Crow's-nests at home
By JOHN BARTON
To avoid getting stuck on the wrong ship, it pays to do some online research before booking a cruise. The cruise lines' own sites offer plenty of information about their own products -- you've got to love the live-from-the-bridge feeds at the Princess Cruises site (www .princess.com) -- but for impartial reviews from both experts and the public, you need to go elsewhere.
A good source of first-hand, unvarnished reviews is cruiseopinion.com. Besides providing full reviews, the site asks cruisers to rate their experiences on a scale of 1 to 100 in 42 categories. When I visited, it listed 3,987 reviews. Holland America's Noordam, for example, had 31 ratings, with an average score of 96 in the Good for Seniors category, and 69 for Good for Families.
Many sites that offer reviews are selling cruises, which raises questions about impartiality. An exception is CruiseMates (www.cruisemates.com), an online magazine with an overwhelming amount of material, including news and reviews from the site's editor and creator, Anne Campbell. Cruise enthusiasts are invited to rate ships, submit reviews, ask questions of the CruiseMates staff and converse in the chat room. With the Meet on Board feature, you can make friends by e-mail first, then over poolside martinis later.
Among several sites that try to help consumers make informed decisions with reader-generated rankings and reviews of practically everything under the sun, including cruises, are epinions.com (www.epinions .com) and deja.com. At Deja, the public is invited to rate lines rather than individual ships; when I visited, Seabourn was ranked top over all.
If you have any specific questions, several sites try to answer them. At allexperts.com, you can send questions by e-mail to volunteers with expertise in various fields. I chose the cruise expert Curtis Thorson, based on his profile and approval ratings from former questioners, and asked him for seasickness cures. Three hours later, I received a thoughtful reply suggesting I try Bonine, an over-the-counter medication for motion sickness.
When you book a cruise, the vendor should be a member of a professional organization. The Cruise Line International Association site, www.cruising.org, allows you to search for travel agencies affiliated with it by name, ZIP code or area code. JOHN BARTON