Considering planning a cruise vacation? Congratulations! Cruising is a great way to see the world. You spend your days exploring scenic and exciting port cities, then return to your ship for a gourmet dinner, world-class entertainment, and a comfortable bed that literally rocks you to sleep. What could be better?
One of the few downsides to planning a cruise is that it can be confusing. There are so many cruise lines, so many itineraries, and so many stateroom categories – that it can be hard to pick one, or even understand the differences between all of them.
That’s why I’m here to help! Below I have compiled ten questions to ask yourself when planning a cruise. Thinking through each of these will help you make the best decisions possible for your vacation. If you’re still overwhelmed – or just want some personalized advice and expert guidance – let’s chat! I spent three years working in the cruise industry in Alaska and am currently partnered as a registered agency with most major cruise lines. Together, we’ll find you the perfect cruise so you can set off on an unforgettable, stress-free vacation.
So what are you waiting for?!
10 Questions to Ask Yourself When Planning a Cruise
1.) Where do I want to go?
These days, you can cruise almost anywhere there’s water. Two of the most popular cruise destinations are the Caribbean and Alaska, but you can also cruise to Europe, South America, Asia, the South Pacific, Antarctica, and more.
I personally tend to think that some locations make better cruise destinations than others. I like to use cruises to hit places where you can see a lot in a short time, like a small island, or where visiting by ship allows you to experience a place that would otherwise be difficult, time-consuming, or very expensive to access, like Glacier Bay in Alaska.
Others – like Buenos Aires, Argentina, or Tokyo, Japan – have so much more to offer than you could ever experience in a single day. Especially if the destination is somewhere you’re really dying to see, it might make sense to visit it individually instead of on a cruise to give it the time it deserves.
2.) How many days do I want to spend at sea?
Cruise itineraries generally offer a mix between port days, when you’re docked somewhere and can leave the ship to explore, and days at sea, where you’re sailing from one place to another. Days at sea allow you to take full advantage of your ship’s amenities, including the spa, restaurants, lounges, shopping, theater, and special activities. (Ziplining, go-karts, or waterslides, anyone?) Plus, there are usually plenty of programs, tours, and entertainment going on to keep you as busy as you’d like to be. Days at sea are also perfect for getting a little rest and relaxation, as you can laze away the hours by the pool or on your stateroom balcony without worrying that you’re missing something fun on land.
Some people, including yours truly, like their cruise itinerary to be heavy on the number of port days, with maybe one day at sea during a weeklong trip. Other people really love the shipboard experience and want multiple days to relax and enjoy all the ship’s amenities.
Think about what you want out of your vacation and seek out itineraries that seem to have a promising balance between port days and days at sea.
3.) Do I want a big ship or a small ship?
Cruise ships vary tremendously in size, and the size of the ship can have a big impact on your cruise experience. Generally speaking, the larger the ship, the more amenities and unique experiences you’ll find onboard. The trade-off is that you’ll be sharing space with a lot more people – sometimes thousands more.
I personally tend to prefer smaller ships, even if it means sacrificing those big waterslides and go-kart tracks. But if you want the wow factor, or you just want to have tons of fun things to do at your disposal – a bigger ship might be right for you.
4.) What kind of cabin do I want?
One of the best things about a cruise vacation is that there’s a lot of flexibility in the cost. Prices vary widely even on the same ship based on what kind of stateroom you’d like to book. Interior staterooms – those at center of the ship, without windows or balconies – are the least expensive option and best for people on a budget. For a little more money, you can book a cabin with a window, or upgrade even further to a balcony or suite.
I’ve heard a lot of people say that it’s silly to spend money on a bigger stateroom or balcony cabin because “you’re never in the room anyway!”, but I think that really depends on the person. M and I loved having a balcony on our honeymoon cruise and spent a lot of time reading and relaxing out there. If we had had an interior stateroom, though, I think we absolutely would have been out and about more because the room is smaller and we’d want to be enjoying the scenery and fresh air.
Remember that regardless of where you stay on a ship, you’re all visiting the same destinations! For the most part, you also have access to all the same amenities, though some staterooms come with additional perks like specialty dining or private lounges.
5.) Where on the ship should my stateroom be located?
Now that you’ve decided what kind of stateroom you’d like to book, it’s time to figure out where on the ship you’d like that stateroom to be. As a general rule, I tend to suggest finding a cabin that is:
- toward the center of the ship, so that you don’t have to walk the length of the ship to reach a particular destination;
- near, but not right next to the elevators, so that they’re convenient but you’re away from any noise; and
- below or between other staterooms, rather than on a deck below somewhere like the casino or a bar, again to avoid noise.
Granted, there are plenty of good reasons to book a room that doesn’t meet those criteria. If you have limited mobility, for example, being close to the elevators is a must. Likewise, if you anticipate spending a lot of time in one area of the ship, like the casino or fitness center or a particular pool, then it might make sense to find a stateroom nearby.
6.) How will I get to the ship?
You’re probably already thinking about what flights or other transportation you’ll need to take to get to your departure port, but don’t forget to consider how you’ll get to the ship itself. Most cruise lines offer the option to book transfers that will take you directly from the airport to your ship. Booking those can often save you a lot of time and hassle, especially if the cruise terminal is far from the airport.
If you choose not to book a transfer through the cruise line, make sure you’re prepared to take a cab, ride share (Uber, Lyft, etc.), or public transportation and that you know what to expect. Remember that the ship will not wait for you if you’re late, so plan accordingly!
To that end, I also recommend that you consider arriving in your departure city a day or two before your sailing date to make absolutely certain that you’re not late to the ship. You’ll get the peace of mind that you won’t miss the ship, plus it gives you some extra time to enjoy that port!
7.) Do I need a drinks package?
While most cruises include the majority of your food and entertainment in the cost of your fare, alcohol, soda, and other specialty drinks usually come at an additional cost. When booking a cruise, you can choose to add on a drinks package that will make your trip more all-inclusive, but is it really worth the extra money?
For many people, I say no. Drink packages that include alcohol can average anywhere from $55-$75 per person, per day, or at least $385 for a seven-day cruise. That’s a lot of money – I’ve seen entire weeklong cruises cost less!
To decide if you need a drinks package, I suggest you estimate how many drinks you’re likely to have on any given day. Keep in mind that you’ll likely be spending a good bit of time off the ship when you’re visiting a port. With an average cost of $10 per cocktail or glass of wine (less for beer), enough over the course of your vacation – more than 5-6 drinks per day, every day – to make the price tag worth it? If not, you’re probably better off paying a la carte.
Granted, some people just prefer to pay for the package so they don’t have to worry about costs during the cruise or settling a bill at the end. That’s your choice! Cruise lines also often run deals that include drinks packages or offer them at a significant discount, in which case it can make a lot of sense to add one to your vacation.
8.) What other extras should I purchase in advance?
Drinks package aside, there are a lot of other “extras” you may be tempted to add to your cruise vacation. Some might even be included in a sale or travel deal at the time of booking, in which case I suggest snapping up all the freebies you can!
For everything else, take a minute to envision the cruise you want. Does it include completely disconnecting from the outside world, or is there a need to have access to WiFi to check in with things back home? (I was always a lock-my-phone-in-the-safe kind of gal, but now that I have kids there’s more of a need to be reachable in case of emergency.) Are you content with the dining options available to you, or are you a foodie who would appreciate access to specialty dining? What can you pay for a la carte that would end up costing you less than bundling into a package, and vice versa?
I do recommend taking care of gratuities in advance, if possible, just so that that cost is behind you and you don’t have to worry about it. But otherwise, it’s all about figuring out what you want your cruise to look like and taking steps to make it happen.
9.) Should I buy cruise insurance?
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, I would generally recommend purchasing independent travel insurance rather than doing it through your cruise line, airline, or other travel provider. My reasoning was that if the company through which you booked your vacation goes out of business or suffers some other mishap, the travel insurance you bought will be worthless to help you recover the cost. (This has actually happened, and it left people stranded around the globe.) It’s better to have independent insurance that can swoop in and save the day in a crazy scenario like that in addition to covering you in the event of other emergencies.
Many cruise lines do offer a policy that allows you to cancel for any reason, however, and in *these uncertain times* that definitely holds some appeal. Most independent travel insurance doesn’t give you the ability to get reimbursed if you decide not to travel for a non-emergent reason – and especially not for something like the pandemic, which was already in place before you bought your ticket. Thus, buying the insurance through the cruise line makes a little more sense and can give you more peace of mind if you still have concerns about traveling.
That said, I still recommend protecting the investment of your vacation with an independent travel insurance policy.
10.) What kinds of excursions do I want to book?
Now, the fun part: deciding what you’re going to do on your cruise vacation! Cruise lines offer a wide variety of tours and excursions to help you explore and enjoy your ports of call.
Again, think about what you want out of your vacation. Is it peace and relaxation? Maybe book one to two excursions, maximum, and focus on low-stress activities like beach-hopping or sailing. Adventure? Those ATV, snorkeling, and “flightseeing” excursions are calling your name. Culture? Try a city tour or cooking or dance class.
I generally recommend not packing every single day with pre-planned excursions, as some of the best travel experiences come from just seeing where the wind takes you that day. (That’s how we ended up renting motorbikes and exploring St. Kitts!) Try to find a balance that’s good for you.
Finally, a note about booking. The cruise lines make it easy to schedule excursions and activities through your travel agent or cruise portal, but it’s also possible – and sometimes better – to do it yourself.
Booking through the cruise line is incredibly easy and requires very little time and research effort. It also makes a lot of cruisers feel more confident: they trust the cruise line to have vetted the excursions and tour companies, they know that the tours will get back to the ship in time, and they feel sure that any cancellations will be handled and refunded without a lot of hassle.
That said, I also encourage you to consider booking all or some of your in-port activities directly with the tour operators themselves. In doing so, you ensure that the full cost of your excursion goes directly to that organization instead of paying a commission to the cruise line. After the devastation of the pandemic, this can make a real difference for these small businesses. Researching your own excursions can also reveal some hidden gem activities not available through the cruise line, or different/smaller tour companies that also do a great – or even better! – job.
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Need some help planning your cruise? Full Life, Full Passport is a registered agency with many major cruise lines and offers customized planning services for all kinds of vacations and budgets!
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Thanks so much for the tips on what to buy when going on a cruise. My grandparents want to plan a cruise for their anniversary. So I’m helping them plan what they want to do and what to buy.
You’re so welcome, Jessie! I hope you’re having fun planning the trip for your grandparents. Please let me know if I can help in any way.