20 Common Questions of a First-Time Cruiser

Addressing the most common questions associated with cruising

If you’ve never been on a cruise before, you’re going to wonder about some things. To give you a better understanding of how a cruise works, we’ve answered 20 of the most-asked cruise questions.

Do I need a passport?

It’s ideal to have passports for everyone in your party — and that everyone’s passport is valid for at least six months beyond the date of travel. However, for closed-loop sailings, (those that depart a domestic port and return to the same port) it is, in most cases, possible to cruise with a government-issued photo ID (for travelers age 16+) and proof of citizenship. Non-U.S. citizens who reside in the U.S. will need their passports and, in some cases, a visa or a green card.

Each cruise line provides thorough information online outlining the required documentation, and cruise lines also generally require passport/ID numbers to be provided a few months out from the cruise date. If you have any doubts, discuss with a cruise line representative at the time you submit this information.

Important caveats if you’re trying to cruise without passports: The only closed-loop itineraries that may allow this are those traveling to Mexico, the Caribbean or Canada.  Many Caribbean countries, including Barbados and Cayman Islands, require a passport for entry. Also, even if your cruise line doesn’t require a passport, if you’re embarking at a non-U.S. location (e.g., somewhere in Canada or Mexico), you will still need passports to cross the border. You do not need a passport to cruise to Hawaii as long as you leave from and return to a U.S. port.

Bottom line:  we recommend getting a passport; even if you can sail without one, it’s always better to be safe on documentation.

What’s the boarding process like? Is it the same process as boarding a plane?

Most cruise lines have found ways to make the process much smoother than it was in the past. The cruise company will instruct you in advance with a specific window of when to arrive at the terminal and check in. You’ll also be provided with boarding documents, either in the mail or electronically that you print out. Keep these and your passport/official ID with you on the day of embarkation.

For larger ships, you’ll meet your port transfer shuttle at the airport then head to the port. You’ll go through security, check in, get your picture taken and receive your cruise card. Once all of that is handled, you will either queue up or head to a waiting area. When cleared for boarding, it’s the quintessential cruise moment of walking up a red-carpeted gangway with a photographer popping up to snap your “official” photo (smile!) as you enter the ship itself.

The queues for large ships seem long — especially if you arrive on the early side, because everyone wants to be first in — but the whole process usually doesn’t take more than one hour. After that, you may still have to wait to a couple of hours to access your stateroom, and your bag will be delivered later. Some cruise veterans intentionally arrive toward the end of the embarkation/check-in-time window to avoid the lines, but that can be risky. Some lines allow people to purchase expedited priority check-in, and on boutique lines, the process is personalized and handled right on a dock — no rigorous security or lines at all.

Can I get off the ship if I’m not doing a shore excursion?

Absolutely! If you’re sailing on a smaller ship with cruise lines such as Viking River Cruises, Ponant or Avalon Waterways, you’ll simply need to pick up a shore pass from the purser’s desk before you disembark. Large ships from cruise lines such as Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, Carnival and others require that you scan your cruise card when you embark and disembark.

Expedition cruises such as Un-Cruise and Silversea Expeditions that travel to remote locations can be the exception. Rule of thumb: If there’s no actual cruise port, there’s probably no infrastructure to speak of. In some of these places (such as Aswan, Egypt), passengers are only allowed to disembark with an escort for their own safety.

How long are you in port?

This varies, with the shortest port stops usually being a half day (eight to 10 hours) and the longest being a two-night stay. Those two-nighters are a rare occurrence, though, and generally only are offered on long cruises in select ports (Cape Town, St. Petersburg). Azamara Club Cruises and Crystal Cruises are among the front-runners in the extended-stay game. Plenty of cruise lines are increasing their overnight stays to accommodate customer demand — most commonly in Europe, but also in the Caribbean, Mexico and Asia.

Are on-shore activities included?

This varies from a blanket “no” for the mainstream mega lines like Norwegian, Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Disney to a blanket “yes” on luxury lines like Silversea. Most boutique, luxury or expedition lines, such as Un-Cruise Adventures, Windstar Cruises and Azamara, fall somewhere in between, with some basic tours included but special excursions carrying an extra charge.

Can I sail if I’m pregnant?

Yes, as long as your pregnancy is not high risk or close to term, you should be fine to cruise while pregnant. Generally, cruise lines welcome women up to their sixth month of pregnancy, although each has its own rules. Some cruise lines require doctors’ notes, so check online before you book. Also, research the ports well and pick excursions wisely; don’t sign up for anything in extreme temperatures or physically risky conditions. Also, it’s best to avoid lengthy bus rides. For more details, check out Cruising When You’re Pregnant.

Can I get married on a ship?

Absolutely, yes! However, you most likely can’t elope, since every element from the marriage certificate to the champagne toast requires some advance planning. If you’re thinking of a wedding cruise, check out our roundup of the top five wedding-friendly cruise lines.

How can I keep track of what’s happening so I don’t miss anything I really want to do?

Cruise lines make it pretty easy for passengers to know what’s being offered on the ship and on land at any given time. You’ll receive a detailed itinerary ahead of time for planning purposes and a printed rundown of the next day’s offerings in your cabin every night. The mass-market lines have all begun offering some sort of downloadable app featuring time management and booking capabilities. And it’s no surprise that family-friendly mega-liner apps (Disney’s, Carnival’s, and Royal Caribbean’s recently redesigned Royal iQ) encourage guests to download the apps and use them to plan and organize their days. Note: You can download them before you get on the ship but can’t load them until you’re connected to the ship’s wi-fi.

Many apps also offer texting/chat with other passengers for free or a nominal fee so you can easily meet up with people for a shore excursion or receive reminders like ”See you at the steakhouse in two minutes!” If you’re not app-savvy, look for computer terminals on the ship, where you can view itinerary information and make reservations sans data fees. And there’s the informational in-room TV channels that give you a lowdown on ship activities. Right now, most lines use a combination.

For people who like detailed information on upcoming activities, mid-size and smaller ships typically have a presentation about the next day’s offerings every evening before dinner. Also, the shipboard concierges and front-desk staff can answer any activity questions. And finally, there’s an announcement over the loudspeaker that shares upcoming shipboard activities, meals or excursions.

Do I need to change money?

A lot of people these days use credit or debit cards for any purchases at port stops. However, if you don’t want to do that, you will probably need foreign currency for purchases, especially in Europe, Asia and other long-haul destinations. Merchants in Caribbean, Bahamian and most Mexican ports usually welcome U.S. dollars, but in Canada, not so much. And keep in mind it’s much easier to bargain at the local markets if you have small amounts of the local currency. Typically you will get the best currency exchange rates at local bank ATMs. We suggest finding a local bank vs. a standalone ATM in port, as those can often include heavy fees and less-than-ideal exchange rates.

Will I get seasick on a cruise ship?

Seasickness happens regularly on both ocean cruises and river cruises, so don’t be embarrassed about it. Large ships will always have a sick bay (an area on the ship used for medical purposes) well stocked with anti-seasickness medication. If you’re on a smaller ship, the purser’s desk (AKA front desk) or sundry shop should have them stocked.

Consider planning ahead and taking over-the-counter motion-sickness medicine or getting a prescription from your doctor for a scopolamine patch to put behind your ear a few hours before your cruise. There are a few tricks to getting rid of seasickness if it should hit, such as eating a green apple, sucking on a lemon or drinking ginger ale.

Here's a complete list of tips on preventing seasickness and tips on combating seasickness.

Can I connect to the Internet on my ship?

Yes, you will be able to get some Internet connectivity on your ship, but not the ubiquitous, endless, free connectivity we’ve become used to on land. Internet connectivity is almost never included in cruise rates, with the exception of a few boutique river cruise lines. Passengers usually either pay by the minute or buy “packages” of connectivity time. Either option has historically been expensive: Lines would charge $0.79 to $0.99 a minute, or $20 to $30 a day for wireless packages.

There a few cruise lines leading the way with improvements:

  • Carnival - In addition to reducing overall pricing and improving connectivity, they have introduced a $5 per day  “social media package” that allows passengers to use minimal  data required for getting on social media.
  • Holland America — a line you wouldn’t necessarily think of as Millennial-minded — is also rolling out social Internet packages.
  • Celebrity, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian all announced enhanced high-speed wireless in 2016, starting on their newest ships and rolling out to other ships in their fleet.

Whether ships have wireless access or not, cruise lines all have computer centers on board their ships, where passengers can either login on their own computers or rent/borrow a ship computer. However, no matter how you connect, don’t be surprised if the Internet is slow or spotty; and this applies to ocean and river cruising.

Are the kids’ clubs safe on cruise ships? Will my kids have fun?

Kids’ clubs on cruise ships place a priority on safety, and most will only hire people certified/qualified in childcare or education. Youth staffers also receive training in basic first aid, and more of them are being trained in providing care to those with limited abilities or dietary restrictions.

As for the security of the actual area, it’s carefully controlled. Most are locked and require people to be buzzed in, with different protocols as to how much freedom older kids and teens can have in looking after themselves and checking themselves out.

The question of fun really depends on the line. The ones that really cater to families, such as Disney, Norwegian, Carnival and Royal Caribbean, offer youth programs that practically surpass the grown-up offerings. Lines that skew more mature will be more limited in their programming.

Are there really dress codes for meals and events on cruise ships? How strictly enforced are they?

Dressing up for dinner is a longstanding cruise tradition — and one that can apply to certain nightlife and entertainment venues as well. While many cruise lines have relaxed their dress code policies over recent years, there’s still an upscale resort-wear sensibility enforced, especially at the specialty restaurants. Definitely bring a few outfits that are not shorts and tees. For women, a couple of nice dresses or pairs of slacks. Men will always have at least one occasion to wear a jacket, maybe more. Be sure to check how many designated formal nights are on your itinerary.

If you absolutely refuse to dress up, some lines, especially the mass-market ones, will accommodate your shorts-and-tank attire in specific dining areas, but don’t try to cruise into the Captain’s Dinner in cutoffs saying “Sorry, I didn’t know.”

In the daytime, dress is usually casual; especially on island summer cruises when most people are in swimwear. Do be mindful when you’re visiting port, however, that you’re often entering a different country, with its own protocols. Cover up appropriately. Finally, for practical and safety reasons, pack the right footwear for all various activities, even those tentatively planned.

Here’s a look at the dress codes on the most popular cruise lines

Cruise Cabin Types: What’s the difference between an inside cabin, ocean view and balcony?

Inside cabins or staterooms are the smallest cruise cabin type, with no window. Royal Caribbean introduced virtual windows on some ships that display live feed of what is going on outside; it’s not quite a window, but some cruisers like them.

Outside cabins have either portholes or larger windows to the outside, but they may not give a true view of the ocean (some are obstructed by things on the ship, like lifeboats) and do not open.

Ocean view is self-explanatory. If it’s a partial/obstructed ocean view, it will be in a different category with different pricing than a full ocean view. These windows typically don’t open, except on some river cruise ships.

Balcony cabins have a few feet of outdoor space you can step out onto. These are the most expensive. There are a few obstructed-view balcony cabins that cost less than ocean-view balconies.

How does my luggage get into my stateroom on arrival?

Your cruise ship documentation packet will include luggage tags. Except for a small piece of hand luggage, you’ll be expected to affix tags to each piece and hand your bags over to a porter/handler curbside at the port. (It’s customary to tip $1 to $2 per bag.) Your luggage will be delivered to your stateroom, although usually not for some hours after you embark. Because of this (and because most people want to keep valuables and essential items with them), packing your carry-on is something to which you should pay careful attention.

Occasionally, people want to carry their luggage on board themselves. You can do this, with some size and weight limitations. Be aware, though, that the embarkation process can take a while, with an additional wait of a couple of hours before guests are allowed into their staterooms; and there’s no changing your mind and handing the bags off to “someone else” if you get tired of lugging them around.


Who do I tip on a cruise?

Only a few luxury lines have a no-tipping policy, because it’s already included in their fare. On the rest, tipping is usually automated — either the service charge is added automatically onto cruisers’ accounts and charged upon checkout, or cruisers are offered the option to pay the service charge ahead of the cruise. Most cruise lines that add the service charge automatically allow guests to remove the charge from the account. The average service charge is anywhere from $11 to $15 per person per stateroom, and there’s typically a 15 to 18 percent gratuity charged for bar drinks.

On some of the boutique lines, you’re still given the option to pay whatever service fee you deem appropriate, in a suggested per person/per night amount that is divvied up between the entire staff. The old-school method would have you place the cash in an envelope; now, you can sometimes charge it to your credit card-guaranteed account. On top of that, you can always directly tip individual staff members that you particularly like with cash. Always err on the side of generosity; tipping accounts for a significant portion of employee wages, much like it does for servers in the U.S.

Read the full article Tipping on Cruise: Who, How Much and When

Are there security officers on cruise ships?

Cruise ships have security officers. Many of them are former military or law enforcement officers. The larger lines might have a staff of up to 10 security professionals on board at all times. Their role encompasses helping people embark and debark, looking after passengers at ports, and dealing with unruly passengers. If you’re a normal passenger on a smooth-operating cruise, you might never notice the security. If you’re the type to have a few too many drinks and dance on a tabletop … well, just be aware that “cruise jail” is a real thing.

What if my flight is delayed and there's a chance I'll miss my cruise?

Contact your cruise line as soon as you hear about a potential delay. If your flight is part of a cruise travel package, the ship will either wait (especially if many passengers are on the same flight) or arrange for you to meet and embark at the next port of call. However, if you book flights separately from the cruise, the safe bet is to schedule your arrival a day prior to departure and/or get travel insurance that will compensate for any issues due to air carrier delays.

Is alcohol included on a cruise?

On most mainstream ships, no, although there are alcohol-inclusive upgrade packages you can buy. Boutique and luxury lines generally include some alcohol, starting with wine at dinner and expanding to all spirits and most wine (except the very high-end labels) on ultra-luxury ships.

Can I bring alcohol on my cruise ship?

Most cruise line alcohol policies do not allow you to bring liquor on board, but you are often allowed to bring wine and Champagne during embarkation only. Here are the alcohol policies for a few of the popular and larger cruise lines:

  • Carnival Cruise Lines.  You can carry on (during embarkation only) one sealed and unopened 750ml bottle of wine or Champagne per person (21 and over) in your carry-on luggage and will be charged a corkage fee of $15 if you choose to enjoy your wine or Champagne in the main dining room, steakhouse or bar. Any liquor purchased in port or on the ship will be retained until the last day of the cruise.
  • Norwegian Cruise Line.  Passengers can’t bring liquor on board, but if you’re 21 or older, you can bring one bottle of unopened wine or Champagne in sizes 750ml, 1000ml and 1500ml, but no boxed wine. You will be charged a corkage fee ranging from $15 to $30, depending on the size of your bottle. If you purchase liquor in port or in the duty-free shops on board, it will be held until the end of the cruise.\
  • Disney Cruise Line. Cruisers (21 and older) can bring two bottles of unopened wine or Champagne (750 ml) or six beers (no larger than 12 ounces) on embarkation day and in each port of call. The alcohol must be hand-carried in a day bag or carry-on luggage. You will be charged a corkage fee of $25 for consumption in the main dining rooms and cannot bring the beverages to any other venues or public decks. Liquor purchased in port will be stored and returned to the cruiser at the end of the cruise, but purchases made on the ship will be stored and returned to you the last night of the cruise.
  • Royal Caribbean International. Cruisers (21 and older) can bring a maximum of two bottles of unopened and sealed wine or Champagne (750ml or smaller) per cabin during embarkation only. Any liquor purchased in port or on board in the duty-free shops will be held until the end of the cruise.
  • Princess Cruises. Passengers (21 and older) can bring one 750 ml bottle of unopened and sealed wine on board during embarkation and will not be charged a corkage fee if it is consumed in cabin. For anything over the one bottle, cruisers will receive a $15 corkage fee no matter where they plan to consume it. Any liquor purchased on the ship or in port will be retained until the end of the cruise.
  • Celebrity Cruises. Passengers (21 and older) can bring two 750ml bottles of wine or Champagne per stateroom and only at the time of embarkation. You will only be charged a $25 corkage fee if you consume it in any of the bars, restaurants or dining venues on the ship. Alcohol purchased in port will be held until the morning when you get off of the cruise, but alcohol purchased on board will be returned the last night of the cruise.


Check out our cruise hacks for more practical cruising tips.

And if you have a question about cruising, ask us in the comment section below.

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