Thinking about taking a cruise? Just a few years ago I took my first cruise and haven’t stopped cruising since. Whether you’re into adventure or relaxation, cruising fits the bill. Here’s a few basic cruise tips from my first trip as a beginner cruiser.

I had always wondered what the infatuation with cruising was. I think after seeing “Titanic” I pretty much took cruising out of my traveling vocabulary! But back in 2008, my husband insisted we go on a cruise since the New York cruise terminal was gaining popularity. At that time the destination choices were slim but we were able to book a cruise on the Norwegian Spirit to the Caribbean.

Tortola is a beautiful island we were luck to visit on our Spirit cruise. Photo credit: Noel D'Allacco

Tortola is a beautiful island we were luck to visit on our Spirit cruise. Photo credit: Noel D’Allacco

Being a first time cruiser, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I wasn’t even sure what to pack! Do cruise ships have all the amenities a hotel would have? Could I buy toiletries on board if I forget something? Oh, and do I need to book excursions in advance? How about dining reservations, do I need to reserve seating?

With so many questions a cruise seemed like a lot of work – and we were just two single people at the time.

Ports of Call

Our cruise ports started at Tortola, a British Virgin Island. This tiny island was beyond beautiful. We opted not to do an excursion and instead hired a driver for the day (something the cruise line did not suggest guests do). Our driver “Shampoo” was well known around the island and brought us to a private beach called Turtle Cove. I would highly suggest this beach for couples as it was secluded and quiet.

Next up we spent a day in San Juan. The excursion options were endless in San Juan. Keep in mind, they were also pricey and several indicated they included moderate to extensive physical activity. Some popular activities were swimming with dolphins, zip lining, hiking, boating and fishing. We decided to do the nature tour, which was approximately one hour from the cruise port. With the long travel time, I wouldn’t suggest this excursion for people with young children. There wasn’t even a bathroom on the bus.

Finally, we visited Samana in the Dominican Republic. Unfortunately, we did not realize we would be visiting this beach that was also occupied by other cruise ships. The beach was packed! Though, I must admit the water was absolutely amazing. Clean, crystal clear, and the temperature in April was hot! A truly beautiful island for sure.

Tip 1: Speak with the cruise’s excursion desk before booking your adventures.  You may want to ask about travel time and intensity of the activities you are considering.

Samana is a great stop on Norwegian Cruise Lines

Samana – Just one stop we made on our cruise on Spirit. Photo credit: Noel D’Allacco

All About the Cruise Ship

Now, back to the ship. Norwegian Cruise Lines’s (NCL) Spirit was a refurbished ship. It was clean, but you could tell certain aspects of the ship were old or worn. Our balcony room was small. I can’t imagine how a family of 4 would be comfortable, but I guess when you’re cruising the idea is that you will not spend much time in the room.

The amenities, however, were great. Everything you needed from a blow dryer to iron was there. And, if you needed something like more soap or toothpaste you could ask your room attendant or visit the onboard shops to purchase what you need.

cruising to Samana beaches

The beautiful beaches of Samana. Photo credit: Noel D’Allacco

Tip 2: Bottled water is expensive.  Some families bring cases onboard with them.  If you can manage to bring it, it’s a good idea to have in your room at all times, plus you can take your own bottles with you on excursions.

Cruise Dining

NCL offers freestyle dining, eat when you want at your reserved table. Dining in the main dining room allows you to sit with the same group of guests every night at your table. However, being a first time cruiser, I wasn’t too keen on sitting with others, so we asked for private seating.

Room service is available 24 hours a day, but the selection is limited.  Though the cost is included in your trip, certain food and beverage items cost extra.

Try “Raffles”, the food court on the top deck for those late-night cravings! Specialty restaurants are also an option, if you’re willing to pay an extra $15-30 per person for an exclusive menu.

Tip 3: If you’re a large family, or celebrating a special occasion, I would suggest asking ahead of time for a private table.

What to do on a Cruise?

Each night, NCL provided us with an itinerary with the activities happening on board the next day. There were tons of things to do for first  time cruisers and the veterans. Most of the activities were free, but many required a nominal fee, like the all-time cruise favorite, bingo. People line up to play like this is their only chance to play bingo in their life!  Adults can also enjoy cooking classes, wine tastings, and spa and gym activities. Oh and there’s a ton of shopping on board from art galleries to jewelry and clothing.

NCL was definitely kid friendly, offering everything from day care to talent shows, movies, and even a nightclub for teens.

Tip 4: We mostly enjoyed the shows which ranged from musicals to comedies. The theater on the Spirit was small, so you should arrive 20-30 mins before a show starts.

Tip 5: Want to spend a day at sea at the pool? Get there by 6am! The chairs are taken quickly and if you’re more than two people good luck getting seats together.

So, Why do I Love Cruising so Much?

families will love Norwegian Cruise Line

A photo from our 2008 trip on the Norwegian Cruise Line Spirit ship. Photo credit: Noel D’Allacco

First, the easy access of parking our car at the New York cruise port was a piece of cake. No airport madness was completely refreshing. Try to book a cruise with a port within driving distance from your home. But, check out the parking situation at the cruise port ahead of time.

I love the hassle free baggage and concierge service. I especially love that you can see several places on one trip.  The all-inclusive food options and eat what and when you want is very easy.  The option of activities are endless and there’s something for everyone. And, of course, I love the never ending views of the ocean.

Noel D’Allacco has been cruising with her husband since 2008.  Now they are seeking out the best cruise ships and destinations as they plan their next cruise with their first child.  Noel is a New York native, living in Westchester County, NY, where she runs her own national non-profit organization, Operation PROM.  She also hosts a local radio show offering business advice to entrepreneurs.