Dear Cruise enthusiast:

My family and I have been on several cruises including Alaska, several Caribbean (3-4, 7 and 10 days) & The Panama Canal. In July of 1997, we are going on a 13 day Baltic Cruise. Based on these experiences, I would URGE you to get a copy of the Fielding book mentioned below. It has been an invaluable resource in planning our family's cruise vacations. I hope that this other info is of use as well.

I have no axe to grind...
Let's clarify two points "up front." I am a veteran cruiser; I am NOT a travel agent nor am I associated with or related to anyone in the industry, cruise line, travel or cruise agent. I have virtually no vested financial interest in writing this, and no "axe to grind" one way or the other. Second, my own view is that most travel or cruise agents are hard-working honest people. Like most of us, many of them trying to make a go of it in an intensely competitive industry. Some, however, (in my view--too many) succumb to the temptation to "push" one particular cruise line or ship depending on the incentives offered at that time. Of course, this can represent a real conflict of interest, in that the cruise agent is also supposed to be working in your best interest to get a good ship match, while at the same time being tempted to make the proverbial "quick sale."

Beginning at the beginning...
I start with an unshakable conviction: YOUR CRUISE WILL ONLY BECOME YOUR DREAM VACATION IF YOU MAKE A SMART PURCHASE DECISION THAT MATCHES A SPECIFIC SHIP AND/OR CRUISE LINE TO YOUR INDIVIDUAL TRAVEL NEEDS. Easier said that done, perhaps, but read on...

Things The Cruise Line Brochures or Travel Agents Won't Tell You...
1. The ship Itself. Actually, the short answer to this sub-title is, sadly, quite a lot. When you book your cruise, there is no more important information than knowing the safety and reliability of the ship you're on. Check the New York Times and various cruise magazines for the latest sanitation ratings of the actual ship you'll be on. It is almost a certainty that your cruise agent omitted information about the new Safety at Sea Act that is going into effect. On this count, if you're going on one of the newer ships, not to worry. Ask when your ship was built. If it is older, chances are it does not meet the new requirements for sprinkler systems, fire inhibiting materials, and other safety measures. Many of these older ships are due to be phased out for this reason. Since the cabins are often smaller, and since they lack more modern amenities (e.g., a modern spa/exercise area), cruise lines may sell cabins at a lower rate on these ships. In my judgment, you should make a smart purchase decision not only about the cruise line itself, but about the specific ship you're considering. To use a dated, but nonetheless valid analogy, it's like buying a GM car: you could get a plain vanilla Chevvy or a "Cadillac" (or maybe now it should be Lexus or Mercedes!).

Picking A Specific Cruise Line...
Like many other industries, cruise lines "target" their product or cruise ship experience to hit certain markets. As a non-industry person, I believe that there are five basic categories: 1--The ultra-luxury market. These are upscale ships (often much smaller than the mega-liners) that generally cater to wealthy people. Silverseas would be one example. Service and food is truly gourmet (the only real gourmet food you'll get at sea, by the way). Some of the ships and cruise lines are known to be more "snooty" while others are less pretentious (Once again, see the Fielding book). 2--The upscale mass market. These do a wonderful job and provide a cruise experience on a larger ship and, of course, at a higher price than any category, except for the previous one. I would count Crystal toward the top of this category and probably Celebrity toward the bottom. 3--The Middle of the Road Mass Market. I would count all of the big lines in this category, including Royal Caribbean, Carnival, Holland American, Princess, etc. These offer a great deal of value (more about that later). 4--The Bargain/Smaller Lines. This is the most varied category. We've been on the one-ship Majesty Cruise Lines (great experience for short cruises), and it includes the ultra-budget Dolphin Lines, ranging to Lesser known cruise lines. Warning!!!!!!!!!! : There is a projected over-capacity glut of cabins in the industry, already well underway. As in any other industry, be aware that the more financially strong lines will survive, and the smaller ones (with limited financial resources, older ships, etc.) will continue to fall by the wayside as the industry consolidates. MAKE ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN that you determine if you're sailing on a cruise line that is not in somewhat shaky condition, financially speaking. 5--Specialized Lines. These include a wide variety also, including barge cruises in Europe and smaller ships (maybe 150 passengers or so) that ply the inside passage to and from Alaska, as well as "adventure" cruising that lines like Renaissance targets.

And Now The Envelope Please...
Let me first say, that if a dozen experienced cruisers were to write this, you'd no doubt get a variety of opinions. We have an exceptionally strong preference for Royal Caribbean because it is the hands-down winner on value. If I could afford to go on Silverseas and pay $1,000/day per diem or more, I'd do it--but that's way out of our price range, so we look to optimize value and give us the most for our money. Royal Caribbean's newer ships (not old ones for sure!) are spectacular, their service is as good as it gets (excepting for the ultra-luxury lines where you get a 1:1 crew/passenger ratio), and their food vendor rivals some of the ultra-luxury ships. Princess is also very good, Celebrity more pricey also with outstanding food, while in my opinion, Carnival still has the get-down & party/younger (once in a while, drink & drown) market where the food is pretty ordinary and the ship decor super neon glitz. This is my impression, keep in mind, and has to be tempered with the huge bottom line success of Carnival. Regarding Carnival, I think a fair statement is that what they do what they do VERY well--it's just that we don't go on cruises to booze it up and party non-stop. If you like the glitz of Las Vegas, Carnival may be for you. We're more into the laid back ship atmosphere, but then, viva la difference...that's what makes the world go ‘round. Once again, know what you want and most importantly, what it is that you are actually buying.

About The Food & Dress...
Some people have a misconception about cruising. The food ranges from near 4-star true gourmet food (probably on the luxury lines, such as Silver Seas, Radission, or perhaps Crystal) to consistently very good and even great on occasion (Celebrity leads this area, followed by Royal Caribbean and Princess in my view) to truly pedestrian. If you're not going to spend the big bucks for the luxury line, then don't expect true gourmet food. We're not fussy, and so it's always been pretty good to us. The problem is mass production feeding. On the larger ships, they have get a thousand or so people in and out of the dining room, only to repeat the trick at the late seating yet again. Except on the luxury lines (some of which can give you a nose bleed from pretentiousness, while on others you live in the lap of the rich & famous without the snottiness), the idea of dressing for dinner has been toned down. Men can bring or rent a tux on the formal nights...women wear their finery...or men can wear a dark suit and women, a nicer dress. The truth is, this is your vacation and no one will much care what you wear (provided you don't walk into the formal evening in jeans or halter tops). The whole objective is that you feel comfortable with what you wear.

About Ports of Call...
Ports that you visit offer an opportunity to stretch your legs and get off the ship for a change of pace. Space does not permit a review of specific ports. For that see the Fielding book and other excellent books that are on the market. In general, it is important to realize that you will only get a tiny sampling of the port or country that you'll visit. Most often (particularly in the Caribbean), you may be bombarded with hordes of people who will be lined up to take you around the city or island, or to sell you something. Some ports offer world-class opportunities to see things worthwhile (e.g., New York, Singapore, etc.); others are so pedestrian, there is little there of interest; for others still, stay on the ship for safety reasons (e.g., robberies or muggings). This is a matter of personal taste, but in a port that does not have the reputation of being unsafe, my family and I prefer to share a taxi with another family or couple and to tour the island on own own. There are exceptions to this, where you know one of the multitude of ship-sponsored shore excursions are real winners. However, my advice is get out and encounter the local culture wherever and whenever possible. To tell you the truth, depending on your preferences, it is disheartening to have a fantasy about seeing Rome or some wonderful sights, only to find that you are on a drive-by tourist bus with your shipmates, and that if you're lucky, you may stop for 15 minutes to take pictures.

Picking your cabin...
Generally, the more desirable cabins (i.e., more expensive are on the top decks of a ship)--and they almost always sell out first. The old adage used to be, don't worry about your cabin, you won't spend much time there to begin with. Actually, that's not true. Since cruise lines have shifted to the concept of thinking of a ship as a self-contained resort, more emphasis has been placed on making your cabin as comfortable (and larger) as possible. For example, some people wonder about getting an outside cabin with a balcony. This, in my opinion is almost entirely dependent on the cruise and the weather. We did so on our cruise through the Panama Canal and it was wonderful. If the weather is somewhat temperate, you can sit outside and enjoy splendid scenery. On the other hand, if it is blustery weather as sometimes happens to/from Alaska, you probably won't think that a balcony is such a good deal. Selection of your cabin may also affect whether you feel the ship "rock & roll."

About sea sickness...
A couple of common questions that come up about cruising to begin with. First--how should I pick the cabin I want. t feel as if it was worth the extra $$$. Sorry to say, there is no definitive answer here. Second, what about sea sickness. In general, this concern is overdone, perhaps more among first time cruisers. The larger ships have several stabilizers that even out the pitch and roll of the ship--but in heavy seas (i.e., waves 15 ft. or more), you can certainly feel some discomfort. A tip: Book early (and save money as a rule too!!!) and ask for a cabin near the center part of the ship, away from the bow (front), or the stern (rear) of the ship. You'll get relatively less movement in the center sections. One downside to this is to be sure you get a cabin away from elevators, stairs (which are often near the center of the ship) or other high traffic areas if you value a more quiet night's sleep. Finally, if you are prone to motion sickness, the ship's doctor can give you something for a nominal charge--or you may choose to get an over the counter product from your pharmacist before you leave. We prefer Bonnine, instead of Dramimine, since it does not induce sleepiness.

About Shopping...
If you are going to the Caribbean, do your homework about shopping before you leave and resist the lure of "getting an irresistible bargain." My recommendation is to stick with name brand electronics and cameras (along with specific model numbers), and check prices before you leave. You can get "clipped" quickly when you succumb to all those beautiful rings, broaches, and necklaces in the hundreds of shops in St. Thomas and elsewhere. My wife and I bought a ring that seemed like a good deal only to arrive back home to find it was appraised for $$$ less than we paid for it. Each ship will recommend certain shops (of course, they get a "kickback" for doing so), and will tell you that they "guarantee" your purchase. There's absolutely nothing unethical about this, it's just a way for the cruise line to enhance its revenue. Each cruise line's policies vary, but this frequently involves a hassle (what you want to avoid on a cruise, of course!) to get your money back. So the phrase for shopping is "caveat emptor."

What You May Not Know About Cruise/Travel Agents...
You'll find as much advice about cruise agents and cruising (several points of view directly conflicting) as nearly any topic on AOL. When you stop and think about it, it's a relatively complicated purchase decision. You or your family may be thinking about laying out "big bucks" for something that you've never seen or experienced. The good news is that I am convinced that cruises can represent one of the most memorable and high value-added vacations today. You can party up a storm or curl up with a good book and just chill out, or do a little of each. You can eat yourself from one of the ship to another, or go for nutritious or even vegetarian menus while working out daily at state-of-the-art on board spas. When you consider the cost of hotels, airfare, meals, rental cars, the possibility of getting sick on the food or water in a foreign country (It's happened to us--my wife wound up in an emergency room and a 6-day hospital stay after a trip to the Bahamas!), the hassles of packing and unpacking, getting caught in traffic and all the other things that can tarnish that "big vacation," it is easy to understand why so many people choose to go on a cruise.

About that Fielding book...
As stated before, I am convinced that there is no substitute for "doing your homework. " This means informing yourself about individual cruise ships and specific lines and the products they offer, then picking a cruise agent who you can trust. In the former category, I recommend Fielding's Worldwide Guide To Cruising-1997 (updated yearly). There are resources you can get too at your local bookstore, but this one is a breeze to read, and reasonably objective. The book is worth its weight in gold. It has the added advantage of rating major ports across the world, providing an overview of what each locale has to offer. As to the second point, the "Cruise only" agents come in all sizes and varieties. The information in this note lists one that I have had stunningly wonderful experiences with. I have recommended them on America On Line, and have had literally dozens of people write back to me confirming that they are terrific people to deal with.

Back to Cruise/Travel Agents...
Know who you are dealing with!!! Some cruise agents are very competent...others may have been selling stereos or aluminum siding over the telephone six months ago. Look, I don't want to de-ride these people--but it is a fact. The problem is, for the most part, you will have no real way of discerning which is which. Local travel agents or otherwise self-appointed cruise experts frequently read the cruise ship line P.R. veneer right out of the catalog. Often this amounts to nothing more than selling you the standard discount for booking that is available to virtually anyone off the so-called brochure rate. The result is that you think you're getting one of Kathie Lee's fantasy cruises,only to find a garish neon nightmare on a ship filled with people whose idea of a good time is drinking, drowning, and then waking you up at 3AM as they boisterously announce their arrival back to their room--all right outside of your cabin. For sure, this is the idea of a roaring good time for some--but the point is KNOW WHAT YOU ARE REALLY BUYING!!! There are many significant points and nuances that can differentiate between an OK trip, and one that falls shorts for the $$$ you spend.

A word or two about "special discounts" that many travel or cruise agencies offer. It is a common travel agency ploy to offer promotional deals that frequently focus on a special "cruise night." You may get a mailing or perhaps there is an ad in the local newspaper. You go in, are met and greeted, enjoy punch and free cookies, and view a dreamy cruise video. To step back from this experience, KEEP IN MIND THAT THIS IS INTENDED TO APPEAL TO A STRONG EMOTIONAL PURCHASE DECISION. To illustrate: Experts about the Psychology of selling relate this experience to what any top car salesperson knows: In the dealer's showroom, if you can get the potential customer behind the wheel to experience the "smell of the new car" and the fantasy of pulling it into the driveway--you've likely already made a sale! To return to the high seas...keep in mind, however, that TOO MANY local travel agents (and god only knows, many of the so-called "experts" who you can deal with over the phone) often provide almost no specific product information THAT IS INTENDED TO MATCH THE SERVICES AND EXPERIENCES ON BOARD WITH YOUR SPECIFIC NEEDS. The episode about drunken rowdiness mentioned earlier is, regrettably, quite common. Too often, they want to sell you the packaged deal (with the illusion that this "price or deal" is "just too good to pass up.") You may have a great trip, or it may be a disappointment, or you may wonder why you have motion sickness in your cabin at the front of the ship, or why there is more noise in your budget priced cabin on a lower deck, or you may sit at dinner on the ship and have difficulty not up chucking your food when the people at your table share what they paid...In many cases, the truth of the matter is, you'll never know the difference.

The Economics of the Cruise Industry & Avoiding "Price Shopping"...
Why is this a reality? The issue centers on basic economics...The cost structure of many of the major cruise agencies is essentially similar. Yes, I know they all make the claim that they will give you the lowest price (Note: A warning flag should go off when you hear this!), but the realities are that their fixed and variable costs are remarkably similar even after you factor in the special arrangements and promotional incentives that the major cruise lines offer them. My experience and that of many other people confirms, as with any service business, THE MAJOR LEVERAGE THAT CRUISE AGENCIES HAVE TO PROVIDE THE "LOWEST PRICE" IS TO CONTROL COSTS, WHICH NEARLY ALWAYS MEANS SLIGHTING SERVICE IN SOME WAY, albeit sometimes unintentionally. It is, after all, a labor intensive business. This can be done indirectly by hiring and paying people who are not the absolute best in their field (which, of course, implies lower salary costs/higher profitability for the agency). Another example of how costs get controlled is pumping up "productivity indices" of agents by pressuring them to not spend too much time on the phone or to "push" certain high profit trips that cruise lines offer to agencies with special dollar incentives. This business tactic often means that you won't spend time with someone who is interested in understanding your needs instead of just your wants. Many travel or cruise agencies control costs directly in many ways, such as not providing a packet of critical information ahead of time, or pushing a "one size fits all" product (those agents who will "steer" you toward specific line are a perfect example). In other words, (surprise of surprises), you basically get what you pay for. If someone is going to engage in deception and tell you otherwise (and implicitly, insult your intelligence), then my advice is to keep your hand on you wallet or purse as you RUN (not walk) for the door. The other side of this coin is that the buying or traveling public wants "the best deal," and sometimes consumer greed clouds sound judgment. For example, there are people who may be paying $3,000-$10,000 or more for a sight-unseen cruise, then proceed to shop around to save a paltry $75. My judgment is that this gives new meaning to the term, "penny wise and pound foolish."

One antidote to help insure you are dealing with only the best is to determine the credentials of your cruise or travel agent--AND--the company with which they are affiliated. Let me quote directly from Conde Nast's new book, Secret's Every Smart Traveler Should Know (another book well worth reading, by the way):
"Look for a travel agent with credentials such as membership in the National Association of Cruise-Only Agencies, or accreditation by the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA). CLIA "Master Cruise Counselors" have a higher level of training than CLIA "Accredited Cruise Counselors." It continues, "...cruise-goers should use one of the specialists who belong to API Travel Consultants, a network of the nation's top travel agents."

My interpretation of this expert advice is to recognize that credentialing cannot insure nothing will ever go wrong. On the other hand, when you're spending the kind of money it takes to go on a cruise, don't you want to deal with people who you can trust, who have demonstrated an exceptional level of expertise, and who have earned the highest industry recognition? As an additional thought, my impression is that only about one percent of travel or cruise agents earn the coveted "Master Cruise Counselor" distinction.

About Service After the Sale...
What you are "buying" in a sense, is the peace of mind and confidence that when you deal with someone who you trust...someone who is interested in tailoring their services to meet your needs (and from their point of view, building a long term business relationship). Their real competitive advantage lies in sharing their ethical standards and expertise about cruise lines (and how the products/ships/cruises can dramatically differ), as well as understanding your underlying needs (as opposed to feeding the emotional of a dreamy cruise that the glittery photos and cruise industry brochures induce).

To summarize: I pass on these recommendations because there are marginal travel or cruise agents who are nearly clueless about the cruise industry (although they will gladly take your money and try to convince you otherwise with elaborate puffery and BS). If you doubt that statement, read through some of the sad stories on America on Line. They run the gamut from true rip-off stories and scam artists to the more common letdown that people experience when their dream cruise turns out to be not so dreamy after all. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of these embittered tales of woe posted in the "Worst Cruise Experience" area, as well as other area on AOL cruise board. If you're a regular reader of Conde' Nast, you can also read about the "cruises-from-hell" experiences that their ombudsperson periodically responds to.

If you have other questions about cruises, specific ships or cruise lines, or cruise/tavel agents, drop me an e-mail message at "Flying Ram" on America On Line, or "flyingram@aol.com" if you accessing this via some other information provider or the Internet.

Wishing you a serene cruise experience...Tim

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