27 Mistakes You Should Avoid When Booking a Cruise
Expert tips so your next cruise is smooth sailing
Cruises are supposed to be easy, all-inclusive vacations, where everything is taken care of the second you step onboard. But sometimes, one short oversight can turn your aquatic adventure into a nautical nightmare.
For instance, have you ever opened the door to your cabin and realized there's no space to move? Or forgot to read the fine print on a pricey drink package? Sure, mistakes happen—we’re all human, after all. Whether you’re a first-time cruiser or a savvy seafarer, there are always new tips and tricks to learn. Luckily, we’ve done the research for you and found the 27 common pitfalls to watch out for, from falling for the not-so-free perks or booking the wrong stateroom. With this advice in mind, you’re guaranteed to be smooth sailing. Bon voyage!
Not choosing the right cruise company
One of the reasons cruising is so popular is because there are thousands of lines and ships to choose from, meaning there’s one tailored for each traveler. If you’re excited about Norwegian’s Broadway shows and Speedway at sea, pick a bigger ship like Bliss or Encore. Want family-friendly waterslides and a trampoline park? Choose Carnival Panorama. If your idea of a great night out is Memphis Blues or classics at the Lincoln Center, sail with Holland America. Or, book a luxurious river cruise on Viking for a cultural European experience. We know it may sound cliché, but there really is something for everyone’s travel wish list when it comes to cruising.
Not using a third-party program
There are major perks to not booking direct with a cruise line. Frequent flyer? Visit your favorite airline’s travel portal, like Delta Skymiles Cruises, to earn thousands of bonus miles and on-board spending credits. You’ll usually be able to combine these perks with whatever offers you receive from your chosen cruise line. Or, check your credit card to earn extra membership rewards (pro tip: American Express has fantastic benefits). If you’re a Costco member, you’ll receive shipboard credit and a Costco cash card bonus for booking there.
Waiting for last-minute reduced pricing
Like most things in the travel world, finding the right time to book can seem like a gamble. Yes, it’s possible your preferred sailing could lower in price as the sail date approaches. If you want to snag a sale and have flexibility, it might be better to check in with Costco’s last-minute deals or with a travel site like Priceline. But if you have your eyes on a specific sailing, book when the price feels good enough to you. Otherwise, you risk a cruise fare increase as the sail date approaches, and you might be priced out.
Not understanding travel insurance
Cruise lines always offer insurance plans, but you’d be surprised how much isn’t covered. Little accidents can add up to big expenses, especially when traveling abroad. Check with your credit card or Credit Karma to determine if you already have coverage for basics like lost luggage or car rental damages. For medical evacuation or coverage of existing conditions, seek a broader range of insurance by researching companies like Allianz Travel.
Procrastinating on dinner plans
Temptation is real when it comes to specialty dining establishments. Some, in fact, get booked to capacity well before sail away. Pay attention to pre-sailing notices from your cruise line to make reservations before you board. Or, book a spot the first free moment you have after boarding. But don’t blow your whole budget on upcharge restaurants. You may find the buffet has enough variety and flavor to keep you satisfied around the clock. There are also complimentary options that are often overlooked—like Norwegian Bliss’s Local Bar & Grill for 24-hour, made-to-order dining, Holland America’s included in-room dining service, and Carnival’s Guy Fieri Burger Joint.
Not considering the ship size
In the case of cruising, bigger isn’t always better. Simply put, more decks to explore equals more stairs and longer elevator rides. Compare Norwegian Encore, which has a capacity of 3,998 guests, and Norwegian Pearl, which can carry 2,394 people. While Encore has an abundance of entertainment and activities, it could be overwhelming for a short sailing, or perfect when traveling in a group with diverse interests. If you prefer a low-key vibe with less passengers queuing up for tenders, Pearl may be your ideal.
Not budgeting for drink packages
Just about every cruise line will offer complimentary juice, tea, coffee, and non-bottled water, but you’ll incur charges for specialty espressos, soda, and bottled water. If you sip enough soda, you may find a soda package suits you. Whether you purchase a single can at the bar or go for the package, soda is subject to additional gratuity and service charges. While many cruise lines forbid guests from bringing aboard their own beverages, others have specific limitations like no bottles. Pro tip: Limited soda cans are allowed on Carnival.
Believing free perks are actually free
By now, most cruisers know to plan ahead for daily service charges for each passenger. This ensures each crew member receives a gratuity so you won’t need to tip throughout your sailing. But, did you know the free perks you sign up for often incur additional charges? You may be swayed by promotions for a free booze package or specialty dining deal, but read the fine print: you’ll still pay an additional gratuity and service charge on the value of the package. That can add up to a hefty charge on your final bill, so be prepared and choose your perks accordingly.
Not picking an affordable phone plan
Maybe you have an awesome all-inclusive phone and data plan, but chances are that won’t include usage on a cruise ship. If you need to stay in touch while aboard, check if your carrier has a cruise plan like AT&T, which has talk, text, and data packages on more than 170 cruise ships. Set your phone to airplane mode to avoid roaming charges. If you don’t have a plan that covers land usage around the world, check the costs associated with countries you’re visiting and either plan to pony up or stick to WiFi in cafes.
Not thinking beyond local ports
There may be an abundance of domestic embarkation points not far from home, so maybe it’s never occurred to you to sail from an international port. But cruising is a fantastic way to see the world comfortably with one major mode of transportation and a dependable bed to call home each night. If you’ve always wanted to see Europe, look at sailings on Viking, which offers coastal and river cruises through a number of countries. Think: exploring the majestic fjords in Norway or the Douro River Valley wine region in Portugal.
Booking a balcony suite
Sure, if you’re sailing through Alaskan glaciers or the Panama Canal, it may seem like a great idea to secure a perfect viewing spot with a private balcony suite. However, chances are you’ll spend more time roaming the promenade deck and observation level to get panoramic views. And sometimes two cruise ships dock next to each other, so in the morning, when you throw open your curtains, you’ll be staring into someone else’s suite instead of at the majestic view you expected (and paid extra for).
Not researching room locations
Here’s a heads up for first-time cruisers: where your cabin is located on the ship matters. If you think you may be prone to seasickness, aim for a mid-ship stateroom to get the best balance and stability over rough waters. Whether you want to be close to the elevators or one flight of stairs away from the buffet, each ship has a perusable deck plan so you can find the best location for your particular interests. Same goes for avoidances: stay clear of music venues and service elevators if you like to turn in early.
Going on a long-weekend getaway
So you have Friday and Monday off and think this is the perfect time for a leisurely sailing? Long weekends make for great getaways to Mexico and the Bahamas, but chances are you’ll find yourself surrounded by a ship full of party-seekers. If that’s your vibe, you’re good. Otherwise, keep in mind peak travel times when planning your journey. That includes school breaks and holidays where large groups and families gather. Seek weekday sailings or lengthier journeys if you prefer a quieter pace.
Not timing arrivals and departures
Airline delays. Lost luggage. Traffic backups. You know travel can be unpredictable. Save yourself the frustration and stress during embarkation by flying in the day before your ship is scheduled to sail. This is especially true when traveling to overseas ports. You’ll get a decent sleep while adjusting to a new time zone and not be rushing to the port. For the flight home, avoid tightly timed transfers to the airport. It’s never guaranteed the ship docks precisely when planned, and you don’t want to rearrange international flights. Another perk to adding a day or two cushion? More time to explore a new city or country!
Not leaving early enough
Your ship may be scheduled to sail away at 5 p.m., but keep in mind there will be a mandatory safety briefing likely one hour prior to departure. You also want to stow your luggage in your cabin, take advantage of the buffet, and get a feel for the ship layout. So plan to arrive several hours in advance of official departure. Take a hotel shuttle, taxi, or public transit for the smoothest arrival at the port.
Assuming your ship will wait if you’re late
Timing is everything, but when on vacation it can be easy to overlook time zone changes or little adjustments to the daily itinerary. No one wants you to miss the boat, so to speak, so it’s critical to follow the ship’s official clock at all times. Pay attention to nightly notices for upcoming time zone adjustments. And, for goodness sake, don’t cut it too close when returning from a port. Give yourself plenty of time to get through ship security before the horn blows.
Not converting to foreign currency
While it seems like Visa and Mastercard are accepted just about everywhere, you’ll want to pay attention to whether foreign transaction fees are included with your credit cards. For smaller purchases or public transit, it may be more common to pay in local currency. Research to see if your home bank waives exchange fees, or whether you’d incur fees using an ATM while in port.
Not knowing your cruise line policies
Common sense says if it’s illegal at home, leave it at home. Yet cruise lines have a growing list of policies some passengers fail to read up on in advance. Avoid embarkation delays and onboard scolding by reading up in advance. You can’t bring your own kegger. Most ships have dedicated smoking areas, so avoid if you want or find them if you want. And leave the drone at home.
Not cancelling or rescheduling in time
Maybe you caught a great “no deposit” deal and are looking forward to a fantastic getaway. Good for you. Just be sure to pay in full by the final due date before sailing, or you risk losing your cabin. If you’ve paid in full but need to cancel, be sure to do so within the allowable timeline or you may lose all or some of your fare. Always read the contract fine print.
Not double checking the itinerary
Do you look forward to lazy days at sea, soaking up the sun by the pool? Or would you rather explore a new city every day? Knowing what type of traveler you are helps when it comes to choosing the right itinerary. Beach bums may love sailing to private islands in the Bahamas, but if you’re a culture seeker you may prefer a port-heavy itinerary that visits multiple countries. Even city hoppers may appreciate a break with sea days spread throughout longer sailings. Check the day-by-day itinerary before you book to find the right balance for you.
Are you the kind of traveler who enjoys discovering things on your own? Or do you prefer to be driven around on a guided tour? Cruise lines start touting official excursions the minute you book, and these can be a great way to organize your activities in advance, particularly for traveling to unfamiliar territory. Some port cities, though, are super easy to navigate on your own, and don’t require a tour or taxi to see the highlights. Research the locations of ports to determine accessibility, proximity to landmarks, and remember you can always book excursions once aboard your ship.
Bringing items that aren’t allowed
Beyond the obvious prohibited items—weapons, hazardous materials, drugs, etc.—there are a bunch of surprising things you shouldn’t bring onboard. For instance, most cruise lines prohibit extension cords (but staterooms have ample power outlets, so you shouldn’t have a problem charging your electronics). You also won’t be able to pack your own hair dryer, which is fine because cabins are stocked with one for you.
Not triple checking the weather
Even during the peak of summer, it can be wet and chilly in Alaska. Pack for a variety of weather conditions and expect the unexpected or you’ll find yourself purchasing a souvenir umbrella or an extra-large sunhat. Extreme weather changes can also modify your sailing itinerary. You may find a discounted sailing during hurricane season, but prepare with these weather tips from Celebrity Cruises. However, most tropical thunderstorms are more like afternoon showers that blow over quickly, so don’t be too dismayed if you see precipitation in the forecast.
Not packing correctly
Even if your dreamy Caribbean cruise promises endless days of sunshine and surf, you’ll need to pack a variety of footwear. If your ship offers laser tag or a raceway, you’ll need closed-toe shoes. Keep comfort in mind for wandering hours in a humid port town. And if you plan on any formal dining nights, there’s usually a dress code in effect limiting beachwear.
Not bringing a blend of casual and formal attire
It used to be that formal nights really meant decking yourself out to the nines, but dress codes are continually evolving. Even if your itinerary includes a formal night, you only need to dress up if you’re having dinner at a specialty restaurant or attending a cocktail reception. If you’re headed to the buffet, dress codes are more relaxed. Check your ship’s guidelines, as you may need a collared shirt for some dining venues.
Not organizing your luggage
It’s so great to have cruise line luggage porters load your bags during embarkation so you can sail through security and start enjoying the ship. If you want to take an early dip in the pool, though, you’ll need swimwear. And sunblock. And that fabulous floppy hat that makes you look like a movie star. On embarkation day, keep a piece of carry-on luggage with you for any immediate wardrobe changes and necessities like medications, travel documents, and phone chargers.
Overpaying for on-board sunscreen
Consider it a given that anything you forget to pack may be available within ship stores—but at a steep price. Bring a suitable amount of sunscreen, as ships typically charge triple what you’d usually pay. Also grab enough over-the-counter pain meds, toiletries, and other sundries or you’ll fork over a hefty amount while onboard. If you do run out of basics, wait to hit up discount shops in your next port.