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The ABCs of booking a cruise

Dreaming of a leisurely cruise? You're not alone. Last year, nearly 10 million people went on cruises, an increase of 19.4 percent over 2003, according to the U.S. Maritime Administration.

Booking a cruise

Before you book, you've got a lot of decisions to make. Destinations range from Alaska to the South Pacific. Cruise ships run the gamut from the cozy -- those ferrying no more than 150 to 300 people -- to the gigantic, with more than 3,000 people.

These ships offer a bewildering variety of amenities, from dozens of restaurants and bars to activities such as virtual golf, rock climbing walls and innumerable pools, hot tubs and spas.

The cruise lines and ships
According to Ellen Bainer, a certified travel consultant with Indian River Travel in North Palm Beach, Fla., there are more than 15 major cruise lines, including luxury cruise lines such as Seabourn, premium lines such as Royal Caribbean International and specialty lines such as Cruise West, plus offering different ships and experiences. Carnival, for example, has a fleet of 22 big ships and specializes in cruise experiences with lots of extras, including casinos, nightclubs, gyms and pools.

If you want to go on a cruise, but aren't sure what type of cruise would suit you, check out the Cruise Wizard at SureCruise.com, the discount cruise booking Web site formerly known as 02cruise.com. It asks you questions, focusing on your preferences for atmosphere, ship size, dress code and family-friendliness, and gives you a couple of cruise lines that best meet your requirements.

"While the cruise lines try to maximize their potential audience by projecting the most broad-based appeal possible, the truth of the matter is that a cruise line that delights one individual could make someone else miserable," says Evan Eggers, president and co-founder of SureCruise.com. "Matching a vacationer's personality to that of the cruise line and ship is crucial to having an enjoyable trip."

Just because a cruise line advertises to attract certain passengers doesn't mean that the reality always lives up to the hype. Dennis Genord went on a Caribbean cruise with his wife, 2 1/2-year-old daughter and members of his wife's extended family a few years ago.

What was billed as a family-friendly cruise soured quickly when he found out the activities for children -- including the playroom and pools -- were off-limits to children under 3.

"Our daughter was two months shy of 3 and there was no tolerance for her doing anything," he says. "We couldn't bring her on the top deck because the railings were spaced too far apart or on any of the decks that had pools, because she didn't understand that she couldn't swim."

The lesson: Check out exactly what family-friendly means before you book, Genord advises. This "trust, but verify" attitude applies to other activities too. If you're determined to stay fit on board, check into the fitness room. While you may be imagining a huge gym equipped with state-of-the-art equipment, the reality may be a couple of old treadmills and bikes stuck in a stuffy room on an out-of-the-way deck.

Possible destinations
The range of possible cruise destinations is mind-boggling. Those looking for a weekend getaway can take a three-night cruise to the Bahamas. Four-night cruises will get you to Cozumel, Mexico and Key West. Favorite destinations for seven-day trips include Alaska in the summer, the Greek Islands, Brazil, the eastern Caribbean islands, Jamaica, the Grand Cayman Islands and Mexico.

For the truly adventurous, world cruises of 106 days or more aren't unheard of, but are extremely expensive. A decent cabin on a Regent Seven Seas world cruise would cost around $50,000 per person, says Bainer. For that price, you'll circumnavigate the globe, setting sail in January and returning in April. If that sounds too long or expensive, grand circle cruises offer a 50-to-60 day sea excursion around a continent, such as South America. Note: these cruises are often broken up into smaller trips that last only 15 to 20 days, so read cruise descriptions and check maps before you buy.

Expect to cruise for at least seven days if you desire an exotic itinerary, says Bainer. Plan to book these trips in advance. If you want to go on a world cruise, book in May the year before. If you want to take a European cruise during the summer, don't wait until May to book it -- you might not have many, if any, cabin choices. Bainer suggests working with a travel agent to book these last-minute trips.

-- Updated: June 20, 2007
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