I’m feeling a little nostalgic about cruising, a common winter-time theme for me. So I decided to focus my cruising thoughts and write about how Mister Jupiter and I pick a ship and pack for the trip.
At the time of writing I have only been on two cruises; a seven-night Mediterranean cruise that departed from Venice, Italy, and a five-night Western Caribbean cruise that departed from New Orleans, Louisiana. I point this out because a more experienced cruise goer may find this post too simplistic – and that’s okay! If you’re thinking about booking your first cruise, keep reading, because this post is really for you.
Disclosure: This site contains affiliate links; I may earn a tiny commission from purchases.
Q. Why cruise in the first place?
A. Because it’s fun. Cruise ships are floating hotels that take you places. They tell you when and where you can eat, swim, and go to shows. You decide how many amenities to use and how involved you want to be.
We booked our last cruise (Western Caribbean via Carnival) a few months out from our departure. At the time Mister was very busy with work; high stress and long hours. But there was light at the end of the tunnel! He just had to push through December and would be rewarded a two or three week break. So we planned on using that break well, and decided to go on a short cruise.
How to pick a ship
This is surprisingly easy. You need to parse out what is the MOST IMPORTANT THING about this trip. Variables to consider are cost, departure port, destinations (since most cruises visit two or more locations), and ship amenities.
Departure port was our first focus. We planned on driving to the port (versus flying), so it needed to be a reasonable distance from home. New Orleans is fewer than eight hours away, so we looked at our options departing that port. Picking a narrow departure window helped, then we looked at the cruise durations and destinations. We are perfectly happy with five day or five night durations – any longer and it’s not as much fun for us, so that shorter duration further narrowed our options. We trimmed our available cruises down to two boats that were both going down to Mexico, but different cities. I had no port or excursion preference, so we started looking at the amenities and we would chose the one with the best restaurants.
Our process boils down to choosing a cruise based on the following factors:
- Departing port
- Preferred departure dates
- Duration (or cost; expect to pay more for a longer stay)
- Destinations or excursions
- Ship amenities
There is no right way to choose; it all depends on what you want, and what you can change. We couldn’t change the timing, and we just wanted to go somewhere warm, so it was easy. I recommend being flexible when cruising – it makes everything easier.
Past Cruise #1 – required an international flight to the port country (Italy), then train to the port city, then walking the beautiful bridges of Venice whilst hauling a heavy non-wheeled suitcase. That cruise’s main focus was the company; I met up with some folks stationed in Italy, so all of the options were just perks.
Recent Cruise #2 – Mister Jupiter told a friend that we couldn’t decide between Ship A and Ship B. By chance, this friend booked passage on Ship A because his wife’s family wanted to cruise that same week. So we booked on the same ship, and changed our dinner plan to match theirs. We didn’t invite ourselves to their family time – but it was always fun running into them at the pool, or at the sandwich bar (my daily source of “lox, no bagel”).
How to Pack for the Trip
This is getting easier for me, but still takes solid planning on my part because I want to have everything I might need. Be advised that I over-plan, and am that person who packs two extra outfits, a raincoat, umbrella, bandaids, and six pens just in case.
Packing (like most things) depends on what is important to you and how willing you are to improvise. I like making plans and sticking to them, so my vacation-luggage-packing style is to write out what I want to wear each day, and stick to it. Add something nicer for fancy dinner night, add swimsuits, add an extra outfit or some easy dresses in case I pour coffee on myself and need to change. My ability to improvise is very low sometimes, so I pack what I need to feel covered. Feeling prepared like this lowers my anxiety and helps me enjoy the day.
☞ Related: How to start uniform dressing
So here’s a recap of what I pack on cruises:
- Plan outfits in advance on a note pad according to expected weather conditions
” Monday: Black Madewell pants, white linen tee, Lululemon sweater, adidas “
- Pack according to your list, and recommend rolling outfits together
- Pack one nicer outfit for the formal dining evening. Coordinate with your partner or friends to match level of formality (most ships accept a wide range)
- Pack for recreation. Think swimsuits for water, long light pants for hiking, or waterproof jackets if you’re going to be wet but want to be dry
- Don’t forget shoes! Same considerations; casual, formal, recreational
- The usual details like bandaids, sunscreen, a simple crossbody bag (ladies, generally) to hold your room key when you wear something without pockets
- Entertainment details like charged Kindles, phone chargers (it’s a camera too!), earbuds for audiobooks and so on
- Try to pack light (as small luggage as possible)
- Use wheeled luggage – the non-wheeled variety is unnecessarily cumbersome
Q. Any tips before I book a cruise?
A. Yes! Be ready for the extra costs. There are many.
Expected costs on a cruise:
- The base fees – it is primarily a floating hotel
- Parking at the port
- Luggage porters around the terminal
- Tips for your bartenders (per drink or at the end)
- Tip for your server (at the end)
- Tip for your cabin steward (at the end)
Optional costs on a cruise:
- Alcoholic drink packages
- Spa services
- Excursion fees
- Meals off the boat
- Shopping on land
- Shopping duty-free at sea
- Gambling on international waters
- Cafes or other specialty shops on the ship
- On-board photos from staff photographers
Realistically I see the base price (say, $319 per person) as HALF of the actual cost (per person).
Luckily there are a lot of ways to save money without being a horrid tipper. You don’t have to shop anywhere. You don’t have to gamble. You don’t need six lattes a day (cruise ship cafes are expensive). Even if you plan on having six cocktails a day, it might be cheaper to pay per drink than buying a package. Speaking of cocktails you might be able to BYOB, just check your cruise line’s prohibited items list. You may be able to bring wine, but not liquor.
Absolutely tip your cabin steward (especially if you’re messy), dinner server (assuming you have the same one for most dinners), and your bartender. Mister and I like to zero in on a bar right away and give our bartender a big tip as soon as possible. Tipping up front like this reduces wait times with that bartender for the rest of your trip. It’s the little things that make a big difference.
In the end cruising is a fun vacation option, and you should give yourself a little room to splurge here and there. Sure I’ll get an eight dollar mocha, but just one. Maybe I’ll head to the spa if the daily special doesn’t interfere with my sun time. Shopping? No thanks, just looking. Gambling? Only one go at roulette just to see how fast I can lose $5 (rapidly! The gods of gambling don’t favor me, and that is okay).
Right now I haven’t been on a cruise in five years, and that’s okay. Baby Jupiter has certainly changed how we enjoy holidays. Cruises will still exist when he’s older, and I hope he’s ready for a windowless cabin room. We spend so little time in our room that we can’t justify paying for a window. Oh! One last tip. Ship engines are loud. Some may appreciate the rumble, others may not – choose your cabin location wisely if you think the sound may bother you.