Cruise-Planning Timeline: What You Need to Do and When

A timeline of how to plan your cruise and when to do it

You’ve decided you want to take a cruise, but you’re not sure what the next steps should be. We’ve put together a cruise-planning timeline so you know exactly what you should be doing and when, making your cruise as carefree and relaxed as possible.

12 to 18 months before

  • Determine your ballpark budget.
  • Decide how you want to book: travel agency, directly through the cruise line or another online source (like
  • Start researching cruise lines, cabin types, destinations and itineraries.

9 to 12 months before

  • Start researching specific cruises. Gradually, the vacation-shopping process can go from fun to confusing as you realize that certain itineraries are only available in certain seasons; or that your budget won’t allow a cruise of your preferred duration on your top-choice cruise line.
    • At this point you have a few options: Keep exploring until you find the perfect cruise. If you know the cruise line you want, you can call them; or you can send your cruise-planning notes to your travel agent and let them take over the planning. If you don’t have a travel agent, you can call our partner travel agency at 1-855-438-0587.
  • Know when to get cruise deals. The cruise industry has annual sales such as National Cruise Vacation Week in October and Wave Season, which traditionally spans January through March.
  • Book now if you’re cruising with kids. If you want interconnecting cabins or a special family suite, be aware that the offerings are limited, even on family-friendly lines like Carnival, which only offers family suites on four ships.

6 to 12 months before

  • Book your cruise. Why such a long window of time? If you don’t care exactly what cabin you get, or where it is on which ship, then you have months of leeway to wait, comparison shop the options and watch prices. Because cruise ships want to sail at capacity, sometimes they’ll offer discounts and promotions to fill cabins a couple of months before a sailing.
  • Find out what’s included. When you book, find out whether your airfare, pre-cruise accommodations and ground transfers are part of the package. If not, put this on your to-do list.
  • Put down the deposit. You generally do not have to pay the full cruise fare to book your cruise, unless it’s a last-minute booking.
  • Buy travel protection/an insurance policy for all travelers. This is usually worth the cost, for peace of mind alone, unless you are sailing right away from a port near home.
  • Check whether you’ll need passports and/or visas. If so, make sure everyone in the group has them and that passports will be valid for six months beyond your chosen sailing date.

4 to 6 months before

  • Book all travel. This includes airfare and hotel (if you are overnighting before or after your cruise). We like Expedia if we aren’t booking directly through the airline or hotel brand.
  • Book ground transfers. If these are not included in your cruise fare, you need to figure out what ground transportation you need to handle yourself. Ensure there are no logistical blips (e.g., that you’ve paid for airport-to-cruise transfers but are actually staying the night at a hotel).
  • Decide what extras you want in terms of alcohol packages, Internet packages, etc. Start a mini savings fund within your cruise vacation fund to pay for these upgrades in advance. The pay-as-you-go drink option on the ship is almost always more expensive if you have more than a few drinks a day.
  • Handle the pre-cruise paperwork. Passport/visa document checking doesn’t wait until the day of the cruise. Disney, for one example, requires passport numbers to be provided at least 75 days in advance of boarding. Either submit the relevant documents to your travel agent or supply information directly to your cruise line using online guest information forms.
  • Arrange childcare and make a checklist of everything your children will need if they are not traveling with you.
  • If you have pets, make your arrangements for pet boarding. Never leave this until the last minute, and plan at least three to four months in advance if you’re traveling during a major holiday.

1 to 4 months before

  • Finish paying for the cruise. Cruise lines have payment schedules online. Full payment due dates vary according to cabin type, length of cruise and whether it’s a peak-season sailing. As a general rule, your cruise will need to be fully paid one to two months in advance, but dates vary for suites and during peak holidays.        
  • Research shore excursions. We recommend that you research shore excursion options well ahead of time so you can read up on what other travelers have to say, price compare and plan well to maximize your time in port.
  • Start planning special activities. Once your cruise is paid for, you can start reserving shore excursions through the “My Reservation” tool.
  • Start a packing listTake into account the weather/climate info, how active you plan to be, and how many formal dinners or nightlife activities you’ll want to attend. Specifically keep an eye out for themed events or special excursions that might require a special item (e.g., a pirate costume on Disney) that you’ll need to buy.
  • Buy any specialty items on your packing list. From snorkeling flippers to a tuxedo, if it’s an item that is essential to an activity and you can’t just grab it at Target, buy it before you’re in the packing crunch.

3 to 4 weeks before

  • Figure out how you’re getting to the airport.
  • Make sure all medication prescriptions are refilled to last through your cruise. Check whether any special prescription documentation will be required.
  • Buy any special camera equipment. Determine and buy any special camera equipment you might want, and start learning how to use it. This includes a waterproof casing or a cheap waterproof camera.
  • Start making shipboard reservations. The most popular restaurants and experiences (like Royal Caribbean’s surf lessons on the FlowRider) fill up in advance. Nab your slot/table/spa treatment time before you board. Check with the line if you have questions about whether certain children’s experiences are limited availability. For example, Norwegian allows people to book its Nickelodeon character breakfasts in advance, but Carnival says it’s usually not necessary for their Green Eggs and Ham Breakfast.

2 weeks before

  • Collect travel documents, including cruise tickets. Smaller lines still mail cruise tickets while larger ones typically ask you to print them out at home.
  • Request paid cabin upgrades if you’re trying for one. This is a travel perk usually tackled by veteran cruisers, but if you’ve successfully played the upgrade game with airlines or hotels, you might be up for it on a first-time cruise. Basically, as cruise lines figure out which cabins they still have open and which they need to deep-discount, you may be able to upgrade for less than you would have paid upfront. Put in a request with the cruise line and/or ask your travel agent for a hookup.
  • Collect and check your technology. Chargers, converters, headphones and selfie sticks. And once again, waterproof-camera capability.
  • Reach out to ports/destinations for any special stops not on an organized excursion. If you’re excited to visit a certain restaurant, clothing shop or attraction, double-check that it’ll be open, and make sure they’re expecting you. See if there are certain times for attraction tours or if you’ll be expected to hire a guide.

One week before

  • Shop for all the little things. A magnet to mark your cabin door for decoration or so you can spot it easier. Two bottles of wine, if your cruise line policy allows it (definitely check first), and/or canned beverages for your cabin (cans are the only thing Carnival allows). Most importantly, a sizeable, secure and serviceable carry-on in which you will pack every essential item for embarkation and that first day.
  • Get your devices ready. If you’re using the cruise app, make sure everyone in your group downloads it. Check that your mobile device has photo edit/transfer capabilities for all the precious photos you’ll be taking. Download movies, games and books for shipboard entertainment.
  • Figure out your phone plan. Don’t expect to have cell service. However, if you need to make calls, it’s smartest to download Skype or Google Voice to your mobile device or laptop, buy $10 in credit ahead of time, and then get a cheap Internet package on the ship for the time you need to be on the phone.
  • Make a bank stop. Get a bunch of $1 bills to tip tour guides, taxi drivers and other helpers you’ll meet on your journey. Change some dollars to foreign currency if you know you’ll need it and don’t want to use foreign ATMs.
  • Start packing your checked luggage. Check the size/weight restrictions for luggage set by your cruise line before you pack.

3 days before

  • Finish packing your checked bag. Make sure you don’t pack whatever you plan to wear on the travel day and/or embarkation day.
  • Call your credit card companies and tell them you’re traveling. It’s quite commonplace in this day and age for banks to shut off credit cards in cases of suspected fraud if they don’t know you’ll be traveling. Also, arrange to have mail held, unless someone will be checking it for you.
  • Make backup copies of your passport, visas, credit cards, cruise documents, flight confirmations and any other essential documents. Leave them with your emergency contact.
  • Put together everything your pets will need. Walking times, medications, and an ample supply of food and other supplies. If you’re boarding them, make sure the facility knows when they’re arriving.
  • Check the three-day weather forecast at the destination. It may necessitate important outfit changes for your trip, like a jacket in your carry-on, or an umbrella.

1 day before

  • Confirm domestic flights and check in online.
  •  Make sure checked luggage is properly tagged. Include a tag with your name/email address and phone number and attach the labels provided by the cruise ship.
  • Pack your carry-on.

Day of your cruise

  • Double-check all tickets and documents. Put them in the most secure yet easily reachable compartment of your carry-on luggage.
  • Have breakfast (and/or grab snacks). Your ship will be serving lunch; you won’t be fed anything before that.
  • Manage travel and transfers. If you’re arriving on a plane, look for the coach that will transfer you to the terminal where your ship is waiting. There will be greeting staff with highly visible signs at airport baggage claim, or if you’re staying in a hotel with other cruisers, often the cruise line will set up an area in the lobby.
  • Check in. Your cruise line will provide you with your check-in time. Some of the larger lines stagger groups and allow passengers to pick a check-in/embarkation window when they check in online. Refer to your ticket/travel booklet to find out when you should arrive. Note: You cannot board ahead of your assigned check-in/embarkation time window, but you can board late, unless you miss check-in altogether. It usually closes one hour prior to departure.

Did we miss anything? Share with us how you prepare for your cruise in the comments below. 


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