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First time cruiser, I need some advice!

I've never been on a cruise before, and we're looking at doing one next year. It would be with my three kids (1, 5, and 8) and my in laws (50+) and my husband and I (30+).
We're doing a west Caribbean cruise with Norwegian. I am treating this as more of a "vacation" than "travel" if that distinction makes sense to many one but me. I know we'll not see a lot of culture and time will be limited. Ideally it is a relaxing good time for the family with a couple cool experiences thrown in.

For you experienced cruisers: what are your favorite travel hacks for making the most of your time? Excursion with the cruise vs a local company, when is one better than the other? What should I know before I even board the ship? I'm a total novice, I have no idea.

I'm not concerned with the covid related issues because the cruise line will actually inform us of those, it's the sneaky stuff they don't want you to know about so they can charge you more money that I need to know!
I'd love to hear your cruise experiences, even if they are with different cruise lines and different ports!

Edit: Again, not interested in covid info! I am fully aware of the restrictions in place currently, not only are they not likely to be the same 6 months from now (set to be reevaluated the start of the year actually), vaccines for kids will be approved in the US within the next month or two. Fortunately, cruises are still being quite flexible with booking if the vaccines are for some reason not approved. believe it or not, I have been following these this rather closely. You don't know what things will look like 6 months from now and neither do I, so let's just chat about cruising logistics, shall we?

Posted by
13510 posts

Hi Claire,
The RS forums are heavily weighed to questions about European travel so I'd post your question on Cruisecritic; a good site for tourists traveling via cruise ships to any number of International locations. Few members here may be able to answer to questions about trips to the West Caribbean, although it's not impossible! :O)

Their forum board about Norwegian Cruise Lines:

Posted by
5172 posts

Things do change quickly on the Covid front, but right now all guests have to be vaccinated in order to cruise on Norwegian. If I understand their policies correctly, your children would not be allowed to cruise under current safety requirements of this line.

Royal Caribbean only requires those 12 and older (those who are approved for vaccine) to show proof of vaccination but requires more testing for children 0-12 although they are allowed to board. Once on ship, you are restricted from some areas that are vaccinated only, but they have a dining room and an area of the theater where people with children can go.

Make sure you contact your travel agent or the cruise line to double check their vaccination policy. I'd hate to see you spend a lot of money on airfare, etc only to find that your children won't be allowed to board.

Posted by
6642 posts

Absolutely its a vacation. A resort hotel that moves. The nice thing about cruises for families, is that you don't have to stay together the whole time. Some people dont even leave the ship in port. I'll give three pointers.

Soft drinks and alcohol are usually extra cost and you can run up quite a tab if you need those. What many people do is carry onboard cases of water/soda (brought as part of your luggage allowance). Some cruise lines have rules limiting alcohol brought onboard and check your bags on return to ship. So read the rules, and pay attention to that. They usually offer drink "packages" at additional daily costs that may or may not be worthwhile.

Excursions. For your first time, I'd stick with the ship offered excursions. For one reason, those people scheduled on an excursion usually get off the ship first in port. But more importantly, if you're on a ship's excursion they won't leave without you if there is a delay in your return to the dock. We've seen people left behind on the dock and its not pretty. The tip is to sign up early (even before you leave home) for those excursions you definitely want to do. They can fill up. Yes they are restrictive, sometimes too shopping focused, and following a herd. But it keeps you from having to plan in unfamiliar places.

Telephone/ wifi. Check into their services before you leave. When I last did a cruise, they were still charging for wifi and cell service.

Posted by
2560 posts

Carol is correct. Even if the vaccine is approved for children the lower age limit will probably be 5. Norwegian requires all passengers to be vaccinated so your 1 year old would not qualify. Cruising can be fun with kids but (COVID aside) some lines are just better. Top is Disney. They would love it and so would you. If the kids are happy and occupied you will be happy. Royal Caribbean has a time tested kids program. Carnival is down market and you’ll likely not like it. As for “stuff they don’t want you to know about so they can charge you more”…not sure what you mean. Start with your basic cruise price. Add the tips which are usually added automatically, and that’s it. You could conceivably not spend another dollar. What will cost extra is specialty dining, alcohol, some non-alcoholic beverages (soda, specialty coffees) tours, spa treatments, laundry, photographs, wi-fi so you need to budget for those. Read your cruise documents carefully. There is no sneaky business in my experience. Tours through the cruise line are more expensive but generally reliable. You’ll do better cost wise researching and booking on your own. As for COVID: don’t depend on the cruise line to guide you. Hopefully you have a good travel agent who can track the rapidly changing requirements for testing, vaccination. If your agent advised you to cruise Norwegian in light of your children’s ages and that lines vaccination requirements, get a new agent. And, by all means get travel insurance!
EDITED TO ADD: arrive at least the day before and overnight near the cruise terminal. Have a small bag with bathing suits, some sunscreen, meds to carry on as your luggage will follow you later, sometimes much later. Fun to get on the ship and take a dip!

Posted by
845 posts

A cruise can be an amazing family vacation! We took a Disney cruise to the Eastern Caribbean (St. Thomas, San Juan & Bahamas) in 2015 when my kids were 8 and 11. We all LOVED it. Take advantage of the kids club, especially for the older kids. Our kids couldn’t wait to get away from us and go to the clubs. We had a great combination of family time and couple time. Maybe the grandparents will watch the baby one night and you can have a “date night”.

Extra costs can add up fast: tips, drinks, special restaurants, picture packages, excursions, souvenirs, etc. If you drink, find out what alcohol you can bring on board. We didn’t do any ship excursions. In San Juan we took a taxi to the fort, then wandered the streets, had lunch and wandered some more. In St. Thomas we took a bus to a beach, went snorkeling, then a bus back to the port for some shopping. Just make SURE you get back to the boat in PLENTY of time or you will get left behind. Google pier runners, it’s pretty funny. If you take the ship’s excursions, you won’t get left behind, but they are expensive. Most port towns have lots to do without taking an excursion, just be mindful if the clock.

Posted by
5172 posts

My post about Norwegian policy was made in kindness to potentially save you some trouble since you said you were new to everything. I hope everything goes well for you and I probably won’t participate in this thread any further…….

Posted by
87 posts

Sorry if my edit was overly harsh Carol! I'm not trying to give offense. The covid policies are stated very clearly by the cruise line, whereas extra fees are more often obfuscated. The covid stuff is pretty much the only thing I know for sure, so if I wasn't clear in my initial post and subsequent edit, I am looking for more general tips on how to maximize our time and relax without incurring surprise charges.
Sass is my native tongue, but I recognize that it doesn't come through in text as intended. I also wanted to quickly nip that train of conversation in the bud so I can get the information I'm looking for instead of another thread on covid travel.

Posted by
201 posts

An often overlooked, understated or misunderstood component of any cruise travel into international waters is the value of carrying a passport. Illness or an emergency that requires evacuation by air necessitates a passport for return to the United States. Even if the itinerary does not include embarking in a foreign country one can never be too prepared for the unexpected.

Posted by
3270 posts

"whereas extra fees are more often obfuscated. "

I'm not sure where you got the idea that the cruise lines are deliberately trying to hide extra fees or confuse their customers. Perhaps it is a case of a new cruiser who needs to do adequate research before settling on a cruise package. Since it appears you've already booked a cruise without understanding what is involved, you have some catching up to do.

As previously recommended, spend some time on Cruise Critic. There is the forum devoted to NCL. There are also forums for first time cruisers and family cruising which should be informative and where you can expect good info to specific questions you may want to ask.

Familiarize yourself with your cruise line's website. Somewhere (usually in the faqs) will be a list of what is included. If something isn't listed there, then expect it to be for a fee. NCL is famous for nickel and diming unless you're in a high end suite.

There are also innumerable cruising channels on You Tube that discuss different lines and ships, giving pros and cons, as well as tips for cruisers on everything from how to pick a cruise, ship, cabin category, to what to pack and what excursions are good, what "extras" are worth the money, and common mistakes to avoid.

Posted by
87 posts

CJean, I haven't actually booked it yet. I asked for advice before booking. Hence I am here. At the point of booking I am already seeing a lot of issues of fees and costs not being clear, so that is exactly where I am getting that idea from 🤪.
Filling out all my personal information over and over again to see an accurate number is obfuscation in my book.
Any chance you can recommend one or two YouTube channels that are good? There's a lot of useless stuff on YouTube too, I'd rather not waste my time on a bunch of videos that don't help me much.

Posted by
1782 posts

Hi Claire, cruise excursions are costly when booking with your cruise line so a lot of people book their own excursion with a competitor of the cruise line who offers the same tour at a lower rate. The downfall is, if your tour operator fails to drop you off in time, you might miss your ship. That won’t happen if you book your excursion through your cruise line.

Posted by
370 posts

For a Caribbean cruise some years ago I used Cruise Critic, Frommers and Fodors Caribbean Ports of Call to decide when a cruise line tour would be best based on length of the tour and distance from the port of the attractions I wanted to see. We did three cruise line tours and three on our own with private guides or small groups. It was our first cruise and all went well. We did plan carefully to be back in the area near the ship an hour or two ahead when we were on our own. Then we would shop or have a drink until we were ready to board. While very different from our usual trips where we spend more time at each destination, I enjoyed it. I think cruises are ideal for multi-generational groups like yours and the Caribbean is an ideal area to explore by cruising.

Posted by
6642 posts

Claire89, cruises are one area where it helps to get advice from an experienced travel agent. Some cabins are better than others, for example, and the specific ship's layout and location is important. For example, you dont want to be under the disco, over the casino, or next to the elevators. A balcony is worth the splurge. A live TA is worth knowing.

Posted by
1767 posts

Lots of excellent youtubers on the subject. Three that cruise with children are 1) CruiseTipsTv 2) EECC Travels 3 ) Sharon at Sea. Most cruise youtubers have regular LIVE CHATS where they try to answer questions.

Posted by
3270 posts

In addition to the channels that Stephen mentioned, Tips for Travellers and Life Well Cruised do very good videos that include tips for newer cruisers as well as insightful comparisons of the pros and cons of different lines and ships. La Lido Loca is more newsy, with daily short vlogs about new changes occurring on the various lines, as well as travel vlogs of his cruises. And with the fast changing environment in cruising, that's not something to disregard.

And I completely agree with Stan about using a TA. One who is experienced with cruises. While I am happy to independently plan and book my land travels 90% of the time, I have ALWAYS, over several decades, used a TA for our cruises. They can remove any confusion you may have, recommend options that you may not even know about, and generally make the whole process easier and less stressful. AND a good one who takes the time to know your preferences and priorities can help steer you away from any poor choices.

Posted by
5476 posts

I have been on international cruises where our passports were not returned to us until disembarkation, and we were given a letter to carry while ashore. Treatment was not different for ship-excursions or independent shore time.

I might suggest that a Caribbean cruise is different from, say, European or Asian cruises. A port stop may be about beaches, geological features of the island, or (say St. Thomas) shopping. I suggest that you go to the library and look at a comprehensive guidebook to see what might be "special" about each of your ports before you decide. I mean, for example, that St. John has a couple of beaches that are considered among the best beaches in the world. A place like Mayreau or a BVI island may have a single, very special beach experience. But I can't justify the expense and trouble of a cruise to go to "just another crowded beach." Another issue is whether the "Beach Barbecue" is at a purpose-built "private island" kind of thing, or a more inclusive stop with a whole day in the area.

(our related experiences, both Windstar: "Costa Rica & Panama Canal", "Mayan Riviera")
Without getting into contemporary issues like "Indigenous Peoples Day", I would think about whether you are really interested in touring remnants of ... er ... oppressive colonial history? I'm not trying to make you feel guilty, but only suggesting that the number of things to see on a small island may be limited.

Posted by
1767 posts

The 2 Youtubers CJean mentions are very good. One Youtuber with some good hints for traveling with younger children is Wolters World

Posted by
3621 posts

...stick with the ship offered excursions...those people scheduled on an excursion usually get off the ship first...if you're on a ship's excursion they won't leave without you if there is a delay in your return to the dock... seen people left behind on the dock...sign up early (even before you leave home) for those excursions you definitely want to do.

Stan is spot on with his advice as condensed above. We only do stuff on our own if it is close enough to the port we can get back on foot if need be. We've also seen folks left on the dock.

You may run into an age limit problem with some of the kids. Just check it out ahead of time.

Posted by
2560 posts

Cabins-if you’ve not cruised be prepared for small cabins. You did not indicate how many you are planning to get. We always opt for a balcony but when the kids were little we did not because of safety concerns. Getting all three kids with you in a cabin will be tough so hopefully your in-laws will take 1 or 2. Connecting cabins are handy but book quickly. If there is any sea sickness (uncommon on big ships) lower down, center of ship is the least movement. If one or more kids is a girl get hair braids when you visit an island. Takes long, it’s corny but looks so cute. You won’t have to find a braider, they will find you!

Posted by
5486 posts

We have done 7 NCL cruises as well as 13 others and enjoyed them all.
Caribbean cruises are more about the scenic places and enjoying the island experience at each port. There are some historical places on some of the islands.
Advantages of a cruise are that you don't have to change hotels during your trip. Disadvantages are that you might wish to spend more time at some places.
Regarding more research, consider the cruise critic website with threads for each cruise line and location.
NCL used to be the line with the best prices, but once they forced bundled prices with drink packages and other items, their prices have significantly increased. I prefer Royal Caribbean's prices which don't force the bundled pricing on us, since we don't drink heavily.
Regarding excursions, we occasionally take a ship's excursion, but finding your private tours in advance will save you lots of money and you will have fewer people on your tour.
Problem, with COVID19, you might be forced to take the ship's excursions.
Here are some of our cruise reviews that I posted on cruise critic, it includes on Caribbean cruise.
Alaska, Vancouver and the Canadian Rockies
Japan and a little bit of China
Singapore to Dubai
South America
Black Sea and E. Med
British Isles
W. Med  NCL Epic
AMA Rhone River
Southern Caribbean
Spain, Canary Islands and Morocco
E. Med and Adriatic, NCL Gem
Russia, Kiev and Baltics

North Sea/Atl and Transatlantic
 Portugal, the Douro River and a bit of Spain

28 days in Britain and Celebrity Eclipse home
Melbourne, New Zealand and Explorer of the Seas TransPacific cruise

New England and Eastern Canada
Cusco, Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu and Celebrity Eclipse home

Stockholm and Norway Aritic Circle

Posted by
57 posts

I am from Florida, so we've taken many cruises simply because it is so easy and economical to go here. When the kids were young, the best thing to do was an excursion with the ship. They arrange it all, you get off earlier than when not on a ship excursion and you know that the ship will not leave without your excursion getting back. That being said, they WILL leave you if you wander off from the group....We saw that happen a couple times and the leader simply said, oh well, we have to keep to the schedule!

If you book your own excursions be prepared. We have done that several times, and most worked out. However, we did miss a pre-booked and expensive diving trip with my husband and both kids because the ship was late in port and they made us wait until all the other passengers on their excursions got off. Our pre-paid taxi left without us :(

The kids area on the ships are great and I felt very safe and secure with them. My children loved them and it give the parents a chance for a little free time to do things not available/appropriate for children. Plenty of activities for both family time, child time and parent time...easily available to do what ever you want.

Also, as mentioned above, be prepared to pay extra for everything...even a cup of coffee, unless you want it in the the very crowded cafeteria area. We now do Viking, everything including excursions is included....the kids are now all grown up! :)

Posted by
5262 posts

We've done many NCL cruises, several in the Caribbean. You're right, it won't be like a land trip in Europe where you get a lot of education and culture as part of the sightseeing. It will be an enjoyable escape from US winter weather and a chance for a multi-generation family to enjoy each other's company and also do their own things. We like NCL because it seems reasonably priced and the "freestyle" dining system is much more flexible than having dinner at a set time each night with the same people. That said, as a family you might want to make dinner together the one constant in each day's schedule. We also like the relatively casual dress code, no need to pack formal stuff unless you want to.

As a rule, cabins are smaller than US hotel rooms, though with more storage space than you might expect. Showers are like phone booths (remember those?). A balcony cabin gives you more space, and for the Caribbean I'd definitely recommend one. You can spend a lot of time out there just chilling and watching the water.

NCL does "nickel and dime" things like drinks, meals at nicer "specialty" restaurants, wifi, photos, and laundry. But there's no deception involved, you know when something is going to cost. The selling is relentless, you just have to tune it out if you're not interested.

The excursions are overpriced, and I think the risk of being left at the pier is low if you arrange your own tours, often with the same companies that are doing it for the cruise line. But as first-timers you may want to stick with what the ship offers. And sometimes it's enough to just get off and walk around the port.

Hope all this helps. If you set your expectations right, and it seems like you have, you'll have a wonderful time.

Posted by
1767 posts

With the current NCL promos, you might get $50 off per cabin on their shore excursions. This might bring the cost down to be similar to independent tours. I am choosing to do this on my next cruise.

Posted by
260 posts

We are also Floridians who take lots of cruises. Plan your extra spending wisely. It can double the cost of your vacation. Here are several ideas. Use the WiFi when in port. Find a coffee shop/bar or business that has a free connection and enjoy a drink. WiFi on ship is notoriously slow and expensive. Most cruise lines allow you to bring one small bottle of wine or a 12 pack of soda. Find out if this goes for the kids or just adults. Take advantage of that for the family. Any drink package will have to be purchased for everyone in the room. That is expensive. Take your own photos. Gambling is a personal choice for spending money. Consider short trips off the ship with kids. Your group is big enough to take a large taxi or van to the beach or animal farms. Don’t pay for this head of time. There’s always rides available. Find playgrounds in the ports and picnic. A cruise with private island stops are great for a beach day. It is easy to come and go to the ship. The private islands tend to be in the eastern Caribbean. Others have given good recommendations regarding kids clubs and always having dinner together. The one year old will be the biggest challenge for planning your time. The older kids will consider the ship a giant playground with the other kids. We have done two family cruises, all adults. Nobody had to clean, feed or plan all the time. It was a good family reunion. Happy cruising!

Posted by
3683 posts

Along with Bembridge's Tips for Travellers on YouTube, EmmaCruises provides a somewhat different perspective because she sails on a budget and usually occupies cheap(er) inside cabins. Both of them are fairly careful about acknowledging when their cruises are free (or "comped", as the industry puts it).