Hello lovelies! February is almost gone and that means I’m only about two months out from my next cruise. (Yay!) Today, I’m going to give you the brief story of how we found cruising and why we love it, then I will fast forward right into the planning. So if you are just looking for planning advice, skip down to the “5 Secrets to Planning a Cruise” section. (No worries, you won’t hurt my feelings if you do!)
We took a chance cruising for our first wedding anniversary even though we weren’t sure if we would like it. Living on a floating resort for a week is a little intimidating if you’ve never even stayed overnight on a ship before. But I’ll tell you this, by the time we let our napkins fall at dinner that first night, we knew that cruising was for us. So what was it about sailing through the Atlantic for 7 days that really got us hooked on cruising? The answer isn’t about all the crazy excursions we did, or even the beautiful views, it was that I had never truly been able to enjoy a vacation as much as I enjoyed that cruise. Sure, standing on the top of snowy Pike’s Peak Mountain in Colorado was magnificent, deep sea fishing in Key West was exhilarating, and stepping into the gates of Disney World is always magical, but all of those vacations come with certain amounts of stress and daily planning.
Every night and sometimes for lunch on other vacations, we would spend close to an hour or more looking up restaurants, then have to find our way there, wait sometimes close to an hour to be seated, and then figure out what to do after. Other vacations included waiting in long lines for rides or activities, or toting huge and heavy loads of items to the beach everyday. Not cruising. We enjoyed the cruise more than any other vacation, not because of all the incredibly fun excursions and activities we did (and there were a lot of those), but because this form of traveling is pretty much stress free. Every little thing is paid for in advance. You go to the same incredible restaurant every night for dinner (the menu changes daily) so there is no waiting to be seating or figuring out how to get there, and because it’s already paid for, when you are finished you just get up and leave. Everything from pools, to restaurants, from shows, to dancing and arcades, are all just a short walk away. Want to lay out at the pool? They have towels and chairs waiting there for you- just bring your book and you are set. What’s more- everyday your room steward will place a daily itinerary for the ship in your room with the time of every movie, stage show, trivia game, deck party, restaurant, and activity on board the ship. You just choose what, if any, you want to do and walk over to it. It’s that simple. Now that I’ve gushed about why you should choose a cruise, now I’ll dive right into my planning secrets that will help you plan the perfect cruise!
1. Plan Using Reviews
When you visit a cruise line’s website (we usually sail with Carnival), you may feel overwhelmed with options. Should you book a 6 day cruise to the Bahamas, an 8 day cruise to Puerto Rico, maybe even a 7 day to Mexico? There will be more options than hamburgers at a cook out.
Start by narrowing down your search to what ports you are willing to sail out of. Are you willing to fly to your port, or does it need to be in driving distance? If you are limited by when you can sail, go ahead and narrow down your travel months as well.
Once you’ve narrowed down your search, depending on port and time of year, you will still probably have about 10+ options to choose from. Now is where the research comes in. You want to not only look up reviews for the ports each cruising makes, but the ship itself. Not all ships are created equal, and can range in size, amenities, and upgrades. The reviews will help you make a more informed decision than any description on the cruise line’s website ever can.
The same goes for planning your excursions once you book your cruise. When looking at the descriptions for each adventure, I can guarantee that they all will sound pretty amazing. However, if the reviews don’t support the claims, then don’t do it. No matter how amazing it sounds, there is a reason why it only has two stars.
2. Plan With the Seasons
I know this step can be tricky when complex schedules come into play, and school calendars are restricting, but cruising at the right time can be an important factor to enjoying your cruise. If at all possible, cruising between December and May will not only get you the best price, but it will also help you have great weather during your cruise. Hurricane Season for the Caribbean begins in June, and ends in November with the height of season peaking later in the summer.
The same cruise in April, with the exact same ports, on the same ship costs about $200 more per person in June, and about $300 more per person in July. If you can schedule something in the December- May range, you can get a great deal and have a great chance for clear skies and smooth seas for your trip.
3. Plan Your Expenses On-Board and On-Shore
Everything you need to have a great trip is included in the cost while you are on-board. However, there are some extras that can really add up on you as you enjoy your week. The first tip I have here, is pre-pay your gratuities at the time of booking. It’s not an astronomical amount, and the service staff really go above and beyond. I think for our last 8 day cruise, gratuities were around $140 for the whole week for both of us- not bad.
Next are the other on-board extras. The drinks included in the price are water, tea, coffee, and lemonade. Which is fine for Shane and me because we don’t really care for soda and we don’t drink. But if you do, I would look into the bottomless bubbles or drink packages. Paying for the drinks a la carte could rack up astronomical fees by the end of the week.
My next tip is one that not many people do, but I’ve found to make the trip so stress free. So on the ship, you don’t use cash or card to pay for anything, the only form of currency is your room key. Like I said, everything you really need is already paid for, and you use your room key to pay for the extras. Most people link their room key with their debit or credit cards, so they can charge as needed on the ship. I don’t. It gets way too easy to swipe your card for extras when the method of payment just looks like a hotel room key. Instead, I visit guest services on the first day, and put a set amount of cash on our room keys so we can get a Shirley Temple or Cherry Coke here and there as we please, but we also can’t go over our set amount. Once the cruise is over, you will get any money left over back.
Now for on-shore expenses. Cash is everything. I would recommend deciding how much you want to spend during your trip, then divide the cash up per port. We usually just bring about $100 in cash on shore per port, and lock the rest up in our stateroom’s safe. You will definitely need cash for any taxis you take in port, and food that isn’t included in your excursion.
4. Plan WITH Your Group + Set Expectations
Maybe it’s just you and your partner, a family group, or a couple of tight friends- but no matter what you do, plan WITH your group. That doesn’t mean that every little thing has to be a group decision, but when choosing excursions, dining options, and activities, make sure your travel companions know what to expect. Do they need to bring jeans for horse back riding on the beach, what about extra-strong bug spray for a hike in the jungle? There is no better way to get someone complaining than for them to be caught off guard, or let down because they weren’t fully informed.
Once you have everything planned, setting expectations is important for any group trip. Will you be doing everything together or some things? And when is it designated that everyone is going to do their own things? Setting these expectations ahead of time can really eliminate some awkward situations.
5. Plan to Disconnect
You WILL have the opportunity to purchase wifi access while on-board the ship. Don’t do it. If you want your cruise to be a true break from the stress and hustle of everyday life, you need to distance yourself from that stress and hustle. No texts, no emails, no notifications- nothing. Once you are in port, you will run across a few cafes with wifi where you can send a few messages and upload some photos. Truly disconnecting is one of my FAVORITE parts of cruising.
I hope you enjoyed my “5 Secrets to Planning the Perfect Cruise”! Before I set sail again in April, I will write a cruise packing guide, and style guide- so become part of the Southern Dreaming blog community to receive updates on new posts. Have something you want to hear about? Let me know! I’m always looking for new ideas.
As always, Sweet Dreams and Happy Travels lovelies!