The Perfect Cruise

10-step Approach to a Perfect Cruise

By Harry Shatuck
Houston Chronicle
February 21, 1999

RARELY does a week pass that I don't hear the question several times: What do I recommend for a first cruise? 

While I've never been one to pass the buck, my standard response is: What are your priorities? Every traveler has different interests, and I can't assume that others share mine. 

Besides, I don't have a favorite ship other than the SS Shattuck, and it exists only in my dreams.  It combines the pool and sun decks on Carnival's Fascination and the Sun Princess; the spa aboard Celebrity's Galaxy; the entertainment on Crystal Harmony; the staterooms on the Silver Cloud and Americana; the formal dining on Crystal Symphony and the Zenith; the casual dining on the Sun Princess; the dedicated service and intimacy of Radisson Seven Seas' Song of Flower; the friendliness on the River Explorer; and the convenience of the Norwegian Sea. And during a 12-day sailing -- my idea of the perfect duration --it takes me Scotland's Orkney Islands, Alaska's Glacier Bay, France's Bordeaux wine region and the Caribbean island of Aruba. 

But back to reality. 

One mistake some potential first-time cruisers make is to place vacation options in broad categories -- i.e., land vs.sea.That's what I did almost 20 years ago when I naively told a travel agent, "Just book us on a cruise that doesn't cost too much. They're all the same, aren't they?" 

I was fortunate. Royal Caribbean's Song of America whetted my appetite for future sailings. Over time I've come to appreciate that a Vancouver-to-Anchorage voyage aboard the Regal Princess and a Miami-to-Nassau excursion on Carnival's Ecstasy are as different as, say, Fredericksburg and Walt Disney World. And each has its appeal. 

If I were starting anew, here is a 10-step approach I would take in selecting and purchasing a first cruise: 

1. Make an honest assessment of your vacation objectives (and those of any traveling companions). 

What matters most? An intriguing itinerary? Professional entertainment? Gourmet cuisine? Spas? Sun? Scenery? Service? Companionship? Children's activities? Wheelchair-accessible facilities? Adventure-oriented shore excursions? Shopping? A stateroom with private balcony? Or with the lowest price? An opportunity to don tuxedo or evening dress? Or sneakers and gym shorts? 

Contrary to some preconceived notions, most cruises today are not designed for the ultra-rich or the sedentary. As the industry continues its rapid expansion, competition with land resorts for the vacation dollar is so intense that cruise lines offer a wide range of enticements. 

2. See a travel agent or contact cruiselines to obtain brochures. 

But don't make an early commitment. And use brochure prices only as a guide; as with purchasing a new car, almost nobody pays the published rate. Instead, look at the pictures in the brochures; what are the ages and attire of the passengers portrayed? Are any kids shown? Read the text; beyond the flowery descriptive phrases you'll gain perspective on the line's basic philosophy. 

3. Visit a bookstore or library to peruse new guide books that evaluate each ship's specific features.  Especially recommended for first-timers: The Unofficial Guide to Cruises (Macmillan, $18) by Kay Showker and Bob Sehlinger; The Complete Idiot's Travel Guide to Cruise Vacations (Alpha Books, $16.95) by Fran Wenograd Golden; and Stern's Guide to the Cruise Vacation (Pelican, $18.95) by Steven B. Stern. 

Other good information sources are Internet addresses on which passengers write reviews of ships. Recommended sites include America Online's Cruise Critic (available to America Online subscribers); and 

4. Look closely at advertisements in thisTravel section and elsewhere, especially if price is a factor. 

5. Talk with friends who have cruised. Were their expectations met? Weigh their input with your awareness of their preferences as compared with yours. 

6. Match your preferred destination to the dates you can travel. 

This is a good time of year to cruise through the Panama Canal or to Mexico. Alaskan itineraries are usually offered late May through September. Most European sailings are in summer and early fall. The Caribbean is busy year-round (more so in winter), but keep in mind the potential perils of hurricane season. 

7. Are you concerned about feeling confined aboard a ship (fears that usually are quickly alleviated)? 

Do you get bored easily? Enjoy tours that emphasize nature or adventure? If so, consider an itinerary that includesa port call on most days. 

8. In choosing a stateroom, don't get confused by price structures. 

On many ships, the higher the deck, the higher the price. And in some instances (when balconies or butler serviceis included) this differential is justified. But on most vessels (including the Houston-based Norwegian Sea), standard cabins are all but identical; you pay more only for the "status" of a higher deck. You'll often get the smoothest ride in a less-pricey stateroom midship on a lower deck. (But don't fret about seasickness; it's rarely a problem.) 

9. In firming your budget, allow for extra expenses beyond the basic fare. These include shore excursions, spa treatments, cocktails and gratuities. 

10. Once you are prepared to make a decision, shop around. 

With few exceptions, travel agents offer the best bargains; many lines sell exclusively through agencies. But you could conceivably approach five agencies and receive five different fare quotes. Based on the percentage of business an agency does with a cruise line, it may offer lower rates or special deals. 

Unless you already have a strong, positive relationship with a local travel agent, visit or call several agencies.  Compare not just prices but the interest the agent shows in you. Make sure he or she explains first- and second-seating meal options. Inquire about cabin upgrades and on-board spending credits; these may be unavailable, but it never hurts to ask. 

Most important, be prepared to tell a travel agent exactly what you want from a cruise. If you follow Steps 1 through 9 first, Step 10 will be easier. 

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