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Planning a Cruise: Follow This Timeline for Booking Dinner and Activity Reservations

Timing is everything when it comes to planning a cruise vacation.

Once you’ve decided on the ship and itinerary and have made the down payment, the next step is knowing when to book excursions, specialty dining reservations, spa treatments, and other activities. 

Getting that right—or wrong—can significantly affect the quality of your trip. 

After all, you don’t want to miss out on some of the main reasons you selected this cruise, including dining in the best restaurants at sea and taking bucket-list excursions. Managing the booking timeline is critical. 

Can some things wait till the last minute?

If you book your cruise close to the sailing date or wait until the last minute to reserve your specialty dinners and excursions, you may be out of luck. Cruises are more popular than ever and spots fill up fast, so while you can wait until you’re on board the ship to make reservations, it’s best to book everything as far in advance as possible—preferably as soon as bookings open.

If your first choice is not available, go ahead and lock in your alternative and ask to be put on the wait list for the desired restaurant or excursion. It’s not unusual for frequent cruisers to latch on to open spots and then finalize their schedules as they get closer to departure. You can always cancel, provided you do so within the allotted time frame, which is typically 48 to 72 hours ahead for most reservations. 

People often change their minds, so dinner reservations and tours frequently become available once you’re on the ship.

What is the reservation timeline for your cruise?

Below is a basic timeline for when you can book excursions, specialty dining, and other activities for nine of the major cruise lines. 

With most lines, you can make reservations for shows and onboard games and activities (such as go-karts and roller coasters) once you’re on the ship. With a few other lines, you’ll want to make advance reservations for such activities, like Disney Cruise Line’s Royal Court Royal Tea Party. We’ve noted the ones to book ahead. 

We’ve also included the final payment date in the timeline. If you miss that deadline, it’s possible you could forfeit your deposit and other payments and even lose your long-awaited cruise. 

Be sure to check with the individual cruise lines for cancellation policies on dining reservations, excursions, spa treatments, land packages, and other activities; each company has different policies. Additionally, you’ll want to verify the dates below with the cruise of your choice as things are subject to change. 

Norwegian Cruise Line

Norwegian’s 19 ships sail to more than 400 destinations around the world. Look for cruises in the Caribbean on the line’s newest ship, Norwegian Aqua, set to launch in spring 2025. Here’s a booking timeline for this popular mainstream choice. 

When a reservation is confirmed: You can book passes for the adults-only (18 years and older) Mandara Spa’s Thermal Suite and adults-only Vibe Beach Club once you’re confirmed for the cruise—and up to 4 days before departure. 

One year ahead: Guests can book shore excursions up to one year in advance of a sailing. An updated list of excursions is available approximately 6 months before the first sailing of the itinerary in each cruise destination. 

130 days ahead: Guests staying in suites, such as Garden Villas and accommodations in The Haven, Norwegian’s luxury area, can pre-book specialty dining reservations.

125 days ahead: Guests in Club Balcony staterooms can pre-book specialty dining reservations.

120 days ahead: Final payment is due on all sailings, including for guests staying in The Haven.

Guests staying in all other stateroom categories on voyages 7 days and longer or 6 days or fewer that are holiday sailings can pre-book dining reservations.

90 days ahead: Guests staying in all stateroom categories on sailings 6 days or fewer can pre-book dining reservations.

26 days ahead: Guests in The Haven as well as members of Norwegian’s Latitudes loyalty program (in any stateroom category) can pre-book entertainment.

21 days ahead: Guests in all other stateroom categories, including suites, can pre-book entertainment.

Royal Caribbean International

If you’re sailing on one of Royal Caribbean’s 28 ships—including the line’s newest vessel and the world’s largest cruise ship afloat, Icon of the Seas—use this timeline as a guide to planning your cruise. You’ll want to make reservations as far in advance as possible if you’re sailing with up to 7,600 other passengers.

8 months to one year ahead: Guests can make specialty dining reservations as far in advance as one year before a voyage, and up to 48 hours before departure. But according to a Royal Caribbean press rep, sometimes specialty dining reservations don’t open until around 8 months before a sailing. The company is surprisingly nonspecific on this point, given the size of the ships and all the resulting competition for dining spots. 

90 days ahead: Final payment is due for cruises 5 days and longer.

75 days ahead: Final payment is due for cruises 1 to 4 nights in length.

30 days ahead: Guests can make reservations for shows. Oasis and Icon class ships require reservations for all production shows. On Quantum class ships, reservations are required for two ‘70s-themed shows. 

Up to 2 days ahead: Make reservations for spa treatments and other activities up to 48 hours before sailing.

On the ship: You can still snag reservations for shows once you’re on board.

Carnival Cruise Line

91 days ahead: Final payment is due for voyages 6 to 9 days in length; 10 days or longer; and any Alaska, Panama Canal, Europe, Transatlantic, and Transpacific sailings. 

76 days ahead: Final payment is due for voyages 2 to 3 days in length as well as 4- to-5-day sailings.

After paying the full deposit: Guests can book shore excursions up to 2 days prior to departure. 

Pre-cruiseMake reservations for specialty dining venues up to 48 hours before sailing. 

Holland America Line

Holland America’s fleet of 11 vessels visits more than 98 countries and 470 ports around the world. One of the line’s top destinations, Alaska, offers many popular shore excursions, so you’ll want to reserve those as soon as you book your cruise. 

When a reservation is confirmed: Book specialty dining, excursions, spa treatments, and other activities right away. If the excursions aren’t available yet to book, keep checking back online for updates. 

75, 90, or 120 days ahead: Depending on the voyage, the final payment is due for the cruise. Most payments are due 90 days before departure. 

Princess Cruises

Princess Cruises’ 17 ships, including the new Sun Princess, visit more than 330 destinations across all seven continents. You’ll want to start planning your vacation as soon as you’ve made the final payment to secure your top pick for shore excursions, dining, and other activities on board the ship.

After booking your cruise: Members with Platinum status in the Princess loyalty program, Elite Captain’s Circle, can make dining reservations right after booking a cruise. 

120 days ahead: Final payment is due for sailings of 25 days or more in length, including world cruise segments and the full world cruise.

Guests on extended voyages and the world cruise can access dining reservations after the final payment is made. 

Make reservations at the Lotus Spa from now up to 7 days prior to departure.

12 weeks aheadBook shore excursions through the Cruise Personalizer service from now up to 5 days before departure. 

90 days ahead: Final payment is due for all cruises up to 24 days in length.

Guests can access dining reservations for these voyages after the final payment is made. 

Celebrity Cruises

Celebrity’s 13 Edge, Solstice, and Millennium class ships will expand in November 2025 with a new Edge class ship, Celebrity Xcel

9 to 12 months ahead: You can book excursions through your online account or in the Celebrity Cruises app.

Make specialty dining reservations from now up to 72 hours before departure. 

6 months ahead: Book spa, salon, med spa, fitness, and acupuncture appointments. 

90 days ahead: Full payment is due for the cruise.

MSC Cruises

MSC Cruises will have 23 ships in its fleet next year, with the addition of MSC World America in spring 2025. If you’re sailing on the new ship or on any of MSC’s itineraries, you’ll want to mark these dates on your calendar. 

120 days ahead: Final payment for World Cruise is due.

110 days ahead: Final payment is due for voyages 15 nights or longer.

90 days ahead: Final payment is due for sailings 5 to 14 nights in length.

75 days ahead: Final payment is due for sailings of 4 nights or fewer.

60 days ahead: Pre-book specialty dining, entertainment, excursions, and spa treatments from now up to 48 hours before departure.

Disney Cruise Line

Disney Cruise Line offers reservations for onboard activities and shore excursions based on the level of accommodations and frequent cruisers’ status in the Castaway Club loyalty program. Disney’s detailed cancellation policies vary by activity, so read them carefully. 

130 days ahead: Concierge guests can book onboard activities by phone with the Shoreside Concierge service. 

123 days ahead: Concierge guests and Pearl Castaway Club members can book onboard activities online.

120 days ahead: Final payment is due for cruises 6 nights and longer. 

Platinum Castaway Club members can book onboard activities online.

105 days ahead: Gold Castaway Club Members can book onboard activities online.

90 days ahead: Final payment is due for cruises lasting 5 nights or fewer.

Silver Castaway Club Members can book onboard activities online.

75 days ahead: First-time guests can book onboard activities online.

30 days ahead: Reservations are open for all guests for character meet-and-greets. (Concierge guests can request to make a reservation before this.)

Among the onboard activities you can book in the windows mentioned above: 

  • • Adult dining venues
  • • The nursery
  • • Beverage seminars
  • • Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique
  • • Goofy’s Sports Deck
  • • Olaf’s Royal Picnic
  • • Royal Court Royal Tea Party
  • • Professional photography
  • • Photo packages
  • • Port adventures
  • • Select fitness center offerings
  • • Hook’s Barbery
  • • Senses Spa & Salon
  • • Untangled Salon

Virgin Voyages

Virgin Voyages’ three adults-only ships each accommodate up to 2,762 passengers—or “sailors,” as the line likes to refer to its guests. While you can make dining reservations in advance, Virgin offers walk-in and day-of reservations at all eateries. 

135 days ahead: Passengers with accommodations in the line’s RockStar Quarters have early access to book “Shore Things,” aka shore excursions. 

120 days ahead: Final payment is due for all cruises.

At this point, guests booked in any level of cabin can reserve excursions through a travel agent, on the Sailor app, or with the Sailor Services Crew. 

60 days ahead: Mega RockStar and RockStar Quarters passengers can make dining reservations with a First Mate travel advisor or through the Virgin Voyages app.

45 days ahead: Guests booked in any other type of cabin can make dining reservations with a First Mate advisor or through the app.

On the ship: Fitness classes and spa appointments are only available to book via the Virgin Voyages app once you’re on board the ship.

Related: Dining on a Cruise: The 10 Best Tips and Tricks