More Ships, More Trips: How to Choose a Cruise

SO, you want to take a cruise. Where to? The Caribbean, Alaska, Hawaii? Perhaps Scandinavia, Greece, or even Antarctica?

Choosing a cruise can be daunting. But never fear, say the experts, the key is talking to someone who knows the cruise business well.

First, a little background: Cruising is booming. According to the Cruise Lines International Association, based in New York, the number of North Americans who took cruises climbed from 1.4 million in 1980 to 4 million in 1992. CLIA projects that will double by the year 2000, when 8 million Americans will take cruises.

``Cruising is the fastest-growing segment of the travel industry,'' says Arthur Frommer, author of Frommer's travel guides. One of the main trends in cruising is specialization, Mr. Frommer says in a phone interview. There are the luxury liners that cater to an elegant crowd. There are low-cost cruises with party atmospheres. Some ships cater to intellectual or special-interest groups. Some are what Frommer calls ``casinos at sea.''

Themes are becoming increasingly popular, says Frommer, such as music (jazz-band cruises) or sports (famous baseball players on board). The latest arrival is the family cruise, where the entire ship and its activities are designed for parents and children. A few cruise companies are designing Disney World packages.

Years ago, cruising was what wealthy people did - and very often they were above 40 years old. Itineraries were limited. All that has changed. Now there are cruises for almost every budget, and they travel worldwide. Ages, too, vary greatly. Robin Charlton, a cruise specialist with a travel agency in Boulder, Colo., says she is selling more cruises to people in their 20s and 30s than ever before. She, too, recognizes the increased diversity of choice in the cruising world: ``There are floating cities all the way down to small ships you can charter yourself,'' she says. Passenger capacity can range from 100 people up to 2,766. Cruising ``is going to snowball,'' she says, because of repeat business: ``Once a person goes on one cruise, they will invariably go again.''

Repeat business grew the industry, says Rick White, owner of White Travel Inc., in Hartford, Conn. ``Now people want new itineraries, new facilities.'' He's a cruise specialist in his own right, having been on 300-plus cruises.

Two things made America aware of cruises, White says: Carnival Cruises' advertising and ``The Love Boat'' television show. If neither accurately portrays the cruising experience, at least they brought about awareness.

What appeals to people about cruises today? White explains:

Value: A flat rate often includes airfare, transportation to the port of departure and back, accommodations and meals aboard (most people rave about block-long buffets), excursions in port (from sightseeing to snorkeling), and more. The most common cruise is seven nights and can range from $699 to $1,599. (One can also pay upwards of $4,000 a week for utmost luxury.) Extras include tips, beauty-parlor tabs and spa bills.

Choice: You can do a much or as little as you want. Ships are always trying to outdo their competitors, so facilities, activities, programs, and services improve all the time, White says. Swimming pools, aerobics, dance classes, lectures, cooking classes, free in-room video rentals, and day care are some of the offerings. Ships have become floating resorts.

No hassle: No checking in and out of hotels. Getting there is the fun. The country may be foreign, but the food on board is familiar.

Camaraderie: People make friends on cruise ships. There's a sense of community, an available socialization. ``I've met some of my closest friends on cruises,'' White says.

But cruise-buyers beware. There are scams out there. That's why it pays to talk to a specialist, experts say.

Frommer suggests looking for agencies that have maritime titles such as ``Anchors Aweigh,'' or ``Ship Ahoy.'' Increasingly, general travel agencies are hiring or training cruise specialists. When you speak with an agent, ask a lot of questions about what's included in the price, activities, clientele, crew-to-passenger ratios, and the like.

``Test their familiarity with the cruise world and let them tell you about cruises and ships they think might fit you - your personality, your life style, your wallet - even better,'' Frommer writes in ``Cruises '93-94.''

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