Choose your cruise line
This is probably the single most important task when planning a cruise. Choose the wrong cruise line, or even more specifically, the wrong ship, and it can mean the difference between a blissful, relaxing trip or one filled with 18-year-olds getting rowdy on rum punch. To figure out which ship and line suits your preference, do some research online and ask friends who have taken cruises. Find out the median age onboard; if a ship caters to an older demographic, there’s typically not much to do after 10 p.m. Ask about the quality of food. The food on most vessels is in line with what you get at 4- and 5-star restaurants on land, so beware that elastic waistbands might be needed by the end of your trip. Also gather opinions on cruise schedules. Some cruise lines allow for flexibility in your itinerary, others have two dinner seatings and if you’re not on time, you don’t eat. Ask about the activities are onboard. Is there a variety? Are the shows good? For comparison, Royal Caribbean brought “Hairspray” to sea several years ago, and a few ships have Cirque du Soleil spinoffs. Finally, inquire about the decor; newer or updated ships will feel more like a Ritz-Carlton than a Motel 6.
As far as cruise styles, “mainstream” cruise lines, like Celebrity and Royal Caribbean can carry a small city on the water. Other cruise lines, such as Viking River Cruises or Oceania Cruises, provide luxury and a slower pace. There are also specialized cruise ships, like the American Queen Steamboat that runs multi-day cruises up and down the Mississippi River.
Choose your destinations
After finding the right cruise line, figure out how many days you want to spend on the cruise (remember that depending on where you live, it can take a day to travel to the departure port and a day to travel home). The number of days will then dictate what destination options you have. Some itineraries will feature just one port for visiting, while others will dock at anywhere from three to 10. If you’re traveling from the United States, the travel experts at Away.com recommend touring the Caribbean, Hawaii or Alaska. There are also plenty of cruise lines that tour the Mediterranean, the rivers of Europe, and even Russia and Asia. Cruising allows you to get an overview of destinations, rather than an in-depth look into the local scene. Because you’re traveling by a large ship (unless you do a river cruise), you will explore only coastal towns, and typically the ship will be in port only for about a half a day. As you peruse the destinations available, you can normally see a sample itinerary, too.
Book your cruise
Once you’ve selected the cruise line, the number of days and the destinations you want to visit, then you’re ready to book your cruise. With all your meals, snacks and beverages (alcohol and specialty restaurants onboard might cost more), your room, and onboard entertainment covered, there’s not much left to plan. You can choose to research things to do in ports, or you can take advantage of the shore excursions that cruises offer.
Pack for your cruise
No matter your destinations, it pays to look up the typical weather and pack accordingly. A cruise in July might sound warm, but if you’re heading to Alaska you can skip the bathing suit and pack an extra sweatshirt. Everyone packs differently, but it’s in your best interest to pack minimally, as the rooms are not as big as a typical hotel room. Bathing suits and shorts are usually fine for the daytime, but evenings typically require more of a resort-casual wardrobe. And most ships have one or two formal nights, so pull out the old bridesmaid or prom dresses. Most importantly, if you’re traveling outside of the United States, make sure your passport is up to date and packed along with your ticket so you’ll be good to sail away.