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Aug 15, 2008
Cruising makes for a great vacation, no doubt about it. Cost is reasonable and relaxation is guaranteed, but how do you decide which cruise vacation is best for you? There are hundreds of choices and many decisions to make before you can settle back with your pina colada and watch the ocean glide past.

This article will provide a broad overview of cruising, then you can go online, order printed resources and/or call your travel agent to learn more. I'll suggest some of the best Internet resources and websites below.

Cruise Line Destinations

Your destination has got to be your biggest decision, right? Here are the usual cruise vacation destinations in a nutshell:

Hawaii. Yes, Hawaii really is a paradise, but it's difficult to see much of it if you go there and stay at a resort. Cruising is the best way to see Hawaii. The Caribbean. Most first-cruisers go here. It's close, plus it has a touch of the exotic and tropical. I just got back from a cruise of the western Caribbean myself. The weather was wonderful and beaches great. A negative was that some of the islands, like Dominique, were a big disappointment -- not very clean, basically nothing much to see or do, very tacky. San Juan PR, however, is a terrific place to make a port of call. The Mediterranean. Frankly I know little of this first-hand. Please send me some tips on this cruise via the discussion group. I plan to visit here this October (the Aegean). From guidebooks and conversations I gather that it's extremely beautiful, clean, historical, educational and a great experience. Mexican Riviera. This is the Caribbean for people living on the west coast. Archaelogically interesting, friendly people and great climate. Alaska. For those of us who read Jack London as kids, this one's a must. Native American cultures, glaciers, mountains, maybe whales. However expect cool temperatures, even in summer.

Picking a Cruise Line

As you'll find out quickly, every cruise line has a unique personality. The goal is to match yours with its. Here are some thumbnail impressions, but you'll want to research this more on your own.

- Holland America. This line is geared toward seniors. Sedate, comfortable. Everything moves at a slow steady pace on a Holland America ship at sea. Good place to do some serious reading.

- Royal Caribbean. Hotels at sea in the best sense. Tons of activities for everybody. Moderate cost. Their huge Freedom of the Seas is the world's biggest boat. If you book this one expect lots of munchkins (i.e., kids). The ship even has a "rock climbing wall" to divert some of the kids' energies. This is not Holland America.

- Celebrity Cruises. A good choice for most people. Big, beautiful modern megaships. Attracts mainstream passengers. Cost is about average.

- Royal Caribbean. Hotels at sea in the best sense. Tons of activities for everybody. Moderate cost. Their huge Freedom of the Seas is the world's biggest boat. If you book this one expect lots of munchkins (i.e., kids). The ship even has a "rock climbing wall" to divert some of the kids' energies. This is not Holland America.

- Princess. Another British line, and I've taken a cruise on their Diamond. This one's very unstuffy, very well-run and efficient. The ships are beautiful, the dining excellent. Yet moderate cost.

- Carnival. Love Boat unleashed. This line is geared toward the pool party crowd. Discos close at 4 AM.

- Crystal. I myself can't afford Crystal, I admit it, but if you can I can tell you the experts rave about its great facilities and service. Luxury class, high cost.

- Norwegian. Very good entertainment, very social-oriented, open-seated dining, casual. A good choice for a shorter cruise, 3 or 4 days.

So How Much?

The cost may surprise you. Cruises are famously low-cost vacations. But be careful, you can end up spending a lot more than you planned if you take several tours, gamble, go shopping, etc. All those sorts of things are extra.

If you take a one-week cruise in the Caribbean or Mexican Rivera and go double occupancy, the cost will be around $900 for an inside cabin, or up to several times that for a suite with a balcony. You can take a 3-night cruise for just a few hundred dollars.

For those prices you get your meals, accomadations, entertainment, activities, onboard facilities (e.g., pools, exercise equipment), and transport to ports of call.

Note that you don't get travel to/from the ship, shore excursions (which can be expensive), bar drinks (usually), gambling losses, tips (though some lines add these unobtrusively onto your bill without asking you) and special services, like massages and educational courses (pottery-making, watercolors, etc.).

Plus all ships offer you innumerable opportunities to spend money onboard on merchandise and baubles.

So, as said, if you're careful and budget your cruise vacation ahead of time, the cost is likely to be modest compared with, say, staying at a resort. But if you are enticed by the "extras," the cruise can turn out to be quite expensive.

A Few More Cruising Tips

Smoking is almost always prohibited except in bars and some lounges and on deck or in your cabin.

Best rates. Believe it or not, your travel agent is likely to be your best source for good rates. This can be an online or off-line agent, of course. Note, however, you should not pay the rates most lines advertise in their brochures (with the exception of Royal Caribbean and Celebrity); these brochure rates are much higher than actual prices. Norwalk virus. I once caught it and it is terrible for two days (you can't even sit up in bed) but then quickly resolves. However I caught it not on a cruise ship but at a hotel in Las Vegas. It does happen occasionally on cruises. The best defense is to wash you hands very frequently -- dozens of times a day. Wheelchair accessibility. Holland America is a leader in wheelchair accessibility. For information on this for a given line, call their Special Services Department.

Interested in saving some money? Book slightly offseason (in the so-called "shoulder" periods, right before or after the high seasons). Here are shoulder seasons for popular destinations --

Alaska - April, May, September

Caribbean - September, early December, April-June

Mediterranean - April, May, September, October

Last word: Don't jump too quickly to make a reservation. Spend some time on the Web before booking. Explore the websites of the cruise lines that interest you (most have outstanding sites, featuring virtual tours of all their ships). Visit some online cruise evaluation/information sites like, cruisecritic.com, or frommers.com. Then you'll be in a much more informed position for making your choice. Remember, once you're on the ship, there's no way off!
About the Author
Joseph Ryan is Director of Washington Research Associates, Inc., Washington DC. The firm's website, Web Search Guides provides helpful 10-minute tutorials on topics of current interest, such as people searching, asset-searching, online shopping, student financing, and many others.
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