10 mistakes to avoid when booking your cruise
Booking a cruise can be confusing, whether you’re a first-timer or a seasoned cruiser. With so many details to consider, it’s surprisingly easy to make a mistake. Booking errors can range from small details (oops, I selected the wrong sail date!) to the big picture (choosing the wrong cruise line or ship for the vacation style you prefer).
What happens if you make a cruise booking mistake? The answer may be nothing if you can call the cruise line and easily correct the mistake, especially if you just made the booking and quickly realize the error. Then again, if it’s a bigger error or if too much time has passed since you paid the deposit or final payment, you could be subject to surprise fees, forfeit the stateroom — or cruise — you want, and not get the vacation you imagined.
If you’re ready to plan your cruise vacation, we’re here to help you navigate the choppy waters ahead and avoid some of the common mistakes people make when booking their cruise.
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Booking the wrong date
It’s easier than you think to select the wrong date when booking online. Potential issues can include inadvertently clicking on an earlier or later departure of the same itinerary, reversing the day for the month when booking from a European cruise website or choosing next year instead of this year. If you make a date mistake or another error in your booking, but don’t realize it until months later, penalties could range from the loss of your deposit to the loss of your entire cruise fare.
Correcting the problem — and how much it will cost to fix it — will depend on the cruise line, sail date and rate you paid. If you make the change before the company’s final payment due date (typically 90 days out for a weeklong sailing), you may only lose your deposit or possibly nothing at all. However, when you attempt to rebook for the correct sail date, you might find the price has increased or that you have to forfeit any promotions or perks that you received on the original booking.
If you booked a nonrefundable fare or have made your final payment, you may not be able to transfer the booking to another date, resulting in a full cancellation. Depending on when you cancel, you could be out just the deposit, a percentage of your cruise fare or the entire cost of the cruise. If the line lets you rebook or gives you back the value of your cruise in a future cruise credit, you might have to pay change fees or sail within a specific amount of time (such as within one year).
Before confirming your online booking, be sure to double-check all the information, especially the sailing date. Read the fine print in your cruise contract to understand the line’s cancellation policies should you need to make a change or correct an error you made in your booking.
Related: The best credit cards for booking cruises
Not shopping around for the best price and perks
While longtime cruisers may understand the complexity of cruise pricing and how to score the best deals, newbies may be prone to making the mistake of assuming they’ll get the same deal no matter how they book. The truth is that pricing and included perks can vary depending on whether you book directly through a cruise line, with a travel agent or through some kind of online travel aggregator.
If you don’t want to leave money on the table, it’s best to shop around. Go to the cruise line’s websites to see its current deals and promotions — or speak to one of its sales representatives about the current offerings. Many lines frequently offer discounts on cruise fares and complimentary add-ons that include free airfare, beverage packages, specialty dining, Wi-Fi, onboard credit and free excursions. You may also find deals where kids sail free or the third and fourth guests in a cabin are free.
Just remember that a representative of one cruise line may be knowledgeable about what it offers but they won’t be able to help you compare the costs and perks with other companies. If you haven’t decided on a particular cruise line or ship yet, compare the price of similar cabins on similar itineraries to see if you can save more by choosing one ship over another. A knowledgeable cruise travel agent can help you evaluate deals across lines.
More independent-minded travelers can compare the offerings across many lines on an online aggregator site. These travel sellers may have additional complimentary add-ons to what the cruise lines are offering, so it’s worth checking them out before making the booking. If you’re a savvy shopper, you may be able to find a lower price with more inclusions than the first deal you found.
Related: How to book a cruise with points and miles
Dismissing the more expensive cruise options without doing the math
Never assume that the more expensive cruise lines or cabin classes are out of your reach without running the numbers.
“It may be that one category above what you’ve booked is only $25 more a day per person — and it offers more space and other perks,” says Anne Scully, partner at Embark Beyond, a New York-based luxury travel agency. “You need to know the benefits of other categories of staterooms and where the value is.” If you’re a large family, don’t assume you want to squeeze everyone in one cabin if you haven’t priced out booking two cheaper cabins and weighed the pros and cons of one balcony versus two bathrooms.
If you’re used to booking nicer cabins or suites on mainstream cruise lines, it’s a mistake not to compare cruise fares with the smaller all-inclusive (or more inclusive) lines. If you don’t need all the bells and whistles and high-tech entertainment of the larger and newer cruise ships, you might find that prices are comparable once you consider the cost of all the extras on the larger ships. Specialty dining, gratuities, alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, Wi-Fi, shore excursions and other additional expenses beyond the base cruise fare add up quickly.
Ignoring the fine print of your fare class or cruise contract
Every online booking site and cruise line has its own contract and rules and regulations around booking specific fares and canceling for various reasons, including COVID-19. It’s a mistake to overlook the terms and conditions when booking because you might get in trouble later for having missed the details of policies that could affect your pocketbook.
For example, during the height of the pandemic, cruise lines were offering incredible deals and flexible cancellation policies to entice people to book future cruises, but things have changed since the restart.
“Consumers feel if they cancel for a COVID-related reason, cancellation penalties will be waived,” says Anne Scrivinach, senior vice president of Cruise Specialists, a Seattle-based luxury travel agency. “This is not true; as reservations are secured, the penalties should be reviewed and understood.”
Also, as mentioned above, if you book certain nonrefundable or promotional fares, you may not be able to make changes or cancel without penalties. Special fares may not be combinable with other special offers, so check before you plan to stack discounts.
Plus, free booking perks can come with surprise fees; did you know that you need to pay gratuities of between 15% to 20% on “free” drink packages? And that many of the airlines’ cruise sites, which promise miles for cruise bookings, also charge a $24.99 processing fee for each transaction? Promotions touting cash back or onboard credit rarely give you the full amount unless you’re booking an expensive suite. The ad may say “up to $500 onboard credit,” but your inside room only merits $25.
You also want to make sure you’re not booking a cruise you can’t take. For example, if you’re pregnant, most cruise lines will permit expectant mothers up to 24 weeks to sail as long as the cruise ends within that time frame. If you’re not vaccinated for COVID-19, you might not be able to cruise to select countries; if you don’t have a passport, other itineraries may not be available to you. It’s always better to know the rules before you book, rather than be forced to alter your plans after you’ve paid the cruise line.
Booking a cruise line that isn’t the right fit for your travel style
Even if the price is right, you need to match your personal style and travel preferences with a cruise line that’s an appropriate fit. For instance, you may not want to book a Carnival cruise over spring break if you’re a couple that wants a quiet getaway for two. Or, if you’re a family with rambunctious small children, you might not want to book a more sedate Holland America sailing.
The larger cruise lines — and especially some of their newer ships — cater mostly to families and a younger demographic that want nonstop entertainment and amenities like water parks, climbing walls, roller coasters and racetracks. If you prefer the culinary and educational aspects of cruising, choose lines like Oceania Cruises or Viking that cater to those interests.
If you’re in search of a relaxing vacation without kids dodging in and out of the buffet line at breakfast and running around the pool, consider an adults-only cruise, a small luxury cruise line geared towards adults or longer voyages on the older, smaller ships of the mainstream cruise lines.
Related: A beginner’s guide to picking a cruise line
Waiting too long to book your cruise
“The biggest mistake is not booking early enough to get the stateroom of your choice,” says Anne Scully, partner at Embark Beyond, a New York-based luxury travel agency. If you have your heart set on a specific type of stateroom or suite, but you hold off on booking the cruise in the hopes that a better deal will come along, you may lose out on nabbing the type of accommodation you want — or one in your desired location on the ship.
If a midship balcony cabin is your first choice, but it’s a little more expensive than another alternative, it may be worth paying the small supplement to upgrade, especially when it’s your home for a week or more. With cruise bookings up significantly following the pandemic, you might not find any suitable accommodations on a particular sailing if you wait too long to book and the ship sells out.
If you’re planning an extended voyage, Scrivinach tells us that grand voyages and world cruises are now booking up two years in advance. Many world cruises even sold out in record time over the past several months — and one in less than an hour. Since there are not going to be any discounts on cabins on these types of cruises, go ahead and book those bucket list trips early before the cabins are gone.
Related: Book these hot cruises at least 1 year in advance – maybe even 2!
Not booking shore excursions, dining reservations and other activities before sailing
You might like to be spontaneous when you travel, but it’s not always the best way to get the most from your cruise. You should have all of your arrangements in place before you leave for your cruise, Scully recommends. That’s because it may be too late to book excursions, dining reservations and other activities (like spa treatments) once you’re on board the ship. You can change the times if you need to once you’ve set sail.
Why the need for advance planning? The most popular shore excursions sell out quickly, especially unique offerings with limited spots. Wait to book until your ship sets sail, and that tour of a lifetime might be sold out. On the other hand, you have nothing to lose if you book an excursion early because most cruise lines allow you to cancel prior to embarkation or within a specified amount of time before the tour departs.
“You don’t want to miss out on the best a destination can offer,” Scully advises. Plus, you get to skip standing in line at the excursions desk to book on board, and you might even get a discount for booking in advance.
The only downside is most lines do not allow you to use onboard credit to pay for tours booked prior to sailing. For the best selection, find out when the booking time will open for the excursions for your sailing, and make plans to be online at that time to secure your reservation, especially for the ones that are included in your fare.
Related: Avoid these 10 mistakes when booking cruise shore excursions
Dinner reservations at popular specialty dining venues also sell out quickly. You may have to wait in a long line once you’re on the ship to inquire about a reservation, only to find that the days or times that you want are already sold out. It’s best to make these reservations before you set sail, too. Many lines also offer a discount on specialty dining and beverage packages that are booked in advance of your cruise.
Related: 14 things you should do before every cruise
Not consulting a travel agent
It doesn’t cost you any money to hire a travel advisor, but it might cost you not to use one.
Knowledgeable travel advisors who specialize in cruises can help you sort through the confusing process of deciding on a cruise line, a particular ship and an itinerary, as well as help you identify sailings that best fit your budget. They also have access to exclusive pricing and perks (think: in-cabin Champagne and flowers, private cocktail parties) that are in addition to the current deals offered by the cruise lines.
Cruise specialists can also facilitate your travel arrangements, making sure everything is in order for your cruise, including coordinating flights and pre-cruise hotel stays (so you don’t miss your ship) and making sure you have the proper documentation to board. You don’t want to arrive on embarkation day without the required paperwork — such as proof of a COVID-19 vaccine, a visa for a specific country or other documents — and be denied boarding. Cruise specialists keep up with the constantly changing protocols so you don’t have to, and they can advise you on exactly what you need to bring to the port.
They’re also an invaluable resource and advocate if there’s a problem while you’re on the ship, or you have an illness and need assistance while you’re traveling, especially if you’re out of the country.
When considering which travel agent to use, “you want someone that’s knowledgeable about the part of the world you’re visiting,” Scully advises. “It’s an investment. Don’t buy from someone that’s just blocking space on the ship.”
When you’re ready to enlist the help of a cruise specialist, look for an agent that’s certified with CLIA (Cruise Lines International Association), a sign they’ve gone through cruise-specific training. You can also do an online search for preferred partners with various cruise lines or agents affiliated with luxury consortiums such as Virtuoso.
In the end, the perfect travel planner will come down to who you have the best rapport with, but it’s good to start with a respected and knowledgeable travel agent.
Forgetting to buy travel insurance
It’s always a good idea to protect your cruise investment with travel insurance, but many travelers make the mistake of waiting to buy it. Your best bet is to purchase coverage as soon as you remit your cruise deposit.
Why? Most plans will only cover preexisting conditions if you purchase your plan within a limited time (usually two weeks) after you book your cruise. Also, any new issues that arise between when you booked your cruise and when you buy insurance won’t be covered.
For example, if your travel companion is in a car accident two months before sailing and is unable to make the trip due to injuries, both you and your companion could recover the cost of the canceled trip under most travel policies if the plan was in place at the time of the accident. But if you were waiting to purchase travel insurance until a month before sailing, this type of situation wouldn’t be covered.
However, don’t think that because you missed out on buying travel insurance immediately after booking that you should accept your losses and move on. Trip protection is still valuable even if you purchase it late because it can help if things go wrong when traveling. If you are injured or become ill during your vacation, some medical plans (like Medicare) won’t cover you outside the U.S. If you have the proper travel insurance plan in place, you’ll be able to recoup some of your medical expenses abroad or the cost to travel back home if you have to cut your vacation short.
Just as with any other contract, you need to read the benefits and limitations of the travel insurance policy before committing to the purchase. Companies like Allianz Global Assistance offer a 15-day review period where you can cancel for a full refund if you’re not happy with the purchase terms and disclosure — provided that your trip hasn’t already commenced.
Not paying the final payment on time
Most cruise lines ask only for a deposit at the time of booking, with the remainder of the vacation cost typically due 90 days before your cruise on a sailing of five nights or longer. Miss making that final payment by the due date and you could forfeit your cruise and lose your deposit money. The cruise line won’t check in with you to see what’s going on; it will simply cancel your booking and apply any fees as outlined in its cancellation policy.
If you’re working with a travel agent, they should remind you when the final payment is due — one more benefit of working with a planner. If you’re arranging the trip yourself, be sure to mark your calendar and plan to make the payment several days before the final due date. You wouldn’t want to miss your cruise vacation due to something as simple as missing a payment by mistake.
Booking a cruise may seem daunting — and there are a lot of steps along the way where you can make mistakes — but doing your research and paying attention to details goes a long way toward preventing cruise booking mistakes.
If you enjoy researching promotions and deals on your own and already have a cruise in mind to book, then you might be comfortable planning your own trip. Just be sure to read all the fine print and consider purchasing travel insurance once you’ve submitted your deposit.
If you’re not up for tackling the job on your own, then hire a cruise specialist that you feel comfortable working with to plan your cruise. Don’t forget to ask what’s available for upgrades, perks and amenities, in addition to the best price, so you get the greatest value from your vacation investment.
Don’t forget that the booking process doesn’t end once you put down that deposit. Make sure everything is in place before your cruise — including reservations for shore excursions, dining and activities — so you’ll be able to relax once on board the ship. Do the hard work first so you can truly enjoy your vacation at sea.
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