Ready to book your next -- or first -- cruise and not sure whether booking online would be too big of an undertaking? You're not alone. Though the vast majority of travelers book their trips through online booking services and even via their mobile devices, cruise travel is a different animal altogether. It can be a lot trickier to choose a ship, cabin type and dinner seating arrangements than it is to simply click a button and book a hotel room. But armed with the right information, booking a cruise online could be an ideal option for many travelers.
You can book around the clock at your convenience, you won't have to bother hunting down a reliable travel agent or working around their schedule and you may even be able to score some online-only discounts and bonuses. With all of that in mind, here's a quick primer to help you book your cruise online.
Nearly every cruise line -- including all of the top mainstream cruise lines -- offer online bookings. If you already know which cruise line you want to book with, this is the easiest option. Go directly to the line's site, choose your itinerary and follow the booking engine's prompts. One particularly helpful aspect of booking directly through the cruise line is that you'll be able to check out every last option in detail all in one place, before making your final choices.
Your favorite online travel agency (Expedia, Orbitz, etc.) likely sells cruises and if you have rewards with that agency, you may be able to apply them to your cruise or earn more by booking your cruise through that site. But there are also online travel agencies that specialize in cruises, such as cruises.com, americandiscountcruises.com and cruisesonly.com. These OTAs are often more like traditional cruise travel agencies, and have support staff that can answer more specific cruise-related questions before you make your online reservation. OTAs can be found in unusual places; for example, you can book cruises online through Costco and certain airline websites.
Meta-search engines like Cruise Critic's Find a Cruise allow prospective travelers to narrow down the hundreds and hundreds of cruise booking options to come up with a customized list of cruises that may interest them, then compare those cruises and select one. Once you've made your selection, you'll be given options to complete the booking via a cruise line website or an online travel agency -- your choice based on which deal looks most enticing. It's a best-of-both-worlds scenario for cruisers who aren't savvy about cruise prices or the different OTAs out there.
Experienced cruisers have a bit of an advantage when it comes to booking a cruise online since they're likely already familiar with cruise lines, ships, cabins, onboard features, etc., so making selections could be as simple as clicking a button. But if you're new to cruising or you're looking to try a new cruise line, destination or cabin type, you'll want to make sure to do plenty of research before fiddling with an online booking site, or you could wind up confused and overwhelmed by a process that should simplify the travel booking experience.
Make sure to always read the fine print so you know exactly what you're getting, and you don't run into any issues when you arrive for embarkation or once you're onboard. (Important fine print could include whether or not you can cruise with a baby or while pregnant and if you can cruise without a passport.) You should be doubly diligent when it comes to any fees that might be charged in addition to your cruise fare such as taxes, fuel charges and gratuities, as well as to change, cancellation and refund policies. Even if you don't make any changes, cruises are often subject to last-minute itinerary changes due to weather and sea conditions. There's no friendly travel agent standing by waiting to spell the terms and conditions out for you, so it's important that you read every last detail yourself.
Take care when selecting dates and entering names of passengers. Since cruises run the same itineraries on repeat, it can be easy to select the wrong date and wind up with a cruise that doesn't work for your schedule or even departs in the wrong year. You should also be aware that passengers' names must match their government-issued ID exactly when it's time to board the ship, so when you type it in to make your cruise reservations online, check and then double-check. (This is especially important if you're planning a honeymoon cruise and you anticipate changing your last name.)
If you're having any issues at all or you're unsure of how you should proceed at any point, you can call the online travel agency's customer service line for assistance at any time. Don't be afraid to do so -- customer service is there to help and it's better to spend a few minutes getting an answer to a simple question before you book than it is to end up possibly making multiple calls and dealing with various people to fix an error that was made after your booking has already been completed. It's definitely worth picking up the phone when you see a cabin category listed online as "call for prices" or "waitlisted" because there might be an unpublishable deal waiting for you or another option for getting on a full sailing.
While cruise fares don't vary too much from one booking agent to the next, you should still always compare prices on a few sites before you book. Just like with hotel rooms, some booking sites buy cruise cabins at a group rate and are able to sell them cheaper, while others may be able to score you a free upgrade or will foot the bill for bonuses like onboard credit and prepaid gratuities to nab your business. It always pays to compare before you book.
As with anything you do online, security should be minded. The vast majority of online cruise sellers are legitimate and there is no reason to be concerned, but it's always a good idea to book with a familiar site or one that has been recommended to you. And always make sure that any site you are entering your credit card information is secure. The URL should start with "https://" not simply "http://".