I love cruising. I have taken quite a few cruise vacations over the years and each time I learn new tricks and things I should and I should not do. Here are my top recommendations:
Cruiseline: Research the different cruise lines. Each one is catered to a different type of consumer. Less expensive normally goes with younger crowd or large families.
Length of the trip: This will also affect the customer base. 14 days and longer are normally frequented by people that have plenty of vacation time. i.e retired
Size of the ship: On our latest cruise this Spring 2017, we went on the Norwegian Getaway which is quite large. There are advantages and disadvantages of choosing one of the larger ships. An advantage is that, the options for fun were really cool: rock climbing, fast water slides, walk the plank, ropes course, mini-golf, etc. The major disadvantage is that there was just too many people. It was almost impossible to find a chair next to the pool . You either had to choose a chair on the upper deck if you want sun and then go downstairs to the pool for a cool down, or you chose a chair next to the pool but then it was in the shade.
Another thing about big ships is that the specialty restaurants are kind of small for such a large crowd so if you are not a good planner and book on day 1, chances are you will not be able to book at all.
If you travel with other families it is a good idea to have walkie-talkies so you can use them on the ship to communicate with each other. Check with the cruiseline in advance to see of they have a service that you purchase for your cell phone, that allows you to call from your cell to other staterooms or message other passengers that also have purchased the service (Norwegian does). It may not be very expensive, and it is convenient to have. Another plus to getting this is that if your kids are at the kids club the staff can reach you via that service.
On a day at sea, since you have plenty of time, is a good idea to have breakfast at the sit down restaurants instead of the buffet. Normally they are less crowded and service is excellent.
If you travel with children, the first thing you need to do on board is to sign them up for the kids club. Space is limited even if they are signed up, so keep this in mind when planning your days or you might find that the club is full when you are dropping your kid on the way to a romantic dinner! It is a good idea to drop them off early at the club. We gave our daughter dinner early like at 6 and dropped her at the club at 7 right when it opened, even if our dinner reservation was 2 hours later.
Port excursions. There are plenty of fun activities like buggie rides, swimming with dolphins, or going to a beach club. The beach club options offered by the cruise lines directly seemed expensive, so we just hired a taxi that would give us a ride around the island and take us to a beach club, wait for us there like 3 or 4 hours and then bring us back to the ship. It was great. If you decide to do that make sure the taxi and driver are part of a local company, not independent, and you ask all the questions in advance, like what type of club (family oriented, young fun, etc) what is really included in the deal (drive to and return, admission to the beach club, food...) and don't pay anything until they return you back to the ship. We saved like 50 bucks going on our own and had a great experience!
Be prepared when you leave the ship: Make sure you bring your bug spray and sun lotion (very expensive if you want to buy locally). Carry a poncho. Rain is very common in tropical places. GoTravel has these very small ponchos in a bag that are great! You can find them at The Container Store for example
Bring a change of clothes as normally beach clubs have shower facilities. We also take our own snorkeling gear. Most clubs will have rentals but I am concerned about their sanitizing. Talking about clean, it's a good idea to carry some SaniGirl sanitary funnels so you can use bathroom facilities without worry. They are paper made funnel shaped accessories that allow women to pee while standing up so you don't have to worry about dirty bathrooms. Cruises have so many people coming and going all the time, and so do the tourist excursion places, that you really will want to make every effort to stay germ free so that you don't get sick on vacation!
If there is any trick you would also like to share about cruising please let us know!