12 Things I Learned On My First Cruise (Who Knew I Would Like It!)

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
First glimpse of our ship from the train at Circular Quay

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.

12 things I learned on my first cruise
Getting ready to board the Carnival Legend at Sydney’s Circular Quay

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!)

My first cruise on Carnival Legend
Sunbathing and swimming on the Lido Deck

 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.)

12 things I learned on my first cruise
Guest leave their assigned seats to take part in the Conga!

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!).

I went a bit crazy with my Sail & Sign card in The Cherry On Top sweet shop!
I went a bit crazy with my Sail & Sign card in The Cherry On Top sweet shop!

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.

The Fun Times and Fun Ashore brochures spell out all the activities you can enjoy on and off shore
The Fun Times and Fun Ashore brochures spell out all the activities you can enjoy on and off shore

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.

Pastries galore at the breakfast buffet
Pastries galore at the breakfast buffet

*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!)

We loved the dance shows at the Follies Theatre
We loved the dance shows at the Follies Theatre

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.

Travelling in a lift in a ship is very cool and a little weird
Travelling in a lift in a ship is very cool and a little weird

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.

12 things I learned on my first cruise
The face of a converted cruiser! On our cabin’s balcony

Would you consider cruising for your next holiday?

things i learned on my first cruise

Further reading:

Tips for cruising the South Pacific

Diary of a typical day onboard Carnival Legend

Things to do in Noumea, New Caledonia

Paradise found in New Caledonia

This cruise was in association with Cruiseabout Australia.

About the author

I’m Jayne, a travel blogger, content creator and mum to a 4-year-old son. I’ve been blogging since 2010, travelled to 65 countries and share travel guides and tips to help you plan stylish, stress-free trips.

26 thoughts on “12 Things I Learned On My First Cruise (Who Knew I Would Like It!)”

  1. I have to say, if I weren’t abroad myself, I would have had severe travel envy from your Instagram feed last week. New Caledonia has always been on my list.

    • I have to admit I didn’t know where New Caledonia was before moving to Australia – I’d got it completely mixed up with Scotland! The cruise was a wonderful introduction to these islands though, they are even prettier in real life 🙂

    • I felt like this was a great route for a first timer as these islands can be hard to access without a boat so cruising there made a lot of sense. Feel very lucky we got to see them and all their natural beauty. You should go 🙂

  2. I literally just emailed my husband to try and convince him to go on another cruise! We’ve done 4 now and we are totally hooked – its such an easy way to travel. I describe it like your hotel travels with you – so you unpack once and then each day your hotel arrives in a fab new place.

    My favourite of our cruises was the Allure of the Seas out of For Lauderdale, Florida where we got to explore the Caribbean. A divine part of the world onboard a truly huge ship (8000 of us) that I highly recommend to anyone who will listen to me

    • Wow I can’t imagine a ship that fits 8000 – that must be like a town on water. I’m definitely intrigued to look into more cruise lines and routes now I’ve had a taste for it!

  3. Such a helpful post! The conga line looks really fun 🙂 The TV feature to check your balance is a good idea…no nasty surprises in the end! I’m heading to a mediterranean cruise in a couple of weeks , I’m pretty excited, then I will know whether cruising is for me. But just going by this post it does look pretty fun!

    • I love going on independent adventures but sometimes it’s nice to have a real holiday – everything was super easy and super fun.

      I’m so intrigued to know what a Med cruise is like now. I’ll have to follow your posts to find out!

    • I wonder if this is a Carnival thing or something that you find on most newer cruise ships? We found the balance check page a lot of help – especially after a big night out where we may have lost track of the number of drinks ordered!

  4. So glad you’ve become another cruise convert! And glad my first-timers post came in useful. Those South Pacific stops looked just amazing, one for my now-growing cruise wish list for sure.

    • Your post was so helpful Lucy, even all the terminology was new to us!

      I couldn’t believe how pretty our stops in the South Pacific were. I keep looking at the pictures to remind myself they actually looked like that!

  5. I was happily surprised by how much I enjoyed my first cruise too (the Med) and am an official convert. It’s to visit so many destinations without have to pack and unpack and as for the food – had to pull in extra willpower! Great shots – intrigued by the Olympus Pen Mini…

    • Thank you, I’ve enjoyed playing around with it so far. The inbuilt filters are funky too. Don’t want to give it back haha

  6. Trying something new is always good. Glad to hear it left you enlightened about yourself as well as cruising. Always good to learn something new I think. 🙂
    I’m still not convinced i’d enjoy it though!

  7. I’ve always wondered if a cruising trip was for me, but after reading this I’d definitely like to give it a go. The photos look great, I love the Olympus Pen range of cameras.

    • I think a lot of people who weren’t sure about cruising would be surprised if they tried it 😉

      Been writing up my review of the Olympus Pen. Think I’ll have to buy one!

  8. The most informative post, most of my questions answered. I’m going on Carnival Legend in October 2015, how long did it take for you to disembark the ship when back in Sydney?

    • How exciting. Disembarkation is a very slick process. A few days before arrival they ask you your preferred departure time and provide instruction on where to be at what point. Our disembarkation time was around 8.00am and we were off by 8.05am and home 15 minutes later (we caught a cab straight to our apartment in the city.) Have a wonderful trip!

      • Invaluable comments – I Appreciate the facts – Does anyone know where my company could grab a blank IN Departure Card for Passengers document to complete?


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