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Whether you’re jonesing for an epic Antarctic holiday or an extended weekend in the Bahamas, cruises can be a good way to let someone else take the reins for your vacation. But planning a cruise can be confusing, especially when there are several types of cruises, destinations and price points.
When planning a cruise, you’ll want to consider a variety factors, especially if you’re dealing with limited time or a tight budget.
Let’s look at how to plan a cruise, from your budget to booking, and what to expect along the way.
1. Establish a budget
The first step in planning a cruise is deciding how much money you want to spend. Costs for a cruise will vary based on a number of things, including:
Number of guests.
If price is top-of-mind, consider a budget-friendly cruise line. These cruise lines tend to be less glamorous, and you’ll likely be paying for more optional add-ons, such as drink packages and excursions. But you’ll still find plenty of activities to keep you entertained, no matter who you’re cruising with.
You may find deals for as little as $40 per person per night, not including gratuities or any onboard spending. For example, we found a deal for a four-night cruise from Long Beach, Calif., to Ensenada, Mexico, for $169 per person on Carnival.
On the high end, you’re looking at costs as high as $90,000 per person — though these cruises tend to be much longer (nearly six months!) or feature exotic destinations and itineraries.
For example, a 168-night cruise on luxury cruise line Regent Seven Seas — with dozens of stops in ports around the globe — costs more than $97,000 per person.
Of course, your budget will likely fall somewhere in between these low- and high-end examples. The bottom line is that it’s important to plan for a cruise that fits your budget. With such a wide variety of options, odds are you’ll find a price point that's comfortable for you.
» Learn more: The best ways to book a cruise
2. Decide on cruise length
Once you’ve decided how much money you’re willing to spend, you’ll need to see how much vacation time you have available.
If you live far from a port, be sure to factor in the time it takes to get to and from the departure city. Add that to the length of the cruise, and that's how many vacation days you'll need.
To optimize your time off, you'll probably want to try to leave from the closest port possible. If you're on the East Coast, for example, leaving from Miami would require far less travel time than leaving from L.A.
If you’re taking a week-long vacation, a five-night cruise would give you the time to arrive in the port city the day before departure and then return home without feeling rushed.
» Learn more: Are cruises worth it?
3. Choose a destination
How can you plan for a cruise without giving some thought to the destination? The cruise industry is worth more than 7 billion dollars and includes routes all over the world.
If the number of destinations seems a little overwhelming, remember that you've already narrowed down your options by establishing your budget and cruise length.
Many search engines will allow you to look for cruises using these parameters — in addition to helpful filters like departure port and desired departure date.
Your cruise dates will likely affect your destination options. For example, if you want to depart in February, you likely won’t find any cruises going to Alaska. And booking a Caribbean cruise during hurricane season might result in a rerouted itinerary — or even a canceled cruise — if a hurricane forms in the Atlantic.
» Learn more: How to get the best deal on your next cruise
4. Compare cruise lines
Different cruise lines cater to different clientele. Some are geared toward those who want to travel in luxury, while others are designed for spring-breakers or families.
If you’re looking forward to a quiet getaway in the Caribbean but choose a Carnival cruise in the middle of April (i.e. prime college spring break time), you may not have much fun when the pool party gets going.
Do some research on the demographics each cruise line attracts. For a family-friendly cruise, sailing with Disney or Royal Caribbean might be a good choice. Those looking for a calm, adult-only atmosphere may want to choose an itinerary on Viking Cruises.
» Learn more: The best cruise lines
5. Book your cruise
There are several different ways to book a cruise, including reserving directly with the cruise line, using an online travel agency or even working with a travel agent.
Each method has its advantages. Booking through an online agency can save you money. Compared to booking directly through the cruise line, though, it may not be as easy to make changes or cancel your reservation if something comes up. If you book through a travel agent, you have the advantage of being able to arrange your cruise and airfare at the same time.
It’s a good idea to compare cruises across all available platforms, because pricing and special add-ons vary. Last-minute cruises can get you serious discounts, as can stacking cash-back opportunities with shopping portals such as Rakuten.
6. Complete your documentation
Once you’ve booked your cruise, you’ll need to submit some documentation, such as an ID, a health declaration, and a credit card to keep on file.
Most of the time, you can also choose to pre-book activities and excursions, though this may depend on the cruise line you’re sailing with.
You’ll want to find out if you need a passport or any visas for your cruise — this will depend on where your cruise is departing from and where it will stop. Be sure to verify this soon after booking your cruise, as obtaining or renewing a passport can take time.
Planning a cruise recapped
Cruises can be an exciting way to visit multiple destinations in a single trip.
When planning a cruise, you’ll want to decide how much you’re willing to spend, where you want to go and the amount of time you have available.
Aside from that, consider what types of cruises you’d like to go on and the people you want to be around. Once everything is taken care of, all that's left to do is enjoy!
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