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Planning a cruise vacation is very different from planning other types of travel. At first glance, it might appear that you just pick a cruise, book it and enjoy the vacation. The reality, however, is that there can be a lot of decisions to make and the planning is not always easy. Don’t worry, though, we’ve got you covered here with our comprehensive guide to cruise planning.
First, let me say that cruising is a great way to travel. It may not be our favorite way to see the world, but it certainly is a good option. What I love most about cruising is that it’s basically a resort stay and a road trip all in one. And while cruising may not be inexpensive, you can decide for yourself what extras you pay for and when.
On a cruise, you’ll stop at several different ports, meaning several different cities or countries. The food undoubtedly will be delicious and abundant. And you only have to unpack one time!
Once you decide that you want to book a cruise vacation, though, there is a lot to think about and plan for. Some of that wil cost extra money, some won’t. So, let’s dive in and take a look at exactly what you need to consider when planning a cruise.
Cruising is also a great way to travel with other people without being with them constantly. In fact, I’d say a cruise is almost more fun with other people. We have enjoyed the cruises we’ve done just the two of us. That said, when you’re on a ship with thousands of passengers there is something comforting about knowing a few other people.
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Choose the Right Cruise
Sometimes just deciding which cruise to do can be the most difficult part. Of course, first you have to decide on a general region. Caribbean cruises are the most popular, but we have done two Alaska cruises and I did a Hawaiian cruise with my sister many years ago (before Grant and I met).
You could also do a cruise through the Panama Canal or in Europe or Asia. If you want to stick closer to home, there are even cruises along the United States coast. The options truly are endless!
Once you know the region you want to visit, you still have to decide what cruise line, ship, sailing date, embarkation port and ports of call. And, of course, the price and other expenses will likely be a factor as well. With all these decisions, where do you start? That really depends on what is most important to you.
Perhaps you have a tight travel window, in which case you’ll be limited by a certain sailing date or cruise length. Maybe there are one or two ports that you definitely want to see, but you’re flexible on the embarkation date. Or maybe you want to sail out of a certain port. All of these factors can help you choose the right cruise for you.
Cruise Line and Ship
Cruise lines are similar to airlines and hotels in that some people have a preference and loyalty, while others do not. Some cruise lines are better fitted for traveling with small children, others are better suited for young adults or seniors. The amenities and onboard activities can also vary between different ships and cruise lines.
Perhaps you are interested in the activities on a particular ship. Some of the new cruise ships have some seriously fabulous features. Just remember that typically with more amenities, comes a bigger ship. The largest cruise ships hold more than 5,000 passengers. If that sounds like way too many people, you’ll want a smaller ship. This is a personal preference and only you can decide what’s right for you. It might even take a couple of cruises before you really know your preferences.
We have cruised on Princess, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean, with Royal Caribbean being our favorite of the three. We find Royal Caribbean offers a good selection of onboard activities, specialty dining and entertainment for all ages. They also offer many different itineraries and ships.
We have taken a couple of cruises on Royal Caribbean and really enjoy the overall ambiance of their cruises. The Royal Promenade makes for a fun heart of entertainment for the ship and the Viking Crown Lounge was a favorite spot for enjoying a quiet drink. Our last cruise aboard the Adventure of the Seas was spot on and a great way to spend Thanksgiving.
The Norwegian Pearl had a lot of specialty dining options, especially for a ship its size. Unfortunately, the specialty dining pricing was a bit high and navigating the ship wasn’t always easy.
On our Princess cruise, we were one of the youngest married couples on the ship when we were in our mid-30s. Granted, it was an Alaska cruise which probably tends to appeal to an older crowd, but I do think that is somewhat standard for Princess Cruises.
I suggest you ask your like-minded friends and co-workers for recommendations. Just make sure you ask WHY they give their recommendation. If it is because of the fabulous childcare but you don’t have kids (or aren’t taking them with you), then that may not be the right choice for you.
Itinerary and Ports of Call
As you decide which cruise line and ship, you’ll also need to consider the itinerary. After all, you don’t get to decide which ship operates which itinerary.
For instance, if you’ve got your heart set on the Symphony of the Seas, then you’ll be visiting the Caribbean. Granted, there are a few different itineraries and ports of call based on the departure date, but the reality is this ship currently sails the Eastern and Western Caribbean.
We have had our eye on a Southern Caribbean cruise for a while. The one we’ve been looking at departs from Miami and includes ports of call in Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao. The sailing dates are limited and it is a nine-night itinerary, which is difficult for us during the school year. When the time comes to book this trip, it will definitely be based on the ports of call and embarkation date rather than the particular ship.
Price and Dates
The first thing you need to know when it comes to pricing is that the advertised price will always be for the least expensive type of cabin (typically a small interior room with no windows). Before you get too excited about what looks like a good deal, think about what type of cabin you want.
I won’t go into too much detail on room types right now, but it is something to consider when looking at the price. Most importantly, if you don’t want an interior room, be sure to dig a little into the pricing before trusting that first advertised price.
Another consideration for the pricing is the time of year. You will pay more if you are traveling over a holiday. Even just week-to-week pricing fluctuates based on demand.
If you are like us and have limited travel dates, then sometimes you just have to pay the extra price. If your travel dates are flexible, however, you can definitely save some money by looking for the cheapest sailing.
Also, be sure to check sales. In fact, I’d say don’t book a cruise when it’s at full price unless you’re getting some great freebies included. Many cruise lines offer 50% off the second person or even 3rd and 4th person free (usually, kids) at various times throughout the year. Free offers include cabin upgrades, a drink package, or onboard spending credit.
There are all kinds of ways to save money or get additional perks for the price, including last-minute cruises and booking through a travel agent. Check around and make sure you are getting everything you can for your money.
Our Selection Process
For a specific example of how to choose a cruise, here’s a look at how we decided on the Norwegian Pearl for our family cruise to Alaska.
Grant’s dad and stepmother suggested the trip to celebrate their 25th anniversary and his dad’s 70th birthday. Of course, it didn’t take much to convince the rest of the family that this was a great idea!
At the time, our nieces attended a year-round school, so our travel window was limited to just a few weeks during the summer. We did not consider the week of July 4 due to pricing, then narrowed it down to the week before that based on other summer plans.
One unique aspect of Alaska cruises is that many of them are one way: either northbound or southbound. Based on 7 people flying, we quickly determined that a round trip sailing would be best for us. That alone narrowed our options considerably.
Note: If you are looking to spend extra time in Alaska, I’d suggest a one-way cruise. One way sailings also usually give you a little extra time in port or maybe one additional port of call.
Grant and I also suggested an itinerary that included Glacier Bay National Park. It wasn’t a must-have, but we felt it was a tipping point with all other things being equal.
All the factors eventually narrowed it down to three different cruise lines, with three different departure dates. From there, we chose the cruise with the departure date that worked best based on needing a day to fly.
Book Your Cruise
Once you’ve decided on a cruise, it’s time to get online or make a phone call to get it booked. Before you make that call to book everything, though, make sure you know exactly what you want.
The main room types are interior, exterior with a window, exterior with a balcony or a suite.
We tend to prefer balcony rooms. Yes, they cost a little more, but at least you have some private outdoor space. A balcony is your own quiet space to relax and enjoy the fresh air. This is especially nice if you have a couple of cruising-only days. Balcony rooms also tend to be bigger than interior or window only cabins.
If you need to save money, though, an interior cabin is not bad. In fact, if you’re looking to get some extra sleep, I’d encourage an interior cabin because you won’t have to worry about the sunlight streaming in early in the morning.
We had an interior room on our family Alaska cruise. While the room was a little cramped, especially with our 11-year old niece in the room with us, it really wasn’t bad. If funds are limited or you know you won’t spend much time in the room it’s a great option, especially for only two people.
When I did the Hawaiian cruise with my sister, we chose a cabin with a porthole window. If you want to save money, but want some natural light, it is a decent option. Just understand that the view is often obstructed and you likely will not be able to actually see much out of the window.
The only thing I know about suites on a cruise ship is that they are out of my price range.
Choosing Your Cabin
Not only will you need to choose your cabin category, but you’ll also need to choose a specific cabin. You can find the deck plans on the ship’s website. You’ll want to consider proximity to stairs and elevators, which deck you want to be on and if you have a port or starboard (left or right side) preference.
If you know you (or the kids) will want to spend a lot of time at the pool, you might choose a deck closer to the pool deck. On a one-way Alaska cruise, consider which side of the ship will be the “land” side if you want a view. If traveling with other people and you are getting two or three cabins, consider if you want to be close to each other or not.
You’ll also want to think about the overall construction of the ship if you are getting a balcony room. There’s no point in having what you expect to be a private space if the ship construction allows the room above you to see down onto your balcony.
For more information about choosing your cabin type and location, check out our article on Staying in an Aft Cabin.
While the cruise itself is a major expense, there are other costs to consider. Quite simply, while a lot of stuff is included with the cruise, it certainly is not an all-inclusive vacation, at least not with most major US-based cruise lines. These expenses are something to keep in mind as you are planning.
The nice thing, though, is that you can choose how to spread out these costs. When you first book the cruise, you’ll typically have to pay a deposit. The deposit amount can vary and a reduced deposit is sometimes one of the perks you can get during a sale. Your final payment is usually due a month or two before you actually sail.
Once the cruise is booked you can then make payments as you go. This is nice because there are no financing terms to worry about – you just pay what you want to when you want to.
Other expenses to consider when planning are shore excursions, specialty dining, drinks, gambling, spending money and even pre- and post-cruise transportation and accommodations.
Yes, these costs can add up quickly. But, again, you are in control here. You can decide what to add on and when. Some expenses can be paid in advance; others can wait until you are on the ship. We love this flexibility.
Planning Your Time in Port
For some folks, the cruise ship is the draw. They just want to get on the ship and relax.
While we enjoy the time on the ship, especially the food and drinks, we really like cruising as a way to see several different cities or countries. So, for us, cruising is all about the time spent at the ports of call.
Depending on the length of the cruise, the number of ports and your personal preferences, shore excursions can be a major part of your additional planning and costs. If you prefer to just sit on the nearest beach and soak up the sun, your planning and costs will likely be fairly low. If you’re like us, however, and want to get out and see the sights, you need to be prepared to research and pay for it.
Take, for example, our Southern Caribbean cruise in 2016. We visited five ports of call. While we did not do an organized shore excursion in all of them, we did do something onshore at each port. Yes, that added up quickly.
There are some ways to save money and still explore, though. Booking excursions through the ship is often the easiest thing to do. You can also book excursions through other companies or even just explore on your own to save money.
We generally like to do a combination of organized (group) excursions and exploring on our own. Sometimes, the cruise line will offer an activity that would be difficult or impossible to organize yourself, such as an ATV adventure in St. John’s, Antigua or a coastal cruise to the Pitons in St. Lucia.
One thing to keep in mind about organized tours, whether through the ship or an independent operator, is that you often must pay when you book it. Thus, don’t book it until you have the money to pay for it. Yes, excursions can sell out, but we’ve never had that happen to us.
If you haven’t booked anything before you get on the ship, you can often still book once onboard, so don’t worry. You can also typically find plenty of options onshore as you are getting off the ship. So, if you’re not a planner, or just don’t want to commit to anything ahead of time, you’ll likely still have a good number of options.
The best part about ship-sponsored excursions is that they come with a “we won’t leave you behind” guarantee. This means that if your group is late getting back to the ship, you won’t get left. That’s a great perk!
These ship organized excursions are sometimes expensive for the exact same experience, though. Yep, you’re going to pay for the convenience. If you aren’t used to navigating on your own or have any sort of mobility issue, though, this could be the best option for you.
For our family Alaska cruise, we booked several excursions through Shore Excursions Group. I used them because I found better tours with better prices than what I found through Norwegian. Additionally, Shore Excursions Group provides a guaranteed return to the ship and all the other guarantees you find with ship-sponsored excursions.
We were happy with our experience and gladly recommend them. You will find tours with Shore Excursions Group and other similar operators all over the world.
Last Minute Tours
If you want to do an organized tour, but don’t want to commit to anything in advance, you can generally find something as you get off the ship. Seriously, most of these port towns survive on cruise tourism. Just about every port I’ve ever stopped in, especially in the Caribbean, has had more than enough options right at the pier.
Sometimes you may have to walk to the end of the dock or even into “town,” but you can just about always find something. You may even be able to negotiate the price, as it is a last-minute decision and they just want to make some money.
We did this in Ketchikan when our floatplane excursion was canceled due to weather conditions. After checking out several options, we chose a tour with Renegade Tours that was about $50/person for a couple of different sights.
The best part is that it was just the four of us (myself, Grant, his sister and her husband). Having a personal tour was great!
Exploring on Your Own
Another great way to explore a port of call is on your own. You can often walk or rent a car or even get a taxi or bus.
In Barbados, a priority for us was a tour of the Mt. Gay Rum Center. It is not the actual distillery but explores the entire process and you get free samples! The cost of the tour on its own was just $10/person. The cost of the excursion was $59/person. Seriously, they are adding on $50 for little more than a mile of transportation. Note: the tour now costs $20/person. I’d say it’s still a great deal!
We opted to just book the tour and get there on our own. Initially, we thought we might try to walk. Once we started out, though, we realized it wasn’t an easily walkable route and ended up getting a taxi. Still, we saved well over $50, which was then spent on a nice bottle of rum to bring home with us!
In Ketchikan, Alaska we had a similar experience with The Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show. The arena is just a few blocks away and is easily walkable. We saved a ton of money by booking it on our own.
We also explored on our own Sint Maarten/Saint Martin, but this was because we really just didn’t find an excursion that we were interested in. While we ended up spending a decent amount on cab fare, we got to see and do exactly what we wanted to.
Renting a Car
When my sister and I did a cruise around the Hawaiian Islands with Norwegian back in 2007, we rented a car on every island. This allowed us to see just about everything we wanted to, at our own pace.
On Kuaui, we seriously drove almost the entire island in the eight to 10 hours we were in the port and we got to see many of the top sites. While getting to and from the rental agency was easy in most places, there were a couple that weren’t so easy. That is definitely something to research and consider.
When Grant and I went to St. Maarten, we initially thought we would rent a car. As I began my research, I read that rental costs were relatively low ($25-30/day) and there were no extra fees for a special driver’s license like there are on some of the other islands.
After a little more research, however, we found the low prices were only at the airport, which was difficult to get to from the cruise ship. I have to say, after riding in several different taxis all over the island, I am very glad that we did not rent a car. Drivers in St. Maarten and St. Martin are crazy!
Keep in mind that you do not have to do an excursion or any sightseeing at all. I definitely recommend staying on the ship (or in the port) if there is a location that you have visited before or if you just want to relax. Trust me, there will be very few people on board. This is a great time to get in the pool, visit the gym, or get ice cream without a long line!
Yes, some of the amenities of the boat will be closed, such as the rock wall or surf simulator. Even the shops, some bars and the casino will be closed while in port. However, this is still a good time to experience the calmness of the ship.
If you do want to get off the ship but not do a tour, there are usually some shops or maybe a beach nearby. If you aren’t sure, you can ask the crew members or just get off the ship and wander around.
On the last night of our Alaska cruise, we docked in Victoria, BC from about 6:00 p.m. until midnight. Based on the timing, we chose to just take a quick walk down the nearby pier and come back onboard for dinner. While we didn’t see the city, it was still a nice break from the ship.
Have a Backup Plan
One word of caution about shore excursions: have a backup plan! On our Western Caribbean cruise in 2015, one of our excursions was canceled because there weren’t enough participants. Of course, they didn’t tell us until that morning as we were waiting in the auditorium to leave.
Since we didn’t have long to find a different excursion, we ended up not doing anything. We decided to go into “town” for a bit to do some shopping at the port, then had a relaxing day on the ship without all the crowds. While we were disappointed that we didn’t get to go to the ruins of Coba, we actually really enjoyed the day on the ship.
As mentioned previously, this also happened in Ketchikan when weather conditions weren’t favorable for a flight. We found a local driving tour that we enjoyed, but it was a last-minute decision.
Bottom line is to have a backup plan, especially if your tour is contingent on the weather. You always have the option to stay on the ship or find a tour at the pier. Just prepare yourself so that you aren’t disappointed.
Onboard Activities and Expenses
The time spent onboard the ship generally does not require a lot of prior planning. In fact, you probably won’t know exactly what is offered until you’re on the ship.
My biggest tip here is to just communicate with each other regarding your expectations. Many people will be content to sit by the pool or hang out at a bar and relax. Others will want to stay busy with trivia, wine tastings or working out at the gym. Do yourself a favor and have these discussions ahead of time.
Also, consider if you are willing to spend money on onboard activities. Many options are free, but not all of them. For example, you’ll pay extra for a martini tasting, even if you purchase the drink package. The reason for this is because if everything was free then too many people would do it.
That said, we have had some great experiences on our cruises. We recommend taking a look at the daily print out of activities and making sure you know what’s available.
While there is plenty of free food, most cruise ships will have several specialty dining options that cost extra. The good news is that the surcharge is often a flat rate, regardless of what you order. Norwegian does have some restaurants that offer a-la-carte pricing as you would find in a “normal” restaurant.
On Royal Caribbean’s Adventure of the Seas, we dined at Portofino, an Italian restaurant, for about $35/person. We also ate at Johnny Rockets for about $7/person. On the Norwegian Pearl, we dined at Moderno, a Bazilian steakhouse for a birthday dinner.
While we enjoyed the main dining room and buffet, we just wanted a little more variety. That is the real draw (and benefit) of specialty dining.
If you know you’ll tire of the food in the main dining room, which is easy to do on longer cruises, consider a specialty dining package. You can often get a discount if you book two or three nights. Royal Caribbean has even offered discounts on the specialty restaurants on the first night of the cruise.
Additionally, the Norwegian Pearl is one of the few ships we’ve been on to offer free specialty dining.
The included drinks onboard are typically water, coffee, tea and juice. You will pay extra for soda and alcoholic beverages. Most cruise lines now offer unlimited drink packages – both for alcohol and non-alcoholic drinks.
When we first started cruising, I did not want to spend money on a beverage package. I knew that while I would enjoy an adult beverage or two each day, I most likely would not drink enough to make it worth the approximately $50/day per person cost.
After some careful consideration though, I changed my mind. I knew that without the beverage package, I would add up every drink we ordered to make sure we didn’t spend “too much.”
I know we may not have necessarily gotten our money’s worth, especially on my end. But, I didn’t spend the entire week worrying about the price of our drinks. That alone was worth the cost of the package.
Another nice perk of the mid-level beverage package is that while it only includes drinks up to $10 each, if there is something you want that is more expensive, you just pay the difference. Thus, Grant was able to have a glass of Johnnie Walker Blue for only $15.
This is a great way to try something different and not be worried about “wasting” money if you don’t like it.
Also, when you are booking your cruise, keep an eye out for sale prices that include drink packages. That can save you a lot of money on a longer cruise.
One other note on drinks on the ship: The drinks are typically reasonably-priced and the bartenders generally do not skimp on the pour!
Let’s be honest, a night at the casino can be a lot of fun, even if you aren’t playing. A casino is often just a great place for people-watching. Admittedly, though, playing and winning is much better!
If you are a gambler at all, then you’ll certainly want to budget some money for the casino. Be careful here, though! Budget what you are comfortable spending for a night out. If you’re not a gambler and still want to experience the casino, the slot machines are easy and fun. Just don’t expect to win anything – the odds are horrible!
Grant enjoys playing blackjack. The game requires a bit of thought and strategy and he likes to sip on a drink and play for a few hours.
Ideally, once Grant gets ahead of what he started with, I re-pocket that money. Then, he can just play off the winnings for the rest of the night. If it’s a really good night, I will periodically pocket some extra so that we can actually end up ahead.
The important part is we never start with more than we are willing to lose. We figure for us a good night’s entertainment is worth about $50 because we would spend that much, or more, going out to dinner at home. Your threshold may be different from ours, but take our advice and set that limit BEFORE you start and be willing to “pay” that much for the experience.
And if you want to have fun all week, don’t take it all with you the first night. There is nothing worse than losing all your money right at the start and then not being able to play the rest of the trip.
Most everyone likes souvenirs of some sort. We usually keep it simple and let our experiences and pictures be our main souvenirs. The big thing that I collect is shot glasses, which are pretty cheap. Budgeting $5 for each stop is fairly easy to do.
If you know that you’ll want a souvenir from every port, budget for that. And of course a souvenir from the ship as well. If pictures are your weakness, come prepared. Yes, there will be many opportunities for cheesy touristy pictures as well as nicer professional pictures.
One common souvenir from cruising, or any international travel, is alcohol or other items at the duty-free store.
We kicked ourselves on one cruise for not being able to take advantage of an almost buy-one-get-one-free deal on Johnnie Walker Blue. While the deal was great at two bottles for about $300, we simply had not planned for that expense, so we had to pass. We did get some other, cheaper bottles of liquor, though, so it wasn’t a complete waste!
We have definitely learned from our past mistake and generally budget a couple of hundred dollars just in case a great deal like that comes along again!
There are PLENTY of other things you can spend money on while on the ship…massages, facials, group classes at the gym, cruise ship tours, art, Internet packages, etc.
Prior to starting this blog, we never paid for the Internet package, instead opting to enjoy the time “disconnected.” Now that we have the blog, getting an internet package is pretty much a requirement. This is definitely a personal decision based on your needs and preferences.
Our advice, do your homework and know what the options are. Don’t board expecting everything to be included or not know what “temptations” you might be faced with. It’s easy to not get a fancy coffee if it isn’t offered. But if that is your weakness, then you might end up spending more than you expect!
Pre- and Post-Cruise Transportation and Accommodations
Just when you thought all the planning and hemorrhaging of money was over, don’t forget about how you are getting to the port! Unless you live within just a couple of hours’ drive, your transportation and possible accommodations before and/or after the cruise can be another considerable expense. Of course, if you’re savvy, you can save some money by redeeming airline, hotel or credit card reward points.
For our Southern Caribbean cruise, we had to fly to San Juan, Puerto Rico, the embarkation port. Instead of paying for the flight, we used Delta SkyMiles to redeem for the flight. We kept waiting for the right time to use the miles and this was it.
We also planned our flights so that we only needed a hotel for after the cruise. Ideally, we would have done it the other way around, arriving a day early and flying back right after the cruise ends. Unfortunately, the flight times just didn’t work that way.
Again, to save money, we redeemed Hilton Honors points for a “free” night at the Condado Plaza Hilton. We did have to pay the resort fee, which is standard for hotels on the beach. Still, it saved us a couple of hundred dollars on the base price of the room.
Final Cruise Planning Tips
If you are new to cruising, please don’t let all the advice overwhelm you or deter you from a cruise. Honestly, once you book the cruise, you don’t really have to think about anything else unless you want to. How much time and effort you spend on your cruise planning is totally up to you.
In fact, I would say one of the most important things you should do before your cruise is to communicate your expectations with everyone traveling. Some travelers may want to just sit by the pool and on the beach. Others may want to explore the ports and stay active on the ship. Some may want to eat at the specialty restaurants while others don’t.
Be honest with each other about what you want to do or not do and what you are willing to spend money on. You may not all agree, but that is ok. That is one of the great things about cruising – there is something for just about everyone. And if you don’t want to do any of it, that’s ok too.
Regardless of what you do or how much you plan ahead, a cruise is a great way to see the world. If you don’t do anything else, at least you’ll be out of the house, seeing a few new sights and enjoying an escape from your everyday life.