Here’s what you need to know to enjoy your first cruise (and not freak out)

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I never wanted to go on a cruise. When my best friend offered to treat me to one, I said no. When she came back a few days later with the destinations — Havana, Cozumel and Key West — I said yes. I couldn’t turn down Cuba.

From Charlotte, I flew to Miami to board my first cruise in May.

I made the mistake of going into the cruise experience blind – I did little to no research and had a few surprises along the way. It would have made the vacation less stressful if I’d been more familiar with the foreign travel rules, excursions and the effects of weather.

Here’s what I learned from my first cruise:

Make cruise buddies

I didn’t think I’d make cruise friends, but I did. We sat with the same three couples each night and over five dinners, we shared our stories, told jokes and bonded over shared life experiences. Trust formed quickly, and we’ll forever be connected by Royal Caribbean’s Empress of the Seas.

The staff on the ship work long hours and are there to make your vacation the best it can be. Then when you leave, they do it all over again – with no breaks – for months at a time. Our dinner group was very curious about the crew’s lifestyle and asked them questions. Most crew members are not from the U.S.– they are young and work the cruise season and then go home for a few months. Take time to hear their stories.

Have fun with the cruise traditions

This was my friend and cabin mate’s 13th cruise. She’d been telling me about decorating our cabin door for weeks. Sure enough, within minutes of arriving at our room, she had our door decorated with streamers, signs and balloons and our colorful blow-up toucan mascot that was sitting above the TV. Depending on the cruise, you can expect many doors to be decorated – it makes for a festive atmosphere and allows you to find your door quickly.

If you’re not ready for the DIY action, decorating services are often available through the ship. You can also have flowers, candy and champagne delivered to your room to celebrate a birthday or anniversary.

Another cruise tradition, according to Jennifer Brammer, AAA travel agent in Steele Creek, is the Captain’s Dinner. Typically, guests dress up and the captain introduces himself to each table. Some dinners may have a theme such as white night (like on our cruise), 70s party or even “dress like a pirate” night.

Expect a night or two of entertainment from the staff during dinner. The talented staff will be up front singing, dancing and telling humorous stories while some of the more inhibited folks may hide behind their crewmates.

Expect some weather, but don’t freak out (like me)

I must confess, I thought we were all going to die the first night on the boat. The ship traveled through thunderstorms and the rocking was unbearable to me. At breakfast the next day, seasoned cruisers laughed at the telling of my near-death experience.

If you’re braver than me, cruise in September and October when tickets are less expensive, but you have a higher risk of experiencing a hurricane. Brammer suggests signing up for travel insurance if you’re worried about how the weather may affect your vacation.

The cruise line reserves the right to change an itinerary at any time for any reason, according to Brammer. They can change the itinerary to avoid dangerous situations or cancel the cruise.

Learn about the foreign countries you’re traveling to before you go

Take the time to research each port you’ll visit or consult with your travel agent. Havana requires a valid passport and visa ($75), which is provided for you through the cruise line. Due to U.S. government laws, American citizens must be signed up for an excursion through the cruise line or an independent entity, not related to the Cuban government. You’re not permitted by the U.S. government to walk around Cuba without a planned experience that includes a “people to people” interaction. We weren’t signed up for anything and panicked. Luckily, we went to port with another couple and did an independent tour with Havana Old Car Tours, a family owned company. It turned out to be the highlight of the entire cruise.

Other cruise destinations in the Caribbean don’t require a visa, but a passport is necessary.

Splurge on one life-changing excursion

These are short or long trips you take while off the boat. They are optional, except in Cuba. The excursions may be purchased before your cruise or while you’re on the boat. Costs range for excursions — $30 for a two-hour basic city tour to $600 for all-day dog sledding in Alaska. Look to scuba, snorkel or swim with the dolphins in the Caribbean, take helicopter rides over a volcano in Hawaii or land on a glacier in Alaska.

One seasoned cruiser pointed out that if you purchase an excursion through the cruise line, the ship will wait for you if there’s a problem. If you purchase your excursion through a company unrelated with the cruise company, and there’s a problem and you miss All Aboard time (see words to know below), you must make your way home on your own.

If you purchase alcohol such as rum on one of your excursions, the cruise staff will hold it for you until the cruise is over. They (probably) won’t drink it.

It’s easy to stay healthy and fit

Every time I mentioned my upcoming cruise (which was often), I heard about the food, the midnight buffets and the desserts. I was determined not to gain any weight on this cruise – and I succeeded. We avoided the buffets and ate breakfast and dinner in the dining room and ordered our meals from a menu. I stayed away from the 24/7 ice cream machine on the main deck, and I was always asleep before the midnight buffet.

The fitness studio was equipped with the typical ellipticals, bicycles, treadmills, weight machines and free weights. Classes such as Pilates, yoga and bootcamp were offered for an additional $12 to $35 cost.

An onboard doctor can treat sickness and injuries and issue Dramamine. Wrist bands and patches for seasickness may be purchased on the ship. I highly recommend the patch; so many people wore them. You need a prescription from your doctor to get the patch.

There are handwashing and hand-sanitizer stations everywhere. The crew will talk behind your back if you don’t use them.

It’s not all about eating and drinking, but it can be

Meals in the main dining room and on the buffet are included. Soft drinks and alcoholic drinks are an additional charge, or you may purchase a drink package for the day or your entire stay.

Your seapass card acts as the cabin key and credit card. It stays with you always and may be used to purchase anything on the boat because it’s tied to the credit card you gave the cruise line.

Words to know:

Muster drill – Before the cruise sets sail, the staff will lead you through the 30-minute emergency drill. While wearing a PFD, you will meet at the muster station and lifeboat assigned to your cabin.

All aboard – or get you’re a$$ on the boat – each day you’re at port, there will be an All Aboard time. Find out if this time is related to ship time or port time, often these are different and depend on the cruise line. If you miss your ship, it’s your responsibility to get back home.

Port, stern, starboard, bow – There’s no left or right, front or back when referring to a cruise ship. Make like a pirate and use port for the left side, starboard for the right side, bow for front and stern for rear.

Tender – A small boat that brings passengers to the dock when the water around a port is too shallow and the cruise ship must anchor a short distance away.

Despite my inexperience, I returned from my first cruise feeling grateful I visited Cuba. Would I do it again? I still think it was a one and done experience for me.

Photos by: Vanessa Infanzon

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