Booked a cruise vacation? That’s so exciting! In this post we share our top tips on how to prepare for a cruise.
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Please note: this post and tips were written and published pre-COVID.
While we are waiting for new cruise guidelines, you can more than likely expect the following changes due to COVID-19: testing requirements before boarding the ship, social distancing at certain events, masks at certain times, limited or no buffets.
As finalized guidelines are made public, I will make changes that pertain to this post.
In the meantime, take advantage of the cruise deals for a 2021 cruise vacation.
Booking a great cruise itinerary and just showing up is not enough. Even if you’re just planning to get on the ship and lay around it the entire time, some of these tips on how to prepare for a cruise. It’s important to know what to do before going on a cruise or at least know what to expect.
With every cruise you take, you’ll learn something new in preparation for having the best cruise experience. Going with the flow is sometimes fun, but then not so much when we leave things for the last minute.
10 Cruise Prep Tips Checklist:
- Purchase travel insurance
- Check your passport expiration. Is a Visa necessary for this trip?
- Book your flights.
- Book hotels for pre-cruise or after cruise stay.
- Join a roll call
- Become familiar with the cruise ship.
- Book ahead of time onboard drink or dinner packages, activities, or entertainment.
- Research cruise port activities.
- Start saving cash.
- Print cruise documents and luggage tags.
I’m not saying every single thing is a must (some are), but do what works best for you and what your expectations are for your cruise vacation.
How to Prepare for a Cruise
1. Purchase Travel Insurance
Booked a cruise? Buy insurance.
This is so important. I cannot stress enough how important it is to have some sort of insurance in place. It should be #1 on your cruise preparation checklist.
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, I’d purchase whatever the cruise line offered because it was easy. I learned my lesson the hard way and realize their insurance is not covering our best interest.
For the past couple of cruises, I referred to InsureMyTrip.com. I researched and compared multiple insurance options. I ended up buying cruise insurance with Nationwide specifically for cruises that allow me to cancel for any reason (75% refund) and it was still cheaper and comparable to what the cruise line offered.
Everyone’s needs vary, I’m not a travel insurance expert, but I 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. Always compare your options. 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.
I always have my passport with me no matter what, and in my opinion, it doesn’t hurt if you bring it along. You can always tuck it away in your cabin safe. No matter what you will need to bring an official government-issued identification with you off the ship.
Travel Tip: Keep a scanned copy of your passport on your phone or a hard copy on you.
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.
An official government ID is mandatory. Please check what other identification the cruise line requires for check-in before your sailing date.
3. Book Your Flights
Driving to the cruise port? Amazing! You can move on to the next item on the list.
Flying in? Fly in the day before embarkation. This is an ideal plan when you prepare for a cruise.
Full disclosure, for our last cruise, we were naughty and booked a redeye flight that landed at the crack of dawn. We were at the pot hours before check-in. We were lucky.
However, I was anxious from the moment I 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.
For your return, don’t book anything too early in the morning. 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. Try not to book anything before noon.
If the cruise may be months away and that means you may actually have some time to research some 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 a few days before or after at the port-of-call. Last year, our port-of-call was in Barcelona, Spain, so we planned to stay an extra week after our return. We spent 3 days in Girona, Spain before returning to Barcelona for the last few days.
4. Book a Hotel for Your Pre-cruise Stay
Flying in a day early? You will need a hotel room.
- 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.
I do love using Booking.com. Not only do they offer great discounted rates to hotels, B&Bs, and more, but I love their flexible rates that allow me to cancel.
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 a few friends.
- Group tours are sometimes organized by a member of the group and you may have the option to join. The rates are usually much cheaper than what the cruise ship is offering. It’s also something else you can check-off the list.
- Food, coffee, and beverages are provided.
- You will meet some of the ship officers and they will say 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.
6. Become Familiar with the Cruise Ship
Your next order of business, if you haven’t done so already, is 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.
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 I sign up to tender early? I 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. Things to Book in Advance on a Cruise
Prepare for a cruise for booking the following ahead of your cruise date.
I failed miserably at this while planning our Norwegian Epic cruise, which is not by any means how I roll. I normally have it all planned and I’ll cancel whatever is necessary when I’m not on a cruise. Having to hear, “we’re booked”, over and over on the ship is disappointing.
I won’t 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. I totally regretted not to and I don’t even drink that much.
There is just something freeing ordering whatever you want without having to worry about the bill at the end fo the cruise.
Now, if you plan to drink a lot on your cruise and it doesn’t come as a free perk, consider the drink package. Add up how many drinks you think you’ll have per day and see if the cost of a drink package is worth it. If it is, book in advance and take advantage of any pre-cruise discounts.
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.
I didn’t book not even one specialty dining restaurant during our Norwegian Epic cruise and all the reservations were taken by the time we decided we’d like to eat something different.
Interested in Spa Day Passes, take advantage of the pre-cruise discount and book this in advance.
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. I recommend sea days.
8. What to do at Cruise Ports? Plan.
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 didn’t think of.
It’s okay to wing it and be spontaneous, but have some local knowledge as it works in your favor.
Need some inspiration what to do at the cruise ports? Click one of the following cruise itineraries:
Book a Shore Excursion
Sometimes it seems like I do mostly DIY, but I love tours. Do I love big tour groups? No. I do enjoy smaller group tours and private ones. Those are my preferences, 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 an 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.
Rent a Vehicle
Renting a local vehicle and sometimes even a golf cart is one of my favorite ways to explore the port. It’s cheap, efficient and allows us the freedom to do what we want within the timeframe given to us. Granted, don’t do this at every port as it all depends on the circumstances.
I love it when we get to be our own tour guide and leave the touristy areas. I will do research and pin spots on the map that I’d like to see. Since we always try to use our Wi-Fi HotSpot when available, we use Google Maps to get around.
Sometimes you can negotiate a rate for a tour around the island or city. Local taxi drivers sometimes know the best spots. In the same token, be careful as they can also lead you astray. It’s important you do your research ahead of time and check what may be the standard rates.
Buses, Trains & Ferries
These are great options and it all depends on the port. You have to research and make sure these options are available. In the Caribbean, local buses may be more common.
If you’re in Europe, see what the closest train station is and what cities you can visit nearby – we did this in Cannes, France, and visited Nice for the day.
Some ports have ferry options to get to either another part of an island or another island nearby. In Naples, Italy we took the ferry there to Capri for the day.
Research is key.
9. Save Cash. What Will You Need Money For?
Prepare for a cruise by saving cash.
When I travel, I like to charge as much as I can to my favorite credit card to accumulate points or cashback. On the morning of embarkation, you will need to provide a credit card for incidentals that will be linked to your key card/cruise ship ID card.
It is possible to provide cash as a deposit against your incidentals, but having a credit on file is important in case you go over. The cruise line will demand some sort of car. Remember, if you use your debit card, they place a $300 hold at a time.
Start Saving Cash
Normally, I’m not one to carry cash. I am awful at it. I like my mileage points so I am really loyal to my credit card.
However, I have found that when I cruise, I need cash all the time, especially in the smaller denomination for multiple things that does not include cruise incidentals. I suggest you start to save cash from early on so you’re not scrambling to find an ATM on embarkation day.
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. Of course, tip as you see fit; it’s a personal choice.
- Most excursions that you booked on your own expect cash payment. At least that’s been my experience. If they accept credit cards, they may add an additional 3-5% fee on top of the total. Tip your guide at the end.
- Taxis and other public transportations. Some take credits and some don’t.
- 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. Check with the casino manager for details.
- 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.
An ATM can be found in the Casino. Use at your own risk and note that there will be a high service fee.
Related Read Not to Miss: 8 Ways to Add Money to Your Travel Savings
10. Print Documents & Luggage Tags
Nowadays, 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 the morning of embarkation. Most hotels expect this and will have staplers out for their guests. You can either staple the tags to your luggage handle or buy a set of these luggage tag holders.
Some cruise lines mail the luggage tags and that’s simply a luxury that not all cruise lines do anymore. Thank you Celebrity for my luggage tags!
Whew! I know this is tons of info to take in, but you can do this. 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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