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10 Steps to Smooth Sailing

By: Dawn Reiss
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Before planning your next cruise, follow this advice for deciding where to go, when to go, which line to book and more.

Where to go
Decide on the destination first, the ship second. Alaskan and Caribbean cruises have long been mainstays, but cruise lines are adding itineraries to unexpected places: Asia, the Indian Ocean, South America. "South America is a big player this year," says Anne Morgan Scully, of McCabe World Travel in McLean, Virginia. "But Dubai is off the charts."

Next, look at the specifics—with Alaskan cruises, for example, ships tend to follow two routes. Inside Passage itineraries run round-trip from Seattle or Vancouver and call in southern Alaskan ports like Juneau and Skagway; Gulf of Alaska itineraries, which sail farther north, are typically one-way trips from Vancouver to Whittier or Seward, or the reverse.

When to go
Shoulder seasons can offer bargains, and may be even more appealing than high season: A mild fall day can be more enjoyable than baking under the August sun in the Mediterranean. Alaska’s popularity with families means that going in May and September (when children are in school) often translates into fewer visitors—and better deals. Fewer people can also mean more chances to see black bears and humpback whales up close.

Which line to book
Select the cruise line, and the fellow passengers, that best match your personality. "This is crucial for the first time," advises Anne Halsey-Smith of Gayle Gillies Travel in Rancho Santa Fe, California. "It will make or break your experience. If you aren’t matched to the line, you probably won’t cruise again." Some have dress codes and assigned seating times for meals. Some, like Princess Cruises, are more kid-friendly. Norwegian Cruise Line is more casual than other lines and doesn’t have assigned dining times. Holland America’s offerings are more traditionally geared toward baby boomers. Finally, lines like Crystal and Regent are more upscale and, in turn, more expensive. A travel agent can help you make sense of the different options, and on the message boards of you can hear directly from passengers.

What it costs
Don’t look at the daily rate for a stateroom and then simply multiply by the number of nights you’ll be at sea. Remember to factor in airfare to and from the originating port, the costs of incidentals such as alcohol (unless the ship is all-inclusive), and shore excursions. A helicopter ride over the glaciers of Alaska can be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but it can also add as much as $1,000 to your final bill.

Beat the rush
Many cruise lines give discounts for booking far in advance. "It’s an issue of supply and demand," Scully says. "As bookings come in, cruise fares go up in the most popular regions, like Alaska, the Caribbean, and the Mediterranean." It’s never too soon to start planning your cruise.

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