Skip to main content

Tips for Taking Your First Cruise

With a wide variety of interests, you will find Vicki writing about a number of different topics including, travel, pets and gardening!

A Week on a Cruise Ship

The NCL Star

The NCL Star

Is a cruise right for you?

I wasn't sure if I would enjoy our vacation when my husband and I were invited to go on a cruise with his parents. I'd never considered taking a cruise before because I had many concerns and was afraid I wouldn't like it.

We'd been on vacations with my in-laws before to Hawaii, Belize and numerous camping trips and always had a great time. They'd taken several previous cruise vacations and because of their recommendations I was convinced to give it a try. After considering several options, we booked a 7 night cruise to the Mexican Riviera on the Norwegian Star with ports of call including Acapulco, Zihuatenejo/Ixtapa, Puerto Vallerta and Cabo San Lucas.

If you are considering taking a cruise for the first time, on this page you will find out what to expect from someone who reluctantly took a cruise vacation for the first time. Come along and see what it was like to take a cruise to the Mexican Riviera on the Norwegian Star.

All photos by the author, Vicki Green - PNW Travels, unless credited to others.

What's Your Experience?

A Cruise Ship in Port

NCL Star at the dock in San Pedro, CA

NCL Star at the dock in San Pedro, CA

Top 10 Reasons I was NOT interested in taking a cruise! - My concerns about taking a cruise

1. I thought it would be too expensive!

2. I was afraid I'd be bored

3. I was worried I would feel confined

4. I thought it would be crowded with over 2000 other people on the ship

5. I was concerned that I wouldn't get enough exercise

6. I was afraid of gaining 20 pounds from the dietary temptations

7. I couldn't identify with the shuffleboard demographic group

8. I like to have fun, but I don't really enjoy loud, obnoxious, inebriated people

9. I didn't want to shop for special clothes for "formal night" or take up the limited space in my luggage with formal clothes and shoes

10. I wasn't thrilled with the idea of cheesy tourist trap shore excursions

101 Things I Wish I Knew Before My First Cruise

Do your homework before you go!

There are many books that you can borrow or buy that have tips for first-time cruisers, information about cruise lines, individual ships and things to see and do at ports of call. I read several books and I thought one of the best books for general information about cruising is "101 Things I Wish I Knew Before My First Cruise" by Seth Lieber.

Cruise Boarding Day in San Pedro, California

The Stern of the Norwegian Cruise Line Star

The Stern of the Norwegian Cruise Line Star

Do You Have a Valid Passport?

Apply for a new passport or renew your passport

If you are thinking of taking a cruise with a destination or stops in a foreign country, remember to apply for a passport or passport renewal 4 to 6 weeks before departure to allow adequate time for processing. Although a passport may not be required for some cruises that stop in foreign ports, if you have any type of emergency or issues that require you to fly home from a foreign country, you will need a passport, so it is a good idea to have one. If you've booked a cruise that departs in less than six weeks, you can use an expedited passport service like Rush My Passport which can have your passport delivered to you within just a few days.

Scroll to Continue

Spinner 21 Expandable Bag

Got Luggage? - Choosing luggage for your cruise

The cruise ship companies try to make the process as easy as possible, but you will still need to drag your luggage around somewhat when getting to and from the ship, so pick luggage that is sturdy and easy to pull around. Be sure to take along a larger piece of luggage than you need for your clothes, so you have some extra room when you pack to go home for souvenirs and other purchases. A garment bag is nice if you want to dress up for "Formal Nights".

Cruise Boarding Day Tips

  • Arrive at the dock 3 to 4 hours before the scheduled departure
  • Wear comfortable clothing and shoes
  • Tag your luggage with your name and the cabin number you've been assigned
  • Be sure to keep your passport and copy of your cruise reservation with you
  • Bring a carry-on bag or backpack to keep with you that contains a change of clothes, travel-size toiletries, prescription medications and some water or other beverage - once you check your luggage you may not see it again for several hours

Our Boarding Day Photo

NCL Star Boarding Day Photo

NCL Star Boarding Day Photo

The Cruise Ship Boarding Process

  • When you arrive at the dock you'll have your luggage loaded onto a cart
  • You will be directed to a line to check in
  • You will have your picture taken for the ship's ID system
  • You will also have an opportunity to have a "Boarding Picture" taken
  • The boarding process will take 1-2 hours
  • After you board your stateroom may not be ready for another hour or two
  • Your luggage will be delivered to your door, but it may not arrive until later in the evening
  • Use the time while you wait for your stateroom to explore the ship and relax!

My Favorite Rolling Backpack

Bring a Backpack for the Cruise Boarding Process

Don't forget a backpack to have someplace to store some items with you while you wait in line to board. A backpack provides you with a place to keep some beverages, snacks, your medications, laptop computer, cameras and other valuables while waiting to board. It also comes in handy to have a backpack to take along on shore excursions. It keeps your hands free if you need to grab on to railings to board a tender boat and a handy way to carry all of your souvenirs when you return to the ship!

Waiting for Your Cabin to be Ready

Relax and Enjoy a Cool Boarding Day Beverage

Relax and Enjoy a Cool Boarding Day Beverage

A Cruise Ship Stateroom

Balcony Stateroom on the NCL Star

Balcony Stateroom on the NCL Star

The Cruise Ship Lifeboat Drill

After everyone is on board there will be a lifeboat drill. Yes, it is reminiscent of fire drills when you were in school, but don't skip it. In the unlikely event that your ship needs to be evacuated for any reason, you'll want to know what to do!

Know What to do if the Ship Sinks!

Cruise Ship Lifeboat Drill

Cruise Ship Lifeboat Drill

Beverage Specials

NCL Bucket of Beer

NCL Bucket of Beer

Day #1 & #2- At Sea

Here are some of the things we did on the "At Sea" days

I was concerned that the "at sea" days would be boring, but there was much more to do than I had imagined.

  • Explored the ship - it's huge!
  • Enjoyed reading a book I hadn't found time to read
  • Worked on a suntan
  • Ran around the running track
  • Watched for seabirds and other wildlife while eating breakfast and lunch
  • Watched some of the surprisingly hilarious poolside contests and shenanigans
  • Attended a wine-tasting class
  • Shopped in the gift shops
  • Searched through the photo gallery to find our pictures from the previous day
  • Attended a beer tasting class
  • Talked to the staff at the Excursion Desk for more information about one of our shore excursions
  • Watched some shipboard entertainment, including a band, a magician, a comedian and the "Not So Newlywed Show

Take a Tour of the Norwegian Star - Explore the NCL Star in this Video

Day #3 - Acapulco - A Day and an Evening in Acapulco

Acapulco Bay, Mexico

Acapulco Bay, Mexico

Acapulco Mexico

Acapulco was our first port of call. We opted to do a tour that we booked on our own instead of something through the cruise line.

The vistas from the hills surrounding the harbor were unbelievably beautiful. This photo of me taken from one of the hills shows Acapulco Bay with the Norwegian Star at the dock.

We saw many of the city's historical and cultural sights, the diamond district, did some shopping, had a fantastic dinner and topped off our day by watching a night dive by the famous cliff divers.

A Catamaran Snorkeling Trip on the Picante

Catamaran Picante Xtapa-Zihuatenejo, Mexico

Catamaran Picante Xtapa-Zihuatenejo, Mexico

Ports of Call on the Mexican Riviera

Day #4 - Zihuatanejo/Ixtapa

Our second port of call was Zihuatanejo. This time we purchased a shore excursion through the cruise line.

We were instructed to meet in the theater on the ship at a specified hour in the morning. The name of our excursion was called and we were told where to go to disembark. The ship stayed anchored out in the bay instead of docking. (This is called "tendered" in cruise ship lingo)

The passengers were brought into shore by the ship's lifeboats and other small boats based in Zihuatanejo.

We arrived at the pier and found a sign for our excursion and jumped onto another small boat for a snorkel trip with Captain Tony and his friendly crew on the catamaran Picante.

We motored out of the bay to another cove to snorkel. Unfortunately the snorkeling was of shorter duration than planned because the seas became too rough.

After getting back on board the Picante we were treated to a great buffet of fresh fruit, muffins and pastries followed by tequila and other assorted beverages.

Captain Tony pointed out points of interest on our way back in to port.

We had a little time to walk around town and do some shopping and it was time to catch a boat back to the ship.

Day #5 - Puerto Vallarta

A Sighting of the Yacht Attessa Anchored at Puerto Vallarta

A Sighting of the Yacht Attessa Anchored at Puerto Vallarta

A Jungle Zip Line Adventure in Puerto Vallarta

Our next port was Puerto Vallarta. For this port we booked a jungle canopy zip line excursion through the cruise line. Probably not my best idea! I thought perhaps I would use this experience to help me overcome my fear of heights.

I did manage to complete the zip line tour, but there were a few moments of terror. I didn't have a problem while zipping on the line through the trees, but I was not prepared for the absence of railings between zips!

Ziplining in Mexico

Tips About Booking Shore Excursions

Although we booked our zip line adventure as a shore excursion through the ship, some ship passengers prefer to book their own shore excursions. Booking a shore excursion directly with a tour operator is usually less expensive than booking through the cruise line. It is a good idea to be careful about booking a tour independent of the ship. When you book a port activity through the ship, if something happens that delays your return to the ship, the ship will wait for you. If you book on your own and are late getting back to the ship, it will leave without you making you responsible for finding and paying for transportation to either catch up with the ship at the next port or going back to the original departure port. There are reputable tour companies like Viator that will guarantee that you will be returned to your ship on time. If a zipline isn't what interests you, there were numerous other Puerto Vallarta Shore Excursions to choose from.

Formal Night

Formal Night on the NCL Star

Formal Night on the NCL Star

Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

Beach at Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

Beach at Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

Day #6 - Cabo San Lucas

Since I usually prefer visiting places that have history, cultural significance and unique local flavor I didn't really expect Cabo to be one of my favorite stops.

What put it at or near the top of my list was the amazing natural beauty and abundant wildlife.

Since Cabo is at the tip of Baha California where it joins the Sea of Cortez we were hoping we might see some of the many whales who winter and give birth in the area. We were not disappointed! We could see many whales from the ship as we approached Cabo.