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Cruising: a first-timer's guide  
Discover how to pick the right ship and save money, too  
By Rudy Maxa
    Oct. 7 —  The cruise industry continues to grow, and even movies such as “Titanic” that depicted watery deaths only fuel the world's interest in cruising. But selecting the right ship can be a bit of a challenge. Questions to ask yourself: Do you like structure or do you balk at too many rules? Do you need a lot of personal space? Are you more interested in fancy dinners and theatrical shows or wildlife? Discover how to pick the right cruise and save money, too.  

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HEADLINES: Travel Toolkit
       AMONG TRAVELERS I KNOW, opinions on taking a cruise are as dramatically different as opinions on eating beets. Half my friends love beets, the other half think they “taste like dirt.” Similarly, half think cruising is nirvana, while the other half would rather be anywhere but at sea.
       Is cruising for you? Well, it first depends on what kind of cruising you're talking about.
       Best known are the megaships that carry more than 2,000 passengers and offer many of the amenities of a big city such as showrooms, pools, casinos and spas. The well-known lines such as Carnival and Princess Cruises can afford splashy ads in magazines and seductive commercials on television.
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       Less known are smaller cruise lines that specialize in specific regions like the Arctic Circle or the Galapagos Islands. Those kinds of cruises may make some people claustrophobic, while others like the intimacy offered by a smaller ship.
       On a larger ship, passengers are often entertained by a huge smorgasbord of onboard activities. On a smaller ship, the attention is often turned outward to the environment, allowing passengers to watch for wildlife.

       If you've been considering a cruise, begin by picking the region of the world that appeals to you, and think about whether your personality is better suited to a large ship or a smaller one. Then start your research. Visit a travel agency or call a couple of major cruise lines and ask for brochures. Expedia.com's Cruise Wizard can also help you narrow your search.
       Your goal is to find a ship that is comfortable to you. A friend of mine cruised the Mediterranean aboard a German-owned ship last summer and didn't enjoy herself at all. The modest-sized ship featured a German crew, German cuisine and mostly German passengers. And while my friend certainly had nothing against Germans, she found the cliches about Germans annoyingly accurate. Fellow passengers drank a lot of beer all day, and the staff was very strict about when passengers should appear for various functions. Overall, she found the experience too stiff, the crew humorless.
       Dining rules are different on different lines. On some, you're required to eat dinner at a set time every day at the same place; others allow you to dine around and make your own “restaurant” reservations. Some lines market to young singles and families, hosting “theme nights” to encourage passengers to mix and mingle. Others cater to an older, more sedate crowd.
       When talking to a travel agent or a cruise line, ask about the crew-to-passenger ratio and the “passenger space ratio,” which is the tonnage of a ship divided by the number of passengers it can carry. The high-end cruise ships have one crew member to every two passengers. As for passenger space, if your math turns up a figure of 50 or above, you're sailing high on the hog with leg room to spare. A calculation of 20 to 30 is satisfactory, but anything 20 or below means you'll be, shall we say, very aware of your fellow passengers.
       You can compare and contrast ships, as well as read frank descriptions of the personality of ships, by picking up a copy of Douglas Ward's “Complete Guide to Cruising & Cruise Ships 2000.” It's published by Berlitz and costs $21.95, a small investment if you're contemplating a major expenditure like a cruise.
       Now, how do you get a good price? Ignore those price lists in the back of the glossy, colorful booklets published by major cruise lines. Those numbers are the equivalent of what hotels call “rack rates,” prices management would love to charge but rarely do. In fact, except for the diagrams of cabin locations and itineraries, there's not a whole lot you can rely on in those handsome publications.
       “The cabins look bigger thanks to wide-angle lenses,” says Anne Campbell, a sharp-eyed reviewer of ships and editor of Cruise Mates, a new Internet site about cruising. “And people don't dress like that on ships. As for the brochure price — it's like the sticker price on a car. It's the point from which you begin negotiating down.”
       Most cruise lines won't take a direct reservation from a passenger. Unlike airlines that have been trying to avoid paying commissions to travel agents by directing customers to company web sites, cruise lines pay generous commissions to agents and consider them their most important sales force. A couple lines, like Renaissance, have bucked that trend by inviting customers to book directly, thus earning the enmity of many agents. But don't let a travel agent's disapproving comment prevent you from comparison shopping a line like Renaissance.
       Like airline tickets, there's usually a price advantage to booking way ahead of time — as much as 50 percent off brochure prices if you're willing to commit months before departure. By the same token, you can snare sale prices by booking at the very last minute, too. Unsold cabins to the Caribbean just before a sailing date go for low prices mid-September through January (excluding holiday weeks), the first two weeks of February, and late March.
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       If you're shopping for a last-minute Alaska cruise deal, your best bet is May or September, near the start and end of the cruise season in that region.
       Some cruise line agencies do so much volume with the major carriers that they can negotiate favorable rates. Two to check out when you're shopping around: The Cruise Line, Inc. and The Travel Company (800-777-0707).
       Recent developments in cruising have included more and more balconies off staterooms as well as optional dining plans. Spas are all the rage these days, too. At the Fincantieri shipyards in Italy, near Trieste, shipbuilders are making ships for Carnival that will carry a whopping 3,000 passengers in a few years. But that doesn't mean all new ships are getting bigger. Luxury lines such as Silversea Cruises and Sea Cloud Cruises have new ships coming into service next year that carry only 100 to 400 passengers.
       Unless you are very anti-social or terrified of the water, somewhere out there is a ship for you.
       Cabins higher in the ship generally cost more, but if you're prone to motion sickness, you'll feel movement there more than in a lower cabin. (Don't worry about feeling a ship rocking in the Caribbean in the winter; the water is almost like glass then.)
       Ask where the ship nightclub or disco is in relation to your cabin; don't get a cabin nearby or you may feel the throb of music until late into the night.
       Avoid aft cabins where the lowering of an anchor at, say, 6 a.m. can sound like an explosion.
       Ships sometimes bypass scheduled port stops because of weather. Don't expect to get a partial refund on the price of your trip, any more than you should expect a tropical resort to refund your money on a rainy day.
       If you're sailing as a family on a big ship, consider buying a two-way radio to stay in touch on board. And allow yourself plenty of time to board and disembark. Sorting out luggage and going through customs can sometimes take hours.
       Yes, it's still possible to “stow away” on a freighter. Some 3,000 people do it each year aboard nearly 250 ships. It's a cheaper way to travel (figure on spending $75 to $150 a day), but trips are longer (about 30 days) and schedules more uncertain. Your captain may have to make unannounced port stops. You'll have a simple room, not many fellow leisure passengers, and will eat and socialize with the crew. You may have to book as far as a year ahead, since berths are limited. A good book on the subject is “Travel By Cargo Ship” by Hugo Verlomme
       ($14.95, Cadogan Guides).
       For bookings and more detailed information, call the Traveltips Cruise and Freighter Association at (800) 872-8584 or Freighter World Cruises at (800) 531-7774.

Rudy Maxa is host of “The Savvy Traveler,” a one-hour travel show heard coast-to-coast on many public radio stations. He is also a contributing writer to Worth magazine.
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