On the Internet, cruise shoppers can hunt up bargains, look at photos of ships and cabins, browse through deck plans, scan the latest cruise-line news, read ship reviews by cruise veterans and ask for advice on what to wear or how much to tip. Even the results of Coast Guard inspections are posted on the Web.
It is also possible to book a cruise online, but studies suggest that travelers who use their computers for research usually pick up the phone when it's time to put money on the table. Neil Gorfain, one of the owners of the Cruise Outlet (www.thecruiseoutlet.com), a cruise-only agency based in Hamden, doesn't blame them. ``There's too many complexities to it,'' he says. ``That's why we basically require people to telephone us.''
But Gorfain believes the Web can be a good information source for cruise passengers willing to spend the time looking around. Many do. The GartnerGroup, a Stamford research firm, found that 75 percent of Americans with access to the Internet use it to research their travel plans. And when it comes to cruising, the resources are extensive.
First-time cruisers can find plenty to learn at About Cruises (cruises.about.com), a well-organized site in the About.com network. It has practical articles such as ``Planning Your First Cruise'' and ``Hurricanes and Cruises,'' plus a rich set of links to cruise-related sites all over the Web.
The Savings at Sea section of the Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel site (www.frommers.com/deals/savings_at_sea) also focuses on educating would-be cruisers, especially by giving penny-pinching tips. The site also offers last-minute cruise deals through i-cruise.com, one of the Internet's larger cruise agencies.
There's no single site with the best bargain-cruise shopping, but most cruise-agency sites post at least some sale prices and last-minute deals, and many will quote prices by e-mail. The Cruise Outlet keeps one of the most extensive databases of cruise prices on the Internet (www.thecruiseoutlet.com/cruise_search.html), which provides a valuable overview of pricing trends and bargains. Subscribing to e-mail newsletters sent out by cruise agencies also can help consumers stay informed about bargains.
Selling cruises is the whole point behind the MyTravelCo site (www.mytravelco.com/cruises), owned by giant Travel Services International. But there is no charge to look at its panoramic photos, deck plans and menus for several major cruise lines. Princess Cruises takes the photo concept even further with live Web cams (webcam.princess.com) that broadcast photos from all 10 of its ships.
There are no commercial tie-ins at cruise2.com, which declares itself an independent and nonprofit enterprise. It is an enormously popular and somewhat disorganized site, flush with cruise ratings and reviews and busy message boards -- some where travel agents and passengers barter for cruises and others where passengers trade advice.
Message boards, where people swap opinions and advice about everything from a ship's midnight buffet to the room decor, are the heart of many a cruise site. At Cruise Critic (www.cruisecritic.com), for example, there are individual boards for the major cruise lines, and each gets dozens of posts daily. The site also has a section on ports of call and shore excursions, topics neglected on many cruise sites. It was launched on America Online in 1995, making it an old-timer by Web standards, and is still available on AOL at keyword CRUISE CRITIC.
Although they aren't as busy as some, and the topics range well beyond cruising, the message boards at fodors.com (www.fodors.com/forums) are particularly easy to use and seem to attract a knowledgeable set of contributors.
For sheer volume of messages, nothing can top the Usenet newsgroup rec.travel.cruises, which gets hundreds of postings daily. Newsgroups are part of the Internet beyond the World Wide Web -- and beyond the experience of many Web users. Learning to navigate this vast set of public forums can be worthwhile, though, for those who want quick advice -- and lots of it.
Those who want to get started with Usenet newsgroups will get a hand at Liszt's Usenet Newsgroups Directory (www.liszt.com/news). The Insider's Guide to Newsgroups on CNET (home-internal.cnet.com/internet/0-3805-7-1564164.html) is also helpful. Now that many cruise ships have e-mail access, it's not unusual to see a newsgroup message posted by passengers during their cruises.
Back on the Web, many sites collect reviews from cruise passengers who rate and describe their experiences. Sometimes the opinions vary wildly. On the Epinions site (www.epinions.com/trvl-Cruises) one passenger gave the Carnival ship Fascination the top rating of five stars and titled her review ``Cruisin' in Paradise.'' Just below it, another reviewer gave the ship one star and called his review ``HOJO'S Goes To Sea.''
By averaging the ratings from passengers into a single score between 1 and 100, Epinions evens out those disparities and gives its users a meaningful basis for comparisons. At CruiseOpinion.com, this process is practically a science. Passengers are asked for their level of satisfaction on dozens of criteria, from dining-room service to cabin amenities, and the scores are averaged for each category. The reviewers' comments are also provided.
Nervous -- or just careful -- cruisers can see the results of Coast Guard inspections on the Port State Information eXchange site (psix.uscg.mil). This may be less informative than you might think, unless you are enough of a sailor to know what a Geislinger coupling is.
The terminology is a bit easier to understand at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Vessel Sanitation Program site (www2.cdc.gov/nceh/vsp/vspmain.asp), where visitors can look up the results of health inspections on any cruise ship that docks in the United States.
Lots of cruise sites have news sections, but most lean toward happy news: ship launchings, new routes and other press-release fodder. The real scoop about engine trouble and people jumping overboard can be found in the news sections at Cruisemates (www.cruisemates.com) or Cruisin' (www.stutt.com/cruising/home.html).
Gorfain believes that the cruise Web sites to survive the next few years
will be the ones that make the effort to keep their content updated and to
provide extras like news and reviews. ``Just to have a Web site is not the
answer,'' he says. ``That doesn't mean a thing.''