Even after you’ve decided what cruise you’re taking, you’re not done with your planning. You have a number of decisions to make and it is my hope that this guide will help you know what questions to ask.
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If you want to get your choice of shore excursions, you should not wait till you get on the ship to book them. Your cruise company will have a brochure of shore excursions available for your specific cruise. It will list the price of these excursions.
Before you figure out your short excursions, I find it useful to get a view of the overall schedule of the cruise. When heading on a Holland America cruise to the Western Mediterranean recently, I took the schedule of that cruise and put it in a spreadsheet.
I wanted to know:
- what ports we would be visiting
- on what days
- when we were scheduled to arrive
- when we were scheduled to depart
- would we tender in or tie up to a dock
The schedule is useful to know because the tighter the schedule is the more likely I am to use one of the shore excursions booked through the cruise line or to do a pre-packaged tour. If the cruise ship leaves at 5 PM I’m less likely to venture off on my own past the port city itself then I would be if the ship does not leave until 11 PM.
Know Your Ports
Once you know the basics schedule the next useful thing to know is what’s the port where the ship will dock and then separately what is nearby. It is useful to do some checking for what is available, for what the highlights are in the various port city cities but it’s also useful to know if this is my opportunity to get to a nearby major attraction like Seville, Florence, or Rome. The cruise line will have some information on the ports. Also, check other resources like Amateur Traveler.
For instance, our first port of call was Cadiz, Spain and it would be pretty easy to walk from the ship into old town Cadiz. But Cadiz is also near Seville, where near, in this case, is a 1.5-hour drive by bus. If I had wanted to see Seville then I might have booked a shore excursion, but in my case, I had seen Seville previously but not Cadiz, so this was a day to explore on my own.
Booking Through the Cruise Line
Read through the list of shore excursions from the cruise line. The first pass through is just to see what strikes your fancy. What about the activities in that port sound interesting? Is it the wine tasting, the kayaking, that particular castle, or just shopping.
Make a second pass through and decide if you’re going to do one of the shore excursions which one is the most interesting. Add to your spreadsheet column with your choice and the cost.
Add up the cost of the various tours you plan to take and compare that to your budget. For cruise lines where shore excursions are not included I usually budget about 50% of the cruise as the additional cost I plan to spend on shore excursions, but you will need to decide your own budget.
Some ocean cruise lines like Viking Ocean or most river cruise lines will have one shore excursion which is included in the price for every port and some which are an extra cost.
Booking A Different Tour or Exploring On Your Own
If the cost is greater than your budget then consider which activities you can do independently or which ones you could find a different tour. Sites like viator.com and shoretrips.com are a good resource for these. Does the city that you’re visiting have a free walking tour done by locals? Can you find a self-guided tour or even an audio tour online for some of these destinations?
If you book through the cruise company and something goes wrong (when I was in Costa Rica one shore excursion was caught on the wrong side of a mudslide from the ship) they will be responsible for getting you to the ship on time. So think twice about booking your own tour if the timing in the port is tight.
It’s may be easier to save money visiting the port city itself, than it will be to take an excursion that heads to a nearby city.
Also, consider the style of the tour. Do you like walking tours? Are you and are able to keep up? Do you like bus tours or smaller group tours? It is my rule of thumb that the more adventurous the activity, the more adventurous the traveler. On an easy bus tour, you’re more likely to find the person complaining that it is raining on their visit to the rainforest (yes this really happened to us on a bus tour in Panama).
One last thing to think about with shore excursions is that your ship may be docking in some ports and tendering (ferrying people to and from shore in smaller boats) at other ports. Tendering will take longer and will be subject to weather. When we were in the Falklands the winds picked up and if they had gotten any worse the captain would have had to leave some people on shore overnight because it would have been unsafe to tender in that weather. This can happen.
Many cruise ships are getting more casual, as is much of society, but some still have formal nights. You need to determine what the options will be. As this will affect your packing.
See Ultimate Cruise Packing List for help packing.
If your ship has formal nights you can either pack appropriate attire, rent appropriate attire from the ship including a tuxedo, or go to the more casual dining option.
I don’t recommend opting out of formal night if they have it, because the food is generally better in the main dining room than the cafeteria-style Lido deck dining room and because you’re missing something of the experience. But you might think about your style and the style of the cruise line before booking. Some cruise lines like Canard are big into the formal dining and some like Viking Ocean have done away with them.
I remember when I was on a cruise on Holland America “around the Horn” in South America. I was on a shore excursion and someone in the group realized the restaurant we were eating at had internet. All conversation stopped as we all got on our devices, starved for internet access. That has been the typical experience with ship internet for years. It has been slow and expensive. There are some changes in this as faster internet is coming to cruise ships. As more cruise ships install new satellite internet like StarLink we are seeing much faster connections. We are even, in some cases, seeing ships include internet for free. Some cruise lines are realizing that people sending off their tik-toks or Instagram photos from the ship is free marketing. Keep an eye on this space as better things are coming.
As of this writing, Viking, Celebrity Cruises, Silversea Cruises, and Regent Seven Seas Cruises have unlimited internet access included in their base cost.
When going on a long cruise, I recommend getting to the cruise port early. If you have problems with your flight you don’t want to miss the boat and spend the next few days trying to find it. Most cruises leave from someplace interesting. Take a day and explore that city before boarding your boat.
On average, booking about six weeks in advance will get you the best airfare deals. If you’re booking using miles, book much further in advance, 6 to 12 months.
Will you need hotel reservations before or after the ship? If so count in the cost of getting to the ship in the cost of the hotel night. You can book a hotel night through the cruise line at their preferred hotel and sometimes get the transfer to the ship included. See 25+ Websites for Booking Accommodations.
You won’t need to book tickets for the evening shows in advance of your sailing as no tickets are needed, but there may be special activities on your ship. The Holland America cruise that I did has some special America’s Test Kitchen cooking demonstrations. This sort of activity may book up may fill up so you may want to book them in advance when available.
On many cruise lines especially oceangoing cruise lines your crew will be from Indonesia or the Philippines or some other developing country. The pay is not fantastic so the crew relies on tips. The cruise line will have tipping guidelines, often something like 10% of the cost of your cruise. We usually find that the crew gives us excellent service and want to tip within the guidelines provided. You should budget for that amount.
Getting to the Cruise Ship
For most medium to larger boats, you won’t carry your own luggage all the way to your stateroom. As you check in onshore your luggage will get tagged with the correct cabin and will show up sometime later on.
That does mean you should have anything you either will need before you get your luggage like medication or your expensive electronics with you in something like a small backpack.
The easiest way to plan to get to the cruise ship is to buy a transfer from the airport or from your hotel to the ship. For some cruise ports that are close to downtown a taxi or an Uber can work just fine. The cruise ports where you can arrive via public transportation are, in my experience, few and far between.
If you are traveling with a large group of friends or family, then you will have a community on board at the start, but if you aren’t you can participate in a “rollcall” for your cruise. Many cruise lines have a Facebook group or something similar for each individual cruise so that people can meet their shipmates in advance of their sailing. If they don’t you can probably find one on CruiseCritic.com. This is a good way, especially for extroverts, to make some friends early.
If you are planning your first cruise, what questions do you still have?
If you have cruised before, what do you think someone should plan before their first cruise?