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HOW TO PLAN A CRUISE TRIP
- 1 HOW TO PLAN A CRUISE TRIP
- 1.1 Introduction
- 1.2 Budget
- 1.3 When & Where?
- 1.4 Booking Options
- 1.5 Booking – The Small Print
- 1.6 Pre-cruise Planning
- 1.7 Food and Beverage
- 1.8 Onboard currency
- 1.9 Cruise Documentation
- 1.10 Getting To Your Cruise
- 1.11 What to Pack
Ok. So you want to go on a cruise? Where to begin? We hope this guide on how to plan a cruise trip will be helpful.
We were faced with this very same question many years ago (2004 to be exact) when Patrick decided it would be a nice way to spend his 40th birthday. All that gave us was a date to aim for. Other than that we really didn’t have a clue. We kinda knew we wanted to cruise the Caribbean and that this would probably mean sailing out of a Florida port but as for the cruise line or the cruise ship itself, we had no idea. Since then we have sailed more than 30 times across a range of different cruise lines and cruise ships. We’ve picked up a few tips and tricks during that time and so we hope we can help your decision-making process a little easier with this how to plan a cruise trip guide.
One of the first things to decide when planning how to book a cruise trip is how much you are prepared to pay for your cruise. Bearing in mind the additional costs that are invariably added to the cruise fare advertised. This is extremely important for family cruises comprising a range of age groups, each with possibly different expectations.
Whilst considering your budget in the previous step, in determining how much you are prepared to pay for your cruise, it is important to try and quantify the additional costs that may be incurred at this stage. What you don’t want to do is book your dream cruise only to find various additional costs that put it out of your price range.
This can depend on various things. Cruise lines in the main operate like a low-cost airline, in that there is the base cruise fare with other mandatory or optional charges that have to be considered.
However, there is a growing trend for some cruise lines to include some of these additional costs in the ‘packaged’ fare. So, make sure you check what the cruise line is offering. It is important to review the offering to see that it includes as a minimum (but not limited to):
- Sales Tax (if applicable)
- Port Taxes (payable for each port the ship visits)
One of the biggest additional costs for cruisers is the daily ‘service charge’ levied by most lines if it is not included in the cruise fare.
This is often referred to as the “On-Board Service Charge” and commonly referred to as “gratuities” by many cruisers. It was traditional (and still is in some cases) for cruise lines to expect guests to pay this fee for the services provided by your cabin attendant, dining room waiters and housekeeping staff such as laundry and cleaning personnel. It can often be pre-paid prior to boarding, either by adding them at the time of booking (but not paid until the final payment is due) or before you make the final payment. If not, the cost will automatically be added to your onboard account on a daily basis in the currency of the cruise line (so it could be US$, GBP £, or Euro €). The daily amount can vary due to the type of stateroom you book (normally more expensive for suite guests) so check out the terms and conditions.
The main thing to remember here is that is it levied for every guest in the stateroom and in most cases, includes infants and children (some do make exceptions for infants). So, it is important for you to check the age limits for this payment. For example, if you are considering a 7-night cruise for yourself, your partner and 2 children in a non-suite cabin, and the daily rate is $14.50 per person per day, then there is an expectation that you either pay the equivalent of $406 pre-cruise or $58 per day will be added to your onboard account for payment at the end of the cruise. With the expansion of the option to dine when you please, so that you are not restricted to set times in the main dining room, this also means you may not have the same staff serve you on a nightly basis. Therefore, may cruise lines take the view that you must pre-pay the daily service charge if you select this option.
Obviously, many lines will still allow you to ‘tip’ as you please and so you may be able to request that any service charge automatically added to your onboard account is removed. The rules for this vary by cruise line, so once again it is important to review the terms and conditions.
In addition to the service charge detailed above, it is worth mentioning that various onboard purchases will also attract a ‘gratuity’, and this is most commonly seen when purchasing beverages from the bars and cafes on board. Again, the amount can vary across cruise lines, but a good estimate is that 18% – 20% will be added to the cost of a coffee, soda or beer (or any other alcoholic drink). It is also normally levied on (but limited to) spa and salon treatments too.
VAT (Value Added Tax)
It is worth remembering that additional taxes may be added to your receipt for goods and services purchased on board in various regions of the world due to local tax restrictions, so the sale of goods is not always ‘tax-free’. This commonly occurs in Europe and especially on cruises sailing from countries such as France, Spain and Italy (amongst others).
The ruling here is that in a lot of cases if your ship does not visit a non-EU (European Union) port, the normal Value Added Tax (VAT) rate of the country from where your cruise set sail, will be added to onboard purchases. For example, let’s say you sail from Barcelona in Spain and only visit countries around the western Mediterranean of France and Italy, all onboard purchases from the shops will attract an additional 21% VAT. There are various reduced rates for such things as beverages, speciality dining, and medicines of 10%, which again will be added. So, your favourite drink from the bar showing as $10 on the menu will in fact cost you $12.80 ($10 base cost, $1.80 gratuity and $1 VAT).
In some cases where a ship sails from a European Union port, but visits a non-EU port, then the VAT is not applicable, but you will need to confirm this with the cruise line.
Some cruise lines will incorporate the gratuity in the cost of drinks in markets where guests are not used to paying a mandatory ‘tip’, such as those sailing from the UK.
Now, although many of the costs above are ‘mandatory’ and considered by many cruisers as part and parcel of the overall cost of a cruise, there are many more discretionary costs that are optional that you may want to consider.
Some of these will be reviewed later in this topic, but at the planning stage it is worth thinking about other possible onboard additions such as
- Speciality Dining
- Shore Excursions
- Activities not included in the cruise fare (more and more cruise ships have such things as 4D cinemas, arcade games, racetracks, zip lines, escape rooms, bumper cars, games consoles, private sun decks etc which are chargeable)
There are also external transport costs to consider as cruise ports are not always located close to your home unless you are fortunate enough to reside in the local area!
- Air/Train/Coach Fares to/from the cruise port
- Car Rental
- Pre/Post Cruise Hotel Accommodation
- Car Parking
Above all, one of the most important additional costs to consider is travel insurance! In these times it is imperative that you consider the cost of this for your whole party, ensuring that it covers what you need, specifically cruise cover.
One important thing that a lot of people don’t realise is that cruises are not covered by standard travel insurance policies. You need specialised cruise travel insurance to cover you on your cruise vacation. Read our guide on this important topic.
When & Where?
One of the main things that will determine the type of cruises available to you will be your port of embarkation and the time of year you wish to set sail. Once you decide this (which could also depend on your budget due to the transport costs and time required to reach the port), this will determine the itineraries available to you. There are embarkation ports worldwide covering all areas of the globe with various types of sailings from scenic cruises to expedition cruises to places such as the Galapagos.
The most popular are in North America with many of the major cruise lines having their homeports (where their cruise ships set sail from) in various cities around the country. There are more than 20 homeports on the U.S. mainland from where you could sail to Bermuda, New England, Canada, Florida, the Bahamas, the Caribbean, Alaska, Hawaii, Mexico and Europe. Amongst the most popular are Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Port Canaveral in Florida, New York in the northeast and Los Angeles on the west coast.
Europe also has a vast number of departure ports. The following are the main cruise ports from where cruises start, but there are many more, so you will have to do a little research by checking out the cruise lines websites which will detail where they sail from.
The middle east is another popular starting point with cruises setting sail from Dubai or Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates amongst others. If you want to consider the Far East then places such as Singapore, Hong Kong or Shanghai in China are the major departure ports. Further afield, there’s Australia where you will find cruises starting from Sydney and Brisbane for example. For South America, you can find ships sailing from Brazil, Argentina, & Peru.
Once you have decided on your port (or ports) of departure you will then be able to research the destination ports, of which there will be many. The popular areas are the Caribbean, Hawaii, China, Japan, Australia & the South Pacific, New Zealand, South America, Northern Europe, the Mediterranean and Asia.
There are numerous cruise lines covering many types of sailings, so choosing the one for you can be a challenge and at times could feel overwhelming. But the following section should help! So first, think about who is sailing, then what do you want to do on a cruise, where do you want to go and don’t forget your budget! Let’s try and break it down for you.
It is also worth considering the suggested dress codes for the different cruise lines. Some lines still expect guests to dress in formal attire on several nights during the cruise, if that’s not for you and you want to dress more informally, then make sure you check the suggested dress policies. Even if you want to dress formally, check what the cruise line expects of you so you can choose the cruise that you feel you will be more comfortable throughout the sailing. Although many cruise lines have relaxed the formal dress code, they still offer you the chance to ‘dress up’ on various evenings, but it’s not compulsory.
Please note, not all lines may be listed below, and the categories may not be official.
Mainstream Cruise Lines
Carnival Cruise Line
Holland America Line
Norwegian Cruise Line
Royal Caribbean International
Great for families as they offer many options for all age groups, including numerous sporting activities and entertainment including Broadway-style shows.
Luxury Cruise Lines
Paul Gauguin Cruises
Regent Seven Seas Cruises
Seabourn Cruise Line
Viking Ocean Cruises
Upscale offerings with, as the name suggests, luxurious accommodation, food and beverage, entertainment and shore experiences
Premium/Specialised/Expedition Cruise Lines
Disney Cruise Line (Themed cruises)
Virgin Voyages (Adults only)
More adult-focused (with the exception of Disney Cruises) or primarily offering specific itineraries or catering for a specific experience. Expedition cruises sail to places such as the Galapagos Islands or the Antarctic etc. These expedition ships usually only have a few guests and so the experience will be more intimate. Due to demand, more and more cruise lines are offering ‘Adult Only’ cruises on a small selection of ships. So, if this is your preference, check with the cruise line you fancy sailing with.
Choosing your ideal ship
By now you have selected which cruise line you want to sail with, and where and when you want to cruise. This will mean you have probably narrowed down the ships to sail on.
Most cruise lines have several to choose from. These range from the smaller more intimate vessels to the huge ‘mega’ ships holding many thousands of guests.
It is important to look at the facilities offered by each of the ships cruising to your chosen destination and operating at the time you want to travel.
If you want to experience the latest sporting activities, a wide variety of entertainment, and many more dining options other than the main dining room, then you may want to consider the newer ships in the cruise line fleet.
If the idea of sharing your cruise with 5,000+ fellow travellers does not appeal, then you may want to consider the smaller more intimate ships.
It is also worth bearing in mind that the ‘mega’ ships can be restricted (due to the size of the berths required) to ports where they can dock.
Several popular ports such as Grand Cayman (Caribbean), Bar Harbor, Maine (USA), Cannes and Villefranche-sur-mer (France) and the island of Santorini (Greece) can only be reached by tender so it is very unlikely that the ‘mega’ ships will include these on their itineraries as it is impractical for 5,000+ guests to be tendered ashore and back again at the end of the day.
If you have concerns over disembarking a ship onto a tender boat (always weather dependant) and getting back on board by the same process, then check the cruise itinerary to see that there only a few port stops where tendering is required.
So, you’ve done your research and decided on your ideal cruise. What are your booking options in terms of timescales?
This is all down to personal circumstances. If you need to make plans so you can organise your cruise vacation time from work, or the cruise needs to fit in with school term times, or major life events (weddings, birthdays or anniversaries), then booking in advance as soon as you can maybe worthwhile. Bear in mind though that if you need transportation such as flights to reach your embarkation port, these in most cases are not generally available more than 11 months ahead, whereas cruises can be on sale up to 2-3 years away! The same can be said for any pre/post accommodation needs you want to book.
So, although you can book your cruise, the ancillary items may not be available for quite a while and you must remember, that the airfare and hotel rates showing now, could be very different in the future.
To get a rough estimate to prepare your budget for 2 years in the future, check the airfares and hotel rates that are available for the same period a year earlier. No guarantee they will be the same when you get around to booking for your specific dates, but it will give you an idea.
How to book?
Once you’ve done all this, you then need to decide how to book.
If you want full control over your reservations, then book directly with the cruise line, airline and hotel be that online or by telephone.
If you want someone else to do all the ‘running around’ associated with cruise bookings, then find a trusted travel agent who is an expert in cruising who will manage it for you.
If you don’t already have a trusted travel agent, go with recommendations. The benefit of using a good travel agent is that they may have offers or special rates only available to them which they pass on to you. They may offer incentives for you to book with them, such as covering the cost of a dinner in a speciality restaurant onboard which normally incurs a cover charge.
Travel Agents can also handle all the communication with the cruise line and are well equipped in reducing the workload you may have to be involved in when booking direct.
So, you’re all booked, what happens from now until you make final payment and head to the port?
Depending on what is included in your cruise fare, there may be many optional additions you can plan for.
Many of the following can be arranged and booked via a ‘cruise planner’ offered by the cruise line. In most cases, if the item is chargeable you will be expected to pay for at the time of booking. Although these will be linked to your main reservation, they are normally separate items.
If your cruise fare includes some ‘free credit’ that can be used for onboard purchases, then some lines let you use this to pay for items you book via the ‘planner’.
There will be numerous excursions offered for each port of call, even pre-cruise experiences that can be arranged which end up dropping you off at check-in. At the end of the cruise, options may be available so you enjoy your last day in the immediate area, concluding with transportation to your departure airport.
Each of the ‘tours’ offered by the cruise line will be described and you will have the choice of half or full-day trips with various departure times if not a full day.
Bear in mind that if the destination is a fair distance from the cruise port, this could mean a very early morning start.
For some activities, pre-cruise reservations are encouraged. The reason is that although the newer bigger ships offer more options for entertainment, the capacity of the theatres, music venues or sports halls is limited. So, if there’s a particular show you definitely want to see, or you want to take part in certain sporting activities, then if you are able, pre-book your space.
Many people argue that this takes away the spontaneity of a cruise, so it should be possible to book once onboard. But be prepared that you may have to wait in line, either at a ‘booking office’ in advance or turn up early at the venue on the day of the event and wait in the ‘standby’ line.
One of the major revenue earners for a cruise line and so one of the main activities you will see all over the ship, during the day but especially in the evening, is the proliferation of the ship’s photographers. They will not only be in the general areas of the ship near bars and restaurants, but also in the dining rooms. They are there to photograph you and your party/family enjoying yourself. Traditionally they will also be at the end of the ‘gang plank’ when you disembark at each port.
Don’t forget they will also be encouraging you to have a photo taken before you board the ship on the day of departure, invariably with a backdrop of the ship.
On ‘formal’ evenings there will normally a photographer around every corner with various backdrops for you to pose in front of.
Many lines offer packages which means you save money against purchasing each print individually. If you purchase in advance you will invariably save money. You don’t have to purchase every photo you have taken (unless it’s an ‘unlimited’ package) so don’t worry that having your photo taken means it counts towards your package. Let’s say the offer is buy 10 prints, but only pay for 8, normally you could pick your favourite 10 from over 30 you have taken of you and your party.
Another money earner for the cruise line is the ability for you to stay connected to the outside world by accessing the onboard Wi-Fi. Traditionally as this is provided via satellite communications, quality in terms of speed and reliability was poor. However, many lines have invested in providing a far more superior service and so offer packages that may allow you to access social media as a minimum, to the ability to stream TV programs and films.
If you have selected a flexible dining option which means you can dine at a time to suit you, it may be possible to make reservations in advance via the planner, just as you would for a land-based restaurant. If you have a preferred time, it may be worthwhile as space at popular times can be limited. If you don’t feel you can commit to a particular dining time before knowing how the day pans out once onboard, not to worry, you’ll have many ways of booking once on the ship. Even if you turn up without a reservation, the worst that can happen is you have to wait in-line or you’ll be given a pager so you can relax in a lounge nearby until a table becomes free.