The entire idea of going on a cruise may be daunting for newcomers, but it shouldn't be. Simply avoid these 10 common mistakes and you'll be cruising like a pro in no time.
Pick the Wrong Cruise Line or Ship
Selecting the right cruise line and ship makes a world of difference. That decision will determine if you fall madly in love with this type of travel or run screaming from the gangway. Each cruise line has its own style and price point and each ship has its own vibe that often depends on the ship's age and amenities, crew, guest contingent, and the ports the ship calls upon. If you stay at full-service hotels like Four Seasons or Ritz-Carlton on land, booking an inside cabin on a budget line like Carnival or Norwegian Cruise Line might be a mistake. Likewise, if you're traveling with small children, be sure to select a company like Disney Cruise Line that caters to families and offers special programs for kids. The best way to learn about different cruise lines is to talk with friends and family who have sailed before.
Select the Wrong Itinerary
Deciding on an itinerary goes hand in hand with picking the cruise line and ship. If, for example, your heart is set on an exotic voyage around Indonesia, you've got to pick a ship that offers that particular itinerary. Draw up a list of where you want to go and then cross-reference it with your short list of preferred cruise lines. That will reveal the best options. Spend some time reviewing the itineraries listed at each cruise line's website.
Don't pick an itinerary just because it's cheap. Select a voyage because the ports (or the number of sea days) intrigue you. If you're an outdoorsy type, small-ship cruising with Un-Cruise Adventures in Alaska or SeaDream Yacht Club in the Caribbean might be your style. If you're interested in the arts, maybe a Mediterranean cruise calling on the major cities of Europe is your best bet. If you hate the cold weather, Antarctica might not be your idea of fun. Think about your vacation style on land and then pick a voyage that has a similar profile.
Book the Wrong Cabin
Some people think that every cabin on a cruise ship is the same. That's simply not the case. You can choose from a variety of options that include inside cabins with no windows to the outside world, ocean view rooms that are outfitted with either a porthole or picture window, or a suite with a balcony. Various cabin categories also come with different amenities. Regent Seven Seas and other cruise lines offer butler service to suite passengers. Some cruise lines, like Celebrity and Costa, also offer special "spa" cabins that are situated near spa facilities and include certain treatments in the per passenger fare. Think about what's important to you and select a cabin accordingly.
If you're new to cruising or are sailing in what are traditionally rough waters, you may wish to book a cabin on a low deck, midship. This is where you'll feel the least amount of movement, which can help if you're prone to seasickness.
Neglect Passport and Visa Requirements
Whenever you book an overseas vacation, it's important to research any passport or visa requirements. The US Department of State offers detailed information regarding requirements of countries throughout the world. Be sure you carry the right credentials. Otherwise, the cruise line will have no choice but to deny you boarding or keep you on the ship if you don't have the necessary visa to visit a port of call. (In many areas of the world, the cruise line provides a "blanket" visa for everyone on board so you don't have to worry about it. Carefully read your cruise documentation to see if that's the case during your vacation.)
Skip the Travel Agent
One of the most costly mistakes first-time cruisers make is going it alone. Use a competent travel agent that specializes in cruising. He or she will be an invaluable resource as you pick your cruise line, ship, cabin, and itinerary. Travel agents can also step you through any visa requirements. And, best of all, using a travel agent costs you nothing. In fact, oftentimes you'll find the best pricing from agents who may also include extras like pre-paid gratuities, a complimentary spa treatment or shore excursion, a welcome amenity in your cabin, or a cash-back rebate on your cruise fare.
There's one additional benefit of using a travel agent. If something goes wrong during your vacation (and let's hope it doesn't), contact your agent and it's now his or her problem to solve. Always enlist your agent to handle issues on your behalf.
Pass on the Specialty Restaurants
If you've never been on a cruise before, you may not realize that each ship offers a variety of dining options. You'll always have the choice of dining in the "main" restaurant, but don't discount the other options. Many ships have "specialty" restaurants—some of which charge an extra fee and some that don't. The menu may feature steaks and seafood or Italian cuisine or sushi. These dining rooms are often gems. Make sure to make reservations for all the restaurants you want to try as soon as you board the ship (if you haven't done so prior to embarkation).
Forget Port Prep
First-time cruisers often forget to pre-plan their days in port. A newbie cruiser may sleep in, have a leisurely breakfast, and then seek out information about the port the ship is docked at—only to find out that it's too late to book one of the ship's shore excursions (they probably departed hours earlier). Before you leave home, decide which ports you really want to explore and draw up a short list of places to sightsee. Review the ship's shore excursion options, book a private guide in advance, or buy a map and go the DIY route.
If you're in Rome, for example, and want to tour the Vatican, get in line early. Otherwise, the wait may be too long when you arrive in the afternoon and you'll run the risk of missing the boat (literally) at the end of the day.
Miss Port Talks and Lectures
If you didn't have time to do any research on your itinerary's ports of call, be sure to attend the nightly "port talks" that give the lay of the land and include details like if there is a free shuttle from the port to the center of town, where to find taxis or ATMs, can't-miss sights, and souvenir options.
Most cruise ships also host experts that give lectures on topics of interest or about the history of the region in which you're cruising. These events are a fantastic way to learn more and meet fellow passengers. Don't miss them.
Each cruise line is different so it's important to do a bit of research—or talk with your travel agent—to find out about things like beverage packages, laundry service, Internet access, and more. Some lines will only let you buy a beverage package on the first day of the cruise so it pays to research or ask onboard. Head to the reception desk to get more details and arrange for packages.
Avoid the Crew
Finally, don't forget to interact with the ship's officers and crew. These individuals travel for a living and can probably share a lot of little-known facts about the ship and the ports of call you'll visit. The crew can also share some amazing stories about their own travels. Take the time to stop and chat with the crew whenever you can, you'll be glad you did.
Andrea M. Rotondo is a freelance writer based in New York City. She covers cruise news and luxury travel trends for Fodors.com and writes for a variety of outlets, including her website Luxury Travel Mavens. Follow her on Twitter: @luxtravelmavens.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line