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Before booking a cruise, a few words of advice

Once upon a time, I was talked into taking a Windjammer Barefoot Cruise in the Caribbean. Much to my surprise, it included toga parties and nude beaches. It was, shall we say, an epic mismatch. Not surprisingly, being sure you and your ship are a good fit lands at the top of cruise experts' tips list. Here's a sampling of their best advice, whether you're a novice or a vet:

Match your ship to your

personality and your needs

Reggae bands and singing waiters? Carnival. String quartets and serene service? Cunard.

Do you want new and flashy? As a rule, "short cruises [three to five days] are on older, less desirable ships," says Paul Motter, publisher and president of CruiseMates.com, an online community for cruise news and reviews. "To get to the newer, flashier ships you need to invest seven days." The ideal length depends on the destination. "Seven days in the Caribbean is enough," he says, but plan on at least 10 to 14 days in Europe.

A couple or a single looking for maximum adventure and minimal frill might consider a river cruise, a small ship coastal cruise or perhaps a tall sailing ship.

And for families? "The big ships have facilities for children that probably will keep them occupied without their going out and spending extra money," says Douglas Ward, author of Berlitz's "Complete Guide to Cruising & Cruise Ships 2009" and Insight Guides' "Cruising: All Questions Answered." "The ship that does that best is Disney. And Holland America's newer ships are very good."

Decide whether you want a ship experience or a destination

experience

If it's the ship experience -- that is, long stretches of days at sea -- consider an Atlantic or Pacific crossing or a repositioning cruise. Otherwise, think the Caribbean, Alaska, the Mediterranean or Mexico.

"Celebrity and Cunard are ship experiences," Motter says, noting that the lines generally offer more at-sea days filled with onboard activities. By contrast, Oceania Cruises, a premium line whose ships sail worldwide, and Carnival are more focused on destination experiences and include lots of ports.

Consider using a travel agent

"Going to a specialized travel agent will save you lots of heartaches," Ward says. "They can get you deals that are not advertised on the Internet." And their expertise can keep you from ending up surrounded by cruisers chanting "To-ga! To-ga!"

Don't judge a line by its sister ships

Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief of CruiseCritic.com, notes that not all ships in a line's fleet offer the same experience. "Great example: On Princess Cruises, the newest ships (Crown, Ruby and Emerald Princess) feature splashy spas, fantastic kids' programs, alternative restaurants, enrichment programs and more," she said in an e-mail. "Cabins with balconies are plentiful [which means they're also affordable].

"On the smaller Princess ships -- Royal, Tahitian [to be renamed Ocean in December] and Pacific, you have set seating, more regimentation, more interesting ports of call, cozier onboard ambience and no kids' programs."

Don't expect the expenses to end when you pay the last of your fare

"Cruising is not all-inclusive," Spencer Brown says. Extras include alcoholic drinks and, on some ships, sodas, gambling, shore excursions, spa treatments, alternative restaurants, fitness classes, Internet access and gratuities, which are sometimes automatically added and can run $10 per day per passenger or more.

"Especially on new ships with a lot of bells and whistles, you'll have to pay to play," she says. Extras can equal the fare.

When you're budgeting, factor in the cost of shore excursions

They "can be expensive, anywhere from $30 to $150 per person," Motter says. You can arrange your own or even hire a taxi in port. The downside: A taxi driver is not a guide. If hiring a cab, he advises, "Look for a driver with good language skills. Negotiate the price upfront and don't pay it all in advance."

And remember, if you're not on a ship-sanctioned shore excursion, the ship probably is not going to wait for you if you're running late.

Look for incentives for booking early, which can defray some of the cost of your trip

"The best way to get the best discounts and the cabin you like is to book as far ahead as possible, six to 12 months," Ward says.

"In today's economy, cruise lines are offering lots of incentives for people to book ahead."

Think repositioning cruise

A seasonal repositioning cruise, in which a ship is "moved" (in this case, sailed) to another location, can be a good value, Spencer Brown says. Most are offered in the spring and fall, with most days at sea, for as little as $50 per person per day.

Back-to-back cruises also can be a good deal, says Ward, "if you've got the time and you want to save a little money."

Choose your accommodations carefully

Those prone to seasickness might choose an interior cabin, "so they don't actually see the sea," says Ward. "The lower on the ship, the better," and amidships is best.

New ships generally have bigger staterooms, says Motter, who recommends "any ship built after 2000."

Few ships have single cabins, and single supplements can run as much as 100%.

Weigh carefully the pros and cons of freestyle versus traditional dining

Freestyle means you eat when you want and generally not at the same table each night. "Most experienced cruisers prefer traditional-style dining," Motter says. "The main difference is that [with traditional] you get the same waiter every night and the waiter gets to know your preferences."

Ward sees positives and negatives to each. "I've heard . . . stories about people who had to wait in line a long time" for open seating, causing them to miss a show.

With assigned seating, dining companions can make or break a cruise. Traveling solo? Ward suggests a large table. On a recent cruise as a solo, I asked for a table for eight but landed at a none-too-promising table for four. I moved the next night. "If you're unhappy, see the maitre d' as soon as possible," Ward says.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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