Samantha Brown's Top Tips For Planning Your Dream Cruise Vacation

Travel guru Samantha Brown may have made a name for herself by jet-setting from one country to another and sharing her experiences in her travel shows, but if she had it her way, she'd ditch those airport lounges and cruise the world instead. "If [I] could cruise anywhere, I would cruise," she once told Sherman's Travel. While Brown loves the thrill of exploring new places with a detailed itinerary in tow, she relishes getting to unwind on cruises, whether it's aboard a massive ship of a major cruise line or an intimate river cruise. As someone who always has to put together meticulous schedules all the time, cruising lets her take a breather, allowing her to savor the journey more.


With an impressive number of voyages to her credit, Brown has become quite a renowned figure in the cruise space, even partnering with big-name brands like Carnival, Holland America, and AmaWaterways. Her extensive cruising experience effectively makes her an authority when it comes to crafting the ultimate cruise adventure. Just as you trust her advice on protecting yourself from pesky pickpockets, you can also rely on her help to plan the best cruise of your life.

From packing a carry-on to ordering items off the cruise dining menu, Brown offers invaluable advice for nearly every aspect of your cruise experience. Here are some of her tried-and-tested tips for planning and enjoying cruises.

Book your excursions as soon as you can

One of the best things about cruises is you're not chained to any activity. When your ship docks, you don't necessarily have to explore the port city and join a local tour. You always have the option to stay on the ship to lounge in your favorite onboard spots, participate in activities the cruise line has prepared, or indulge in some spa time. But according to Samantha Brown, if you're planning on hopping off the ship and trying out an excursion, you need to book it ASAP, lest you risk losing out on a spot.


"Make sure you book any shore excursion you really want to do as soon as possible. More popular ones ( ... ) understandably sell out fast, so if you wait too long, you may miss out," she shared with Holland America, noting that in the event that you do miss the chance to book the excursion you're eyeing, it's not the end of the world. Her family's adventure when they cruised through Norway is a case in point, with Brown sharing that it presented the perfect opportunity to embrace spontaneity. "Organized excursions are great, but Norway is one of the places where you can just hop off at any dock and see where your feet take you," she explained. "It's truly one of the most naturally beautiful countries I've been to, and as you know, I've been to a lot!"


Make room for additional expenses in your budget

Speaking of excursions, it's important to remember that they're often not free. In fact, Samantha Brown wants cruise joiners to keep in mind that cruises are not like all-inclusive resorts. Lodging, buffet food, basic beverages, gym access, and some shows and activities may be already part of your package, but for everything else, you'll need to be prepared to shell out more money.


"The price of a cruise includes room and board but it doesn't include shore excursions, spa treatments, specialty dining, kids clubs or alcohol," Brown noted on her website. "Make sure you create a budget for these richly deserved extras BEFORE you go on the cruise. If you don't, the extras could easily add up to twice what you paid for the trip."

While you're at it, you may also want to take into account tips, too. While some cruise packages already include gratuities, it pays to carry some cash to tip cruise staff and show your gratitude for what they do. "Crew members are some of the hardest workers I have ever seen. They still manage to make you feel like you're not one of 3,000 cruisers," Brown also noted on her website, advising to bring several hundred dollars exclusively for tipping whenever you embark on a cruise. "They deserve your appreciation, especially if they've gone out of their way to help. You also need to tip the luggage handlers at the dock who are not a part of the cruise line."


Enhance your cruise dining experience with a simple hack

Cruising allows you to voyage across the seas, but you may overlook the fact that it can be a journey for your taste buds, too. Many cruises offer a lavish spread of dishes and desserts in their main dining rooms and buffets, and there are also some that have specialty restaurants on board that provide a diverse range of cuisines. Per Samantha Brown, if you're going to dine at these restaurants, there's a hack to make your dining experience more worthwhile: diverging from the menu.


It may not even matter what specialty a restaurant offers. Brown suggests that if it's at all possible to order something other than the usual choices, consider asking the server about the hometown of the culinary team and then requesting a dish native to that place. "It will be the most delicious thing on the menu," she shared with Money.

Brown reiterated this in an interview with Cruise Critic, telling the outlet that engaging with the locals is another part of what makes cruising more exciting. "There are locals on a cruise ship — the staff, the crewmembers — from all over the world. And it's really wonderful speaking to them about their home," she advised.

Always bring a carry-on bag

It's no secret that Samantha Brown is also revered as somewhat of a packing queen with her impressive ability to fit all of her essentials into a single carry-on. If you're going on a cruise, the travel extraordinaire emphasizes the importance of toting around a carry-on, even when you've already checked in a suitcase. The reason? It saves you from aimlessly waiting for your checked luggage to be delivered to your room, allowing you to dive straight into cruising fun.


"It's really important to carry on a bag so you can start your vacation right away. You're typically bringing a lot of luggage on board, and you're probably dropping that luggage off [before you board] with 3,000 other people," she told Sherman's Travel. "When you do that, you don't see that luggage until maybe 6 p.m. that night."

What's more, if you don't pack some of your essentials into a carry-on, you'll be left with nothing in case your luggage fails to board the ship with you. "If your bag doesn't make it, it's really hard for your luggage to get to you since you are moving to a new port every day," she shared with Travel and Leisure. "Either bring a separate carry-on with a few days' worth of clothes, or if you're traveling with someone, split your things between the two suitcases so if one doesn't make it, you still have the other (hopefully)."


Don't hesitate to work with a cruise consultant or travel agent

While booking a cruise doesn't require much planning on your end as opposed to the meticulous planning involved in air and land travel, Samantha Brown suggests enlisting the help of a cruise consultant or travel agent to help pick the right cruise. After all, no cruise is the same, and if you're traveling with family, you also have to take into account their personal preferences, too. With a travel agent, you have someone to help you parse through the myriad of options, ensuring your cruise selection will cater to what everyone wants. "A personal cruise consultant should be able to help you navigate what's available based on the ages of those in your group, the destination, and any safety concerns you may have," she told Holland America.


The kicker? Their services are not free, so you also have to make room for them in your budget. "A travel agent's fee varies from a percentage of the trip or a flat fee," Brown told Veranda. Get ready to allocate roughly five to 15% of the overall cost of your trip, or between $100 to $500. While this expense might initially appear unnecessary, the value becomes clear when unforeseen issues arise mid-trip. The tradeoff is you'll have someone to be with you every step of the way. "Whatever it is, when something goes wrong (and lately something always seems to be going wrong), the agent will pick up the phone and go to bat for you," Brown noted. "Very well worth it!"