Last week I went on my first cruise with Carnival Cruises to New Caledonia and boy was I clueless about this way of holidaying. Some readers kindly shared their beginner’s tips with me prior to departure (this post by On The Luce was particularly enlightening) but I still had much to learn about cruising.
12 Things I Learned On My First Cruise
1. You Have To Check In
I’d never really thought about how 2000 passengers get on a ship in Circular Quay without causing chaos until the day I was due to board one. There is, in fact, a very slick check in process that begins before you even leave home.
For our cruise with Carnival we were giving a booking number that enabled us to access the online check in system. Here you fill out all your relevant passenger info in advance and select a boarding time. We did this last minute so there were only a couple of later options available around 4.00pm but that suited us just fine.
By the time we arrived at Circular Quay there were hardly any other cruise passengers left at the terminal. Our main luggage was taken off our hands at the entrance to the passenger terminal (this can take a while to arrive so passengers are advised to pack a change of clothes in their hand luggage – ours came within an hour though) and we were whisked through check in and immigration with smiley staff helping out along the way.
Note: You also have to show your passport and have to fill out a departure form for customs before embarking.
2. The Ship Has A Cashless Economy
At check in you are given a card that becomes your room key, ID and wallet in one. (Don’t lose it!)
This card (known as Sail & Sign on Carnival ships) is accepted as payment everywhere from the bar to casino, duty free and sweet shops. You assign a credit card to your booking and pay the balance on your account at the end of the trip.
If, like me, it becomes a little too easy to purchase items on account, you can keep check of your spending on the Sail & Sign ATMs dotted around the ship as well as via the TV in your room. (More on this genius later!)
3. What is ‘Assigned Dining’?
The idea of assigned dining was one of the things I was unsure about cruising but ended up loving.
In the formal dining room on board Carnival Legend there is a 5.45 and 7.45 dinner service for assigned dining guests. (A limited number of guests can chose flexible dining and dine in the restaurant at a time of their choosing.)
Assigned dining guests are allocated a table for the whole of their cruise, which means you get to dine with the same guests and waiters every evening, and become even better friends as the trip progresses.
I particularly enjoyed getting to know the staff, who revealed a little more about themselves each night, and remembered all of our names and regular requests. Most cruise ships have a range of dining options though so if you fancy a change of scenery there will also be a buffet option that you can go to anytime and a range of speciality restaurants you can book a table at. (These may cost extra.)
4. What To Wear?
Another thing I worried about was what to wear on my first cruise. Our 10-night cruise had 2 elegant nights and 2 fancy dress nights (Mexican and Caribbean themed.) Dressing up, however, was completely optional. Men were required to wear long trousers and tops with collars at dinner but ladies can just wear what you usually would on a night out for dinner.
The formal ‘elegant’ nights are really good fun to get involved in though. Some guests on our ship went all out with ball gowns and tux’s – posing for photos on the grand staircase – whilst others wore pretty cocktail dresses or what I would call wedding attire. How ‘elegant’ you go is up to you.
Wondering what to pack for your cruise? Check out this ultimate cruise packing list
5. You Can Shop Duty Free
So this was a revelation to me! As soon as you get into international waters the duty free shops open on the ship.
The Carnival Fun Shops offered Ralph Lauren and Nine West handbags at 25% off, Roxy dresses for less than $40 and the usual array of discount booze, perfumes and jewellery (dangerous on a cashless economy!).
As there is limited stock it’s best to buy the items you absolutely want at the start of the cruise. However, sale events will be held during the week so you may get a better offer, particularly on bags and jewellery, towards the end of the cruise.
Note: Passengers who bought alcohol weren’t allowed to open it on the ship. The shop holds onto these purchases until the last night of the trip.
6. The Ship Has Its Own TV Channel
The TV’s in our cabin were genius. The ship has a couple of its own channels which showed either our route, a camera on the front of the boat, a recording of the excursion or debarkation briefing, or a live morning show filmed by the Cruise Director.
We also had news and movie channels as well as movies on demand, but the genius thing is you could book excursions and check your account balance from the comfort of your cabin.
7. How To Book On Shore Excursions/ The Tendering Process
At most of the islands we sailed to in New Caledonia there wasn’t a port that could accommodate us, so the ship docked off shore and tender boats ferried passengers to land instead.
If you had booked a Shore Excursion via the ship then you were given priority for the tenders (tour tickets often state a meeting point on ship and guests are escorted off from there). If you just plan to explore by yourself on port days you will need to obtain a tender ticket and wait for your group to be called.
Tenders on the Carnival Legend take up to 80 passengers at a time but the queue can still be long in the mornings, so this is something to bear in mind when making plans.
8. No Passport Stamps
Although we filled out a departure card at immigration in Sydney we never had to complete an incoming passenger card for New Caledonia, nor had to show our passports in any of the 4 ports.
The staff on the ship explained that cruise passengers are classed as in transit because we don’t stay on land for more than 12 hours. Sadly this means no passport stamps for collectors like me. Having done some further reading since we came back it seems this is common practise on most cruises.
9. Where Do They Keep All This Food?
I don’t know how they did it but every day the food on board our ship surpassed my expectations – I can only imagine where they kept it all!*
From the extensive breakfast buffet, to the all-day grill, pizza oven, row upon row of cakes at The Sweet Spot and nightly 3-course dinners, all the food was incredible. The service and presentation of evening meals in Truffles Restaurant were particularly impressive, I still cannot believe they produced these meals at sea.
*Note: A ‘Behind The Fun’ ship tour is run by the Shore Excursions team but they were sadly all sold out when I tried to book one. This may have potentially answered my question about how they transport and cook all the food though.
10. That’s Entertainment
Another thing that surprised me was how slick all the evening entertainment was. We went to the comedy club 3 nights in a row to see cockney comic Anil Desai perform.
I also loved the dance shows, live music, piano sing-along bar and surprised myself by even enjoying the comedy hypnotist and illusionist performances. (I’m usually too much of a cynic to enjoy these things!)
11. How To Deal With Motion Sickness
I don’t usually suffer from motion or seasickness and had convinced myself that on such a big vessel I wouldn’t even know we were at sea. That’s not quite true. Once we reached the South Pacific the sea was still as bath water but the first and last days nearest to Australia were a little choppy. Not enough to make anything move around the ship but enough to let you know we were on a boat. Luckily the ship’s store is prepared for passengers for me. I purchased some motion sickness tablets for $8 and continued on my merry way.
Note: Other passengers swear by ginger tablets or seasickness bands. These were also available on board or can be purchased in a chemist beforehand if you are more prepared than me!
12. That I’d Like It!
Here is the face of a converted cruiser! I wasn’t sure if I would get restless spending 10 nights on the same vessel but that couldn’t be further from the truth. For the particular set of islands we visited, coming by cruise ship was perfect.
For 4 days in a row we woke up in a different idyllic location. New Caledonia is very un-commercial, many of its beaches the very definition of untouched beauty, but there are not many facilities for tourists.
We loved being able to see the islands but return to all the fun and comfort of the ship each evening, our belongings in the cabin where we left them. We tried local food and beer by day and enjoyed fine dining by night; learned about Melanesian culture one day and laughed at the stand up comedy of a comic from LA the next. We made lots of new friends on the ship (cruisers must be the friendliest travellers I’ve ever encountered) and I completely understand why they spend their holidays with companies like Carnival.
Would you consider cruising for your next holiday?
This cruise was in association with Cruiseabout Australia.