So yay! After reading my seven reasons why cruising is the way to go for vacation, you decided to book a cruise. Congratulations! Now what?
The good news is that it’s easier to book and prepare for your cruise than ever. Whether you’re heading out for a short three day vacation or booking a couple weeks in the Mediterranean, there are options that will work for you, and research is easy. There are options on cruises whether you’re traveling on your own or with a friend, heading there with your family or simply a spouse, or planning a huge family reunion.
Our cruise will include the wee ones plus my parents, and it’s perfect. We were able to get two cabins near each other – a plus that cruise reservations now allow you to choose exactly the cabin you want, making things that much easier – and there will be enough room for all of us.
From experience, I know I don’t want to simply fly in and fly out at the start and end of my cruise. The last thing I want to do while preparing to relax on a cruise is to be racing with a late plan, hoping against hope that I can make the ship embarkation before it leaves. The same goes with the flip side. At the end of the cruise, I’ve learned that I need a little downtime before I head home after the whirlwind of fun I just enjoyed.
If you can’t book a night before and after your cruise – or more, who doesn’t want to explore a city they don’t know well if you can? – that’s ok. Just make sure you book your flight before your cruise for early in the day, giving you plenty of time for any mishaps along the way. Boarding usually starts in early afternoon though the ship doesn’t leave until evening, though you obviously want to verify the information for your specific cruise.
After your cruise, there tend to be many restaurants and hotels near the port that will provide accommodations for the day from providing you with food and drink to storing your luggage at a nominal charge. They know people coming off a cruise may not have a ton of options, so they’ve created them. Simply googling pre and post luggage options with the name of your port will pull up a list of options available for you.
Getting from the airport to the port is easy, too. Cruise lines will have transport available for a fee that you can book with your cruise, or you can take a taxi directly there, depending on what works best for you. When leaving the cruise to head home, the same options are available. Often, the cruise line will offer a tour of the city after the cruise that will then leave you at the airport.
And yes, most of us have to fly in and out of the port city to go on a cruise (though how I would love to live in Miami just for the cruise options alone). Making those arrangements is as easy as booking your cruise. The cruise lines have the option to also book air and hotels with dates and times of your choosing, or you can book them on your own based on your preference.
For us, we chose to book our own travel to and from San Juan where we’ll be heading out on a seven day southern Caribbean cruise. Since we’re already paying for airfare to Puerto Rico, which isn’t exactly cheap, we wanted to ensure that we had time to explore the various parts of the island since we aren’t likely to head back here anytime soon.
Before we left for our cruise, we noted that things have changed in cruising. My dad kept asking when we’d receive our luggage tags. It used to be that you would be mailed a huge package with all your cruise information. The internet has changed so much, including cruise preparation! Now, you simply check in for your cruise online, and it couldn’t be easier.
Cruise Details As long as you have your reservation number, passport information (or other approved travel documents but trust me that a passport is easiest and simplest), and a few minutes, you’re good to go. You can check in well before your cruise – anytime after you’ve booked it actually. If you have children who you plan to enroll in Camp Carnival, you want to ensure you check in online at least 3 days before your cruise so they can get your children’s information to the ship. While you can enroll later, it’s faster and easier to do it in advance.
If you’re checking in multiple people (as I am because it’s faster and easier!), you are easily able to save traveler information so you don’t have to reenter it over and over. I love that feature. You have to share emergency contact information, flight or other travel information, and more. It was incredibly easy to enter, and I loved the option of saving it for the other five people I was checking in – or editing it were some of them coming from other places or needing different information entered.
Although a passport isn’t required when cruising to and from US ports, it’s awfully handy and easy. And worst case scenario something happens and you have an emergency when you’re on an island and need to fly home, having your passport with you makes things far easier. You do need to have some sort of travel documentation to cruise, and a passport is simpler for most than an original birth certificate (not a copy), a passport card, an enhanced driver’s license, or other accepted forms of ID.
In addition to that, some people and some cruises will also require a visa, though US citizens on our cruise from Puerto Rico do not need a visa – just make sure you check before you go. The good news is that the online check in process will walk you through everything you need and prompt you for the information so you don’t get to a port and aren’t able to board. That’s yet another reason to check in online early!
Once you complete your check in, you can print any documents you need. You will want your boarding passes for the cruise, just like when you fly. And you need luggage tags for your checked bags (though Carnival requests no more than two per person, which is absolutely doable). You can print them in black and white; just make sure to include your name on the tag (which will preprint your cabin number). I like to bring a small stapler and staple the tags on when I’m ready to head to the port rather than taping them on before I leave home, simply because I am not going straight to the port.
You can also register any children for the appropriately aged kid activities. For us, that means getting Mister Man and Little Miss signed up for Camp Carnival. While they won’t be spending the entire cruise there, I remember from my own childhood how fun the kids’ clubs are, and I want them to be able to experience that. When registering them, you note what privileges they have from signing themselves in and out at 9 years and older (used so they can purchase soda if you allow that), who is able to sign them in and out, whether they are capable of swimming, and more.
My favorite part is the details behind the registration. With Little Miss’s dairy allergy, I get a little nervous about what she eats when I’m not around. There is a form that you print out and bring with you (along with the registration forms you completed online) that shares what the allergy is and what foods they are and aren’t able to eat. Because dairy is a sneaky allergy, I plan to meet with the Maitre D’ once we board to confirm what is and isn’t safe for her before blindly choosing options for her.
If you’re traveling with a special needs child, there are accommodations for them, as well. I checked them out, though we won’t be registering Mister Man for them as his Asperger’s is mild enough that he is mainstreamed in school, etc. with no issues. If you have a child who needs to be brought down to a younger age group, that is possible, as is the option for parents to stay with a child who needs one on one assistance. The form asks details on everything from what behavioral concerns a child has to whether they can advocate for themselves to whether they are potty trained or not, all the better to ensure a safe and happy cruise for all. I have to say that as someone who knows more than she ever wanted to about special needs, I was impressed by the detail covered.
And finally, there is the most fun part. The shore excursions. Though the cruise provides food and entertainment enough for your whole experience, you would miss out if you spent the whole cruise aboard the ship instead of exploring your various ports of call. You have the option of prebooking shore excursions online, choosing your own excursions at each port, or booking them once you’re aboard.
I am always a little leery of booking excursions from the vendors who line the ports. There are plenty of them jostling for your business, but I know nothing about them. I have used some in the past when I’ve gotten good recommendations, as they are often less expensive than the cruise offered excursions, but I’m not about to put my safety in jeopardy to save a few dollars. Booking your excursions online means that you know exactly what is and isn’t available. There are excursions that will sell out, so it’s a good idea to at least investigate what you might want to do in each port, even if you don’t book them all ahead of time.
The information Carnival provides about your excursion options are incredibly helpful. There are reviews, information about age minimums, details around how strenuous activities are, etc. It allows you to choose exactly the right excursion for you. The last thing my prone to seasickness father wants to do is head out on an excursion on St. John’s boat (where the seas are really rough – it’s the only time I’ve ever been seasick in my life) and be stuck on the boat, miserable for hours. Or I don’t want to be on a bus tour for six hours where we plan to stop at shops. I’m much more of an outdoors, explore it on foot or via boat kind of person.
I found plenty of potential options that I was able to save for each island to share with my family so we can make a decision together about what we want to do with our days in port.
They sound fun, don’t they?
And I’m pretty much ready now. I am checked in. I’ve printed out our boarding passes and the information for Camp Carnival. My luggage tags are ready to staple on. I have a good idea of what shore excursions we plan to book. And of course, we have our travel arrangements made, from air and hotel to plans for how we’re getting to and from the port.
So what’s next in Cruising 101? Now it’s time for packing. What do you pack when you go on a cruise?