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How to Pack Light for a Cruise

While cruise ships will (theoretically) let you take on as much luggage as you like, if you are flying to or from the cruise, you will be restricted by airline baggage policies and fees. Personally, I resent having to pay baggage fees, and I have a long history of bad luck with checked bags, so I make it my mission to only travel with carryon bags: a small bag/suitcase and a personal item. For those interested in traveling light, this is how I accomplish multi-week trips with only carry-on baggage.

First, you do not need to pack more than 7 outfits. Given that you will also be wearing an outfit the day you travel, that gives you 8 outfits. If you are on a trip longer than 1 week, you can re-wear clothes after the first week, potentially switching tops and bottoms for a different look. Cruise ships also have laundry facilities (many of them have self-serve launderettes) so you should be able to get things washed, if necessary. If desired, you can pack more than 7 days worth of socks and underwear (particularly if this gets you through the entire trip without doing laundry) but since these things take minimal room, they shouldn’t be as much of an issue.

If possible, try to pack fewer bottoms (pants and skirts seem to take up much more room than shirts) that are neutral in color, so they can be paired with multiple tops.

Next, and this is where most people have issues, you do not need to pack more than one pair of shoes. Shoes are very big and bulky (particularly for men) and packing shoes immediately takes away a large percentage of your available suitcase space. Women can get away with dressy (but comfy) sandals or flats, and men can wear comfortable deck shoes or loafers. Obviously the shoes you choose to bring need to be in a neutral color, and should go with every outfit you pack. These shoes should be worn on the day of travel. If you’re going on a cruise with a lot of beaches or water activities, then you will have to pack a second pair of water shoes/sandals. Since water shoes tend to be less bulky than regular shoes, these are the ones you want to pack in your suitcase. Squish them down as much as possible. If you can’t squish them down (again, men’s shoes are notoriously bulky and intractable) then stuff them with socks and underwear, so that you are using the space as much as possible.

Unless you do not enjoy swimming/hot tubs, you should pack two swimsuits for everyone in your party. This is so you can have one to wear in the pool/hot tub and one drying in your room. It may seem excessive to have two swimsuits, but you will be glad you do! Fortunately, swimsuits tend to take up very little physical space in your suitcase.

Of course, everyone will need a set of pajamas, or other sleepwear.

Even on warm weather cruises, it is necessary to have a light jacket or cardigan for everyone, and usually some kind of rainwear. I like to bring a cardigan and a packable raincoat. If you are on a warm weather/summer cruise, you should also have a hat to protect yourself from the sun.

Once you have all of these clothes laid out, pull out your bulkiest outfit and your sweater/jacket. These are what you will wear on your travel days. Remember, if you wear them onto the plane, you don’t have to pack them!

Now one downside to cruises (in terms of packing) is that dining tends to be a little dressier, and there are also formal nights. For women, this shouldn’t be much of a problem, as there are many women’s dresses and evening gowns that are thin and light, not adding much in the way of bulk to your bag. For men, it is a matter of packing a pair of nice pants (Dockers or similar style) to wear to dinner. For formal night, men can pack a dress shirt with 1 or 2 ties to bring things up a notch. Women can make a simple dress fancier by adding a couple of pieces of jewelry or a scarf. These items are not bulky and are easy to pack.

But what if you want to dress to the nines and don’t have room in your suitcase? You can always rent formalwear onboard. While my evening dresses take up almost no room in a suitcase, the same cannot be said of my husband’s tuxedo. As a result, he only brings his tuxedo on cruises when we are driving to the port. If we are flying, he rents a tuxedo onboard. The best part of this is that if he is renting a tuxedo, he can also rent shoes! This means that he does not have to bring his tuxedo and shoes back and forth on the plane. While you may balk at the cost of rental, it is cheaper than paying checked baggage fees back and forth on your flights.

Now when you pack your suitcase, you need to be aware of space. There should be absolutely no unused space in your bag. The way to accomplish this is to pack the bulkiest items first, then place the smaller, crushable items around them. This means that in my husband’s case, I usually pack his pants and shorts first, then his shirts, and pad the empty space in between with bathing suits, pajamas, socks and underwear. If you have to pack a pair of shoes, those should go in first.

Another suggested method for packing is to roll your clothes, or use interlocking/bundled folding. It is amazing how many garments you can pack together using this technique. These videos give great demonstrations of how much you can actually fit in a small bag if you pack it in the right manner.

Once you have all of these items in your carryon bag/suitcase, it’s time to pack your personal item. For women, a personal item can be a large purse or tote bag. For men, the personal item can be a backpack or computer bag. I recommend using something that is somewhat flexible (a tote bag or backpack are good for this) since you will be packing more rigid items in your personal item. Remember that the personal item must fit underneath the seat in front of you on the plane, so keep that in mind when you select your bag. Also, some airlines now have size limits for personal items, so ensure that the bag you choose fits within the appropriate dimensions!

Your personal item is where you will carry your personal electronics (laptop, tablet, smartphone) and associated charging cords, as well as your toiletries, medications, wallet, travel documents, and ID. My husband sometimes likes to sneak in an additional pair of shoes into his personal item, down at the bottom of his backpack. Being a man, he is better able to do this than I, as he has fewer toiletry items to bring.  🙂

Whichever bag you choose, it should have a special sleeve/pouch/section for your laptop and/or tablet. You want to make sure these expensive electronics are well-protected when traveling. Next, you need a bag for your toiletries. As a woman who ‘needs’ a large number of toiletry items, I like to use a rollup door-hangar bag. It is flexible enough to shrink down when I have fewer toiletries inside, and compact enough to fit into my personal item. As an added bonus, the hanging bag is easy to store and access in a hotel or cruise cabin bathroom. Men should also use a flexible toiletry bag for their items (don’t forget your razor!). The TSA has made it ‘easy’ for us, requiring that no one bring more than 3 oz of each liquid. While many toiletries come in larger containers, you can often buy small travel sizes, or pour lotions, shampoos, etc. into smaller containers (many stores, such as Target, sell small travel-sized bottles for cosmetics and toiletries). When you have taken each of your toiletry items and brought them down to travel size, you will be amazed at how much less space they take.

Likewise, if you take medications, you do not need to bring entire bottles. Invest in a pill container with 7 compartments (one for each day of the week) and apportion your pills before traveling. Then take a picture of each label and carry it with you on your smartphone, just in case there are ever any questions from airport security, or something happens and you need a refill, or a medical professional needs the information, while you are away. In this way, most people can fit numerous pill/medication bottles into a much smaller space.

Lastly, make sure you put in your wallet, ID and travel documents. You may be surprised after this step to realize that you still have additional room! This is a good thing. Many of us find ourselves taking home extra items from our trips (such as souvenirs) so leaving some extra space on the way out is always a good idea.

Do you have any tips for packing light? If so, please share them in the comments below.

What Should I Pack?

You’re planning your first cruise and you don’t know what to bring. Well, there’s the obvious of course: you need clothes and toiletries and money, but what kind? How much? A cruise is a different kind of vacation, and as such, you may want to pack for it in a different fashion.

First, let’s address the ‘how much’ question. There is no restriction on how much luggage you can bring onboard a cruise, although obviously everything has to fit in your stateroom. Some cruise lines will take your empty suitcases away and store them for you at the beginning of your cruise, returning them at the end of your journey. As such, it would seem that you should bring as much as you want! However you should consider the logistics of getting all of these things to and from your cruise.

First, if you are flying to your cruise departure port, or flying home from your final port, you will have to abide by airline baggage restrictions and fees. While the cruise ship does not limit your possessions, the airlines surely will! If you are driving to and from the cruise ports, you will be more flexible, but then you are still limited by how much you can fit into your vehicle.

Another consideration is disembarkation, and how quickly you will want to get off of the ship when the cruise is over. The fastest disembarkation is always to walk off with your own luggage as soon as the ship has cleared customs. This means that you will have to carry every piece of baggage yourself. If you feel that you might want to pursue this option, then it is a good idea to take a hard look at the amount of luggage that you bring.

Once you’ve determined your desired quantity of baggage, you will need to figure out what to put inside. Clothing is obvious, but the types of clothing will vary depending upon the weather you expect to encounter on your journey. Look at the weather forecasts before you leave, as well as the historical highs and lows for each port city you will visit. Some cruises will require only one climate-type of clothing, while others (such as winter cruises to Hawaii or the Caribbean, or summer cruises to Alaska or Northern Europe) may require attire for multiple temperature levels.

At a minimum, you will want to bring a rain jacket (heavier or lighter, depending on your cruise) with a hood, a light sweater or cardigan, night wear, a bathing suit, daytime/casual dinner clothing, and formal night attire. You will also need to look at the kinds of activities in which you intend to partake while in port. If you plan to enjoy multiple water excursions, you may wish to bring more bathing suits, or invest in rashguards, board shorts and water shoes. If you’ll be spending a lot of time outside in hot weather, put some serious thought into bringing a hat, preferably one with a chin strap. If you plan on doing a lot of hiking, or golfing, or spending time in the gym, these activities would also require special attire. Additionally, you will have to consider that you will want to be in the main dining room each night, where shorts and jeans are not permitted. Lastly, you must consider how much you wish to participate in formal nights, and bring appropriate attire for those occasions.

When packing toiletries, don’t forget the 3 oz rule for liquids if you are flying. Cruise lines will usually provide shampoo, conditioner and lotion for passengers, much as you would receive in a hotel, but you will need to bring other toiletries yourself. The cruise ship will have a small (but expensive) selection of toiletries in the gift shop onboard, if you forget anything. Most importantly, don’t forget to bring any medications you are taking, as these may be difficult to acquire while you are traveling.

Money is important, but you need to ensure that you have the correct currencies. Some countries (such as the Caribbean nations) will generally accept $US, but other countries may demand their own currency. Check this out in advance and if possible, bring currency with you. It is usually cheaper and more convenient to have currency on your person when you arrive in a country than to try and get it when you disembark in port.

Other items that you may wish to pack might be a camera (your vacation will be fabulous and you’ll likely want something better than a smartphone camera to capture the memories), a tablet or laptop computer (to keep in touch with family and friends via internet in port or onboard), a night light (if you’re in an inside cabin), lanyards (to carry your cruise card), sunscreen, sunglasses, and reading material (for relaxing by the pool or beach).

In my next blog, I’ll give tips for packing light (traveling with only carryon bags).

Cruise Planning – Embarkation Day – Part 2

You’re onboard the ship, all the necessities in your carryon bag, and you’ve had lunch in a nice (non-buffet) location. Now what should you do? There are a number of things to which you should still attend before sailaway.

First, check your dining arrangements. Make sure that you were assigned your preferred dining time. If not, now is the time to go see the Maitre ‘D and ask for a change. While there are no guarantees, the cruise does its best to accommodate as many of these first day requests as possible. Coming earlier definitely gives you an advantage, so if there’s a real problem, you may want to do this before you head to lunch. This is also a good time to make reservations for any specialty restaurants you wish to visit, or for any kind of special meal (such as a Chef’s Table dinner).

You can also book your spa treatments now, if you did not do so before boarding. Additionally, most cruise lines have relaxation areas in the spa, such as the Persian Gardens on Celebrity, the Enclave on Princess, or rainforest rooms. These relaxation areas generally have thermal loungers, steam rooms, special showers, etc. Access is limited, and there is an extra charge. On the first day of the cruise you can take a tour, and if you like what you see, you can book access for your entire vacation. Some cruise lines also have reserved areas on the open deck (such as The Sanctuary on Princess, or the private cabanas at Lawn Club on Celebrity). Again, this is the time to take a tour and book access, if you wish.

If you have children, or are thinking of bringing children on a future cruise, the first day is the best time to tour the children’s areas. You will get to see the facilities for the different age groups and meet the counselors. Adults are generally not permitted in the children’s areas after the first day, so if you are interested, this is your chance to explore the area. It is also a good time for your child(ren) to meet the counselors and get to know them a little bit.

It is also important to check your stateroom. While it should be clean and ready for you, you will want to make certain that everything is in working order, and that it contains everything you need (enough towels, life jackets, robes, pillows. etc.). If there is anything you need, contact your room steward (he or she should introduce themselves to you relatively quickly) and let them know. They will be happy to assist you.

Cruise ships hold a safety drill before ever leaving port, and attendance is mandatory. This of this as being equivalent to the safety briefing on an airplane before takeoff. But once the cruise safety drill is over, it isn’t too long until departure!

As you are sailing away, there is one last thing you need to do: you must turn all of your mobile devices to airplane mode. You are leaving the country and unless you have a generous cellular plan, your devices will be roaming and attempting to download data at exorbitant rates. Turning your devices to airplane mode prevents unexpected surprises on your bill. You can always purchase internet access onboard and connect to the wifi there, or you may receive some free internet minutes as a past passenger benefit.

You are ready to enjoy your cruise! Relax and have fun!

Cruise Planning – Embarkation Day – Part 1

It’s finally arrived! Today is the day you board your cruise ship and take that vacation that you have been planning for months (possibly for more than a year). But you can’t quite relax yet. There are a few last minute details to finalize to ensure that you get the most from your cruise vacation.

First, make sure your carry-on bag is packed appropriately. By carry-on, I mean the bag you will personally carry onto the ship yourself. While you can roll all of your luggage with you, you will find that most people do not do this, because it is heavy and cumbersome. Additionally, some cruise lines do not let you into your stateroom until 2 pm or later, so if you board early (I recommend that you always board as early as possible; you might as well make the most of your paid vacation by enjoying what the ship has to offer as soon as you can!) you may well be dragging your luggage around with you for a couple of hours. While I advocate never checking a bag on an airplane (packing tips will be coming up in future blogs) it is convenient and easy to give your heavy luggage to the porters at the cruise dock. Your bags will be delivered to your stateroom with minimal fuss.

This being said, you have no control over when those bags are delivered. Arriving at the cruise port early and dropping off our bags early usually means that our luggage is delivered before sailaway, however there can be exceptions. In our dozens of cruises, the most significant exception to this experience was on our most recent cruise, where we embarked out of San Francisco. Apparently, the unions there were unhappy with management, and as such were staging a work slowdown, stopping for interminable breaks and purposely delaying boarding the luggage. Our bags were not delivered until very late at night, even though we had been among the first passengers to arrive at he cruise terminal. You never know when such a thing might happen to you, so it is always prudent to pack certain items in your carry-on bag.

Firstly, any money, ID (including your passports) and tickets/travel information should be in your carry-on bag. Next, make sure you have packed any personal electronics, such as cell phones, tablets, cameras and laptops, as well as their charging cables and batteries. The same goes for any other valuables you might be carrying, such as jewelry. Medications and prescription glasses (or contacts) are other important items for your carry-on bag, as they can be difficult to replace at sea, should something happen to your luggage. You may also wish to carry your toiletries with you, for the same reason.

After these primary items, if you can, I would recommend packing a swimsuit and a change of underwear, and possibly some nightclothes, just in case the worst happens and you find yourself without your luggage for that first night. Chances are that you won’t need such items, but if you do, you will be happy that you have them.

Lastly, if you are carrying any alcohol onboard, cruise line policy requires that you carry it on yourself.

Once you have been ushered onboard, you may be allowed into your stateroom (some cruise lines, such as Princess and Holland America, allow you to head to your cabin immediately) or you may be forced to wait (Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity and Disney cruise lines do not make staterooms available to passengers until 1:30 to 2:30 pm). If you can, head to your stateroom to drop off your carry-on bags, after which you should go to lunch. If you can’t get to your stateroom, then head directly to lunch, carry-on bags in tow.

Every cruise I have ever sailed, during the boarding hours there are ship personnel in public areas, directing passengers to the buffet for lunch. If asked, the majority of these personnel will state that there are no other options, and that you must head up to the buffet. As a result, the buffet is packed to the gills with arriving passengers (and often, their luggage) and can be a noisy, crowded affair. Hardly a relaxing start to your cruise! I suggest avoiding the buffet if at all possible. Many ships will have a sit-down lunch with table service in the main dining room. This is the most elegant and relaxing way to begin your cruise, and as such, I recommend that you pass nearby the main dining rooms to see if they are open. If so, you will be seated and enjoying a leisurely lunch with plenty of room, while everyone else pushes and shoves upstairs.

Unfortunately, many cruise lines have begun doing away with allowing embarking passengers into the dining room for lunch on the first day, reserving such meals for people who rank highly in the past passenger club, or who are traveling on back-to-back cruises. But don’t worry! There are other options as well. Some cruise lines offer bistro-type food options in the main atrium, and these are often open for lunch when you board. If the dining rooms are not open, walk through the atrium/piazza/concourse on the lower decks of the ship. You may well find something to your liking. Our favorite options of this nature are Bistro on Five on Celebrity’s newer ships (a $5 per person charge, the International Café or Alfredo’s Pizzeria on Princess ships (both complimentary) and the ‘alternate buffet’ that takes place in the Enchanted Garden/Carioca’s/Parrot Cay on the Disney cruise ships (complimentary).

If you are unable to find any such options (and it happens, particularly if you are on a new cruise line and are unfamiliar with the ship before boarding) then I would advise you to head to the upper decks, and look for a pizzeria and/or grill restaurant that can usually be found near the pools. Trust me, when you see the chaos that is the buffet on embarkation day, you will be glad that you knew of options elsewhere!

Of course, once you have finished lunch, there are still other things to do to ensure that you are ready for your cruise. I’ll cover that information in my next blog.

Cruise Planning – Less Than 1 Month Out

You’re in the final stretch and your excitement is so palpable that you can taste it! Your cruise is almost here, and you leave in less than a month. You’ve made all of the advance preparations, but there are still a few things to do before you leave.

First of all, you must make arrangements to be away, just as you would for any vacation. Find someone to watch your house and/or your pets while you are gone. Ensure that you are caught up on all of your bills, so that you do not miss any payment deadlines while you are away. Hold your mail (this can be done easily and for free at www.usps.com, and they will even deliver your accumulated mail when you return) and any newspaper or other regular deliveries. Set up any light timers or alarms you wish to employ in your absence. Of course, you will also have to make any necessary arrangements to be away from work. This may be the time to remind your boss that they approved your days off months ago.

Another important consideration for any vacation is to call your credit card company and let them know that you will be traveling, and to which countries. The last thing you want is to have a fraud alert while you are away, and discover at an unexpected moment that your card has been cancelled! And while you’re calling your credit card company, this is the time to redeem those credit card rewards for your trip, particularly if you opened an account on a cruise-line related card.

As always, when you plan to be away from home for an extended period of time, you will also need to make sure that all of your prescriptions are up to date and refilled if necessary.

Most cruises have at least one formal night, and as such you will want to check your formal wear. Since most people do not wear formal clothes often, you will need to make sure they still fit (with a little room for expansion; you are going on a cruise, after all) and do not have any obvious rips, stains or tears. For women, you will also want to ensure that you have the appropriate undergarments for your formal wear. If you wish to rent formal wear on board, now is the time to do so (you can rent online through www.cruiselineformal.com). This also applies to shoes: make sure the shoes you plan to wear are comfortable and in good condition.

If you are driving to the port, you will want to see how close you are to your next oil change/maintenance check. You may wish to go through these repairs before your journey, particularly if it is a long one. If you are flying to your cruise port, you should make arrangements for transportation to and from the airport, both in your home city and at your cruise embarkation/debarkation ports.

Once all of this is done, about two weeks before you leave, you should make a packing list. I know it seems early, but this gives you time to adjust or replace things if necessary (say, if you find that you are missing travel sizes of your usual toiletries, or that your favorite sun hat has a hole in it). You can pack slowly over those two weeks.

Check your camera and confirm that you have enough batteries and memory cards to last for the duration of your trip. If you plan to use a cell phone, contact your carrier to see what the charges will be if you use it from out of the country, or in US territories such a Puerto Rico.

Lastly, about a week before you leave, you will want to confirm all of your independent arrangements. Check your flights and make sure the airlines haven’t changed the schedules. Confirm that your hotel reservations are still intact. Email any independent tour operators you may have used and remind them of your booking, as well as your need to be met at the ship in each port. If there is a problem, it is better to find out now, rather than when you are on your trip!

And most importantly, dream about your cruise vacation. It’s almost here!

Next time I’ll talk about what to do on the day that you board the ship.

Cruise Planning – 1 to 4 Months Out

Your cruise is getting closer, and you should be getting even more excited! Now everything is becoming more ‘real’ as you begin making the final preparations for your vacation.

Some of these final preparations are ‘fun’. For example, most cruise lines will now have their ‘onboard reservations’ systems open, and you can make reservations for dining at specialty restaurants, spa appointments, etc. If you think you will want to do these things on your cruise, it is best to book them now, so that you can ensure that you have the times you want. You can always make changes or cancel once you get onboard, even if you have to make a deposit in advance (deposits are always refundable). Some cruise lines also require reservations to see some evening entertainment, and you may be able to make those reservations online now.

Other preparations are less ‘fun’, but even more necessary. Final payment for a cruise vacation is usually about 90 days from departure. If you registered for a cruise line credit card, make sure you make that big payment on the card, earning points for your cruise! Once that bill comes in, you can then contact the credit card company and redeem those points for onboard credit, to spend on your trip. For Disney Cruise Line, if you book and make your payment with a Disney Visa card, you will earn $50 of onboard credit (you may be restricted as to what you can buy with this credit) and the Disney Reward Dollars you earn on the card can also be used to pay your onboard bill (no restrictions on their use).

Another important source of onboard credit is the shareholder credit. Once you have made your final payment, you can apply for this credit. The two biggest cruise companies, Carnival-CCL (which owns the Carnival, Princess, Holland America and Cunard lines) and Royal Caribbean-RCL (which owns the Royal Caribbean, Celebrity and Azamara lines) offer onboard credit to shareholders. In order to qualify, you must own 100 shares of stock, however there is no restriction on how long you have to have owned that stock. You can buy the stock, print out a brokerage statement, and then sell the stock, all in the same day, if you wish. However, some regular cruisers simply like to buy their 100 shares and hold onto them, always having them when needed for their vacations. Once final payment has passed, send a recent brokerage statement to the cruise line and they will add the onboard credit to your account: up to $250 per stateroom, depending upon the length of your trip. Note that to get this credit for multiple staterooms, each stateroom must be booked by a different shareholder, who also has 100 shares. Since we have older children, we often book 2 cabins, with my husband officially occupying one stateroom with one child, while I occupy the other room with the other child. We will purchase 200 shares in a jointly held brokerage account (has both of our names on it) and this will give us the credit twice: once for each cabin.

At this time it is also important to make sure that your passports are up to date. Everyone in your family must have a passport to travel, even infants. Since turnaround times can vary, and it can often be difficult to get appointments at a passport office, at about 4 months out you will want to ensure that your passports are valid for at least 6 months after the end of your trip. If they are expired or expiring (or if you have never had a passport) then now is the time to apply.

The other major issue to consider is whether or not you will want any foreign currency on your trip. If you are traveling to the Caribbean or Mexico, you can likely get away with using US dollars on your cruise. If you are traveling to Canada, you may be able to get away with using US dollars, but the ‘rate’ offered on this exchange won’t be very good. If you are traveling to Europe, Asia or South America, it will be necessary to acquire foreign currency, as US dollars will not be accepted in most places. While you may be able to use credit cards in some locations, many stores and museums in foreign countries insist on cash payment. If you are traveling on tours provided by the cruise ship, your cash requirements will be minimal, but if you are traveling with independent arrangements, then having foreign currency is more important.

Look at the tour arrangements you have made, as well as any activities you are planning before or after your cruise, and make an estimate as to how much foreign currency you will need. While you can use ATMs in foreign countries, we find that we get a better rate purchasing the currency here at home, through Wells Fargo or American Express, or a local bank. Additionally, there is the peace of mind that comes with having the currency in hand, and not having to find a place to exchange money after you arrive. Note that while using a foreign ATM is a valid option, you should never exchange money at a tourist kiosk, particularly those at airports or train stations. Rates at such places are very poor, and they will charge high commissions, so those ‘easy exchanges’ will cost you quite a bit. If you wish to purchase your foreign currency before you leave home, now is the time to do so.

Next time, I’ll discuss what to do in that final month before you cruise.

Cruise Planning – 8 to 4 Months Out

Your cruise is getting closer! You’re now (roughly) half a year from departure.

The first thing you will want to do at this stage, if you have not done so already, is to book your airfare. As discussed in the previous post, if you are flying overseas, you should already have accomplished this step, but airfare within North America and the Caribbean will often have better fares four to five months out. This is particularly true if you are using discount airlines like Southwest or Spirit Air. So if you haven’t arranged your air travel, do it now. Once you have booked your air travel, you should also reserve any hotels or rental cars you will need before or after your cruise.

But the big thing to focus on in this stage is your itinerary! Take look at the ports you will visit. Hopefully, you’ve been investigating and researching these ports, as I suggested for the 8 to 12 month timeframe, but if you haven’t, it isn’t too late to start. This is the prime time to book shore excursions!

I know, it may seem crazy to be booking shore excursions so far in advance, but if you leave things until 3-4 months out (or later) you may find that what you want is booked up. This is particularly true if you would like to make independent arrangements for private shore excursions and tours in each port. Private guides are fewer in number, and book up much faster than the shore excursions offered by the cruise ship. Yet even cruise ship excursions can often book up completely if they have limited availability or capacity.

If your ship is traveling in the Caribbean and visiting a private island, be aware that private cabanas on the beach are a popular, but limited option. If you want to book a cabana, you will have top be online the moment they become available for your cruise, and hope your fingers are fast enough! These cabanas are so popular that often cruisers with many past voyages on the same line will have a chance to book before others, and this is considered to be a big perk!

In order to know which shore excursions to book, you should have an idea of what sights you would like to see in each port, and how easy it will be to get there. Obviously, if you can walk or take a free shuttle from the port, there is no point in booking a tour! But if you will need transportation and a guide, then you will want to determine what kind of tour you will be taking, and make the arrangements now.

Private excursions usually require a deposit, and can be difficult to cancel (every tour operator is different; make sure you understand the restrictions when you book), but cruise line excursions can generally be changed easily. So if you’re uncertain and might want to change your arrangements later on, you may prefer to book through the cruise line. However, keep in mind that private guides can make changes: to the number of people in the party, to the list of sights you want to see, etc. As long as you’re still planning on going on their tour, they will usually do their best to be flexible.

If you book a cruise line shore excursion, the cruise line may require you to pay up front (this varies from line to line). If you are doing this, be sure to use the cruise line credit card that you (hopefully) applied for back when the cruise was booked! This will earn you points to use as onboard credit during your cruise.

This is also a good time to be social. If you are so inclined, join cruisecritic.com and check out the roll call for your cruise. You will have a chance to chat with others who will be on your cruise and get to know them in advance. You may also find some good tips about the ship or itinerary you have chosen. Many cruise lines have official parties for Cruise Critic members, and this is also the time to sign up for such events.

You will be surprised how quickly the time flies when you are socializing on Cruise Critic and booking your excursions!

Next time, I’ll talk about what to do when you are 1 to 4 months out from your cruise.

Cruise Planning – 8 to 12 Months Out

So, you’ve booked your cruise and made a deposit, and you are sailing in 8 to 12 months. There are a few major things you should be doing at this point in your cruise preparations.

First, you need to book any international airfare. Generally, airlines will let you book about 11 months in advance of the flight’s departure. Of course, if you want to book a round-trip ticket, this would be 11 months before your return departure. For overseas flights, I generally find that you get the best prices and selection of flight times/routings if you book about 10 months in advance. European airlines in particular like to price their flights very high when they come out, then drop them a bit after about a month. 10 months in advance is usually the sweet spot, where you’re paying (relatively) a reasonable price, and have a good deal of selection. Keep in mind that airfares (both domestic and international) have skyrocketed in price over the past decade, and many things that used to be included in an air ticket are now extra charges. Fortunately, items such as a free first checked bag and an onboard meal (or two) are still included in economy overseas flights. However, if you are making a connection within the European Union, you will be subjected to ‘domestic’ restrictions, including smaller baggage allowances and no meals. Be sure to investigate all restrictions and add on any extra fees when pricing out your flights.

If you are only flying domestically/within North America or to the Caribbean, you are generally better off waiting until closer to 4 or 5 months before departure to book your flights, to get the lowest price. Obviously, this is more of a tradeoff if you desire specific routings/itineraries. If routing and itinerary is important to you, then you may wish to eat the additional cost and book early.

If you plan to use air miles to book your flights, you will want to book as early as possible (putting us back to the 11 month window) whether you are traveling domestically or internationally. Airlines now place significant restrictions on air mile bookings and the number of seats on each flight that can be booked with air miles, and as such, you will want to get your flights booked as early as possible.

One way to get the lowest price on your airfare is to be flexible with your dates. Often, flying mid-week is much cheaper than flying over the weekend. If you can leave home a couple of days earlier, or fly back a couple of days later, you may save yourself a significant amount of money. You can use this extra time to extend your vacation and explore your embarkation and debarkation port cities.

Another way to get cheaper flights is to book a round-trip flight in and out of the same city, even if your cruise has different embarkation and debarkation ports. If you book a cruise from home to one city, and then another flight from a different city to home, that will likely be more expensive than round-trip airfare to and from the same city. While it is not always possible to do this, if you can, it may save you some money. For example, recently we took an Adriatic cruise, which went around Italy. The departure port was Venice, and the arrival port was Rome (Civitavecchia). It turned out that flying into Venice, even only for one leg of our journey, was a complicated routing and very expensive, while flying both in and out of Rome was much simpler and cheaper. So we booked roundtrip tickets to Rome, arriving 3 days before the cruise left. With the money we saved, we were able to rent a car at the Rome airport and spend a couple of days exploring the Italian hill towns, before arriving in Venice for a brief pre-cruise stay.

After booking your flights, now is the time to also make other pre and post cruise arrangements. You can book your hotel, rental car, etc. for the land segments before and after your cruise. Yes, you can certainly book these things later on, but prices and availability tend to be better the earlier you book.

Once you have your travel plans set, you should start researching the ports/cities you are scheduled to visit during you trip. Google searches, travel books and asking friends who have previously been in the area are all good ways to learn about the places you will see. No matter what, you will not have time to see everything, so it will be important to investigate now, so that you can prioritize the sites that are of most interest to you. Once you have done this, you will then be able (later on) to make plans on how to tour these places.

In my next post, I will discuss what to do between 8 and 4 months before your cruise.

Cruise Planning – 12 to 18 Months Out

As I mentioned in earlier posts, there are two standard approaches to buying cruises: book early, or book late. The advantage to booking late is that you can often get some terrific deals, particularly if you book within sixty days of sailing. If you’re flexible with time and not too particular about destination, cruising last minute is the cheapest way to sail.

However, for those of us who cannot live life on the fly, booking ahead is our best option. Booking early gives you the best choice of itineraries and staterooms, the highest likelihood of obtaining your dining preference (early, late or ‘anytime’) and often the cheapest prices you may find on a cruise before that last minute thirty-to-sixty day window. Additionally, if you book a cruise early and the price goes down, in most cases you can adjust your fare to the lower price, as long as you are before the final payment date.

As such, these next few blog posts will be a guide for anyone who is looking to do long-term planning for their cruise.

If you want to book early, you need to book your cruise at least one year in advance. Cruise lines can release their itineraries as much as eighteen months out. Obviously, the best selection of cabin location is found the day that these cruises are released, and often cruise lines will make special offers to entice early bookers, such as giving additional onboard credit. However, since many people are not ‘planners’ in nature, generally booking more than twelve months out will give you an adequate selection of cabin and dining choices. One major exception to this is Disney Cruise Line. There is usually a large group of people (and travel agents working on their behalf) attempting to book the most popular Disney itineraries the day they are released, and as such the ‘best’ cruises can often sell a significant portion of available cabins (and see a significant price increase) even only a month or two after release. If you’re planning on sailing on a Disney cruise, it pays to be early.

So you’ve decided to book early, and you’re eighteen months out, what do you need to do? First, you need to determine your availability. Most of us work under vacation time restrictions such as number of days you can travel, time of year you can be off, etc. If you have children, you may be limited to traveling on their school vacations. On the other hand, avoiding holidays can result in significant savings on your cruise fare, and if you are interested in having fewer children aboard, you may prefer not to travel during traditional vacation times (such as over the summer and Christmas/New Year’s). You need to determine what (rough) time of year you wish to cruise, and for how many days. Keep in mind that if you are traveling further from home, you may need to use some of those days to fly to and from your cruise embarkation/debarkation ports.

Once you have determined your available time, you need to decide where you would like to cruise. Different parts of the world have more cruise availability at different times. Perhaps you just have a general idea, such as ‘the Caribbean’ or ‘Europe’. Or maybe you want to be more specific, such as ‘I want an Alaskan cruise that stops at Skagway’ or ‘I want to sail the Western Mediterranean.’ Determine what would be of interest to you, and what is also likely to be available during the time of year you wish to cruise.

The last consideration is the cruise line. If you have sailed before, or if you have researched cruise lines, you may have a preference as to which line(s) you sail. At the very least, you likely have an idea of whether you want to sail a more ‘mass market’ cruise line, such as Carnival, Norwegian or Royal Caribbean, an ‘upscale mass market’ cruise line, such as Princess, Holland America, Celebrity or Disney, or a ‘luxury’ line, such as Crystal, Seabourn, or Regent.

Once you have gathered all of this information, it’s time to begin searching for your cruise. If it is very early and the itineraries have only just been released, you will find the best information on the individual websites for each cruise line. You can search for cruises and find dates, itineraries and fares. If these itineraries have been available for a couple of weeks, then it will be easier to search through a travel agent website, which will be able to comb through multiple cruise lines to find something that fits your needs.

After you have found the cruise you desire, you may also wish to ‘price shop’, checking with different travel agencies. While officially, most cruise lines do not allow ‘discounting’ of cruise fares, you may find a travel agent offering a reduced ‘group rate’, or your travel agent may be able to offer extras, such as airport transfers, free gratuities or onboard credit. It never hurts to get a few different price quotes, and you may save yourself up to a few hundred dollars by doing so.

And now that you have booked your cruise, you’re all done for the next little while, right? Maybe. Part of the fun of booking a cruise far in advance is dreaming about it! You may want to spend some time reading guidebooks and figuring out what you want to do on your vacation, and the sights you wish to see in each port. You may choose to visit a site such as cruisecritic.com and discuss your cruise with others, or even join an online ‘roll call’ to virtually meet others who will be on your sailing. Your level of involvement is up to you.

One other possibility, if you want to throw yourself into this experience, is to potentially apply for a credit card sponsored by your cruise line. Most of the mass market and upscale mass market cruise lines have their own credit cards, and usually offer a nice ‘signing bonus’ of points to new cardholders. If you apply now, more than a year before your cruise, you can earn the signing bonus, as well as (usually) double points when you pay your cruise fare on the card. You may also choose to shift other spending to the cruise card. This should be enough to earn you a nice amount of onboard credit by the time you sail. In the case of Disney Cruise Line, you can apply for the general Disney Visa card, and use the reward dollars to either partially pay for your cruise or to pay for your onboard charges.

Next time, I’ll talk about what to do when you’re eight to twelve months out before your cruise.

What Should I Do in Port? – Touring on your Own

Last time, I discussed the advantages and disadvantages of taking shore excursions provided by the cruise line. This post will talk about how to do things on your own.

Depending on the port, you may be able to walk everywhere you need to go. This reduces your cost significantly, as transportation can eat into your budget in a hurry. Some cruise ships dock in the downtown area or port cities, near tourist sites. This is usually also true if you are tendered into port (the cruise ship anchors in the water and brings you to shore in smaller boats called ‘tenders’). If you disembark in the middle of everything, it is easy to get to the sites you want to see and find your way around, as long as you have a good walking map in hand. Note that you should obtain your own walking map, either onshore from a tourist office/kiosk or (preferably) online before you go. The maps handed out by the cruise ships tend to direct you to stores where the cruise line gets a ‘kickback’ for any purchases you make, and are generally not useful if you want to see tourist sites. Of course, if you have use of a smartphone (watch those international data charges) you may just prefer to navigate via an app such as Google Maps.

While some ports drop you into the middle of everything, others are a short bit away from the ‘action’. In such ports, getting to the downtown tourist areas might involve a quick taxi ride, a cruise line shuttle (which can cost extra, depending upon the cruise line) or even hopping on the local subway or bus/trolley line. Generally, public transportation that comes right up to the cruise terminal will be easy to find and use, and there should be guides there to assist you. If you have to walk some blocks away from the terminal to find the transportation, it will be more difficult to arrange and there may be language barriers. I always recommend researching ports in advance (Rick Steves and Fodor ports guides are a good choice, or the ports boards on cruisecritic.com can also be very helpful) so that you have a good understanding of what it will take to use public transportation on your own from the port.

As long as you stay in safe areas (this can vary from city to city, but tourist areas are almost always safe from anything worse than pickpockets) you should be fine moving around the port city on your own, however it helps to make an effort. If you are in a country where a non-English language is predominant, it doesn’t take much time to learn a few words of the local tongue (generally the words for ‘hello’, ‘please’, ‘thank you’, ‘yes’ and ‘no’ are sufficient if you remain in ‘tourist’ areas) and to obtain a map of the places you wish to go. It is also helpful to have a little local currency on hand, which can be obtained before you leave at a bank in your home country (major companies such as Wells Fargo and American Express offer foreign exchange services) or even (if you want to ‘wait and see’) at an ATM in the foreign country. Never exchange currency at an airport or cruise terminal unless you want to pay exorbitant service fees.

If you have a group of four people or more, you may find that it is easiest and cheapest to arrange a private tour guide. Since cruise ship excursions have inflated prices, the per person cost of a private guide begins to break even at about the four-person number. If you can find other passenger groups (families or friends) to join you on your private excursion, the per person cost will drop dramatically. Most private excursions will pick you up at the cruise terminal, occasionally right where the ship docks! Private guides will take care of you, creating an itinerary that covers exactly what you want to see, without including extraneous sights (or shopping stops) that are of no interest. Such guides can maneuver around the massive cruise ship tour groups, getting you in and out of major locations with a minimum of fuss. Add to this their private transportation (without you needing to worry about parking, navigating or language barriers) and a private excursion can be very appealing. While each port is different, I find that doing a Google search of ‘port-name + private cruise ship excursion’ is often enough to get you started in finding a provider. You may also find recommendations for private tour guides in certain ports through guide books or cruisecritic.com. Once you have made a booking with the guide, you will likely have to make a deposit, either via PayPal or credit card. The remainder of the tour price is paid the day of the tour, either by credit card or (more likely) in cash. Many private excursions will accept $US as final payment, although others may prefer local currency (especially in Europe).

If you are more of a ‘seat of your pants’ person who prefers spontaneity over planning, you can still arrange a private tour last minute. Taxi drivers and private tour companies often cluster around cruise terminals when a vessel docks, eager to sell their tours to people disembarking the ship. While such tours can be convenient, you will often pay a bit of a premium for waiting until the last minute. Arranging for a private day tour with a taxi driver can be a gamble in terms of quality. Taxi drivers are not licensed tour guides, and the quality of the ‘tour’ you receive can vary wildly from driver to driver. If you decide to hire a taxi driver for a day, expect transportation and basic directions; anything else will be icing on the cake.

Remember that if you are not on an official cruise line excursion, you will be responsible for getting yourself back to the cruise ship before departure. Ships do not wait for late passengers, unless they are on ship excursions. My recommendation is to always aim to be back at the ship at least an hour before the ‘all aboard’ time, to leave a cushion in case of any unforeseen delays. So if the cruise line tells you that all passengers must be aboard at 5:30, make sure you plan to be back by 4:30.

If the main attractions are far from port (such as docking in Le Havre for Paris) then there is a third option: a cruise sip ‘on your own’ tour. With these tours, you pay the cruise line for transportation only to the heart of the tourist area (usually provided by bus). Once you are dropped off, you are on your own and you may tour as your heart pleases, until it is time for your pickup to return to the ship. Such excursions are good for couples who will find it cheaper than a private tour guide, or for those who are concerned about getting back to the ship on time without cruise ship personnel to assist you.

Remember that everyone and every port is different. What is right for one cruise passenger may not be right for you. What is right for one port may not be right for another. Always research your options and weigh them well before making a decision as to how to spend your time in port.