Are you sick of rushing to the spa on embarkation day, only to elbow your way through the crowds to guarantee that 10 a.m. hot-candle-wax treatment on the second sea day? Tired of the buzz kill you get from waiting in long lines to book a romantic dinner at onboard specialty restaurants? As cruise lines expand options for online reservations -- whether it's pre-booking shore excursions, spa treatments and restaurant reservations, or even ordering a week's worth of diapers -- cruise travelers can spend less time queuing up onboard and more time enjoying their vacations.
Most cruise lines embraced online cruise booking several years back, but now many are expanding online options to include pre-reservation for a multitude of onboard activities. So how does it work? Instead of dialing your travel agent or waiting until you've embarked, once you have proof of booking (confirmation number), you can log on to your cruise line's website and map out the rest of your cruise. Lines like Royal Caribbean and Princess even provide you with your own personalized section, where all your related info is stored.
While many travelers are embracing these early booking options, excessive pre-planning can sometimes be a spontaneity killer or commit you to doing something you're not ultimately interested in (onboard acupuncture may sound like a great idea until the ship starts rocking). Be sure to check cancellation policies before pre-reserving any shore tours, spa treatments or even specialty dinners.
Of course, not all lines allow for pre-booking of all things. (Some won't even allow you to book cruises online.) But, almost every line allows for pre-cruise customization in some fashion.
The Tops. For its sheer number of pre-bookable online options, Seabourn Cruise Line earns high marks. Besides the standards -- completing guest registration forms, ordering gifts, reserving shore excursions -- Seabourn passengers-to-be can also book spa treatments, make reservations for high-end hotels, sign up for Seabourn Journeys (extended, multi-day shore excursions) and arrange for custom or private shore arrangements. The one thing you can't book online through Seabourn? The cruise vacation itself.
Lacking. In this modern age of the Internet, it comes as a bit of a surprise that travelers already booked with U.K.-based Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines can do nearly nothing online, in terms of pre-booking. We will say, however, that Fred. Olsen's Web site is somewhat interactive, with Google maps of itineraries and an online registration program that lets you save cruises and excursions as "favorites." Perhaps there is still something to be said for booking the old-fashioned way.
Carnival Cruise Line
Once You're Booked: Passengers who are booked (and paid-in-full) can pre-purchase shore excursions and spa treatments online, prior to their cruises (up to seven days before sailing). If you're sailing on a Conquest-class ship (Carnival Conquest, Glory, Valor, Liberty or Freedom) or Spirit-class ship (Carnival Spirit, Pride, Legend or Miracle), you can make online reservations for the Supper Club, the line's highly regarded alternative restaurant. Carnival also offers CarnivalConnections.com, a group planning/social networking tool. Passengers can fill out embarkation forms and register for the "Sail & Sign" onboard credit card system through Carnival's Fun Pass portal. Golfers can obtain additional information on a variety of courses and onboard services available at www.carnivalgolf.com. Also, up to one week before a sail date, it's possible to order a variety of gifts online, from wine and flowers to onboard ship credits.
Caveat: You can cancel shore excursions booked online prior to the specified cut-off date for a full refund. After that time, you can cancel once onboard, but you'll have to pay a 25 percent cancellation charge. Any shore excursions are nonrefundable within 24 hours of arriving in port.
Once You're Booked: With a cruise reservation number, ship name and sailing date, you can reserve (or make changes to) shore excursions online up to 10 days prior to sailing and make reservations at specialty dining venues. Passengers are able to pre-book spa, salon and personal fitness appointments before their cruise on select Solstice-class ships. The line will roll out this option on additional ships through 2011. Passengers can also fill out immigration documents and embarkation forms online.
Caveat:Celebrity opens anywhere from 60 to 90 percent of all available specialty dining for pre-cruise online bookings, which bears mentioning because guests may see online that a particular night appears to be fully booked, yet you may still be able to book once onboard.
Once You're Booked: Clicking on the "Already Booked" link at the top of the Costa home page will provide information on pre-booking shore excursions, ordering special gifts and packages, reserving tables at specialty restaurants, filling out your passenger declaration form, booking airport parking and purchasing gifts. You can do all of this up until a week before the departure date.
Caveat: You cannot book spa treatments online.
Crystal Cruise Line
Once You're Booked: With Crystal's online Priority Check-in, deposited passengers can view and print their itinerary, register their credit card for onboard charges, update immigration information and flight details, access the Luggage Concierge, and view availability of restaurant and spa reservations online. Once passengers are paid in full, they can also access the online Planning Center, where they can request airport transfers, rent tuxedos, pre-reserve shore excursions, make restaurant reservations (for both alternative venues and Open Dining), book spa appointments, and sign up for Creative Learning Institute classes.
Caveat: You cannot book a cruise online. You must call a travel agent or contact Crystal directly.
Once You're Booked: All Cunard passengers can complete their guest registration forms online, and Queen Victoria guests may pre-reserve all spa services online. You can also download forms for things like gifts (which summarily have to be mailed to Cunard).
Caveat: Interestingly, Queen Mary 2 guests must call to pre-reserve all SpaClub services, 21 days or more prior to their sailing dates; if less than 21 days in advance, bookings need to be made onboard. You must call to pre-reserve shore excursions.
Disney Cruise Line
Once You're Booked: Head to the "My Cruise Plans" area to begin pre-reservations. Seventy-five days prior to sailing, shore excursions requests can be made online. Changes are allowed up to two days prior to cruising. Also 75 days out, guests can make reservations for Palo (an adults-only specialty restaurant), secure a spot in the Flounder's Reef Nursery (offering babysitting for kids, ages 12 weeks to 3 years), register kids for youth activities and reserve Vista Spa & Salon treatments and fitness activities. Finally, it's easy to fill out "e-docs" online to expedite the embarkation-day process. Families preparing to sail on Disney Cruise Line with little ones have access to an online service that allows them to order baby supplies -- diapers, baby food, infant formula -- in advance and have the items delivered to their staterooms.
Caveat: Guests in travel parties with five or more staterooms must retrieve each reservation separately to arrange activities in My Cruise Plans.
Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines
Once You're Booked:Fred. Olsen hasn't yet added online booking capabilities.
Caveat: Only passengers in the United Kingdom can book a cruise online. If you reside outside of the U.K., you must call a travel agent.
Once You're Booked: The "For Booked Guests" tab at the top of Holland America's homepage allows you to get the ball rolling with online check-ins (immigration, debarkation, credit card registration). In addition, most shore excursions can be reserved online at least eight months before a cruise (a year for world cruises), with step-by-step instructions to guide guests through a series of user-friendly screens. The cutoff for pre-booking shore excursions is five days prior to sailing. Passengers can also make dinner reservations online for Pinnacle Grill and Tamarind, and book spa treatments prior to their cruises.
Caveat: If you cancel a shore excursion online more than five days before the cruise, a credit is issued to your credit card. Cancellations less than five days out receive an onboard credit. If you cancel a Signature of Excellence private car or minivan shore excursion within five days of sailing, a 100 percent cancellation fee will apply, since transportation and services will have already been arranged.
Once You're Booked: Passengers can fill out passenger declaration and special requirement forms online. There's also an online express check-in; passengers must go to MSC's Web site at least 72 hours before their cruises, enter their information, print out a form and expedite the embarkation process.
Caveat:MSC Cruises does not accept online cruise reservations, so call an agent to book. In addition, passengers can only pre-book shore excursions and spa experiences, and that must also be done through a travel agent. Information about available experiences is listed on the line's Web site.
Norwegian Cruise Line
Once You're Booked: With the "My NCL" section of Norwegian Cruise Line's Web site (see login at top right of home page), passengers can update their personal information and cruise preferences, book shore excursions, check in online and print out cruise tickets and luggage tags. The company recently added the ability to pre-purchase specialty dining on Norwegian Epic, with plans to add Freestyle Dining reservations for specialty restaurants fleet-wide soon.
The line also has a pre-cruise online reservation system for some of Norwegian Epic's entertainment options, such as performances of Blue Man Group, Cirque Dreams & Dinner, Legends in Concert, The Second City Comedy Troupe, Nickelodeon Slime Time Live!, Breakfast with Nickelodeon and the Murder Mystery "Presumed Murdered." Passengers can make a reservation for each show once per sailing.
Caveat: You must pay your cruise balance in full and create an online login to pre-book excursions. Currently, you cannot book spa appointments pre-cruise.
Once You're Booked:Oceania's Dining Reservations Calendar enables passengers to pre-reserve tables at dinner any of its four restaurant venues on Nautica, Regatta and Insignia. Since the restaurants, including The Grand Dining Room, Polo Grill, Toscana and Tapas on the Restaurants, don't charge an extra fee for dining, there's no need to enter a credit card number to complete reservations.
Online booking for six of 10 dining venues on Oceania's new 65,000-ton, 1,258-passenger Marina is also available.
Oceania also offers a pre-trip shore excursion booking capability. You pay in full at the time of booking (cancelations for a full refund are granted once onboard as long as passengers cancel within specified time frames).
Passengers can also book treatments ranging from massages and body scrubs to private fitness classes, at the line's Canyon Ranch SpaClubs fleetwide.
Caveat: You can't access advance reservations until final payment has been made. Then you must register in the "already booked" section of Oceania's Web site (oceaniacruises.com). You can only book within 90 days of your cruise.
Once You're Booked: Click on the "Your Account" link on the P&O home page, fill in the booking number, and you'll be allowed to search and reserve excursions, provide and amend pre-cruise information, book parking, and manage other trip details.
Caveat: The cost of shore excursions will be added to your onboard bill (to be paid at the end of the cruise).
Once You're Booked:Princess was the first line to offer pre-booking of shore excursions online, which can be done starting 120 days prior to your sail date by clicking on "Prepare for Your Cruise" on the right of the top navigation bar. In the "Cruise Personalizer," passengers can also book spa treatments on all ships -- except Pacific Princess, Tahitian Princess and Royal Princess -- pre-reserve dining preferences, make special requests and print boarding passes and handy travel summaries.
Caveat: Excursion packages involving hotel accommodations, flights and private vehicles are not refundable within 30 days of your cruise departure date.
Royal Caribbean International
Once You're Booked: Click on the "Before You Board" tab on the top navigation bar of Royal Caribbean's Web site to reveal options for checking in online, pre-reserving shore excursions (from 90 to four days prior to sailing), reserving seats at specialty restaurants (up to four days prior, paid at the time reservations are made) and filling out the necessary travel documents. Passengers can also order gifts and RCI logo gear. Your "Countdown to Cruise" page will contain all of this info. Plus, passengers can pre-book tables in the main dining room online before they cruise.
Caveat: You cannot make spa appointments in advance. Plus, don't forget to sign up for a Cruise Critic Meet & Mingle party, which you can do via Cruise Critic -- but only after you have a booking number. Online bookings for specialty restaurants can only be made for parties of 10 or fewer.
Seabourn Cruise Lines
Once You're Booked:Seabourn offers one of the most impressive arrays of online options in the industry. With booking numbers in-hand, passengers-to-be can enter the "Already Booked" section, where they can peruse detailed itineraries, complete their guest registration forms, book spa treatments, order gifts (clothing, Tumi luggage and Charlie Palmer cookbooks), research and reserve shore excursions, check visa and immunization requirements and review their invoices. In addition, this luxury line allows you to book high-end hotels, Seabourn journeys (extended, multi-day shore excursions) and make custom or private shore arrangements. Passengers can also opt for "Click & Sail" and print out e-pass cruise documents to present at check-in rather than being mailed a booklet of cruise documents.
Caveat: You cannot book a cruise online. You can go as far as making a "booking request" online, but someone will call you to complete the sale. You must call a travel agent or contact Seabourn directly.
Once You're Booked: Once booked, passengers can pre-arrange shore excursions up to seven days prior to sailing. Upon selecting a voyage, a "Reserve Now" icon appears on the right side of the itinerary page above "Shore Excursions." Passengers can also pre-book spa treatments, list personal preferences on the guest information form, book post-cruise ground transfers and request early embarkation online. Passengers sailing on Prince Albert II Arctic and Antarctic expedition cruises can also request complimentary parkas online.
Caveat: You cannot book a cruise online. You can go as far as making a "booking request" online, but someone will call you to complete the sale. You can also call a travel agent or Silversea Cruises representative. In addition, when pre-booking shore excursions, Silversea will charge the cost to the passenger's shipboard account during the cruise, rather than making them pay when booking the excursion.
Once You're Booked: With your booking number, you'll be able to fill out your immigration forms and pre-book shore excursions for all Windstar cruises. You can book your excursions online until the Sunday before your sailing.
Caveat: If you cancel a shore excursion reservation less than five days prior to departure, you will be subject to a 10 percent cancellation fee. Windstar does not let guests pre-arrange spa treatments or specialty dining reservations.
--Updated by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief