My husband likes to joke that planning for a trip is the best part – even better than actually taking the trip! While it’s true that research actually does back him up, sort of, I’m not sure I totally agree. But planning for a cruise is fun – and in many cases, it’s an important part of making sure you have an enjoyable trip, too.
Of course, you could walk on your cruise ship with nothing planned ahead of time, and you might still have a wonderful time. But if planning really is a big part of the fun, why not do some of that too? Here are a few of my thoughts on things that you should plan before your cruise, especially for those of you who may be new to cruising, or who might be back after taking several years’ break. (If you’re cruising on a newer, bigger ship – such as the Royal Caribbean Oasis or Anthem Class – make sure to read this section #4 below about reservations for entertainment and Broadway-style shows.)
- Food and drinks. When I started cruising in earnest in the 2000s, we often joked about being afraid of our onboard bill at the end of the week, because we’d racked up such a large tab at the bar. 😉 Today’s cruises offer an alternative to this big-bill-panic: The unlimited beverage package. There are lots of opinions on the web about whether you should buy a beverage package (also here and here), and of course I have my own thoughts too. But one thing is clear: If you are going to buy a beverage package, you should absolutely do so before your cruise, as the prices will be cheaper and the cruise lines will sometimes offer pre-cruise sales.
Another new trend is cruising is what’s called specialty dining. These are meal options that aren’t included in your basic cruise fare; they’re often somewhat more upscale and the service and setting are more intimate than the main dining room. These options vary from cruise line to cruise line; for instance, Royal Caribbean’s specialty restaurants often charge a flat fee, where Norwegian’s tend to charge a la carte. If you want to check these options out, I’d highly suggest that you look online in your cruise planner for special offers, as you can often get a deal by buying your specialty dining ahead of your cruise.
- Shore excursions. As a frequent cruiser, I’ve become much more DIY about my schedule when a cruise is in port. I often do some research myself and sometimes just wind up walking around the port city, especially if it’s a place I’ve not been to before. But if you’d rather have someone do the work for you, you might want to consider a shore excursion, which is a preplanned tour at your cruise port. You can buy these through the cruise line by visiting the online site before your cruise, or you can do this on board your cruise. Planning and buying ahead, however, guarantees you a space in the excursion of your choice, and sometimes you might even find your excursion slightly discounted by buying ahead.
- Internet access. As a travel agent and blogger, I pretty much need to have access to the internet at all times. (Also, I might be a little addicted to Twitter, haha.) Maybe you like to take your cruise vacations as an opportunity to disconnect from the world, and you don’t need internet access. That’s great! But if you do want to buy an internet package, you should look to do so before your trip and purchase online. You’ll usually get much lower prices this way than if you buy internet on the ship. Most cruise lines offer a variety of packages at different price points. (My husband and I tend to buy the package for 1 device and share the access – it just means that we can’t both be logged on at the same time, but we can work around that.)
- Entertainment. Traditionally, you could attend cruise ships’ nightly entertainment shows by simply walking into the theater and taking a seat. But on many of today’s cruise ships, entertainment is a far cry from the shows I saw when I first started cruising with my mom in the 1990s. Royal Caribbean, in particular, has really amped up its entertainment game with shows like Grease (Harmony and Independence of the Seas), Cats (Oasis of the Seas), Hairspray (Symphony of the Seas), and my favorite, Mamma Mia (Allure of the Seas). Due to increased demand – and the ever-increasing number of passengers on these cruise ships – you now have to pre-book your reservations for many shows on these ships. In many cases, you can opt to join a walk-up line on the day of the show, but if you want to ensure that you won’t be left out in the cold, pre-booking your reservations is the way to go.
You can also book spa treatments and other on-board amenities and activities before your cruise – or if you prefer, you can wait until you’re on the cruise and see if the mood strikes you. After all, you’re on vacation!