How to plan a cruise for the first time

07 Mar 2024
Matt Hochberg

A cruise is a great vacation, but how do you plan a cruise for the first time? This isn't a simple task because of how confusing it can be navigating the myriad of options you have along the way.

Woman laying in a chair

Shore excursions, drink packages, stateroom types, and dinner choices are just a few of the possibilities, and it's easy to feel overwhelmed by the entire process.

The good news is that planning a great cruise isn't difficult, but it does take a little bit of extra time to get it right.

I've taken over 70 cruises and reached the top tier of Royal Caribbean's loyalty program, so I have plenty of insight into what goes into planning a cruise.

From how to budget to booking, here's how to plan a cruise.

Planning a cruise for the first time

Ship leaving St Thomas

Before you pick a ship or destination, it makes sense to figure out your budget and time off.

Cruises come with all sorts of prices and lengths. You could do a quick weekend cruise or a lengthy transatlantic. And you'll have to pick the right cabin for your family.  

It makes the most sense to come up with a vacation budget for cost and time off from your daily obligations.

Odyssey of the Seas at sea

Your cruise budget needs to account for these costs:

  • Cruise fare
  • Taxes, port fees
  • Gratuities
  • Shore excursions
  • Onboard spending (drinks, wifi, spa, etc)
  • Transportation to/from the cruise ship (hotel, airfare, rental car)

There's more, but those are the big costs you can expect. The cruise fare, airfare, shore excursions and onboard spending are likely the highest costs, in that order.


I think most families have a budget in mind when they plan any vacation, so having that number in your head will help ensure you are tallying up costs before committing to something.

A recurring theme of this post is the importance of using a good travel agent to help plan this with you.  If you're thinking, "how could I realistically estimate costs if I've never cruised before," then this is when a travel agent comes in handy. 

Read more: The best ways to book a cruise

My advice is jot down prices along the way to ensure you're in the ballpark of your vacation budget.

The other component is going to be your time. If you only have 3 days off of work, that will greatly limit which sailings you can choose. Likewise, a week of vacation time versus two weeks will alter your choices.

If you're flexible with your time, then you should consider the itinerary and what stands out to you the most.

Serenade of the Seas in Tampa

Be sure to factor in how long it will take you to get to your cruise port.  If you can drive to your embarkation city, that means less time in transit. But if you need to fly to reach your cruise ship, that will take up at least an extra day of your time. 

Read more: The costly cruising mistake newbies make planning their first cruise

Decide how long of a cruise to take

Wonder of the Seas aerial rear night

Now that you know how much money you have to spend, you will want to figure out how long of a cruise to take.

If this is your first cruise, I recommend going on a five to seven night sailing on an Icon, Oasis or Quantum Class ship. 

Plus, Icon Class & Oasis Class ships have the latest and greatest features across the fleet. This includes Central Park, rock-climbing wall, surf simulator, and water slides. It has the most for families to do, and you're not compromising on what's available to do.

odyssey of the seas bumper cars

Quantum Class ships have their own assortment of signature areas and activities, such as North Star, SeaPlex, sky diving simulator, rock walls, and excellent youth programs.

The problem with a short cruise is they go by so quickly and for someone new to cruising, it may not provide enough time on ship or on shore to really get a sense of it all. Moreover, on a per-night basis, the cost of a cruise tends to be cheaper the longer the sailing. 

Choose a cruise ship

Icon of the Seas in Miami

Royal Caribbean has cruise ships that vary in size, things to do onboard, and where you can go in the world.

These ships are not just built to be big, rather, they are built to be large enough to house all the really cool adventures that await you.  Royal Caribbean has built its ships bigger and bigger to offer more and more to its guests.

But before you pick a ship at random, you'll need to think about where you want to go. Cruise ships are deployed to a region of the world for at least a few months at a time. 

Ovation of the Seas docked in Alaska

European and Alaska cruises run in the summer months, while the Caribbean is a year-round destination. Depending on which region you want to visit along with which month of the year you want to cruise, there will be a subset of Royal Caribbean's fleet you can pick from.

The new Icon Class cruise ships sail to the Caribbean exclusively and are the newest ships in Royal Caribbean's fleet. These ships are aimed primarily at young families, and have a water park, many restaurant choices, and more cabins designed for five or more passengers than ever before. Icon of the Seas started cruising in January 2024 from Miami to the eastern and western Caribbean. Star of the Seas will enter service from Port Canaveral in 2025.

Oasis Class ships are giant ships that have long been the standard for what a family vacation is all about. Each of the Oasis class ships has 7 distinct neighborhoods that have their own look and feel. The neighborhood concept makes getting around easier because areas of the ship do not blend into each other.

Harmony of the Seas in Barcelona

In fact, first timer cruisers might find the largest and newest Royal Caribbean ships to be an ideal pick because they offer the latest innovations, entertainment, technology and choices.

The Quantum class ships are also quite new, but not quite as large as the Oasis class ships. It can be argued that Quantum class ships were designed with first time cruisers in mind.  Just like the Oasis class ships, the Quantum class ships offer a number of Royal Caribbean advancements and some of the finest dining and entertainment at sea.

Mariner of the Seas

The Voyager and Freedom class ships are slightly smaller, but offer an amazing value for large ships. They are also dispersed more widely than their larger cousins, and still offer a lot to see and do onboard. Many Royal Caribbean veterans love the Voyager and Freedom class ships for their well-proportioned size, dining choices and activities onboard. The "sweet spot" of Royal Caribbean pricing tends to fall right in with the Voyager and Freedom class ships because the newer ships have drawn much of the attention, and the other ship's premium pricing means there are some really good deals to be found.

Radiance and Vision class ships make up the smallest ships in the fleet, but what they lack in size, they make up for in port variety, great value and beauty onboard.

While the small ships lack surf simulators and bumper cars, they make up for it in a classic cruise experience and lower price. These smaller ships can get to ports of call that larger ships cannot, as well as offer a more intimate experience in relationship with your fellow guests. 

Many people ask me what is the worst Royal Caribbean cruise ship, but the reality is every ship has its merits, so it is really a question of what do you want the ship to have onboard, and does the ship you are considering have that.

Choose a cabin

Inside cabin on Allure of the Seas

Selecting a stateroom is important, because it's where you'll spend a lot of time there and don't want to regret the choice every day.

There are five primary types of cruise cabins.

  • Interior cabins
  • Oceanview cabins
  • Balcony cabins
  • Junior Suites
  • Suites

Balcony rooms are the most popular category, most ships offering more balcony cabins than any other type of room.

Ocean view balcony

Royal Caribbean prices its cabins based on double occupancy, which means even if you want to sail alone, you're going to end up paying double.

When choosing your cabin, you'll have two cruise rates to pick between: refundable cruise fare and non-refundable cruise fare.

Refundable cruise fare will cost more, but allow you to get a full cash refund if you decide to cancel or change plans before the final payment date.

Non-refundable cruise fare will save money on the total cost, but there is a change fee if you cancel or swap to a different sailing.

More than likely which cabin you want to book will depend on your budget, how many people are traveling with you, and personal preferences.

Book your cruise

There are three ways to book a cruise: directly with the cruise line, using a travel agent, or going to an online travel site.

There are advantages to each choice, but I think everyone should book with a good travel agent. There are so many factors to consider, and an agent that has years of experience booking cruises can make this so much easier.

Most travel agents specializing in Royal Caribbean are "no fee" agencies, which means it costs you absolutely nothing extra to book the cruise reservation from them (Royal Caribbean pays the travel agent a commission). Here is one such recommended travel agency that specializes in Royal Caribbean. If you are not convinced using a free travel agency that is recommended by Royal Caribbean is right for you, read our post discussing the benefits they offer.

You need to not only pick a ship and date, but also figure out which cabin to book, refundable or non-refundable deposit, which dinner option to book, gratuities, and so much more.

The biggest point of failure for new cruisers is making a mistake in the booking process and regretting it later.

There's nothing wrong with price shopping and seeing what deals you can find. Just make sure you're comparing apples to apples, and consider fees and insurance.

Royal Caribbean cruise checklist

Ovation of the Seas on a sunny day

There's a lot that goes into planning your first cruise, and it's hardly a one-size-fits-all approach. Depending on who you are cruising with, where you are going, and the types of ship or cabin you pick, the planning process can differ greatly.

However, there are some basics that are universal to the planning process, so I wanted to provide an easy to follow list of what to verify as you move along in the process.

☐ Establish a budget

☐ Decide on a cruise length

☐ Choose which region you want to cruise to

☐ Choose a ship

☐ Choose a cabin

☐ Book your cruise

☐ Consider travel insurance

☐ Book airfare, hotel, and rental car

☐ Research and book shore excursions

☐ Check-in for the cruise 45 days before sailing

☐ Make a reminder to book entertainment and activities before the cruise (30 days before the cruise on Quantum, Oasis, or Icon Class ships)

Equally important are things you bring with you on a cruise. There are cruise essentials, travel documents, and clothing that you'll want to bring.

Read more: Royal Caribbean packing list

Get the RCB Cruise Academy Pro course

Course teaser

Feeling overwhelmed with how much information there is to plan a cruise? We have you covered with Cruise Academy PRO, which is our brand new online course. It helps you plan your first cruise like you've already been on fifty cruises!

When you buy the course, you'll get unlimited access to our step-by-step guide to planning a cruise vacation with all the important information, tips, and advice provided in easy-to-understand video courses.

There are over 50 lessons that have the BEST tips, tricks, info, and advice for you to help you enjoy every minute of your cruise. We’ve broken down each step, so you don't have to dig for the right article, video, or forum post.

Example of the course

We offer a 100% money-back guarantee if you aren’t satisfied, and it’s a digital course, which means you’ll get it INSTANTLY and can start planning immediately!

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First time Royal Caribbean cruise tips

If you can avoid common pitfalls of taking your first Royal Caribbean cruise, then you'll likely set yourself up for a great first sailing.

We've shared lots of cruise tips so you can avoid unfortunate rookie mistakes, and I wanted to highlight some important considerations if you're brand new to Royal Caribbean.

Avoid really long or short cruises

Royal Caribbean ship at sea

There are a few types of cruises I would steer clear any first time cruiser from to avoid disappointment.

A transatlantic or repositioning cruise is definitely not a good fit for someone taking their first Royal Caribbean cruise.  These sailings often have great daily rates, but they're very long sailings with lots of sea days, and that could be simply too much for a cruiser.

Not to mention the fact cruises across the ocean tend to encounter rougher seas, and that means a higher chance of getting seasick.

In addition, skip a short cruise that is less than five nights long.

Three and four night cruises may seem attractive as a first sailing, but you don't have enough time to experience everything. It's a rushed experience, and I doubt you'll feel relaxed. Plus, short cruises attract more of a party atmosphere, which is usually not what a lot of people want on their cruise vacation.

Avoid older ships

Rhapsody of the Seas in Greece

Purely as a first time cruiser, I wouldn't recommend booking a cruise on an older ship. 

Simply put, older ships don't offer nearly as much to do onboard as newer ships, and I think there's a higher chance it wont meet a new cruiser's expectations.

Moreover, older ships lack water slides and as many activities, which could make them a poor candidate for a family.

Don't skip travel insurance

travel insurance

It may seem like buying travel insurance for your trip is an unnecessary cost, but it's worth every penny in the scenario you need it.

Travel insurance is more than just "extra health insurance". It's protection in unforeseen situations where it's really no one's fault, but you're stuck with extra costs. Travel delays, accidental injuries in port, car rental damage, or altered itineraries are all scenarios where travel insurance could protect you.

Drink packages are attractive, but expensive

Deluxe Beverage Package

I get so many questions if a Royal Caribbean drink package is worth it, and the answer is it definitely can be under the right situation.

Beverage packages are not cheap, but if you can drink enough every day, then they can save money. Remember, how you drink on vacation is different than at home or at a restaurant.

The decision to buy one is not easy, but definitely pre-purchase one rather than waiting to book it onboard to save a lot of money.

Download the Royal Caribbean app and check-in early

The Royal Caribbean app is super helpful, so install it before your cruise.  

Better yet, do the online check-in in the app up to 45 days before your cruise sails to ensure you have the fastest possible boarding process.

Read more: First time cruise tips for Royal Caribbean

Matt started Royal Caribbean Blog in 2010 as a place to share his passion for all things Royal Caribbean with readers. He oversees all the writers at Royal Caribbean Blog, and writes a great deal of content on a daily basis.  He has become one of the foremost experts on a Royal Caribbean cruise.

Over the years, he has reached Pinnacle Club status with Royal Caribbean's customer loyalty program.

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