Experienced cruisers know these small things and us first timers, we have no clue! From a new cruiser for one…here are a number of first cruise tips for Royal Caribbean, with details for first timers on arrivals, excursions, WiFi and dining before your RC cruise. Before our first Costco cruise on Royal Caribbean, I set out in search of tips and advice for new cruisers to make the most of our cruise vacation. I found a lot of advice from seasoned travel bloggers and travel agents…but when I went on the cruise, I realized that because they’d been on so many cruises there was a baseline of really basic information that they don’t even mention. I’m sure it’s elementary to them…it’s like how to open the bathroom door on an airplane…but if you’re really clueless (like we were)…here are really basic, really granular cruise tips and what to expect for anyone headed on their first cruise vacation and has NO IDEA what to expect! Regardless of whether you booked your Royal Caribbean cruise on Costco, these will be helpful tips on basics for any first time cruiser, from a first time cruiser!
I also included a number tips for purchasing some handy recommended items in advance when planning your first Costco cruise on Royal Caribbean! None of them cost very much or take up much space and they can be really helpful (not to mention really expensive on board!). Be sure to see all our Costco Travel package reviews and travel deals, too!
We traveled on our first cruise with Royal Caribbean on the Explorer of the Seas in June 2023, and while some fine details will vary from cruise line to cruise line I wanted to share our first time cruiser tips from a newbie and for a newbie – please feel free to drop any corrections/differences in the comment below for different cruise companies!! If I missed anything please drop your questions or additional helpful details in the comments too so I can add them!! It takes a village, and your tips and advice all help others in the same boat (pun intended, sorry I couldn’t help myself lol!).
ProTip: Before your first Royal Caribbean cruise, learn the sides of the boat, and which one your room is on…it’ll make figuring out the ship a lot easier! But most likely, you’ll figure it all out the day before you depart, lol!! And yes, a sense of humor will be required!
General First Cruise Tips for Royal Caribbean
Let us know if we missed anything! Here are some ideas of what to expect and tips for the first cruise on arrivals, food, in-port/excursions, wi-fi, what to pack, and more! You don’t have to memorize these, just read through them. You might want to bookmark this post in case you later want to look back at these (it’s a lot to take in all at once I know!).
- Make sure you CHECK THE WEATHER before you pack for your first cruise on Royal Caribbean. Especially if you’ll be traveling during hurricane season, or to a geographic area that is new to you.
- You may wear heels less on a cruise ship than you would a resort – besides the fact the ship is moving, the upper/outdoor decks can get wet and be more slippery. Don’t go overboard on packing heels in my opinion.
- A week or so before your cruise departs, you can find information on theme nights – most Royal Caribbean cruises will have a formal night, plus one or (or even two) other themes (for example, everyone wears white).
- Formal night is definitely optional. You do NOT need to participate to dine in the dining room. You may want to go with your more dressy clothing options that night but I’d say about half of those in the dining room were wearing “formal clothes.”
- See Packing List For Your First Cruise on Royal Caribbean below!
Arrivals – Embarkation Day
- Many cruise lines offer transfers (paid, but reasonable fares) from the airport to the destination cruise port. Upside to their transport is that if it’s delayed or causes you to miss the cruise they pick up the cost of getting you to the next port (or more likely, they’ll hold the cruise for an entire bus of people).
- You’ll be asked to select your arrival time in advance. If you’re arranging your own transport you’ll need to calculate out when you’re approximate arrival will be at the cruise terminal.
- Check-in online. Don’t sweat it if you can’t…there was a TON of staff working check-in and it was incredibly efficient!
- You’ll be asked to print out luggage bag tags and fold/staple them onto your luggage. If you’ll be staying in a hotel, be sure to do this before you leave and take them with you. It will save a lot of time at check in to have these already. If you don’t have a stapler, they can help you staple them on at the arrival gate.
- Your suitcases will be taken at check-in and delivered to you. The bags will be placed in the hallway outside your room (not in your room). As such, don’t place valuables in your luggage, carry those on by hand.
- If you need any items during the first few hours you’re on board (bathing suit, sunblock, medication) you should also bring those onboard with you in your carry-on bag.
- Once on board, you’ll be asked to go to a certain floor for a safety meeting. They essentially will show you where your assigned lifeboat is (yes, lifeboats are assigned), tell you what the bell sounds like that indicates an emergency, and where to go in case of emergency. It is pretty quick and it’s required of everyone whether it’s your first and tenth cruise.
- In our experience, the exact time we stated we’d check-in didn’t really matter. It appears mostly for planning purposes, I wouldn’t worry too much about running early or late (so long as you’re arriving within the stated arrivals window).
- Try to arrive early to enjoy the first day as a pool day – not only is it included so you may as well take advantage, but most ships are in a port almost daily so it’s one day you can relax by on the pool deck with a LOT less people than usual and not be missing time on port days.
Cruise App & Daily Cruise Planner
- Check to see if your cruise lines has their own mobile app, and if they service that app free of charge on the cruise…and download it in advance.
- On Royal Caribbean, regardless of whether you purchased wifi, passengers could use the Royal Caribbean app and look up the daily cruise itinerary, times of entertainment shows or activities, weather forecasts, time change notifications, get the correct local time and even sign up for some activities on the app.
- You will likely get a print out nightly of the following day’s activities and notices.
- The app is the easiest way to check the current/local time as many cruises change time zones several times!
Food, Dining, Specialty Restaurant Packages
- Find out what your package includes (and doesn’t include). Drinks, alcoholic beverages, room service, sit down restaurants, secondary dining options, kids club, bottled water, in-room coffee, etc. Especially if you have kids, you’ll want to guide their expectations (ie if room service isn’t included you will want to be sure they know there won’t be room service).
- Soda isn’t necessarily included. Yes, really. I know. Juice is served at meals, however. If your kids like soda on vacation (like mine) you may want to set a limit or just say no soda but juice with meals. The soda (non-alcoholic) beverage package is around $8 per day per person which I just cannot imagine spending on soda!! Tip: We booked a suite and soda was free in the concierge lounge in the evenings, so we told them 1 soda per day before dinner with appetizers in the lounge and that was the end of it. We went daily to get it, and they never knew the difference.
- Cruises include sit down meals with table service in a main dining room which is pretty much like a restaurant. You’ll have to select a dining time of 5:30 or 7:30 or choose My Time Dining. I suggest you select the time that you think will work best most days rather than choosing the my time dining option. It’s basically like auto-reservations instead of needing to make all your reservations.
- Tip: If you have kids or like to go to bed early, the 7:30 evening shows will be the most appropriately timed, so you’ll want the 5:30 dining time slot.
- If you do decide to upgrade to a specialty restaurant package, find out if there are limitations on which night you can use it, or limited available time slots, ie if you’re planning a 4 hour hike at a port, returning to ship at 5pm you may not want to have a 5:30 specialty dinner that night (or maybe you do?). If you would have accept times/days that won’t be best for you, I say skip it.
- Most cruises don’t include alcohol, and depending on how much you drink you may wish to add that…we got at least half a dozen emails ahead of the cruise offering drink packages for the cruise at a discount. I wouldn’t rush to pay full price for this package…wait and see if you get an email offering it at a discount! You can always add it on later. (PS our cruise broke down to drinking $80/day per person…that’s more than most people drink…do the math before you book!).
- The key to buffets (IMO) is: don’t try every kind of food on the buffet on your first day. Virtually the same food will be out every day, so pace yourself. If you put a bit of everything on your plate the first day you’ll feel like you’ve already eaten everything (which to be fair, will be true).
- The sit down restaurants (including specialty) are usually (but you should ask on your ship) based on a prix fixe menu of single portions. That means that each person should order the appetizer (and salad, and dessert) they want or everyone can order the same one if you want the same one – but if you just order one you’ll ge enough for one person and not a shareable size (we’re used sharable at restaurants in the US). Our family doesn’t usually order heavy appetizers so it felt very extravagant to have our 9 and 10 year old children ordering their own appetizer and salads but trust me…the portion sizes were for one not for the table! We found it was a great opportunity to have our kids try some new things! If they didn’t like it, they’ll still had an entree coming.
In-Port and Shore Excursions
- Read descriptions carefully. We found that most excursions are designed around adults and not children (but this will vary based on your cruise!).
- Excursions fill up early, be sure you purchase and book them as early as you can. Most will be fully booked before departure.
- Our cruise line provided granular detail about how much walking, standing, sitting was involved with excursions which is really helpful for anyone with limited mobility (or attention span if you’ve got kids).
- Some cruise ports of call require tendering. Tendering is when the cruise ship does not pull up alongside a dock and instead it anchors in the center of the water and uses small boats (tenders) to move passengers on and off the ship. It takes considerably longer to get on and off the ship by tender. The boat ride will generally be short, and not have significant waves, we think it’s unlikely to cause sea sickness (of course that depends on your sensitivity) but this may be something you need to look into more or plan ahead for if you’re highly sensitive or will be cutting it close on timing.
- On large ships, they will have several boats tendering all day, but you will need to book tender tickets in advance (that info will be announced on board).
- We had a suite and passengers in suites did not require tender tickets. If you have a suite inquire about whether your cruise line offers this benefit.
- If you’re venturing off on your own, the ship will provide an “All Aboard” time, and a “Gangway Up” time. All Aboard is when you need to be back on the ship. Gangway up is the target time they lift the gangway (walking bridge to get off the ship) up and you can no longer board the ship. Gangway up will be about 30 minutes after All Aboard. This is your 30 minutes of buffer time juuuust in case you’re running late, but plan around the All Aboard time!
- On our cruise the gangway was lifted up within about 25 minutes of the stated time, and the ship was untied within about 45 minutes of scheduled gangway up time (or about 20 minutes after the actual gangway up).
- There’s a good chance you can still get on for up to 20 minutes after the stated gangway up time.
- While they won’t full stop hold the ship for you, before you depart on your own onshore excursion, take a quick screenshot of the emergency number! There is a tiny bit of wiggle room so be sure to call if you’re running late! They also may have on-the-ground resources/tips to help you get back (for example if you cannot find a taxi they may have advice or resources in certain ports, or may be able to get your taxi permission to drive you closer to the ship to save you a few minutes of walking time through the port…it doesn’t hurt to ask!).
- Watch out for time changes…make sure your devices are aligned with the correct local time!
- Consider taking a backup phone battery and copies of your passports with you juuuust in case.
- If you stay on board during an excursion day (or depart late or arrive back early) you may hear the staff holding emergency drills. If you hear the emergency bells, pause and listen it’s most likely a practice drill.
Don’t underestimate the potential difficulty of taxi services and transportation in unfamiliar places. We almost missed our gangway up time in Corfu, Greece because we could not get a taxi back to the port. We had no idea it would be difficult, and despite starting calling 2 hours in advance…we barely made it by the skin of our teeth.~CostContessa
On Board Activities
- Pools alternate and are drained every other night – we could see which was cleaner day to day so swim in that one – one may be notably more green. Handy trick…or ICK! 😉
- Door Decorations – while certainly not everyone did this – if you have kids celebrating a birthday or milestone they might get a kick out of it (and they might wonder why you didn’t do it for them when see it on other doors so better to know before you go that’s it’s a thing, right?). Tip: the doors are magnetic! Extended families or groups of friends traveling together can also mark their doors so it’s easier to find each other’s rooms.
- Many activities have limited timeframes and availability. I suggest making a list of all onboard activities you know you want to do in advance of the cruise, and get details onboard on your first day as to when they are offered, when the signs ups are, etc. so you can be sure to get to do them all.
- You’ll get a mega daily print out of daily activities on board – cross check the app with this list, the printed list seems to be the “master list” in our experience.
- The kids cruise ID cards didn’t have a limit on them for the arcade – my 9 year old racked up $80 QUICKLY. Word to the wise!
- Both water slides on our ship were the closed tube water slides. For safety this makes sense but we hadn’t thought of that and the kids love water slides – but they won’t go near the closed tube type so that was a total bust for us! If that matters to your kids, check on what type are on your ship!
Wifi and Cell Service
- Cruise ships will offer their own wifi internet package. At best it’s okay, and sometimes doesn’t work well at all. Set your own (and colleagues) expectations appropriately if you plan to work while on vacation.
- We use AT&T and have an international cell plan on our account which worked great in ports – it’s $10/day for the first phone and $5/day for each additional line on the account and it’s unlimited data – with a max of $100 per month. That’s just for in-port/on land.
- CAUTIONARY NOTE: AT&T also offers cruise cell/internet coverage (which you can look into there may be reasonable packages?). We didn’t realize this so we didn’t opt for a package for the cruise, and when we thought we were on the cruise ship wifi (which we paid for), it turns out it wasn’t working and flipped to the AT&T service (we didn’t know existed) which charges based on data and it was charging us a LOT of money when we had no idea it was even there. Be sure to turn your airplane mode on your phone when you’re out of port if you have cell/roaming turned on or your provider may be providing services when you THINK you’re on ship wifi. This was an expensive mistake we made.
- If you’re venturing off on your own in port you will probably want some kind of cell service option.
- If you’re cell service will be charging you based on data, be sure to turn off any automated data syncs for email, app updates, etc and turn off auto uploading images in emails (which you should do anyway IMO for security but that’s a whole other blog topic lol). You may want to use WhatsApp (or another text app) for text messages.
Packing List For Your First Cruise on Royal Caribbean
Purchasing items on board can get really expensive, really quick! Here are a list of things I packed (and forgot to pack that I wished I had)…take a look and see what you think you need to add to your cruise essentials packing list!
- As with all vacations, you’ll want to be sure to bring sunblock, imodium, bandages, neosporin, thermometer, advil, etc. You can buy them onboard, but they are expensive!
- Waterproof pouch for your phone – from water slides to pools to beaches you’ll want to take photos with your phone, and you won’t want to leave it unattended so grab a little waterproof case for it, and wear it when you swim! Double check before you order to make sure you buy one that fits your phone. Mine works through the plastic – it’s not super easy to use but I can take pics with the pouch on! These are also great for water parks or the beach!
- Bathroom Spray – you won’t find ventilation fans and bathrooms tend to be interior so if you’re sharing your space, you’ll want to pack some kind of bathroom spray designed to mask bathroom smells. I also like the one from Trader Joe’s a lot!
- Lanyard for ID card – you need to carry it all the time onboard and this way you don’t lose it and know you always have it. Great for kids, especially if they’re old enough to venture off on their own…that way they don’t put it down and lose it.
- Outlet extender/splitter with USB and USBC ports – there are surprisingly few outlets in staterooms on cruise ships. Take 1 or 2 of these along if you need to charge phones, laptops, ipads, etc. If you’re cruising outside the US you may also need adapters.
- Clips for pool chairs to hold down your towels on windy cruising days – they also serve to mark seats and “save” seats which no one is supposed to do but everyone does.
- Dirty Laundry Bag – it will make your cabin neater if there’s a dedicated place for dirty laundry to go…the laundry bags on board are really small (too small to be repurposed for dirty laundry, you really need to bring one).
- Crossbody Bag – cruise ports are full of tourists (no surprise there) and you want to be a little extra conscientious of your bag/wallet. Thousands of tourists with cash is a draw for petty theft/pickpocketing. IMO it’s safer to bring as little as you can off the ship, and wear your wallet items (cash, phone, id card, etc) right on your chest. Plus that keeps your hands free!
- Coffee Tumbler – you won’t find “to go” cups at breakfast – so if you would like to take a coffee refill to go, then you’ll want to bring along your own reusable coffee tumbler. You might also find out what kind of coffee pod your coffee maker in-room will take and bring extras (of good coffee) on board with you.
- Cruise Packs for Beginners – you can also find a variety of all-in-one packs that have a bunch of handy must haves for first time cruisers!
Let us know if we missed anything you think should be on this list!! It takes a village!! Happy cruising!!
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