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6 Ways We Were Surprised On Our Family’s First Cruise

March 18, 2019
8 min read
cruise ship
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We've been pretty lucky in the travel department over the years. Our family has taken hundreds of flights, been to a few dozen countries and has generally integrated travel into our lives as much as possible. Despite all of that, we had never, ever stepped foot on a cruise ship. Not even for a second.

This failure to set sail on the open ocean was partly due to the cost, partly due to trepidation about being "stuck" on a massive ship with thousands of other people and partly because it simply didn't appeal to us very much -- until now. We are now in a phase of life that is so busy that just getting on a boat and setting sail sounds pretty fantastic -- especially since both girls are now the right age for the included kids club!

For spring break this year we just took our first cruise. In some ways, it was everything I thought it would be, and in other ways, it was pretty surprising for this land locked traveler. While none of these surprises would probably apply to an experienced cruiser, as a newbie, here are six things we didn't expect:

1. What Downtime?

I didn't pack a book for our family's first cruise -- I packed two. I honestly thought we would have downtime and I'd be able to leisurely read a book while sitting on our veranda overlooking the water. Spoiler alert: I didn't even open a book.

We took a three-night Disney cruise from Port Canaveral to the Bahamas. At any given time, there were at least a half-dozen different activity and entertainment options available -- several of which we wanted to try. Jedi training, animation classes, family interactive games, bingo, pirate shows, character meetings, tequila tastings and so much more beckoned. Our schedule was packed.

Even the kid clubs were highly themed and entertaining

Any fear of being a little bored on our first cruise was dramatically misplaced. In fact, we couldn't get to nearly all the things that sounded fun on each daily agenda and were almost stressed trying to not miss out on the best ones!

2. No Swimming

One activity I thought we would partake in while cruising was swimming. I think we packed three swimsuits each (to go along with the two unused books). However, the pools and hot tubs on deck were often swarmed with people well beyond my comfort level. They looked beautiful and serene early in the morning before they really opened, but during prime swimming hours, we passed.

Looks inviting out on deck before the day begins
Prime time swimming crowds

Our only swimming on the cruise (other than a very fun trip down the onboard waterslide) happened on Disney's private island, Castaway Cay. Even then, only the girls got all the way in as it was a little chilly for me!

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3. We Didn't Really Meet Other Families

In my mind, along with all of this fictional downtime, there were going to be ample opportunities to meet other families. Whether at meals, activities or in the kids clubs, I thought we would see the same families multiple times since we were all on the same vessel for days on end. That didn't really happen.

With all of the space on the ship, and all of the various activities, our three-night cruise didn't turn out to be long enough to really get to know others on board. There are Facebook groups and such for each cruise, so I presume you could meet up with specific people on your cruise if you tried -- it just didn't happen naturally.

4. You Feel the Ocean

If experienced cruisers aren't already laughing at us by this point in the story, here comes the giggles. On our first cruise, we were surprised by how much you feel you are on the ocean (I know, I know). I assumed you would feel the waves in rougher seas, but I was genuinely surprised by how much you feel the motion of the ocean even when seas appear calm to the inexperienced eye.

In fact, I felt a bit ill the first night and was afraid that I would feel uneasy for the duration of the cruise. Fortunately, it passed. I guess that is what they call getting your "sea legs."

5. We Still Spent A Lot of Money

Don't think of a cruise as an all-inclusive vacation, because it isn't -- or at least ours wasn't. While a lot is included in the upfront cost, there are plenty of opportunities to spend more money along the way. If you don't want to spend much beyond the price of admission, don't venture down the rabbit hole of "buy-up" opportunities. Avoid the special ice cream store, the spa, the bars, the mixology classes, the coffee shops, the photo area, popcorn cart, etc.

A drink for each of us at dinner would easily total $30 with tip. A trip to the ice cream store for two with toppings would come in over $10. Island smoothies for the family were quickly over $20, on-island bike and snorkel rentals added up to $75 in a hurry and our visit to the spa was, as you can imagine, not cheap (but awesome).

Avoid the colorful ice cream shop if you don't want an extra bill

Having quick-service meals, nice family dinners and many activities included in the base price of the cruise was great, but we still spent a fair amount even without going crazy with drinks, trips to the nicest restaurants or extra activities (other than perhaps the spa splurge). I had expected spas and wine to be extra charges, but was surprised by the little things we were charged for, such as ice cream and popcorn.

Thankfully, these onboard charges to our stateroom did code as travel charges, so that means 3 points per dollar earned with a card like the Chase Sapphire Reserve or Citi Premier® Card.

6. We Already Put a Deposit Down On Another Cruise

Some of the ways in which we were surprised on our first cruise weren't positives, but make no mistake, we had a good time. Relocating to different countries as you sleep in a cabin overnight is magical. Not having to make lots of decisions about where or when to eat is relaxing. Ordering Mickey Ice Cream Bars via room service at 10pm (which are free via room service, other than the tip) is a true treat for the kids.

While my husband wasn't as big of a fan of the cruise as the girls and me -- since he really doesn't like crowds and needs open spaces -- the girls and I were planning our next cruise before we disembarked. I had been expecting to take the cruise and then check that box off the list for a while, but instead we put a deposit down toward another Disney cruise while still on our first. Doing this while on the ship will save us 10% and secure some ship credits when we ultimately pick which Disney Cruise is next on our list.

Bottom Line

Any time you do something for the first time, you are likely to find some surprises along the way. Our first cruise was as fun, new and exciting as we hoped it would be. We didn't just stare out at the ocean for hours on end, didn't come close to running out of things to do on the ship and didn't wait until our first cruise was over to start planning and booking our second.

Stay tuned for a full review of our family's first cruise to the Bahamas on the Disney Dream.

Read on for more cruising tips:

Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.