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Your Ultimate Guide to Booking a Cruise

Your Ultimate Guide to Booking a Cruise

If you have not been on a cruise, let me tell you why you should. It is the most bang for your buck and a vacation that you do not have to work yourself into a frenzy to go on. There is something for everyone, and it is perfect for family, a group of friends, singles, multiple generations, holidays, or just a quick getaway.

I have cruised 40+ times, so you could say I am a bit of a cruise junkie. To me, cruising is not about “the more money you spend, the better it is,” but merely a vacation that offers the things that make YOU happy. It can be daunting if you don’t precisely select the best cruise for your needs. Allow me to share with you my guide to booking a cruise.

mom daughter on cruise ship

First Steps in Booking a Cruise

Have you thought about booking a cruise and not sure of the first step? Deciding where to go is your first hurdle. What is your dream destination? Do you desire to splash in the blue Caribbean waters or transit through the wondrous Panama Canal? Do you appreciate history and wish to see Egypt’s great Pyramids or the ancient ruins in Rome? Have you fantasized about being face-to-face with the amazing glaciers in Alaska’s frigid waters or witnessing New England when the leaves start changing colors? Whatever place you desire, it is probably that a cruise can get you there.

holland america ship in Canada
Cruising to New England and Canada with Holland America.
two cruise ships docked in the caribbean

Book, Pay, Plan

You can easily book a cruise yourself or have a reputable travel agent do it for you. There are no added fees from the travel agent, so don’t worry about the more expensive; that isn’t how travel agents work. You can book online or call the cruise line directly if you prefer to talk to a live person.

Tip: The cruise list price, or the online price, will tell you the cost for the room and the trip itself. Also, there will be taxes and port fees. Port fees are more expensive in the Caribbean and Panama Canal than almost anywhere in the world. For example, expect to pay $230-330 for a week-long Caribbean cruise, but maybe only $199 for a week in Eastern Europe. I like pointing out that many Caribbean countries’ top industry is tourism, and the cruise lines have built costly and sophisticated ports to get you there by ship. The income generated to that country from the cruise world feeds a considerable percentage of that country, so you can be proud that your money spent made a difference in their lives.

afternoon tea on cruise ship
Afternoon tea is absolutely free!

Typically speaking, you pay a cruise deposit when you first book your vacation. The balance is payable per the cruise line’s terms, usually in full within a few weeks or months of your sail date. Due to COVID, cruises will sell extremely quickly because they will be limited and lesser ships sailing. The industry may move toward a bigger deposit and quicker payment because of this situation.

Your cruise deposit is typical $250 or so, which is refundable within a certain period. Select the type of room you want to book and go from there. To book, you will need a passport and credit card information at the time of booking. Your passport expiration date must be valid at least six months after the date of sailing. Double-check your date to make sure that won’t cause you any problems. It is possible to link staterooms together if you travel with friends, a large family, or a group.

Atlantis resort in the Bahamas
Atlantis Resort in the Bahamas.
taking photos from cruise ship balcony

Which Kind of Room Do I Choose?

What kind of stateroom you pick is a matter of personal opinion. If your wish is to be pampered, you desire maximum space, and your budget is immense, then a suite is the right choice for you. If you need an escape by having windows in your stateroom, then a balcony room is the best option. This one offers you outside space with table and chairs, great for viewing scenery and places like Alaska, Italy, and Germany.

If you want to save money, inside rooms are an excellent choice. I choose those often, not only because of the lower price but because they are pitch black at night so you can get a great night’s sleep. It is different for everyone, but you could try an inside to see what you think of it for your first cruise. My husband only cruises with a balcony, but I would rather use the extra money to splurge on a pricy excursion or spa treatment.

A junior suite aboard the Carnival Miracle.
A junior suite aboard the Carnival Miracle.
balcony room carnival cruise ship
Balcony room on Carnival Cruise Lines.

Also, consider how much time you plan on spending in your room when deciding on the room type. I like to explore the boat, use the common areas, and take part in the daily cruise activities, so I am not in my room much.

Ship Location

Another thing to consider is the deck and location on the boat for your stateroom, as the prices get more expensive the higher up you are. The lower decks are the cheapest and offer mostly inside or ocean view cabins only. The common thinking is that higher rooms are more desirable. You may hear the enormous anchors dropping when the ship is docking at the ends of the boat. If you are near the elevator, you are likely to hear people walk by at all hours of the day and night. These are things to keep in mind.

I tend to prefer the lower decks because they are easier for disembarking on excursions and do not feel the waves much. The higher up, and the further on the ends you are, the more rocking you feel with rough waters. This may not bother you at all, as it never has my family, but if you are prone to or get motion sickness, you can purchase sea-sickness bracelets in the gift shop or from the ship’s doctor.

FYI: A doctor is available should you need one during your cruise. After ten cruises, my family had to utilize one during a Caribbean cruise. Our daughter had a relapse of mono and her fever was up to 105 within hours. The doctor gave her IV fluids, antibiotics, and a few other medicines to have her in good enough condition to walk off the boat the next day in Puerto Rico. We had a private nurse for several hours and a recheck before disembarking. This was on New Year’s Eve.

Our price, start to finish, was $800, 1/4th less than just an ER visit charge in the US. We were more than happy with the excellent care she received.

Get To Know Your Cruise Ship

Now that you have your room confirmed, you can study the deck plans and boat’s layout to familiarize yourself with the common areas. These will probably be the shore excursions desk, guest relations, main dining room, lido deck, pool, or whatever you fancy.

carnival cruise ship pool

If you would like to patronize the optional “pay restaurants,” you can also book them in advance. Pay restaurants offer a high-quality dining experience (not mainstream cruise food, which is still pretty good) for an additional fee, usually $15-$35. I never miss going to them. Not only is the food delicious, but the menus are trendy and appealing, the service impeccable, and it is a great way to celebrate a special occasion.

cruise ship food at pay restaurant

Onboard Activities

Basically, you can do anything you want on a cruise. The list of onboard activities might include:

  • Gambling
  • Going to the spa
  • Playing bingo
  • Dancing lessons
  • Galley tour
  • Movies under the Stars
  • Computer labs
  • Cooking demonstrations
  • Wine/Beer/Liquor tastings
  • Stage production shows
  • Karaoke
  • Swimming
  • Sunbathing
  • Library services
  • Contests
  • Live music
  • Piano bar
  • Playing bridge
  • Art auctions
  • Exercise classes
  • Towel animal folding
  • Sports
  • State-of-the-art gym
  • Mixology seminars
  • Shopping guides
  • Port talks
bb king lounge cruise ship entertainment
bingo on cruise ship
art auction on cruise ship booking

Some ships might also include climbing walls, ice-skating, scavenger hunts, surf simulators, ceramics-at-sea, zip-lining, and Captain’s Table dining. Was there anything on the list that you did not know cruises offered? With your cruise, you get all of this, meals 24/7, plus the main cruise attractions: the ports and excursions!

Making new friends through trivia games on the cruise ship.
Making new friends through trivia games on the cruise ship.
dance party on pool deck cruise ship
Dance party on the Lido Deck.

Depending on the booking time, your excursions will be available to start planning what you want to do when you are at the ports. Use that information to comparatively shop with outside tour companies to get the best deals. If you are cruising to Europe, Alla Tour is a company I’ve used several times to do great excursions and cheaper than the cruise line. Viator is another great one, in the USA, too.

Pay attention to the details of the excursion offered. Sign up for and read Cruise Critic reviews to see what other cruisers say about your ship and the port excursions. This effort can save you time and money, steering you away from things that were not well received for other cruisers. Keep in mind that everybody will not be happy all the time, so there could be underlying issues that bring people to write bad things. Use your best judgment.

private beach Bahamas with kid at waters edge
Enjoying a cruise line’s private island in the Bahamas.

Make Travel Arrangements

Make travel arrangements for getting to and from your ship. You can add transfers when booking your cruise, which is reasonably priced, but you have to wait for a group before leaving the airport and cruise ship. If you do not wish to wait on a whole group, you can Uber or take a taxi or hired a car to get you to and from the ship. On disembarkation day, you are typically off the ship between the hours of 7 and 10 AM. It is best to book your flight after one o’clock on that day, or even consider coming a day early in the event of flight disturbances.

Your ship may also offer post-cruise trips that include drop-off at the airport. These are great options, giving you something to do during the day, handling your luggage for you, and providing your ride to the airport.

A beautiful island cruise port on a Caribbean cruise.
shopping on holland america cruise ship

The cruise line has contracts with hotels at nearby port locations that offer deep discounts for passengers, an excellent opportunity to add pre or post days to your vacation. When planning your cruise, do notify the ship with your flight details once they are confirmed. You will have a few documents to complete online before your sail date. 

Tip: Keep in mind that though you have given a credit card on file for incidentals during your cruise booking process, you will need your passport/ID and a credit card at check-in. You can use a different card than the one you put on file, but a card is a must.

surf and turf on cruise ship

Need a Packing List?

Follow our Caribbean cruise packing list to make sure you’ll have everything you need for your fantastic vacation.

When your cruise date rolls around, double-check your packing list, print your boarding pass, and print your luggage tags (unless they have been mailed to you). I bring Scotch tape to fasten my luggage tags right before getting on the ship but do not attach them before flying as they may get damaged. Porters at the embarkation location will take your tagged bags/suitcases when you arrive at the cruise terminal. They are glad to help attach your luggage tags should you need it.

Your guide to booking a cruise includes what to look for in a room, itinerary, and price.
scotch tasting holland america nieuw statendam

Additional Information

Your cruise price will include your cabin (double occupancy), taxes, fees, port expenses, all meals, cruise activities, and entertainment. Tips are additional fees, typically $18-$23 per day, per person, which can be prepaid before your cruise date.

Other things that require money outside your original cruise fee are: 

  • Alcoholic beverages
  • Spa treatments
  • Soda packages
  • Pay restaurants
  • Professional photographs
  • Shopping boutiques
  • Souvenir video
  • Arcade games
  • Specialty coffee bar
  • Port-of-call excursions
  • Wifi (internet package)
  • Casino

 Some classes/ship activities may also require a fee, but will be notated. Other than cruise staff tips, you do not have to purchase any of these things. It is your vacation, so make it fit your budget. There are plenty of free choices onboard if you are not lured into the selling antics that cruise lines often use.

Pretty soon, you will be booking a cruise like a pro! Thanks for reading. I hope I have convinced you to give cruising a try.

New Years eve part on cruise ship

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Christina Wagar

Friday 19th of February 2016

I definitely agree that once you go cruising a few times you get a feel for which cruise line suites you best. We had an amazing time cruising in Alaska!

Jessica @ Green Global Travel

Wednesday 10th of June 2015

This was a very informative article! I have never been on a cruise before, but after reading your post I definitely feel a lot more knowledgeable about cruises in general. I actually never realized that the price of your room was partially determined by its location. I also had no idea that there were so many things to do on a cruise. (A computer lab on a boat? Wow!) Great post!


Tuesday 16th of June 2015

Thanks! The first cruise I took was a cheapie from New Orleans and it really sucked, other than the boat activities. We decided to take the entire family on the second one and I was bitten by the cruise bug at that time. 23 and counting now.... ;) Thanks for your wonderful words.


Wednesday 14th of January 2015

How very awesome! I didn't even know these cruises existed. We have some friends who just moved to that area to reside for six months and I'm anxious to hear how their travels are going. Thanks for stopping by and sharing his valuable information.


Thursday 2nd of October 2014

I love cruising as well. I am always looking for good reviews and comments from other travelers. Thank you for sharing your experiences. We haven't tried princess yet but you have me curious


Friday 3rd of October 2014

What is your favorite cruise line? I love hearing from fellow cruisers. I am hoping to get a discount Disney cruise since I live in Florida, but they seem very popular and sold out often.

Kimberly Thomas

Wednesday 1st of October 2014

This was very well written and informative!


Thursday 2nd of October 2014

Thanks Kimberly Y. Appreciate the feedback. ;)

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