If you are planning a cruise for the upcoming holidays, or to escape the doldrums of winter in the sunny Caribbean, now is the time to book. Early bookings often assure the best discounts and the first choice for cabins.
Carnival As the lines gear up for the cold months, I recommend Carnival Cruise Lines for families with young children, since the onboard atmosphere is always lively and fun. The line's Camp Carnival programs start as early as 9 a.m. and keep going all day, amusing ages 2-14 with everything from crafts and sand art machines to indoor climbing mazes and computer labs. New features at Carnival are the expanded children's menus and a turn-down service with chocolate chip cookies on the pillow. Another new convenience: being able to use your own cell phone in port or at sea.
Carnival's three-day Caribbean fares start at $269 (watch for sales as low as $189 pp) if you book early, and next year watch for Carnival's newest - the 110,000-ton Carnival Freedom, offering the line's first Greek Isles cruises.
Celebrity For those who want top-of-the-line service without paying top prices, Celebrity Cruise Lines offers informal elegance. All verandas, staterooms and suites of Celebrity's Century have been completely refurbished. The spa has been enlarged, a sushi bar added, and the new specialty restaurant features exquisite Murano of Italy glass chandeliers. Besides boasting five-star dining ratings, Celebrity has suites that offer 24-hour butler service. And on sea days, special guest speakers lecture on art, history, cooking, and journalism. There are also classes on wine-tasting and digital photography.
For families with children aged three to 10, Celebrity offers a variety of programs - junior Olympics, scavenger hunts, ship tours, relay races. Teens have their own lounge with a jukebox and dance floor, a juice bar, computers with Internet access, and a video arcade. And on formal nights, baby sitting is free.
Celebrity's holiday cruises start at $999 per person, double occupancy.
Royal Caribbean For families and couples who want to keep active without leaving the ship, Royal Caribbean's new Freedom of the Seas, currently the largest cruise ship afloat, is paradise. The beautiful 160,000-ton vessel provides more amenities such as shopping, day spa and fitness facilities, numerous five-star dining options, and great burgers and milkshakes at the famous Johnny Rockets 50s-theme diner.
In December, prices for seven nights start at $1,409 per person, double occupancy on Freedom of the Seas -- but if you hurry, you can book Royal Caribbean's Voyager of the Seas for as little as $499 for seven nights.
Cunard Cunard's Queen Mary 2 is a dream come true for couples in search of elegance and sophistication nonpareil. Like the great ocean liners of yesteryear, the QM2 is renowned for excellent service. Onboard features include the famous Canyon Ranch Spa Club, classes led by Oxford professors, and lectures on fine wines, oceanography, and even foreign languages. Afternoon activities include Shakespeare at the Royal Court Theatre or viewing the illuminated constellations in the world's only shipboard planetarium. Onboard shopping is definitely upscale at boutiques such as Dunhill, Harrods and Hermes. And what would an afternoon on such a vessel be without daily high tea and its irresistible finger sandwiches and scones with clotted cream?
In case you don't want to spend $8,000 or more for the QM2's 81-day world cruise next year, prices for seven-day Caribbean cruises this fall and winter start at $899 per person, double occupancy. Shorter getaways in January start at $699. But remember, even though group baby sitting is available at no cost and staffed by certified British nannies, you will probably want to leave the kids at home, as the QM2's grand and imposing ambience is best enjoyed by adults.