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
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.