Everything to Know Before Booking Your First Cruise

Seasoned travel experts share tips for navigating the dizzying assortment of itineraries, destinations, and ships to choose from. 
How to Book a Cruise 2021 NCL Bliss Endicott Arm Alaska 2018
Courtesy Norwegian Cruise Line

Approaching how to book a cruise for the first time has always been somewhat daunting, with a dizzying assortment of itineraries, companies, destinations, and ships to choose from. How can first-timers book a cruise without going wrong? We asked three Traveler-approved experts for their seasoned advice: Gene Sloan is cruise editor for The Points Guy; Jason Leppert is cruise editor for TravelAge West; Carolyn Spencer Brown is Cruise Media’s chief content officer. All three are industry experts that have decades of experience across various types of cruises.

What’s the ideal cruise length for a first-timer?

A week or so is the sweet spot for most first-time cruisers, which will offer three to six ports. Three-day sampler itineraries won’t allow you to explore more than one or two destinations, and you can’t decompress as thoroughly, either. Still, Leppert suggests a weekend trip could be enough for those that just want to try out cruising for the first time to see if you like it. 

While that’s  a good idea for some, Sloan also points out that cruise lines don’t always put their best ships on shorter runs. The ships on these itineraries can sometimes be older and have fewer of the bells and whistles that draw people to cruising in the first place. He says it is not exactly representative of the latest cruising has to offer, and the destinations on super-short cruises are not always the most unique offerings.

What’s the best way to book a cruise?

Many may wonder: Is it cheaper to book a cruise direct? Sure, you can book a cruise online—but it’s a rookie mistake. Smart cruisers know the best place to book a cruise is with a travel agent. Though agents’ roles have diminished in the mass-market travel biz, they remain crucial for cruising. Not only can specialists offer seasoned advice, but they can also wrangle deals and promos: Ask them about shipboard credit, which is the ocean equivalent of a gift card to spend onboard—$100 or so is a standard bonus. They may also have access to group rates, according to Sloan. Even if their prices are similar to those when booking direct, the volume of business agents do with cruise lines means you are more likely to score perks like a cabin upgrade or welcome bottle of Champagne when using one.

As the industry reinvents itself in the wake of the pandemic, it’s never been more important to have expert counsel, adds Spencer Brown. “At the end of the day, you’re going on this trip to relax, have fun, learn something, and get away from your everyday world. I want that support system.”

If something goes wrong, an agent can help rectify the situation faster than you may be able to if you go it alone. You won’t be paying more for their service, either. Most make their money via commissions from the cruise lines. Leppert calls it “the best of the best” advice to go with a travel advisor. 

What’s the best time to book a cruise?

If you're looking to leverage new cruise deals, the best way to book a cruise is by starting early since prices continue to be robust. “There’s so much pent-up demand. People haven’t traveled for a year or more, so they’re spending more money on the trips they’re going on—upgrading to a nicer suite, perhaps,” says Spencer Brown. This could make it harder to secure the cabin you want on the sailing you want.

Leppert highlights Wave Season (January through March) for booking a future cruise since this is when cruise lines typically announce their best deals although last-minute bargains always pop up. Like Spencer Brown, he says that demand is outpacing inventory so it is best to book as soon as possible.

Sloan agrees and says people book cruises much further in advance than a hotel or flight, which means that inventory can get gobbled up quickly. Many cruise lines open up their reservation window as far as two years in advance, which means certain cabins can get snatched up. Don’t forget that many travelers are looking to use leftover credits they have from the pandemic, which further compounds the demand.

Most major cruise lines offer the equivalent of a price adjustment—if the cost of your cruise drops after you pay a deposit, but before the final payment, you’ll be protected, and refunded the difference. This means there is little penalty to reserving as early as possible.

What are the best types of cruises for first-timers?

Opt for a winter sun trip in the Caribbean. It’s easy and affordable to reach the boarding port, and shuttling between the clusters of islands offers a compact, convenient way to experience a multitude of cultures. “Think of a cruise as a tapas menu,” says Spencer Brown—it allows you to sample destinations to which you might later return for a longer visit. Even handier, when on a Caribbean cruise almost every island accepts payment in dollars, so there’s no need to juggle currencies. The waters also are largely calm, keeping seasickness to a minimum.

River cruising is another smart first-time choice, adds Spencer Brown. “You can literally walk off the ship into town, go to a park or ride a bike, or just sit on the top deck breathing the air—it’s marvelous,” she says. 

Sloan offers another take saying that your travel budget should lead the way. If you are prepared to drop $1,000 a night on a cruise, start out on an upscale line with smaller ships like Silversea Cruises or Seabourn. These will give you a taste of cruising with fewer passengers, and often to smaller, less-frequented ports. 

If the budget leans more toward the $100 per-day price point, try one of the newer mega-ships from Norwegian Cruise Line or Royal Caribbean. These newer ships can have a bustling resort vibe that will keep you busy no matter what your cabin type.

Seasoned cruisers know that ship amenities are often less buys while at port.

Courtesy MSC

Understanding cabin categories

There’s a dizzying array of options (and pricing) for staterooms, especially on larger ships. First-timers who simply want a place to crash often book the cheapest category, an interior cabin with no window or balcony. 

If you fall for the trappings of a bargain-basement deal, that cheapie stateroom might be right across from the service area, with a door slamming shut 24/7 or underneath the kitchen, with heavy carts rolling at 6 a.m. Avoid cabins below frequently used passageways on the top decks where footsteps and the sound of deck chairs moving frequently can be annoying. Even higher category cabins can be one deck below the main deck so it is wise to ask about this when reserving.

There are several websites with exhaustive cruise deck plan maps that offer advice and user-generated feedback, almost like a sea-going counterpart to SeatGuru’s airline seat maps. These can be a lifesaver when choosing a cabin type.

The scoop on shore excursions

For a first-timer, these can be confusing. Details aren’t often added to an itinerary until six months or so before sail date; check back regularly, snap up a place on any excursions that are of interest, and book early—popular options can reach capacity long before sailing. 

Still, some travelers choose to go off-menu and arrange private excursions, using independent companies, which can often be cheaper than the line's options. Just keep in mind that when taking an independent excursion, the ship won’t wait for you if you’re late. Staying with the cruise line’s jaunts may be more expensive, but is a safer bet if you are not sure of a new destination.

Sloan says that it really depends where the ship is going. In some ports like Barcelona or Venice, it is easy to venture off on your own without an excursion. Others, however, may require longer drives or special access passes making excursions a safer bet.

Another consideration is to use port days to spend more time on the ship. Leppert notes that onboard amenities like pools, buffets and waterslides are less crowded when most people are ashore. If a particular destination doesn’t appeal to you (or perhaps you have been many times before), it’s ok to enjoy the ship instead.

What is a sea day?

Transits, when the ship is en route between ports, are known as sea days (like the term shore excursions, it's more cruise lingo); passengers, obviously, remain on board. Many newbies fret about wasting time at sea rather than exploring, but they’re often a fun chance to explore the ship itself, as well as decompress between ports. Some travelers actually book cruises that have at least one or two sea days, especially if it’s a larger ship with loads of amenities like water parks, race car tracks, zip lining, and multiple shows. 

What's the best first cruise for a family?

The mega ships are always primed to be the best first choice for families, whether Norwegian’s 4,200-passenger Escape or the newest Oasis class of ships beginning with the new Wonder of the Seas. Their emphasis is on activities like adrenaline-rushing water slides, surf simulators, and three-tiered race tracks.

Disney Cruise Line is an obvious place to start for families, but it has a surprising number of activities and experiences for adults, too, including adults-only areas on board. Still, this isn’t the line for an adult-only vacation unless you’re a hard-core Disney fan.

How much does it cost to book a cruise?

You may be wondering how much does a 7-day cruise usually cost? The answer is that it depends. The time of year you travel (avoid school holidays, for example), the destination, and the ports of call can affect the overall cost. 

Many travelers enjoy, for example, taking repositioning cruises. These happen typically as the seasons change and cruise lines move their ships from one region to another (between the Mediterranean and the Caribbean, for example). Sometimes, these cruises visit islands that are rarely frequented making them more expensive. Many experts say that they are not ideal for first-time cruisers, however, as there may be many sea days. 

Shorter cruises that rely on drive-market travelers typically come with a lower price point than those in far-flung destinations. Special deals and repeat traveler discounts can also affect the overall cost.

What is the cheapest cruise ship to go on?

These are generally the shorter sailings from Miami or Port Canaveral, for instance, using the larger brands like Carnival, Princess Cruises, or Royal Caribbean, according to Sloan. The best deals are generally in the fall (the low season for Florida departures). Cruises to the Bahamas or the Caribbean tend to be more affordable than those to places like Europe or Alaska.

West Coast travelers can find great bargain deals on cruises to Mexico, too, adds Leppert.

What to know about cruise insurance

Don’t skimp on cruise insurance. Cruise vacations can easily fall prey to flight disruptions or storms that can snarl plans. Check online for insurance policies from places like VisitorsCoverage and Seven Corners, which have reasonable prices for comprehensive coverage.

If you’re flying to the embarkation point, plan to arrive the day before—even the most perfect cruise won’t wait if you’re stuck in air traffic congestion all morning. Yet another reason to ensure you’re insured.