Cruising 101: How to book a Cruise

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So, you want to go on a cruise but you have no idea how to pick a cruise. No worries. Our Cruising 101 series begins with this post, how to book a cruise your whole family will enjoy.

After that, we’ll cover what to expect on sea days, how to choose shore excursions, boarding day and going home. This series will provide everything you need for smooth sailing through the planning process and your vacation!

How to choose the right cruise

Cruising 101: How to pick a cruise

Cruise vacations keep growing in popularity, and the cruise industry has taken notice. Today, major cruise lines offer theme cruises, cruises of varying lengths and  an unprecedented number of ports. With so many options, there’s a price point to fit just about any budget.

So many choices are great, but it can be overwhelming. You might wonder how to pick a cruise. And then, you need to know how to book a cruise!

We’ve got you covered. Ready?

Ask the right questions for how to pick a cruise!

Choosing the best cruise really comes down to answering a few questions! Once you know what you want and your cruise budget, we’ll explain how to book your first cruise.

But, first, ask yourself these questions so you know how to pick a cruise from the thousands out there!

1. When do you want to travel?

Do you want to travel during peak season which is during school breaks, summertime and major holidays? Or, are you looking for a family getaway in the off season?

Like any vacation destination, cruise travel during peak season (June-August, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year, Easter break) is more expensive than travel during off-season (September-October, early November, early December, January-March).

Many years ago, we looked at a Disney Cruise (prices were way better back then). A December 1st, 2014 cruise on the Disney Dream from Port Canaveral, Florida for four was $1500.44. That same cabin over Christmas, sailing December 22, was $3124.44. That’s more than double for the exact same itinerary! And, Disney ships were already “decked out” for the holidays.

So, if budget matters, you can stretch the budget by cruising in the off-season. The only “drawbacks” of cruising in the off-season are:

  • •The risk of hurricanes in September and October,
  • •Cooler temperatures, especially at night, in winter months,
  • •Ship staff training, with new crews coming on board in the off-season, service might be a bit inconsistent (but still friendly),
  • •Fewer amenities, at least with some cruise lines. I sailed on Royal Caribbean in the off season. The pool towels had seen better days, and we didn’t get chocolates on our pillows at turn-down service. But, the crew was fabulously attentive and we had a lot of fun…. for about half the cost it would have been at Thanksgiving. I don’t know about you, but I don’t need to pay an additional $200 for those bedtime chocolates.

Your budget will narrow down your options making it easier to decide. But, when considering how to pick a cruise, know which cruise line offers the type of vacation you want.

2. A main factor in how to book a cruise is knowing which cruise line best fits your needs.

Generally, the cruise lines you know by name, Disney Cruise Lines, Royal Caribbean and Carnival, cater to families with extensive children’s programming, sports activities and entertainment on board. Norwegian Cruise Lines has ships with great family programming and others geared more for adults. For instance, the Norwegian Joy, which is in drydock right now, is removing their video arcade area to expand the spa. The pools are very small. It’s geared for adults. Other cruise lines, like Holland and Celebrity, are geared more for adult travelers.

When comparing cruises, be sure you understand exactly which amenities are available on a particular ship. AND, know whether those amenities are things you’ll actually use! Sure, the ice skating rink and rock wall sound amazing, but will you use them? (If you do, bring socks!)

If you want a more detailed breakdown, read our article on the best cruise line for families, which compares family friendly aspects of the major cruise lines.

So, when considering how to pick a cruise, ask these questions about each ship and itinerary:

  • Which cruise fits your budget? Disney is consistently the most expensive cruise line geared toward families. All the cruise lines offer cruises of varying lengths and price points providing a variety of options to guests. In general, a shorter cruise (4 nights) sailing to the Bahamas will offer the most affordable vacation no matter which cruise line you choose.
  • Which cruise line offers the experience you want? If you want a rock wall or ice rink, book a cruise on a newer ship designed for such entertainment. Be sure to check the specific ship and confirm that it has the amenities you want!
  • Which ports do you want to visit? The cruise lines generally visit the same ports throughout the Bahamas and the Caribbean. When booking a cruise, make sure you check the itinerary for your specific ship and know where you’ll be stopping.
Lady on rock wall with helmet and gear.
How to choose the right cruise: Consider the amenities onboard. RCCL, Enchantment of the Seas. YES! I made it to the top of the rock wall!

3. Which embarkation port do you prefer and how will you get there?

When you consider how to pick a cruise, think about the logistics of getting to the port! Some ports you might be able to drive to, saving you a lot of money. Other ports might be too far away. For instance, I can drive to Charleston or Jacksonville in a few hours, so a cruise from those ports is fairly inexpensive (no airfare or overnight hotel). But Miami? That’s way too far to drive. I need to factor in airfare, ship transfers and other costs as I plan.

To decide where to sail from, consider the following:

  • Will you drive or fly to the embarkation port? (Expect to pay $300-$600 per person to fly to your port.)
  • If driving, know port parking fees (usually around $15/day). Also, factor in whether you need a hotel stay the night before the cruise (anywhere from $80-$200/night).
  • Which cruise line do you want (not all cruise lines sail from all ports)? For example, the only cruise line sailing out of Charleston, SC is Carnival. Carnival, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean sail out of Tampa, but Disney does not. You get the idea!
Cruise Ship Food and Fun

4. Which cabin should you choose?

When considering the best cabin for your cruise, the cheapest room is not always the best choice! It might be under the main dining room, and you’ll hear chairs scraping the floor morning and night. Or, you could get a cabin near the main lobby area. Sure, it’s convenient, but it’s also noisy! Lots of entertainment happens midship!

Generally, inside cabins are the cheapest. Some people insist that interior cabins are the only way to go. Because they’re cheap, that leaves more money for fun stuff. Personally, though, I don’t like them. They’re dark!!! They are not claustrophobic like I expected though. For me, even after several cruises, there’s just something exciting about opening the curtains first thing in the morning to get that first glimpse of a new port.

Most ships offer balcony cabins, which are more expensive. They’re tempting, I know! Just picture yourself sipping morning coffee on your private balcony as the sun’s rays warm you. We’ve booked balcony cabins on two cruises, once when our boys were quite young and we anticipated extensive cabin time for naps. Another time, when the kids were teens, we anticipated wanting late night space for a quiet escape.

The first time around, despite it being December, the balcony was fabulous. Unseasonably warm weather provided us with hours of relaxing escape. The second time around, the first three days of our cruise were blistering hot, more than 100 degrees — way too hot to enjoy the balcony. And then, a freak, early-season hurricane blew in, plunging temperatures to the 50s. No matter what we did, we couldn’t get warm enough! Heavy winds and driving rains forced us indoors and the balcony went unused.

It’s probably more important to consider the size of the cabin, the bathroom layout and whether you can get an adjoining cabin if traveling with more than four people. Also consider these cabin essentials for your cruise to maximize the space.

I guess what I’m saying is when considering how to pick a cruise, the balcony is nice, but it should not be your only consideration!

Sunset over the ocean with blue clouds, orange sun across the horizon and deep blue sea.
How to choose the right cruise: Consider whether you want a room with a view! Glorious sunset views abound on the top deck.

5. Do the ports of call offer adventures and activities you’ll enjoy?

You don’t actually need to do this before you book, but if your budget is tight, consider shore excursion costs. If you need to book a shore excursion to enjoy a particular port of call, it will impact your overall vacation budget.

No matter which port you choose, you’ll enjoy duty free shopping, adventure, white sandy beaches and sun. But that’s where the similarities end. Some islands, particularly those of developing countries like Jamaica, are not as safe as others. Some ports, like Freeport in the Bahamas, offer little close to the ship. So, to enjoy the island, you need to plan an excursion of some sort.

If you book a shore excursion through the cruise line and you are delayed in returning to the ship, you don’t have to worry. The ship will wait for you! If you plan your own excursions (I do this all the time), be sure to build in a buffer. Return to the ship an hour before you need to so you don’t get left behind. YES, it happens! On my last cruise, in fact… but not to me. 😉

So when considering how to pick a cruise, think about what there is to do at the ports to find an itinerary you’ll enjoy.

Shopping area in Freeport, the Bahamas with a water fountain and outdoor dining tables.

How to book a cruise vacation

When considering how to book a cruise vacation, you have three options.

Booking a cruise with a travel agent

First, you can use a travel agent. The travel agent will ask some questions like budget, where you want to travel and how many people are going. Then, the agent will present a cruise package for you to consider. If you don’t like doing the research and you do like having someone else do the planning, this is a good option.

A major upside to using a travel agent is the support you get if something goes wrong. They’ll work with the airlines to get you rerouted and make sure you know deadlines for selecting shore excursions or specialty dining packages.

But, a travel agent can’t (most won’t) make inifinite adjustments for you. Use an agent if you know what you want to do generally and want to leave the details to them.

Booking directly with the cruise line

To be quite honest, booking directly with the cruise line is very easy! Once you know which cruise line and itinerary you want, you can compare prices for room categories and sailing dates to find the one that best fits your needs.

Most cruise lines have an online chat feature to help along the way. Or, you can call them for assistance. I book most of my cruises directly with the cruise lines because it’s that easy to do.

Booking through a third party

If you want the “best deal” on your cruise, booking through a third party might be the best choice. We booked a cruise in 2022 through our Costco membership and got a great deal on our cabin, plus bonus Costco rewards that saved us another $500. We saved considerably over booking directly through the cruise line or with a travel agent. Many travel rewards credit cards have dedicated cruise options as well, and you can pay for your cruise with rewards points!

You can also book through online cruise discounters, who get volume pricing discounts. I have booked two cruises this way with no complaints. If you’re particular about cabin type, this might not be the best option, but it has always worked for me.

  • Cruise Direct offers guaranteed low prices on cruises around the world, with the best deals on Caribbean Cruises. If you have a larger party or need two adjoining cabins, call to book.
  • Cruise Critic is a great choice for finding last minute deals and other special offers. I recently found a last minute booking on an 11 day Panama Canal cruise for $999 for an inside cabin. That’s a great deal!

Step by step how to book a cruise

Regardless of which way you select your cruise, these are things you need to know for how to book a cruise:

  1. You’ll pay a deposit to reserve the specific cruise itinerary and cabin. (Sometimes, you can pick a “cruise line chooses” cabin to save a few dollars.)
  2. Then you can either make monthly payments or pay in full by a certain date, usually 120 days before you sail. Know that date and watch for emails so you don’t miss it.
  3. Add every person who will be cruising when you book. Use their name as it appears in a passport!
  4. And that’s it. If the cruise line offers specials, like free specialty dining, free wifi, or a free drinks package, you will have to pay taxes and applicable gratuities for those items. Nothing is truly “free.”
  5. And, you’ll want to add shore excursions if you want them but you don’t have to do that right away. In fact, waiting until four or five months before you sail will provide the most options as cruise lines are always negotiating excursions with vendors.
  6. Sometime before you board the ship (embarkation day), you’ll have to provide a way to pay the tips to the cruise staff, your wait staff and cabin stewards. This is set per passenger per day. And, even if you don’t eat in the main dining room with a wait staff, they are also working the buffet lines and casual dining restaurants and tips include that.

The bottom line!

Don’t be overwhelmed. To choose the right cruise for your family, simply take it step by step. Determine your vacation budget, and factor in the cost of travel to the embarkation port. Select the cruise line and ship that matches your desires. Plan adventures in the ports of call that fit your budget. Pick your cabin! That’s it.

And don’t miss this reader favorite, the 7 day cruise packing list (with FREE printable)! We want your cruise vacation to be STRESS FREE FUN!

FAQ about how to book a cruise vacation

What is the average cost of a cruise vacation?

There’s no best answer here, though most people pay between $700 and $5,000 per person for a cruise vacation. Factors like which cruise line, which ports you’ll visit, how long the cruise is, what type of cabin you select and whether you pick high season or value season affect the price of a cruise.

How many days should your first cruise be?

While some are tempted to take a 3 or 4 day cruise to “test it out,” these short cruises don’t usually allow enough time to get comfortable with ship life, and they tend to only visit one or two ports. A weeklong cruise allows enough time to get familiar with the ship, visit a few exciting ports, and relax before having to pack the bags to go home.

Do you need a passport to take a cruise?

The short answer is YES. While there are some alternatives, cruise lines prefer that you have a passport to board the ship. Whether you use a passport or the “acceptable” alternatives, you must meet all requirements to get on the ship. They will not let you board without a passport or the alternatives.