Cruise Preparation Checklist: 10 Pre-cruise Mistakes You Don’t Want to Make

After booking your cruise and making all of the necessary travel arrangements, it’s easy to think that your job is done and that all you have to do is try not to get so distracted by fantasies of sitting next to the pool with a margarita in hand that you forget to pack your underwear. 

As someone with experience as both a cruise ship crew member and a guest, I know that there are many things that people overlook when planning their cruises. If you want to switch into vacation mode from the moment you step aboard your ship, here are 10 of the most common things that you’re likely to regret not doing before a cruise:

1. Checking the validity of your travel documents

Photo by Ethan Wilkinson on

This is not specific to cruising, but you should always ensure you have the right travel documents. 

Depending on your nationality, the port of departure, and the destinations, some cruises will allow you to travel by driver’s license but most cruises to international ports require a passport. Even if your passport is valid for the full duration of the cruise, it usually has to be valid for a length of time after that, and you normally need at least two blank pages for passport stamps. It’s always advisable to check this long before your cruise to avoid stress and disappointment. 

2. Informing your bank that you’re leaving the country

Many people don’t realize that if you suddenly start swiping your credit card in a foreign destination, your bank may identify this as suspicious activity and block your account. This could be further exacerbated if you are out of cell phone range and they are unable to contact you.  

When I worked in guest services, we often had to call guests to the front desk when the credit card they had attached to their onboard account had been blocked, and I overheard many intense conversations between guests and their banks to try to rectify this. This can add a lot of unnecessary stress to one’s vacation. 

Informing your bank that you are leaving the country can help you avoid this. It can also often be done on one’s banking app. While you could probably do this on board if you have internet access, why would you want to waste time on vacation doing anything on your phone other than making your friends back home jealous?

3. Researching roaming and internet options

Photo by Timothy Hales Bennett  on

Whether you want to unplug altogether, stay in touch with family members back home in case of an emergency, or document every aspect of your vacation for social media, knowing your options before you arrive on board is good. 

Sometimes Wi-Fi is available for free on board, but more often, various packages are offered at different price points. And while more and more cruise lines are switching to Starlink for faster connections, the internet available onboard may be varying degrees of slow. If you plan to work remotely at sea, you should research what you can expect from the internet offerings on your specific ship to avoid any nasty surprises.

4. Downloading the cruise line app

The ship app can often be invaluable for knowing what’s happening onboard, making various bookings, and even checking in. It’s best to download it before you get on board so you can create your profile or link it with your booking details beforehand. You may not be able to do this after you set sail if you don’t have an internet package. It’s also helpful to familiarize yourself with it and the features it offers before you need to use it.  

5. Researching the ports and planning port day activities

Philipsburg, Sint Maarten. Photo by Sharon Waugh

While it’s tempting to wing it and take your cruise experience as it comes with no set plans, exploring on your own without understanding what’s available can result in a wasted port day and missed opportunities to do something you would enjoy. 

Although a port talk is often presented during the cruise that may help you decide what to do in port, it is not uncommon for popular shore excursions to sell out before this. Researching a port in advance and booking the tours you want to do before they sell out is advisable. You may also explore the option of doing a tour independently and the risks and benefits of doing this. (I.e., An independent tour may be cheaper than a cruise line-offered tour, but if it runs late, your ship may leave without you. The general rule is that if you are on a ship tour and it comes back late, they have to wait for you.) 

Doing this kind of research may require more time and internet bandwidth than you may have once you are already on board. Even just looking at a map of the port you visit may help you find other interesting attractions nearby (sometimes even within walking distance of the places you intend to visit). Including these in your plans can enrich your experience.

6. Booking shows, specialty restaurants, and other activities 

Le Bistro By Sharon Waugh

There is usually so much to do and experience on a cruise that it’s hard to fit everything in. Suppose you have cruised before and know what you really like, making bookings before your cruise for shows, specialty restaurants, and other activities offered on board may help you make the most of your vacation. People often wait until later in the cruise to book these things, and they may be fully booked. Planning will help you avoid disappointment. 

7. Packing for theme nights

Glow Party, Norwegian Cruise Line. Photo by Sharon Waugh

Most cruises have a gala night, formal night, or captain’s dinner when guests are encouraged to dress up and are often denied access to certain dining rooms or venues if not dressed in formal attire. Depending on the cruise line, there may also be a number of other theme nights on board, such as a white night, a glow party, an 80’s party, etc. If you enjoy theme nights and want to get into the spirit of things, planning ahead and bringing the appropriate outfit is good. 

8. Familiarizing oneself with onboard offerings

Aside from the internet packages, you may also want to familiarize yourself with drinks packages, specialty dining packages, spa packages, and entertainment offerings. 

It may be helpful to figure out which dining options are complimentary and which come at an additional fee. Usually, gym use is included, but certain classes, services, and access to the sauna and steam rooms may come at an extra price. Again, the main production shows tend to be complimentary but sometimes require bookings, while other entertainment options, such as dinner theaters, cost extra. Access to the water slides is usually complementary, but activities like go-karting, laser tag, escape rooms, and other activities may not be.  

If you’d like to plan your budget, you may want to look into this before you arrive on board.

9. Packing a carry on bag for the first day 

By Sharon Waugh

It’s not uncommon for eager cruisers to want to board the ship as soon as boarding opens, but people often overlook that it can take a few hours for their luggage to be delivered to their rooms. If you intend to use the pools before the ship sets sail, it’s advisable to keep your bathing suit on you, along with sunscreen, medication, or anything you may want to access before much later in the day.

10. Bringing cash or the right currency for tips and small purchases

While credit cards have made international travel significantly more convenient, sometimes cash is still necessary. Although many countries (especially in the popular Caribbean cruise ports) will accept US dollars, it’s good to know what currencies are accepted in the destinations you are visiting and arrange some foreign currency for tips and other cash purchases. While you may be able to exchange money in port or on the ship, planning will help you get the best price and minimize your chances of getting scammed. 

Sharon Waugh is a former cruise ship entertainment host turned blogger and travel writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. Apart from traveling, she enjoys pottery, salsa dancing, and snorkeling. You can find out more about her on social media through her handle @thesharonicles.