How to Plan a Cruise Vacation With These 9 Essential Steps

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How to plan a cruise? Planning a cruise vacation is exciting but can be overwhelming for first-time cruisers. As a seasoned cruiser, I still go through these steps every time.

To plan a cruise vacation, start by aligning your preferences for destinations and cruise lines with your budget, then delve into the specifics, like choosing the right itinerary and cabin. This guide offers nine essential steps to ensure your cruise vacation is enjoyable and well-suited to your travel style.

Choosing a cruise is almost always a combination of three factors: itinerary, cruise ship, and budget.

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Planning a cruise is exciting and just the beginning of your cruise vacation. To help you guide you, we’ve compiled nine essential steps. This guide is designed to streamline your planning process.

Step One: Decide on a Budget

Set a realistic budget to begin planning your cruise vacation. This initial step will help narrow your options and simplify the planning process. You can begin your research by visiting a travel site like CruiseDirect to understand the cost of different cruise lines, ships, and itineraries. You can also visit the cruise line’s site to see their promotions. 

For example, cruise lines, like Norwegian Cruise Line, offer a Free-at-Sea Promo that includes an unlimited drink package. Sometimes, the third and fourth guests sail free, which is a huge savings for families.

While cruise costs typically cover accommodation, meals, and entertainment, it’s important to budget for additional expenses like flights, transportation to the cruise ship, shore excursions, and other incidentals. Of course, cruise lines and cruise agents can also arrange most of these things and add them to your cruise fare package, but that is not always the best way to save money on a cruise.

It’s also important to remember that the cheapest cruise option may not always provide the best value or match your cruise travel style.

Step Two: Choose Your Ideal Cruise Experience

solarium on the celebrity beyond cruise shipPin

With your budget in mind, it’s time to define what kind of cruise experience you want. Consider whether you seek relaxation or adventure and if exploring ports or savoring onboard amenities is your priority.

Start thinking about what kind of cruise itinerary you’d like—the Caribbean, Mexico, the Mediterranean, or Alaska. As you narrow down these options, proceeding to the next steps will be easier.

Step Three: Choose a Cruise Line

kathy and the celebrity beyond cruise ship at sunrisePin

The cruise line can make or break a vacation. Each cruise line has its unique style and vibe, so it’s important to find one that matches your interests and needs.

Most of the most popular mainstream cruise lines:

  • Carnival: Ideal for a fun, festive atmosphere with a younger crowd. Perfect for party enthusiasts.
  • Royal Caribbean: Suitable for families and those seeking an action-packed vacation with numerous activities. It is known for their massive ships.
  • Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL): Offers freedom and flexibility with “freestyle cruising”. There are no fixed dining times or assigned seating for a relaxed, personalized experience.
  • Celebrity Cruises: Provides a more sophisticated experience with excellent food and top-notch service. Best exemplified by Celebrity Equinox.
  • Virgin Voyages: This adult-only cruise line takes an unconventional approach. The price includes dining, Wi-Fi, gratuities, shows, and fitness classes. It also embraces a “you do you” motto.
  • Disney Cruise Line: This cruise line is ideal for Disney enthusiasts, families, and those who love a whimsical, youthful vibe.
  • Princess Cruises: Known for elegant, refined cruising experiences. It is great for couples and mature travelers seeking a relaxed, upscale voyage.
  • Holland America Line: Focuses on classic cruising with a touch of luxury. Ideal for a mature demographic, offering excellent culinary experiences and cultural enrichment programs.
  • MSC Cruises: Offers a European flair with a diverse international passenger base. It is known for its modern, stylish ships and family-friendly amenities.

Some cruise lines specialize in specific themes or cater to particular age groups, such as adventure travel, wellness, educational themes, senior travelers, or singles. Considering your interests and the type of fellow passengers you’d like to be with can help narrow your choices.

Step Four: Determine the Dates and Time of the Year

Selecting the right season or time of year is key to planning your cruise. If you’re hunting for the best deals, being flexible with dates can save you money. However, if you have specific dates in mind, be prepared to pay a bit more, especially during popular times like summer or holidays.

For budget-friendly options, consider sailing in shoulder seasons or off-peak months. Also, remember that some destinations, like Alaska, have limited seasonal availability, while others, such as the Caribbean and Hawaii, are accessible year-round. Make sure to decide on your preferred dates before booking.

Cruise Tip: Check if you have a home port near you where cruise ships depart. It’s easier to snag last-minute cruise deals leaving out of your home port. This approach offers potential savings on cruise fares and cuts costs on pre-cruise hotel stays and flights, as you can drive to your nearest cruise port.

Step Five: Select a Cruise Ship

man admiring cruise ships docked in juneau alaskaPin

When selecting a cruise ship, consider how it ties in with your preferred itinerary and dates. If a specific route has already caught your interest, the choice of ship might naturally follow, as some ships are designated for certain itineraries. Alternatively, if you’re drawn to a particular ship, search for itineraries that match your dates.

We typically prioritize the itinerary over the ship. However, several factors are crucial when selecting a ship:

  • Ship size and how many passengers it can hold
  • Ship’s age and refurbishment history (you might not want your first cruise to be an old ship that’s not been recently refurbed)
  • Passenger demographics
  • Onboard activities and amenities
  • Dining options
  • Variety and size of staterooms

Research and find a ship that aligns with what you expect from a cruise, keeping in mind that ships within the same cruise line class often offer similar experiences but distinct features.

Step Six: Select a Cruise Itinerary

kathy lying back on a hammock on a cruisePin

The cruise itinerary is a key aspect of cruise planning. Choosing a cruise based on the itinerary might already be clear from your initial planning, or you might be drawn to a particular cruise line and ship – this sometimes happens. Aim for a balance between port-of-calls and sea days to match your preferences.

  • Active Cruises: If you love exploring, opt for itineraries with numerous port-of-calls. These allow you to immerse yourself in new destinations daily while enjoying evening ship activities.
  • Leisure Cruises: Would you prefer a more laid-back experience? Select itineraries with more sea days to enjoy the ship’s amenities fully.

You can also check travel advisories and stay informed about the conditions in certain destinations, just to be safe. However, a cruise line will not sail anywhere deemed unsafe for passengers.

Step Seven: Selecting Your Stateroom Cabin

norwegian joy cruise ship cabin 9900 | sofa bed, double bed, balconyPin
Norwegian Joy Balcony Cabin

After finalizing your ship, date, and itinerary, the next step is to choose a stateroom cabin. Your decision will hinge on your budget, desired cabin size, location on the ship, and preferred amenities.

  • Stateroom categories range from budget-friendly interior cabins without windows to luxurious suites with balconies in prime locations.
  • More lavish options, like suites, have a higher price tag, but there are various cabins to suit different budgets.
  • For solo travelers, look for promotions or cruise lines that offer single-occupancy rates. 
  • Consider your preferences for convenience to onboard activities, your desire for quiet, and any concerns about seasickness. Mid-ship cabins, for example, are known for less movement.

Think about how much time you’ll spend in your cabin as well. An inside cabin might suffice if you’re mostly out exploring the ship and ports, leaving the cruise ship’s outdoor public spaces as your balcony. However, a balcony cabin is a great choice if you would appreciate having private outdoor space.

Cruise Research Tip: Search YouTube for cruise cabin tours to get an idea. You may even find the exact cruise cabin you’re thinking of booking on the cruise.

Step Eight: Booking Your Cruise

Now that you’ve selected your cruise ship, date, itinerary, and stateroom, the next step is booking your cruise! You have three options: booking directly with the cruise line, using a travel agent, or going through an online travel agency.

Booking Directly with the Cruise Line

  • Pros: You have direct access to special offers and can communicate with the cruise line for any issues.
  • Cons: You may miss out on exclusive deals like onboard credits or cabin upgrades, which are often available through travel agents.

Booking Through a Travel Agent

  • Pros: A good agent often has access to exclusive deals and handles all details, offering personalized advice and taking care of any issues that may come up with the cruise line.
  • Cons: Risks include dealing with a less reputable agent that offers no customer service and complicating your cruise vacation plans. The cruise line can’t assist directly with third-party bookings.

Booking Through an Online Travel Agency

  • Pros: A wide range of options and deals, convenient comparison of cruises and prices.
  • Cons: Possible lack of personalized service and challenges in addressing specific requests or problems.

A travel agent or an online agency might provide additional support for first-time cruisers. No matter which option you choose to make sure it’s with a trustworthy and customer-focused provider. Your booking method should match your comfort level.

Read reviews, ask family and friends, or ask cruise-focused social groups for recommendations.

Step Nine: Preparing for Your Cruise

seattle skyline at sail away from cruise ship aftPin
Seattle Skyline at Sailaway

Congratulations, your cruise is booked! Now it’s time for the exciting part – preparing for your cruise. For a comprehensive guide, check out our detailed article on cruise preparation. But first, here are some tips to get you started:

  • Essential Documentation
  • Make sure that your passport is up-to-date.
  • Purchase cruise travel insurance.
  • Check if you need a visa for any destinations on your itinerary.
  • Plan Your Travel Logistics
  • Save money by planning ahead.
  • Book accommodations for any pre-cruise and/or post-cruise stays.
  • Arrange flights and transportation if needed to reach your cruise port.
  • Keep informed about current health and safety protocols for your cruise and the destinations, including vaccination rules, mask mandates, and other necessary precautions.
  • Cruise Communication
  • Download the cruise line’s app for easy check-in and updates.
  • Consider joining a cruise roll call to connect with fellow cruisers.
  • Packing for the Cruise
  • Think about appropriate cruise attire – what to wear and what not to wear.
  • Pack cruise essentials.
  • Onboard Preparations
  • Optionally, reserve spots for specialty dining.
  • Research and book shore excursions ahead of time.

How do I start planning a cruise?

Start planning your cruise by setting a budget, choosing a cruise line, selecting your destination, itinerary, and travel dates, and booking your trip.

How much does an average cruise trip cost?

Cruise trip costs vary based on length, destination, cruise line, and time of year. Prices can range from $40 per person per day for an economy cruise to over $500 per day for a luxury cruise.

What is the best way to plan a cruise?

The best way to plan a cruise is by setting a budget and researching different cruise lines and destinations to find the best fit for you. Once you’ve chosen, book your cruise and start prepping for it.

How do I plan a cruise for the first time?

If you’re new to cruising, read reviews and seek advice from friends who have cruised. Then, research different cruise lines and destinations before contacting the cruise line or a travel agent to book your cruise.

How far in advance is the best time to book a cruise?

The best time to book a cruise is when the itineraries and dates are announced, typically 18 to 24 months in advance, to secure the best rates and optimal cabin location. However, last-minute bookings are also possible, depending on the itineraries and time of year, based on supply and demand.

What mistakes should you avoid when planning a cruise?

When planning a cruise, it’s important to avoid mistakes such as booking the cheapest option without researching the cruise line and ship, especially if you’re a first-time cruiser. Choosing the wrong cruise line and the ship can lead to disappointment and ruin your first cruise experience.


Kathy Ava

Meet Kathy Ava, a food, travel, and cruise writer based in Los Angeles/Pasadena, and the owner and main writer of Tasty Itinerary. With over 20 years of experience planning trips and logistics at her full-time job and for herself, she's become a pro at crafting unforgettable tasty itineraries. She's always on the hunt for delicious, fun travel destinations and cruise itineraries. She firmly believes that life is short and we must make the most of it, so always say yes to dessert.

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