• I'm 95 and have sailed on over 109 cruises — this is my advice for first-time cruisers.
  • Manage your excursion expectations and opt to sit with strangers at dinner to make friends.
  • Travel agencies can help you score free perks when you book with or transfer to them.

I've sailed on over 109 cruises — many of them with my late wife, Donna, and my family. 

After decades of sailing, I've put together a few handy tips for first-time cruisers that might even help seasoned travelers. 

Have everyone in the group share their goals for the trip

We recently began having each person in our group do this on every cruise. Make your goals specific and tangible — not just "have a good time."

You can even make it into a real challenge. For example, on a recent trip, my son, Tom, set on a noble cause to have a drink in every bar on the ship, and we faithfully cheered him on. The bonus was we got to really know the ship!

My daughter, Leslie, wanted to see every sunrise and my other daughter, Barb, wanted to read three books. I wanted to eat only three meals a day, stay up past 9:00 PM each night, and forego belly flops. We all met our goals!

Keep a journal

I've taken so many cruises, and it gets confusing to try to place events, dates, or people without having some reference point. We have a spreadsheet of sailings, dates, ships, and cruise lines, but we wish we had added more details to make each sailing more recognizable.

So, I suggest you put any thoughts that strike you down on paper or in your phone for future reference. whether it's crewmembers who made your trip special, great meals you ate, or funny things that happened on the ship.  

You will be surprised at the number of times you will refer to them to answer questions that arise. Of course, photo albums are great as well.

It's fun to create a list of things you want to do during your trip. Foto: Barry Winiker/Getty Images

Carefully choose the credit card you use to book the cruise 

Some have excellent travel benefits, others have none. If you find a credit card with good travel coverages, use it instead of your usual card.

For example, when Donna became ill in the last days of a trans-Atlantic cruise, our travel insurance paid little in getting us home, but our credit card was very generous with coverage. 

Still, it's worth looking into the potential travel benefits offered on whatever credit card you're thinking of using to book. I suggest calling the card company to discuss their coverages and other perks

Manage your expectations about shore excursions 

Shore excursions — guided tours or activities offered at ports — can be great ... or less-than-great.

Oftentimes, the ship offers its own excursions. Although they're usually more expensive than other on-shore offerings, they offer a great safety net. Ships remain in port until all of its official tours are back. In contrast, if you do your own activity and have problems getting back to the ship on time, you may be left stranded. 

But sometimes you don't need to book any excursions to have fun. You can just venture forth to a specific area, town, or sight which is important to you. Just make sure you return to the ship before it takes off

If you have problems aboard the ship, do be persistent in your pursuit of satisfaction

If your cabin is noisy or smells bad, make your complaint known early and decide what will satisfy you. On cruises, I think it's worth pleasantly and professionally flagging any big issues or concerns. 

For example, if a server spills a drink on your dress, you might want to take the problem to the purser (a staff member in charge of financial matters onboard) and politely explain what you'd like the ship to do about it. 

But be realistic. Don't expect a new dress, but offer your suggestion on what you think should be done — perhaps you'd ask if the ship can dry-clean it for free. 

When you get off of the cruise, you can do your own thing — just make it back before the ship sails. Foto: Getty Images

If you're required to leave the cruise for medical reasons, make sure it's stated in your records 

If you end up falling ill on board or being forced to go home for a medical reason, make sure a professional notes it in your records.

In some cases, travel insurance will only pay for your return if there's a medical documentation of the situation that includes a specific request that the patient go home. 

Keep an eye out for travel agencies that can score you perks 

I find it easiest to book trips directly through a cruise line, but it usually won't get me onboard benefits. That said, travel agencies can usually score you some stuff for free. 

Typically, I book my trips over the phone with the cruise line and then transfer my reservation to a travel agent who can offer me perks.

For example, I recently booked a two-bedroom suite with a cruise line and, within the required 60-day timeframe to adjust my reservation, I transferred it to a travel agent. The agent got me $500 onboard credit and a specialty dinner. Sometimes you can get free wine, cabin upgrades, or discounts.

Just keep an eye out for the cruise line's rules and the timeframe you have to transfer your booking, which is usually 30 or 60 days.

I like that doing this helps me and earns the travel agent commission while still giving the cruise line passengers. 

When requesting dining arrangements, ask for a table larger than your party so you can get to know new people 

Over the years, we have made some wonderful friendships with people who sat with us at dinner. In some cases, we've cruised with people from our table again.

Even if we have not maintained communications over the years, dining with strangers still brought us something special.

Plus if your dining partners aren't your cup of tea, you can almost always change your seating arrangements.

We've made great friends over meals on cruise ships. Foto: Solarisys/Shutterstock

Take advantage of sudden opportunities, if and when they occur 

One of my family's most treasured memories was an entirely unexpected one that resulted from my wife seizing a moment on a cruise. 

While at sea, Donna, and our daughter, Barb, went to see the evening's entertainment — a young violinist. A pianist herself, Donna was excited to see a good musical professional.

Before he began, the entertainer asked if anyone from the audience would like to play something, which he would accompany on violin. Donna volunteered to play the grand piano.

For several minutes, working purely from memory, she played a beautiful version of a classic melody, with arpeggios and flourishes. To her surprise, she was given a standing ovation by an appreciative audience.

After she finished, the host told her she was the most impressive guest he'd ever had and asked if she'd come back for his later show. She obliged and surprised him with "Fiddler on the Roof," which he happily played along with on his violin. 

Above all, be flexible and keep your sense of humor

Itineraries, times, schedules, events, entertainment, meals — things will always unexpectedly change. 

The worst thing to do on a cruise is get upset over things you can't control. So, accept the unexpected and chuckle at stories you'll be able to tell folks back home. 

Donna and I have experienced many changes in the structured sailings we've booked. We've gotten irritated and even upset — like the time we found a naked couple in our stateroom — and, yet, that tale has brought many a laugh.

I am sure that if Donna were with me today, she would join me in saying that some of the best moments of our 63-year marriage were spent on the High Seas. 

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