The single biggest issue with cruising for the first time is working out whether you’re a cruise kind of person (or family). It is a huge expense to fork out on an unknown quantity. Will we like it? What if we hate it? How does it work? How do you get the best value for money? Is it the best use of time when you are exploring Europe? Again, what if we hate it?
You simply can’t answer those questions before you go. And the reality is no one can really answer them for you.
What I can do is tell you what we discovered on our first cruise, why we are choosing to do it again and what my top 10 tips are to make your first cruise a better one.
Turns out – we are a cruise kind of family.
It wasn’t all Hi Dee Hi and happy campers, as I had feared. We didn’t have to mix and mingle on formal nights if we didn’t want to (certainly no need to pack a jacket). We could do stuff together or split up and do things that interested us individually. There was always a place on board that suited the occasion perfectly; be it a quiet bar, an unused corner of the top deck, the ice cream and pizza place by the pool, the kid’s club, a celebration restaurant on my birthday, the library for the resident book worm or a random lecture on digital photography. We crammed heaps in. We ate and drank plenty and we survived in a cabin for 12 nights without killing each other. We found our groove on board and we had a blast.
We also made compromises and learned some lessons. The Ports were not all ones we thought we wanted to see. Often the less anticipated one’s turned out to be the best. Sometimes the one’s you were really excited about, were rather dull or overcrowded. Smaller Ports were better for us than the cities. Traveling with a child is hard if you expect them to do 8 hours of sightseeing every day.
We learned to research each Port in advance. We could always abandon a plan – but if you only have 6 hours somewhere you don’t want to waste it working out the local transport network. We discovered a great company Rome Stephano Tours who met the boat in each Italian port, gave us an English-speaking driver and took us on excursions for the day. It was worth every Euro and we got to see a lot more than we could have otherwise. Being able to say, “forget the queues, take us straight to the Spanish Steps – we need gelato” was priceless.
For my money, cruising with children or in multigenerational groups makes a whole lot of sense. You unpack once, you get to see a lot and you make great use of limited time. There is no fuss about who is paying for the meals and there really is something for everyone on board. Yes, at times it is a bit of a Zoo (forget the first day lunch when only one restaurant is open and everyone is new on board– Hubby nearly disembarked after that!), the cabins aren’t big and the nice restaurants might cost extra, but the only way to know if you like cruising is to give it a go.
For me and my money, it works out to be a great way to explore Europe with children, without too much fuss.
We loved it so much we are doing it again. I’ll be writing about the journey around the Greek Islands, Malta, Sicily, Rome and Dubai, so feel free to send any questions my way and I’ll do my best to answer them. In the meantime, here are my top tips for first time cruisers.
Choosing the cruise line and cruise boat is almost as important as the Ports of call. Get that wrong and it’ll significantly impact on your holiday. Do your research, ask around and be honest with yourselves about what really matters to you as a family.
Use an agent – for the cruise part at least. They will know things that you never thought to ask. Cabin location is important. Depending on the cruise, there could be a better side (Port or Starboard), near the pool – or miles away. A good agent will know the ships, the locations and how to get the best deal. There is also a whole lot of jargon they can navigate you through. Reserved seating or open, formal nights (some take it VERY seriously), drinks packages, passports, visas etc.… We are independent travelers, do all our own bookings for flights and hotels, but will always use our agent Sue when booking a cruise. No one knows more about cruising and she was awesome to deal with.
Book the cruise first, not the airfares. The moment you lock in the cruise (up 18 months ahead) you can then plan around it. We didn’t the first time which meant we had limited cruise options. This time round, it was the first thing we did. Full payment is required 3 months out so if you don’t get the cabin you want first time, keep trying as sometimes previously booked cabins become available and they will let you shift cabins within the same class.
If you can, book a balcony. The views coming into Port in the early morning, sun rising, cup of tea in hand, dolphins jumping over the bow wave, were the highlight for me. I loved it and made sure I got up early every day just to experience it.
Sea days (where you are not in Port at all) are generally very busy poolside, in the Spa or at the specialty restaurants. Plan and book activities for those days either before you board or as soon as you embark.
Buy a drinks package if you like decent coffee, bottled water and decent cocktails and wine. Bringing alcohol on board is difficult and frowned upon or taken off you. Filter coffee is generally free but a latte will set you back $5 USD as will a bottle of water. We made good use of ours.
Kiwi’s get used to tipping. Most ships will automatically add it to your bill per person, per day. You can usually get out of that by heading to reception and opting out and then you pay the people you want to directly, but remember, tips are how most of the crew make their money. The wages on board are terrible and tips make up for it. Ten month stretches at sea, working 7 days a week, away from family is hard slog. Build the cost in to your budget and forget about it or buy a package that includes them.
Don’t use roaming on your phone when at sea. You’ll move in and out of international waters and the charges can be horrendous. If you must have Wi-Fi, buy a package on board – or simply turn it off and enjoy the journey. Tell the office you are uncontactable for 10 days. Most of the Ports have a café with Wi-Fi if you really need to get in touch.
If they have one, buy a laundry package. Nothing like leaving your bag full of dirty washing on your door and having it returned the next day, laundered, wrapped in tissue paper or hanging in the room. As a Mum – I’m telling you it’s worth it and there really isn’t the room in your cabin to get everyone’s washing dry! We arrived on board with 2 weeks washing and left 12 days later with everything ready to go for another fortnight and I didn’t lift a finger – bliss.
Check out Cruise Critic for advice when choosing your cruise. Just remember some people can be damn fussy so read everything with a grain of salt.
What are your top tips for new cruisers. Comment below! Or if you have a question – fire away.