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
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
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.