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Unsure How To Book A Cruise? Here's Some Helpful Tips

Updated: 1 day ago

Booking a cruise doesn't need to be a daunting task. My inbox is flooded daily with promotions from cruise lines - some I've traveled with, and others who have managed to hunt down my email address on their own. I'd say I'm averaging 3-5 emails from cruise lines a day, all boasting the next best thing in cruise travel. How do I sort through the deals and pick the best one? How do I book a cruise that works for me?


A white cruise ship sails past white washed homes on a hillside

Note: Always Pack Tissues represents many tried and tested travel sites as what is called an 'affiliate' partner. That means if you click on my ads I may get a commission from a resulting sale.



Start with VacationsToGo


Always, always always. Start at vacationstogo.com.


Sign up for an account


You don't need to give them too much info. Just sign in with your email address.


Use Their Search Features


A screenshot of vacationstogo's website search functionality

There are three primary search features:


The 90-Day Ticker


The 90-Day Ticker is excellent for people looking to book a last minute cruise. The ticker is not meant to show all cruises within 90 days of departure, but is a snapshot of the best deals in the next 90 days.


'Find a Bargain' Basic Search


By selecting fields from the drop down options, you can narrow down whether you want a 3-6 day cruise, a 7 day cruise, name a departure port of your preference, and even pick a general time frame and region.



Custom Search


The custom search can be found by clicking the 'more search options' hyperlink. Once there, the drop down selections expand greatly and help you to narrow down your search further.


Let's say you already have plane tickets booked to Spain for September 10-20, but you're thinking maybe you'd like to catch a Mediterranean cruise from Barcelona somewhere in those dates. With their detailed dates field, you can narrow to exactly which departure dates would work for you.


You can also exclude certain cruise lines. For instance, if you really hate the idea of a party ship, exclude Carnival. Or maybe you don't want to be the only young family on a ship of mostly elderly folks, then exclude Cunard.


A lot of cruise lines have reputations for being one thing or another, but the best overall ships (in my opinion) for all folks include Norwegian, Princess, Royal Caribbean, MSC and Costa.


There are even options to choose the ship name, should you have a preference, the number of passengers, and the year the ship was built. Some people want new ships or small ships, so these options really help you to narrow it down.



How To Interpret The Search Results


Below is an example snippet of a quick search for a Bahamas cruise from August to September. Notice that you can sort by number of nights, sailing date, departure port, cruise line, rating, and 'our starting price'.


Example screen for bahamas search


What is PPDO or "Double Occupancy"?


In the top fields you can also choose the cheapest 'ppdo oceanview', 'ppdo balcony' and so on. This means cheapest "per person double occupancy".


Every cruise ship room (cabin) has space for a certain number of guests. The room price is based on two people per room, i.e., "double occupancy".


If you are a single traveler, there will be a single supplement charge on top of the double occupancy rate. If you are traveling with children, sometimes they sail free, or for a reduced cost.


VacationsToGo and most other travel agency sites show only the double occupancy rates. You typically have to call to get the other member prices.



What Type Of Cabin Should I Choose?


When sorting by your preffered PPDO option, you are sorting based on your preferred cabin. For me, I never choose anything less than an oceanview cabin unless the ship is sold out and I REALLY want on board. Choosing your stateroom is an important part of the booking process, so it's vital to know what type of travel is appropriate for you in the beginning.


Families with small children may want to consider an oceanview for safety reasons (versus a balcony), and adults may enjoy the luxury (and fresh air!) that a balcony provides.


Interior cabins are for those who don't plan to spend much time in the room and don't mind sleeping in a dark crypt every night (pro tip: bring a nightlight!).



FastDeal Numbers


Once you have narrowed down to one or two cruises, it is time to share the details with your family! Use the FastDeal numbers as reference numbers. They can input this number into the home page text field that says "FastDeal Lookup".


Have everyone review that may be joining.



How To Interpret The Cruise Details


Ok, so you found one you like. Here's the details screen:


Example fast deal with a picture of a cruise itinerary around Florida

The elements of the results are clear - the "brochure price" versus the VacationsToGo price for all levels of cabins, the itinerary, and a map of the trip. Tabs detail more amazing facts like what the ship looks like, the year it was built, when it was last refurbished, deck plans, and even weather and details for each of the ports of call.


You can easily see photos of the ship, the dining areas and more. It's a pretty great roundup compared to deep diving all over a cruise ship website trying to find deck plans and itineraries among a sea of ads and very enticing clickbait photos of activities on board.



Use This As Your Search Tool


So why am I showing all this to you? I want you to be aware of and utilize VacationsToGo as your search tool, first and foremost.


Sometimes you know you want to cruise but have no idea where to start. It's here. Always.


Once you find your ship, your dates and your friends to dine with, it's time to book. Here's your options.




How To Book A Cruise


Depending on your status with certain cruise lines or credit card companies, there are many options available to you.


Start On The Cruise Line Website


Although this may seem like the most expensive option, hear me out. Deals are popping up all the time - sometimes kids sail free or they offer onboard cruise credit. Sometimes little freebies like wifi or drink packages are included, or extra discounts are applied for being a frequent cruiser with a particular line. (Side note: always join the loyalty programs when you sail!).


Go through the process of booking online as if you were going to click 'save and submit'. Get all the way to the payment page.


During this process, find the best cabin for you and the cabin number. Do this by searching the deck map. Make sure that your room is not situated directly over a bar or club, or has obstructed views, and make sure your party is together or where you can access stairs and elevators easily.


Play with the cabin classes and see what deal looks good to you. Save the prices on a sheet of paper and exit the process without booking.


Next, you will compare to the travel agency prices and the price you found on VacationsToGo.



Book Through A Travel Agency


a blonde woman with an ear piece in front of computer, a customer support rep

You can book through numerous travel websites like Cruise Critic, Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity. These sites are often thought of as search tools, but they are also travel agencies, which means they can aggregate the best prices to top out going to the cruise line directly. Find the cruise you like, and follow the online prompts to book.


You can also book with VacationsToGo (our favorite of the search tools). To do this, simply call the number on their website and reference the FastDeal number. An agent will be assigned to work with you throughout the booking process until the day you sail at no extra fee to you.


Booking through agencies will often get you discounts, so be sure to compare to the cruise line website directly.



Book Through Your Credit Card Loyalty Program


As a Marriott Bonvoy Member, I often check the prices on the Marriott Cruises website. You can cruise with points by spending them like cash, although I don't feel the value is worth it. Instead, book with your Marriott card or Marriott membership through this portal and receive at least 3x the points that you would have booking elsewhere.


Points add up to free nights in the future, so if you plan on spending money, you may as well make some money in return.



Choose The Best Option And Reserve


Finally after comparing the travel agencies, loyalty programs and booking with the cruise line directly, choose your favorite and book.



What Do I Need To Book A Cruise?


At the time of booking, all you need is a credit card to reserve the deposit, which is typically a few hundred dollars off the total sum.



Can I Cancel A Cruise After I Book It?


Once you have booked, you are still able to cancel and get your deposit back until typically around 90 days before the sailing date. This is a great feature if you change your mind or plans change.



What Do I Need To Do After My Cruise Is Booked?


First, I like to make sure and log in directly to the cruise website to associate my booking ID number with my account. Whether I booked through an agency or directly, I want to visualize my cruise on the cruise line website immediately to be sure everything was booked correctly.


I browse around to see if there is anything else I need to take care of like any VISA requirements or passport information needed. Typically I am just clicking through each page of the booking confirmation to see what's what.


You can also begin to browse excursions offered, spa and drink packages and other custom items to add to your cruise. It is not necessary to reserve any of this at the time of booking, although I do recommend booking excursions a few months out.


At this point, you can put everything away and focus on planning your days in port like what to do and what to eat, what's in port, or if you should plan a walking day on your own.


You can start your web check-in process, but it's not necessary until the cruise date gets closer.


The cruise line will be sure to email you all the necessary steps over the course of time between booking and the sail date.



How Early In Advance Should I Book A Cruise?


It is common to book cruises 6-12 months in advance of sailing. Sometimes you can find last minute cruises for cheap to the Bahamas or Caribbean, but in general the ships are selling out early. My last ship in Japan even went out at half or partial capacity due to COVID (three years post lockdown!), so the ship appeared to be "sold out" when booking.


Book early to get the best cabins and the best prices. If you see a good deal now, it may not be there next week. And remember, you are only putting down a deposit so you can always change it.



Can I Change My Booking After I Have Reserved It?


Yes! In fact, I encourage this. Sometimes if it looks like a ship is going to sell out, I book the cheapest interior room that I can in order to just get on board. In most cases rooms will open up and I can call my agency or the cruise line to get an upgrade to the next class of room.


You can also call your agency or cruise line to change your cabin at any time (pending availability), and can figure out available rooms by pretending to book a fresh new reservation. This will show you the available rooms and current prices.


There are almost always incentives in advance of the cruise to register for a paid upgrade, as well. Sometimes they are worth it, but typically my advice is to keep calling your agency or cruise line to see about moving up in the cabin classes.



Overall


At the end of the day, the price differences don't vary THAT wildly so book with the agency or cruise line that makes you most comfortable. You will be "stuck" with them until you sail.


If you are unsure about how to book a cruise, I hope that this guide has been helpful in getting you on the right path. Booking a cruise shouldn't be stressful, and should be a pleasant and easy experience with these handy booking tools.


If you want to cruise like a pro, be sure to brush up on my advice on common mistakes cruisers make so the next time you set sail you know what to avoid!


Bon Voyage!

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