NOTE: All pics are from the first group reunion in 2013

Here's what I do to prepare for a cruise:

Port Research
The first thing to do whenever I book any cruise is to look at the cruise ports. It’s really important that to do your research before boarding your cruise. I use websites like CruiseCritic or TripAdvisor to find port reviews. You can also ask your travel agent. Cruise lines will tell you about the ports you visit but they are likely to say things like you need to get a shuttle bus into town for $20. In reality it might only be a 10-minute walk. Doing your research before you go means that you can arrive at each port armed with some valuable insider knowledge…and save time and money!

I am heading to Ocho Rios, Jamaica; Grand Cayman; and Cozumel, Mexico. (Jealous yet?)

The whole group...most were semi-sober at this point

Excursions
It is usually easiest to research available sea excursions online before you cruise, that gives you time to read reviews and research alternative private tours. Booking in advance through a legitimate alternative excursion company can save you time and money. Here is my favorite. I am not taking any excursions on this cruise (and I never really do) so it’s easy for me! The ports that I am visiting on this cruise are relatively easy to explore and that is what I prefer. It’s not for everyone though…it’s just what I like.  If you absolutely must kiss a dolphin, go snorkeling or fly on a zip-line…book those excursions in advance to guarantee a spot.

Some beach...Somewhere

Logistics
How are you going to get to the cruise port? I HIGHLY recommend arriving to your port city one day in advance. I’ve heard too many horror stories about car breakdowns…or flight cancellations/delays that resulted in missing the cruise. Shop around…many hotels near a departure port offer cruise packages. The hotel I’m staying at in Miami offers free parking for the duration of the cruise and complimentary shuttle transportation to the ship. Your travel consultant can help you identify these properties.

Cruise lines more frequently are suggesting an embarkation time. These are just a guideline so don’t worry at all if the cruise line says you should check in at 10am but you don’t arrive until 12-noon. Cruise lines are attempting to spread out the flow of arriving passengers to shorten check-in time. But I promise…they’ll let you board if you don’t arrive at your assigned time.

Drinks packages
Normally I am not a big drinker and I don’t spend a lot of time onboard drinking. On my upcoming cruise however, I’m cruising with a bunch of wild and crazy party people from my youth and the only thing I am planning to do is drink. Definitely a drink package is the way to go this time and the best time to do it is when you sign-in online. For a set daily amount you can just sit-back and say, “keep ‘em coming barkeep”…or some similar slurred request. If you are planning to imbibe…check out the drink packages. It can save you some money…but do the math. Also keep in mind, both parties sharing a cabin are required to purchase the package. If your partner is not a drinker…you need to pass. Drink packages aren’t limited to alcohol only…if you absolutely must have a Coke in your hand at all times of the day, packages for that addiction are offered too.

Buddies Forever

Internet packages
It is also usually best to investigate this pre-cruise as they can sometimes be cheaper to buy in advance. I am not purchasing this time so that’s easy. A vacation is time to disconnect.

Me with my admirers. Wait...who's the dude in the back row?

Gratuities
If you haven’t paid for your gratuities in the price of your cruise fare you can expect a bill for these on the last night of your cruise. Talk about sticker shock! But in my opinion it's money well spent. The people on cruise ships work hard...and I rarely have I had a bad experience with a crew. I ALWAYS pay my gratuities in advance.

Shopping
At this point, I start to think about if I need to buy anything for the upcoming cruise. Not a bad idea to get some Dramamine or something similar for motion sickness (talk to your doctor). I’ve never have a problem, even in the roughest seas. But I know some people start feeling queasy as soon as they lay eyes on the ship!! It’s always the boring things that I need to buy like a new Speedo (kidding…I wouldn’t subject that horror onto anyone), sunblock and extra headache relief tablets (see – Drink Packages)

Travel Insurance
Don’t ever forget your travel insurance. You just invested some serious change for your cruise vacation…but sometimes things go bad. It’s always best to protect yourself with relatively inexpensive insurance. Your travel professional can make recommendations.

One of our own won the belly flop contest with this winning form

Check in online
If you are able, it is best to check in online, you can also in most cases print your luggage tags before you go which saves you time at embarkation. You can do all this at the cruise port…but I don’t recommend it. You do have to fill in quite a lot of information when you check in online, you will need to provide your passport details so make sure that you have your passport handy. You’ll also be asked questions like ‘when will you arrive at the port’.

You will also be asked how you would like to pay for things when you are onboard. I give them my credit card at this point…but if you are a cash only type of person, that option is available. Bring the credit card you selected to use with you. You may be asked to show it at check-in.

Royal Caribbean's Enchantment of the Seas

So…here is your check-list:

1.      Research the ports in advance

2.      Seriously consider arriving one day before your cruise departure and book a hotel

3.      Purchase trip insurance

4.      Do some last minute shopping

5.      Book shore excursions

6.      Consider pre-purchasing Internet and a Drink Package

7.      Pre-pay your gratuities (saves the sticker shock experienced by many on the last cruise day)

8.      Check-in online and print boarding passes and luggage tags

What am I forgetting? Add your suggestions and comments below.