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13 Things Travel Experts Wish You Knew About Booking a Cruise

Career cruisers have the inside scoop on how to get the most out of your summer vacation at sea.

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Don’t wait till the last minute to book

Travel agent Marni Becker, Director of Cruise Sales for Protravel International in New York City, says that depending upon where you wish to travel—Alaska? Mediterranean? Caribbean? Baltic?—there is still some availability, but that the most popular itineraries, ships, and cabin categories fill up early. You’ll want to act fast if you want to book for travel this June through August. You still have time to book a summer cruise, she says, but, depending on the line, “you may not get that mid-ship verandah or suite.” Think outside the box with these little-known cruises even better than the Bahamas.

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Ask for help

Booking a cruise can be a daunting process, especially if you haven’t done it before. “Use a travel advisor to match your lifestyle with the best possible cruise line for you,” suggests Becker. “Remember, what your friends or neighbors like may not be your cup of tea.” Trained travel agents can help you save money on your trip, as well as help you determine which cabin category is the perfect fit for your vacation. Best of all, whether you’re traveling alone or with a big group, they’ll know your best options.

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Don’t fly in the same day you set sail

“Get your vacation started at least one day before your cruise by booking a hotel room near the ship,” suggests Christy Scannell, a Dream Vacations franchise owner from California. “That way you don’t have to sweat out possible flight delays or traffic jams that could hamper getting to the pier on time. Instead, you can enjoy a restful morning and then make your way to the ship refreshed, relaxed and ready to enjoy your cruise.” Avoid these other 16 airport mistakes to know before your next flight.

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Plan your excursions in advance

You have only one day to see most ports, even if, like Florence and Rome, they’re incredibly rich and interesting. That means you won’t want to waste time coming up with a game plan on the ground. Instead, pick up guide books or do some online research to determine the options and what you’d be most excited about seeing. “Figure out what you want to see in each port before you leave home,” Becker advises. “That will save you time and hassle during your cruise.” It will also ensure that you get to hit the highlights at each destination. Here are tips for picking the best cruise based on your travel goals.

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Don’t rush to strike out on your own

While it’s easy to find a nearby beach in the Caribbean and plan to just taxi there and back, major European cities require some forethought, especially if you’ve never been there before. “Don’t expect to simply do your own thing when you arrive in a cruise port,” says Scannell, adding that getting the most out of a big city means that guided tours make a lot of sense in that part of the world. Want to book better flights? Change your browsing mode. 

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Use a tour operator for your shore excursions

While cruise lines offer a wide range of tours in every port, and you always have the option of exploring on your own, tour operators can help you get to all the key sites in the limited time you have. Becker likes how efficient tour operators can be, and the fact that you can arrange private, customized tours. “Take into consideration your port times and what you want to get out of your experience in port. Do you want to tour the Hermitage en masse or do you want to visit specific works of art at your own pace?” she asks. “Do you want to wait in line to purchase admission into the Colosseum or do you want to skip that line and have a historian take you inside and explain its history?” Don’t miss these other 11 secret travel deals too good to pass up.

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Plan your sea days as well as your port days

Cruise ship decks can really fill up on sunny sea days, but many ships have serene alternative spaces that you can book. “You are likely to see a lot of children on summer cruises, says Scannell. “For a more peaceful day on deck, look for the ship’s adults-only areas. For example, Princess Cruises has The Sanctuary, where for a nominal fee you get a luxury lounge chair, beverage service, and soothing music.” Experts swear by these travel pillows– pick one up before your next trip.

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Help kids learn from their travels

“School might be out for the summer but that doesn’t mean learning needs to ends,” says Scannell, and parents can use summer vacations as an opportunity to help children understand the world around them. “Have small children draw pictures of what they learned. Older children and teens can star in and narrate their own videos (or selfies) as they travel. Not only will these provide fun pieces to use for ‘what I did on my summer vacation’ at school in the fall, but they can be compiled for a family vacation scrapbook.” Check out these other 18 things that can save the day when traveling with kids.

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Take advantage of the children’s programs on board

“Summer is a popular family vacation time, but the adults can get a break too, explains Amy Madson, a Cruises Inc. Independent Vacation Specialist from Florida. “Many of the programs will even offer dining options for the kids, allowing parents the chance to have a nice dinner talking to other adults. Take advantage of these other adult-friendly ways to have fun on a Disney cruise.

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Go to events hosted by the captain

Ohio-based travel writer and cruise expert Fran Golden says that the easiest way to get a free drink at sea is to attend parties the captain throws. This could include a welcome cocktail hour, or a pre-dinner toast for repeat cruisers.

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Pack water bottles

Summer sunshine and heat can dehydrate you quickly, especially when you’re running around, so be prepared. “Bring refillable water bottles, one color per person in your group, so you can easily quench your thirst on the go,” advises Scannell. These 11 tricks will keep you from getting sick on a cruise.

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Bring a power strip

Yes, that may sound like a funny packing suggestion for a summer vacation—bathing suits, flip flops … and a power strip? But, according to Golden, between cell phones and tablets, if you want to have enough space to charge everything at once, that’s exactly what you should do. “Unless you’re on a brand new ship, you’re never going to have enough plugs.”

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Bring everything you need for the first day in your carry-on

On the first day of a cruise, you never know exactly what time your luggage will be delivered to your room. “Be sure to pack your flip-flops and bathing suit in your carry-on bag,” suggets Madson. “This way, as soon as you board the ship, you can start enjoying the pool even before your cabin is ready or your luggage gets delivered.” Don’t miss these other 17 travel hacks that make cruises easier.

Sherri Eisenberg
Sherri Eisenberg is an award-winning glossy print veteran for top travel, bridal. food, and lifestyle magazines who is equally deft with digital, social, mobile, and branded content. She has written for Condé Nast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, and Bon Appétit, and has served as cruise editor for Travel and Leisure and Travel Holiday as well as Cruiseline.com and ShermansCruise.com. She has also been a columnist for The Los Angeles Times and, as senior travel editor of Condé Nast's Brides, she won the Lowell Thomas Gold Award for best travel coverage in a non-travel magazine. Sherri is the author of "The Food Lovers Guide to Brooklyn," which was published by Globe Pequot Press in 2010 and covered by everyone from The New York Times to Time magazine. She keeps a bag packed at all times and has no plants or pets so she can hop on a plane — or a ship — at a moment's notice.