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7 surprising things I learned when booking a cruise for the first time

Calista split Wonder

Booking my first cruise opened my eyes to a few lessons I never would have known before trying Royal Caribbean, and I was surprised by just how much I learned about cruising before embarking on my trip!

I booked my first-ever cruise on Wonder of the Seas, which was the largest cruise ship in the world at the time. This record now belongs to Icon of the Seas. This massive ship measures 250,800 gross registered tons! 

The 7-day cruise that I was on traveled from Port Canaveral, Florida to Perfect Day at CocoCay; St. Thomas; and St. Maarten.

Wonder of the Seas Central Park

There was lots to do to prepare. In addition to packing and planning my travel, I had to book the cruise, check-in online, and plan my onboard events. 

Although there was a lot to do, planning wasn’t impossible. I had plenty of help from our travel agent, and the Royal Caribbean app and website were easily accessible. However, booking and preparing for my cruise still came with an intimidating learning curve. I did tons of research along the way to be sure I was saving money and getting the best experience possible.

If you’re in a similar situation or just trying to get the feel of cruising for the first time, I’m here to help! These are the 7 most surprising things that I learned when booking my first-ever cruise.

How much is included in the fare

Calista in the Main Dining Room

My cruise onboard Wonder of the Seas wasn’t all-inclusive, but it felt pretty close.

As expected, the base fare was expensive; we paid $2,674.76 for my sister and me, totaling about $382 per night.

However, as I began planning ahead for the cruise, I was surprised to learn how much was included in this base fare.


The price we paid upfront included meals in the Windjammer buffet, the Main Dining Room, Solarium Bistro, continental room service breakfast, and grab-and-go spots like Sorrento’s Pizza, Park Cafe, and Cafe Promenade. This also includes some complimentary drinks such as water, coffee, and juice.

In addition to select food and drinks, the base fare included accommodations, entertainment shows, the fitness center and jogging track, pools, sun decks, and hot tubs.

I was also surprised to find that you can prepay gratuities within the base fare. After I selected that option, I wasn’t expected to tip while onboard. Nearly everything had been paid for ahead of time!

Read more: What to know before booking a cruise

You can save money by booking a guaranteed stateroom

Two beds in an inside cabin

During the booking process, I learned that you can choose a guaranteed stateroom to save money. This means that you give up your choice of a specific room and are assigned one for a lower price by the cruise line closer to your sailing date.

We were assigned a windowless inside cabin at the very front of the ship. I had to do some research to find out why this is a less desirable location.

It turns out that staterooms at the very front and back of the ship leave you more susceptible to feeling the ship’s movements and getting seasick.

Cruise cabin sink inside bathroom

Despite this disadvantage, if you are active enough to spend time outside of your cabin, I think saving money is worth it in the end.

Read more: Best rooms on a cruise ship: Deck, location, & category

It’s important to arrive at your port a day early

Calista on the gangway

When I started researching tips for my cruise, I learned that it’s recommended to arrive at your port the day before you board the ship.

This was a surprise, as I had to move up my travel plans by one day. Since the cruise left on a Sunday, we decided to arrive in Port Canaveral on Saturday afternoon.

We booked a hotel room near the port and took a shuttle straight to the ship in the morning. It definitely made the process smoother and stress-free. And who doesn’t appreciate an extra night in a good hotel?

Wonder of the Seas

The only downside with this extra day of travel was that it made our cruise feel longer.

Instead of just a 7-day cruise, we had about 8 full days of travel, and by the end, I was ready to be home in my own bed.

Read more: Cruise boarding times: how early to arrive to the terminal

A passport isn't required

View of St. Thomas

I’m used to international travel and was looking forward to experiencing it through the lens of cruising.

However, if you’re a U.S. citizen sailing on a closed-loop cruise that begins and ends in the same U.S. port, a passport isn’t required.

Personally, I already had my passport ready to go. I did end up bringing it on my cruise, and it made the process a bit smoother. However, my sister traveled with me using just her birth certificate, and she didn’t run into any problems.


Departure day was the only time we felt a difference; I simply got off the ship and had my photo taken, while she had to stand in a line to get her birth certificate checked.

As far as international travel goes, I was surprised at how little we had to prepare beforehand. No visas, passports, or customs forms were required.

Royal Caribbean offers shore excursions through the line

Selfie on bikes

On a cruise, one of the most confusing aspects is the port days.

Yes, the process is simple: you disembark and then explore; however, it was hard for me to comprehend planning a day of adventure in a completely new setting. Thankfully, I discovered that you can easily find shore excursions through the Royal Caribbean app or website.

I was able to book them ahead of time by scrolling through a list of options, and then I added them to my cart and paid right away! That was how we purchased two excursions for our stops in St. Thomas and St. Maarten.


Although these shore excursions probably came at a higher cost than if I bought them through a third party, they also came with advantages. For example, Royal Caribbean is contracted to wait for these shore excursions to return instead of setting off without them.

As an anxious first-timer, I felt assured that we would not be left behind.

Read more: Your really dumb cruise shore excursion questions answered

Porters carry your larger luggage on and off the ship

Two suitcases rolled away

On a cruise, the packing process is similar to the process for airline travel. You’ll want to bring a large suitcase and a smaller carry-on bag that holds your essentials and valuables.

In my research, I learned that your larger suitcase can be carried on and off the ship for you. Like checking a bag on a plane, you won’t have to lug it around during the boarding process.

Before the trip, I made sure to print out the provided luggage tags for our suitcases and staple them on. That way, the porters could take our bags right away. On embarkation day, my sister and I arrived at the port, and porters took our larger suitcases. We took our carry-ons onto the ship and proceeded to explore.

Disembarkation luggage

Later on in the week when we prepared for departure, I was able to select my departure preferences on the app and I opted for “luggage assistance.” Luggage tags were delivered to our room on day 6 (the next-to-last-day), and that was when I learned that our bags needed to be outside our stateroom by 10:00 p.m. that night.

Thankfully, we came back to the cabin after dinner and spent some time packing up our bags, so we could leave them outside of our door to be taken off the ship by crew members.  

On the last day, we exited the ship, went through customs, and found our bags at the provided station number. Other than the longer times we spent without our bags, it was a more straightforward process than I expected.

Read more: 6 tips to help keep a cruise line from losing your luggage

Specialty restaurant reservations fill up quickly

Chef at Izumi Hibachi

After the booking process, I learned to reserve dining and entertainment as soon as possible.

This tip doesn’t apply to every Royal Caribbean class ship, as entertainment reservations are only important to Oasis, Quantum, and Icon Class ships.

The timeline for when these reservations become available varies, but I recommend looking around 60-75 days before your sail date. Reservations aren’t required, but on such a large and crowded cruise ship, you should try to get them ahead of time!

As for dining reservations, I purchased the 3-night specialty dining package and underestimated how soon I would need to reserve the restaurants.


I didn’t see the dining reservations available on the website before my cruise, so as soon as we stepped onboard, I went to reserve them in person. At that time, however, bookings were already full for Izumi Hibachi, and we had to be placed on the waitlist. Later, we were able to dine there for a $30 upcharge.

If I had known the struggle we would have getting into certain restaurants, I definitely would have tried to book them sooner on the website. 

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