With meals, entertainment and accommodations wrapped into one reasonable rate, there’s a lot to like about cruise vacations. Cruising offers the unique opportunity to visit a number of destinations at once. The ports are exotic, the food is delicious, the service is excellent and the price is right. You only need to unpack once but you experience the sights and sounds of a variety of destinations. Cruise ships are big enough to keep everyone entertained, but small enough that it’s easy to meet up often.
If all this sound wonderful to you and you’re ready to hit the high seas, here are a few important things you need to know before you book your cruise.
Know when to book your cruise.
To get the best selection of cabin types, itineraries and promotional rates, book early – 12 to 18 months in advance. If that’s too early, try to book 6 to 12 months in advance. Many cruise lines are giving their best deals early on. If you wait for last-minute deals, you might only be able to pick from a limited selection of ships, sailings and cabins; plus, you might not save any money.
If you do book early and get a great rate, periodically check for a price drop. Sometimes new, reduced rate promos are restricted to new bookings. If that’s the case, and you haven’t made the final payment (usually 60 to 70 days before the cruise), the reservation agent might override the old booking and offer you the new price. Remember: Once final payments are made, the mainstream cruise lines will not reduce your fare or offer onboard compensation for the difference in prices.
Know your budget.
“All-inclusive” is often a little misleading. The basics are covered, but if you want better dining, specialty services like massages, some forms of entertainment — including gambling, merchandise and alcohol — you better bring extra cash. If you do excursions at any of the ports, it’s an added cost. Drinks (besides water and some juice) are an added cost. Cruises are an all-inclusive trip, but be prepared to pay for extras.
Know what travel documents you’ll need.
Some cruises leaving from the US and going back to the US don’t require a passport, however, you’ll want to check and double check. Don’t just trust the cruise line to tell you if you’ll need a passport or visa. Spend some time looking at your government’s website to see what they require for re-entry. Also, look at the websites of the countries you’ll be visiting as part of your cruise to see what they advise. Make sure you allow yourself ample time between booking and embarkation to get your documents in order.
Know the cabin types.
There are four basic types of cabins on almost every ship. The most inexpensive will be the interior or inside cabins—that is, a windowless room with no view. While we haven’t met anyone who actually prefers an interior cabin, the savings can be significant and may people feel they won’t be spending a lot of time in their cabins anyway. Often identical in size and features to an interior, ocean view or outside cabins will be found along the exterior of the ship, most frequently on lower decks. The views can vary considerably—from round portholes barely one-foot-wide to floor-to-ceiling windows allowing ample natural light.
Know how you’re getting from the airport to the cruise line.
Some ports (mostly those out of Texas) are at least an hour away from the airport. (Transfer fees are one of the extra costs I mentioned.) Make sure you have transportation arranged so you’re not hailing a cab and paying an arm and a leg to get to your cruise on time, and make sure you’ve factored transportation into your trip budget. Remember the ship will not wait for you to arrive (Unless you arrange your airfare through the cruise line. Then the ship is required to wait for your flight to arrive. You may have to pay more for the cruise company to arrange your air travel plans, but the extra cost could be worth the added peace of mind.)
Alleviate any stress and arrive the day before your cruise. If you’re new to the departure port, you can tack on an additional sightseeing day to your itinerary, and you’ll enjoy a more relaxing start to your voyage.
Know what shore excursions you want to take and book them prior to departure.
Shore excursions are capacity controlled. It doesn’t matter if you book your adventure through the cruise line or a private company; once the seats are sold out, they’re gone. Whether you dream of a flight-seeing across Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, Alaska or a gondola ride in Venice, Italy, popular shore excursions can sell out even before embarkation. Whenever possible, book your excursions online before you leave home.
Know the dress code before you go.
Every cruise line is different when it comes to dress code, so make sure you know the do’s and don’ts before your suitcase is packed. Be sure if you’ve scheduled excursions, you’ve also packed the appropriate clothes – you don’t want to wearing a sundress if you’re biking through the mountains and kayaking down a river.
Know what your cell-plan is limited to, and if need be, buy an international package.
There’s nothing worse than coming back from a vacation to find out your phone bill just quadrupled in amount because of your roaming data charges. If you don’t plan on buying an international package, just keep your phone in airplane mode until you’re safely back within the bounds of your plan.
Cruising offers a convenient and affordable vacation option. If you keep these 8 tips in mind you won’t have any surprises.