With meals, entertainment and accommodations wrapped into one reasonable rate, cruising offers a convenient and affordable vacation option. Many cruises today offer stimulating onboard enrichment programs, unique culinary experiences and immersive shore excursions (think: ziplining through a Costa Rican rain forest or whale-watching in Maui, Hawaii), luring travelers of all ages and interests. Best of all, you can unpack once, and experience the sights and sounds of a variety of destinations without having to figure out how to get from one port to the next.
But once you've decided to book a cruise, you'll want to plan strategically to ensure smooth sailing once you get on board. To help you avoid common blunders, like flying to your departure port on the same day your cruise embarks or neglecting to reserve shore excursions, we've come up with nine ways to ensure a gratifying vacation from start to finish.
Check your ship's deck plan
Use this general rule when choosing a favorable cabin location: Book a room on the "residential" decks, or those without public areas or entertainment venues located directly above or below. Ensure your stateroom isn't under or over the disco, the lido buffet or the fitness center. Typically, discos stay open through the wee hours, the dining staff begins setting up for breakfast late at night and fitness centers open in the early morning, with pounding treadmills and dropping free weights.
If it's peace and quiet that you seek, make sure there isn't an arrow on the deck map between your room and the one next door: that signals adjoining staterooms. Though these cabins are a great option for a family or a large group, they aren't soundproof. Being near an elevator isn't always a bad location; soundproof panels and hallways block out any disruptions from your fellow passengers. Plus, it's a beneficial location for those who don't want to walk the mile-long trek to the elevator every day.
Book at the bow (the front of the ship) and you might feel like you're bouncing around should the seas get rough. All the way aft (toward the rear of the ship) on a lower deck means you might be subject to engine noise. If you're concerned about getting seasick, staying in the middle of the ship on a lower deck is the place to be, regardless of the weather.
Alert the staff to your dietary needs early
Yes, the ship can cater to your diet. Low salt, no salt, gluten-free, vegetarian and even vegan cuisine is available. If you're watching your sodium intake, you should inform the wait staff on the first night of your cruise. You'll be given the next night's menu and whatever meal you choose will be prepared to your individual preferences. Gluten-free selections are clearly marked at lido buffets and on the menus. Vegetarian and vegan options are also identified on the menu with logos.
With advance notice, packaged kosher meals are also available on several cruise lines, including Royal Caribbean, Holland America and Silversea. Usually the kosher meals provided are packaged and reheated, while one or two cruise lines offer a "kosherized" galley. Check with the cruise line for detailed information on its policy on keeping kosher for guests.
Strategize when you book
If you book 18 months ahead of the sail date, you can usually take advantage of "early bird" rates, choose from a wide selection of staterooms and rest assured that you won't miss out, especially if it's a holiday sailing or a unique itinerary.
If you decide to take a gamble and reserve your cruise 30 to 60 days ahead of the departure date, you may be able to take advantage of a last-minute discount or special promotional offer. But, you may end up with a not-so-perfect cabin location or find your desired itinerary is sold out. If you're flexible with your dates and cruise line, you may snag someone's canceled booking one week before sailing. This doesn't mean the rate will hit rock bottom, though. If available cabins are scarce, prices may be pretty high.
If you do book early and get a great rate, periodically check for a price drop. Sometimes new, reduced rate promos are restricted to new bookings. If that's the case, and you haven't made the final payment (usually 60 to 70 days before the cruise), the reservation agent might override the old booking and offer you the new price. Remember: Once final payments are made, the mainstream cruise lines will not reduce your fare or offer onboard compensation for the difference in prices.
Arrive the day before your cruise departure
If you can't decide when to arrive in the departure port, ask yourself this question: Can I risk missing my ship due to airline delays or an accident on the highway? Travel insurance may save the day if you decide to arrive the morning of your cruise. And if you arrange your airfare through the cruise line, the ship is required to wait for your flight to arrive. You may have to pay more for the cruise company to arrange your air travel plans, but the extra cost could be worth the added peace of mind. The simplest solution? Alleviate any stress and arrive the day before your cruise. If you're new to the departure port, you can tack on an additional sightseeing day to your itinerary, and you'll enjoy a more relaxing start to your voyage.
Book your shore excursions prior to departure
Shore excursions are capacity controlled. It doesn't matter if you book your adventure through the cruise line or a private company; once the seats are sold out, they're gone. Whether you dream of a private Mozart concert in Vienna or flightseeing across Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, Alaska, popular shore excursions can sell out even before embarkation. Whenever possible, book your excursions online before you leave home.
Bring soap and hair products from home
If you are planning a cruise on Carnival, Royal Caribbean or Norwegian, be prepared for a pump container filled with no-name shampoo and/or body wash mounted to the shower wall. If you don't want your hair to turn into straw or if you prefer a bar soap to liquid, pack your own products from home.
Mind your luggage size and don't overpack
Staterooms are small enough without having to leave your luggage out in the open, and those mega suitcases don't always fit under the bed. Plus, the bigger the suitcase, the more unnecessary items you feel compelled to pack. Pack light: Lay out your clothes, then pack them all. Unpack, eliminate any clutter and repack the leftovers. It's amazing how much you can leave behind and not miss a single piece.
Use the hand sanitizer
Wash, spritz, repeat. If you can, avoid touching the ship railings. If you need to hold on to a railing, wash your hands as soon as possible. Proper hygiene is one of the best ways to avoid contagious shipwide illnesses, such as norovirus.
Save money by sailing during the shoulder season
If you like to save money, plan your vacation during what the industry calls the "shoulder season." This includes spring and fall, plus the very end of summer as well as the first week of December. Sometimes great rates can be found right after New Year's Day, too.
About the author: Sherry Laskin hasn't set foot on an airplane in more than 20 years and relies on ships, boats and trains to explore the world. Her cruise and travel site Cruise Maven covers everything you need to know for a cruise vacation; from planning and packing to dining and destinations across the globe. You can follow Sherry's cruise adventures on Twitter @CruiseMaven, Google+, Facebook and Instagram.