Postcards & Passports

How to Prepare for a Cruise

Are you thinking about going on a cruise vacation? Certainly there are many reasons why you might like to. Sailing to exotic ports with gorgeous ocean views, dining in the best restaurants and enjoying top-quality entertainment — these are just a few of them. If a cruise is in your sights, there’s only one thing left to do. Book it and learn how to prepare for a cruise!

prepare for a cruise

Cruise ships docked in Cozumel, Mexico

Here are the steps you take, a type of cruise checklist, from booking your cruise to boarding on departure day. Cruise travel is easy if you are prepared. Since I am about to depart on a Mexican Riviera cruise with Holland America, I will use their information in my examples.

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Book your cruise

Ask yourself a few questions first, and the answers will guide you to book your cruise.

  • Where would you like to go?
  • When do you want to go on a cruise?
  • Who is going with you?
  • What is your budget?
  • Do you want an inside room or a room with a view?

There are endless options for cruise destinations: Caribbean, European rivers, Mediterannean, Alaskan, Mexican Riviera, Hawaii, even around the globe. Choose what works for you — how far you want to travel to a departure port, how much money you want to spend, and what is best for you or your group. Don’t worry; if you’re having a hard time narrowing down the choice, pick one knowing you can choose another the next time you cruise.

You can book a cruise directly with a cruise line or through a broker. I prefer to work directly with the cruise line. They often include upgrades or shipboard credits. Cruise lines can also book your flights, hotels, and transfers if you like. So, book your cruise and make your first deposit. Now you’ve set everything in motion!

Prepare for a cruise by getting a passport

Cruise lines make it clear that it is your responsibility to learn if you will need a passport or Visa while traveling to and from, or during your cruise. You should plan to have a passport that has at least six months before it expires. If that is not the case, now is the time to renew your passport!

Plan your transportation to the cruise terminal

Whether you are flying, taking a train, or driving to the departure city, it is wise to plan ahead of time, especially if you need to make reservations for flights, rental cars, or transfers to the cruise terminal. Always book your flight to arrive at least a day ahead of your cruise departure date. You don’t want to miss your cruise because of a cancelled or delayed flight. For this reason, it is much safer (and more relaxing) to arrive a day ahead of your cruise departure.

If you are staying overnight in a hotel, you will also need a way to get to the cruise terminal. Sometimes, hotel shuttles can help with this. Or you may need to hire a private transfer company. You can also use Uber, Lyft, or local taxis.

Driving your own vehicle may necessitate finding a place to park it during the cruise.  Your cruise line should have information about parking, or you can simply do an online search for “cruise parking in   (departure city)  “. In San Diego, parking will run from $8 to $17 per day.

If you’re lucky enough to live in a departure city, ask one of your friends to drop you off at the cruise terminal. You can return the favor for them at another time!

Book a hotel room

If you are arriving by air, you’ll need to go ahead and book your hotel room for the night before your cruise departs. Or perhaps you want an extended stay in the departure city, giving you time to explore a little. I suggest booking something close to the cruise terminal. You may also want to stay a day or two after your cruise.

Purchase trip insurance

This is an important way to prepare for a cruise. Trip insurance can cover you for cancellations, illness, lost baggage, trip delays, and much more. It is often offered as an add-on by the cruise line or you can purchase through a trip insurance broker with a variety of options. Trip insurance must be purchased in advance, usually close to the time that you have booked your cruise and flights. Don’t wait till the last minute! If you are traveling out of your country, please be aware that your own health insurance may not cover you. You might also want to read What if You Have a Medical Emergency on a Cruise?

Schedule vaccinations & required health tests

Nearly all cruise lines are currently requiring adult passengers to be fully vaccinated for Covid. You must have received your final vaccine dose at least 14 days before your departure date. In addition, a negative Covid test must be received within two days of departure and presented upon arrival at the cruise terminal. Be sure to schedule your Covid test in advance, rather than relying on a walk-in testing location. You may also need to inquire if rush fees are necessary to get your test results in time.

It is up to you to learn exactly what your cruise line requires in the way of vaccinations and type of Covid test. As an example, Holland America’s health protocols are listed here.

Relax a bit and start daydreaming

Belize photo opp, prepare for a cruise

Belize city sign for photo opps

You’ve worked your way through most of what you need to do to prepare for a cruise. Now you can daydream about the cruise itself. This is the fun part!

  • Create an online account with your cruise line or cruise broker so you can see your cruise itinerary. Learn what shore excursions are available through your cruise line. Check out the specialty dining options or other services you may want to use onboard, like the salon.
  • Start a packing list now. As you learn more about your cruise, you’ll get ideas of what you want to bring. Add to your list as you prepare for your cruise. Here’s advice found on the Holland America website: Pack as you would for any resort. Cruise vacations are casual by day, whether you’re on the ship or ashore. The suggested attire for most evenings is resort casual; slacks and collared shirts for men, and casual dresses, slacks and informal evening-wear for women. On gala nights women usually wear a suit, cocktail dress or gown and men wear a jacket and tie, dark suit, or tuxedo. Please take note if there is required attire for any shore excursions you might take, such as religious or very active.” Want more tips? See this post: “Cruise Tips Mythbuster”
  • If your cruise line has an app, download it to your phone. It’s a great way to access all of your information. Once you are onboard, use it to find daily announcements, schedules of activities and shows, and other useful information. Holland America’s onboard app is called Navigator. You can also book shore excursions and reserve specialty dining experiences with this app.

Book your shore excursions

Shore excursions are the activities you engage in while visiting different ports during your cruise. Some people prefer not to leave the ship at all, and if that is how you feel, there’s nothing wrong with that. But most will probably venture off of the boat to explore a little and perhaps shop for souvenirs. Every cruise line offers shore excursions with local tour groups, and you will certainly have a great variety to choose from. You can also plan your own port itineraries. You can research Tripadvisor and other like websites for top things to do, restaurant reviews, and even local tour offerings.

Snorkeling excursion

Cruise excursion, snorkeling

Whatever you do, you must be confident that you will not have any problems getting back to your cruise ship before it sails! The advantage of booking your shore excursions through your cruise line is that you are guaranteed to get back to your ship on time. If something happens and there is a problem or delay with a cruise-line-booked shore excursion, the ship will wait for your group. If you book with outside groups, you have no guarantee. So be sure to read their customer reviews and give yourself plenty of time to return to the ship. If the port requires using a tender to return to the ship, that also takes extra time.

tender to cruise ship

A tender takes you to and from the cruise ship

Note: During the Covid pandemic, some cruise lines are only allowing passengers to leave the ship with cruise-line-booked excursions, because all of the group members are vaccinated.

Just before your cruise…

The last week before you leave, there are a few more things to do to prepare for a cruise.

  • You’ll probably need to pay the final balance due
  • Print our your boarding pass and luggage tags
  • You may want to book specialty onboard dining experiences
  • Order gifts or items you want delivered to your cruise cabin
  • It will be more convenient to get foreign currency before you leave
  • Pack everything you want to bring on your cruise
  • Fill out the health questionnaire on your cruise account
  • Get your Covid test within two days of cruise departure
  • Get a vacation hold on your mail
  • Travel to your departure city

Board your cruise ship!

The time has finally come — it’s your cruise departure date. You will be assigned a boarding group and a boarding time. Feel free to show up a little early if you’re excited, but you will probably not be allowed to board early. Because of the pandemic, cruise lines have moved towards a better control of how many passengers are at the departure pier at any given time.

prepare for a cruise

Cruise boarding

Prior to boarding, you will pass through a security and health checkpoint. Next, you will be required to complete ship check-in formalities. Upon completion of check-in, you will receive a guest identification card equipped with a bar code. This card serves as your identification for security procedures when embarking and disembarking the ship. Your card is used for making purchases on board; most cruises do not accept cash. And finally, this card is also your room key!

Your luggage will be delivered to your room a little later in the day, so be sure to have the items you most need (medications, passport, vaccination card, etc.) in a small carry-on bag you keep with you.

Enjoy your cruise!

If this is a first-tme cruise, you are in for a very pleasant surprise. Enjoy just how much you will be pampered! Explore the ship as it will be your home for a time. Settle into your room and make it comfortable. Enjoy a lunch or snack at one of the Lido deck restaurants. Take advantage of the opportunity to relax and unplug from the world. Go stand on the deck and wave as the cruise ship pulls out — it’s rather thrilling to be starting an adventure.

On a cruise, you will make memories that last a lifetime. The better you prepare for a cruise, the more relaxing and special it will be. If you want to know what it’s like when your cruise is finished, read “What’s it Like to Come Home from Your first Cruise?”.

Prepare for a Cruise


How to Prepare for a Cruise


19 thoughts on “How to Prepare for a Cruise

  1. Heather

    As with any great trip, the preparation really makes it all go so much smoother. Thanks for putting this together—someday I’ll need this list for when my family and I cruise!! Bon voyage!

  2. Anda

    I agree, there are quite a few things to think about when you get ready to book a cruise. The first think I always book are the shore excursions, but one of the things that I always struggle with is the travel insurance. So far we never needed to cancel our trips and everything always went as planned. But I always wonder what would happen if one day I’ll have to cancel and loose all my investment.

    1. Tami Post author

      I never considered buying trip insurance until I took a two-week trip to the United Kingdom. I thought, “What if I get sick or we have an accident?” I just didn’t want everything to be a total loss. Then my mother had a stroke and I thought I might need to cancel to come home and be with her. You just never know…

  3. Subhashish Roy

    The only cruise we have ever done is a short one between Helsinki & Talinn. So really can’t call it cruising in the true sense. Therefore all this information was very interesting. We do have plans for a Caribbean cruise shortly and all your tips should come handy.

  4. Natascha

    Very good step by step list for the preparation for a cruise. I have never done one – but would have thought that the procedure is along these lines. Still it is very handy to have a detailed guide like this.

  5. Renee

    I’ve not taken a cruise before so this would definitely be helpful if I was ever to be inclined to do a cruise. Great overview and tips for first timers.

  6. Jan Banerjee

    I love this informative post on preparing for a cruise! I have never been on a proper cruise except one decades ago from Mumbai to Goa. Great tips about pre booking hotels and transport too. I am bookmarking your blog post for future. 🙂

  7. Umiko

    I haven’t been on a cruise yet, but I find these tips informative. Although I would think it’s good to find out also what kind of attire you must bring. Do you have to bring formal for dinner or can you wear something casual all the time? It will be important for me as I prefer casual.

    1. Tami Post author

      It’s mostly casual. There may be a formal night but the only thing they ask you not to wear then is shorts or distressed jeans.

  8. Clarice

    These are great tips! Thank you for reminding us to get trip insurance. This is really helpful especially with the pandemic and we don’t really know what will happen. Bookmarking your post for future reference.

  9. Bhushavali

    I’ve only been on short cruises that are 2 days long and I’m considering a longer cruise and I’m glad to have stumbled on your article at the apt time. Thanks for the tip about arriving a day before the cruise departure in order to deal with delays. Makes a lot of sense especially when you come from a different city. Also I was under the impression that cruise tickets come with included travel insurance. Thanks for clearing that.

    1. Tami Post author

      My last two cruises have been with Holland America and I have been very happy with their itineraries and level of service, plus value for money spent.

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