front of cruise ship
Into the blue beyond. | Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line
Into the blue beyond. | Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line

Things I Wish I Knew Before Embarking on My First Cruise

How a clueless land-lover learned to navigate the all-inclusive open seas.

It's time to stow your tray tables and secure your luggage in the overhead bins—travel is back in full swing. Introducing Return Ticket, a collection of first-person stories, thoughtful guides, and clever hacks designed to help aspiring globetrotters navigate our new normal as safely and smoothly as possible. Buckle up and prepare for liftoff.

My people are not cruise people. Between an easily seasick mother, a landlocked Midwestern childhood, and an inner circle more interested in exploring the land under their feet, the notion of cruising never really came up. I’ve been whale watching and fishing, taken ferries to barrier islands, and partied on moored speed boats and pontoons. But spending the night on a boat? Never.

That was until August 26, 2022, when I stepped onto the brand sparkling new Norwegian Prima and settled in for eight full days on the water.

aerial view of cruise ship
My future trusty steed. | Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line

I flew to Reykjavik, Iceland, where the ship would depart, armed with a few changes of clothes (“You’ll be lounging, bring stuff to lounge,” my coworkers consulted me), my work laptop, an international roaming plan, and absolutely no clue what to expect. But on the plane, I frantically Googled things I realized I couldn’t answer. Like, what happens if I’m hungry at 3 am? Can you just walk off a cruise at port or do you need special permission? Can you watch broadcast TV on a cruise ship? Are there doctors on cruise ships? What exactly is maritime law?

The fact that, on land, I’m rarely hungry at 3 am, don’t have or need cable television, rarely ever go to the doctor, and haven’t had a brush with the law since high school failed to soothe my last-minute spiraling. I was about to be confined to a single vessel for more than a week. I steeled myself for this bizarro all-inclusive resort, where instead of a road leading back to town, there’s just miles upon miles of frigid, shark-infested waves (okay, probably not shark-infested, but still).

That’s not to say I wasn’t excited. I’m a big fan of boats, and the route promised to unveil a lineup of cities I would’ve probably never visited if traveling by air. Places like County Cork, Ireland, with its rabble-rousing past and pastel-colored row houses; England’s curving seaside, a region known for its rich history and healing breezes; and La Havre, France, a Normandy port town dominated by crisp mid-century architecture and a killer beachfront skatepark.

go cart track
Vroom vroom. | Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line

I also knew I’d be treated to Vegas-quality live entertainment by way of headliner Katie Perry and closing act Chaka Khan—ship christenings are a big deal, I gathered, and they spare no expense when it comes to star-studded events. There’d be celebrity chef-helmed restaurants, infinity pools, a full thermal spa, and—no joke—a three-tiered go-kart speedway perched high atop the ship’s uppermost deck. (According to the online brochure, the track promised to be “longer, larger, and zoomier than ever.”)

But what I didn’t know? As it turns out, that could fill acres of the seemingly endless ocean ahead of me.

interior cruise room
My chamber awaits. | Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line

For one week, my brain took the form of an infant-like sponge, soaking up every cruise ship detail that came my way. I peeked out of every porthole, strolled each deck from aft to stern, mastered the breakfast buffet line, and baked in charcoal saunas stashed deep in the vessel’s belly. My fellow passengers, all 3,000 or so of them, seemed to all be wizened cruisers, spouting ship-related facts and figures with the casual confidence of a seasoned MLB announcer talking balls and strikes.

Eventually, I got my sea legs. After a few days, I stopped reaching for my wallet after ordering a drink, and my designated cabin steward’s cheery “Good morning, Meredith!” no longer made me jump as I exited my room pre-coffee. I was comfortable, content. I was cruising.

Are there more cruises in my future? Perhaps. I can’t say I’m a total convert—to me, travel is all about encountering the unexpected, detouring off the itinerary, and engaging in the kind of cultural immersion that usually takes longer than a day at port. Plus, I really love dive bars. But if I ever do find myself taking to the seas aboard a towering cruise liner, at least I know I’ll be prepared.

Here’s everything I wish I knew before embarking on my very first cruise.

cruise gift shop
This ain’t no 7-Eleven. | Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line

First thing’s first: Pack the essentials

It took me five full days onboard to discover the ship’s convenience store—well, more like a convenience section, stashed inside a very upscale boutique stocked with designer apparel, sunglasses, watches, and the like. You had to kind of duck around the front displays to locate the alcove offering Advil bottles, breath mints, soaps, toothbrushes, sunblock, tampons, and Band-aids.

Could I have asked my cabin steward to replace a forgotten pack of dental floss or comb? Probably, but that seemed like more effort than I could muster. And what if the missing toiletry item was a bit, shall we say, sensitive? If you don’t want to roam the ship to track it down or wait until you reach port to buy it, you better make sure it’s in your suitcase before you hit the deck.

cruise pool deck
Living large on the Lido Deck. | Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line

Get to know the local lingo

Ships of this prestige and magnitude come with their very own vocabulary, and it’s helpful to take note of some key terminology if you intend to comprehend the messages belted out over the loudspeakers every so often.

For the sake of brevity, bow and forward basically mean the front of the ship, while stern and aft refer to the back of the ship. Port and starboard refer to the ship’s sides (if the bow is to your north, port is west and starboard is east). Speaking of ships, it’s always a ship, and never, ever a “boat.” Furthermore, ships apparently identify as female and demand she/her pronouns at all times.

Embarkation takes place when you first climb aboard, while disembarkation only occurs on your final day. A port of call is a stop along your journey (or “crossing”), while the cute little lifeboats affixed to the ship’s exterior walls (or “hull”) are called tenders. Guest rooms or cabins are called staterooms, the ramps used to board and deboard are gangways, the Lido Deck has the biggest pools, and your cabin steward is your point person throughout your stay, making sure your room is (literally always) spic and span. The captain steers the vessel from the bridge, floors are called decks (as in, “My cabin is located on Deck 15”), and the cruise director is the embodied version of that voice booming over the loudspeaker.

cruise spa
Soaking pools at sea? Total gamechanger. | Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line

If there’s an onboard spa, make good use of it

I’m not huge on spas. Saunas and steam rooms have a tendency to make me claustrophobic and public nudity has never been my cup of tea. But damned if I didn’t enjoy the bejesus out of my foray into the Prima’s Mandara Spa on Deck 16.

The Thermal Suite progressed through a variety of hot and cool rooms, meant to get your blood flowing, before culminating in two shallow soaking pools kept at a pleasant bath water temperature. One undulates sleepily, courtesy of some sort of gentle jetstream configuration I couldn’t quite pinpoint, while the other is salinated to create a floating sensation. Submerged in those waters, buried in the center of a giant ship that itself is submerged in a body of rolling water, I have never in my life felt so much like a baby in utero—not a sensation I necessarily knew I wanted, but wow, what a ride. 10/10, would recommend.

cruise port
Cobh, Ireland’s port placement allows easy access to town. | Photo by Chris Hill, courtesy of Tourism Ireland

You can pretty much do your own thing at port

I’m not jazzed about riding around in buses full of strangers, while straining to hear a guide call out information about the scenery zooming past. Because of this—and because I generally didn’t have my shit together before heading out—I did not book any organized shore excursions in advance. It wasn’t until I saw how very strict the boarding and deboarding process was, with its complex dock configurations, security screenings, and out-of-the-way ports of call, that the dreaded realization hit me: If I hadn’t signed up for a sanctioned outing, would I be able to get off the ship at all?

The truth is, in short, absolutely. Most cruises will allow you to pop off the ship as soon as the gangway’s been secured and the cruise director gives the go-ahead. The rest of the journey depends on the port—more remote locations are often equipped with free shuttle buses ferrying cruisers to and from the nearest city center, while others, like the ones in Cobh and Amsterdam, are close enough to town that you can simply wander right off. Just make sure you’re back onboard before the posted call time, lest you watch all your belongings drift away into the night while you stand humbly ashore, hands-in-pockets. (Just kidding—the crew will definitely try to find you, but it won’t be fun for anyone.)

Culinary options are endless (and plentiful). | Norwegian Cruise Line

You will never get hungry—like, ever

Between cafeteria-style buffets, food-hall-style setups, sit-down options, poolside bars, and specialty dining destinations (AKA high-end restaurants not always included in your pre-purchased meal plan), cruise ships are veritable floating supermarkets. Feeding opportunities can easily dominate your itinerary, from omelets and cappuccinos to midnight munchies like personal pan pizzas, French fries, and wings. There’s usually at least one 24-hour operation, with other spots covering early and late shifts and every meal, snack, or other edible hankering in between. And if that weren’t enough, there’s always room service, oftentimes available 24/7 and always arriving at your door with the utmost expediency.

It’s impossible to stump the wizened professionals behind the bar. | Norwegian Cruise Line

Or thirsty, for that matter

And then there are the drinks. Aboard the Prima, that means 16 full-service booze vendors, ranginging in style from beachy to buttoned-up and each overflowing with their own allotment of beer, wine, spirits, and specialty cocktails, plus soft drinks and bottled water. In one dimly lit hideaway, a colorful character in a bedazzled cowboy hat whipped up craft cocktails using sustainable and recycled ingredients. In another, tuxedoed barkeeps poured top-shelf whiskey in front of a panorama of floor-to-ceiling windows looking out to sea. And in yet another—my personal favorite for an early afternoon burger and beer—a jovial group of Brits ordered up six shots of Sambuca with their lunch.

Anything goes. | Norwegian Cruise Line

And it’s not just quantity—these bartenders truly know their stuff. No liquid desire is off-limits. No order is met with a quizzical look, no one behind the sticks is Googling a recipe, consulting a book, or throwing even a quarter-ounce of shade. I once heard a woman order an off-menu Brandy Alexander—a Brandy Alexander!—and the bartender simply nodded and got to work. Later, I watched that same bartender field a Blue Hawaiian, a round of Jager Bombs, a Harvey Walbanger, and a Vesper (all off-menu) with the same humble precision, efficiency, and confidence. I’ve been to some of the best cocktail bars in the world, we’re talking multi-award-winners in Tokyo, London, and Paris, and these martini-slingers? They easily could throw down with the best of them.

Onboard performances might be free, but you still need a ticket. | Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line

Make reservations early and often

Not immediately hitting up the Guest Services counter on Deck 7 upon my arrival is perhaps my biggest regret. There you can snag tickets for live entertainment acts, everything from the Katy Perry-lead christening ceremony and Fleetwood Mac night at Deck 8’s disco to a live taping of The Price Is Right, complete with real prizes. You can also book shore excursions, make dinner reservations at the specialty dining restaurants, and plan out your time onboard within an inch of its life. I didn’t know reservations were required for these things, and thus didn’t make any, meaning I spent the next eight days scrambling to get my name on a list or my butt in a seat. Don’t be like me.

Keep the grubby hoodies at home, please. | Norwegian Cruise Line

Mind the dress code (seriously)

In his 1997 collection, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, late essayist David Foster Wallace writes of his first cruise ship experience: “Look, I’m not going to spend a lot of your time or emotional energy on this, but if you are male and you ever decide to undertake a 7NC Luxury Cruise, be smart and take a piece of advice I did not take: bring Formalwear.”

Foster Wallace, deeming the suggestion to pack a tuxedo “absurd,” opted instead for an ironic tuxedo-motif t-shirt, and when he sported it to formal events, became the ship’s uncomfortable laughing stock. I, having not read Foster Wallace’s essay before my trip, also ignored the directive to bring nice clothes. Sitting down to dinner in an upscale French brasserie outfitted in jeans and Adidas Shell Toes, I soon learned that when these folks say fancy, they’re not messing around.

Here’s a rundown: Cruise casual is chill but not too chill—sports shirts and slacks, possibly loafers. Cruise elegant is trickier, mostly dress pants and cocktail dresses. Formal, on the other hand, is full on black tie. And while it’s not officially required to adhere to the black tie standards for the occasion, you’ll feel pretty silly in a cotton button down and the aforementioned Adidas Shell Toes.

Gravity can be a harsh reality | Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line

Believe it or not, landsickness is a thing

Going into this, I didn’t think motion sickness would be an issue, as I’ve never had any trouble with it. I was right, thankfully, and even enjoyed it when the waters grew slightly choppy, leaning into the ship’s swaying as if I were bobbing around a water park wave pool. But climbing ashore after two days at sea was a different ball game altogether—my legs were wobbly and my balance was slightly off. Once we disembarked, it took a few days for the nausea to wear off. It wasn’t terrible, but I certainly didn’t expect it.

What time does the disco open tonight? Great question. | Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line

The daily newsletter is your friend

Every evening, you’ll receive a neatly typed, full-color printout on your bed detailing everything you need to know about the following day onboard. Time zone shifts, weather forecasts, updated venue hours, entertainment lineups, even fun facts about the next port of call—it’s all covered, and honestly, it became one of the highlights of my nightly routine. Don’t even think about tossing it aside.

Approach with caution. | Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line

Rest assured that your toilet is not trying to kill you

You know that loud, somewhat unsettling suction-type commode you find in airplane lavatories? Get used to it, because that’s exactly what you’ll be dealing with onboard a cruise ship. Upon first usage, I was not prepared for the flush’s booming intensity, and jumped backwards, crashing into my stand-up shower’s (thankfully sturdy) glass door. Be warned that the public toilets scattered around the ship are even more Herculean in their flushing efforts—I’m assuming it’s a volume thing—and the ones equipped with auto-flush mechanisms make for quite the squatting experience.

tip on bed
Pay it forward. | Olena Ivanova/Shutterstock

Don’t forget to tip the staff before departing

After spending more than a week not paying for a single goddamn thing, remembering to leave a cash tip for the cabin steward can easily slip a cruiser’s mind. But, as with hotels, tipping at the end of your stay is expected whenever a cruise company hasn’t explicitly included gratuity in your final bill. American currency is favored here, and a good rule of thumb is $10 to $12 per day, per passenger. If you’re unsure whether or not gratuity is included, just give those friendly folks at Customer Services a buzz and they’ll assuredly set you straight.

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Meredith Heil is the Editorial Director of Thrillist Travel.