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Pre-Cruise Planning Checklist


While one of the major appeals of booking a cruise vacation is the convenience, there's a lot of planning that goes into it before stepping foot onboard. 

From validating your passport to making travel arrangements, booking pre-cruise add-ons, and completing the online check-in, you're likely to have your cruise in the back of your mind for weeks leading up to the actual sail date. 

Rather than saving important tasks until the last minute, we've created the best pre-cruise planning checklist to ensure that you don't miss any steps! 

What should you do before you book your cruise?

Make sure that your documentation is up-to-date


If your cruise is over one year away, you have a little bit more leniency, as you will have time to renew your passport or locate your birth certificate. 

However, those who are booking a last-minute cruise, even those that are two or three months away, will want to make sure that they have a valid passport at least six months after the cruise's sail date. If you notice that the expiration date is one or two weeks after the cruise, you'll be scrambling to get a new one before you leave, and this can be pretty costly! 

Similarly, cruisers who are going the birth certificate/valid photo I.D. route will want to locate these documents first! 

Read more: Can you go on a cruise without a passport?

Get a travel insurance quote

insurance form

If you're a frequent traveler, you may benefit from an annual travel insurance plan, whereas the occasional cruiser might prefer to see if they can get a one-time plan from their chosen cruise line. 

The purpose of travel insurance is to provide peace of mind if something does happen while on vacation. Whether it's a medical emergency, lost luggage, or delayed flight, travel insurance can help offset the costs of these unfortunate events.

You can expect the pricing to be between 6-15% of your total cruise fare, if purchasing it through the cruise line. Prior to booking your cruise, you can price out a vacation on the cruise line's website (or through a travel agent), and it'll give you a rough estimate of how much insurance will cost. 

Read more: Cruise travel insurance and why you need it

Place your PTO request

Carnival cruise ship sailing from Miami

My dad works in the furniture industry in North Carolina, so taking time off work in February or August is rather difficult because of the markets. While it's possible, he would never book a trip during those months without getting time off approved beforehand. 

Even if you're certain your employer will say yes, it's best to just run the dates by them before making any finalized plans. In the event that they say no (perhaps it'll be a busy month or someone else has already taken those days off), you can simply look at other sail dates! 

Find a trusty house/pet sitter


Unfortunately, you cannot bring your four-legged friends with you onboard. If you have a trusted pet sitter, check their availability before placing your deposit. 

You want your furry companions to be in the best possible hands, so you do not have to worry about them while you're gone. Similarly, you won't want just anyone checking your mail and watering your pants. 

Moreover, if you're taking a vacation without the kids, make sure that grandma and grandpa are available to watch them! Otherwise, the trip for two might turn into a trip for four. 

Research what cruise line, ship, and cabin meets your needs


With over seven mainstream cruise lines and 100+ ships sailing across the globe, picking the right cruise can seem overwhelming. It is, after all, going to be your home away from home for a while! Each cruise line targets a certain demographic and aims to offer a unique experience to keep customers coming back for future sailings. 

Whether you're seeking a family-friendly cruise onboard Royal Caribbean's mega-ships or a port-intensive European cruise on a more relaxed Celebrity sailing, there's the perfect ship and line for you; all you have to do is dedicate the time to research!

Once you've selected the perfect cruise line and ship for your travel party, you'll have to choose what stateroom is best. Those on a budget might be limited to interior rooms, whereas those with mobility issues will want to ensure that they select an accessible cabin. If you're worried about motion sickness, try and select a cabin on a lower deck in the middle of the vessel. 

Read more: What are the best cruise lines of 2024 for every traveler?

Make sure you choose the right dining time (i.e., traditional or flexible)


When you book your cruise vacation, you'll have two options for dinner (on most cruise lines). The first is set dining, meaning that you'll eat at the same time each evening with the same wait staff. There's also a flexible option that allows you to either make reservations in advance or show up to the main dining room whenever you're hungry.

Of course, there are pros and cons to each, so it's important to consider which makes the most sense for you. Do you want to have the same wait staff each evening, or would you prefer the freedom of not having to structure your plans around a set dining time?

If you go with a set time, you'll be able to select from an early or late option. Again, there are pros and cons to each. While you can try and change it once onboard, it's subject to availability.

Read more: Guide to flexible dining vs traditional dining on a cruise ship

What should you do after booking the cruise?

Advise the cruise line of any special requests 


If you have any dietary restrictions, you'll want to let the cruise line know ahead of time. According to Royal Caribbean's website, "A variety of vegetarian meals are available on all menus in the Main Dining Room and Windjammer Cafe every day. Guests do not need to make a special request for these meals."

"Lactose-free/soy milk, ensure, and kosher meals are available at no extra charge. All you have to do is notify us at least 45 days prior to sailing (90 days for European/South American Itineraries)."

Similarly, Carnival's website states that prepackaged kosher meals can be provided, so long as you give them two needs notice before your sail date. 

Other special requests may include an in-room crib, medical needs, etc. 

Request your preferred bed configuration


The majority of mainstream cruise lines allow you to select bed preferences ahead of time. This means that you can either keep the two twin beds together to form a larger bed or have them split. If you forget to do this pre-cruise, you can always ask your cabin steward on embarkation day

I will have the beds separated when traveling with friends; however, I actually prefer a larger bed when traveling alone, even though it makes the room feel a bit more cramped. 

Note that this isn't available on all lines, such as Celebrity Cruises

Read more: Cruise ship cabin stewards: who are they and what do they do?

If you booked flexible dining, make sure that you make your dining reservations, if applicable 


Some cruise lines (i.e., Royal Caribbean and Celebrity) will allow you to make dining reservations for the Main Dining Room in advance. 

Of course, if you selected set dining, you won't have to worry about this. For those who like to have a plan, however, you will know when you are eating each night and be able to schedule your dinners around shore excursions, spa treatments, etc. If you wait until you're onboard, you might not have as many times to select from. 

Note that if you're sailing on Carnival, for instance, their flexible dining works differently. Rather than making reservations in advance, you'll simply check in on the app when you're ready to eat every day of the cruise. 

Download the cruise line mobile app


Today, many cruise lines have their own mobile apps, which not only streamline the check-in process but enhance the onboard experience, too. 

For instance, rather than having to carry around a paper copy of the ship's schedule, you'll most likely be able to access it on your phone through the app. 

Depending on which cruise line you are sailing with, you might be able to do even more with the application, such as open your stateroom door, adjust the lighting in your cabin, make dining reservations, order food to your exact location on the ship, and more. 

Read more: The best cruise apps you need before your next sailing (2024)

For those driving, it might be advantageous to research and book port parking ahead of time

Parking Garage

If you're lucky enough to live within driving distance of your cruise port, you're likely going to bypass the hassle of air travel. Of course, this means that you'll have to pay to park your car, as parking is not free. 

Each port will have on-site parking; however, if you are looking to save some money, you can also consider independent lots. 

Regardless of which option you go with, booking parking ahead of time will ensure that you have a spot upon arrival, which can be important during peak cruising seasons. 

Guests flying into the port will need to decide how they're going to get from the airport to the terminal (i.e., cruise line transfers, rideshare, taxi, etc.)


Once you land at the airport, you'll want to make sure that you have a plan. You don't want to waste time figuring out how to get to the terminal. Plus, doing your research is the best way to make sure that you're getting the best deal. 

Cruise line transfers, for instance, tend to be more expensive than rideshares or taxis. If, however, the airport is quite a distance from the terminal (i.e., Rome to Civitavecchia or Heathrow to Southampton), you might value the convenience of having prearranged transfers. 

Speaking of flights, you won't want to wait too long to book them, as the price will likely increase the closer you get to your sail date. 

Read more: Pros and cons: should I book my flight through my cruise line?

Book a pre-cruise hotel

hotel stock image

The biggest mistake you can make for your cruise is flying in the morning of your sailing. Not only does arriving the evening prior mean that you can sleep in, but you'll also have less to worry about; there won't be any need to constantly check the airline app to ensure that your flight is on time or try and rebook because of a pesky last-minute cancellation. 

Personally, I like to try and utilize my credit card rewards to offset the cost of a hotel. Even if the hotel is just $200, saving that cash means that I have more money to spend on add-ons, such as a drink package, shore excursions, specialty dining, etc. 

Read more: The costly cruising mistake newbies make planning their first cruise

Peruse your cruise line's online planner and book any cruise add-ons that you're interested in


While the amount varies, most cruise lines offer discounts on pre-cruise purchases. This can save you a considerable amount of money on things like drink packages, Wi-Fi, and shore excursions. Plus, if you wait until you are onboard, you might find that your desired tour or specialty restaurant is fully booked. 

The more you plan in advance, the less you'll have to deal with when you are on the ship. Why wait to purchase a drink package onboard when you can step foot on the ship and head straight to the bar? 

Similarly, if you book a shore excursion one evening after you prepare dinner at home, you won't have to visit the shore excursions desk during your cruise, giving you more time to enjoy everything happening elsewhere! 

Read more: 16 hidden cruise ship extra charges you should know about (2024)

Ensure that your cruise is paid off in full by the final payment date


If you book your cruise in advance, you'll only have to pay a deposit. You will have until a specified date to pay the remainder of the balance in full. What's great about cruises is that there aren't any plans, either. Hypothetically, you can wait until the day the balance is due to pay it all. Of course, you do not want to forget. 

If you miss the final payment date, you could lose your entire reservation and deposit money, so you should ensure that you double, triple, and quadruple-check the date! If you have a travel agent, they will remind you ahead of time. 

According to Norwegian Cruise Line, their final payment on all sailings between 1 and 7 nights is 120 days, regardless of whether you're staying in a standard cabin or a suite. 

Complete your cruise line's online check-in process (the earlier the better!)


The date on which your online check-in will open varies based on the cruise line. Norwegian, for instance, opens their check-in portal 21 days prior to sailing, whereas Carnival opens theirs 14 days before.  

Like the final payment date, you will want to mark the date that your portal opens, especially if you want to score an earlier arrival time, as they tend to go pretty quickly. Once this is done, you'll be able to print your luggage tags and boarding passes. 

The check-in process usually entails inputting your personal information and travel documentation, setting up your onboard expense account, and selecting an emergency contact. Truthfully, it has never taken me more than 10-15 minutes, and I've sailed onboard Royal Caribbean, Carnival, and MSC ships within the past year!

Read more: Royal Caribbean check-in process

Book any pre-cruise beauty appointments


While there's nothing wrong with visiting the spa or salon while on the cruise, it'll save you money to do it ahead of time! Plus, you won't have to waste your time on the ship sitting in a chair. 

Of course, if you have a particular stylist that you prefer, you'll have to make your appointment ahead of time— sometimes months! I am rather picky about who I let color my hair, so I always try to ensure that I have a hair appointment on the books every 3-4 months. 

Nails aren't as difficult to schedule; however, I don't have a preferred nail artist, as I don't get them done much. Note that if you want your manicure and pedicure to last longer, you'll want to go as close to your departure date as possible! Of course, there's nothing wrong with an at-home spa night, either! 

Read more: Tips, tricks, and ideas for the perfect cruise nails

Get cash and/or foreign currency

Dollar bills

Bringing cash on cruises often leads to some confusion. The fare has been paid, and if you're charging everything from your onboard expense account to your credit card, why bother keeping up with some annoying bills?

Well, if you go ashore, you won't be able to simply pull out that plastic card. You'll either need your debit/credit card or cash handy. Moreover, should you feel inclined to tip your cabin steward, bartender, or other crew member, you'll have bills available. 

The ATM fees on ships are pretty hefty, too; having cash will help you avoid them!

Read more: How much cash should you bring on a cruise?

What should you do the week leading up to your cruise?

Head to the store to restock any toiletries that you may need

travel sized toiletries

The night before I left for my cruise onboard Carnival Conquest, I realized that I had forgotten to buy contact solution at the store. I had an entire list of things I needed, and I somehow bypassed it! 

Upon landing in Miami, my friend and I had to make our way to a Walgreens located near our hotel; I didn't want to go one night without taking them out. Plus, I wasn't sure if the ship would have any, and if so, how much it would cost. 

Learn from my mistake and triple-check that you have everything you need in advance. While heading to the store wasn't the end of the world, we were lucky that we landed around 5:00pm. Otherwise, it would have been a late-night adventure. 

Read more: How to make your own DIY cruise first aid kit

Notify your bank of your travel plans


Before boarding Harmony of the Seas in 2018, my family and I flew into Fort Lauderdale to celebrate my sister's 16th birthday with a nice beachfront dinner. He forgot to tell Wells Fargo that he'd be traveling, and we ended up having some issues paying for Uber! 

By letting your bank know of your travel plans, you will eliminate them freezing your account due to suspicious activity. It's a smart practice in general, even if you're just traveling a few states away. 

Read more: 5 habits of successful cruisers

Check the weather forecast

Storm Caribbean

Encountering bad weather on vacation is a drag; you do not want to feel as though a day of sunny weather is wasted by heavy rain or choppy seas. Things, however, do happen! Instead of assuming your entire trip will be filled with blue skies and high temperatures, check the weather forecast before you begin packing. 

This is beneficial for all itineraries, especially if you're traveling somewhere that's subject to more variations, such as Alaska or Northern Europe. It's not uncommon for The Bahamas to encounter the occasional cold front in January, either. 

Read more: 25 Tips to deal with bad weather on a cruise

Don't wait until the last minute to begin packing

Packing basics

Packing for any trip can be a little stressful. Cruises can be especially difficult to pack for, as you aren't able to run out to a nearby drug or mega store if you forget something. 

Plus, stateroom storage space is pretty limited. If you're traveling with three or four in a single cabin, you will want to be mindful of how much stuff you're bringing, so it does not begin to feel cluttered. 

Your region will determine how you pack. While you might be only bringing swimsuits and shorts to the Caribbean, you'll want to focus on layers when packing for an Alaska cruise. Moreover, if you want to buy a few new outfits, you will need to give yourself time to place the order or run to the mall to try things on! 

Read more: 15 Packing Tips for First-Time Cruisers (2024)

Check-in for your flight, if applicable 

taking off airplane

If you're flying on an airline like Southwest, you'll want to ensure that you are ready when check-in opens, as you will be assigned a boarding number that determines when you can get on the plane. 

Even those with basic economy won't wait to wait, as you could get stuck with a less-than-ideal seat assignment.

Plus, you'll be able to pay for checked bags, so you can bypass this step at the airport. 

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