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Top 10 Tips to Prepare For a First Time Cruise

Hi, welcome to my beauty blog. I am Rachael, and this is my beauty blog Written by Rachael on October 2023, last updated: October 2023

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If you’re going on a cruise for the first time and want some tips on how you can make it that little bit easier, read my tips below.

I’ve been on 4 cruises with P&O Cruises now. From 2 weeks in the Caribbean to a week in the Mediterranean. Over this time I’ve added small accessories to my luggage, as well as knowing what to expect when we arrive and depart. My list below is the top things to know and take with you (although I’ll probably need to make another part!).

Table of contents:

Black Tie Night – what are they? Do you have to do them?

Black Tie Nights are when you dress in your most fancy clothes to dine in the evenings. You would generally dress up for evening food and afterwards, if you’re seeing a show or going for a drink. You tend to get at least one Black Tie night on a 7-day cruise however our last 7-day cruise had 2. They tend to be on days when you’re at sea and aren’t docking anywhere.

If you don’t want to dress up, you don’t have to but the places you can go are limited. You usually aren’t allowed in the main restaurants, but going to the buffet and a few other smaller places is allowed. You’ll find out about where you can go in the daily newspaper you get each evening for the next day. This is either posted in your room or put in your post box outside your door.

We’ve only done one Black Tie night in our whole time cruising and weren’t impressed. We assumed it would be different somehow from the other nights, but the food was the same quality without any special entertainment/drinks etc.

Drinks Packages

Alcoholic and soft drinks aren’t in the price for a P&O Cruise. You have to pay, even for water bottles.

You pay for drinks packages which tend to have options for kids, alcoholic drinks, and non-alcoholic drinks. You can choose to buy a package either before or during your cruise. We aren’t big drinkers so we don’t buy one, as they’re pretty expensive. That being said, on our last cruise, we bought a bottle of gin from duty-free which you’re allowed to take with you (although buying booze at port stops isn’t generally allowed – they will confiscate it until you leave). Then we purchased tonics all week! This saved us a LOT of money.

For water, we refilled our bottles at the water stations within the buffet restaurants. You aren’t allowed to directly put your water bottle up to the machine due to health & safety – so we simply filled a mug up and then poured in our bottle – we didn’t get told off. Water from the taps in the room didn’t make us poorly but it didn’t taste quite right, so we opted for this. Water machines are located next to the outside bars (near where you sunbathe) and buffet restaurants, which are generally open all day. I think you can buy regular water bottles too from behind the bars.

Buying things onboard

You don’t use cash on board at all. When you first arrive in your room, outside in the post box you will have documents to read and a cruise card (each per person). This cruise card is what you use to buy everything – whether it’s a drink, an ice cream, an excursion, a dress from one of the onboard shops, or even buying euros from reception.

You’ll also use it to get on/off the ship. It’s pretty important to keep a safe hold of it until you leave.

Daily Newspaper Agenda

Each afternoon, your room cleaner will put a newspaper in your room relevant to the next day (or leave it outside your room door in the post box). This newspaper has a lot of useful information in it, such as excursion times, “what’s on” from films to evening events, and opening times for all the restaurants.

It gives a brief overview of the place you’re docking, and what type of night it is (Black Tie for example).

Excursions can be expensive

You can book these either before the cruise (you pay upfront), or during the cruise when you can use your onboard spending money to pay for them. You’ll find out how long the cruise takes, plus any transfer time.

We’ve found the full-day excursions take anything from 1-3 hours travel time to and from your destination which is a long time to sit on a bus, especially if you hate being on buses! These longer ones tend to include food, but be weary if you’re fussy or a vegetarian – the options (in my experience) are always lacking so we end up visiting the buffet restaurant, or grabbing a pizza on our return!

Some of the shorter excursions don’t include food, so always worth checking and taking pastries from breakfast. These shorter ones can also be expensive. Our most recent cruise was to Malta, where an excursion cost £30 to take you into the town centre – we walked it in 30 mins whilst sightseeing. We’ve shared taxis with others before, to save on costs. Worth knowing though that if you’re late back to the ship and you aren’t on an excursion, they can leave you behind!

Pack light – limited room!

Unless you’re a lucky so-and-so who’s booked a suite, the bathroom shelving sizes are quite small. I would suggest packing light and using reusable small bottles for things such as shampoo, conditioner or any other large bottles you’ll only use a few times, to save on counter space.

Got a balcony? Buy a clothes line!

We tend to get a balcony room and make full use of the outside space! We bought this clothes line which is extremely handy for drying your clothes during the day/night. You can get things cleaned but it’s pretty expensive to have them do this for you. We bought ours for £5 from Amazon.

Buy a cheap washing line to use on your balcony
Buy a cheap washing line to use on your balcony – otherwise you’ll be stuck if you need to dry your clothes

Otherwise, you’ll be stuck with this:

Washing line - P&O Cruises
The washing line in our bathroom – not the most efficient!

Home time – what happens?

In the daily newspaper already mentioned, you’ll also get an envelope the morning of your 2nd-to-last day. This envelope includes important and helpful info including:

  • How to organise your suitcase
  • Boarding passes
  • Luggage tags
  • Flight times/what time to be ready and where
The leaving envelope you get the day before you leave includes helpful information and important documents
The leaving envelope you get the day before you leave includes helpful information and important documents
Instructions on flight times when it's time to prepare to leave your cruise
Helpful info part of the envelope you get when leaving – this includes flight times and where to meet before leaving the ship
Sorry, it’s a bit blurry – this is what you get in the leaving envelope; more helpful information.

We were flying on Thursday at 5 pm, and had to have our suitcases ready for collection the previous evening – yep, that’s right – from midnight we didn’t see our suitcase again until we got back into Manchester. We also had to be out of the room by 8 a.m. to allow the staff enough time to clean the room before the next guests arrived that day. Not ideal but had to be done.

You have to leave your suitcases outside the room the previous evening, with all luggage tags added. You get these in the envelope.

Our luggage tags and boarding slip for our suitcases
Our luggage tags and boarding slips for our suitcases

As we had most of Thursday to wait for our departure time, we left the ship and walked around our port – for this holiday, it was Malta. We could have stayed on the ship and enjoyed a day of sunbathing. You obviously still have access to everything; the gym, restaurants etc. When we got back from walking around Malta – at around 3 pm, we had a shower in the gym and some food, then chilled reading until 5 pm when we had to make our way to the restaurant to be organised to leave.

Dining

Evening dining is a little bit different. You have the buffet where you can just turn up, plate the food yourself and sit down wherever. There are a few speciality restaurants where you book and they have a cover charge (anything from £10-£30) and lastly, you have the main restaurants offering Club or Freedom Dining.

The difference is with Freedom, you can turn up at any time and sit in a different place. With Club, you sit in the same place at the same time each evening for your whole cruise. Read more here. We tend to stick with Freedom and ask for a table for 2. Cruises tend to recommend being open to socialising, so sharing tables, meaning they like you to share a table with others.

Get lost around the ship

I wouldn’t try to find your way around the ship, especially the bigger ships, as you’ll only frustrate yourself (or is that just me?). We stayed pretty much in the middle of the ship, so we got familiar with where our closest lifts were, and how to get to certain places like breakfast and toilets. You get a map along with your cruise card which is handy.

Find your preferred place to sunbathe then get familiar with how to get to places you’ll visit often – the bar, toilet, restaurants etc. This made my life less stressful as I no longer worried about getting lost!

Some lifts only go to certain floors. For example:

  • the lift at the FRONT of the ship might only go down to level 6 so if you want to go down to level 5, you’ll need to walk across to the next set of lifts and either walk down 1 flight of stairs or take a lift down 1 floor
  • the lift at the BACK might be the only one to go UP to your preferred sunbathing spot – the lift in the middle of the ship might go up to floor 16, then you’ll need to walk up 1 flight of stairs or walk to where the lifts can take you the remaining way.

Sometimes you have to walk to more lifts to get to the floor you want, or use stairs. Don’t worry about this – look and study the map you get with your cruise card.

Other tips

I only wanted this blog to be top TEN tips so I’ll combine this next one! I would recommend buying these useful items:

  • Adapter with several plugs and USB – no more fighting for space! This one cost us £14 from Amazon.
Charger with multiple plugs and USBs
Charger with multiple plugs and USBs
  • The bathroom is small with limited space, so I take pretty much everything in smaller plastic bottles to reduce the space needed
  • A hanging toiletry bag you can hang from a door that contains your products helps reduce room taken up in your bathroom. I have the small & large sizes – WANDF brand here from Amazon.
A hanging door toiletry bag is SO useful for reducing clutter in your bathroom
You don’t get much bathroom surface space, so I use a hanging door toiletry bag for everything
  • Packing cubes! They’re so handy for keeping things organised. You can take them from your suitcase into drawers and keep your dirties in one, making sorting washing on your return quick and easy. If you aren’t sure, I’d buy cheap ones and then invest in some good quality ones. I got a pack of 6 (3 sizes) from LeanTravel for £45. Worth every penny.

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