I’ll admit it—I’ve avoided cruising the high seas for most of my life. The thought of being confined to what I always pictured as a floating Opryland Hotel seemed overwhelming to me. Organized mealtimes with strangers, rigorous itineraries—it just seemed to be too much.
But when I was presented with the opportunity to travel to Alaska on Holland America’s Nieuw Amsterdam this past summer, I jumped at the chance. I was more than willing to look past my concerns to explore and experience the Alaskan wilderness. Looking back, I'm disappointed I waited so long to experience ocean cruising.
Based on my first-time experiences, here are some key things I believe that anyone new to ocean cruising should know as they plan their first adventure on the high seas.
EXPLORE PACKAGES IN ADVANCE, AND ASK PLENTY OF QUESTIONS
When making an ocean cruise reservation, I highly suggest talking to a travel agent. I'm typically one who feels comfortable booking even the most complex travel reservations on my own, but cruising reservations overwhelmed me.
With so many packages available, from drinks and gratuities to internet access and specialty restaurants, it can be challenging to determine how the various pieces fit together without breaking the bank. Explore the different packages (especially drink packages) and do the math to determine what makes the most sense for your travel party, especially since you’re on vacation.
Because most ships are now cashless and I pre-purchased gratuities, I was unsure when (or whom) I was supposed to tip. A travel agent was able to walk me through expectations so there were no gratuity faux pas on my part, and it's essential that any first-time cruiser get this same primer.
CHOOSE YOUR CABIN CAREFULLY
Sure—there are the basics when it comes to picking a cabin (inside, outside, veranda, suite). That's the easy part. Spend more time figuring out where on the boat you really want to be. Take into consideration what may be a high-traffic area, like paths to the bow of the ship, dining, the spa, pool— you get the idea. If you want peace and quiet with little traffic in your hallway, you want to avoid these areas. Additionally, watch out for elevators or crew areas that might have additional noise.
If you’re considering the port side of the ship, it can be noisy when the boat docks due to communication with dockworkers and the mechanical noise associated with docking, especially on lower decks. Be sure to consider this when making your cabin selection.
When all else fails, consult a travel agent to help you find the perfect cabin based on your preferences—a good agent will know the ships and deck plans like the back of their hand. Otherwise, you may be looking at deck plans for quite some time before landing on a specific stateroom.
I highly suggest arriving in your port of call a day before your departure. Not only does this give you the chance to explore a new location, but you avoid missing the boat when it departs the home port. I met a couple on the ship who had their flight arrive to Seattle late for our cruise departure. They were wholly responsible for catching up with the boat. As a result, they lost two days of cruising since we didn't reach our first port for two days, plus they were out a lot of additional travel expenses. It’s worth the extra money to arrive early and save yourself this potential headache and lost cruising time. Travel insurance can also be additional protection in this scenario.
PLAN SOME THINGS IN ADVANCE
If you're interested in dining in a specialty restaurant or enjoying a spa treatment, make reservations early. The best reservations may be taken by the time the ship departs, restricting you to times when the ship is in a port. Most cruise lines allow you to make reservations in advance through their website or app, and it’s worth taking advantage of this opportunity.
TAKE SHORE EXCURSIONS
Ocean cruise liners are stunning with plenty of activities. Still, it's worth exploring the local culture in the ports via an excursion. We stopped in Juneau, Icy Strait Point, Sitka, and Ketchikan on my cruise to Alaska. Each port had its own individual culture, history, and topography. Without an excursion, I would have been limited to the more touristy areas near the cruise ports. Because I took excursions led by locals, I learned about the local culture and history from lifelong residents and got to experience the sights and sounds I would have otherwise missed. Excursions of all types are available—from easy food or wildlife tours to active and more strenuous outdoor activities.
STAY ORGANIZED WHEN PACKING
Preparing for my Alaskan cruise, I concluded that I’m an over-packer and probably need a packing intervention. Even after pruning back my wardrobe selections that I prepared for a variety of climates, activities, and occasions, I still packed way too much. While staterooms have plenty of flexible storage space, packing less would have made navigating the airport a lot easier.
Explore your cruise line’s website or consult a travel agent—they'll offer great advice on how to pack. Also, check the local weather in each port of call and plan accordingly. Layers are a great idea, including one waterproof layer for any wet shore excursions. Be sure to pack comfy clothes for exploring the ship during any "at sea" days, too. Of course, if you're going to Alaska (or any other cooler climate), a warm jacket to protect you from wind and mist is essential for both the ship's decks and going ashore.
TAKE TIME TO EXPLORE THE SHIP
While Holland America's Nieuw Amsterdam is a large ship, it certainly isn’t the largest available to passengers these days. Deck plans are easy to find on the cruise line’s app or throughout the ship, but exploring the main decks is essential to figuring out what you might want to do while on board. You’ll be able to discover where entertainment takes place, the various bars and restaurants, and the pool and spa—all while learning the best and most efficient ways to get there.
Without taking the time to explore the Nieuw Amsterdam, I never would have discovered my favorite spot—the coffee shop with sweeping sea views over the ship's bow, where I napped each afternoon in a leather Adirondack chair.
READ ITINERARIES EACH NIGHT
In most cases, passengers will have full access to the daily itinerary of activities offered on board the ship. This is typically available in a paper copy left in your stateroom or via the cruise line's app. The daily itinerary is your key to dining and restaurant hours, entertainment options, port times, and more. Explore this carefully each day, especially if you plan to eat meals in the main dining room, which may have more limited hours than a buffet. Highlight what’s important to you and create a schedule for your day, leaving time for last-minute discoveries. It can be easy to accidentally miss certain activities or dining times on the daily itinerary, especially if time changes are involved.
DON’T HAVE HIGH EXPECTATIONS FOR INTERNET ACCESS
I had full intentions of working a little during my cruise so I didn’t fall too far behind. While I purchased a full internet package, internet connections were slow and spotty due to the terrain. I could still send and receive iMessages and use the ship’s app with the plan I purchased, but I couldn’t surf the web and handle work emails like I thought I would be able to.
The bottom line—don't expect a fantastic internet connection. It's probably a subtle way of getting you to disconnect and enjoy your vacation. If you need full internet access, take your phone or laptop to a visitor's center or library in a port. Both typically offer complimentary high-speed internet access. If you purchase limited internet access, messaging apps like iMessage, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp should work most of the time for basic communication.
Ocean cruising opens a world of destination opportunities for you to experience local culture while receiving top-notch service, food, and entertainment options. Treat every ocean cruise as a true vacation and sit back and enjoy yourself.