A colleague mentioned the other day that he and his wife had been thinking about taking their first cruise. But, he confessed, "We don't know the first thing about how to choose the right one for us."
It's not surprising the couple is confused. As many as 150 cruise ships sail the world's seas, and no two are exactly alike. You can pick a compatible ship and have a great vacation, or sail on a bummer and rue the day you wasted so much money.
Price, of course, is a major factor, but it should not be the only basis for reaching a decision. The ship's style, itinerary and size are also important considerations.
Carnival Cruise Lines calls its growing fleet "the fun ships," and its brochures depict a youngish, bikini-clad crowd in frenzied activity.
Society Expeditions' clientele appears older; photos in its brochures might show them with binoculars and boots studying penguins in the Antarctic.
Depending on your personal tastes, you can select from among ships that:
--Promise a lively, nonstop party, or fill your evenings with scholarly lectures. Dock at a new port every day, or rarely go near a port.
--Seek out sun-drenched beaches, or explore ancient cities and other historical sites.
--Feature budget-conscious three- and four-day getaways, or cruise leisurely on itineraries that stretch on for weeks and months.
--Cater to families (premier Cruise Lines identifies itself as "the official cruise line of Walt Disney World") or make themselves available to special-interest outings such as cruises for singles.
If you prefer intimacy, it can be found on small ships such as those operated by the American Canadian Caribbean Line, which carry as few as 76 passengers. But as might be expected, on-board recreational facilities are, by necessity, very limited.
On the other hand, Royal Caribbean Cruise Line's new Sovereign of the Seas, the largest liner afloat, is a full-fledged resort in everything but name--offering practically everything except 18 holes of golf. It can carry more than 2,200 passengers. When the Sovereign docks at a Caribbean port such as St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, passengers spill into the streets like an invading army.
On my first cruise a few years back, aboard Norwegian Cruise Line's Sunward II, a magnificent sunset rewarded our last night at sea. The sky was so spectacular, the captain made an announcement over the public-address system urging everyone to go on deck and take a look. Hardly anybody showed up, however, and my wife and I continued to watch in pleasant solitude. Later we discovered why: Our fellow passengers were engrossed in bingo. If there were ever a next time, I told myself, I would find a ship catering to folks who prefer scenery over games.
"There are different breeds of travelers," says Ron Bitting, president of the National Assn. of Cruise Only Agencies. "You've got the backpackers," by which he means adventurous travelers, "and you've got the traveler who needs to plan a year ahead and wants to know what side of the bed the phone is on."
Bitting's organization represents about 800 travel agencies nationwide, including those that handle nothing but cruise vacations as well as full-service agencies with separate cruise divisions. The goal of the specialists is to match passengers with a cruise they will enjoy--which, despite the romantic ballyhoo of cruise-line advertising, is no easy matter.
A travel agent himself for almost three decades, Bitting heads Personal Touch Cruise Consultants of Freeport, N.Y. He has put together a detailed questionnaire, which his staff uses to determine the interests of his customers. Among the very specific questions: Do you prefer a new ship sleekly modern in decor or an older one that reflects an earlier era? If you like an older ship, he suggests sailing the 30-year-old Rotterdam of Holland America Line ("It's so beautifully maintained").
One tip to getting a ship you will like, says Bitting, is to find one that offers activities similar to those you enjoy on land-based vacations. If you tell Bitting that you want to sample several beaches, he probably will book you on a ship plying the Caribbean. If gambling, disco dancing and a vibrant night life are most important to you, he will find you a party ship. In the first example, itinerary is of primary importance, he notes; to the night owl, the ship's activities come first, regardless of its destination.
Among the major considerations when choosing a cruise vacation:
--Price: "In all instances, price is important," says Bitting. "Everybody is price-conscious. We have people booking $20,000 cruises, but they want it for $19,500."
Last-minute bargains often are available because many new ships have been built recently and the availability of cabins has outstripped demand--at least temporarily. But Bitting cautions that the bargains are not for everyone. You don't, for example, get first choice on cabins, and often have to take the leftovers.