Smooth Sailing: Your Complete Guide to Booking, Paying, and Traveling for Your Cruise Adventure
You’ve selected your destination, itinerary and cruise ship, and perhaps you even know which cabin you’d like. You’re ready to book your cruise!
We’ll look at the many options for doing this, as well as some options that may save you money when paying for your cruise. We’ll then take a look at traveling to and from your ship.
Over-simplifying a bit, you can book your cruise:
- Directly with your cruise line
- Through a travel agent
- Through a travel agency
In turn, you may also have the choice of booking online or through a live person.
While booking “directly with your cruise line” is pretty straightforward, there’s a big difference between a “travel agent” and a “travel agency.” In the old days, travel agents had street-front offices full of travel brochures, along with someone sitting at a desk with a computer ready to help you book your vacations. The ideal travel agent had actually travelled and could give you informed advice about your travel choices.
While travel agents still – thankfully – exist, they’ve been joined by giant online “travel agencies.” Some of those agencies are available both online and by phone, while others are available only online. Some are truly full service and can book virtually anything travel-related, while others may only be able to book a limited number of brands or a limited range of travel services. If you decide to use a travel agency, you’ll need to do some homework first to determine if they’re going to meet your specific needs.
One of the major advantages of using a travel agent or travel agency – versus booking directly with a cruise line – is that they can be your advocate with the cruise line, airline or hotel if something goes wrong. The disadvantage, however, is that you generally can’t contact the cruise line directly if you have questions, problems or want to make changes. Instead, you’ll need to work with your travel agent/agency.
Which Option is Best for You?
The booking option you choose will depend on 1) the complexity of your trip, 2) how much help and advice you need in planning your trip and 3) if you can save money.
- Complex Trips: If you know exactly which cruise and cabin you want, you may find it faster to book directly on the cruise line’s website. This is usually fast and easy, and you can pick your cabin, dining time, bed configuration, shore excursions, specialty dining, air travel and airport transfers at the same time in one transaction. On the other hand, if you’re planning to visit multiple cities before or after the cruise, or if you need several flights, hotels, and transfers, it might be better to have someone help you. (I once stopped in Tahiti on the way to New Zealand. The visit required multiple flights, hotels, transfers, and ferry boat rides – each of which I booked directly with the provider. At the time, it seemed like planning the D-Day Invasion must have been simpler than planning that trip.)
- Help and Advice: If you’re a seasoned traveler, you may feel comfortable with the various decisions you’ll need to make. On the other hand, you might welcome advice on which cruise line is the best fit for you, what time of year to cruise, and which cabin best meets your needs. In that case, you may wish to speak with a live person, whether it’s a travel agent, a travel agency, or someone at the cruise line. Joining a Facebook group can be a useful source of info about a destination, cruise line, ship, or even a specific cruise. Besides general information, you can ask questions about a ship, port, cabin, show or restaurant. As with social media in general, however, you’ll also get a large dose of attitude and irrelevant info…
- Onboard Credit (OBC) which is the cruise industry’s coin-of-the-realm: As the name suggests, these credits can be used while you’re onboard the ship for shore excursions, specialty restaurants, spa visits and just about anything else the ship offers. Most OBCs are non-refundable, which means it’s use-it-or-lose-it when the cruise ends. Several of the cruise lines also offer OBCs of up to $250 per cruise for people who own at least 100 shares of the cruise line’s stock, so this is an option worth exploring if you’re a frequent floater.
Saving Money: When you’re ready to book, check to see if your cruise line, travel agent or travel agency is offering any promotional deals or incentives. These could include:
- Amenity packages, which might be a free drink package, a specialty dining package, or a spa visit.
- Rebates. If you book through Costco, for example, you’ll receive a Costco gift card, equal to about 6% of the cruise fare, after you return from your cruise.
Making Your Choice
Booking Directly: Booking directly with the cruise line is usually the fastest and easiest way to book your cruise, as well as your air travel, pre- and post-cruise hotels, and airport transfers. However, your options for air, hotels, transportation, and third-party shore excursions are usually very limited and generally must be related directly to the cruise. And be aware that you can often find lower prices for air and hotels if you book directly with the airline or hotel rather than through the cruise line.
I like booking online as most cruise line websites allow you to select your cabin, dining time, bed configuration, specialty restaurants and shore excursions quickly and easily.
Alternatively, you can call the cruise line’s 800 number to speak to a live person. Who you reach is a coin toss, however, as you may reach:
- A Personal Cruise Consultant (PCC), who becomes your personal travel agent and who can provide a wide range of helpful advice. Your PCC can book your cruise needs, air, transfers, shore excursions, and, in some cases, hotels before or after the cruise. You’ll be able to reach that same PCC if you need to make changes later. However, not all PCCs are created equal. My Norwegian Cruise Line PCC has traveled extensively, and I trust her advice on all things Norwegian. In contrast, I’ve been disappointed by PCCs at other cruise lines.
- Alternatively, you’ll reach a random person – who is often offshore – who answers the phone and who may or may not be knowledgeable, and who may or may not have to transfer you to someone else. Sometimes the best option is to hang up, call back, and see if you do better with the next person.
Travel Agents: Your personal travel agent – often a local person – is ideally someone you can visit in person or reach by phone, who can provide a wide range of helpful advice, and who can book whatever you need in the way of cruises, air, hotels, tours and more. As with good PCCs, good travel agents are worth their weight in gold. Ask your friends and colleagues for their recommendations.
Travel Agencies: Some of the better-known travel agencies include Booking.com, Priceline, Expedia, and Costco. You can also book cruise and vacation packages through airlines such as United and American. Some agencies are available both online and by phone, while others are available only online.
Here’s an example of how these agencies work: I used Costco Travel’s website to book a 12-day Singapore-to-Mumbai cruise on the Celebrity Millenium for February 2025. (Which I can pay for later with Celebrity gift cards, which I can buy from AARP at a 10% discount.) Costco will give me a rebate of about 6% of the cruise fare – in the form of a Costco gift card – when I return from the cruise.
After I booked the cruise, however, I realized I should have booked a starboard cabin rather than a port cabin. I called Costco’s 800 number and reached a great US-based rep who quickly and easily made the change. Based on that first experience, I’m certainly willing to give Costco another try.
Paying for your Cruise
Regardless of how you book, here are some options to consider when it’s time to pay for your cruise.
- Gift Cards. AARP, for example, offers members discounted travel cards, such as a $500 Holland America gift card for $450. Since AARP memberships start at just $12, this is definitely an option worth considering. A few points to consider:
- There may be a limit to how many cards you can buy or redeem at any given time.Some cards can only be used when you book a new cruise, while others can be used to pay for a cruise after you’ve booked it or to pay for onboard expenses.The process of using the cards can be complicated and may require you to call the cruise line or your travel agent to redeem them. And if you have to cancel your cruise, it may be a challenge to get your fare refunded back to your gift cards.
- Discounts. Some cruise lines offer discounts for military veterans, teachers, or AARP members. You often have to jump through some hoops to get the discounts, so do some research first.
- Credit card points. Most cruise lines offer extra points when you use their branded credit cards, and Costco offers an extra rebate if you charge your cruise to their credit card.
Before Your Cruise
Congratulations! You’ve booked your cruise, and you’re ready to go. Here’s some info to help you get ready.
Download the Cruise App: Most cruise lines offer proprietary phone apps, which have become an essential part of the cruise. On some lines, such as Princess, you can no longer check in for your cruise online and instead must use the phone app.
Once aboard the ship, the apps can be used to make dinner reservations, purchase shore excursions, access the daily program (which may be available only online rather than in print), and even keep track of your travel companions.
Packing: What to pack is an easy question if you’re doing a Caribbean cruise, as you can just pack clothing for hot – and potentially wet – weather. It’s more complicated if you’re taking a cruise to Alaska, with its very unpredictable weather.
If you’re flying, you need to consider weight limits and the cost of extra checked bags. Once you arrive onboard, you’re going to have less storage space than you expect. My favorite technique is to lay out everything you need – and then take half of it.
Dress Codes: During the day, most cruise lines have very casual dress codes, and shorts and T-shirts are fine. In the evening, and depending on the cruise line, dressier clothes may be required in the Main Dining Room and some specialty restaurants, while Cunard requires men to wear jackets to dinner every night.
When I started cruising, passengers wore tuxedos and cocktail dress for “formal nights.” Most cruise lines have de-emphasized formal nights and now call them “dress to impress” or something similar, and passengers are fine wearing the equivalent of business casual.
What You Can’t Bring Onboard: Most cruise lines have strict limits on the type and quantity of beverages you bring with you, with some cruise lines prohibiting passengers from bringing anything – including bottled water – onto the ship.
Cruise lines are also very strict about electrical devices. Prohibited devices include anything with an exposed heating element, such as irons, immersion heaters or coffee machines. In addition, more and more cruise lines are prohibiting power strips.
The cruise lines carefully screen passengers, their carry-ons, and their luggage both at the beginning of the cruise and when you return to the ship in each port and will readily confiscate prohibited items. These will be returned to you at the end of the cruise.
Cruise ships prohibit ALL cannabis products on virtually every cruise. This prohibition includes marijuana, edibles, and medical products such as lotions and salves containing CBD or THC. An increasing number of cruise lines are using drug-sniffing dogs, and your passenger contract allows shipboard personnel to search your cabin. If caught with prohibited substances, the ship can disembark you at the next port (often without a refund), issue a lifetime ban for that cruise line, and possibly turn you over to local authorities.
Laundry: Some ships have coin-operated laundromats, and almost all ships offer laundry service. While the price for individual items can be expensive, many cruise lines offer mid-cruise specials where they’ll launder an entire bag of laundry for $25 – $30. Check before your cruise if you plan to have laundry done aboard the ship.
Another option is to hand wash items in your cabin. Most ships have clothes lines in the shower, but your clothes will dry faster if you hang them near the ceiling air vent.
Magnetic Hooks: Your cabin’s walls and, generally, the ceiling are made of metal. A small bag of magnetic hooks is great for hanging random items on the walls.
Power Outlets: Few cabins have as many electrical outlets as you’ll want, although newer ships often offer several USB charging ports. The electrical outlets are often a combination of US and European outlets and voltages, so adapters and converters will allow you to plug in more devices. As I mentioned, be aware that most cruise lines don’t allow power strips in your cabin and will confiscate them.
Insurance: Travel insurance, like cruises, comes in all shapes and sizes. Travel insurance can cover cancellations, delays, lost luggage, and medical costs caused by circumstances beyond your control. You can get also get CFAR insurance, which literally allows you to “Cancel for Any Reason.” Whether you need travel insurance varies from person to person. I’ve been traveling for more than 45 years and have only recently gotten travel insurance coverage. Which is good, as I had to file two claims last year.
The cost of insurance for a single trip is typically 5% – 10% of the cost of the trip, with CFAR policies costing more. Surprisingly, annual policies are often only a bit more expensive than single-trip insurance.
If you decide to get insurance, you have many options:
- Cruise Line Coverage: Most cruise lines offer insurance that offer one or more levels of coverage. Basic coverage includes only the cruise, but some cruise lines will cover air and hotels if you booked them through the cruise line. Some cruise lines will offer cash refunds, but others – especially in the case of CFAR – may offer a Future Cruise Credit instead. Some cruise lines will only offer insurance when you book the cruise, while other lines let you buy their insurance up until you make your final payment.
- Credit Card Coverage: Some cards – especially those with higher annual fees – include various levels of travel coverage, but only for those items paid for entirely with that card. You won’t be covered, for example, if you pay for part of your cruise with a gift card – such as those offered by AARP – and the balance with a credit card.
- Third-Party Insurance: Companies such as Allianz, Berkshire Hathaway and Travelex offer a wide variety of travel policies which you can buy either for a single trip or for annual coverage. You can customize these policies by selecting what’s covered as well as the coverage limits. If you travel several times each year, the annual policies are a better bargain.
Depending on the cruise line, you’ll be able to check in up to 60 days before your cruise, using either the cruise line app or their website. You’ll then be able to print your luggage tags and any required boarding documents, although most cruise lines now allow you to keep your boarding pass on your phone app.
Getting To the Ship
Flying: If you’re flying, here’s the other bit of advice I encourage you to take: Plan to arrive the day before.
Even if you have a short nonstop flight from your home airport to your ship’s departure city, flying is less dependable than it used to be and it’s possible your flight could be delayed or even cancelled. If you’ve booked your own flight and your flight is late, the ship will not wait for you.
You might think that if your ship sails without you, then you can simply meet it in the next port. If your ship is sailing from Seattle, for example, and its first port is Vancouver, you could make your own way to Vancouver and board the ship there. Unfortunately, due to the US Jones Act and / or international cabotage laws, the cruise line may not be allowed to let you board once the cruise begins. In that case, you’ve missed your cruise and probably won’t get a refund or future cruise credit. Or, if you’re sailing from San Francisco to Hawaii and you CAN board later, you’ve just missed five or six days of your cruise.
If you’ve booked your flight through the cruise line and encounter delays or cancellations, the cruise line will assist you in finding alternative flights. Be aware, however, that your cruise ship generally won’t hold the ship for you if they can’t get you to the ship before the scheduled departure time. Instead, they’ll either fly you to the next port – if allowed by the Jones Act – or simply cancel your cruise and give you a credit for a future cruise.
Bottom line: Don’t be late.
Should You Book Your Air Through the Cruise Line?
- Booking your own air travel, either directly with the airline or by using a travel agent, allows you to choose the airline, departure and arrival times, and seats, and to enjoy your frequent flyer benefits. And, if you’re using miles or points, you’ll generally have to book directly with the airline.
- Booking through the cruise line offers one-stop shopping and makes them responsible for dealing with any problems that might arise once your trip is underway. However, some cruise lines assign you to flights arriving and departing at seemingly random times. And you often can’t pick seats until you arrive at the airport, and the prices may or may not be competitive.
I generally book my own air, but occasionally, a cruise line had been able to offer the same flight at a much lower price. So, it’s always worth checking both options.
Driving: Post-COVID shutdown, more and more passengers are choosing to drive rather than fly to the port, and cruise lines have increased the number of ships based in US ports. Many ports and cruise lines provide reasonably priced parking near the cruise terminals.
If you’ve flown in the day before your cruise, you’ll usually be able to easily find a hotel near the airport that offers a free shuttle from the airport to the hotel. Be sure to check how often the shuttle runs and if it’s available 24 hours per day.
On the day of the cruise, you have several options for getting to the ship:
- You can take the cruise line’s shuttle from the airport to the ship. The cruise line will take your luggage as you board the bus and then either give it back to you when the bus arrives at the cruise terminal or deliver it to your cabin. Shuttle service prices range from $25 to $100 depending on the distance between the airport and the ship.
- If you’re staying at a local hotel, some hotels offer free or paid shuttles from the hotel directly to the ship. Alternatively, you can take the hotel shuttle back to the airport and then take the cruise line’s shuttle from the airport to the ship.
- Take a taxi or Uber. This is often the easiest option, and for a party of several people, the least expensive. Be aware, however, that if you’re boarding a large ship like the Icon of the Seas, 7,600 other people are going to be vying for those same taxis or Ubers.
Embark Tours: Some cruises offer “embark tours” – short for Embarkation Tours – as another option for getting to the ship from the airport and in some cases, from selected hotels. These tours range from four to nine hours and usually include scenic drives, lunch, and stops at one or more attractions. As with their basic airport transfers, the cruise line will take your luggage as you board the bus and then either give it back to you when the bus arrives at the cruise terminal or deliver it to your cabin.
Pre-Cruise Hotel Packages: Some cruise lines offer pre-cruise packages that include two or more nights at a hotel, local sightseeing, and transfers from the airport to the hotel and from the hotel to ship. This is a very convenient option if you’d like to spend a few days in the port before you leave, but it’s usually significantly more expensive than if you book the individual services yourself.
Arriving At the Ship
The cruise line will generally assign you a specific time to check in at the cruise terminal, although some cruise lines allow you to choose your own arrival time. In most cases, Elite loyalty program members can arrive whenever they wish and will be boarded first.
Be aware that, unlike airport terminals, cruise terminals tend to be very utilitarian and at most will have restrooms and a couple of vending machines. (Elite members of the cruise line’s loyalty program may have a separate area in the terminal with snacks and beverages.)
When you arrive at the terminal, the first stop is to check your bags at the baggage drop. Security guards will then check your boarding pass and ID (almost always your passport) and allow you to enter the terminal.
You’ll then go through airport-style security screening with X-ray machines and walk-through metal detectors. Once in the terminal, you’ll get into what is often a very long line to check in. Arriving at the counter, the agent will again check your ID and boarding pass. In most cases, the agent will return your passport, but in some cases will keep your passport and return it either during the cruise or as you disembark at the end.
The agent will give you a boarding group number and, depending on the cruise line, your cabin key. Other cruise lines will have the key waiting for you at your cabin, while others will mail it to you before you cruise. (Once you board the ship, you’ll use your key card as your ID, to unlock your cabin door, and make onboard charges.)
When your number is called, you’ll cross the gangway onto the ship. Security staff will verify your ID by scanning your cabin key or by using facial recognition software.
All cruise lines require a safety briefing, which can be in person, by watching a video on your phone, or in your cabin. You’ll also be required to check in at your muster station.
Now, your cruise begins!
Disembarking And Reboarding During Your Cruise
When your ship arrives in port, it will often need to be cleared by local immigration officials. While this is usually a cursory inspection, I’ve experienced waits of up to 90 minutes before we were allowed to disembark.
Most passengers will get off the ship one or more times during their cruise, either to wander around the port or to take some type of shore excursion. Depending on the port, your ship will either dock at a pier or you’ll use tenders to get to the shore and back.
Regardless of whether you walk off the ship or take a tender, here are some things to keep in mind:
- While it might be tempting to grab a couple of sandwiches and pieces of fruit from the buffet and take them ashore with you, most ports do not allow you to bring food from the ship into the port. Some ports do allow some prepackaged and sealed snacks such as chips, candy bars, or energy bars. Most ships have bottled (or canned or boxed) water available for purchase as leave the ship.
- Most ports do not require you to carry your passport, but you must carry your room key and a government-issued ID. It’s best to leave your passport locked safely in your cabin and carry your driver’s license instead.
Tenders: If you’re visiting a tender port, you’ll need to either get a tender ticket, be booked on one of the cruise ship’s shore excursions, or be an Elite member of the cruise line’s loyalty program.
- Tender tickets: At some point in the morning before the ship arrives in port, Guest Services will announce that passengers wanting to go ashore need to visit a certain location, such as one of the ship’s lounges, to pick up numbered or timed tickets for their entire party. You can then wait anywhere in the ship until it’s your turn. When your group is called, you’ll show your tickets and be instructed which staircase or elevator to use to reach the tenders.
- Shore excursions purchased from the ship: Your shore excursion tickets will tell you when and where to meet when the ship arrives in port, which is often the main theater where you’ll be seated with other passengers on the same tour. When it’s your group’s turn to depart, you’ll all be guided to the tender.
Please note that this is only for passengers who have purchased shore excursions from the ship. If you’ve bought your own third-party shore excursions, you’ll need to get tender tickets as discussed above. Since it may take you awhile to get ashore, avoid booking shore excursions that depart early in the day.
- Elite passengers. You simply go to the ticketing location, and you’ll usually be taken to the next available tender.
Be aware that the tendering process is inherently slow and can be even slower if it’s windy or raining.
Docks: If your ship is docked, you can simply walk off the ship. You’ll often be greeted by tour companies, stores, and people trying to sell you stuff.
Returning to the Ship: When you return to the dock to board the tenders back to the ship, there’s usually just a single line for returning passengers – which often gets quite long as the all-aboard time draws near.
You’ll walk through a metal detector, while all of your hand-carried items will go through an X-ray machine. Depending on the port, the screening may take place on the pier or once you’re back aboard the ship.
If you’ve purchased any liquor in port, the ship will confiscate it and return it to you on the final day of the cruise. Also, be aware that many cruise lines no longer allow bottled water in plastic bottles to be brought onboard, and these may be confiscated as well.
Disembarking Your Cruise
Several days before the cruise ends, you’ll find information in your cabin outlining the disembarkation process. The information will include baggage claim checks, which are color-coded with the time you’ll be disembarking, which in turn will be based on the info you provided when you checked in. Passengers will be placed in one of these categories.
- Passengers walking off the ship carrying their own baggage. Be aware that porters are not available to help you disembark, and that you will need to carry ALL of your luggage and carry-on bags from the ship into the terminal. Passengers in this category are usually the first people off the ship, although you’re welcome to stay aboard a bit longer if you wish.
- Passengers taking ship shuttles or debark tours to the airport or to post-cruise hotels arranged through the cruise lines. The time you leave the ship is determined by what time your flight leaves, so people on early flights leave the ship before those with later flights.
- People who have their own arrangements, such as locals who are taking Uber or taxis, who have parked a car at the port, or who are being picked up by friends.
Regardless of the category, the ship will try to disembark all of the passengers by mid-morning so that the crew can prepare the ship for the next group of passengers.
Luggage: You have two choices for getting your luggage off the ship:
- You can have the ship take your bags off the ship. In this case, you have to leave your bags outside your cabin door the evening before you arrive at your final port, no later than the time that you’ll find in your disembarkation papers – usually a time between 8 pm and midnight. You’ll need to keep a set of clothes and toiletries, as on every cruise there’s inevitably one passenger who wakes up the final morning to realize he’s packed everything except for the jammies he’s wearing.
- You can carry it yourself. This allows you to do your final packing the morning you arrive, so you don’t have to hand-carry your toiletries, jammies, or CPAP in a carry-on.
Customs and Immigration: At the end of your cruise, you may need to go through Customs and Immigration. Some ports use facial recognition station onboard the ship, while others require a traditional in-person passport inspection – which may require standing in line for a while. Be aware that Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale is the only cruise port that currently accepts Global Entry.
Unless you’ve carried your own luggage off the ship, your luggage will be waiting for you in a large warehouse-like building next to the cruise ship. The cruise lines usually have porters who can help you take the luggage to your car, taxi, Uber, or bus.
Leaving the Pier: Most cruise terminals offer several transportation options, including:
- You can take the cruise line’s shuttle from the ship to the airport. The cruise line will take your luggage the night before you arrive in port, and then give it back to you at the airport. Shuttle service prices range from $25 to $100 depending on the distance between the airport and the ship.
- If you’re staying at a local hotel, some hotels offer free or paid shuttles from the ship directly to the hotel. Alternatively, you can take the cruise line’s shuttle from the ship to the airport and then take the hotel shuttle to your hotel.
- Take a taxi or Uber. This is often the easiest option, and for a party of several people, the least expensive option. Be aware, however, that if you’re disembarking from a large ship, thousands of other people are going to be vying for those same taxis or Ubers.
Debark tours: Some cruises offer “debark tours” – short for Disembarkation Tours – as another option for getting from the ship to the airport, and in some cases, to selected hotels. These tours range from four to nine hours and usually include scenic drives, lunch, and stops at one or more attractions. As with their basic airport transfers, the cruise line will take your luggage the night before you disembark and then give it back to you at the airport.
Post-Cruise Hotel Packages: Some cruise lines offer post-cruise packages that include two or more nights at a hotel, local sightseeing, and transfers from the ship to the hotel, and from the hotel to the airport. Once again, this is a very convenient option if you’d like to spend a few days in the port before you leave, but it’s usually significantly more expensive than if you book the individual services yourself.
That’s it for this series of articles, and thanks for reading! And here are links to my previous articles if you’ve missed any:
- Part 1 – An Introduction to Cruising – Where and When to Cruise.
- Part 2 – New To Cruising? Let’s Talk Details.
- Part 3 – On Board Your Ship.
In my next article, I’ll explore Amtrak’s “long-distance” routes.