Novice cruiser’s 7 tips for better sailing the second time at sea

Feb 4, 2020

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I have a kit bag of family travel hacks for saving money on vacations, getting kids to sleep on a plane, stretching your miles so you can fly to Europe in lie-flat seats for the same out-of-pocket cost as a peppermint mocha and even finding the best shave ice on Kauai (Wishing Well near Hanalei Bay).

But last year was the first time I ever stepped foot on a cruise ship.

As a cruise novice, I knew the boat was going to take us to the Bahamas, that Captain Minnie was onboard and that booking via a third-party to get an onboard credit was the way to go, but that was about the extent of my knowledge. Walking onto our first cruise with few expectations wasn’t a bad thing, but fresh off our recent second cruise — with a third booked and a fourth penciled in — we’ve gotten better at sailing in a hurry.

Here are seven things we did better on our second cruise than our first. (Speaking of, here’s the review of our most recent cruise on the Disney Wonder.)

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Eat at the adults-only restaurant

On our first cruise, we ate only in the assigned and included restaurants. They were plenty good and that was a budget-friendly decision, but spending an extra $40 per adult to eat at the adults-only restaurant on the Disney Wonder was worth every penny.

Related: How to choose the right cruise line for you

We tried to get a reservation at the adults-only Palo restaurant on our first cruise, but it was already booked because first-time cruisers are the last ones to get access to bookings. On our second cruise, we booked a concierge-level room, which helped us secure the restaurant booking because we could book the dinner reservation earlier than most of the other cruisers on the boat. But even without that special access, we could — and should — have tried harder for a reservation on our first cruise once we were on board.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

As good as the included food on your first cruise might be, make it a point to buy-up to an even better kid-free dining experience at least once on your cruise. It makes the time slow down, and it will likely become one of the memories you keep with you the longest.

Related: How to book a cruise using miles and points

Board as soon as possible

We were assigned an afternoon boarding time on our first cruise, and we made our way to the boat in a leisurely fashion. The second time, our goal was to board as soon as possible to have more time to enjoy the ship. I noticed some families already swimming in the pools when we boarded our first cruise in the afternoon of embarkation day and only later did I learn how genius that was because the pools became too crowded to enjoy after all the passengers arrived.

Nope, nope, nope. (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

On our second cruise, we were the third family to walk onto the ship (again a perk of our concierge booking). We postponed eating lunch for the time being and made a beeline to the pool to become the first ones to enjoy the slides and pool. It took hours for us to spot anyone else in the pool area, so this trick we learned from our first cruise paid off.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
We went straight to the pool. (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Related: Best credit cards for booking a cruise

Got off the ship early

Those early extra hours on board the ship are great on the first day of the cruise; the same is not true on the last day. On our first cruise we thought we were being smart to plan to get off as late as possible to “soak it all in,” but that was a mistake. The crew wants you up and out so they can prep for the next guests. We thought we’d have more time that last day than we actually did and ended up frazzled as we waited in line behind thousands of other people in a seemingly never-ending line to get off the boat and through customs. It was not the ideal way to end a vacation.

This time, we had our stuff ready before the announcement that we could disembark the ship at 7:30 a.m. As a result, we had almost no lines or waits, which was a much better way to transition to the real world.

Related: Why 2020 should be the year of your first cruise

Go all-in on themed nights

If your cruise has a themed night, think big — especially if you have kids. The people who have the most fun on theme nights are the ones who plan ahead and go all-in. Don’t just pack a bandana for pirate night — bring the whole costume. Leave your shy side ashore and pack an extra side of fun in your cruise luggage.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Check your cruise itinerary, but some common themes are pirate night, 70s, 80s, masquerade ball, etc.

Pack Dramamine

Perhaps the biggest shock on my first cruise was how much I felt the movement of the ocean, even on Disney’s largest ship in pretty calm seas. I didn’t get sick on my first cruise but realizing how much I noticed the motion in calm seas opened my eyes. Thankfully, we were better prepared for our second cruise, which was a winter sailing in what turned out to be rougher seas.

Take spring break to the high seas (Summer Hull / The Points Guy)
Take spring break to the high seas. (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

This time, when I felt the motion as we set sail, we were prepared with medication if it got to be too much — which it very much did by the first full sea day. When the nausea began to overtake me, we made our way to the top deck for some fresh air as I took Dramamine and shoved my head under a towel and temporarily regretted my life choices.

From the looks of this picture, I wasn’t the only one. Thankfully, we had a plan if we had trouble getting our sea legs, and it worked.

Related: Most important things to pack for your cruise

(Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Book a longer cruise

Booking a short cruise for our first time at sea made a ton of sense, but I think our first cruise was actually too short. On paper, it was three nights, but in reality that meant no full days at sea to enjoy the ship unless we skipped getting off at a port, which we did. The second time, we booked a four-night cruise with only one port and two full sea days. Factor in how early we got on the ship for the first day and we had way more time on the ship than we did the first time.

Related: Review of a 3-night cruise on the Disney Dream

This additional day made everything feel more relaxed because it wasn’t such a rush to “enjoy it all.”

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

There’s nothing wrong with starting with a three-night cruise, but it is a short time frame when it’s all new to you. Although four-nights isn’t much longer, the pace of having that extra day felt much more relaxing. We haven’t worked our way up to those seven-night cruises yet, but we do have our eyes on a weeklong Alaska cruise. Maybe one day we’ll be saying four nights isn’t nearly long enough … but really, it’s a good place to start.

Plan less

I’ve saved the best, or at least the most important tip, for last. Unlike planning a trip to Disney World when you need to plan almost every meal six months in advance, the magic of a cruise hides in having some large chunks of unscheduled downtime. Although it’s great to plan some key moments and port excursions in advance, you want big blocks of time to relax, enjoy the ship and participate in some onboard activities.

In fact, simply seeing a first-run movie with the family each day we were at sea was just — indulgent. Regardless of how you want to spend your cruising time, leave yourself the flexibility to go where the ocean takes you … which may just be out to your balcony.

Grandma Points relaxing on our balcony (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
Grandma Points relaxing on our balcony. (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Read on for more cruising tips:

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