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5 Steps to Take Before You Book Your Next Cruise

Cut costs and optimize your vacation with this step-by-step guide.

U.S. News & World Report

5 Steps to Take Before You Book Your Next Cruise

Tropical Drinks on the Upper Deck

Factoring in hidden expenses and comparing onboard drink packages are simple ways to save.(Getty Images)

Whether you're dreaming of a Caribbean getaway, a Mediterranean adventure or a quick jaunt through the Alaskan wilderness, cruising can be a stress-free and high-value vacation option. With a cruise, your itinerary is planned for you. Plus, you'll enjoy the convenience of having meals, snacks and entertainment bundled into one all-inclusive rate. Even better, cruises typically offer multiple stops, adding more adventure at every turn.

However, before you pull the trigger and book a cruise, it's crucial to consider your cruising style and budget. Both factors will help you determine which cruise line is well-suited for your needs and preferences. Here are five steps to take before you lock in your cruise vacation to ensure you pick the ship, cabin, itinerary and experience that best matches your needs before you climb aboard.

Determine Your Vacation Budget

Your cruise length, itinerary and onboard experience will hinge on your vacation budget. Before you start shopping, figure out exactly how much you can afford to spend. How much cash do you have in a travel fund? And how much might you be able to save before your vacation starts? Also, keep in mind that some cruise lines let you put down a deposit, then pay the bulk of your cruise fare over several monthly payments. Before you commit to a particular voyage, however, you'll need to budget for cruise taxes, port fees, upgrades and other extra expenses.

Choose a Region

Cruise pricing depends largely on where you want to go. Before you start conducting research, making a list of ideal cruise regions can help you narrow down your options. Perhaps you want to explore sunny locales with several beach stops. Maybe you want to cruise the Mediterranean, stopping for ancient ruins and city tours. Or, perhaps you're dying to see the Artic, West Africa's coast or the unspoiled beauty of Alaska. Regardless, it helps to hone in on a region to whittle down your search.

Compare Prices and Explore All Options

Once you've determined your travel budget and you have created a list of your preferred destinations, it's much easier to shop around. Rely on a trusted travel aggregator like Expedia.com or even your favorite rewards portal to compare cruise itineraries, lines, cabin options and more. Look for a cruise that offers affordable fares to the places you want to see most, then break down pricing based on cabin options and upgrades. You'll generally pay more for an ocean-facing or balcony category cabin and much less to stay in an inside cabin.

If you're planning a last-minute cruise, you can also check out near-term deals on websites like VacationstoGo.com. With the site's 90-day ticker, you can score great discounts on undersold cruises departing in the next few weeks or months. Some cruise lines also offer running promotions throughout the year. As an example, MSC Cruises is offering a two-for-one deal that translates to 50 percent off brochure rates for cruises to the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and North Europe. Before you book, check with your favorite cruise line or a travel specialist for update-to-date offers.

Figure Out What is – and Isn't – Included

Here's where booking a cruise can get tricky. In order to compare prices fairly, you need to know what your cruise fare includes. This is especially important if you're traveling with a large group or kids. While some cruise lines charge the standard rate for kids, others offer discounts or let younger passengers cruise for free. MSC Cruises, for example, lets kids under the age of 11 cruise free and charges only a nominal amount for teens ages 12 to 17. If you're traveling with family in tow, this can impact the overall price of your cruise significantly.

Other components to consider include entertainment options, onboard credits and even drink packages. Though some cruise packages include all drinks – and even alcoholic beverages – in their price, many only include tea, coffee and water. You need to know which additional offerings onboard and ashore are included in the price of your cruise for an accurate apples-to-apples value comparison.

Factor in Extras

Beyond basic cruise fares and add-ons, there are "extras" to account for, too. Extra expenses can include port fees, taxes and gratuities for the ship staff. Most cruise lines will estimate these expenses and display them at the time of booking, but it's important to account for these fees before you commit. You may also need to pay an upcharge for internet service, dining at specialty restaurants and spa and fitness packages, too,

Cruise excursions are another top expense to factor into your budget. If you want a planned activity for each stop on your itinerary, you'll need to research your options with reputable outfitters and account for these added costs in your cruise budget. Also, remember to plan for transportation to and from the airport, hotel stays on either end of your cruise, parking and other additional transportation and lodging costs.

Final Thoughts

While there's no wrong or right way to cruise, you can find a better cruise deal and experience with a little creativity and proactive planning. Make sure to budget appropriately, and ask yourself what kind of travel experience you – and your travel companions – are looking for. The right cruise for you is out there; you just have to get out there and find it.

About En Route

Practical advice on the art of traveling smarter with tips, tricks and intel from En Route's panel of experts.

Contributors have experience in areas ranging from family travel, adventure travel, experiential travel and budget travel to hotels, cruises and travel rewards and include Amy Whitley, Claire Volkman, Holly Johnson, Marsha Dubrow, Lyn Mettler, Sery Kim, Kyle McCarthy, Erica Lamberg, Jess Moss, Sheryl Nance-Nash, Sherry Laskin, Katie Jackson, Erin Gifford, Roger Sands, Steve Larese, Gwen Pratesi, Erin Block, Dave Parfitt, Kacey Mya, Kimberly Wilson, Susan Portnoy, Donna Tabbert Long and Kitty Bean Yancey.

Edited by Liz Weiss.

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