By Courtney Woodruff

We were lounging side by side in a cozy poolside cabana, drifting slowly through the Mediterranean ocean as if in a dream. Half asleep, I looked over at my husband and couldn’t help but smile. We were a sight, he and I: the color of his face and hands contrasted sharply with the chalk-white skin his uniform hides most of the time and my post-baby bikini paled in comparison to the chic European designer swimsuits all around us.

Nevertheless, I closed my eyes and sighed with happy satisfaction. We had been planning this little escape from the day-to-day challenges of military life for months, and I could not believe we were finally here, soaking up this moment together — one I knew I would we would be thankful to have to look back on in the stressful months ahead.

Planning vacations in between everyday job and school responsibilities, personal commitments, regular moves and frequent separations can be stressful for military families, but getting away from it all is an essential part of building resilient relationships and rejuvenating minds, bodies and spirits. This summer, my husband and I decided to go on our third cruise — our second since my husband committed his life to the military, and our first since our boys were born — and I can officially say we are now a seafaring family.

Choosing a cruise alleviates most of the pressure and guesswork involved with planning the perfect trip, making it a perfect option for the busy, budget-conscious military family.

Want to plan a cruise, but aren’t sure where to start? Don’t worry…I’ve got you covered.

Research ports near your duty station.

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With so many cruise lines and itineraries to choose from, it’s easy to become overwhelmed at the beginning of the planning phase. If you don’t already have a particular cruise in mind, start by researching the ports nearest your current duty station. Find out what ships depart from there and when. This should narrow down your options considerably. It is best to stick close-by if you want to save money for your on-board experience and shore excursions while avoid wasting precious vacation time getting to and from the port.

Find a cruise line that suits you.

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Whether you are looking for a luxurious, high-end ocean liner with an intimate feel, an all-inclusive, budget-friendly ship catering to families with young children, or something in between, there is a cruise line out there to fit your needs, wants and personality. If you want to know more about a particular trip or company, is a great place to start your research.

Look for military discounts…

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But don’t assume they are automatically the best deal out there. Shop around online, check in with travel organizations on base and speak with a vacation planner by phone to ensure you are getting the lowest rate. Cruise lines often offer seasonal, early bird, and last-minute promotions and extend additional savings to return guests.

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Book in advance, and pay a little at a time.

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My best piece of advice for military families who would love to go on a cruise but are not sure they can afford it — if at all possible, make your booking at least six months in advance. The cruise line we chose allowed us to put down a minimal deposit at the time of booking. Then, we scrimped, saved and budgeted, and we were able to pay the rest in installments over a handful of months. Before you succumb to sticker shock, remember you are paying for your accommodations, transportation, meals, entertainment, and often even childcare in one lump sum.

Purchase travel insurance.

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Military life is unpredictable, which makes it difficult to plan anything weeks — let alone months — in advance. To avoid forfeiting your deposit and having to pay hefty cancellation fees due to an unexpected TDY, training exercise, PCS, or deployment, it’s wise to purchase travel insurance … you know, just in case.

Plan a variety of shore excursions.

The military family’s guide to going on a cruise

Many tours and activities off the ship involve long days of walking and sight-seeing. Particularly if you are traveling in the summer or in a tropical region, the heat and strenuous activity can leave you feeling drained. To avoid burn out on vacation, I recommend alternating days of sight seeing and adventure with low-key excursions, like trips to the local beach. Pace yourself, and save room for plenty of downtime — laying out by the pool, indulging in a spa treatment or cat napping in your stateroom — in your schedule, as well.

Get passports.

The military family’s guide to going on a cruise

Even though the military ID used to be a valid form of identification for cruises in recent years, regulations have changed in many ports of call. If you don’t have a valid passport, apply for one as soon as you book your vacation. You will need one for each of your family members, including the little ones.

Register the kids in youth programs.

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Many family-friendly cruise lines offer outstanding youth programs for young children and teenagers. Even though we’d heard nothing but wonderful things about the Kids Camp on our ship, my husband and I were a little nervous about leaving our boys on board while we went off to explore the ports of call on our own. We were relieved to find out we’d be given a cell phone to use on the ship in case they needed to reach us, and we were thrilled when our boys could not wait to head to camp after breakfast every morning.

Re-kindle the romance.

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Whether or not you have children, take advantage of the rare opportunity to spend quality time and reconnect with your spouse in between the deployments, TDYs and training exercises. Plan shore excursions to enjoy together, dress up for formal nights, enjoy a quiet dinner for two, sun bathe by the pool, stay up late dancing, pamper one another with a couples spa treatment and hang the “Do Not Disturb” sign on your stateroom door every chance you get.

As we slowly made our way off the ship, my five-year-old looked up at me with a hopeful expression on his face. Without hesitating, he asked, “Mom, can I have a cruise for my birthday?”

I couldn’t help but laugh.

Even before we’d set foot in the cruise terminal, I knew this had been the most relaxing, memorable family vacation we’d ever taken. The days had been relatively carefree, the kids had a blast making new friends, splashing in the pool, and getting to stay up late, and my husband and I shared many unforgettable moments, just the two of us.

“We’ll see, buddy,” I replied with a wink. “We’ll see.”

Courtney is a military spouse, mom of 2 boys, graduate student, and The military family’s guide to going on a cruisepart-time writer-editor for a travel & lifestyle magazine serving military families stationed in Europe. She has a heart for our troops and their families and hopes to share what little she has learned along the way to help others overcome the unique challenges of military life. You can follow her adventures at her blog, Courtney At Home, or through her social media: Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.