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10 biggest surprises of a first-time cruiser

First time cruiser guide C

As a reluctant first-time cruiser, here are the 10 biggest surprises of my maiden voyage.

My wife has always been keen to go on a cruise. Me, not so much. I didn't really get the appeal. Stuck on a ship with no way to get off didn't really tickle the fancy of this intrepid explorer.

Yet in May 2022, I walked the plank, so to speak.

I packed my bags and jumped on Odyssey of the Seas, a Quantum Class ship in the Royal Caribbean fleet and sailed around the Mediterranean.

Cruises are coming back to Australia and I wanted to get a taste of what locals could expect.

To my surprise, I quite enjoyed it. Here were the things that as a first-time cruiser, surprised me most about the experience.

First time cruiser 1

1. It makes international travel easy

I realise not all cruises visit multiple countries, but for those that do, it sure does make international travel easy. The feeling of just opening your curtain in the morning and seeing a new country sitting idly by the water outside is truly incredible. No flights to worry about, luggage collection, taxis, hotel check-ins, meals or packing and unpacking. You're just... there.

These painful experiences get exponentially worse when you have kids, too. So, just being able to wake up and to have all of the painful parts of moving between countries sorted was a huge perk that, as a first-time cruiser, I didn't see coming. And when considering the cost of a cruise versus flying to these destinations, I couldn't help but wonder what the cost saving is in both money and time.

Especially when there's cruise deals to be had.

If you're cruising internationally out of Australia, you'll likely find yourself heading to the South Pacific islands, New Zealand, Indonesia and even Hawaii.

Or if money is no object, possibly Antarctica.

Cruise lines that hit these destinations include Carnival, P&O (which also does Papua New Guinea) and Princess (which also goes up into Asia).

2. I couldn't feel the cruise ship moving

Ahead of getting on a cruise, I was concerned about how the constant motion and waves would affect my experience. In reality, it felt like being on dry land for the most part. The only time I felt any motion was in the shower, where I had walls closed in all around.

Now the Mediterranean isn't like crossing the Bass Strait in terms of the kind of waves you may need to deal with. But the cruise ships are so big, I can't imagine my experience would have been different in the vast majority of conditions. There were times when I actually had to look out the window just to tell when we had left port!

To be transparent, others I spoke to on my cruise who suffer from sea sickness in general did say they could feel the ship moving. While none of them said it was negatively impacting their experience, if you're a first-time cruiser, probably wise to bring sea sickness tablets just in case.

3. You do a lot of exercise

You're probably wondering how these cruise ships could be bigger than they look, given they dominate any harbour they pull into. But these engineering marvels are even bigger once you are on board. The sheer number of floors, and the variety of locations you go between each day – not to mention back and forth between your room – is mind-blowing.

When I first got on Odyssey of the Seas, which is one of the biggest in the ocean at around 347m in length, I kept saying to myself, "I can't believe this exists." It's like being in an opulent Vegas hotel, but on water. Needless to say, I was worried about exercise before I spent 9 days on my first cruise. The reality is I hit my 10,000 daily step count easily!

P&O, MSC and Carnival all have large ships over 340m in length, too. Princess and Celebrity have ships in that 325m to 330m mark. So, they're all big!

Note: On airplanes, a "class" refers to how awesome your seat is and whether they treat you like humans or not during check-in. On cruises, a "class" refers to a size of vessel in the fleet.

4. There's plenty to do on board

One of my big worries was that I would get bored. I can get drunk and sit in a spa with the best of them, but that wasn't going to be enough over a 9-day stint. To my surprise, there was so much to do that in the end I didn't even get to it all. The sheer number of activities beats out any resort I've ever been in by a stretch.

On Royal Caribbean, that included dodgem cars, freerider pool surfing, rock climbing, multiple sports (table tennis, basketball, soccer), a casino, indoor skydiving, laser tag, trampolines, pools, movies, discos, trivia and belly-flop competitions. Then there was an endless run of quality shows and live music as well. Add excursions off the boat on top of that and, dare I say it, I was exhausted at times. But never bored.

Elsewhere Disney's cruise liner has a 765-foot water coaster! Carnival has a ropes challenge obstacle course and a rollercoaster. Norwegian Cruise Line has a proper go-kart track.

They're all packed with things to do.

Royal Caribbean Cruise 9

5. The food is incredible

I love buffets and be honest, you love them too. They're great. But they tend to sit under a pretty low-quality bar, really. And as a first-time cruiser, I was worried about how my body would respond to over a week of hotel-style bacon, eggs and pancakes during my cruise.

But my expectations were well off the mark.

Not only was there a huge variety of food available within the included price of the cruise, but the quality was exceptional. Everything was put together at a very high standard. You didn't have to do a buffet, either, with 3-course sit-down dinners, and various cafes or eateries to indulge in at lunch. Or whenever the fancy took you, really.

Even the coffee was good. I did try some of the premium dining options as well, and they were phenomenal if crazily expensive. If I was being fair dinkum, I'd say that the quality of the food on-board the cruise was among the best of any "hotel" I've stayed in. The cocktails and wine selection, too.

Looking at other cruise liners and they're all doing plenty to impress with food. To Princess hiring Michelin star chefs, to Celebrity's signature restaurant Le Voyage by Daniel Boulud, to P&O onboarding master chef Luke Mangan.

6. Budget for extras

If you're a teetotaller, then you can probably get through a whole cruise without spending an extra dime. Standard drinks and all the food you could want are included. But for most of us, your wallet will open frequently. And if you do decide to spend, it'll hit the back pocket.

All the prices are in US dollars – on Royal Caribbean, at least – which caught me off guard plenty of times. As an Australian, US$10 at the time was actually AU$14.

Internet, drinks, excursions, fine dining and speciality activities do cost extra across most cruises. And they're resort prices. If you plan to get out at every destination and do a tour through the cruise – as opposed to sourcing locally yourself – you'll be deep into your wallet by the end.

My tip then is to plan your budget and go in with your eyes wide open. No matter where you're holidaying, you'll spend on this stuff. Also look for deals that have included drink packages and Wi-Fi, as well as kids clubs if you're travelling as a family. Each cruise line does things in their own unique way.

As for drink packages, make sure you do your maths beforehand as they might not be worth it. For example, you had to drink 10 beers a day, every day, to "break even" on my cruise.

On most cruise ships you're not expected to tip, either. Make sure you check how the cruise company you're travelling with handles gratuities.

Royal Caribbean Cruise 11

7. Internet was great

Maybe it's because I'm Australian, but I just don't expect to get good Internet as soon as I'm off the beaten path. Yet Internet speeds on board the Odyssey were consistently good.

You have to pay extra to get access (around US$10/day). That said, considering I needed to work, catch up with the kids back home and stream sport (yes, that's a need), it was worth it to me. The Internet did everything I asked of it at a good clip.

As a first-time cruiser it was also super handy just for catching up with friends on the ship itself. These things are so damn huge, my group of 12 or so used WhatsApp constantly just to locate each other!

8. There are so many people!

I was blown away with how many people are on a cruise ship. As an example, the Odyssey of the Seas has a capacity of over 5,000 guests, and then there's an additional 2,000+ staff on top of that. Crazy, right? Looking across the other cruise liners shows similar numbers, albeit slightly smaller.

My cruise was at 60% capacity at around 3,200 people. Getting off and on the boat at destinations was more or less painless, and there was always a spot in the eateries, bars, pool and spas.

The exception was the "at sea" days. On these occasions, the available seats around the decks and pools was very limited. I can only imagine at capacity it would be quite unpleasant. So if these numbers seem daunting, opt for a cruise that frequently docks. When docked, the crowd is much more distributed for obvious reasons.

Royal Caribbean Cruise 2

9. Working to be environmentally friendly

Let's face it; cruising isn't great for the environment. But I was surprised by how much this was acknowledged by the cruise liner and, in turn, the effort being put in to minimising the impact and even try and balance the carbon footprint. Given I'm a journalist, I was allowed down into the bowels of the ship to see the efforts being made to go green. Or greener, at least.

I watched as staff sorted every single bit of rubbish so it can be properly recycled. I was shown the machines that break down waste and convert it to a point where it's basically drinkable. I learned about large investments in wind farms to try and offset the carbon footprint and engineering efforts to harvest mechanical effort into an energy source.

I think it's still a fair way from "green," but I was surprised to see how much human effort, money and resources were being put into reaching a green goal. This seems to be an industry-wide effort, too. For example, Norway's Hurtigruten cruises are introducing hybrid vessels and going carbon-neutral by 2030. While Storylines is debuting a ship in 2023 that uses clean liquified natural gas (LNG) fuel.

10. I wasn't stressed about COVID

Finally, I was surprised by how little I worried about COVID-19. I think we all know about the dark history between cruises and coronavirus. But it just didn't ever enter my mind once I was on board. Everyone had to be vaccinated to be on the cruise to begin with. All the staff wore masks. Entering the eateries required hand sanitisation and produce was all placed behind sneeze walls.

That's not to say there wasn't COVID on board, only that the measures taken, combined with the vaccination mandate, had the desired effect.

If something does get serious, COVID or otherwise, there is a full medical centre with trained professionals on hand. But obviously, you're at sea. As such, I'd make sure your travel insurance is tight and includes things like helicopter transport if you need it.

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Chris Stead was invited on this cruise as a guest of Royal Caribbean. Opinions and photographs are his own. All editorial content is created independently by Finder.

Thinking of cruising for the first time? Check out our picks of the best cruise ships for first timers to sail with and why.

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