If buying and enjoying a cruise were only a matter of learning port from starboard and fore from aft, consumers could rest easier. Instead, anyone contemplating a vacation at sea faces a battery of unfamiliar and easily misunderstood terms. Is it good or bad to be repositioned? Should your dinner portions be measured in gross register tons?
Here's a quick cruise vocabulary guide.
Brochure rates: What nobody should pay. This is the seafaring equivalent of hotel "rack rates" - the fare figures that cruise lines put on their printed materials, even though most passengers, buying through travel agencies, pay 20 percent to 40 percent less. Unlike hotels, cruise lines always quote rates per person, not per room or cabin. Also, when a cruise isn't selling well, the lines send faxes to travel agents announcing discounts. If you're considering a cruise and your schedule is flexible, ask a cruise travel agent what he or she has received by fax recently.
Carnival Corp.: These words mean more than most travelers realize. Besides Carnival Cruise Lines - the industry leader, with 14 "fun ships" whose rates often fall below $100 per person per day - Carnival has gobbled up several other cruise lines, although their names are unchanged.
The Holland America Line may have a Dutch flavor and a Seattle office, but it's Carnival-owned. So is Windstar, which sails luxurious small ships with big white sails. And so are formal and old-fashioned Cunard Line, operator of the Queen Elizabeth 2, and stately, pricey Seabourn Cruise Line.
Cruise-only: A phrase to watch out for when comparing prices. A cruise-only price excludes the cost of flying to your point of embarkation. Some fares do include the cost of airline tickets.
Funnel: That's the ship's smokestack, where the cruise line's logo is usually displayed.
Gross register tonnage: A ship's size is measured this way, but it doesn't mean weight. Instead, it's the volume of the ship's interior space. One register ton equals 100 cubic feet. The 3,100-passenger Voyager of the Seas, the world's largest cruise ship, checks in at 142,000 gross register tons.
Inside cabin: A windowless room, usually the most affordable cabins on the ship. Ship designs are evolving. Royal Caribbean's Voyager of the Seas, for instance, has rooms that look down on its interior mall and promenade.
Inventory: This word is often on the lips of cruise industry marketers these days, and it should be music to consumers' ears. Encouraged by the profits of the 1990s, the North American cruise industry, dominated by Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Princess, has embarked on an orgy of shipbuilding.
From 1999 through 2003, about 52 new ships are expected to join the marketplace, bringing to 200 the number of ships in the market and pushing the number of beds to about 226,000. That's a 53 percent increase from 1999, an increase in supply that has driven down cruise company stock values. There's a good chance this will mean better prices for consumers.
Maiden voyage. A new ship's first excursion with paying customers. With the host of new ships making their debuts in the next three years, there will be a steady stream of maiden cruises. But beware. If a shipyard is delayed in delivering a ship, which has happened repeatedly in the past three years, it's the travelers on that maiden cruise whose plans are canceled.
Veteran bargain hunters with flexible schedules have a strategy for this, too: Some book maiden cruises in hopes they'll be delayed, because they know cruise lines typically offer discounts on future travel.
Port charges: Multiple legal battles have been waged over these fees, which may sound like government levies but can also include other business expenses associated with bringing a ship to port.
In the 1990s, the average port fee began growing. On three-day itineraries, the port fees added 30 percent to the price advertised in large print. Several state attorneys general sued the major cruise lines, arguing that the lines were misleading customers by excluding these costs from advertised prices.
Many lines promised to reform their practices, but it's still common to find advertised prices followed by added port fees. Always ask about port fees and add them in before comparing prices.
Repositioning cruise: These are the itineraries ships sail between seasons: routes from the Caribbean through the Panama Canal and up to Alaska for the summer, for instance, or across the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. Usually offering fewer port calls (and thus more uninterrupted sea time), these cruises often carry the lowest prices of the year.