by Annette Lucido, Cruise Editor

Since cruises are so special it makes sense to research them before you book

Cruise lines coddle customers with comfortable cabins, wonderful public areas, selected shore excursions and non-stop onboard diversions -- not to mention nine meals a day. So today's traveler enjoys a confusion of choices. You can find special interest cruises which focus on everything from bridge or big band music to wildlife or walks on Arctic ice. Some opt for weekend or mid-week sample cruises, others go for week-long cruises. A few cruise buffs with deep pockets even cruise round the world. The choice is yours. Shop carefully and you enjoy real value on a trip that suits your interests and budget. Don't forget it's not the price that's most important, it's the pleasure and the duration of your memories.

I still remember my first cruise with Matson Lines in 1960 from San Francisco to Hawaii. As travel writers, my husband Louis and I cruise "considerably." I treasure memories of other cruises to China, Japan, Hawaii, Alaska and other areas. My husband isn't as sold on what he calls "jail" cruises. He likes plenty of uncrowded shore time, and favors calm water or river cruises where getting sick is never a problem.

Others take a different approach. We shared a table on an Alaskan cruise with couples who rarely got off the ship. They watched the scenery and played bridge instead. Another couple we met on a Hawaii cruise never left the ship without golf clubs and managed to get in at least 18 holes a day. Last cruise to Hawaii I flew in sailplanes and helicopters, we rode bikes, snorkeled, body and board surfed, road outriggers and fished between scenic drives. Last summer's cruise to Alaska found Louis fishing -- what else? -- while I flitted about in float planes and helicopters.

Research First

To find the cruise that suits you best, research first. You can get valuable booklets and handouts from travel agents. Most agree that agents who have visited ships or cruised provide the most valuable help. Vacations on Video sells videos of cruise ships and tours. Write to World Publishing, 1020 Church St., Evanston, IL 60201. Booklets and videos use a bit of "creative" photography to make cabins look bigger and such, but everyone does this so it evens out. You can also find solid information, and some not always flattering descriptions of cruises, here on the net.

You should also check the library for articles and books on your area of interest. These help you compare the shore activities, car rentals etc. offered on board with those you can often find for less if you book them on your own. Friends provide useful information only if they have taken enough cruises to evaluate ships, and their interests match yours. Ships do change over time. Some improve, some deteriorate, but only heroes take maiden voyages when anything that can go wrong will.

Types and Typost

The type of cruise seems as important as the location. You don't get much swimming on Alaskan cruises and sedentary folks miss much of the action in the tropics. So what's the weather like when you plan to cruise? Early and late summer cruises often test your sea legs with storms. So check the temperature, rainfall and the possibility of stormy seas during the months you plan to sail.

Realize that the longer the cruise, and the colder the water, the older the average passenger. On some Alaska cruises, the average age might be 65! On two or three day "drink and boogie 'til you drop" cruises out of Southern California to Florida, the age might run 25. It's questionable who has the most fun, but the activities do differ, and we met an extremely unhappy 30-ish lady on our last Alaskan cruise who'd seen Love Boat and "couldn't believe the geriatric lechers." She would have loved a Caribbean three day or one of the Los Angeles down and back short cruises.

Afloat Or Ashore?

Do you most enjoy shore or shipboard activities? Cruises that dock at dawn and leave at dusk like the American Hawaiian Cruises suit golfers, tennis players, swimmers etc. Some ships, such as the Wind Song, specialize in water sports in the tropics. Cruises in Norway or other cold water destinations work best for those who enjoy cruise directors, bingo games and the like.

To Dress Or Not To Dress?

I'm not suggesting nudist cruises. I expect such exist but in the meantime my husband has to make do with Rio-style suits around the pool. But do you prefer formal or informal cruises? We find American- Hawaii, Exploration, Wind Song and most tropical cruises run to informality. Scandinavian flag, QEII, big budget and cold water cruises tend to be more formal. This is, of course, relative.

Dress can be important. While casual attire suits days, you need something formal at night. We were glad Louis wore a dark blue suit and I wore an evening dress when we had cocktails in the captain's cabin and ate at his table last trip even on an "informal" Hawaiian cruise. We were asked back later in the cruise. Another writer who showed up in a rumpled sweater was not. On most ships a jacket and tie is suggested in the evening.

We tote lightweight washable garments that can be washed by hand and hung to dry in the shower if needed. Try to avoid white garments that instantly look dirty. Shipboard laundry can cost quite a lot and take longer than we like. Onboard Laundromats work nicely if you use them during off hours, but they eat your eating, smoozing and dancing time.

Cost Considerations 

How's your budget? Cruises look expensive if you don't realize just about everything on board is included. But if you add cruise costs to daily fees for optional shore activities, costs can mount. For example, we average at least $100 a day if we hit the beach. So a cruise with lots of time onboard and/or included shore options can cost less than you might expect.

Friends took this kind or cruise with the Pearl Cruises of Scandinavia. They flew from San Francisco to Tokyo, cruised to Kobe, Nagasaki, E. China Sea into the Yellow Sea into the Bay of Korea to Dalian, China then on to Qinhuangda (Emerald Island). They bussed to Beijing, the Great Wall of China, Yantai, Qindac, Shanghai and Xiamen, then visited Hong Kong.

On my first Pearl of the Orient cruise, we left from Hawaii and cruised for 13 days with stops in Yokohama, Kobe and finally Hong Kong. We flew to Thailand and back from Tokyo.

Inside Moves

When I cruised alone, I booked inexpensive inside cabins. You spend your waking hours in public spaces or on shore anyhow. Louis has to "see out." So we can't use this option, but the least expensive cabin on a more costly ship offers wonderful value over the most expensive suite on an older ship. As Louis notes, "Everything gets there at the same time, and you don't do much in the cabin save sleep and whatever." Couples enjoy prime cabin rates; it's possible to add a third or forth to the cabin and cut costs even further. If you do this expect crowding! Singles pay a premium in many cases. Kids can travel free or at big discounts on some lines at some times.

Other Savers

If your schedule is flexible, you can save with last minute tickets -- several brokers sell these. You might plan your own group too. A number of cruise lines, airlines and more resorts than many expect offer one free passage for every ten or so who book. I went to the Orient with friends who took this route. You can also save with early bookings and on the growing number of sales which obtain as the number of cruise cabins mounts.

Do make sure to compare air and other costs as part of your package. Most cruises offer major air discounts; some offer free airfare as part of the package. If you plan to cruise with children or grandchildren as seems popular on our last couple of trips, you can expect further savings and, on many ships, a complete children's program, cruise director etc.

Cruises from summer Alaskan or Scandinavian waters -- "repositioning cruises" for buffs -- to tropical Caribbean winter cruise venues can maximize your time afloat and radically cut your per day costs too. These are well-worth investigating at the possible risk of rough waters during part of the time at the season's end. A writer friend of ours uses these to finish the final draft of his books.

Add On For Added Value

Cruise lines increasingly offer pre and post cruise stays at the port of embarkation or debarkation. Otherwise you fly into Puerto Rico or Hawaii or Miami that morning, then ship out. When you return you fly out that day. This seems a shame in attractive locations when two or three days spend relaxing put you in a good mood for a cruise. Honeymooner's note: this is a very, very good idea. You don't want to be seasick right after the wedding.

These stays also let you research shore activities and shop at local department and other stores out of the high budget tourist belt. Some lines offer split trips. You can take a short three or four day cruise and combine it with a stay at a resort and fly back for far less than a week on board. Some lines let you stay over at resorts with a cruise in the middle. The Disney "Big Red Boats®" in conjunction with DisneyWorld® deserves special mention here.

Shore Stores, Stories & Solutions

Most who cruise spend as much time as possible on shore. You should probably take excursion buses in areas where language or safety is a problem or, for example, where prices are unreal as is now the case in Japan with $7 a cup coffee and $125 taxi fees into town. Louis speaks several languages so we usually rent cars and travel on our own. You can sometimes save 30 to 50 percent over the car rental firms that work with the ship if you book your own and take the risk of absent wheels.

Some shore tours are not booked through the ship at all. For example, on our last Virgin Islands trip we found a better deal on snorkel trips through a local dive shop and saved on gear rentals as well. With these points in mind here are some specific suggestions on cruising areas. We'll detail specific cruises in other articles.

Hawaii And South Pacific

American-Hawaii Cruises' two dandy ships cover several islands. Great shore activities, splendid refurbishment, larger than usual cabins and public areas and a friendly, casual crew make up for older ships and sometimes unspectacular food. Stay on Oahu or Maui before the trip. If you like bright lights take the two days on Maui. Like solitude? Opt for the cruise with two days on Kauai.

Tahiti, Bora Bora and other South Pacific Islands offer unspoiled reefs and beaches. Deal with the French in Tahiti and you may suffer high prices and marginal manners. Book at home and hit the outer islands. While French officials could give obnoxiousness lessons to New York City taxi drivers, Polynesians are wonderful.


Everyone cruises the Inside Passage. Just don't cruise it two ways. We suggest you split the trip and plan shore time to see Denali -- used to be Mt McKinley -- wild life as Princess Tours' wonderful dome cars rock down the tracks to Anchorage. Do fly into Anchorage or even Fairbanks and train and cruise back. RV owners might load their vehicles on the Stardancer and tour on their own out of Skagway or Haines. Everyone needs at least two days in Vancouver going or coming.

Watch the weather early and late in the season. Good thing shore time is limited! Skagway, Sitka and most other Alaskan towns seem crowded with just a single cruise ship in port. Skip the bus tour of Sitka. Check downtown, walk or cab over to the totem poles and you save a bundle. Helicopter and float plane flights are wonderful on clear days. Fishing trips are, according to Louis, "too short to offer consistent results.

Mexico And The Panama Canal

Many ships that cruise to Alaska in the summer switch to Mexico in the winter. You can get cut rate cruises on the transit. A short cruise down to Mazatlan or other port with a shore stay and a flight back cuts costs. Mexico is a travel bargain these days. Other ships transit the Panama Canal on their way to summer cruise areas in Europe. The view of the locks is a highlight of this wonderful trip if you minimize shore time in Panama where Americans no longer seem welcome.

Caribbean Cruises

Crowding seems usual on shore in popular ports. We saw eight ships in St. Thomas at once last visit. So many cruise ships leave from Miami or San Juan, Puerto Rico during winter months that it appears the local island populations are outnumbered by the tourists. Special sailing cruises and smaller cruise ships with shoal draft hulls can reach the kind of uncrowded tropical islands we all favor. Early and late season trips work well. TIP: with the 1995 storm damage, tourists will probably stay away from the USVI in droves. Folks down there know how to recover fast, and the water, weather and most else aren't affected. So consider the U.S.Virgin Islands!

Inland Waterways

Riverboats have their own special flavor. Cruises on the Mississippi or Columbia Rivers offer a different look at America, but Louis says "you see more oil barges than scenery." This is not the case on the cruises between Boston and Quebec. Cruises on the Orinoco or Amazon show off jungle and river wildlife. Cruises on the Rhine highlight visits to Germany.

A Fairbank's paddlewheeler on the Princess Tours agenda.


My mother-in-law still talks about the Nile cruise she took several years ago, and her barge cruises through France and Belgium. We saw several comfortable cruising barges on English canals too. Many of these barges feature wonderful food and a unique look at the countryside.

European Cruises

Summer finds cruise ships probing fjords off Norway and Sweden. The scenery could be on the Inside Passage and the Scandinavian crews are perhaps the best in the world. Prices are, unfortunately, high. But Baltic cruise liners must compete with less expensive ferry boats. Most cruises include visits to Leningrad and Moscow.

Cruise the Aegean and you enter the Classical world. Louis says, "No other spot on earth offers such a remarkable combination of history and scenery." Many combine these cruises with a visit to Egypt and a Nile voyage. Security does not seem a problem at this date.

Of course, this only scratches the surface of the cruising world. You can cruise to the Galapagos, Antarctica or, I'm told, even the Falkland Islands. Australia and New Zealand show up on cruise routes too.

If you cruise often you know the pleasures of cruise ships. If you do not, there's no better time than now to take a Hawaiian, Alaskan or Mexican cruise to sample the luxury life afloat. If you carefully select your first cruise it seems certain that you will cruise again. I know I did!

Have you ever thought about the adventure of a Nile river cruise. Find out more about Nile river cruises as well las some other great topics.