Are you planning a cruise and wondering where to start?! I know exactly how you are feeling. It can be so overwhelming!
I am going to break down how to plan a cruise for you! But I have to warn you, once you get the hang of cruise planning, it might become addictive. Cruising is the kind of vacation people love to repeat over and over again.
In this post, we are going to help you plan a cruise vacation. I will teach you the basic things you need to know on how to plan a cruise. I will also give you cruise planning tips you probably wouldn't even think of.
Let's learn how to plan a cruise trip and make cruise planning easy!
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Best Time of Year to Plan a Cruise
The first thing you need to think about when planning a cruise is the time of year you would like to go.
There are a lot of factors that go into deciding the best time of year. For example Alaska cruises are May – September. The best times are June and July but if you want to save money booking early in the season or at the end of the season will be less expensive.
I actually created a document that breaks down the best prices, the most popular months, weather considerations, and my personal recommendations for the most popular areas to cruise.
I can email you a free copy!
This document is awesome! It is a great resource as you start to plan a cruise!
How Far In Advance Should I Plan a Cruise?
Planning for a cruise 6-12 months in advance is perfect. Here is the deal, if you are going on a longer or more expensive cruise booking early gives you the time to pay off the cruise!
Some people suggest booking as early as 18 months in advance. I don't think this is the best advice because the cruise lines typically haven't added all of the cruise ships and itineraries to their site that early.
Last Minute Cruise Planning
Last-minute bookings are an option. A lot of cruise ships have last-chance deals. What I have found however is that the closer you get to the cruise date, the fewer choices are available and prices tend to get higher. Interior rooms tend to be sold out leaving you with a higher-priced balcony option.
How to Plan a Cruise Step by Step
We are going to break down the steps on how to plan a cruise.
- Determine Your Budget
- Plan a Cruise Destination
- Plan Your Cruise Dates
- Pick Your Cabin
- Pick a Cruise Line
- Select a Ship
- Choose an Itinerary
- Book Your Cruise
- Booking Specialty Restaurants
- Booking Shore Excursions
- Booking Entertainment and Shows
These cruise planning steps will help you know exactly how to plan a cruise!
1. Determine Your Budget
A cruise budget is one of the most important things you need to do before you start planning for a cruise.
One thing to keep in mind is that cruises are all-inclusive. It is so nice to just pay one price which includes, food, lodging, and entertainment. You know exactly how much your vacation will cost without too much guesswork.
How to Plan a Cruise and Save Money
Shorter cruises are typically less expensive. Florida seems to have lower-priced cruises compared to California. But here is the thing, if you live closer to California it might be less expensive to drive or fly there even if the cruise is a little more.
I mentioned early that certain times of the year are less expensive to cruise. Sometimes adding 4 people in a room will save you money. There are always deals available. We will talk about those later.
If you book early enough, you can easily create a monthly budget to pay off the cruise before you go on it.
2. Plan a Cruise Destination
You probably already have an idea of what cruise destination you would like to go to. If you haven't thought about it yet no big deal. Most major cruise lines go to the same locations.
If this is your first cruise I imagine you are looking more in the USA, maybe Europe, or possibly Asia or Australia. I will list the top cruise ports in these destinations.
Top Departure Cruise Ports in US/Canada
- New York
- Port Canaveral (Orlando)
- New Orleans
- Galveston, TX
- San Diego
- San Francisco
Top Departure Cruise Ports in Europe
- South Hampton (London)
Top Departure Cruise Ports in Asia/Australia/New Zealand
- Kobe Japan
Once you pick your departure port you can see what itineraries are available so that you can choose your cruise stops. You will also want to think about what airports are near each port and how easy or difficult it will be to get to the port.
3. Plan Your Cruise Dates
Curises vary by date. Here is the deal, typically the same ship sticks with the same itinerary for an extended period of time. This allows you to see week after week of options.
If you don't have a set date I would explore which date is the least expensive. What I have found is the prices are pretty similar maybe a few hundred less for certain dates. (with the exception of Thanksgiving and Christmas)
I would get a copy of the best times to cruise PDF I created to get you started. Remember that families with children in school can only travel during certain times. Typically those times are a little more expensive. (Thanksgiving, Christmas, Spring Break, and Summer)
If you can go during an off-peak time you will be saving money.
4. Decide on a Cabin Type
In most cruise ships you have a few options for cabin types. Different cruise lines may call these room types slightly different names but the most common are:
If you are new to cruising, interior rooms are typically the cheapest and provide 0 outside light. Oceanview rooms have a window, and the Balcony rooms have a walk-out balcony. Suites are typically much bigger and typically come with more perks.
Which Part of the Ship is Good to Book my Cabin?
Once you pick your room, you will then have to decide what part of the ship you would like to be in. Your choices are the back of the ship, the middle of the ship, and the front of the ship.
Cruise Planning Tip
The more centered and lower you are the less rocking you will feel. Midship is great especially if you tend to get seasick. If you want a balcony room just book the lowest balcony level available.
5. Pick a Cruise Line
I have done a ton of research on different cruise lines. Plus it helps that my parents are cruise addicts and go every three months! There are some amazing cruise lines. I am only going to list the best cruise lines for first-timers below.
Disney cruise line caters to families. Think 5-star quality and service and unfortunately prices. I have never met anyone that has said they didn't love their Disney Cruise. You will find lots of families with young kids on Disney Cruises.
- Great Food
- Fantastic Entertainment
- Private Island Castaway Cay
- Caters to Families
- Disney Cruises are Expensive!
- Ships are Smaller
- Some of the Ships are Older (but well-kept)
- Shorter Itineraries
My best advice for a Disney Cruise is to go through a professional Disney Planner like GetAwayToday. They know everything about how Disney operates.
Royal Caribbean Cruise Line
Royal Caribbean is another family-friendly cruise line. Their ships are huge with lots of entertainment options for all ages. Royal Caribbean caters to a lot of demographics. You will find kids and the elderly alike.
- Lots of New Ships
- Huge Ships
- Phenomenal Entertainment
- Great Prices
- Variety of Itineraries
- Good Food Options
- Private Island CocoCay
- Smaller ships do not have as much entertainment but usually have great itineraries.
- Some ships are Older (make sure to look at dates)
Carnival Cruise Line
Carnival is a budget cruise line. Typical you will find a good price. Carnival also has a reputation of being a party ship. A lot of young adults and college-age kids love Carnival. However, I know many families who have gone on Carnival and loved it.
- Less Expensive
- Great Itineraries
- Party Scene
- Great Food
- Good For Families
- Older Ships
- Party Scene
Norwegian Cruise Line
Norwegian is another great cruise line that caters to families. The ships have fun entertainment options. They have a variety of ships both big and small.
- Nice Ships
- Variety of Itineraries
- Great Dining Options
- Fabulous Entertainment
- Everything Cost Extra on Ship
- Crowded Areas
Princess Cruise Line
Princess has a fabulous reputation! It is one of the best cruise lines to go on if you are headed to Alaska because they have amazing land excursions for before or after your cruise.
- Military Cruise Benefit
- Movies Under the Stars
- Piazza is Beautiful
- Great Service
- Hot Tubs are Small
- Food is Okay
- Internet is Horrible
Celebrity Cruise Line
Celebrity is a higher-end cruise line. It is a little more expensive but offers a different experience than some of the other cruise lines. Kids are welcome but Celebrity caters to couples 35 and older. My parents just got back from one and absolutely loved it!
- Pristine Cleanliness
- Food is Fabulous
- Heated Pools
- Great Itineraries
- Beautiful Ships
- Great Service
- Non-Smoking Casino
- Older Demographic
- More Expensive
- Not Great for Kids
MSC Cruise Line
MSC is a well-established European cruise line. It is another budget-friendly option like Carnival. Recently, they have added more itineraries in the US. I haven't been on an MSC cruise but have talked to a few people that have said you pay for what you get.
- Great Itineraries
- Food Options are not Great
- No Soft Serve Ice Cream
- Not A Lot of Activities for Kids
- Lots of Upcharges on Ship
- Can not Connect a Credit Card to Ship Card
6. Select at Ship
If this is your first time cruising. You might not even know where to start when picking a ship. It really matters! If you haven't picked a cruise line narrow it down to 2-3. This will help you in the cruise planning process.
Things to Look at When Picking a Ship
- New Vs. Old
- Small Vs. Big
New Vs. Old Ships
When picking your cruise ship look at the age of the ship and if it has been refurbished. The newer the ship the nicer it is going to be. (like USB's in the room instead of plug-ins) It really makes a difference. Everything feels nicer on new ships.
Amenities on the Ship
Look at the entertainment options when choosing your cruise. Cruises are full of fun stuff like water slides, pools, race tracks, mini golf, escape rooms, laser tag, bowling, sports facilities, Flo Riders, and rope courses.
Also, look at what shows are being offered. Typically cruises will have a Broadway show, magic show, comedy shows, and ice skating shows. Explore your ship to see what is available.
Bigger Ships vs. Smaller Ships
Bigger ships typically offer more amenities. They have a lot of fun activities to do onboard. Some bigger ships are limited to where they can port because of the size of the ship.
Smaller ships typically have really nice itineraries. It is more about the destination than the ship itself. Some of the smaller ships are older but just check refurbished dates and you should be good.
7. Choose an Itinerary
One of the best things about planning a cruise is picking your itinerary. There are amazing itineraries all over the World.
Some popular itineraries include visiting all the Caribbean islands, Mediterranean cruises, Alaska cruises, and Mexico cruises.
Does the Cruise Ship have a Private Island?
Most cruise lines have private islands. These islands are awesome. They typically have activities and food that are included in the price of your cruise.
When planning your cruise itinerary look to see if a cruise line private island is included.
My Experience Cruise Planning
I have been looking for a Mediterranean cruise for a while. I knew I wanted to visit Spain, France, and Italy. Most cruise lines offered these stops in the itinerary.
So I moved on to find a ship that offered amazing amenities. I narrowed it down to my top 3. And finally, I found the dates that would work for me. If the dates did not line up with my ships they would get eliminated.
It is really important to write down your top 3 choices, dates, and itineraries. It will just help you plan a cruise and stay organized.
8. Check for Cruise Deals
Who wants to find a good deal?! ME!!!! I love getting a good deal. Most cruise lines offer deals throughout the year. Some offer kids sail free or some are 30- 50% the price. I have seen free drink packages or free internet.
These deals are great but in the end, be prepared even with these discounts cruising is expensive! I think these promotions are there to help you feel better about spending money! But I bet you are wondering if can I save any more money…. the answer is YES!
Cruise Planning Tips
Once you have viewed the current promotions for the cruise line you would like to book with head to 3rd party travel agents. Seriously! I love booking directly with a company but if you want added bonuses travel agents are the way to go.
You will typically get up to $1000 or $2000 onboard spending credits. These credits can go toward shore excursions, specialty dining, and spa services.
I know Priceline always has additional offers on top of what the cruise line is already offering. My mom likes to book through Priceline.
8. Book your Cruise
Once you feel comfortable with the date, itinerary, and ship, you can move forward and book your trip.
When you book your cruise you will be able to select your preferred dining time. Each night you can dine in the main dining room which is included in your cruise. There is typically an earlier dining time and a later dining time.
When you book and plan your cruise trip you typically need to put a deposit down. You then can make payments and pay the rest of the cruise off over time. I love this option. It is so nice to have your cruise paid for before you even step foot on the ship. It makes it so much easier to relax on vacation!
9. Specialty Restaurants on Cruise Ships
Many of the dining options onboard are included in your cruise, however, there are some specialty restaurants that are not included.
You can use your onboard credits to dine at these restaurants or just pay an additional amount. You will want to make reservations ahead of time.
When to Book Specialty Restaurants
If you would like a little more variety than what is included in the cruise price, booking a specialty restaurant is a good idea. These restaurants give a variety to your dining options, especially if you are on a longer cruise.
10. Booking Excursions
Once you book your cruise you will be able to book excursions at the destination ports you are going. You can download the cruise line app to make this easier.
If you are given onboard credit you can use this for shore excursions. Be aware, some of the excursions do sell out.
Booking Excursions Through the Cruise Line
There is safety in booking through the cruise line. If you book an excursion through the cruise line and the tour is running late, the ship will wait for you to return.
If you book a tour through a third party and it is late, the ship will leave you!!!!
I think if it is a small excursion, it isn't really a big deal to book through a third party like renting jet skis or swimming with dolphins. But if you were going from Cozumel to Chichen Itza and it was an 8-hour tour I would book through the cruise line.
11. Booking Entertainment
Are really important cruise planning tip is that you need to book your entertainment on most cruise lines. This means keep checking your app! These shows are included in your cruise but you still have to reserve them.
All of the shows will require you to have a reservation for the date/time of the show. I have found that on shorter cruises you did not need to do this but on longer cruises it is essential. On big ships like Oasis of the Seas it is important to book ahead.
Part of the fun of cruising is the entertainment. Be ready to book these shows.
12. Get Excited About the Cruise!
You pretty much have all the information you need for how to plan a cruise! Now is the fun part!
There are a few ways to make this cruise vacation exciting! Getting a few cruise gifts for those who are coming with you can make it extra special.
Are you Ready to Plan a Cruise?
Hopefully, now you know how to plan a cruise! There are lots of components to consider when cruise planning!
Spend some time in front of your computer and narrow down the best options for planning a cruise vacation that will be perfect for your family.
If you have any questions be sure to join my Planningaway Travel Community on Facebook. This is a place where I post travel deals, and you can ask any questions about your upcoming trips!