From dress codes to what to pack and how to navigate gratuities, here’s everything you need to know before you hit the high seas on a cruise.
Did you know that cruising vessels are called ships, not boats? Or that ships are ‘she’ in maritime traditions?
Although these are fun facts, there are a few things that it’s helpful to know about before you go on a cruise. If you’re a first-timer, here’s our guide of handy hints to help make your trip on the high seas… smooth sailing (ba-dum tish!).
1. Choosing your ship and where you sail is important
Different cruise lines and ships offer different experiences, so it’s good to know what you want before you start looking into options. Some cruise lines offer family-friendly ships, which are fantastic for keeping the little ones entertained with kids clubs and plenty of fun things to do. But if you’re a couple looking for a relaxing break, this may not tick the boxes. Some cruise lines offer adults-only ships, so it’s a good idea to check before you book.
The size of the ship is also a big factor for many cruisers – there are some fantastic, all-singing all-dancing ships out there that are more like floating cities, offering everything you could possibly want on a holiday. But some cruisers prefer to holiday on smaller, more intimate ships. Research the options and pick the ship that is best for you.
Likewise, it’s best to think about what you really want from your holiday when choosing which destinations to sail to. The Caribbean may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but if you’re sailing from the UK for example, then it will involve quite a few days at sea. If you’re not sure how good your sea legs are, perhaps think about a cruise that has more ports of call along the way.
2. What to pack
It can be difficult deciding what to pack for a cruise holiday, especially if you’re in for the long haul and visiting a lots of different destinations along the way. Sandals for the sunny days and trainers for city walks, jumpers for cooler evenings and dresses and suits for dinner – it’s a lot to think about! You could go wild packing for your cruise, but remember that luggage allowances apply for most cruise lines and, much like travelling by plane, there are prohibited items that you can’t bring on board. Check with your cruise line about what you can and can’t bring and your luggage allowance before you start packing your whole house.
But what about what to wear? If you’re a cruise novice, the idea of dress codes may panic you. Most cruise lines have dress codes that apply at certain times on board, but don’t worry, here are a few simple tips to help you prepare:
Daytime clothes: For those days relaxing on board by the pool or exploring what the ship has to offer, most cruise lines will encourage you to dress to feel relaxed and comfortable – think jeans, shorts, t-shirts, dresses, skirts. Flat shoes are best for safe strolling on board, and it’s a good idea to have some layers handy if the sea breeze picks up. If you’re on a winter cruise, remember the more layers the better! It’s definitely frowned upon to parade around inside in your swimmers when others are trying to enjoy a nice meal, so save that for poolside. If you’re planning on doing a few laps of the ship or hitting the gym to work off some of those decadent cruise meals, then don’t forget your gym wear.
The same applies for going ashore – flat, comfortable shoes are best for exploring, and it’s handy to have a scarf, jumper or raincoat ready in case the weather changes.
Dress codes are an important part of cruising. Make sure you know the dress codes for your cruise line
Evening wear: When dusk falls, it’s time to get into your evening wear. Most cruise lines will apply a dress code from the early evening for the restaurants and bars, so make sure you know what these dress codes are for your particular cruise line. It’s common for there to be a few different evening dress codes on board during a cruise, even on a short cruise. In a throwback to the glamour of the golden age of cruising, Black Tie nights are common, so make sure you are prepared to dress to impress! It’s a great chance to get glammed up for a special night at sea, and for many cruisers, it’s the cherry on top of a special holiday.
In general, cocktail dresses and ball gowns are ideal for ladies, while a tux or dinner jacket are common for men, though business suits, ties and smart shoes are usually perfectly fine too. Theme nights are common, and it can be fun to get involved with the Wild West, 80s, Hawaiian or whatever the theme might be with other passengers – it’ll definitely be a talking point! When it’s not a Black Tie or a themed night, many cruise lines encourage smart/casual wear for the evening. Flip flops, torn denim and shorts will often not be allowed during the evening for anyone going into the restaurants or bars. Check what the dress code is for your cruise as it will help you to decide what to pack.
3. There’s bucket loads of entertainment
It’s common for first-time cruisers to worry about whether they may get bored on board, especially if there are quite a few consecutive sea days involved. Of course, the entertainment available completely depends on which cruise line and ship you choose, but there’s usually plenty for everyone. If you’re looking for wellness on holiday, many ships will have pools, spas and gyms for you to make the most of. If you’re looking to be entertained, there are usually music and theatre shows, comedy nights, film screenings, and even cookery schools, talks hosted by expert guest speakers and dance lessons on some ships. You might get lucky and be on a ship that offers behind-the-scenes tours where you can see everything from the inner workings of the ship to the Bridge.
Then as soon as you arrive in each port of call you have a whole new destination to explore, so the world is your oyster!
4. Take your passport and check if you need visas
The idea of boarding a ship which will be your home for the duration of your cruise means that it’s easy to forget that you will usually need all the appropriate travel documentation, just as when travelling by any other means. If you’re heading on an international cruise you will be required to have your passport, just as when you’re flying. For domestic cruises it’s still a good idea to take your passport or pack some ID like a driver’s licence, just in case.
When it comes to visas, this may not have even crossed your mind. For international cruisers, just remember, you may be on a ship but you’re still entering overseas territories every time your ship docks and therefore will need the required paperwork. It is usually the passenger’s responsibility to organise their own visas before travel (although some countries issue visas on the ship’s arrival, the cost of which will be charged to you. Check this prior to any travel), so it’s worth checking the requirements for each country you’re entering and then speaking to your cruise line if you’re unsure. Allow plenty of time before your cruise to apply and receive your visas for the countries you’re visiting. Even if you’re planning on staying put poolside in some ports, you will often still be required to have a visa for that country.
Sailing into Sydney Harbour is said to be one of the best cruising experiences in the world
5. You need to know about gratuities
For many cruise lines, the price of your holiday has many inclusions, such as food, entertainment, gym access and sometimes even drinks (if drinks aren’t included, you can usually pre-purchase a drinks package so you don’t have to worry about paying a surprising bill at the end from all the G&Ts you’ve consumed on board – it is your holiday after all!). It’s unusual to pay for anything on board with cash, as any extras you buy from the shop or meal upgrades will often be charged to your account (which you settle at the end), but again, this can differ between cruise lines.
With so many inclusions, it can come as a surprise to many first-time cruisers that it’s commonplace for gratuities to be automatically added to your account. You’ve paid for the holiday and meals, so why are you also getting charged gratuities? While you’re on board, you will be looked after by many different people – waiters and restaurant staff who serve you for breakfast, lunch and dinner (and all the snacks in between), the bar staff who whip up and remember your favourite cocktail night after night, and the cabin staff who ensure your room is in top-notch condition. In many cases, base wages are low for crew, so tipping is an important part of their income. As cash isn’t usually accepted on board it can be difficult to thank staff, so often a set amount per day is automatically added to your onboard account as a gratuity, which is then distributed to staff at the end of the cruise.
Some cruise lines allow you to remove the automatic gratuities if you have a legitimate reason to, and some luxury cruises don’t allow tipping, but in general be prepared to factor in this extra cost to your holiday. How gratuities work is different for many cruise lines, so it’s always best to check directly with the cruise line you’ve booked with.
6. Know how you’re getting between the airport and the port
If, like many cruise passengers, you are landing on the tarmac and heading straight for the seas, it’s best to book your transfer from the airport to the cruise port so there will be no missing the boat. Embarkation times are usually quite strict, so reduce the stress of travelling by organising your transfer before you go.
The same goes for if you’re coming off the seas and heading to the skies – no one wants to miss a flight! Ports are often a little way away from airports, so you need to know how to get between the two. Sydney’s Overseas Passenger Terminal for example is just under 20 kilometers from the International terminal at Sydney Kingsford Smith Airport, whereas if you’re flying to or from London Heathrow and then heading to one of Southampton’s four main passenger cruise terminals, you’re looking at more than 100 kilometres.
We wish you smooth sailing and a fantastic time on board! If you want more help pre-holiday, check out our travel checklist for everything you need to remember.