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First time taking a cruise? Here’s what you need to know

To help ease the anxiety felt by novices, cruise veterans answer the question: "What do you wish you knew before your first cruise?"

Make sure you pick the right cruise for you and the right cabin.
Make sure you pick the right cruise for you and the right cabin.Read moreJoe Burbank / Orlando Sentinel / TNS

You always remember your first — whether it's a kiss, a car, or a cruise — because of that heady combination of anticipation and trepidation. (My first cruise was to the Caribbean in 1999.) For a first-timer, all the decisions that come with taking a  cruise — ship, cabin, clothes, tipping, and so on — can be overwhelming, especially when you're pretty much clueless about how a cruise works.

To help ease the anxiety felt by novices, I asked colleagues and cruise veterans: "What do you wish you knew before your first cruise?"

Then, I contacted David Swanson, president of the Society of American Travel Writers, who has taken more than 40  cruises in the past six years. What follows is our collective wisdom, which will help ensure smooth sailing.

 Choose the right cruise

Instead of spending days researching cruise lines and itineraries, "find a travel agent who specializes in cruises and, more important, actually takes many of them," Swanson says. "Each cruise line and ship has its own personality, and a cruise  specialist can find you the best match."

While the Caribbean, Alaska, and the Mediterranean remain the most popular destinations, a seasoned agent can find a cruise to a remote

Indonesian island, if that's what you prefer. There are cruises tailored for singles, couples, families with  children, older adults, party animals, and adventurers. Different ships offer laser tag, waterslides, hands-on kitchens, and butler service. Some are as compact as 125 passengers, while megaships such as Symphony of the Seas can sail with more than 5,500  passengers, plus crew.

There are benefits to each. With more amenities, restaurants, and diversions, large ships keep you entertained all hours of the day and well into the night. Small ships (fewer than 500 passengers) can reach ports the large ones can't access. Plus, you  get to know the crew and they get to know you by your name and preference, be it hot English breakfast tea with milk or extra bath towels.

Whatever ship and destination you settle on, buy travel insurance, which protects you if you fall seriously ill, have an accident, are delayed in transit, or lose your luggage.

Pick the right cabin

Cabin choices are typically simple: interior (no view), exterior (ocean view with a window or porthole), balcony ( exterior room with a private balcony ), and suite (a larger cabin often with separate living and sleeping areas and a private balcony).

New ships such as the Oasis Class from Royal Caribbean have added another option: Cabins overlooking parklike atriums.

Scrutinize deck plans to determine the exact location of the stateroom you're being sold. Light sleepers will want to avoid one underneath the nightclub dance floor or just above the engine room. For maximum stability, book a midship cabin. That's  where you'll feel the least movement.

Book extras ahead of time

Popular shore excursions with limited space, such as dog sledding or a cooking class in a chef's private home, fill fast. As soon as your ship's online reservation system opens, access it to secure your spot. The same holds true for tables at  specialty restaurants, spa treatments (especially on sea days, when you do not stop at any ports), and shows.

 What to pack

No one cares if you wear the same outfit more than once. Pack enough washable, quick-drying clothes for half your voyage. Toss in a sweater; even on warm-weather cruises, ships can get chilly. Bring a couple of pairs of shoes — one for walking and a  dressier pair for the dining room — and flip-flops for warm-weather cruises.

Some ships still have formal nights when everyone puts on the glitz, but you don't need to break out the diamonds or tux. Women can get by with a cocktail dress or dressy pantsuit and men with a jacket and tie. If you despise dressing up, opt for the  buffet or consider this the perfect excuse to order room service.

Most ships provide free self-service laundries with irons, as well as fee-based laundry services. Some charge per item, others per filled laundry bag. Laundries are busiest during sea days, so beat the crowds by washing before breakfast, very late, or  — if you aren't on a shore excursion — midday when the ship is in port.

One more packing essential: A dual-voltage extension cord. Cabins have only a handful of electrical outlets, and they aren't always very accessible. A simple multi-plug is all you need to charge up everything.

Arrive early

This may sound obvious, but arrive in your departure port at least one day early when possible. That eases worries about delayed flights or literally missing the boat. Once a ship opens for boarding, its restaurants and facilities are fully operational. Leave your  suitcases with the porters and get on early with a carry-on packed with whatever you'll need to entertain yourself for a few hours. You can eat lunch, familiarize yourself with the ship, and, if you've packed a swimsuit and sunscreen, be lounging by the pool before the ship even leaves port.

Every ship is required to hold "muster" (the emergency drill) before sailing, during which each passenger is accounted for with orange life jacket in hand. This is one requirement you can't skip; trust me, you do not want to be that person being  paged over the loudspeaker.

Unless your ship allows you to disembark at your leisure with your luggage, be prepared to leave it outside your cabin the night before you reach port. You'll pick it up dockside. Passengers usually disembark in groups, based on their transportation  needs.

Consider the practicalities

Suitcases are typically stored under the bed, but there's no rule that they have to be empty. Let them double as storage for rarely used gear and souvenirs.

Read the ship's next-day program of activities, events, and shows before you go to bed. Highlight what you want to do and carry the schedule with you.

You can find a quiet place on even the most bustling of ships, Swanson says. The lounges, dance clubs, and theaters remain open even when there's no entertainment. Look at the ship's schedule to find the gaps in a venue's use. On some ships, if you're willing  to shell out more money, you can pay for private spaces with chairs.

Your cellphone plan's rates do not apply at sea. Turn off your phone or set it to airplane mode to avoid expensive roaming charges.

Ships offer WiFi, but it can be pricey and sluggish. Swanson buys the cheapest package available and stretches his usage. He downloads his email and then, for any that require more than a one-sentence response, logs off, composes his replies offline,  then logs back on to send.

Eat (and drink) well

You won't go hungry on a cruise. To avoid the snaking breakfast buffet line, skip it and head to the main dining room. It's rarely crowded, you order from a menu, and it feels like you're treating yourself.

Do the math before buying an "all-you-can-drink" package. They run up to $70 per person, per day, plus a 15 percent to 18 percent mandatory gratuity. You may have to order up to 10 cocktails per day to come out ahead. Even nonalcoholic packages for soda,  bottled water, and coffee drinks (lattes, cappuccinos) can run as much as $29 a day.

Manage your money

Unless your fee is all-inclusive, expect to shell out money during the cruise and settle up at the end of the voyage. You may be dinged for WiFi, restaurants other than the main dining room and buffet, shore excursions, and spa treatments.

Most ships automatically add gratuities to your final bill — between $12 and $20 per person, per day. That money is distributed among dining staff, cabin attendants, and other personnel.

Even though you register a credit card when you board, it's wise to bring cash — 1s, 5s, and 10s — to tip tour guides and cruise staff members who go above and beyond and to make small purchases.

Get some shore leave

Shore excursions are the raison d'etre for many a cruise. There are two schools of thought. Some experts say you should sign up for those offered by the cruise line, which guarantees that you'll be treated with care and returned to the ship at the  appointed hour. Others contend that cruise lines work with the same local tour operators you can book yourself but jack up the price and scare you into thinking the ship will leave without you should you be delayed.

My advice? Take the middle road. As noted above, ships post shore excursion itineraries and pricing online long before you sail. Research ports and dig into tour details: How long is the bus ride? Will you see the sights most important to you? Is  there free time? Then, compare prices. An external provider may save you money and allow you to maximize your time.

Small ports are ideal to explore on your own, especially if the dock is within walking distance. Should walking not be an option, most ships provide free shuttles. And there's no shame in staying on board. Those who do say it's like having a private yacht all to yourself.