines work with the same local tour operators you can book yourself, but jack up the price and scare you into thinking the ship will leave without you should you be delayed.

One suggestion is to take the middle road. As noted above, ships post shore excursion itineraries and pricing online long before you sail.

Research ports and dig into tour details: How long is the bus ride? Will you see the sights most important to you? Is there free time? Then, compare prices. An external provider may save you money and allow you to maximise your time.

Small ports are ideal to explore on your own, especially if the dock is within walking distance. Should walking not be an option, most ships provide free shuttles. And there is no shame in staying on board. Those who do say it is like having your own private yacht all to yourself.

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 11, 2018, with the headline 'Here's to a great first cruise'. Print Edition | Subscribe