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At Your Service: Online Cruise Reservations

Woman in orange using laptop (Photo: Index Open)

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 buzzkill 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 information 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. Some won't even allow you to book cruises online. But, almost every line allows for pre-cruise customization in some fashion.

  • The Tops: For its sheer number of pre-bookable online options, Seabourn Cruise Line earns high marks. Besides the standards—completing guest registration forms, ordering gifts, and reserving shore excursions—Seabourn passengers-to-be can also book spa treatments, make reservations for high-end hotels, sign up for Seabourn Journeys (extended, multi-day shore excursions) and arrange for custom or private shore arrangements. The one thing you can't book online through Seabourn? The cruise vacation itself.
  • Lacking: In this modern age of the Internet, it comes as a bit of a surprise that travelers already booked with U.K.-based Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines can do nearly nothing online, in terms of pre-booking. We will say, however, that Fred. Olsen's website is somewhat interactive, with Google maps of itineraries and an online registration program that lets you save cruises and excursions as "favorites." Perhaps there is still something to be said for booking the old-fashioned way.

Carnival Cruise Line

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). If you're sailing on a Conquest-class ship (Carnival Conquest, Glory, Valor, Liberty, or Freedom) or Spirit-class ship (Carnival Spirit, Pride, Legend, or Miracle), you can make online reservations for the Supper Club, the line's highly regarded alternative restaurant. Carnival also offers CarnivalConnections.com, a group planning/social networking tool. Passengers can fill out embarkation forms and register for the "Sail & Sign" onboard credit card system through Carnival's Fun Pass portal. Golfers can obtain additional information on a variety of courses and onboard services available at CarnivalGolf. 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 ship credits.

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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. Any shore excursions are nonrefundable within 24 hours of arriving in port.

Celebrity Cruises

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 10 days prior to sailing and make reservations at specialty dining venues. Passengers can also fill out immigration documents and embarkation forms online.

Caveat: Celebrity opens anywhere from 60 to 90 percent of all available specialty dining for pre-cruise online bookings, which bears mentioning because guests may see online that a particular night appears to be fully booked, yet you may still be able to book once onboard.

Costa Cruises

Once You're Booked: Clicking on the "Already Booked" link at the top of the Costa home page will provide information on pre-booking shore excursions, ordering special gifts and packages, reserving tables at specialty restaurants, filling out your passenger declaration form, booking airport parking, and purchasing gifts. You can do all of this up until a week before the departure date.

Caveat: You cannot book spa treatments online.

Cruise West

Once You're Booked: Booked guests can fill out their passport/identification, emergency contact and flight information forms, as well as provide information on special diets and health problems on Cruise West's website. They can also book their optional Alaska shore excursions online. These "optional" excursions are in addition to those that are offered in every port on every Cruise West itinerary as part of your cruise fare.

Caveat: You cannot book a cruise online. You must call a travel agent or contact Cruise West directly. Also, there are limited, optional shore excursions for Cruise West's Asia cruises, so there's no online booking option for those.

Crystal Cruise Line

Once You're Booked: Currently, passengers can prepay gratuities and order gifts online. In addition, guests have the option to go online up to six months before their sail dates to pre-reserve spa treatments and salon services, make specialty restaurant reservations, book shore excursions and—most interestingly—reserve space in the Creative Learning Institute, which includes Berlitz language classes, Yamaha keyboard lessons, and digital photography clinics. Penthouse Suite passengers can do all of this as soon as they're paid in full.

Caveat: You cannot book a cruise online. You must call a travel agent or contact Crystal directly. Also, note that restaurant pre-reservations are limited to two per stateroom for each restaurant on a cruise of 12 nights or more or one per stateroom for each restaurant on a cruise of seven to 11 nights.

Cunard Line

Once You're Booked: All Cunard passengers can complete their guest registration forms online, and Queen Victoria guests may pre-reserve all spa services online. You can also download forms for things like gifts (which summarily have to be mailed to Cunard).

Caveat: Queen Mary 2 guests must call to pre-reserve all SpaClub services 21 days or more prior to their sailing dates; if less than 21 days in advance, bookings need to be made onboard. You must call to pre-reserve shore excursions.

Disney Cruise Line

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 two 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 Vista Spa & Salon treatments and fitness activities. Finally, it's easy to fill out "e-docs" online to expedite the embarkation-day process. 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, infant formula—in advance and have the items delivered to their staterooms.

Caveat: Guests in travel parties with five or more staterooms must retrieve each reservation separately to arrange activities in My Cruise Plans.

Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines

Once You're Booked: Fred. Olsen hasn't yet added online booking capabilities.

Caveat: Only passengers in the United Kingdom can book a cruise online. If you reside outside of the U.K., you must call a travel agent.

Holland America

Once You're Booked: The "For Booked Guests" tab at the top of Holland America's homepage allows you to get the ball rolling with online check-ins (immigration, debarkation, and credit card registration). In addition, most shore excursions can be reserved online at least eight months before a cruise (a year for world cruises), with step-by-step instructions to guide guests through a series of user-friendly screens. The cutoff for pre-booking shore excursions is five days prior to sailing. Passengers can also make dinner reservations online for Pinnacle Grill and Tamarind prior to their cruises.

Caveat: If you cancel a shore excursion online more than five days before the cruise, a credit is issued to your credit card. Cancellations less than five days out receive an onboard credit. If you cancel a Signature of Excellence private car or minivan shore excursion within five days of sailing, a 100 percent cancellation fee will apply, since transportation and services will have already been arranged. You cannot book spa treatments online.

MSC Cruises

Once You're Booked: Passengers can fill out passenger declaration and special requirement forms online. There's also an online express check-in, so passengers can go to MSC Cruises' website 48 hours before their cruises, enter their information, print out a form, and hopefully expedite the embarkation process.

Caveat: MSC Cruises does not accept online cruise reservations, so call an agent to book. In addition, passengers can only pre-book shore excursions and spa experiences, and that must also be done through a travel agent. Information about available experiences is listed on the line's website.

Norwegian Cruise Line

Once You're Booked: With the "My NCL" section of Norwegian Cruise Line's website (see graphic at bottom 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. An NCL representative also tells us that more online booking features will be rolled out in the near future.

Caveat: You must pay your cruise balance in full and create an online login to pre-book excursions. Currently, you cannot book spa appointments or make dinner reservations pre-cruise.

Ocean Village

Once You're Booked: If you are a past passenger, you can type in your URN (Unique Reference Code), and Ocean Village will bring up your passenger details. Ocean Village's expansive Action Ashore program is bookable online and is available to book within eight to 10 weeks of departure.

Caveat: You can pre-reserve spa appointments in the Karma Spa up to 14 days prior to travel, but you can only do so by phone (call 02380 228396). Dinner reservations for specialty restaurants must be made onboard.

P&O Cruises

Once You're Booked: Click on the "Your Account" link on the P&O home page, fill in the booking number, and you'll be allowed to search and reserve excursions, provide and amend pre-cruise information, book parking, and manage other trip details.

Caveat: The cost of shore excursions will be added to your onboard bill (to be paid at the end of the cruise).

Princess Cruises

Once You're Booked: Princess was the first line to offer pre-booking of shore excursions online, which can be done starting 120 days prior to your sail date by clicking on "Prepare for Your Cruise" on the right of the top navigation bar. In the "Cruise Personalizer," passengers can also book spa treatments on all ships—except Pacific Princess, Tahitian Princess, and Royal Princess—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.

Royal Caribbean International

Once You're Booked: Click on the "Before You Board" tab on the top navigation bar of Royal Caribbean's website to reveal options for checking in online, pre-reserving shore excursions (from 90 to four days prior to sailing), reserving seats at specialty restaurants (up to four days prior, paid at the time reservations are made), and filling out the necessary travel documents. Passengers can also order gifts and RCL logo gear. Your "Countdown to Cruise" page will contain all of this information.

Caveat: You cannot make spa appointments in advance. Plus, don't forget to sign up for a Cruise Critic Meet & Mingle party, which you can do via Cruise Critic—but only after you have a booking number.

Seabourn Cruise Lines

Once You're Booked: Seabourn offers one of the most impressive arrays of online options in the industry. With booking numbers in-hand, 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, Tumi luggage, and Charlie Palmer cookbooks), research and reserve shore excursions, check visa and immunization requirements, and review their invoices. In addition, this luxury line allows you to book high-end hotels, Seabourn journeys (extended, multi-day shore excursions), and make custom or private shore arrangements.

Caveat: 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. You must call a travel agent or contact Seabourn directly.

Silversea Cruises

Once You're Booked: Once booked, passengers can pre-arrange shore excursions up to seven days prior to sailing. Upon selecting a voyage, a "Reserve Now" icon appears on the right side of the itinerary page above "Shore Excursions." Passengers can also pre-book spa treatments, list personal preferences on the guest information form, book post-cruise ground transfers, and request early embarkation online. Passengers sailing on Prince Albert II Arctic and Antarctic expedition cruises can also request complimentary parkas online.

Caveat: 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. You can also call a travel agent or Silversea Cruises representative. In addition, when pre-booking shore excursions, Silversea will charge the cost to the passenger's shipboard account during the cruise, rather than making them pay when booking the excursion.

Windstar Cruises

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 2009 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.

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