The 10 Things I Learned On My First Cruise
Each week, Travelzoo’s Top 20 brings members cruise deals -- from multi-night Transatlantic cruises to two-night $299 cruises -- offering something for nearly everybody. But the cruise industry reports that only 20% of Americans have ever taken a cruise.
I was among that 80%, having never cruised nor really thought that cruising was for me. My husband and I tend to like to come and go as we please when traveling. But these days we have two young kids; we cannot hop city-to-city across Europe like we used to. The kids add more structure to our travels, and so with that, I’m opening my eyes to travel options that allow for a little more “settling down” while still setting out and about.
Our team of cruise deal experts at Travelzoo inspired me to set a 2015 travel goal of taking my first cruise. The team asked what was important to me -- a big thing I’d recommend to anyone considering a cruise, or really, before booking any type of vacation. Think about what you want and what you like. We like great food and drinks, a 4-star experience, amazing service, visiting places we’ve never been, and an environment where we’ll feel comfortable bringing two children (and where others will be comfortable around them too).
So when Travelzoo ran a Top 20 deal for a five-night cruise out of Fort Lauderdale on the Celebrity Constellation, with a stay in a balcony cabin in the Concierge class, and with a day each in Key West and Cozumel, and we could travel over the Easter spring break week when my son was out of school, it sounded just right for our family.
Our cruise deal experts agreed. So I doubled down and booked two cabins! I figured if we’re going to cruise, we might as well feel comfortable over five nights with the four of us in adjoining rooms. I don’t regret that decision at all; two cabins gave us room to spread out, and space for kids to sleep in one cabin while we listened to music at night in the other cabin.
Here’s what I’ve learned about cruising from our first family cruise:
1. Stop wondering and worrying, and start cruising.
I wondered if we’d love or hate cruising -- and what would we do mid-cruise if we didn’t like the experience? We loved cruising; in fact, five nights went by fast.
I worried about seasickness or norovirus. I bought Bonine, Dramamine and ginger gum -- yes, three kinds of medicines -- in case something went wrong. We didn’t get sick at all.
I had concerns about the kids falling overboard. They didn’t.
There’s plenty of prevention against all of this on the ship. They want you to be comfortable, happy, healthy, pampered, and entertained. Antibacterial spray is available all over the ship, and greeters at each restaurant are armed with a bottle of antibac for each entering guest.
2. Cruising isn’t an old people thing. It’s an easygoing people thing.
Never on a vacation have I had so little to plan. No transportation to figure out. No hotels or restaurants to research. No luggage to carry on my own. They did it all for us. All I had to do was show up and decide how I wanted to spend my time. No wonder retirees love cruising. They can do as much or as little as they choose. This setup was quite inviting to us considering how busy our lives can be.
3. Balconies are the best.
We splurged on balcony cabins, and I’d highly recommend it. Our balcony was our reprieve at the end of the day as the kids dozed off to sleep, my quiet escape midday when I wanted a little reading time, and the view couldn’t have been better at sunrise and at sunset.
The balcony upgrade can make the trip; and other upgrades are strongly worth considering too. The deal we booked was for Celebrity’s Concierge class, which meant more time and experience wise than they could ever convey before you go. It meant a much shorter line at check-in and checkout (probably saving us a good hour), upgraded bath products, chilled sparkling wine our first night, and fresh fruit and afternoon canapés delivered to our room each day. These touches made a big difference worthy of considering the variety of options available when choosing your cruising class of service.
4. It’s family friendly, or virtually adults only.
Our cruise was full of families. It was a prime spring break week. Based on many conversations I overheard, this took many cruisers by surprise. They’re used to other cruises at other times of year where there’s hardly a child in sight. Transatlantic cruises, for example, are apparently where it’s at for child-free cruising. But a five-night cruise over Easter week? Yeah, this ship had kids, and 30-somethings, 40-somethings, 50-somethings and beyond.
So keep that in mind when selecting your cruise ship, dates, destinations and itinerary. The upside for families is the routine on a cruise ship. My kids enjoyed greeting the same state room attendants each day, sleeping in the same bed every night, dining at the same table with the same family every night at the same time, and knowing their dinner would be followed by dessert and a show.
5. Once you’ve cruised, you’ll want to cruise again.
I often heard fellow passengers talk about how many cruises they’ve been on, where all they’d cruised, and how many cruise lines they’d experienced. They’d cruised enough to compare in great detail the differences between the cruise lines, destinations, itineraries and lengths of stay. And they’re opinionated!
So if in need of advice, ask friends if they’ve cruised or take to social media. Chances are, opinions and advice are very easy to find -- and often from people you know and trust.
6. It’s possible to cook well for 2,000 people at a time.
I had low expectations for cruise food -- even on a well-reviewed cruise ship. I mean, afterall, when was the last time you had incredible mass-produced food? Well, the kitchen on our ship must be one very well-run operation.
The food did not disappoint, though not every bite or dish was one to cherish. But there were plenty of highlights: tuna tartare cut and presented beautifully; a watermelon, tomato and feta salad; mini bites of cheesecake dipped in chocolate fondue; four-cheese potato gnocchi; an escargot appetizer; and a jerk chicken entrée. That’s not to mention impressive wine lists, and a sommelier who came to our table each night to make recommendations.
7. What’s your mood? There’s an activity for that.
Need a little pool time? Choose from several. Want some me time? There’s a balcony, spa, fitness center, or deck walk for that. Need some entertainment? Head to a comedy show, see some truly talented singers and dancers, or head to the casino, wine bar, martini bar or jazz club.
On top of all of that, our ship had a three-hour Easter bunny kids party on a day we were at sea, DJs on the pool deck, team pool competitions, jewelry shows and a popular kids club.
8. Cruise employees work really hard.
Our cruise documents told us that Celebrity employees came from more than 40 countries, and that was easy to see on their name tags, which displayed their country of origin below their name. What I came to find out as I got to know many of them is that many of them had been working on cruise ships for years. Also, they’re family people just like the rest of us and long to see their loved ones again; I could see it in their eyes when they’d greet my children.
Our warm server each night was a man from Indonesia who had two young children. Another attendant to our table was from Macedonia and had two teenagers back home. The wine cellar bartender had been working six seasons already and looked forward to bringing his family from Macedonia on the ship at the end of the season. Anthony and Asep, our stateroom attendants, kept every detail of our room to the highest standards. The service on the ship really made the experience – one that we look forward to again.
9. It's OK to overpack.
I thought I might be overdoing it by packing two outfits per day, one formal outfit and a couple of swimsuits per traveler. Turns out we needed it all. By day, we were exploring Key West and Cozumel or hanging out on the pool deck. By night, we went to dinner and a show, and the main restaurant requires "smart casual" wear -- no shorts, no sandals.
One way or the other, the dirty clothes piled up and we could have used another spare outfit or two. So it's safe to pack a daytime outfit and a dinner outfit, plus swimsuits and gym clothes to cover the length of your cruise. Oh and for the little ones, a few extra outfits, pajamas and underwear is a good idea.
10. It's best to unplug.
It's very expensive to use your phone or Wi-Fi on the ship. There's a computer lab for if you absolutely must connect. But beyond that, let go. One of the most freeing aspects of being at sea is being free of reality.
Take in the sun, sights, sounds and human interactions that we can miss when we're constantly connected. The one thing we did do was keep our phones in airplane mode so that we could still snap pictures, listen to music, and time our pool deck runs. In other words, we only connected enough to enjoy our time and capture the moments.
My son says his favorite parts of the trip were the saltwater pool, the comedian juggling act, our stateroom attendant Anthony who brought awesome snacks, and his new friend Serena. My younger daughter will tell you she went on a big ship and played in a big pool. My husband and I will remember our smiles, the great day in Key West, and chill time while staring out at the open sea. These memories to me are now what cruising is all about.