Cruise Experts Reveal 8 Things to Know Before Booking Your First Sailing

by  Emily Zemler | Mar 19, 2024
Courtesy of Seabourn

Booking a first-time cruise can be incredibly intimidating: There are just so many different types of cruise lines and itineraries, each catering to different travelers and interests. Whether you’re curious about a quick Caribbean cruise or a lengthy expedition to Antarctica, there’s a lot to consider when planning and booking. We spoke with cruise line executives and travel experts to get insider tips on the process, including considerations about ship size, cabin type, and amenities. Here are eight things you should consider before booking your first cruise.

Know the Different Types of Cruise

Whale in Alaska / Martina Birnbaum/iStock

One size does not fit all when it comes to cruising. The three main types are river, ocean, and expedition; however, there are plenty of other specialty cruises out there, including sailing cruises. Travel writer Jill Schildhouse says it really “depends on your vacation goals, budget, and interests.” An ocean cruise is on a traditional cruise ship, often sailing to destinations in the Mediterranean, Caribbean, and Alaska, and has more to do onboard. A seven-day ocean cruise in Europe or the Caribbean can be a good way to test the waters, so to speak. 

“These popular and iconic destinations offer a taste of the cruising experience with a mix of both ship and shore activities,” explains Karen Thomas, Senior Director of Brand & External Communications at Seabourn Cruise Line. “This is a way to ease into cruising and fully enjoy the adventure before considering longer sailings.”

The Hungarian Parliament Building / / TomasSereda

Schildhouse recommends a river cruise for “anyone who’s worried about getting seasick (highly unlikely on a river) or wants to see more sights along the way.” She adds, “This is also an excellent choice for a first-time cruiser who may be worried about being too far out to sea without any land in sight.” 

JudyDillon /iStock

Expedition cruises are exploration-based and usually sail to more remote destinations like Antarctica or the Galapagos. These can be more expensive and also quite adventurous as they often include activities like kayaking and hiking. 

Consider the Ship’s Size 

Courtesy of Royal Caribbean

The world’s largest cruise ship, Icon of the Seas, recently debuted with 7,600 passengers. But not all cruise ships are that big. Viking’s ocean ships hold a far more intimate 930 guests, for example, while Disney’s smaller ships, Disney Magic and Disney Wonder, hold a manageable 2,700. Expedition ships are even more compact: the Seabourn Venture and Seabourn Pursuit hold only 264 guests. Most river ships carry between 100 and 250 guests, depending on the cruise line. Smaller ships tend to be able to go places larger ones can’t, especially in places like Alaska, and fewer crowds onboard means more access to shore excursions and restaurants. That said, bigger ships will have more bells and whistles, if that’s what you’re after — from waterslides and go-karting tracks to Broadway-caliber entertainment and a range of dining and drinking options.

Think About What You Want Onboard

Courtesy of Viking Expeditions

While non-cruisers might assume all cruise ships are the same, there are a lot of differences between each cruise line and level of ship. Some focus on families, others on wellness, others again are all about dining. Before you book, consider what you want access to while sailing. Amenities can include things like a kid’s club, spa, movie theater, casino, shopping, swimming pool, water park, and nightclub, or even sky-diving simulators, ice-skating rinks, and bowling alleys. Restaurants and dining options also vary — from expansive buffets to Michelin-starred fare —  and some cruise lines are more formal than others. Certain cruise lines, including Viking and Virgin Voyages, are adults-only, which can be a huge perk for childless travelers or those who prefer a calmer atmosphere. 

“You need to be realistic about what kind of traveler you are,” says travel writer Mary Chong, who runs Calculated Traveller. “Are you traveling with family? Do you hate dressing up for dinner? Do you prefer quiet solitude? Each cruise line caters to a certain market. Honeymooners who want quiet solitude may not want to sail on a Disney cruise with children everywhere, for example, and a Celebrity cruise may be more their style. A cruiser who just wants to wear shorts and a t-shirt all day/night won't enjoy themself on the Queen Mary 2, where dress codes are enforced, and might prefer a more relaxed UnCruise.”

Decide on the Level of Luxury You Want

Low season cruises can mean big savings / Seabourn

Another consideration when booking a cruise is the classification of cruise line: mainstream, premium, luxury, or ultra-luxury. Each brings with it different benefits and price points. Thomas recommends thinking about how you typically prefer to travel and then translating that to your choice of cruise line. Seabourn, for instance, is an ultra-luxury line

“For the first-time cruisers we do see on board I would say these guests have a penchant to stay at luxury properties while they travel,” she says.

Choose Your Cabin Wisely

Courtesy of Celebrity Cruises

Each cruise line and cruise ship features multiple cabin types. Many cruise lines have both interior and exterior-facing cabins, which can mean a lower price point for a cabin with no window. Others offer balconies, which is a huge benefit when sailing to destinations where it’s all about the views. 

“When I choose a cabin, I think of the destination and the time of year,” Chong says. “Balconies are fabulous when you're in the Caribbean, and you can sit outside and enjoy the sun and breeze while sailing. But a balcony in Alaska or the Mediterranean in the autumn or spring will likely go unused since it might be too cool or raining outside.”

Courtesy of Virgin Voyages

She adds, “Don’t dismiss the idea of booking an inside cabin or even an inside guarantee cabin (where your cabin gets assigned to you at a later date).” You still get to enjoy the same ship experiences as someone who booked a higher-priced cabin, but with the money saved you just might be able to cruise twice a year instead of just once.” 

Know What’s Included (And What Isn’t)

Courtesy of Virgin Voyages

Like a hotel resort, cruises tend to include certain elements and charge extra for others. On some cruises — especially higher-end ones — specialty restaurants, Wi-Fi, spa treatments, tips, alcohol, and even flights will be included. On others, everything will be an extra charge. Look for packages to purchase in advance, which can cover these extras in a blanket fee. 

“Most cruise lines offer various packages that cover drinks or bundle together some of the services you might use most,” Schildhouse says. “For instance, Princess Cruises has packages that include drinks, Wi-Fi, crew appreciation, fitness classes, premium dining options, photos, and more. If you plan on making use of any of these amenities, it’s often a far better deal to book one of these packages. In some cases, you can save up to 66% of the retail value of purchasing these items a la carte.”

Chong adds, “You really need to do the math and see what makes sense for your situation. Drink packages seem like a great deal, but everyone in the same cabin needs to purchase the package, and that adds up to drinking a lot of alcohol per day to make it worth it compared to buying individual drinks from the bar… All-inclusive add-ons are convenient and easy, but does the extra cost get you your money's worth?”

Courtesy of the cruise line

There are additional considerations if you’re traveling solo. Many cruise lines charge a single supplement to those booking a cabin without double occupancy. Look for promotions where the supplement is waived, or opt for a cruise line that caters to individual travelers with solo cabins, like Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, and Virgin Voyages.

A window or balcony isn’t the only consideration when picking a cabin type. It can impact the mini bar offerings, the Wi-Fi access, embarkation time, and restaurant reservations. 

“Each stateroom category has different benefits, whether that is an earlier opening to book shore excursions, make reservations, or access to the room on embarkation day,” explains Richard Marnell, Viking’s Executive Vice President of Marketing. “Before booking, we recommend guests review the different categories and if working with a travel advisor, consult them on the differences and how it can fit their personal travel style and goals for the journey.”

Plan in Advance — and Get Help


Cruising is incredibly popular, perhaps now even more so than before the pandemic. Specialty sailings like Christmas market cruises, which Viking offers on the Danube each holiday season, require booking nine to 12 months in advance. But Marnell confirms it’s best to think ahead as far as possible. 

“Due to strong demand across our fleet of river, ocean, and expedition vessels, we have seen our guests booking earlier than ever, even up to three years in advance for some voyages,” he says. “When possible, we encourage guests and travel advisors working with future guests to book as far in advance as possible to ensure all their preferences are available, including specific itinerary, direction, and stateroom category.”

Thomas adds that travel advisors can be “an incredible asset” when booking. “While you can book directly, nuances exist between cruise lines, types of accommodations, and what is (and isn't) included in the 'all-inclusive' pricing,” she explains. “We recommend booking as early as possible for the best fares and availability and suite.”

Come With an Open Mind

Main pool promenade / Courtesy of Viking Ocean Cruises

Non-cruisers may have some assumptions about cruise life, but you don’t have to be a certain type of traveler to enjoy a cruise. There really is something for everyone and every taste. The best approach is to be friendly and open-minded about the experience once onboard. Marnell’s top tip is to enjoy meeting your fellow travelers and the crew. 

“We often hear from first-time Viking travelers that they are surprised and delighted to have made meaningful connections and friendships with others on their ships,” he says. “Quite a few of our guests stay in touch and choose to travel again with people they meet on a Viking voyage. After all, our guests already have at least one thing in common — they're all curious about the world and interested in exploring it in comfort.”

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