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Travel 2006    



With itineraries appealing to almost everyone, no wonder some 10 million people set sail last year.

Taking a cruise without floating a loan

Dreaming of a leisurely cruise? You're not alone. In 2005, more than 9.7 million people went on cruises, an increase of 3.5 percent over 2003, according to the U.S. Maritime Administration.

But 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, each 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. You answer questions, focusing on your preferences for atmosphere, ship size, dress code and family-friendliness, and you get 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, 2½-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 says. 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.

-- Updated May 15, 2006
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