Cruise Planning 101: Steps to Smoother Sailing

Experts share pro tricks to take the perplexity out of organizing a successful cruise.

U.S. News & World Report

Cruise Planning 101: Steps to Smoother Sailing

Friends relaxing on boat in ocean

Before setting out on your cruise, factor in the type of experience that best suits your style and trip goals.(Getty Images)

For those in search of a great value, a diverse itinerary and a stress-free trip-planning process, cruising can be an enticing vacation option. After all, many cruises offer all-inclusive pricing, with meals, entertainment and lodging bundled into one rate. And with your vacation details (like dining reservations, daily activities and shore excursions) mapped out for you, cruising maximizes comfort and convenience, eliminating any decision-making-induced anxiety. Still, for all the simplicity a cruise vacation can offer, there are many factors to consider to ensure a satisfactory experience. Whether you're a first-timer or a seasoned cruiser, use this primer to organize a cruise that caters to your travel preferences, budget and goals, and you'll maximize your time onboard and ashore.

For the Best Deals, Start Your Search Early

The majority of cruisers book their vacation six months to a year in advance of their trip, and those interested in longer or more exotic itineraries plan up to two years in advance, says Tom Baker, president of CruiseCenter, a travel agency that specializes in large, budget-friendly cruises. While booking trends change according to the desired itinerary, ship, cabin and price, "in most cases, cruise lines now reward the earliest bookers with the best incentives, discounts and onboard inclusions like beverage packages, tips, onboard spending credits, internet packages and the like," he explains.

Charles Sylvia, vice president of membership and trade relations at Cruise Lines International Association, strongly urges prospective cruisers to start the research process early and turn to a trusted agent, who can keep his eyes open when prices drop for your desired itinerary.

Do Your Homework

Apart from comparing ships and itineraries across vacation booking sites, you should gain additional insight from a reputable advisor, suggests Richard Turen, senior contributing editor to Travel Weekly and owner of Churchill & Turen, a luxury vacation firm. Instead of booking directly through a cruise company, which has an incentive to sell you on its brand, Turen advises putting in the legwork to find an advisor who will get to know essential details about your style and preferences to match you with the right ship. Aside from helping you score significant savings and getting you aboard a cruise that suits your needs by asking you specific questions (Are you a social person? Do you like evening entertainment? Do you prioritize enrichment?) if something goes awry, a reliable advisor has an incentive to be your champion. "Whoever you work with, wherever you're traveling, you have to work with an advocate," he says.

Liz Sutton, a certified travel consultant and president of Alabama World Travel, also stresses the importance of finding a seasoned cruise expert. "A good travel advisor is like a good financial planner who gets to know their client, develops a great rapport and cultivates a solid relationship." After asking thoughtful questions about previous travel experiences and reasons for planning a trip, an advisor can help pinpoint the best cruise experience, she adds. "There are hundreds of ships and boats to select from, and an informed travel advisor knows how to match the right client with the right cruise experience: ocean, river, yacht, large or small ship and then the right cruise line to match expectations and amenities."

Turen stresses that booking directly with a cruise line or an online travel agency such as Priceline or Expedia requires paying a commission fee for travel agent services, which can range from 10 to 15 percent of the total cost of your trip. Therefore, booking your trip with a travel consultant grants you access to trusted expertise and doesn't require you to shell out extra for a fee you would have already provided to a cruise company or supplier. To find a reputable specialist, look for advisors who are a part of broader consortiums such as Virtuoso.

Explore All Excursion Options

To find safe and cost-effective shore excursion options, Baker advises researching reliable and insured alternative companies. "Cruise lines mark up most excursions 100 percent," he explains. "Planning a great excursion or guide privately is becoming the mandate for many smart travelers, and they plan to ensure their transportation gets them to and from ships in a timely manner." He points to ShoreExcursionsGroup.com as a trustworthy outfitter with budget-conscious options.

Turen strongly urges travelers to do their due diligence to pinpoint a reputable tour guide rather than booking a tour online through a booking site, though he cautions that the best guides are typically booked several months in advance. "They're like rock stars. They're in demand," he says. A smart bet is booking an excursion through a company that's cultivated ties with destination management companies such as Virtuoso, he advises. By booking your excursion with an operator that is associated with a reputable consortium, you ensure that you'll have a trusted guide and a safe experience rather than putting yourself in a risky situation in a foreign destination.

Account for Add-Ons

Extra onboard services and amenities (think: drinks, spa treatments, Internet access) can easily add up to a steep final bill. To avoid unnecessary onboard costs, Baker suggests that if these additional perks are not offered by a particular cruise company that guests prepay gratuities and book popular shore excursions and specialty dining on some ships that take reservations in advance to avoid getting "hit with sticker shock on arrival."

Sylvia points out that shore excursions are heavily based on supply and demand, so if it means a lot to you, book it, he advises.

Evaluate What's Most Important to You

It's important to factor in the type of experience that best suits your style and ultimate trip goals, experts say. "First-time cruisers need to ask questions," Baker advises. You'll need to inquire about different cabin locations and dress codes as well as whether the onboard setting is best suited for families, couples or an older clientele and cruise brands, he says. "If you compared the cruise line brands to hotels, you have everything from Marriott to Four Seasons.

You should also consider when and where you want to cruise and set realistic expectations. For example, if you're contemplating sailing to the Caribbean during hurricane season (from June to November), Turen cautions that there's a reason why the price is low. While you may be able to secure a steeply discounted sailing, you'll leave yourself vulnerable to storm-related delays and disruptions, so if you're risk-averse or you have rigid travel plans, you may want to consider cruising elsewhere or at another time of year.

Safety Matters

High-profile industry mishaps and health scares in recent years have left many would-be cruisers hesitant to take a cruise. But the truth is those malfunctions have translated to enhanced safety measures, Baker says. "This was a wake-up call for the entire cruise industry," he explains, "Evacuation methods and all procedures were reviewed carefully with billions invested in updating redundant safety equipment and procedures ensuring a more safe vacation."

"Statistics prove that cruising is one of the safest ways to take a vacation," adds Sylvia, pointing to the 23 million people CLIA expects to cruise this year. "It certainly hasn't hampered people's desire."

Pick the Right Insurance Plan

It's always advisable to weigh different insurance options and ensure you have coverage appropriate for your itinerary, experts say. "Insurance when purchased correctly can cover just about any unforeseen accident or interruption that takes place, including coverage for pre-existing conditions. It is not inexpensive, but the alternative can be costly," Baker says, recalling a time when a client fell in Rome on the first day of his cruise, broke his knee cap, was hospitalized and had to fly home first class to a local hospital after missing the entire cruise. "The bills mounted in just a week to over $70,000. His insurance covered it all," he says, advising that travelers take time to evaluate policies.

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