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The Everything Guide to Planning a Cruise

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    Ultimate Cruise Planner Travel Tips

    Cruises offer a tantalizing vacation trifecta: good value, easy planning and the promise of adventure. Pay an up-front rate and you’ve got a floating hotel with  meals, ample entertainment and activities and an itinerary planned by experts. So start planning your next floating getaway.

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    Is Cruising Right for Me?

    Cruising is not a one-size-fits-all activity. So if you’re inclined, you can find a cruise out there that’s just right for you — whether you’re attracted to the thought of a leisurely float along French canals with a few close friends or to a weeklong party on the Caribbean with 5,000 other passengers. You can visit multiple destinations, sample a specific region, explore exotic locales or just sail across the Atlantic in a luxurious hotel. As for the onboard experience, there’s plenty of entertainment, and there’s no need to worry about seasickness, because there are plenty of ways to avoid it.

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    Where Can I Sail and When Should I Go?

    You can find a cruise that will take you almost anywhere in the world. As for timing, the best destinations for year-round cruising are Asia, the Bahamas and Caribbean, Europe, Hawaii, the Mexican Riviera, South America and the South Pacific. Other regions, such as Alaska, Antarctica and Australia, have more limited windows for ideal ship travel. Right now Southeast Asia is a particularly popular destination in the cruise world.

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    When’s the Best Time to Book a Cruise?

    Deals can be had just about any time of the year, but there’s a lot of hoopla around annual industry sale events, including Cruise Lines International Association’s Cruise Week, in October, and "wave season," which runs from January through March. Travel agents and tour packagers also often stage their own sales to coincide with holidays such as the Fourth of July and Labor Day. Perks can include reduced deposits, discounted fares, two-for-one deals, onboard credit, free kids fares, cabin-category upgrades, prepaid gratuities, complimentary beverage packages, free specialty-restaurant reservations, and gratis shore excursions or spa treatments. If you’re in the market for a cruise-savvy travel agent, Cruise Lines International Association maintains a database of trusted professionals.

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    Which Cruise Line Is Right for Me?

    Selecting a cruise line that matches your vacation preferences will mean the difference between an excellent experience and one that leaves you wishing that you’d just stayed home. Families may prefer Disney Cruise Line, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean, whereas older oceangoers may gravitate to Holland America Line and Crystal Cruises. Natural-born explorers may be interested in Lindblad Expeditions and Hurtigruten; honeymooners, though, tend to prefer Paul Gauguin Cruises and Windstar Cruises. Want a small-ship experience? Go for Un-Cruise Adventures or SeaDream Yacht Club. Ask trusted friends and family for their recommendations, and do plenty of independent research online.

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    How Do I Pick the Perfect Cruise Ship?

    Cruise lines fall into three basic categories, ascending in level of sophistication and service and, predictably, price: mainstream (Carnival, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean); premium (Celebrity, Holland America, Princess); and luxury (Crystal, Regent Seven Seas, Silversea). The other thing to consider is size. Bigger ships offer anonymity and oodles of amenities; smaller ones offer more intimacy, quiet and access to smaller ports.

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    How Much Do Cruises Cost?

    Fares vary according to itinerary (including factors like cruise length and popularity of the destination), season, cabin accommodations and, of course, the caliber of the cruise line. Mass-market lines such as Carnival and Royal Caribbean dole out bargains but charge for à la carte extras. Luxury lines (Silversea and Seabourn, for example) are more all-inclusive, though they have heftier up-front price tags. Note that quoted cruise rates are based on double occupancy; solo travelers should be careful to find out whether there are single-passenger supplements tacked on.

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    How Should I Book My Cruise?

    If you have the time to independently research your perfect cruise line — and to shop around for the best bargains — you can book your cruise directly through the cruise line or through a third-party seller that posts a striking deal. Otherwise, consider a travel agent who specializes in cruise travel and the line that you’re most interested in. Travel agents often offer discounts and perks (think onboard credit and prepaid gratuities) that you won’t get by booking directly with the cruise line.

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    Which Cabin Should I Choose?

    Booking the right cabin will greatly enhance your cruise experience. First things first: If you’ve never sailed before and don’t know if you're prone to seasickness, pick a midship cabin on a lower deck, where you’ll feel less movement. Travel agents are intimately familiar with all the ship layouts and can help you book the cabin that’s right for you, whether you want to spend as little money as possible on a windowless cabin, or more on a window or even a private balcony, which can greatly enhance your experience in locales such as French Polynesia, Alaska, the Caribbean and the Mediterranean.

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    What Should I Pack?

    Your cruise line will provide you with information about any onboard dress codes, including the number of formal nights per itinerary. Also consider the climate and culture of the regions you’ll visit. (Women traveling to Middle Eastern countries, for example, should bring scarves to cover their heads and shoulders and wear pants or long skirts.) Resist the urge to overpack! Most ships offer laundry (some have machines, so you can do it yourself) and dry cleaning service. It’s much easier to have your laundry done once during your vacation than to lug several suitcases and incur high baggage fees at the airport.

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    Should I Consider a River Cruise?

    Absolutely! Especially if you’ve been on several ocean cruises, a river cruise is a great way to experience something new while still enjoying the pleasures of cruising.

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