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How to choose your cruise

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  • Select the cruise line that best matches your personality
  • Sailing in shoulder seasons can offer bargains
  • Consider your itinerary when deciding whether to reserve a balcony stateroom
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By Dawn Reiss
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Travel + Leisure

(Travel + Leisure) -- There are more than 160 ships in the fleets of the 24 major cruise lines and more than 7,500 itineraries, from Alaska to Zanzibar. So how do you decide which one most suits your style? Follow these 10 steps to ensure smooth sailing:

1. Where to go: Decide on the destination first, the ship second. Alaskan and Caribbean cruises have long been mainstays, but cruise lines are adding itineraries to unexpected places: Asia, the Indian Ocean, South America. "South America is a big player this year," says Anne Morgan Scully, of McCabe World Travel in McLean, Virginia. "But Dubai is off the charts."

Next, look at the specifics -- with Alaskan cruises, for example, ships tend to follow two routes. Inside Passage itineraries run round-trip from Seattle or Vancouver and call in southern Alaskan ports like Juneau and Skagway; Gulf of Alaska itineraries, which sail farther north, are typically one-way trips from Vancouver to Whittier or Seward, or the reverse.

2. When to go: Shoulder seasons can offer bargains and may be even more appealing than high season: a mild fall day can be more enjoyable than baking under the August sun in the Mediterranean. Alaska's popularity with families means that going in May and September (when children are in school) often translates into fewer visitors -- and better deals. Fewer people can also mean more chances to see black bears and humpback whales up close.

3. Which line to book: Select the cruise line, and the fellow passengers, that best match your personality. "This is crucial for the first time," advises Anne Halsey-Smith of Gayle Gillies Travel in Rancho Santa Fe, California. "It will make or break your experience. If you aren't matched to the line, you probably won't cruise again." Some have dress codes and assigned seating times for meals. Some, like Princess Cruises, are more kid-friendly. Norwegian Cruise Line is more casual than other lines and doesn't have assigned dining times. Holland America's offerings are more traditionally geared toward baby boomers. Finally, lines like Crystal and Regent are more upscale and, in turn, more expensive. A travel agent can help you make sense of the different options, and on the message boards of Cruisecritic.com you can hear directly from passengers.

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4. What it costs: Don't look at the daily rate for a stateroom and then simply multiply by the number of nights you'll be at sea. Remember to factor in airfare to and from the originating port, the costs of incidentals such as alcohol (unless the ship is all-inclusive) and shore excursions. A helicopter ride over the glaciers of Alaska can be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but it can also add as much as $1,000 to your final bill.

5. Beat the rush: Many cruise lines give discounts for booking far in advance. "It's an issue of supply and demand," Scully says. "As bookings come in, cruise fares go up in the most popular regions, like Alaska, the Caribbean and the Mediterranean." It's never too soon to start planning your cruise.

6. Ship tips: Size matters. The size of the ship can dictate the itinerary. Smaller ships, like those operated by Cruise West (the largest of which carries only 138 passengers) and SeaDream Yachts, can dock at smaller ports and offer a more personalized experience. They are often best suited for nature-oriented cruises to Antarctica, the Galápagos and the Sea of Cortés. The downside: entertainment and dining options are often more limited.

7. Cabin splurge: Consider your itinerary when deciding whether to reserve a balcony stateroom. For a repositioning cruise across the Atlantic, when there will be nothing to see from your balcony but the open ocean for days, it may not matter. But on Alaskan and Mediterranean cruises, it's all about the views. And in Alaska, remember to book a cabin on the starboard (right) side of the ship on a northbound cruise and on the port (left) side of the ship on southbound itineraries so you'll have a view of the coastline.

8. Arrive early and stay on after your cruise: First, if you don't book your flight through the cruise line, your ship won't wait if it's delayed. As canceled and delayed flights have become commonplace, it's wise to arrive at your starting port at least a day before you are scheduled to set sail. Second, cruise extensions are an increasingly popular option. You can cap off a Crystal sailing, for example, with a safari organized by the line -- with fewer hassles and less expenses than on a separate tour. Holland America and Princess Cruises offer luxury railway and lodge trips for passengers in Alaska.

9. Before you board: Don't waste time waiting in line after you've pulled out of port. There are enough activities to make the most adventurous cruiser happy, but popular shore excursions often sell out. Be sure to plan your onboard activities early. Spas on ships have a limited number of treatment rooms; book your massages and facials in advance, if possible. Also, ask if there are discounts for booking treatments on days in port.

10. Turn to an expert: When it comes to cruises, some professional advice is often indispensable (and it's the main reason most cruises are still booked through travel agents). For our picks of the best agents who specialize in cruises, go to travelandleisure.com/alist. For a broader list of nearly 16,000 agents in the United States and Canada who have been accredited by the Cruise Line Industry Association, searchable by ZIP code, go to cruising.org. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

Planning a romantic escape? Don't miss Travel + Leisure's guide to the 50 Best Romantic Getaways.

Copyright 2009 American Express Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.

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