My husband and I went on a 7-night cruise to celebrate our 23rd wedding anniversary. This was our first cruise and we had a great time, but we learned a lot of things we will do differently next time. It was a wonderful experience and one that we look forward to doing again, but not without sharing some of the things that we learned along the way, because the stress we had before getting on board was enough to make me decide that there was a need for a complete cruise guide.

The Complete Cruise Guide All You Need to Know for the Best Vacation |

The Complete Cruise Guide: All You Need to Know For the Best Vacation

I feel like I need to start at what is the MOST important aspect of a cruise, because this was the most stressful part of our planning stage and could have been completed avoided if we had some clear, correct advise.

TIP ONE: Have the Necessary Documents in Your Hand BEFORE Booking Your Cruise

You will need to have your proper paperwork in order to be able to get on a ship. If you don't have these papers, you won't be given permission to board. PERIOD.

Don't worry, we were able to board, but not without sleepless nights, tears because of mounting stress and not having the right papers until 24 hours before our flight. I'm not joking!

We were told by several people that you need a passport to go on a cruise. So, my husband and I each paid over $200 to process our passport and have it expedited to get it before our cruise that was 3 weeks away at the time. My passport came in 9 days, however my husband ran into some issues because his PA birth certificate did not have his birth parents name on it, nor the location of his birth. This is now required, so he needed to obtain a new birth certificate and get it to the Passport department in New Hampshire and back to us in now 2 weeks from our cruise.

Long and stressful story short, we overnighted his original NEW birth certificate, without getting a copy, the same day that New Hampshire received 2 1/2 feet of snow, shutting down all government offices for the rest of the week.

In desperation, we called the cruise line to see what our options were and we were told that for our destinations, a good copy of your BIRTH CERTIFICATE was only required. Yes, we were relieved and stressed all at the same time, because we never copied the birth certificate before overnighting it, so we still had NOTHING for my husband to board the cruise.

We decided to have the package returned to sender, overnight, since it was never delivered but it never arrived. Further calls made us realize that it wasn't going to be here. Our last resort was to call the Vital Record department and pray for favor for them to overnight us another copy of his birth certificate. After being told two times that they weren't able to do this for us, they transferred the call and the next morning we had his birth certificate in our hand and we left the next day.

To know what you need, visit the cruise's website or call them directly. This is what we found and was confirmed on the phone, as well as on our cruise:

“The passport requirement does NOT apply to U.S. citizens traveling to or returning directly from a U.S. territory.” sourced here.

TIP TWO: Shop for the Cruise Ship that Fits Your Vacation Desires

We had a great time on our cruise, but as we had more time on our 7-night cruise, it became apparent that our ship's amenities and activities didn't fit our desires for our cruise as much as we anticipated.

We traveled on the Carnival Splendor and we spent a lot of time researching the ship AFTER we bought the tickets. The ships pictures on the site were NOT the way the ship actually looked, not even close, so we were already disappointed by the retro decor that was everywhere, not the beach-pool feel that the website ‘promised' when we were planning our anniversary get-away.

We were also surprised by the buffet feel of the ship and how the menu never seemed to change, unless you went to the assigned dinner times in the restaurant.

Ask for referrals from those you know that cruise a lot. Ask to look at their pictures, hear their stories of their experience on the ship, for the service they received and the food experience. 

Make a list of amenities that you would like to enjoy while on the cruise. Ours had dive-in movies, which we did enjoy and family friendly comedy shows, which were by far the best entertainment we had on the ship, plus a 9-hole putt-putt course (I beat my man!!!) and a large chess game on the floor.  Other than the pool and hot tub, we really didn't do anything else with the amenities… well, my hubby did try his hand in gambling, but I will share more on that in a minute.

TIP THREE: Bring a LOT of Small Bills

This was great advice from some family members that cruise often. It was a GREAT tip! We decided to take enough cash to tip those helping with luggage, guides on the excursions and for some light shopping, while leaving our debit card at home.

We ran into a pickle, though. When we went shopping two times, we forget to use our credit card in stores that accepted them, leaving us short $35 short on cash and you guessed it, out of it before we were done cruising. We decided to get a small cash advance on our credit card, but neither of us remembered our pin number. We called the 800 number on the back of the card, but they were only willing to mail us a new number in 7-10 business days.

We were out of options, until another cruising couple told us that if we charge something on our Cruise's Sail and Sign card (needed to board and exit the ship, but also for any and all purchases on the ship) to use in the Casino on board, that we can play a little and then cash out our chips for cash. It worked perfectly and my hubby was happy to try his ‘luck' out on the cards. He actually did pretty good leaving with $2 more than what he started with.

We were surprised to see that they charged 3% to do this, but in the end it was cheaper than doing the ATM machine on board, so it really is a good tip to know, if you ever find yourself in our shoes.

TIP FOUR: Everything Isn't Included in Your Ticket

You may believe that cruises are all-inclusive, but they really are not. The basic things are and that is good for many people. However, if you like soda, frozen drinks or even alcohol, you are going to pay a hefty price for each drink. They do have a drinking plan that may vary from cruise line to cruise link (something to research when you are choosing the right ship for your vacation), but on our cruise it would cost $49 a day, plus tax for unlimited soda and limit on any speciality drinks from the bar. Many people did this but it would be over $350 a person on our cruise and we never drink enough to justify that expense.

They do have unlimited water (not bottled), juice, tea and coffee on one deck, which we maximized on, while getting some exercise. We did buy a few virgin frozen drinks through the week, and we did bring 24 water bottles with us, so it helped a lot.

Each cruise line is different, so research if you can bring any water bottles and soda with you. Our cruise allowed 12 bottles per person. We only spent $5 for the water we purchased, and we would have spent almost that for one bottle on the ship. VERY smart! You will have to carry it on board if you do this, but we went to guest services once on board and asked them to hold it until our cabin was ready. They put our cabin number on it and we picked it up later that first day, when we were in our cabin. Totally worth doing!

There were a lot of desserts, but nothing that really excited us… well, except for the 24 hour soft served ice cream and we did enjoy the dining room desserts when we went.  So one day we both wanted chocolate, which we paid $20 for 1/2 a pound.  If you think you will miss your favorite candy or snack, do your budget a favor and pack some!

What to Pack for a Cruise - Don’t overpack, but pack with purpose for a great vacation. |

TIP FIVE: What to Pack

This is something that I took a lot of people's advice on and missed the mark. We didn't have enough clothes, because we packed lighter than we should have and we had more bathing suits than we wanted to wear… at least all day long.

If you are a pool lover, sun-soaker, lay at the pool kind of person while you cruise, you will want to be sure to have several bathing suits. We each took 3 for our 7-night cruise. We had the right amount of swimming suits for our water activities, but because I was told that you will be in your bathing suit more than you realize and to cut your luggage in half, we didn't have enough of comfy clothes to keep us for our entire 9 day getaway.

We felt that we needed one casual outfit a day, 3 swimming suits, swimsuit covers, flip flops, sneakers, two pants, two long sleeves, a sweater (the evenings were cold, but at times the air condition proved to cause you to be chilly in the main eating areas) and if you are doing the elegant dinning experience outfits for those days. We didn't want to go elegant, but I did pack some clothes that we would go to a nice event in and it was just what we needed to enjoy the elegant wear for the dinning room. (We loved our dinning room staff that it was always the highlight of our day to get to know them, their goals and about their families back home)

We packed some heavy duty magnetics that went on the wall to hold our sweaters and towels. Be sure to pack these in your check-in luggage, not your carry on or you will be stopped in the security line at the airport.

Do NOT pack beach towels, like we did. They give you wonderful ones in your room and will give you clean ones if you use them. You can even take them on excursions, but if you don't have the same number in your room at the end of your cruise, you will be charged a hefty fee.

I also would recommend taking two beach towel clips, per person, to be able to clip your beach towels to your chair. It will serve as a great way to keep your towel in place on a windy day and will also help you identify where your things are with a quick look.

Of course, you can't forget to pack sun screen, a hat and sun glasses. They are a MUST!

You may consider packing motion sickness relief or my favorite, Peppermint Oil and Lavender Oil to aid with sleeping! You may also consider any other medication or immune boosting supplements.

Get more packing tips in my What to Pack for a Cruise.

TIP SIX: Fly in Early and Leave Late

We flew into Miami, Florida, which is a large airport and because of the popularity of cruises, the number of people coming into and leaving can be very overwhelming to the airport.

The cruise may offer those arriving the day of and leaving the day of return a transportation options for a charge, but it will be hectic because of the number of people taking this offer.  (Our cruise offered to take your luggage straight to the airport for you, but I don't have experience with that service and I'm concerned of lost luggage) On their site, they recommend flying in EIGHT hours before departure to ensure you have plenty of time to go through the airport, arrive to the port and go through check-in and boarding procedures. 

This all can take a lot of time and I can't image the stress level that we would have experienced if we arrived the morning of the departure and traveling more than two people, especially with young children.  We don't regret the extra expense of two nights stay because it completely eliminated the rush of getting checked in before departure and the rush of getting to the airport and through the masses leaving that same day – 5 ships came in within the same time period and all with 3,000 or more guest!

We arrived the night before departure and left the morning after arrival at port.

TIP SEVEN: Save Money While Enjoying Excursions

If you don't take advantage of the excursions available to you at the ports you visit, you really aren't taking the best vacation that you could take. However, excursions are EXPENSIVE and completely WORTH IT, if you know they have good reviews and how long each will take.

You can learn about the cruises you have the options to participate in, on the website of your cruise line. Although it is available to purchase your excursions online, I highly recommend that you DON'T. Use these resource to learn about what is available and more important take the time to read the reviews on the ones that interest you. This time spent eliminated several that were top on our list because they received really bad reviews, however some that are similar to those received excellent reviews and won our place on our ‘wish list' that we took on our cruise.

The first day on the cruise, go to the EXCURSION DECK, and purchase the excursions that you are interested in doing. We purchased excursions on 3 of the 4 stops our ship took and earned us a 15% discount, that saved us almost $90!

If you want to save MORE money and are willing to be completely flexible with what excursions you want to do, you can wait until you get off the ship at the port and see what excursions are still available. When we stopped at San Juan, Puerto Rico, we planned on just shopping and going back to the ship when we were done (which we did) but we could have easily taken a 2 hour tour for $10 each. The same tour cost $40 per person when booked on the cruise. That is a BIG difference!

Another way you can save money on excursions at the ports you stop is to learn about each port BEFORE you cruise. We booked an excursion at Grand Turks but had time before the excursion started, so we took advantage of the beach that we were ported at. We were surprised to find out that the beach and chairs were FREE to cruisers.  In addition, the shops were the best we had experienced and would have LOVED to just shopped at my leisure.  We had the same type of opportunity at another port, but we paid $70 each to do what we could have done for FREE at this port.

Do you ever think about Cruising With Kids? Don’t do it without my tips! They will make your dream vacation full of memories you will cherish for a lifetime.

Cruising With Kids - Tips to make your vacation amazing. |

TIP EIGHT: Shopping Tips to Save You Money

We were told by several people to ALWAYS BARTER with the shops and never pay what they are asking for without trying for a cheaper price.

This is so true, but shouldn't always be done.

Each time we attempted to get a better price, it worked. However, we also did price comparison in other shops on the same island and found several items that we wanted to purchase marked different prices, saving us several dollars per item. Seeing the difference from one shop to the other, we knew that the cheapest price we found was actually a price that was worth what we would be willing to pay and in those situations, we didn't barter.

Then there were a few times that we found something that I had been searching for as a gift and I knew the price was something that I would be willing to pay, because the shop was clean, the customer service was wonderful without being pushy and the products offered were high quality. Even then, I felt that I got a great price with what was marked and never thought twice about paying what was being asked.

TIP NINE: Important Things To Do Before Leaving

Only take a minimal amount of credit cards, we each only took one. You need to let your credit card company know that you are traveling and where. You can normally do this online, but you may find it more comforting to call them, so you have further questions, like your PIN number. You should also call your bank if you are taking any debt cards with you.

Be sure you get the right amount of cash – Formula is $1 a bag, times the number of times it will be handled by someone else. In our situation it was four times at the hotel stays and one time at the ship (we did self check out of our bags), $2-$3 per taxi ride for your group, $2-$5 per excursion for two people.

If you are leaving your children behind, be sure to give a letter of permission for the care giver to get them emergency help if needed, along with their insurance cards. Be sure to pack your insurance card in your wallet. We know of two people on our cruise needing emergency care while at different ports.

Be sure you pack your drivers license and birth certificate or passport in a wallet or small purse, because you will need this each time you leave or enter the ship.

Update your voicemail and email to notify people that you are out of town.

TIP TEN: Extra Charges Added By the Cruise Line

This one took us by complete surprise, so I wanted to be sure you knew about this additional charge that is added to your account with just a paper on your bed to inform you it was added… at least that was our experience. This was for the tips for those serving on the ship in the staterooms (your cabin) and dinning areas. (Note: if you purchase drinks, you need to tip them at the time of the drink, which can easily go on your Sail and Sign card) We were charge $12 a day per person, so $84 per person for the 7-night cruise.

This tips is a nice feature to allow you not to worry about tipping each time you eat or on a daily basis for your stateroom steward, who are also so quick to ensure your trip is relaxing and enjoyable. However, if you don't know it is coming you will be as surprised as we were and especially if you need to budget for your cruise and keep it within a budget that works for your family.