You don't have to have a cruise booked to start preparing for your next sailing. You might not be ready to book just yet, or you might have a cruise booked a year or two down the line. Whatever the reason for the hiatus, there is plenty to prep in anticipation of that eventual embarkation day.
If you want to start inching toward your next voyage, here are 10 things you can do right now to get ready for your next cruise, whenever that may be.
1. Save Money
This tip is either the most obvious, or the least. Even if your cruise is already booked and paid in full, squirreling away as much as you can for a little "budget cushion" only means that there is less to stress about, financially, when the time comes to spend. If you can, continue to save after you pay off your sailing, even if you've also booked shore excursions and drink packages. There is always the inevitable souvenir -- either in port or in an onboard shop -- that will call your name. Or the spa treatment you never knew you needed until you were at sea.
We know not everyone can put aside a massive cruise vacation fund; check out these tips for cruising on a tight budget.
2. Check Your Travel Docs
Even if you're a seasoned traveler, it's savvy to check all of your travel documents before an upcoming cruise -- and then check them again. Sometimes lost in the fine print of a cruise contract is the stipulation that any passport used to embark must be valid for at least six months after the sail date.
Your travel documents don't have to be expired to be invalid; if you're confused about which ID you need for your specific sailing, contact your cruise line or travel agent, or refer to our resource on cruise rules, regulations and travel docs.
For select cruises that don't require a passport, you'll want to make sure you have the right combination of documents: typically, an original birth certificate and photo identification. The deadline for REAL ID enhanced identification (for domestic travel) has been extended until October 1, 2021, so you have time to apply for one.
3. Test Your Luggage
Maybe it's been a while since you've pulled out the ol' suitcase, or maybe you pull them out so often they are starting to look worse for wear. Before you hit the road with a wobbly rollerbag wheel or a broken strap on your carry-on, put your luggage to the test ahead of your next cruise adventure.
Has your family grown since the last trip? Do all those zippers actually zip? Will your quality of travel improve exponentially if you spring for the much better backpack? These are all questions you should be asking well before you start to pack. Upgrading -- or simply replacing -- old or tired travel bags can save you some heartache as you laboriously drag your overstuffed belongings toward TSA.
Looking for the perfect luggage for cruise travel? We've got you covered with these picks.
4. Stock Up On (Or Consolidate) Travel Essentials
We find that either we don't have a single tube of travel-sized toothpaste when it comes time to pack, or we have 20 -- and they're all one squirt away from empty. Be sure to check your packing list for what you might need to pick up, be it toiletries, sunscreen, trip-appropriate clothes and shoes, or memory cards.
But before you buy, clean out the closet or drawer where half-used travel bottles go to die or dig around in that plastic bin of travel items. You might be surprised by what you already own.
Not sure what you need? Start with these 10 things you don't want to forget to pack for a cruise.
5. Do Your Research
If you've found yourself on Cruise Critic, you're likely no stranger to researching a cruise or a vacation. While some dread the doldrums of planning a trip, others delight in the many exciting details. There is a proverbial rabbit hole of information online about cruise ships and destinations, so you can fill any free time before your next sailing with research on what you will do onboard and in port.
Beyond which ship you should pick, you can narrow down cabin category type and location; browse menus at the onboard specialty restaurants; research shore excursions or private tour companies, or track the weather in the ports you hope to visit. Readers on the Cruise Critic forums are notorious for getting down to the nitty-gritty with replies to almost any question you could think to ask.
6. Make Reservations
Every cruise line is different about how far out you can make reservations online -- if you can book ahead at all. Check if your specific cruise line allows you to pre-book cruise ship activities online, and then ignite your inner planner.
Booking ahead takes the guesswork out of when you will squeeze a specialty dinner or spa appointment into your busy itinerary. But it also ensures you have access to exclusive experiences and once-per-cruise events such as a chef's table, Disney Cruise Line's afternoon tea with Disney princesses, or a for-fee dinner theater experience. Sometimes, booking ahead can even save you some money when compared with booking onboard. This is often the case with drinks, Wi-Fi and occasionally dining packages.
Don't forget to secure your spot on a coveted shore excursion. Popular tours on bigger ships will often have multiple departures, but occasionally that special experience -- like interacting with sea turtles at a small conservation center -- will have limited slots. Booking early, above all, helps reduce disappointment.
7. Create Fun Matching Shirts
Since you have that time on your hands, why not whip up some custom T-shirts for your cruise crew? We're talking swag to celebrate family reunions, birthdays, girl getaways, bachelor parties -- even divorces. Sure, matching shirts can be corny, but they are a part of what makes a cruise with friends and family even more enjoyable. (And you can remember your epic trip when you wear it to bed after the cruise has long passed.)
If you need inspiration for your T-shirt design, check out these 10 funny cruise shirts and start brainstorming your own catchphrases and hashtags for your upcoming voyage.
8. Free Up Your Data
Most of us are guilty of loading up our smartphones or cameras with tons of photos and videos and never taking the time to save them elsewhere. Cue the dreaded "low/no memory" error message.
If you have some downtime before your next vacation, dig out any phone/camera/computer you plan on bringing with you and check that you will have room to save all your new pics of sunsets at sea and every meal you eat. Better yet, use a physical hard drive or a cloud storage service (we like Google Photos because it's free) and back up your photos so you have a copy if you need to wipe them on the spot from your phone or camera.
Also, check to be sure that your phone plan includes allowances for data that you might use at sea or abroad (if not connected to Wi-Fi) to text, use social media or surf the internet. Many companies offer a travel pass that charges about $10 per day for unlimited data within a 24-hour period in select countries.
9. Make a Checklist
Think of all the things you inevitably forget when scrambling to prep for a trip -- and while you think of them, write them down. With time before your next sailing, use this space to think and plan ahead; you will be so prepared by the time you head out on your next cruise, you'll breeze from your doorstep to the gangway.
Everyone has that one thing they always forget; if you make and use a reusable cruise packing list, you don't need to reinvent the wheel every time you sail. Consider tweaking it for warm- or cold-weather cruises, maybe for longer or more exotic sailings that will require slightly more layers or supplies. If you want to prove that you're hyper-organized, follow this pre-cruise planning checklist to ensure you've really thought of everything, from months out to the night before.
10. Join a Cruise Critic Roll Call
Apart from the planning, shopping and packing, preparing for a cruise should be a happy time full of positive anticipation. No matter how far in advance you have booked your cruise, you can start making friends and sharing in the excitement on your Cruise Critic roll call. This online group is a place where people booked on the same sailing can connect and chat ahead of its departure. Members can share tips, trade stories, ask questions and even book group shore excursions or dinners together.
The culmination of most roll calls is an onboard gathering called a Meet 'n' Mingle, where Cruise Critic members have the option to meet face to face -- often over snacks and drinks, with visits from the cruise director or ship's officers. If you're not yet convinced, here are some more reasons you might enjoy a Cruise Critic roll call before your next cruise.