From ship to shore: cruising for the first-timer

Congratulations! You’ve done your homework, checked out the best ship and itinerary, chosen your onboard accommodation and now you’re ready to book your first cruise. But wait, there’s more… here are some tried-and-tested guidelines to ensure everything goes as smoothly as possible.

Making and managing your booking
There are a few things to do when you make the booking: alert the cruise line or your travel agent if you have any special dietary requirements or medical conditions, and if you’re pregnant your doctor will have to fill out an online form well in advance of sailing. Your passport will need to have at least six months’ validity at the time of the cruise, and even if you’re travelling in Australian waters you’ll still need to take some form of government-issued photo ID.

Once you’ve paid for your cruise, you can check in online (up to six months in advance) and print your boarding pass and baggage labels. This is to save time when you board the ship, although check-in times at the port are staggered to help reduce queues.

If you’re flying to the embarkation port, book a flight that arrives as early as possible to allow for delays (or to be really safe, extend your holiday and get there the day before). Allow plenty of time to get from the airport to the port, whether by a Carnival Cruise Line transfer (book five days ahead to guarantee a spot), public transport or taxi.

You can also search for shore excursions after you’ve checked in online; decide which ship-organised tours appeal to you so you can book them as soon as you get on board, or research the ports and local attractions if you’d rather do your own thing.

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What to pack

Most of us pack way too much, so take half of what you think you’ll need and remember that storage space in staterooms is limited. There are self-service launderettes on board plus a laundry service, and nobody will notice if you wear the same clothes more than once.

While Carnival cruises are relaxed and casual, you may not be allowed in the main dining room and restaurants if you’re wearing cut-off jeans, singlets, shorts, swimmers or thongs, so pack some smart-casual wear and remember that air-conditioned spaces on board can be chilly – layers are always a good idea.

Optional Cruise Elegant evenings and theme nights are held on every cruise and you’ll need to pack the right kit if you want to join in the fun. Check which theme nights are on your itinerary (Mexican Fiesta or 80s Rock n Glow deck party); the dress code for Cruise Elegant is cocktail dresses, pantsuits, elegant skirts and blouses for women, and smart pants, dress shirts and a jacket for men.

Take lightweight, washable shoes that work for shore tours as well as onboard sports activities, and BYO snorkel and fins if you’re planning to go snorkelling. You can hire or buy these on board if you really can’t fit them into your luggage. If you’re travelling with young children, pack everything they will need on the basis that you may not be able to buy dummies, nappies and baby food on the ship or in certain ports.

As there are usually a few hours between checking in at the port and your luggage arriving in your stateroom, make sure your hand luggage contains travel documents, cameras and medication (including seasickness remedies – just in case), plus swimsuits, sunscreen and sun hats so you can enjoy the pool deck straight away.

Packing

Embarkation

Ships operate a cashless system so, once you’ve registered your credit card, your Sail & Sign card works as the key to your stateroom and to buy drinks and incidentals on the cruise. Bring some cash for shore tours and keep it in your stateroom safe.

Priorities after embarking are usually exploring the ship, lunch and booking shore excursions. Attending the safety drill is compulsory and you’ll get plenty of warning about where to go and when.

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Wining, dining and entertainment

Carnival ships are chock-a-block with cafes, lounges, bars and restaurants. Most options are included in your fare, but do yourself a favour and book a table at Nouveau Restaurant for a memorable dinner that costs far less than you’d pay at an equivalent city restaurant.

You can have dinner at the main restaurants at assigned times (there’s an early and a late sitting) or opt for Your Time Dining.

You’ll also find plenty in the way of entertainment for the whole family – from stage shows to karaoke, live music and comedy – and, best of all, most of it is included in your ticket price.

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