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Read This Before You Book a Cruise

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Cruising is a travel trend that doesn’t appear to be slowing down — more travelers are hitting the waves than ever before. Fancy mega-ships, affordable rates, all-inclusive pricing and a set-it-and-forget-it travel itinerary make it all the more enticing to take on the open seas. But for first-timers, booking a cruise can get a bit choppy. TPG Contributor Julie Loffredi tells us what every cruiser should know … before pulling out that credit card.  

Celebrity Cruises
US News & World Report ranks Disney Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean, and Celebrity Cruises as best choices for families with children. Photo courtesy of Celebrity Cruises.

1. Pick the right cruise

If you’re seeking a destination, know that cruises that make stops in the Caribbean and Eastern Mexico tend to be the most sought after by US tourists. According to a recent study by the Cruise Lines International Association (which provides a chart to help you research various cruise lines’ destinations), North American travelers especially enjoy Caribbean cruises because they make it easy to visit several different islands in one short trip. The Bahamas (not technically part of the Caribbean), Alaska and Hawaii were also top cruise picks.

According to the latest study by Cruise Lines International Association.
According to the latest study by the Cruise Lines International Association, the Caribbean ranked as North American cruisers’ top destination.

To find the best value on a cruise, check out US News & World Report’s 2015 report, which listed Royal Caribbean International, Disney Cruise Lines, Carnival Cruise Lines, Princess Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line as their “Best Cruises For the Money.”

Also keep in mind that each cruise has its own style, with some geared toward couples, kids or seniors. If you know you’re looking for fun and excitement, laid-back relaxation, fine wine and cuisine, the perfect cruise for a family reunion, a purely romantic getaway, etc., be sure to find out if a cruise has what you want — or risk getting the exact opposite of the vacation you’re seeking.

Tip: While comparison shopping, check each cruise line’s homepage for the latest promotions. 

Which credit card
Which credit card should you use for a cruise?

2. Be wary of cruise line co-branded credit cards

To pay for a cruise, many travelers turn to credit cards to take advantage of added incentives. But while a credit card offered by a cruise line may seem like the best choice, it may not be, according to The Points Guy.

“In general, cruise line co-branded credit cards are far from ideal, ” says TPG. “I actually suspect they’re targeted at travelers who think they’re the best for cruises because they have the cruise line associated with them. However, when you take a closer look, you’ll see they’re not usually a great value proposition.”

Carnival offers one of the few worthwhile co-branded cruise line credit cards.
Carnival offers one of the few worthwhile co-branded cruise line credit cards.

That said, here are a couple of co-branded cruise line cards to consider:

Celebrity Visa Signature Card from Bank Of America. The Celebrity Visa Signature Card is a premium card with a $69 annual fee — and it’s worth a look. The card currently offers a $300 discount on a future cruise after you spend $5,000 within first 60 days, as well as 10,000 bonus points (redeemable for $100 to spend on board) when any transaction of any amount is made and posts within the first 65 days of card membership. Cardholders will earn 1 MyCruise Point for every $1 spent on all other purchases. Other perks include small percentages off cruise extras like excursions and beverage packages.

Carnival MasterCard from BarclaycardThis card has no annual fee and currently offers a sign-up bonus of 5,000 Funpoints after a first purchase — but that’s only enough for about $50 off a cruise purchase. Other incentives include 2x Funpoints per $1 spent on all Carnival Cruise Lines purchases and $1 spent on purchases everywhere else on card.

Other cards cruisers may prefer due to their travel benefits include:

Amex Platinum 
Capital One Venture Rewards 
Chase Sapphire Preferred Card 
Citi AAdvantage Executive World Elite MasterCard 
Citi Prestige Card 
Delta Reserve Credit Card from American Express 

Ritz-Carlton Rewards Credit Card
United MileagePlus Club Card 

Bad weather is a risk to cruises, especially in the hurricane-prone Caribbean — so consider purchasing travel insurance for your trip. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

3. Consider travel insurance

Purchasing a third-party travel insurance policy may be a good idea. Cruisers tend to be most concerned about missing a cruise departure due to a canceled flight or illness; their trip being canceled due to bad weather; or encountering emergency health issues while traveling. Be aware that while travel insurance can usually offer protection if inclement weather forces a trip cancellation, your policy must be purchased before the particular storm threat arises.

Be sure to see TPG’s list of travel insurance providers, as well as Does Your Credit Card Give You Adequate Travel Insurance Coverage? and Independent Travel Insurance vs. Airline Or Cruise Carriers, When Is It Best To Buy More?

Tip: For the maximum benefits available, purchase a travel insurance policy as soon as the first trip payment is made.

If you have questions about your ship or cruise, turn to experts for help. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
If you have questions about your ship or cruise, turn to experts for help. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

4. Ask for expert advice

New cruisers can avoid a big headache by simply asking for advice. Turn to cruise lines’ social media accounts for feedback or ask a travel agent who specializes in cruises for help. Repeat cruisers can also give tips on the best itinerary, restaurants to bypass, excursions to take and whether to include gratuities on your on-board account. Ask for insight on things like dress codes, the availability of cell phone and Wi-Fi service, the possible advantages of deck phones and/or walkie-talkie rentals, etc.

Tip: One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received is to consider arriving a day before your departure in order to ensure you’re there in time. 

The early bird gets the cruise, I always say. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
The early bird gets the best cruise, I always say. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

5. Book early

This sounds a bit of a cliche — but booking a cruise six months or more in advance actually can provide more perks, such as first dibs on cabin types and special promotional rates. (Last minute bookings can also deliver some big savings, but there is always the risk of higher airfares.)

“Book your cruise to sail during a non-peak time, or better yet choose an open-jaw transition cruise (where the ship leaves from one location and arrives in another, like from Miami to Barcelona) as these are frequently priced significantly lower,” says Rinat Glinert of ShoreFox, a cruise excursion company.

The most popular time to book a cruise is during “wave season” (between January and March) when travelers can take advantage of deals. Peak months of travel include June, July and August.

Note: A few cruise lines also offer a price-protection program, so a cruisers rate will be adjusted if a rate is reduced after booking.

Viking River Cruises offer some lavish rooms. This is the Penthouse Junior Suite with living area and balcony. Photo: Viking
Viking River Cruises offer some lavish rooms — like this Penthouse Junior Suite with living area and balcony. Photo courtesy of Viking.

6. Pick the right room

Before booking a cabin, take a look at the cruise ship’s deck plan. Seeking peace and quiet? Avoid rooms close to high noise areas like nightclubs and entertainment arenas, as well as adjoining rooms. Those not interested in a long trek around busy meal times should pick a cabin near the elevator. Have a weak stomach? The front of the ship tends to be most rocky during rough seas.

Sign up for e-mail newsletters from preferred cruise ships to get word of upcoming deals and promotions.
Sign up for e-mail newsletters from preferred cruise ships to get word of upcoming deals and promotions.

7. Sign up for cruise loyalty programs

“Some of the best cruise deals are made available to those in the cruise lines’ loyalty programs, but few know that anyone can create an account on the lines’ websites and register to receive many of those same offers. For example, Holland America Line [which also has its own Mariner Society program] often sends great-value promotions to its registered guests. Choosing cruises during certain slow travel periods can yield incredible savings typically unavailable during busier times,” says cruise expert David Yeskel.

To learn more, check out this rundown of major cruise loyalty programs, and see TPG’s look at Celebrity Cruises Captain’s Club – Loyalty on the High Seas.

Also see these other cruise-related posts:

How To Choose A Cruise Based On Points?
Choosing A Cruise While Maximizing Points
Using Frequent Flyer Miles for Cruise Flights
These Decked-Out Luxury Cruise Ships Have it All
Hot River Cruises to Hope Aboard This Summer
12 Unexpected Things I Learned on My Alaska Cruise
Select M Life Elite Members Now Get a Free Annual Celebrity Cruise

Have you been on a cruise? How did you make it a great trip?

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