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Cruise Ship and Sydney Opera House

How To Plan A Cruise Trip

by | Mar 22, 2021 | 0 comments

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HOW TO PLAN A CRUISE TRIP

Introduction

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.

Budget

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. 

Additional Costs

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.

Piggy Bank

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):

Taxes

  • Sales Tax (if applicable)
  • Port Taxes (payable for each port the ship visits)

Service Charge

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.

Gratuities

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.

Discretionary Options

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

  • Wi-Fi
  • 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.

Travel Insurance

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.

  • United Kingdom – Southampton
  • Denmark – Copenhagen
  • Germany – Hamburg
  • The Netherlands – Amsterdam
  • Sweden – Stockholm
  • France – Nice or Cannes
  • Spain – Barcelona
  • Italy – Civitavecchia or Venice
  • Malta – Valletta
  • Turkey – Istanbul
Cruise Ship Valletta Malta

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.

Cruise Lines

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.

How To Plan A Cruise Trip - Dress Code

Dress Code

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

Aida
Carnival Cruise Line
Costa Cruises
Holland America Line
MSC Cruises
Norwegian Cruise Line
P&O Cruises
Princess Cruises
Royal Caribbean International
Marella Cruises

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

Azamara
Crystal Cruises
Hapag-Lloyd Cruises
Oceania Cruises
Paul Gauguin Cruises
Regent Seven Seas Cruises
Seabourn Cruise Line
Silversea Cruises
Viking Ocean Cruises
Windstar Cruises

Upscale offerings with, as the name suggests, luxurious accommodation, food and beverage, entertainment and shore experiences

Premium/Specialised/Expedition Cruise Lines

Celebrity Cruises
Cunard Line
Disney Cruise Line (Themed cruises)
Virgin Voyages (Adults only)
Hurtigruten
Ponant
Poseidon Expeditions
Silversea Expeditions

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.

Picking the best cabin for your party

Depending on the cruise line, the ship and the size of the vessel, there will be various categories of cabins to choose from. 

Broadly speaking these will be categorised as follows.

  • Inside (no natural light or equipped with ‘virtual’ windows by the use of a huge floor to ceiling screen displaying a camera view from outside the ship)
  • Promenade (inside cabins with windows overlooking an internal area of the ship)
  • Outside (window with an ocean view)
  • Balcony/Veranda (private deck area with seating)
  • Junior or Mini-Suite (more spacious balcony cabins with additional features such as bathtub and larger seating area)
  • Suites (offering upscale accommodation often with separate bedrooms, several occupancy options for groups, dedicated butler service with exclusive venues for dining and separate pool deck locations)

Each category will be further sub-divided into several room types due to various factors which can include: –

  • Size – in terms of square footage, especially in the Suite category
  • Maximum Guests per cabin
  • Deck Location (low down near the waterline to higher up near the pool deck)
  • Obscured View (restricted view due to the ship superstructure or lifeboats)
  • Location – Aft at the rear of the ship, Mid Ship, or Forward towards the front
  • Facilities included – E.G., access to the ships Spa or private dining

One of the main considerations, regardless of the type of cabin, is whether you could be prone to seasickness in rough weather.

If you think you may be prone to seasickness, it is recommended that you choose a cabin as close to the middle of the ship as possible and on a lower deck.

 Top Tip: You can usually pick up seasickness tablets free of charge from guest services should you need them.

The reason for this is that if the ship encounters rough seas (although the captain will usually deploy stabilisers when practical to minimise movement) you will experience more rocking movement the higher your cabin is from the sea and the closer to the aft or the front of the ship you are located.

So, you’ve chosen your dates, destination, selected the cruise line, ship and type of cabin, and you’re ready to book!

Let’s look at the options.

Booking Options

Timescales

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.

Booking – The Small Print

Deposits and Final Payment

Above all this, it is important to review the booking terms and conditions, especially the policies with regard to the amount of deposit you will be required to pay at the time of booking, especially if you have to change or cancel the cruise. Plans can change!

In some markets around the world, once you have booked your cruise and paid the deposit, the final payment will be due several days/weeks/months prior to sailing. It is worth noting that the final payment date of the cruise line and that of a travel agent may be different. For example, in the UK, some cruise lines have a final payment date of as little as 57 days prior to sailing, whereas some agents require final payment no later than 70 days prior to sailing in this case, in order to give them time to process your payment and forward to the cruise line. Please check the booking terms and conditions for the market you are located as these deadlines can and do differ. Even some in the UK require final payment no later than 90 prior to departure, so travel agents may want your money 120 days before sailing, that’s approximately 4 months!

Cancellations

Once you have reviewed the final payment dates of either the cruise line or your travel agent, check the terms for cancellation. In some markets, your deposit may be refundable. However, please check when booking as it is becoming more common for deposits to be non-refundable. Some cruise lines give you the option to choose a fare with a refundable deposit or a lower fare where the deposit is non-refundable. In most cases, if you cancel before the final payment deadline, if your deposit is non-refundable, you will only forfeit this amount. However, if you do have to cancel after the final payment deadline, you may have to forfeit a larger amount as many companies have a sliding scale, depending on the number of days before sailing.

It is also worth bearing in mind any ‘processing fee’ a travel agent may charge to make the cancellation. Plans do sometimes have to change and so unfortunately you may have no choice but to cancel and forfeit some money, so check your travel insurance to see if the situation that resulted in you having to cancel is covered. 

Changes

Alternatively, you may just need to change your booking, but again there may be fees levied by the cruise line and your travel agent. So, by checking the booking conditions you will be aware of what is possible and what additional fees you could be charged. Some changes incur different fees, for example changing your booked cabin on the same sailing with some lines only incurs a change in fare, but some may levy a fee on top. Changing the date of your sailing could incur a higher fee, plus any difference in fare as these will invariably be recalculated to that being charged at the time you make the change. If you make a change, also check whether any ‘promotions’ (beverage packages, pre-paid gratuities etc) that were offered when you originally booked will be carried over, or will you lose them, or in fact, will you gain any that could negate the increase in the cruise fare?

Offers

Cruise lines often have cruise deals, cruise packages, ‘sales’ or ‘offers’ to tempt you to book. There’s not really any fixed timetable for these, although invariably there are sales around holidays (Christmas, New Year, ‘Black Friday’ etc). Just check with the cruise line. Sales or ‘offers’ often mean the cruise line is including some benefits with the cruise fare being advertised. This could be a higher-grade cabin for the price of a lower grade (for example a balcony cabin for the price of an ocean view), or Wi-Fi and/or gratuities included. Some are now offering ‘all inclusive’ fares which mean that beverage packages, gratuities and/or some speciality dining packages are included either for ‘free’ or for a low supplement.

Bear in mind that these ‘offers’ have been added to the basic fare, so are not really ‘free’ but by booking one you could save money overall. Check the conditions of these offers as in the case of some lines, for example, there is a cost per drink limit on the included beverage package and you still may have to pay an additional gratuity for this benefit or to get access to all beverages you can ‘top up’ the offer by paying a daily supplement. Each cruise line can be different, so make sure to review all the terms of the offers.

Cabin Selection

Even when coming down to choosing your cabin, although you have an idea of the category and location, some cruise lines let you either choose the exact stateroom you prefer at the time of booking by reviewing the deck plans, or for a lower fare they will choose for you. That’s a decision you will need to make.

In addition, many lines offer ‘guarantee’ cabins. These are normally available for an even lower fare. All you do is just choose the category of stateroom you would like (e.g., Oceanview, Balcony or Suite) and let the cruise line allocate you a cabin in at least this category. You may be extremely lucky and get, for example, a balcony cabin for the price of an Oceanview! In this case, you may not get advised of your cabin number until very close to the day of sailing, so bear that in mind.

Choosing a Cruise Cabin

If you need a bit more help with choosing the best type of cabin then please read our blog post on this topic.

Upgrades

Cruise lines work on the basis of sailing as near to full capacity as possible as this improves the possibility of creating ancillary revenue from onboard sales of goods and services. If cruise lines have a lot of cabins still available for sale as the date of sailing approaches, then you may become eligible for an upgrade. Historically, cruise lines (and some still do) would upgrade guests with existing bookings to a higher category of stateroom in order to increase the possibility of selling the lower category cabin. For example, it is easier to sell an inside cabin than a balcony type as it is cheaper.

The criteria for deciding who should get an upgrade varies from line to line. Often though it will be decided by the ‘loyalty’ level of the guest. All lines have various types of loyalty programs that offer benefits to frequent guests with various levels within them. So, the rule of thumb is that the higher your loyalty level, the better chance you had of getting an upgrade.

This isn’t always the case though for upgrades. Let’s say you are a party of 2 but have booked a cabin that will accommodate 3 or even 4. All cruise lines reserve the right to change your chosen cabin for operational reasons. Therefore, if a party of 3 is looking for your category of cabin, then the cruise line could decide to ‘upgrade’ your stateroom for either a similar cabin in the same category or higher.

What is becoming popular for cruise lines to allow you to ‘bid’ in a type of online auction, for upgrades to a higher category of cabin after you have booked (normally a lot nearer the date of departure). This should be at a cost that is less than the normal ‘supplement’ for example that would be charged to go from a balcony cabin to a suite. This is an option, if offered, that you may want to consider. But check the terms and conditions carefully, because in most cases, once you have submitted your ‘bid’, and the deadline has expired, you cannot change your mind, your form of payment will be charged with the value of your winning bid when the cabin is allocated. You will have ‘won’ an upgrade, and it will be the category you have ‘bid’ for, but like a guarantee cabin you won’t be able to choose the actual location and number.

Pre-cruise Planning

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’.

Shore Excursions

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.

Entertainment 

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.

Photo Packages

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.

Wi-Fi

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.

Dining Reservations

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.

Food and Beverage

Dining

There are numerous options when it comes to dining. These range from the complimentary meals and snacks included as part of your cruise fare, to speciality dining for a cover charge.

As a rule, included in your cruise fare will be breakfast, lunch & dinner together with a range of complimentary snacks available at various venues throughout other times of the day and in some cases late at night (even 24 hours on some cruise lines!). Room service options will also be available, but many lines are now only offering a limited complimentary menu for this service unless a ‘service charge’ is levied, so you can no longer rely on getting that late-night burger & fries for free!

For the main meals of the day, there will be a choice of venues available. Traditionally breakfast and lunch will be offered in the main dining room and buffet. Depending on the cruise line, lunch may only be available in the main dining room on sea days, so you’ll need to check with the daily newsletter, or as is becoming more popular now, on an app which you will be encouraged to download, and which should connect for free to the ship’s Wi-Fi.

Many newer ships will now provide breakfast options in various other venues in order to provide a variety of menus. This helps reduce pressure on the buffet and main dining room due to the number of guests on a ship.

The same principle can be said for the options available for lunch with various venues open around the ship, especially outdoor takeaway in sunnier climes around the pool decks.

It is worth bearing in mind, that the main dining rooms may have shorter operating hours for breakfast and lunch compared to the buffet and the other venues around the ship. Again, you will need to check your daily newsletter.

Most lines now offer dining packages for an additional fee which can be purchased in advance which means you get a discount from the full price charged onboard. These can range from just 1 meal at a specific restaurant, a ‘bundle’ of meals (so you can choose to have dinner or lunch in some cases, at several dining venues) to unlimited speciality dining for every day of your cruise.

We have a more in-depth look at cruise ship dining options if you following the link below

Cruise Ship Dining

Need more information on cruise ship dining – read our blog here.

Beverages

On most lines, there will be a range of complimentary beverages on offer. In most cases these will include as a minimum, tea, coffee (regular and decaf), tap water, a variety of juices (invariably not fresh-squeezed nor smoothies), milk, lemonade, iced tea, flavoured water, and possibly hot chocolate and other various drinks available in packets.

Usually, there will be a few events hosted onboard where you may be offered a complimentary alcoholic (or non) beverage. These could include a captain’s welcome party, ‘happy hours’ for loyal cruisers, art auctions, or deck parties, just check your newsletter.

Anything else will be chargeable, including ‘speciality’ coffees (lattés, mochas etc), bottled water, and of course wine, beer and alcohol. More and more of the high street coffee shops are appearing on cruise ships such as Starbucks and Costa. Other lines have their own signature coffee shops and bars.

Therefore, many lines now offer a beverage ‘package’ either included as part of the cruise fare, or for a nominal supplement for the whole sailing or for a daily fee.

Most lines insist that all adults in the same stateroom purchase the package if one guest does unless there is a medical exemption. Sharing of packages is prohibited and some also have a daily limit on the number of alcoholic beverages that can be consumed in the permitted time period. You will need to review the terms and conditions of the package.

Again, some packages have a limit on the value of each beverage that is included, and if you purchase something more expensive, some let you pay the difference, others charge the full cost.

It is worth remembering that in a few cases, local sales tax will be charged on beverages until the ship is a certain distance away from port. This is invariably a nominal amount but can come as a shock to those who have a package thinking that all costs are covered.

Other lines that include the cost of the package in the cruise fare or have charged a nominal supplement for the whole cruise, charge a daily amount to cover the gratuities that would normally be charged, based on either the normal daily charge or whole cruise supplement.

So, again it is important to check the package terms and conditions for the package.

The price charged online prior to sailing normally means you make a saving from the cost if you purchase once onboard. Check for online sales! Also check to see if your loyalty level entitles you to a discount.

Onboard currency

Cashless Account

Remembering that all transactions onboard are cashless, you may have to also consider the currency being used. Depending on the cruise line, the currency onboard may not be the same as you use in your home country. 

Credit Cards or Cash?

Being cashless means you will either have to provide a credit card for the cruise line to charge your onboard charges to or elect to settle the account at the end of the sailing using cash. If using a credit card, the cruise line may request this in advance if you check on online (and they will check it when you check-in at the port), or just when you arrive to board the ship.

If using cash, the ship may request that you make a deposit at the start of the cruise and if during the sailing, the balance of your cash credit is zero, they may suspend all purchases until you deposit more cash. Any unused cash will be refunded at the end of the sailing. 

Check with the cruise line what the rules are for cash accounts and more importantly which credit cards are accepted. If using cash, it may be worth changing money into this currency before you leave home as the ships exchange rate will not be that good. 

For example, your home currency is the Euro, but you are sailing on a ship whose currency is the US Dollar, then unless you obtain some US Dollars, once onboard the cruise line will exchange any Euros you use to settle your account into US Dollars first using their exchange rate, and then apply them to your account. This exchange rate may not be as good as you get before you leave home.

Travel Money Cards

Remember not all cruise ships accept the pre-loaded travel money cards which are now offered more commonly by travel bureau in place of traveller’s checks!

Debit Cards

Try and avoid using a debit card if possible. The reason for this is that during the sailing, several cruise lines may pre-authorise your to-date spend, several times. This will affect your available funds. 

For example, if you are on a 7-day sailing and the ship pre-authorises 3 times during your trip, say on days 2, 4 & 6. They may try and pre-authorise a spend of $100 up to day 2. Then by day 4 when you have spent a total of $150, they try and authorise that amount. Then by day 6 when you have spent a total of $200, so they try to authorise that. 

In total, on a debit card you have 3 pre-authorisations or ‘holds’ totalling $450 even though your total spend is only $200! Even though the ship will only debit you $200 at the end of the cruise, the pre-authorisations take time to ‘expire’ and during this time you will not have access to those funds. 

The length of time it takes for the ‘holds’ to expire is down to your bank. Credit cards work similarly, but at least with those it does not impact your ability to get actual cash out of your bank account when using your debit card.

Foreign Currency & Charges

If the currency being used onboard is not the same as that of your credit card, then there may also be additional charges levied by your card issuer for the exchanging of any charges into the currency of your card. So, it may be worth considering using a card that does not charge for any foreign currency transactions. 

You may have to consider an exchange rate as all prices and charges onboard will be in the currency of the cruise line. Even if sailing in an area such as the Mediterranean and visiting countries such as Spain, France, Italy and Greece where the local currency is the Euro (€).

You’ll need to check with the cruise line, but the most popular cruise lines such as Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Carnival, Norwegian Cruise Line, Disney and Holland America use the US Dollar ($) except in some limited markets. 

P&O UK and Marella use the British Pound Sterling (GBP).

On some lines, it depends where their ships are operating, for example, Costa & MSC primarily use the Euro (€) in Northern Europe, the Mediterranean, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Oman, but when sailing in the Caribbean, South America, South Africa, Far East Asia and Australia the onboard currency is the US Dollar ($).

Princess Cruises use the US Dollar unless sailing out of Australia where it is the Australian Dollar.

Cruise Documentation

What documents do you need to cruise?

Ticket

Once you have made final payment and as the departure date gets closer, many cruise lines now issue your documents electronically. Paper copies may still be available via mail, you will have to check with the cruise line if this is possible and if there is a fee.

These may be referred to cruise tickets or boarding documents and will contain the details of your sailing, any pre-purchased items such as excursions, dining reservations and itinerary.

Luggage Tags

Most lines now provide electronic luggage tags which you can print off for attaching to your bags once you arrive at the port. Don’t worry if you can’t print them, you will be able to get tags to complete from the porters at the dock who collect your bags from you for delivery to your cabin.

Online check-in

It is becoming more commonplace for cruise lines to ask you to check-in online prior to arrival at the port, and in some cases, even upload your security photo. So, there are fewer physical documents required to be presented at check-in

However, it is useful to have copies, either electronically or printed, of any pre-paid purchases, shore excursions, entertainment and dining reservations. Bear in mind that if you need internet access to retrieve any online documents, this may not be available for no fee once onboard the ship. So, any electronic documents should be downloaded to your device prior to arriving at the port.

 

Passports

For many nationalities and destinations, you will need to provide a passport in order to board the ship. Please check the validity of your passport before travelling as the cruise line will specify how many months your passport must be valid for at the time of boarding. Allow time for any applications for a new one if necessary.

 Visas

Other documents that may be required by the check-in staff could relate to any entry requirements for the country from where your cruise departs or copies of visas required to countries you are visiting. An example of this is the ESTA needed by travellers from visa waiver countries to travel to the USA. Although for airlines having a valid application online is sufficient, many cruise lines wish to review a paper copy, so ensure you have a printed copy of your ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization).

Travel Insurance

If you have purchased travel insurance, make sure it covers you for cruising. As a minimum make sure you have a summary of your cover together with any emergency contact details with you in case you need to get in touch with your insurance provider whilst travelling.

Ensure all elements of your trip are covered, especially important if you are travelling to the port by car, plane or train or staying in other accommodation either pre or post-cruise. We can recommend Just Travel Cover

International Driving Permits

If you intend to rent a vehicle, either pre or post-cruise, or even in a port of call, check that your government-issued driving licence is sufficient, and make sure you take it with you! Some countries may require you to obtain an international driving permit which you may need to show to the rental company.

Vaccination records

If the cruise line has requested evidence of specific vaccinations for travel to any of the ports of call visited during the cruise, ensure you have these available for when you check-in.

Getting To Your Cruise

Travel

Invariably you will need to travel to the port of departure and depending on where this is located, this could just be a car ride away (be that by your own vehicle, or cab), or if further afield by train or plane.

However, you intend to travel to board your ship, take into consideration the time it will take to get there, the check-in deadline and any delays you could encounter. If there is a chance of delay, maybe weather-related or traffic hold-ups, perhaps consider arriving a day earlier if your schedule allows it.

Always consider any backup plans as the ship will not wait for you!

Pre/Post Cruise Hotel

If you are planning to stay close to the cruise port before departure or staying on in the area after your cruise, check hotels in the areas you wish to stay.

Hotels close to the port often provide a shuttle service to/from the port, so check if this is available, how much it may cost and if you need to book in advance. Some hotels may offer a ‘cruise & stay’ package which includes car parking for the duration of your cruise and a shuttle which could save you money compared to the separate costs of the hotel room, car parking at the port or a cab from the hotel.

Always book rates that can be cancelled for no fee in case plans have to change if you are booking many months in advance which is often the best plan for popular hotels near a major cruise port. 

You can always keep checking nearer the date of departure and if there are more attractive rates, cancel your existing booking and make a new reservation, even if it means it’s a pre-paid rate that cannot be cancelled or refunded. That’s the choice you need to make, but if you are definitely travelling, it could save you money!

What to Pack 

One of the major concerns when thinking about how to plan a cruise trip is, after all this planning What do you pack..? 

Well, the first thing to consider is the limits and restrictions imposed by the cruise line. Contrary to the common understanding that you can take any weight of luggage onboard, many do have a weight limit, albeit very large, but there is one, so check before you pack.

Obviously if travelling by another mode of transport other than your own vehicle, then there will be limits, especially if flying. Check the limits of the airline, bearing in mind that for some cruise lines that operate charter flights to transport guests to the ship, the weight limit may be less than that normally allowed by that airline, so please check as you don’t want to be charged excess baggage when you get to the airport.

Also check the restricted list of items that the cruise line does not allow you to take on board. All bags are scanned and if they find any prohibited items, they will insist on these are removed and for most items these will be held until you disembark on the final morning of your cruise. However, please bear in mind that in terms of alcoholic beverages, some lines will confiscate them on boarding day and destroy them, not just hold them until the end of the cruise.

When it comes to clothing and personal items, what you pack will depend in several factors.

  • Destinations
  • Itinerary
  • Cruise duration
  • Daytime activities
  • Ports of Call
  • Evening Attire
  • Medications
What to Pack For A Cruise

Not sure what items to pack for your cruise? Look no further than our in-depth guide on the items you should consider taking with you, no matter which cruise line you choose.

HAPPY CRUISING

That’s it. This should pretty much cover the majority of questions you might have when booking your cruise. Feel free to browse our Caribbean and Mediterranean sections for more inspiration. There is a whole world waiting for you to visit.

And remember. If you have any questions at all then  
Contact Us

 

About Peter Horton

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