Booking a cruise vacation is exciting and we start to count the days immediately after booking. In this post, we share our top tips on how to prepare for a cruise for first-timers.
I remember our first time cruising over 20 years ago. We booked the cruise, but boarded so unprepared. I didn’t even book excursions and had no idea we could book our own. We walked around aimlessly at the ports. While we did have a great first cruise experience, I regret a few things like making sure hubby packed a swimsuit and exploring the Southern Caribbean islands.
With every cruise you take, you’ll learn something new in preparation for having the next best cruise experience. I’ve learned spontaneity can be fun, but then not so much when we leave things for the last minute or unplanned.
Sometimes, booking a great cruise itinerary and just showing up is not enough. We say this from experience. Especially from the one time, we decided not to make any advanced reservations.
Even if you’re just planning to get on the ship and lay around it the entire time, some of these tips will help you prepare for a cruise. It’s important at least to have a list of what to do before going on a cruise or at least know what to expect.
11 Cruise Prep Tips Checklist:
- Purchase travel insurance
- Confirm passport and visas
- Book your flights
- Book hotels for pre-cruise and-or post-cruise.
- Join a roll call
- Become familiar with the cruise ship
- Book in advance drink packages and reservations
- Research cruise shore excursions
- Start saving cash
- Make sure you are vaccinated or Covid-tested
- Print cruise documents and luggage tags
We’re not suggesting every single item is a must (some are). Do what works best for you and what your expectations are for your cruise vacation.
How will COVID-19 affect Your cruise prep?
How to prepare for a cruise? That’s the big question. How will it affect preparing for a cruise? The original 10 Cruise Prep tips from this post still apply. They are core tips for planning any big cruise vacation.
But post-pandemic you can expect these differences:
- Negative PRC test required prior to boarding
- Face masks in public places unless you’re drinking or eating (some cruise lines are not requiring masks from vaccinated passengers)
- Buffets no longer are self-serve
- Additional hand sanitizers throughout the ship
- Crew members wearing masks at all times
- Possible cruise-controlled excursion at ports – this depends on the port’s guidelines and requirements
- Possible Covid testing prior to deboarding ship at some ports.
With any cruise vacation, you must check what the procedures and guidelines are directly with the cruise line.
How to Prepare for a Cruise
1. Purchase Travel Insurance
Booked a cruise? Buy insurance.
→ This is so important. We cannot stress enough how important it is to have some sort of insurance in place. Especially now with Covid. It should be #1 on your cruise preparation checklist. Some cruise lines are requiring medical insurance for Covid.
You do not have to buy the insurance offered by the cruise line, as a matter of fact, you should look into other options. You want to at least have comprehensive insurance that will cover any medical bills and if you need to cancel in case you have an emergency.
In the past, we’d purchase whatever the cruise line offered because it was easy. We learned our lesson the hard way and realized their insurance is not covering our best interest. We lost a lot of money.
- InsureMyTrip.com is a great place to start your research.
- Compare multiple insurance options.
- Double-check that the medical covers Covid related care.
Everyone’s needs vary. We’re not a travel insurance expert, but we do know that travel insurance is important. You will only gain by doing your own research and determine what is best and necessary for you and your family.
Do not wait long to choose to buy cruise insurance as the longer you wait, the more expensive the rates become.
2. Don’t Forget Passports & Visas
Verify with the cruise line if you need a passport or a visa for any of the countries you are visiting. It all depends on the itinerary and from where you’re sailing.
→ Make sure your passport is valid and has not expired. If the expiration date on your passport is close to expiring near your cruise dates, renew it ASAP.
→ No matter what, you will need to bring an official government-issued identification with you.
Travel Tip: Keep a scanned copy of your passport on your phone or a hard copy on you.
An official government ID is mandatory. Please check what other identification the cruise line requires for check-in before your sailing date.
If a Visa is required for a country you are visiting, my advice is to let the cruise line take care of it for an additional fee. It may cost slightly more to let them do it, but it’s worth it. They make it easy and hassle-free.
3. Book Your Flights
→ Fly in the day before embarkation. This is an ideal plan when you prepare for a cruise.
Full disclosure: On our last cruise (pre-covid), we were naughty and booked a redeye flight that landed at the crack of dawn. We were at the port hours before check-in. We were lucky, but we’ve heard nightmares from others.
However, we were anxious from the moment we booked the flight. What if the flight is delayed? What if it’s canceled. What if… what if… what if? All this anxiety is not worth it unless necessary. This time we had limited time off and needed to take the risk. Thankful it worked out.
Now with pandemic changing the travel industry. We’re not so sure it’s worth taking the risks as flights are being canceled and changed constantly.
→ Don’t book anything too early in the morning. Try not to book anything before noon.
→ Most ships start to disembark at 8 AM. Check to see how far the airport is from the cruise port. Give yourself some cushion between disembarkation and your flight. Sometimes it’s a quick disembarkation process and other times it’s a hot mess. You can easily miss your flight.
If the cruise is many months away, you may have some time to research airfares. It doesn’t hurt to compare what you find online with what the cruise line is offering. The cruise line may surprise you.
Celebrity recently surprised me, their rates were the same as going through the airline directly. I booked via Celebrity because there were added benefits at no extra cost. Of course, this is not always the norm. Research is your friend.
Cruise Tip: If you have extra vacation time, plan to spend time a few days before or after at the port-of-call.
4. Book a Hotel
Accommodations for Your Pre-cruise or Post-Cruise Stay
→ Flying in a day or more early? Planning to stay longer after the cruise. You will need to book a hotel.
- Stay near the port or in the closest city the day before your cruise.
- Check to see if hotels have a free shuttle that will drive you to the port on embarkation day.
- Driving in from a nearby state? Check for stay and park rates at hotels. A special rate provided for cruisers to stay for one night and leave your car parked at their facility for the length of your cruise.
- Book a hotel that offers FREE BREAKFAST. Who doesn’t like free food?! This way you don’t have to leave the hotel to get coffee and something small to eat. You’ll save money, time and you can just head on to the cruise port after you’re ready. Also, don’t overindulge, leave room for lunch on the ship.
We recommend using Booking.com. Not only do they offer great discounted rates to hotels, B&Bs, and more, but they have flexible rates that allow you to cancel easily.
5. Join a Roll Call – Meet Other Cruisers
Prepare for a cruise by joining a roll call
→ One of the things to do before a cruise is to join a roll call for your sailing. This is optional.
The best roll call can be found at the Cruise Critic Community Boards.
- Attend the meet & greet set up between the cruise line and Cruise Critic. Cruise Critic is well known amongst the cruising community and the cruise lines work closely with the organizer of the meet & greet to set up a time and place on the ship for it to take place.
- You’ll meet other cruisers and make new friends.
- Food, coffee, and beverages are provided.
- You will meet some of the ship officers and they will say a few words. Sometimes they provide information that other passengers may not have like their direct phone numbers on the ship. If there is a problem, you can contact them.
- It does take away time from whatever it is you want to do on a sea day. Sometimes we don’t want to give that up, especially if you have a port-intensive itinerary.
- You’re not one for group activities.
21 Reasons A Cruise Is a Great Vacation
We list all the best things about cruises. You will be convinced that a cruise will be part of your next vacation.
6. Become Familiar with the Cruise Ship
Your next order of business, if you haven’t done so already, is to research everything you can about your cruise ship and what it offers.
Find the best tips on Cruise Critic, Pinterest, and even do a quick Google search. You’ll be equipped with tidbits of knowledge upon boarding that many other passengers won’t know of.
Some things you may want to know prior to boarding your cruise:
- Do they serve lunch anywhere else besides the buffet on embarkation day?
- Is there self-serve laundry on the ship?
- What restaurants are free?
- When can I start making reservations for specialty restaurants?
- How many formal nights?
- Are there any special activities on the ship? For example, Carnival has sit-down brunch on sea days and Princess has Afternoon Tea available on certain afternoons.
- Are there any special shows on the ship you have to pay and reserve in advance?
- What ports do we have to tender for? When and where can we sign up to tender early? We have witnessed people completely lost the morning of and then end up with the latest tender time off the ship… that’s a waste of a morning.
Cruise tip: Dallies are provided every night on the ship for the next day. You should read it and mark what you’d like to do every day. Join in on the fun!
7. What to Book in Advance on a Cruise
Prepare for a cruise by booking the following in advance:
→ Do the math. If you are planning to several or more paid drinks per day, a drink package or soda package may be for you. They offer pre-cruise discounts for booking it in advance.
There is just something freeing ordering whatever you want without having to worry about the bill at the end of the cruise.
We don’t drink enough to pay for a drink package, however, some cruise lines offer it as an extra “free” perk. Being that I was sailing Norwegian, I should have taken that free perk at the time of booking, but didn’t. We totally regretted not paying extra for the “free” perk and we don’t even drink that much.
Specialty Dining Reservations
→ Prepare for a cruise by booking specialty dining restaurants in advance.
Even if you don’t book this in advance, at least make it a priority to book reservations as soon as you get on the ship.
We failed miserably at this while planning our Norwegian Epic cruise, which is not by any means how we roll.
We normally have it all planned. Having to hear, “we’re booked”, over and over on the ship is disappointing. We rather have the reservation and cancel on the ship if plans change.
→ Interested in Spa Passes? Take advantage of the pre-cruise discount and book this in advance.
Covid note: This may no longer be worth it with the new rules set forth by the CDC.
Not all spa treatments will be available for reservations (some cruise lines don’t even allow any bookings pre-cruise), but if they become available, book them.
We recommend booking spa treatments on sea days. Those appointments usually are booked up quick.
20 Cruise Essentials to Pack
Add these items to your cruise packing list. Don’t forget to pack these cruise items that will help enhance your cruise vacation.
8. Getting Off the Ship at Cruise Ports
❗️ Due to the pandemic, it appears that some port destinations are only allowing controlled cruise excursions off the ship. You also may have to take a Covid test prior to departing the ship, even if you’re vaccinated. You must check with your cruise lines to see which ports on your itinerary this applies to.
This is truly disappointing to me as I am a big proponent of exploring on your own or booking your own tours. But the good news is that it’s not all ports and I don’t see this being a long-term solution.
Previously, I listed all the info you needed to explore on your own or book shore excursions. These tips will return as soon as Covid is gone.
We have to look on the bright side, you can still have a great time on a tour of your choosing. Just make sure to pick the right tour and book in advance. Cruise excursions always fill up quickly.
Plan, Research and Book Tours
Some of the best experiences will take place off the ship. Don’t wait until you’re on the ship to figure out what you’re going to do at the cruise ports.
Our first cruise many, many years ago, we were clueless. We’d get off at the cruise port and have no idea what to do. We’d walk around aimlessly. Times have obviously changed since then. Don’t get me wrong, some ports are nice to just do that, but some need some extra planning so you can really experience what the port has to offer. You have to leave the port in order to find adventure and local experiences.
One of the downsides of cruising is the short amount of time at each cruise port. It’s a complete turn off for me, especially when we cruised Europe. However, I still made the most out of our itinerary and ventured off to places most cruisers don’t think of.
Make the most of your time, even if the plan is to get off the ship and spend it at a beach close by. Wouldn’t you like to know what the best beach is, or the least crowded beach is nearby? How much the beach chair rentals are? And, are there any facilities for you to use? It’s okay to wing it and be spontaneous, but it works in your favor to have some local knowledge.
Book an Excursion
Sometimes it seems like I do a lot of DIY, but I love tours. Do I love big tour groups? No. I do enjoy smaller group tours and private ones. Those are my preference, but you need to do what works for you and your family.
Look at all the options for each and every port. Sometimes you’ll find exactly what it is you want to do and you won’t have to go deeper into planning the logistics cause you’re paying for someone else to do that for you.
- You don’t have to worry about how you’re going to get from point A to B.
- Someone is driving you and guiding you on a tour. Sometimes that is totally worth the extra money while on vacation.
- There is a great chance that you’ll be blessed with a great tour guide that really wants to provide the best experience possible.
- If you book with the ship (normally more expensive and only group tours avail), the tours are guaranteed to get you back on time. The ship will not leave without you if you’re late.
- Unless you booked a private tour that allows you to customize your itinerary, you are stuck doing what the entire group is doing. It can be limiting.
- The groups may be too large.
- The guide can end up being terrible.
- It turns out to be not what you expected.
Cruise Tip: Don’t be a pier runner. The captain and staff will repeat over and over the time you should be back on the ship. If you come running down the pier past the scheduled time the ship is supposed to take off, they will leave you behind. So, make sure to plan to be back near the port at least an hour ahead.
Need some inspiration on what to do at the cruise ports? Maybe you’ll find a similar cruise excursion with your ship.
Click one of the following cruise itineraries:
9. Prepare for a Cruise by Saving Cash
What Will You Need Money For?
It is possible to provide a cash deposit against your incidentals that will be linked to your key card/cruise ship ID card. The cruise line will still ask for a credit card on file in case you go over the deposit. Remember, if you use your debit card, they place a $300 hold at a time.
If you’re anything like me, you probably like to use your credit card for everything and accumulate as many travel points or cashback rewards as possible.
Start Saving Cash
When on a cruise, you’ll find that you’ll need smaller denomination cash for tips and other reasons listed below. We suggest you start to save cash from early on so you’re not scrambling to find an ATM on embarkation day.
An ATM can be found in the Casino. Use at your own risk and note that there will be a high service fee.
Save Some Side Cash With These Tips:
- Start a cruise jar fund.
- If you’re paying with your debit card at the supermarket or any other location that allows free withdrawals, withdraw an extra $20 and save it to your cruise fund.
- Save the leftover change. You will need those smaller bills. I have literally sent hubby the morning of embarkation to turn our larger bills into smaller denominations, and it’s an extra step we could have saved with a little planning.
- Keep separate envelopes for excursions, tips, gambling…etc. Start adding money to the envelopes little by little to cover the cost of your expenses.
You’ll need cash For
- Your cruise starts the moment you hand your luggage to a porter at port check-in. Tip $3-5 per luggage.
- Single dollars will come in handy. Show extra love to the people serving you day in and out. Tip as you see fit; it’s a personal choice.
- Tip your guide at the end of your excursion.
- Purchases off the ship like food, souvenirs, and street vendors.
- Gambling. Cash on hand is your best option. You have the option to charge it to your cabin but be prepared for an additional fee to be added.
- Currency exchange may be necessary. Where are you traveling to? Travel within the Caribbean, Mexico, and other surroundings around the USA, they accept and ask for US Dollars. On our trip to the Mediterranean, we had to have euros for everything we did off the ship.
Related Read Not to Miss: 8 Tips to Save More Money to Travel
10. COVID Testing or VACCINE
❗️Depending on the cruise line, you will either be required to be vaccinated for COVID-19 or take a PCR test. Check with your cruise line regarding their Covid guidelines.
Some tips requiring testing:
- Check your local Covid testing sites that are able to provide results in 72 hours or less.
- Book your appointment no more than 72 hours before boarding.
- Do NOT forget to bring a copy of proof of vaccination or your negative PCR test.
- You may also be tested by the cruise line’s medical staff prior to boarding the ship on embarkation day.
- There is a possibility that some ports may require a covid test prior to deboarding the ship.
11. Have all Your Documents Ready & Printed
Print Documents & Luggage Tags
Cruise lines make it easy for us and have everything available online through their website portal. You just have to sign in to your account and fill out your passenger information for check-in.
You will receive an email when your documents and luggage tags ready. Print them out to bring with you on your trip. Save them as PDF on your phone, just in case.
Attached the luggage tags for the morning of embarkation. You can either staple the tags to your luggage handle or buy a set of these luggage tag holders.
Some cruise lines [like Celebrity Cruises] will mail the luggage tags and that’s simply a luxury that not all cruise lines do anymore.
This list may seem slightly overwhelming. But, once you start checking things off and your cruise gets closer, you’ll see it is worth it.
Before you know it, you’ll be relaxing on your cruise and enjoying all the rewards from all your planning.
Did you find these tips helpful to prepare for a cruise? Tell me about your next cruise!
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