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. But, almost every line allows for pre-cruise customization in some fashion.
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Once You're Booked: You can set up a MyAzamara online account before you even book a cruise. When your account is established, you can use it to check-in and book shore excursions.
Caveat: While most tours can be canceled 24 hours in advance with no penalty, excursions involving flights, trains and overnight stays, as well as special events and "Private Discoveries" incur penalties if canceled fewer than 30 days prior to sailing.
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). You can also make online reservations for Steakhouse, the line's signature alternative eatery. With Funville, Carnival's online planning portal, passengers can fill out embarkation forms and register for the "Sail & Sign" onboard credit card system. 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 credit.
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. All 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 four days prior to sailing. Passengers can also make reservations at specialty dining venues, pre-book spa, salon and fitness appointments, and buy beverage and restaurant packages. Passengers can also fill out immigration documents and embarkation forms online and check in.
Caveat: Celebrity opens anywhere from 60 to 90 percent of all available specialty dining for pre-cruise online bookings, which means passengers may see online that a particular night appears to be fully booked, yet 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 take you to pre-booking shore excursions, ordering special gifts and packages, reserving tables at specialty restaurants, filling out your passenger declaration form and booking airport parking. You can do all of this up until a week before the departure date.
Caveat: You cannot book spa treatments online.
Once You're Booked: With Crystal's online Priority Check-in, 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. Guests can also access the online Planning Center, where they can request airport transfers, pre-reserve shore excursions, make restaurant reservations for alternative venues, book spa appointments, and sign up for Creative Learning Institute classes.
Caveat: While all deposited passengers can access Priority Check-in, only travelers who have paid in full can make bookings via the online Planning Center.
Once You're Booked: All Cunard passengers can pre-book shore excursions and reserve tables in select dining venues such as Todd English and The Verandah using the online Voyage Personaliser. Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth passengers also may pre-reserve all spa services online. You can also download forms for things like gifts (which have to be mailed to Cunard), but this is under review.
Caveat: Queen Mary 2 passengers must call to pre-reserve all SpaClub services, 21 days or more prior to their sailing dates.
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 three 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 spa treatments (Senses Spa & Salon on Disney Magic, Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy and Vista Spa & Salon on Disney Wonder) and fitness activities. 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, and infant formula -- in advance and have the items delivered to their staterooms. Finally, it's easy to fill out "e-docs" online to expedite the embarkation-day process.
Caveat: Guests in travel parties with five or more staterooms must retrieve each reservation separately to arrange activities in My Cruise Plans.
Once You're Booked: Passengers booked on Fred. Olsen can manage their booking, make dining reservations and pre-book shore tours, celebratory packages, gifts and additional in-cabin requirements (extra mattress, pillows, sheets instead of duvet, sharps box) on the Fred. Olsen website via the "My Cruises" link.
Caveat: Only passengers with an address in the United Kingdom can book a cruise online.
Once You're Booked: The "For Booked Guests" tab at the top of Holland America's online reservations 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). The cutoff for pre-booking shore excursions is three 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 three days before the cruise, a credit is issued to your credit card. Cancellations less than three days out receive an onboard credit but are subject to a 10-percent cancellation fee. Optional excursions during the land portion of an Alaska cruisetours are non-refundable within three days of the departure date. If you cancel your tour reservation after the booking deadline stated in the Shore Excursions Order Form onboard, or if you cancel a Signature Collection private tour within three days of sailing, a 100-percent cancellation fee will apply, since transportation and services will already have been arranged.
Once you're booked: A range of extras such as transfers and excursions are pre-bookable online.
Caveat: Excursions booked online are priced in U.S. dollars, while excursions booked onboard are priced in Norwegian Kroner. Therefore, you might pay more or less for your tour than your shipmates depending on exchange rate fluctuations.
Once You're Booked: In both the U.S. and U.K. passengers can pre-book excursions, spa treatments, order gifts, and reserve specialty dining. U.K. passengers can also pre-book Bella, Fantastica and Aurea experiences.
Caveat: Wi-fi is the only thing you can't pre-book in either country.
Once You're Booked: With the "My NCL" section of Norwegian Cruise Line's website (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. You also can pre-purchase and make reservations for specialty dining.
The line also has a pre-cruise online reservation system for some of its newer ships' entertainment options, such as performances of Blue Man Group, Rock of Ages, Legally Blonde: The Musical, Cirque Dreams & Dinner, Legends in Concert, Nickelodeon Slime Time Live!, Breakfast with Nickelodeon, among others. 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 can only book spa appointments pre-cruise for Epic.
Once You're Booked: Oceania's Dining Reservations Calendar enables paid-in-full passengers to pre-reserve tables at dinner in any of its four restaurant venues on Nautica, Regatta and Insignia. How far in advance dining reservations can be made depends on cabin category, though all must be made prior to seven days before sailing. Online booking for six of 10 dining venues on Oceania's Marina is also available.
Oceania offers pre-cruise shore excursion booking capability. You pay in full at the time of booking (cancellations for a full refund are granted as long as passengers cancel within specified timeframes, which depends on whether passengers have purchased individual shore excursions or shore excursion packages).
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 website (oceaniacruises.com). You can only book within 90 days of your cruise.
Once You're Booked: You can pre-book pretty much everything – shore excursions, specialty dining, a photography package, flight seats, gifts -- via the online Cruise Personaliser.
Caveat: Gifts need to be purchased 72 hours in advance.
Once You're Booked: Booked passengers can pre-book shore excursions online, starting 120 days prior to and up to 5 days before sail date by clicking on "Booked Passengers" on the right of the top navigation bar. In the "Cruise Personalizer," passengers can also book spa treatments on all ships, 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.
Once You're Booked: Creating a profile on the My Account portion of the Regent website enables passengers to pre-reserve shore excursions, make dining reservations and complete their guest registration forms.
Caveat: Canyon Ranch spa treatments can be pre-booked, but only by calling Canyon Ranch directly.
Once You're Booked: Royal Caribbean introduced its Cruise Planner in summer 2014. Passengers can access the tool by clicking on the "Before You Board" tab on the top navigation bar of Royal Caribbean's website, where "Cruise Planner" is a dropdown option. The tool allows passengers to book shore excursions, buy beverage packages, make reservations for specialty dining, pick out entertainment and book spa treatments. Generally, payment is required at the time of reservation. With Cruise Planner, passengers can see a calendar that includes all their bookings in relation to the ship's itinerary. It works on mobile devices, so passengers can carry their calendars with them. Passengers also can fill out the necessary travel documents online ahead of their cruises and print out their boarding passes and luggage tags.
Caveat: Online bookings for specialty restaurants can only be made for parties of 10 or fewer.
Once You're Booked: With booking numbers in-hand, Seabourn 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, wine, floral arrangements), research and reserve shore excursions, check visa and immunization requirements and review their invoices. In addition, this luxury line allows you to book pre- or post-cruise hotel stays and Seabourn journeys (extended, multi-day shore excursions). 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: If you cancel shore excursions, spa services or gifts ordered online within three days of embarkation or onboard, you might incur a fee of up to 100 percent of the price. Any refunds due will come in the form of onboard credit.
Once You're Booked: Silversea's "My Silversea" log-in area enables passengers to update their profile and preferences, and pre-book specialty dinner reservations (from 120 to seven days prior to sailing), optional shore excursions, beauty, spa and fitness services. Passengers sailing on Silver Explorer Arctic and Antarctic and select Silver Discoverer expedition cruises can also request complimentary parkas online.
Caveat: My Silversea is available for all passengers sailing on all ships, but those sailing on expedition cruises cannot yet pre-book anything. Also, 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.
Once you're booked: You can pre-book extras such as special packages, stage school acting classes, canapes and sparkling wine, flight seats, insurance and shore excursions.
Caveat: You can't pre-book spa treatments or the specialty restaurants.
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 the Cruise Critic Staff