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HOW TO PICK THE RIGHT CRUISE

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Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) predicts that more than 25 million passengers will take a cruise this year. It's not surprising, when you consider the hassle-free aspects of cruising, and the wide variety of ships and destinations.

CLIA records show that the Caribbean is the top destination for the majority of North American passengers. Europe, the Mediterranean, Alaska, Mexico, Panama Canal, Hawaii and South America follow in popularity.

As writers of numerous cruise articles, we are often asked to recommend the best ship for a cruise. Our standard answer is always: "It depends on your lifestyle and interests."

We wouldn't, for example, encourage seniors to go on a Carnival ship, which is popular with party-goers in shorts and tank tops, enjoying beer-drinking and hairy-chest competitions. Instead, we'd suggest a line like Holland America, which caters to seniors, or one of the Silversea Cruises, Seabourn Cruise Line or Regent Seven Seas Cruises ships, in the higher price range.

Cruising for romance and pleasure

Honeymooners, or couples in search of romance, should consider the Paul Gauguin or the sail-crowned Windstar and Star Clippers ships. Adventurers, who want to explore new cultures, would love ships like Lindblad's National Geographic Endeavour.

Cocktails at sunset on the Star Flyer
Cocktails at sunset on the Star Flyer
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Choosing the right cruise is like finding a marriage partner. You need the right match. Cruises vary in length, from one day to more than three months, while ships range in size, from under 100 passengers to 6,000.

Even small ships can be quite different, from tall ships like the Star Clippers, with more than three acres of sails, to the luxurious yacht-like Seabourn ships. Their styles can also vary, from adventure to family-focused.

"I'd definitely recommend a cruise with a children's program, if you're traveling with your kids or grandchildren," says Lynn Torry, a frequent cruiser. "When I brought my two granddaughters on a cruise to Bermuda, the special activities kept them both happy and busy."

The ship as the destination

Some people want a different port-of-call every day, while others prefer to enjoy the ship as a resort. Lynn Torry agrees. "My husband and I are very active, but if we weren't, we could simply do our own thing on board. There are so many activities on a ship. Jim and I go over the newsletter, which is delivered every day, and pick out the things we'd like to do."

Playing chess on European riverboat deck
Playing chess on European riverboat deck
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

In addition to shore excursions, daytime activities include water sports, shopping, cooking classes, lectures, fashion shows, fitness classes, shuffleboard, bridge and backgammon games, or just relaxing in the Jacuzzi or curling up on a deck chair with a good book.

Many ships now offer cyber-cafés. Some even include ice skating rinks and climbing walls. Besides dining, evening entertainment includes Las Vegas-style shows, dancing, movies, gambling and port lectures.

Is anyone still hungry?

Afternoon tea is included in five to nine daily meals served on a cruise. Passengers need to know whether the cruise offers open-seating or fixed first and second sittings for dinner.

People who take the second sitting don't have much time to work up an appetite for the fabulous midnight buffets that many ships feature. "There's lots and lots of food," states Torry, "and it's really good. You have to make up your mind, that just because you've paid for the trip, you don't have to eat everything in sight." Fortunately, onboard health clubs offer fitness programs to help wear off the calories.

Some lines, including Regent Seven Seas, Silversea Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Lines, have open-seating policies. Many offer alternative reservation-only restaurants, 24-hour buffets, pizzerias and room service.

Seafood appetizer on the Hebridean Princess
Seafood appetizer on the Hebridean Princess
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

When it comes to clothing, most ships have two formal nights for every seven days cruising. "Don't worry about buying a new wardrobe," says Lynn Torry, who has traveled on cruises to Alaska, Scandinavia, the Panama Canal and the Caribbean. "On all but the most luxurious ships, men are perfectly okay with a dark business suit, rather than a tuxedo, while women can wear a cocktail dress or a long skirt."

The price is right

Cruise fares can vary substantially, based on the cabin selected. If you just ask for the least expensive cabin, you may end up with upper and lower berths. Besides requesting the type of bed you want, it's important to specify the location of the cabin, relative to public rooms.

The largest and most expensive staterooms are usually on the higher decks. Outside cabins with windows and balconies are more expensive than inside rooms, without a view. Cabins at the water line have less side-to-side motion, while those at the centre of the ship have the least back-and-forth motion.

Because stabilizers minimize motion, seasickness is not common nowadays. "I only encountered rough seas on one of my trips," says Torry. "The purser's office gave out free seasickness pills for those who needed them. Some passengers went to the ship's doctor for a shot, which they said worked immediately."

What's included?

While most cruise packages include your meals, cabin, onboard daytime activities and entertainment, it's important to know what's not included, like tips, taxes, port charges, alcoholic drinks, shore excursions, massages, hairdressers, photographs and laundry charges.

Some lines, like Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn and Silversea Cruises, include gratuities in their fares. Silversea Cruises even include port charges, wines, Champagne and spirits, as well as airfare, transfers and pre-cruise deluxe hotels.

Saving money

Passengers on a budget should consider off-season rates, keeping in mind the weather. Sometimes just one week can make a big difference in price. Repositioning cruises, when ships move from Alaska to the Caribbean in the fall, for example, are usually good value. A knowledgeable agent is your best bet for finding two-for-one specials, early-booking and back-to-back cruise discounts.

Lynn and Jim Torry are already planning more cruises. "We're going on the Queen Mary 2 next month," says Torry. "We'd also love to do a Black Sea cruise and the Norwegian fjords." The couple is proof of what CLIA has discovered: more than 80 per cent of passengers who've taken a cruise want to take another one.

With more new ships planned for upcoming years, there will be plenty of choices. To find the perfect match, you must ask the right questions and deal with experienced travel agents. This way, the only surprises that you'll encounter will be pleasant ones.


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