Cruise Web sites finding everyone's a critic / "Know before you go' passengers get scoop from pros and peers online

SF Gate

 






 
Cruise Web sites finding everyone's a critic
"Know before you go' passengers get scoop from pros and peers online
 
Spud Hilton, Chronicle Staff Writer
  Sunday, April 27, 2003
 

When Jerry Bird wasn't absolutely sure about the cruise he wanted, he got feedback from 3 million other cruisers.

It was probably only 50, really, but the comments and reviews of other cruisers that he found online - where cruise-review sites are gaining members and reputation daily - were enough to make him rethink the trip.

"Travel is a vital part of our lives, and I research a lot about where we're going," said Bird, a Fresno resident. "I wasn't more excited about going after I read this than I was before."

Like Bird, almost all cruise customers book their trips through travel agents - but 57 percent of them go to the Internet first.

And many are sharing their views.

As the industry grows - more than 260 ships sailing to hundreds of destinations - cruise Web sites are gaining influence, not as sellers, but as providers of well-regarded, timely "intelligence."

"Cruising is a more complicated travel product than, say, an airline ticket, " said Paul Motter, publisher and co-founder of CruiseMates, a highly popular site for critical reviews. "When you choose a cruise, you're choosing the entire vacation."

The Internet is ideal for researching cruises, Motter said, because "it's a fluid industry. Prices change all the time and destinations change all the time."

The CruiseMates Web site (www.cruisemates.com) averages 8 million page views per month and offers 1,500 ship reviews by readers, 92 percent of whom are "experienced cruisers," according to Motter.

The main competition, Cruise Critic (www.cruisecritic.com), averages 10.5 million page views per month and has 62,000 registered members. It started as a feature of America Online, co-founded by Anne Campbell, who left and co- founded CruiseMates in 1999.

Both sites carry professional reviews and news, but the most popular features are the message boards and reader reviews.

Visitors "want to find as much information as possible about the particular ships they're cruising on," said Sharon Dodd, editor of Cruise Critic.

And the cruise lines are paying attention.

"We review them often, constantly, to see what people are saying," said Barbara Shrut, vice president of e-marketing and customer loyalty for Royal Caribbean Cruise Line. "We don't respond. . . . We use it as a learning tool."

As a sign that Cruise Critic's "stock" is rising, Royal Caribbean struck a deal last year to organize and host parties onboard their ships for the Web site's members. Royal Caribbean's site (www.rccl.com) has a link to party details displayed prominently on its Web site.

Following are a few guidelines for getting the most out of cruise- information sites.

Book with a travel agent, but comparison-shop online first.

Unless you're really comfortable with booking online (and even most experts aren't), just use the Web to find what you want and how much it should cost. Visit several sites for bargains, and do test bookings in several categories of cabin - sometimes the difference between an inside wall and an outside window is a few dollars per day.

Find out what your peers have to say about your cruise.

CruiseMates and Cruise Critic have paid writers reviewing ships, but both companies say their big draw is the message boards and reviews by other members. Expedia and Travelocity offer Traveler Reviews for specific cruises and ships. The reviews run the gamut of topics, from "Every night there was a great show and after, there was dancing till the morning," to "The ship's photography was awful. . . . most passengers appeared glossy, pale and off center in the photos." Orbitz gives a star rating of the ship, based on Fieldings Travel Guides, but doesn't show or collect reviews from customers.

Filter peer opinions with common sense.

It's a fact that some people online are nut jobs. Skip over the guy who gives a blistering ship review because his salad fork had the wrong number of tines on the third night. The reviews to read are on topics that matter to you:

cabin size, steward service, food quality and variety of activities, among others. Also filter out sharp critiques of issues that are beyond the cruise line's control: bad weather, high seas, lack of dolphins in the water.

Use the cruise line's Web site.

Celebrity's site (www.celebrity.com), for example, allows customers before the trip to book shore excursions, adjust table assignments, fill out immigration information, order gift baskets and specify dietary needs. Some also have Internet-only bargains and rebates.

Don't be afraid to join a Web site and its message boards.

Most cruise Web sites require a minimum of personal information - if any - for you to read and post messages and reviews.

If you don't see it, ask.

If none of the member reviews covers your specific question, put it to the people. (Do a search first, so you don't get 50 people saying your topic was covered last week.) Most sites have a message with tips for first-time posters.

Share your experiences online.

Once you've gone, don't be stingy. Your "intel" - good and bad - may benefit someone more clueless than you were before you left. Said Dodd: "It helps them get really excited about the vacation because they can start living their cruise beforehand."

E-mail Spud Hilton at shilton@sfchronicle.com.