How to plan and book a cruise trip in 9 easy steps

Cruising is a fantastic way to see the world, and with careful planning, you can ensure your next vacation is the best yet. The planning stage is where the excitement begins. Here are our best tips on planning and booking a cruise trip that will give you value for money and unforgettable memories.

The benefits of investing time in planning your cruise vacation

Many cruise guests prefer to let a travel agent do all the work when planning a trip. Consider instead planning your own vacation. Investing your time in planning and booking a cruise vacation yourself will save you money, and give you the bonus of always being in control of your plans.

  1. Cost savings – planning your own cruise vacation can often save money compared to using a travel agent. You can research deals and discounts on your own and book directly with the cruise line or through an online travel agency, which can offer lower prices than a traditional travel agent.
  2. Tailored experience – doing all the work yourself allows you to tailor the experience to your specific preferences and needs. Enlist the help and opinions of your family or friends you are traveling with, as the planning process can be great fun. You will learn so much from the research process you will probably end up doing more fun activities and seeing more new places than you ever thought possible.
  3. Flexibility – you can plan your pre- and post-cruise activities and hotels according to what you want to do and the budget you have to spend. Researching destinations is great fun and very absorbing; we can promise you that your list of “must-see” sights will get longer when you discover just what each destination offers. Familiarizing yourself with cities and ports to plan how you will spend your day on land will give you more time to pack in as many new experiences as possible.

Remember, planning your own vacation will save you money and, at the same time, gives you a much richer vacation experience.

Step 1: Define your budget to book a cruise that fits your wallet

Your travel budget will always dictate and determine the type of vacation you can plan. Start as early as possible to save money for your dream vacation. When you have established your budget and the amount you are willing to spend on your vacation, move on to the planning.

It may seem obvious, but it is a crucial step. And you must be honest with yourself. 

After all, where is the fun in being away on holiday and feeling like everything is too expensive? 

Exactly, no fun at all. 

So set a budget you are comfortable with and then stick to it. And if it’s a little less than what you had wished for, research ways to save money and cruise for less before choosing your destination.

When you are trying to book a trip, it is easy to get lost and dream for hours. It is, of course, harmless but do stay on point and look within your budget. Why look at trips and alternatives outside your reach? It is unlikely to make you feel better about your booking option.

We all have a budget when we book a trip. Period. The tríck is to make the most with the budget you have.

Step 2: How long are you planning to be away? When will you travel?

We have already established that your travel budget would significantly impact the type of trip you can plan for your next vacation. The second key factor is time, and it boils down to the following:

  1. The amount of time you can and want to spend away on your vacation
  2. When you want to travel

Regarding the time you want to be away, it is essential to be precise as extra days directly translate into more cost.

As for when you want to travel, we have the seasonal factor where peak season means higher prices but we also, especially on shorter trips, have the option to travel on less popular days to save money on flights and accommodation.

Step 3: Decide on the cruise region you want to visit

To make it easier to book a cruise, you need to limit your searches. One way is to look at the region you want to see. Do you intend to fly to a port city or live close enough to drive there?

The Caribbean, Alaska, and the Mediterranean are the most popular cruising regions in the world, with more cruise ships visiting these areas than any other region. You will, without a doubt, find an itinerary and a cruise ship to suit you and your family amongst the many cruise lines sailing in these regions.

Or perhaps you are thinking of a cruise to New England and Canada, or a cruise from Singapore to Thailand and Vietnam, or perhaps as far as Australia and New Zealand?

This step will help you focus on the destinations and locations you are most interested in. It is easy to get sidetracked and spend hours reading lengthy articles about perfect beaches for snorkeling when you dream of visiting the wine regions of Italy before starting a cruise from Rome.

Step 4: Decide on the cruise line that suits you best

By now, you should already know the following

  • Budget: How much money are you prepared to spend?
  • Time: For how long and when are you traveling
  • Destination: What region of the world do you want to visit?

Different cruise lines have different itineraries, so make sure the cruise line you choose has the destinations you are interested in. For example, suppose you have decided to visit the Mediterranean region. In that case, you may prefer more stops in Italy and Greece than itineraries offering ports of call in Spain and France.

Think about the type of fellow passengers you would like. While many cruise ships have a mix of couples, families, groups, and solo travelers, some cruise lines are known for attracting more of a specific demographic. Royal Caribbean, for example, is known for its activities and entertainment and attracts many families. Celebrity Cruises generally have a slightly older average age among their cruise guests.

That’s not to say families can’t have a great time with Celebrity Cruises; quite the opposite. But you will find more families on the Royal Caribbean ships.

Research the cruise line’s reputation by reading passenger reviews and testimonials and joining Facebook groups to read the chatter. There are groups for just about every cruise line out there.

Step 5: Choose your cruise ship and itinerary, and let the fun begin.

Everyone has personal preferences regarding the type of cruise they want. Some love big ships full of activities and entertainment, while others prefer more intimate ships with fewer passengers and a more relaxed atmosphere. Some prioritize destination options, while others focus on the ship and the facilities on board.

If you have cruised before, your past experiences can significantly decide which is right for you. If you are new to cruising, the decision may be more difficult, and we can help you with some essential tips for a first-time cruise.

When you have narrowed your list to two or three cruise ships, compare prices and cabin availability for your travel dates. Spend some time researching the ports and possible shore excursions. When you feel sure you are ready to book, we have 12 tips for booking a cruise and common mistakes to avoid.

Now I know earlier I promoted planning and booking your own cruise vacation. And I firmly believe in this as a way of saving money and having complete control over your booking. The process is not difficult, you just need time and patience. 

However, I would also advise you to contact your local travel agent, give them the same information, and see what price they arrive at. Any good travel agent will jump at the opportunity to win your business by offering a great deal. And who knows, they may be able to offer some extra perks they have negotiated with the curise line for their customers. 

As a former travel agent, I remember sitting on the other side, and all we wanted was a chance to deserve your business. 

So, what if there are no available options within your budget for the specified time and duration?

You have two options:

  1. Change the budget, time, or any other input in steps 1 – 3 and go back and see where you land.
  2. Take a look at how you can save more money and ways to stretch that travel budget a bit further. Then go back to step 1 and start again. 

You can, of course, also look into purchasing your vacation on credit. But if you do, be careful not to overspend with money you do not have.

Remember how we already established that it is no fun to spend your vacation and not be able to afford anything? 

And, if you decide to pay on credit, we recommend you try to pay the total cost of the trip before your vacation starts.

It is no fun to come home after a vacation and have to pay off a trip that is already taken place.

Step 6: Check the cost of travel insurance

Now, given the options generated in step 4, you need to check the cost and availability of insurance coverage. It is easy to book a trip, but you need to keep our budget in mind.

Each individual is different, but Covid-19 has once again taught us that insurance coverage is essential to understand the details.

You need to ask yourself questions such as:

  • How much will travel insurance cost? What does it cover?
  • Do you need additional cancellation insurance costs? What does it cover?
  • What will it cost you if you are forced to cancel your trip due to the following:
    • You are denied entry into your destination?
    • You do you not want to travel due to health worries or concerns?
    • You need to cut your trip short?

Step 7: Book flights

I have written an entire article on how to book cheap flights that make sense. 

But generally speaking, you should book your flights by checking several booking platforms.

1. Price comparison sites

We recommend Momondo, Kayak, and Skyscanner.

2. Airline websites

Find out which airlines traffic your desired routes via Google flights and then visit the airline’s website directly.

3. Contact your local travel agent and ask them to quote you a price.

Again, your travel agent will find it tough to compete on flight only, but please allow them to compete for your business.

Unless you are in the market to book a package trip, you are generally better off booking flights and accommodation separately. 

Why? 

Whereas flights get more expensive closer to departure, we see the opposite trend for accommodation. 

I do recommend doing a quick check for accommodation before paying for your flight. This is merely to avoid picking the weekend/time of year when significant conferences, sports events, or the like makes accommodation sparse and very expensive.

Step 8: Book pre- and post-cruise accommodation

There is one golden rule when booking a cruise. Always get to the port at least one day (preferably more) in advance. Never book a flight to get you into your port city on the same day as the cruise departure. Too much is at risk as flights can get delayed and canceled. And the cruise ship waits for no man.

So find a great hotel and relax, knowing you are within reach of the cruise port when you need to get there. And when it is time to book your accommodation, you should not be afraid to haggle.

You have several excellent booking platforms to complement your options of going directly or contacting your local travel agent.

Booking accommodation is pretty straightforward, but there are a few points I want to make to help you avoid unnecessary discomfort and expenses.

  1. Is it an all-inclusive price including all taxes, resort fees, breakfast, etc.?
  2. Does the hotel offer airport pickup? Discounted? Complementary?
  3. Is breakfast included for all guests in the room? 
  4. Is parking available/complementary? 
  5. Twin vs. double bed. If important, ask before booking.

Step 9: Final preparations and practical details

1. You need a backup credit card for peace of mind (if nothing else) 

What do you do if you lose your credit card? Or maybe it is denied, and you have a bill to pay. Get a backup card and if you have a Visa, get a Mastercard and vice versa. American Express is also a great option but is unfortunately not accepted everywhere.

2. Keep ATM fees under control

In some places, cash is still preferred, and ATMs are excellent when you need local currency. But the fees can be hefty. So why not look into a better solution and save yourself some money? 

Do check with your current bank or look into The Global ATM Alliance.

The Global ATM Alliance is a group of prominent international banks with a joint initiative to limit the fees on ATM transactions at another bank inside the network.

Member banks include:

  • Bank of America (United States)
  • Barclays (United Kingdom)
  • BNP Paribas and affiliate banks (France, Ukraine, Turkey, Poland, Morocco, Italy, New Caledonia, Réunion, Guyane, Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Luxembourg)
  • Banca Nazionale del Lavoro (Italy)
  • Deutsche Bank (Germany, Belgium, India, Spain, and Portugal)
  • Scotiabank (Canada, Mexico, Chile, Peru, Guyana, and the Caribbean)
  • Westpac (Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, and Papua New Guinea)

3. Sign up for airline and hotels membership programs for extra perks

We all love freebies, and travel companies love members. So it is a win-win that may get you stuff like a complimentary bottle of water upon check-in at the hotel, later check-out at the hotel, priority boarding at the airport, or a discount on transfers from the airport. 

Need more cruise booking tips? We’re here to help!

If you need help deciding on the best cruise for you, these articles will help you along the way. They are full of good advice and travel tips to help you book the perfect cruise for you and your family:

Italy Cruise Package – Venice, Florence and Rome

Cruise from Venice – the essential guide

Cruise from London – the essential guide

Cruise Package – Mediterranean cruise from Rome 2022 – Royal Caribbean International

Best cruise deals and how to get them

Cruise from Barcelona – the essential guide

Meet the author: Sarah has created and booked hundreds of travel itineraries for thousands of customers during a career in the travel industry that spans 20 years. Having worked hand in hand with cruise lines, hotels, airlines and tour operators worldwide, she offers inspiring & detailed insights in the world of travel and tourism.