Ready to book your dream cruise vacation? Terrific! Now for the hard part: With hundreds of itineraries to choose from, among countless other cruise planning considerations (such as choosing between port vs starboard for your stateroom), the prospect of booking a sailing can feel overwhelming, especially for those who are new to cruising. And while serendipity can lead to some memorable moments in everyday life, in the cruising realm, the most rewarding vacation experiences are almost always reserved for those who have committed to good planning.
From choosing a destination and the best time to sail, to nabbing travel insurance and packing your bags, this list of expert cruise planning tips will help ensure that you leave your worries back on land when it comes time to pull out of port. Because in the end, a little careful cruise planning will go a long way to help ensure that your trip is nothing but smooth sailing.
1: Decide on Your Dream Destination
Apart from the ship you pick, there’s probably no bigger variable for determining the outcome of your vacation than the destination you choose to cruise to. There are hundreds of itineraries to contemplate all around the globe—whether beaching-bumming in the Caribbean, city-hopping in Europe, exploring the wilderness of Alaska, or soaking up ancient culture in Asia is more your vacation speed.
For those of you just getting your feet wet on cruising, a fairly close-to-home voyage to the ever-popular Caribbean—or perhaps to the Bahamas, Bermuda, or Mexico—certainly won’t disappoint, where beautiful beaches come paired with distinct cultural experiences.
Another major factor in deciding upon a cruise destination is your embarkation port. Keep in mind that if you are looking to start your voyage at a specific U.S. port (perhaps one that’s set within easy driving distance), your options will be limited to whatever ships sail from there—so that’s a good place to start your research.
Note that you’ll have to fly some distances for cruises departing further afield, like for Europe or Australia. While sailings in these regions can be altogether rewarding, don’t overlook factoring in that extra travel time and international airfare.
2: Research the Best Time to Sail
Once you determine where you want to sail, the next big question is when to go. Every cruise region around the globe has its own sailing season. For instance, the winter months are the high season for Caribbean cruises, while summer is prime time for cruising Alaska and Europe.
Due to supply and demand, sailing outside of the peak periods means that if you’re willing to sacrifice the most ideal weather conditions, you’ll enjoy less-crowded ports. There will generally be more crowds and higher prices at other times of year when the kids are out of school.
3: Determine How Long to Sail
Cruise itinerary lengths vary widely, from quick weekend getaways to multi-day sailings across the ocean. Most options, however, tend to run around the weeklong mark, but if you’re new to cruising, opting for a shorter sailing might be a good move.
You’ll find plenty of three- to five-night itineraries for close-to-home locales like the Bahamas, Caribbean, or Mexico, for instance. However, keep in mind that shorter cruises mean fewer ports of call and less time to unwind and get oriented on the ship, which could ultimately take away from an optimized cruise experience.
Remember that if you are planning a cruise to a far-flung locale, you’ll need to factor in the travel time to and from the port into your overall vacation duration.
4: Arrive at the Port Early
Most seasoned cruisers will tell you that arriving at your cruise’s embarkation port with plenty of time to spare is essential to a stress-free trip. If you’re flying to meet your cruise, especially to an international port, that means at least a day before departure. It is well worth the peace of mind to (literally) not miss the boat on your cruise vacation should there be a flight delay.
Plus, you’ll have an extra day to explore the port city without simply heading straight from the airport to the cruise port, which is bound to offer some interesting things to see and do.
However, if your embarkation port is set within driving distance, you might plan to arrive on the day of departure, since you can set your own schedule. Still, do allow for plenty of extra time for stops and traffic delays.
Know that if you’re late, the ship will leave without you—and you’ll have to figure out the logistics of joining the voyage at the next port of call (if that’s even a possibility), on your own dime.
5: Choose Your Stateroom Carefully
Once you’ve chosen a cruise itinerary, you’ll select your accommodations, which can vary widely in features and cost. From simple “inside” (meaning interior and windowless) staterooms to lavish suites, one size does not fit all: The stateroom you pick should closely match both your personal vacation style and budget.
Cruise ship staterooms generally fall into one of four basic categories—inside, ocean view, veranda, and suite. If you relish lazy days lounging in your stateroom, enjoying coffee or nightcaps on your own private balcony, upgrading to a veranda stateroom or more spacious and sumptuous suite might be worth the splurge. Suites come with plenty of extra amenities like priority boarding, concierge services, and access to exclusive venues.
Tip: If you are prone to seasickness, request a stateroom that’s located mid-ship on a lower deck where there’s less movement on the ship should rougher seas emerge.
6: Don’t Forget Incidentals
While your upfront cruise fare covers a lot of the biggies—like accommodations, meals, entertainment, and transport from port to port—you’ll need to consider incidentals, too.
Some common additional charges to prepare for include shore excursions, bar drinks, specialty restaurant dining, spa services, internet packages, select onboard activities (like wine tastings), and gratuities.
7: Consider Booking with a Travel Agent
In this digital age, many travelers like to book their vacations independently. But when it comes to cruising, working with a cruise-specialized travel agent can be one of the best ways to book a cruise.
That’s because travel agents can oftentimes use their industry expertise and connections to pinpoint excellent sales, negotiate great prices, and/or throw in some value-add amenities, like stateroom upgrades, onboard spending credits, or prepaid gratuities. Not to mention that they can offer plenty of cruise planning insight and seasoned advice to help guide you through different types of cruises, including destinations and details like staterooms and travel insurance.
Plus, they can help you keep tabs on important dates (like when payments are due or advance reservations for shore excursions open up), as well as assist in ironing out any other details.
8: Get Travel Insurance
Experts agree that protecting your financial investment and personal health while vacationing is always a wise move. Pick up a cruise travel insurance policy for peace of mind; insurance comparison sites are a good place to do some policy browsing, though if you work with a trusted travel agent, they can help you pin down a well-tailored policy, too.
9: Gather Necessary Travel Documents Well in Advance
Don’t wait until the last minute to ensure that you have all of the identification and documentation that you’ll need to embark on your cruise vacation. While a travel agent can help guide you on the specifics, it’s ultimately your responsibility to get all of your paperwork in order, and to do so well in advance of your trip. If you’re traveling internationally, this will usually mean a valid passport and any necessary travel visas (and sometimes, vaccination and inoculation certificates, too).
Note that minors sometimes require special permission letters for travel in the absence of both accompanying parents, so keep that in mind (a scenario that might pop up for grandparents wanting to take their grandchildren on a cruise, for instance).
10: Prebook Shore Excursions and Specialty Dining
Nobody wants to spend the first days of their cruise vacation in lines to book shore excursions or to nab a preferred dining time at a specialty restaurant. Happily, advance bookings for both are available in the months leading up to the trip.
Research the ports and excursions well in advance to have first dibs on your preferred shore excursions, because many of the most popular ones can and will sell out. (Bonus: On Celebrity, you can pre-book spa treatments, salon appointments, and fitness classes, as well.)
Read: What to Do on a Cruise
11: Know What to Pack
With all of your cruise planning now in order, there’s only one thing left to do: Pack for your cruise! Packing for a cruise comes with several considerations, including what the shipboard atmosphere is like (noting any onboard dress codes), what kind of weather you can expect, and the types of excursions you are planning in port (are beaches or museums more your speed?).
Research your destination—and our blog—for destination-specific packing information.
Feel like a cruise planning pro now? Excellent—you’re ready to book your cruise vacation and set sail for a vacation of a lifetime! Our 14 ships cruise to more than 300 destinations around the globe—browse our itineraries for some instant inspiration and to book your dream cruise today.